As per my previous write-up, the PCs had made their way to shores of a lake at the bottom of a 'haunted' valley in the Stonemoors. They wanted to know what was up with the strange group of people on the island in the middle of the lake, but were uncertain how to investigate without revealing their presence. As they discussed their options, they were surprised and overjoyed by the unexpected arrival of their old friends Jack and Hogarth, who told them that their zombie bird had finally completed its mission and summoned their ship back from Kingsport. It now lay at anchor outside a small fishing village whose inhabitants had told them about the party's plan to explore the hidden valley, and Jack and Hogarth had hurried to join them.
(The timelines for all this don't really stand up to close examination. But it was the first time that Jack and Hogarth's player had been able to join us for over a year, so I was willing to handwave some times and distances to get him back into the action as quickly as possible.)
Thus reinforced, the PCs opted to scout out the island by sending Hash over the water under the cover of Invisibility, wearing the ring of water walking. Sneaking into the house, Hash noticed drag-marks on the floor, as though something heavy was regularly dragged from the building into the water and back again. The woman they had spotted before was clearly in charge, and seemed to be at work on some fantastically complex wood-carving project - presumably related to the odd recesses on the deck of the ship, which were clearly intended for the insertion of some large blocky object and some surrounding panels of wood. Noting that the magic filling the valley seemed to be emanating from beneath the lake, they questioned a passing fish using Speak to Animals, learning that some kind of enormous squid-monster lived at the bottom of the lake and sometimes came to the surface in response to the call of the humans on the island, carrying 'something shiny' with it. Intrigued, Circe went underwater using a Water Breathing spell - and, sure enough, at the bottom of the lake she found a gigantic squid-beast, clutching a crystal casket in its barbed tentacles.
Striking up a conversation with this monstrous creature, Circe learned that it had originally been washed downriver into this lake from some half-remembered grey upland, long ago, and had gorged itself on the local fish stocks until it grew too large to leave. Then it had slumbered until the coming of the witch-woman on the island, who had befriended it with offerings of meat and blood, and had entrusted her precious casket to its care. It had dreams, sometimes, of a vast expanse of cool water, which it felt must exist out there somewhere - but every time it tried to leave its lake, the crushing pressure drove it back below.
|No squid-monster wants to end up like this.|
Eager to learn more, the PCs staged a disturbance on the shores of the lake, hoping to draw off some of the men from the island. Sure enough, half a dozen of them came rowing over in their longboat to investigate. Sophie concealed the party beneath an illusion while she cast Charm Person spells on several of the men, including their leader. She then modified the illusion to include the image of herself peeking out from behind a tree, in order to gauge from the reactions of the men whether the charm spells had taken effect. When they ran towards her, she tried to back off while maintaining the illusion, so that they wouldn't bump into the concealed PCs - but the strain of concentrating on an illusion while picking her way through the forest proved too much for her, and the illusion started glitching, causing the illusionary Sophie to first appear to get stuck inside the tree, and then to start ragdolling disturbingly across the floor. Realising that the game was up, she dropped the illusion - but fortunately her charm spell on the leader had been successful, and when she told him that she was a famous and benevolent sorceress named Freya he was only too willing to believe her. He agreed to take her to the island, where she also managed to successfully Charm the witch-woman, who consequently accepted her story without question. The rest of the party went with her, ostensibly as her retinue.
The witch told 'Freya' that her name was Hild, that she was a devotee of the Blood Queen - an ancient goddess whose worship had long since been suppressed on the mainland - and that she had come to the valley to build a flying ship. The idea had come to her back on the Black Isle, when strange monsters had dropped from the sky: she and her people had captured and tortured them, and the creatures had revealed that many worlds existed up beyond the moon, and that it was possible to travel between them by means of a ship with an appropriate power source. (Tiny bristled at hearing of his comrades being thus abused, but fortunately his inhuman features were hidden beneath his armour.) The 'sky-beasts' had also told her that such a power source could be found on the Holy Mountain, so she had obtained it and carried it here so that she could work on her ship. The PCs deduced at once that the removal of this power source - the crystal casket, presumably - must have caused the drought in the east, and thus the war in the Stonemoors, but Hild made clear that she had no intention of parting with it, especially as her flying ship was so nearly complete. She also had no patience with their absurd claims about not being able to use it to fly to other planets because space was full of 'hard vacuum'. If there was nothing in a space, then obviously that space was full of air. That was what air was, right?
|Our Mars mission begins!|
Promising to return to Hild with magical assistance, the PCs retreated to form a plan. Tiny wanted revenge on her for presumably torturing a bunch of his comrades to death, and the rest of the party were keen to get their hands on the power source and/or the flying ship. They didn't fancy taking on the squid, but they were confident that it could be bribed with the promise of a one-way airlift to the ocean. First, though, they needed to fulfill their promise to the skeleton cultists that they had escorted all the way from the shrine of the Devourer: so, returning to Fort Tiny, they loaded them aboard Captain Matthew's ship, with Titus's headless zombie marsh giant tied to the deck like a bale of cargo. Sailing back to the Purple Islands, they dropped Titus back at his home within Zombie Mountain, as getting his face eaten by fish had massively dampened his enthusiasm for further adventuring.
The skeletons were dropped off with him, on the island that they regarded as the sacred homeland of their ancestors, while the PCs hastily went off to brief Ambie, the snake-man toddler that they had raised from an egg, on how he was to play the role of child-prophet to the cultists. Fortunately (?) he was scarily intelligent for his age, and proved quite capable of receiving their homage at the huge ceremonial festival that the PCs set up to welcome them to their new home. Ambie reassured the skeleton cultists that the rest of the Hissing Prophets were off assembling an army in the name of the Devourer, and that their task was now to restore the original shrines and alters of their faith, now fallen into ruin, in expectation of their imminent arrival. The skeletons clacked their tongueless approval, and proceeded to dance all night to the beat of Ket and Sovan's drumming.
|Everyone knows that skeletons make the best dancers.|
The next follower they needed to get rid of was Ron the Bat-Man, who was demanding to be taken to the underworld as quickly as possible. Insisting that he needed more magical training, the PCs rather heartlessly dumped him in the mad science laboratory of their old friend Zeth, who was happy to take him on as an assistant in her horrific ongoing researches into the Grimoire of the New Flesh. It was there that their ex-comrade Erin, who was now de facto king of the Purple Islands, caught up with them and told them that Elder Amelia had been asking after them with increasing urgency - so they left her a skull, accompanied by a message that she should place any letter that she wanted them to see in front of its eye-sockets, as they would check it via Skull Sight every three to five working days. Finally, having thus effectively invented email, they loaded up every dried golden lotus flower that Dara could spare from her gardens to feed their horrible drug habits and sailed back to the Stonemoors. Along the way they picked up a message from Amelia via Skull Sight, insisting that they return at once so that she could speak to them in person about a number of pressing topics, but they figured that they'd kept her waiting for a year and a half already, so waiting a little longer wouldn't do her any harm. (There was also a letter from Ron begging them to please come back and rescue him from the terrifying madwoman they'd left him with, but they just ignored that one.)
Returning to the Stonemoors they found the people were full of fear, convinced that the men of the east would come raiding again as soon as they'd finished laying in stores for the winter. Progressing to the haunted valley they found that Hild and her men were still present, but in a state of high alert that implied that Sophie's Charm spells had worn off during their absence. Not wanting to give away their presence, they had Tiny remove his helm and stomp around on the shore, posing as a 'sky-beast' drawn by the power source (which, indeed, he was), He was spotted at once, and Hild and half her men rowed out to seize him, while the PCs lurked in ambush in the trees overhead. They hoped to re-charm her - but the plan fell apart when she leapt ashore and immediately started using some kind of ghastly blood magic on Tiny, causing great clouds of blood to burst from his orifices. Frantically the PCs threw spells down at Hild and her men, but while her followers succumbed to Hold Person spells, nothing seemed to work on Hild. She fatally exsanguinated Sophie with a single ripping gesture, and when Skadi grappled her she made her blood start boiling with a touch, so that only a well-timed Dispel Magic from Sovan saved her life. Finally the whole party jumped on top of her, held her down, and beat her up, before slaughtering her paralysed followers. They then remembered that they'd left Ket tied to a tree further up the valley the whole time, and retrieved him half-mad with fear and confusion after being exposed to innumerable semi-solid illusions in their absence.
|Hild's blood magic spells were all shamelessly copied from old Thaumaturgy powers from Vampire: the Masquerade.|
Sophie's death was a shocking event: she had been part of the party for years, and had accompanied them on innumerable adventures. Circe insisted on burying her in a frog-shaped grave, just as she had buried Jill years before. Skadi agreed, but requested (and received) permission to ritually butcher and eat her first, so that Sophie's legendary strength could live on in her. Hild, meanwhile, was kept tied up and gagged under the supervision of her own deceased followers, whom Hogarth had raised as zombies. That night, the rest of Hild's men - stranded on the island by the fact that their boat was on the far shore - tried to escape by swimming, but Tiny heard the splashing sounds and kicked Skadi awake. Skadi donned the ring of water walking, ran over the water, and whacked them on the head one after another with her snake-man shock baton, cracking their skulls and sending their convulsing bodies down to be eaten by the squid.
The next day, Circe went beneath the lake using Water Breathing and asked the squid to yield up the crystal casket, promising in exchange that they would use it make the ship fly, and then carry it to the sea. The squid agreed - but only once the ship was actually ready to take off. It did allow Circe a closer look at its treasure, however - and, to her surprise, revealed not the featureless arcanowave power cell that she had expected, but a kind of crystal coffin. Within it lay a woman, apparently in suspended animation, wearing heavy cold-weather clothing and clutching a golden starburst symbol in her hand - and all at once the random illusions plaguing the valley made sense. They weren't just designed to confuse and terrify intruders. They were the sleeping woman's dreams.
|Image by Ashley Stewart.|
Who is she, though? Can the PCs get the ship airbourne, and, if so, what havoc will they inflict with it? Does anyone care that this 'power source' might be the only thing capable of restoring peace to the Stonemoors? And who will be Sophie's replacement? Discover the depressing truth in the next installment of the adventures of Team Tsathogga!