Their attempts to persuade the ape-man-gladiator-robot to leave his arena proved fruitless, so the PCs explored a bit more of the island, creeping up on the village of the purple-monster-worshippers from a concealed approach; there, they saw the giant purple cloud-monster hovering over the village and raining purple slime down upon it, which the villagers scooped up and deposited in a large pit. Noticing that the villagers always wore hooded robes dyed with this slime when outdoors, the PCs began to suspect that these garments were the key reason why the monster didn't regard them as prey like everyone else. Slinking back through the woods, they had a near-encounter with another band of village hunters out searching the island for them, but by using illusion magic they were able to send their hunters rushing off to the north while they fled hastily to the south. Returning to the hidden tunnels beneath the island, they got some much-needed rest in the relative safety of the subterranean zone.
Speaking to the tunnel-dwellers, they learned that their ancestors had once been able to operate many of the ancient machines down in the tunnels, but that most of these had broken down over the centuries and the knowledge of how to repair them had been lost. The PCs offered to use Comprehend Languages spells to help the tunnel-dwellers translate any texts that might be helpful; this offer was relayed back to their elders, and soon the PCs were blindfolded again and marched off to meet the tunnel-dweller's archivist, an elderly woman who requested their aid in translating parts of various ancient technical manuals left over from the serpent-man empire. The PCs did so, even if they understood almost none of what they were reading, winning the gratitude of the tunnel-dwellers.
|Some instruction manuals are best left unfollowed.|
They also overheard a group of tunnel-dwellers listening to a recorded message, and asked the archivist about this. She explained that it was this message which had initially prompted their ancestors to flee into the tunnels: a transmission in which a woman calling herself Commander Elizabeth Lockheart had declared that the destruction of the serpent-man empire had begun, and urged all slave populations to abandon their masters and await their liberation. In the weeks after the message arrived, the serpent-man settlements on the islands were reduced to rubble by orbital bombardment: but no liberation army ever arrived, no further transmissions were ever received, and her people had been hiding down here ever since. Comparing this story to the doctrines of the Church of the Bright Lady, the PCs began to strongly suspect that the Bright Lady herself might be no more than a deified folk-memory of Commander Lockheart, although they agreed not to mention this theory to the Church forces already active on the islands.
Returning to the eastern island, the PCs discovered that the church expedition was under new leadership: Captain Matthew had made a supply run to the mainland, and picked up the Elder Amelia, who had assumed command of the mission. Unfortunately his ship had been wrecked by the cloud-monster on the island's east coast on its way back, leaving the expedition with two crippled ships and no way back to the mainland until one of them was repaired. With supplies only sufficient to feed her soldiers for a month, and relations with the ape-men getting strained due to competition over very limited foraging opportunities in their forest, Amelia was keen to gain access to new food supplies. Her preferred target was the clan of crazed, mutant ape-men who apparently inhabited the north-east of the island, but she was unwilling to make a frontal assault on their heavily-forested lair except as a last resort. The PCs discussed the situation, and eventually agreed to sneak in with a group of hand-picked soldiers as an advance party under the cover of darkness; they would take up positions on the hillside above the cave that the ape-men used as a lair, and engage them as they emerged, thus preventing them from harassing the main body of soldiers as they advanced up the valley.
Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The ape-men heard the PCs blundering around in their forests and sent sentries to see what was going on: some spectacularly inaccurate arrow-fire from the party achieved nothing except letting the ape-men know that they were under attack, and before they knew it the PCs and their soldiers were skirmishing in the dark with a whole bunch of crazy ape-man mutants, with the main body of Amelia's forces still more than a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Making desperate use of Cause Fear and Darkness spells as stalling tactics, they managed to hold the ape-men up for long enough for the soldiers to advance halfway up the valley, at which point half the ape-men grabbed their children (and a big, suspicious-looking book) and fled into the night, while the other half stayed behind to fight a rearguard action. The PCs and their allies made short work of these, with Circe's healing magic sufficing to cure the injuries they sustained in the process.
|And then it was kinda like this.|
This fight left the PCs and their allies as masters of what had been the territory of the mutant ape-men, but Hash was keen to find out what was in that book. A conversation with the local non-mutant ape-men, who had come to see what all the fuss was about, soon revealed that the book had been discovered by one of their own in a weird ruin generations ago; soon afterwards he and his family left their village, and his descendants had become more and more crazy and isolationist with each passing generation, until they were reduced to the freakish creatures that the PCs had just dispossessed. Weirdly enough, learning that its previous possessors had been turned into lunatic mutants just made Hash want the book even more, so Erin found the tracks of the escaped ape-man mutants and the PCs set off to see what had become of them.
