To recap: the PCs were midway through an epic journey to lead a band of skeleton murder-cultists across the Great Northern Wilderness to the sea, with the ultimate aim of shipping them off to the Purple Islands to meet their two-year-old snake-baby prophet. They had used Charm Person spells to win the assistance of some local cave dwarves, who had told them that to reach the coast they would need to pass either south-west through the Cold Marshes, home of the marsh giants, or north-west through the Stonemoors, whose inhabitants were currently embroiled in some kind of clan war.
The party took a quick vote, and decided to opt for the marshes - and after noticing that the bushes around them were increasingly full of suspicious rustling sounds, as though a large force of small, stealthy creatures were gathering in ambuscade, they furthermore decided that it would be best if they allowed the enchanted cave dwarves to return to their homes before their clansmen decided to try reclaiming them by force. Bidding farewell to their hairy, leather-footed guides, they ascended the mountain range that lay before them, before descending into a swampy lowland region on their windward side. Sovan used Levitate to ascend high into the air, and could see a distant fire burning, far to the south: but the PCs were wary of encountering the locals, and decided to head westwards towards the sea, instead.
Travelling through the marshes was utterly miserable. The land was covered in cold mist, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Their dog sleds proved worse than useless in the muddy terrain, so they abandoned the sledges and brought the dogs along as a whimpering pack at their side. Frequent bogs and streams blocked their path, forcing them to zig-zag across the land, and making their westward progress painfully slow. Their skeleton followers had standing orders to spear every fish or marsh bird they encountered, but the cold swamps were desolate, and the party found their food supplies dwindling. Hash and Sophie soon started suffering from trench foot, which Sovan treated with Cure Disease spells. They were thus in a pretty wretched condition when, on the ninth day, they finally encountered the marsh giants.
They came booming out of the mist just as the PCs were attempting to ford a shallow stream: eleven huge figures, twelve feet tall, encrusted with mud and slime. Their skin was marked with irregular patches of green scales; weird fronds and fins protruded from their bodies, and gill-slits flared red along their necks. Their only clothes were crude loin-cloths made from the hides of animals, and they carried uprooted marsh-trees as clubs. Their leader, a huge individual with facial tendrils like a catfish, demanded tribute in exchange for safe passage through the swamps, and the price he had in mind was steep: all their metal goods, all their 'shiny things', and, in particular, every metal blade they owned that was large enough for a giant to use. The PCs tried to haggle, but he seemed obstinate, so Sophie stealthily cast Enervate on him in the hope of getting someone more reasonable to deal with. Suddenly feeling very tired, he went to sit down for a bit, while negotiations were resumed by his second-in-command, a female marsh giant almost as large as he was.
The PCs offered to perform various magical services for the marsh giants, but to little effect: the giants clearly felt that they were negotiating from a position of strength, and regarded the PCs as a windfall to be exploited as thoroughly as possible. Tiring of their demands, Circe took from her pack the six flasks of horribly cursed water that she had collected from the unholy fonts of Deathfrost Mountain, telling the giant's leader that these were priceless potions that would enhance the strength of anyone who drank them, and offering them to her as their price of passage. Wary of a trick, the giant demanded that she drink one first - so she deftly pretended to drink one (while actually spilling it down her front), while Sophie stealthily used illusion magic to make it look as though the 'potion' was making Circe's muscles swell. Eagerly, the giant snatched the other five from her, tore their lids off, and poured them down her throat. A few seconds later her head exploded in bloody ruin as hundreds of new eyes began growing and bursting inside her eye-sockets, while thousands of new teeth erupted from her jaws, tearing her head right in half.
The giants watched for a moment in utter shock - and then they roared and charged. Tiny yelled for the skeleton cultists to volley them with javelins as they crossed the river; Hash fired arrows, Sophie threw Magic Missiles, and Skadi lobbed one of her two remaining snake-man gas grenades, sending two of the giants crashing down, choking, in the mire. Circe slammed down the trigger of her snake-man pain wand and waved it at the giants frantically, but it only took down one of them before its battery burned out and horrible black smoke started coming out of its machinery. Their leader was sufficiently slowed by Sophie's earlier spell for a combination of magic and archery to take him down as he waded through the stream: but as the rest crashed forwards, the party heroically scattered and left their skeleton phalanx to receive the charge. (Tiny proved the exception, boldly standing his ground and getting beaten half to death with a tree-branch for his trouble.) As the giants started smashing up the skeletons, Skadi hurled her very last gas grenade right into the middle of the melee, relying on the fact that the giants needed to breathe and the skeletons didn't. Two more giants succumbed to its choking fumes, and began to be swarmed by the skeletons; so, seeing the battle turning against them, the four giants still on their feet each grabbed one of their poisoned comrades and began beating a fighting retreat back across the stream. The giant stricken by Circe's pain-wand was overrun by stabbing skeletons and killed where he lay, but the rest escaped into the mist, leaving three of their number lying dead in the marsh.
The skeletons were shaken by this encounter: five of their own had been destroyed by the giants, and would thus never see the 'promised land' of the Purple Islands. Tiny reassured them as best he could, while the rest of the party resolved to find somewhere to hide and rest for the night, not fancying their chances if another giant warband happened to emerge from the mist. When they returned to the site of the battle the next morning they found the corpses of the slain giants gone, with drag marks leading off into the west. Their bat-man ally/apprentice, Ron, volunteered to don their invisibility glove and fly off to see what had happened to them: a few hours later he reported back that a band of marsh giants, some of them obviously adolescents, were retreating back through the marshes to the west, dragging the bodies of their slain kin behind them. Heartened by this news, the PCs concluded that the force they had defeated the previous day probably represented the main strength of the local giants, and began scheming how best to get their hands on the marsh giant corpses so that their necromancer buddy Titus could re-animate them as really massive zombies. After all, if they had zombie giants to ride around on, they wouldn't have to carry on wading through the fucking swamp...
|Travelling in style!|
So the giants went west, and the PCs followed at a cautious distance, using Ron as an advance scout. Soon the giants reached their village - a crude circle of half-submerged dug-out houses, surrounded by a huge earthwork - and, after a brief ceremony, deposited the bodies of their dead in a deep pool just outside their earthen rampart. Four of their number remained on watch: one more, apparently the fastest runner among them, was dispatched off into the marshes to 'fetch the ghost drummers', while the rest retreated back into their homes. Gathering in the mist outside, the PCs hit upon a plan to retrieve the corpses. They would wait until nightfall: then, under the cover of a Darkness spell, Circe and Titus would advance to the edge of the pool. Meanwhile Ron, wearing the invisibility glove and bolstered by multiple Strength spells, would carry Sophie high into the air above the village. At a prearranged signal, Ron would drop from the sky and Sophie would strafe the village with Magic Missile spells, thus distracting the watchmen while Circe cast Water Breathing on Titus and pushed him into the pool. Then all that Ron and Sophie had to do was keep the giants occupied while Titus swam to the bottom, found and reanimated one corpse, ordered it to drag out a second corpse, and escaped into the night.
Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Sophie's Magic Missiles distracted the marsh giants, alright, but they responded with a volley of thrown rocks that caved in her ribs and skull and left her clinging to life by a thread. Ron panicked and flew off to Circe as fast as his wings could carry him - which, due to him being invisible at the time, looked to the giants as though Sophie's mangled, unconscious body was flying away under its own power. Meanwhile Titus disappeared into the pool - only to burst up screaming a couple of minutes later, clutched in the arms of a headless zombie marsh giant, with half a dozen carnivorous fish clinging onto his face and body. As Titus ripped these away in blind panic, tearing off whole lumps of his own face in the process, his giant zombie 'steed' went crashing away into the swamps, cradling its master in its arms. The marsh giants cried out in horror at this new apparition, and were on the verge of giving chase - when Hash, thinking quickly, conjured an illusion of Sophie's mangled body flying back out of the sky, hands extended as though to spray yet more Magic Missiles down upon them. Terrified by the reappearance of a magical, flying foe who was apparently unhindered by being obviously dead, the giants fled for cover, allowing Circe to heal the real Sophie and Sovan to heal Titus while the party retreated into the night.
The PCs thus found themselves in possession of a single headless zombie marsh giant. A Preserve Corpse spell protected it against further decay, and the decision was taken to hollow out its chest cavity, allowing Titus to sit inside its thorax with his head sticking out of its neck-hole and steer it around the marsh like a slimy zombie mech suit. As their food situation had, by this point, become quite desperate, they furthermore decided that to waste not was to want not, and that the resulting heap of disgusting, putrifying marsh giant offal would be that evening's dinner. Purify Food made it technically edible, but the resulting meal was so awful that Skadi, cannibal gourmet that she was, chose to chew on the ancient flayed-off human faces she had salvaged from the Deathfrost Mountain shrine instead. (She claimed that they counted as jerky.) Titus rode inside the giant; Hash and Sophie rode on its shoulders; Ron rode inside the now-vacated howdah on Zombie Runt Ape's back. Everyone else just had to carry on wading.
For several days they trudged westwards, relying on the food their skeletons were able to scavenge, going hungry as often as not, and ultimately even butchering and eating some of their loyal dogs. The monotony of the marshes seemed endless, broken only by Ron's constant whining about his regression to skinny nerd status after all the Strength spells wore off, and his endless attempts to come up with contrived reasons why Sovan should waste all his spell slots on making him buff again. But they knew that the sea could not be far, now. Perhaps the ghost drummers, whatever they were, would not catch up with them. Perhaps their journey was almost at an end.
And then, one day, as the cold mist hung white and heavy around them, they heard from a distance the unmistakable booming of drums...