Following the trail led them to a morbid scene. In a ruined building, the book lay open on a stone; in front of it lay the corpse of a mutant ape-man, cut open, apparently so that its blood and guts could be used to draw a circle around the book. All around this circle lay the corpses of the other ape-people, adults and children alike, unmarked by any kind of obvious injury - as though they had simply dropped dead where they stood. Finding this whole scene deeply suspicious, Hogarth fired a Magic Missile spell into the nearest corpse - and, sure enough, they all instantly jerked into motion! Rather than emerging separately, however, the animated corpses crawled together into a huge mound which then proceeded to shamble out of the building, clawing at the air with a dozen waving arms.
Huge though it was, this corpse-blob-monster wasn't very fast; and so, once it had emerged from the building, Tod saw his chance for glory. Eager to impress his new comrades, he ran around behind the monster, leapt into the ruin through one of its windows, and tried to grab the now-undefended book - but as he crossed the circle of blood, he was hit by a blast of necromatic energy and killed on the spot. Seconds later, his corpse began to animate, crawling out to join the rest as part of the blob. The rest of the PCs retreated before this horror, and after crawling a few hundred yards the corpse-monster turned around and headed back to the ruin, apparently intent on guarding the book.
|Dead PCs so far: six. Alas, poor Tod...|
Circling back to the ruin, Circe produced her trusty Poking Stick (made from ancient lashed-together bones from the caverns beneath her distant hometown) and leaned in through the same window Tod had used to make his ill-fated entry, trying to prod the circle of intestines away from the book - but the moment she touched them, she was struck with a wave of magical energy that hit her like a club. When she reported this to the party, her near-indestructible comrade Skadi volunteered to take her place, on the grounds that it would take a whole lot of club blows to bring her down. Unholy magic tore at her mind, but Skadi just kept pushing until the circle was breached, at which point the supernatural assault abruptly ceased. Unfortunately, a speculative arrow fired into Tod's corpse proved that the corpse-blob-monster was still very much active; so the party led it away from the building while Hash climbed in through the window and grabbed the book, instantly becoming obsessed with keeping it safe and protected the moment his fingers touched its pages.
A surreal scene followed. The PCs fled the scene, but the corpse-monster, though slow, simply wouldn't stop chasing them (or, rather, chasing Hash); no matter how far they ran, sooner or later it always appeared on the horizon behind them, waving its dozens of arms angrily in the air. Hours passed, and darkness gathered, and night and exhaustion forced the party to slow its pace, and still the monster pursued. Realising that it was soon going to catch up with them, the PCs sought shelter with the tunnel-dwellers, claiming that they wanted passage to the southern island and neglecting to mention that they were being chased. However, any hopes that they might have had that the concealed hatchway would foil the creature died when they heard dozens of hands beginning to scratch on the other side of the hatch...
The tunnel-dwellers were not pleased, and began angrily blaming the PCs for leading a monster to their home - but their recriminations were cut short when the corpse-blob ripped open the hatch (which had only been hastily repaired since its mauling by Hologram Head's minions eleven days earlier) and threw itself down the shaft, only to rise again as a heap of broken-boned but still animate corpses whose shattered arms now waved like fleshy tentacles. PCs and tunnel-dwellers alike panicked and ran; some of the tunnel-dwellers threw crude explosives at the beast, and Kroak blazed away at it with his laser sword until the battery was flat, but these attacks did not suffice to destroy it. As the tunnel-dwellers scattered, the PCs followed one at random into a twisting area of half-collapsed tunnels, but he soon outpaced them and the glow of his light-globe faded into darkness. Lighting torches, the PCs saw the horrible monster closing on them fast and knew that it was time to make a stand.
|Maybe stealing that book wasn't such a good idea after all.|
Arrow-fire proved ineffectual. Swords worked a bit better, but the sheer mass of the beast meant that it just kept coming. Finally they tried fire, ramming their torches into whatever parts of the blob looked most flammable, and ultimately Erin succeeded in setting light to it by shoving his burning torch into the long, greasy hair of Tod's corpse. As the blob burned, one of its component corpses grabbed Skadi by the face and tore open her cheeks with its nails, adding to her already-impressive collection of scars. Then the PCs disengaged and fled, watching from a safe distance as the corpse-heap was consumed by flame. Finally the fire burned out, leaving them alone, lost and exhausted, deep in a maze of tunnels beneath the earth. There was no sign of the tunnel-dwellers - but, as Hash peered into the darkness, he had an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched...