So the PCs were deep in the Cold Marshes, half-starved and far from home, when they heard the booming of drums through the mist and realised that the ghost drummers had caught up with them. They didn't know what the ghost drummers were, but after everything that had happened they were pretty sure they were bad news, and scrambled off to find a defensible bit of relatively dry land as quickly as possible. There they drew up their skeleton followers in a formation that Tiny dubbed 'the Death Hedgehog', gathered in a tight circle with spears pointing outwards in every direction. The mist around them was full of drumbeats that seemed to come from everywhere at once, louder and louder, until the sound seemed to be almost on top of them. Then, quite unexpectedly, a child-sized figure came skipping out of the mist towards them. As it came closer, they could see it was a tiny animated effigy, apparently made from twigs and scraps of cloth, topped with a lump of wood with a crudely carved face on it. It carried a piece of bark in its little wooden claws.
|Everyone loves dolls, right?|
Warily, the PCs allowed it to approach as it hopped over to Circe and proffered the piece of bark to her. The bark was covered in unfamiliar symbols, but after casting Comprehend Languages Hash was able to translate it as a crudely scrawled demand that they hand over all their magic in exchange for their lives. The little effigy stood stock-still before them, its head tilted to one side, while the PCs discussed whether they might be able to somehow scam their way out of the situation. Then, evidently feeling that it had given them ample time to surrender, it leapt straight upwards and lunged for Circe's face. She grabbed it just before its tiny wooden claws made contact with her skin, and promptly smashed it against the nearest rock.
Instantly the unseen drums boomed out in unison - and, in response, the marsh all around them erupted with flailing limbs. Dozens of leathery bog mummies burst from the mud and charged their mound from all sides, hurling themselves fearlessly onto the spears of the Death Hedgehog and dragging their impaled bodies down the shafts, their slimy fingers clawing in the air. Titus' zombie giant smashed one to the earth, breaking every bone in its body: but it just carried on moving, writhing bonelessly across the floor like leathery snake, trailing its shattered limbs behind it. As the melee intensified, two things swiftly became clear. The first was that they were outnumbered and likely to be overwhelmed. The second was that the bog-corpses all writhed and struck and slithered in time to the beat of the unseen drums.
Reasoning that the drums were somehow being used to control the corpses, Sovan cast Silence 15' radius on Ron - and, sure enough, every bog mummy within 15' of the bat-man instantly stopped moving. Sovan then made frantic circling gestures, and Ron - ever quick on the uptake - flapped into the air and began flying in circles around the battlefield. Wherever he passed, the bog corpses stopped moving, blunting the impact of their advance and granting the skeletons some much-needed respite. As he passed overhead, Hash took advantage of the momentary lull to cast Invisibility on himself and slip out through the skeleton lines, determined to locate the source of the drum-beat. His keen elven ears soon distinguished that it was coming from several points at once - so, approaching the nearest one, he saw through the fog a huge, six-legged, crocodilian marsh beast, atop whose back sat a wild-looking man beating rapidly at a crude skin drum. Hash promptly drew his bow and shot the drummer in the back, before fleeing into the mist as his monstrous mount began to sniff the air.
|Run, Hash! Before it smells your fear!|
Back on the mound, things weren't going so well. The bog corpses just wouldn't stop coming: Zombie Runt ape was pulled down and torn apart by sheer weight of numbers, and even Tiny was getting worn down. However, as one of the drums fell silent (thanks to Hash), the PCs noticed a small but noticeable decrease in the momentum of the bog mummy attack. Concluding that silencing the drums was clearly the only way to win this, they waited for Ron to fly overhead and then burst through the skeleton lines and out into the marshes, determined to take out the drummers as quickly as possible. Spreading out, they hit three more of the drummers almost simultaneously with a volley of spells and missiles, halving the momentum of the attack. Two of their mounts were scared away with mind affecting magic: the third one jumped on Skadi and started eating her alive, but Sovan and Circe poured so much healing into her that her body just grew back as fast as the beast could shred it, and it ended up wandering away looking rather nonplussed. As one drum after another fell silent, the remaining drummers began beating a retreat, and the bog corpses slithered back off the spears of the skeletons and poured away into the marshes to follow them. The skeletons skewered some of them to the ground to prevent them from getting away, but as the drumbeats moved out of earshot they slumped down into the marsh, clearly inanimate corpses once again.
The losses had been heavy: Tiny was covered in wounds, as usual, while Zombie Runt Ape and seven more skeletons had been destroyed in the fighting. On the plus side, they had scooped up the drums of the four fallen drummers, and had even thoughtfully captured one of them alive so that he could teach them how to use them. Once they had slapped him awake, this captured drummer - whose name turned out to be Ket - told them a miserable tale of how his people lived in service to a fell witch of the swamps, who made their drums and bred the great marsh-beasts that they rode upon, and who was regarded with fear by all the inhabitants of the Cold Marshes. The drums, he explained, had the power to command the corpses of the drowned, but learning to use them was a demanding process that took years of practise to master. Undaunted by this news, the PCs told him that if he wanted to live, he was going to have to serve as their new percussion teacher. Then they dragged him off with them and headed on westwards, eager to get out of these horrible swamps as soon as possible.
The next day's travel finally brought them to the coast, or what passed for it: a vast region of saltwater marshland in which the land faded imperceptibly into the sea. To their delight the area was teeming with birds, which their skeletons proceeded to net, spear, and shoot in great numbers, finally bringing their weeks of near-famine to an end in one enormous all-you-can-eat open-air bird roast. Their ship lay hundreds of miles to the south, but now that they had reached the sea they knew that all they had to do was send Captain Matthew a message and then stay put, and he would eventually be able to reach them by simply following the shoreline. To these ends they had Titus reanimate the corpse of a particularly sturdy-looking bird, hooked a skull on its talons (so that they could keep track of its progress via Skull Sight spells), shoved a message in its beak (giving orders for Captain Matthew to come and find them at the northern edge of the cold Marshes), and sent it off south with instructions to follow the coast until it reached Kingsport and then land on the only ship in the harbour that had distinctive purple-stained timbers. They then ascended into the hills to the north and waited for rescue.
It was a long wait. The zombie bird was maddeningly literal-minded, following every contour of the coastline, thus multiplying the length of its journey: so Tiny instructed the skeletons and the zombie marsh giant to built a fort on the hilltop, both to keep them safe and to make them harder for the ship to miss. As Fort Tiny rose around them, the other the PCs demanded that Ket give them ghost drumming lessons, although only Sovan showed any aptitude for it. The rest of them decided to wander off into the Stonemoors instead, and passing over the hills they soon found themselves in a windswept country of rocks and moors and streams, dotted with old grazing trails but with hardly a sheep to be seen. The hunger-bitten people in the first little fishing village they came to revealed the reason: just as the cave dwarves had warned them, the Stonemoors had been ravaged by war.
Clan feuds and sheep rustling had always been common among them, as had slaving raids by the ships of the Black Isle, but this was something new: the year before, the eastern clans had risen in a great confederacy and marched west, led by huge red-skinned men who seemed invincible in battle. Their chiefs declared that the rivers of meltwater which ran through their lands from the Holy Mountain had run dry, and the consequent drought had reduced them to famine - so, rather than sit at home and starve, they had come instead to seize all the flocks of the western clans and drive them away into the east. Every clan that had attempted to meet them in battle had been routed, and the rest had no choice but to yield up all their sheep and supplies to the invaders, who left them with barely enough to survive the winter. Some of them had even become so desperate that they had started making hunting trips into the Cold Marshes, although what with the ghost drummers and the marsh giants not all of them returned. Their greatest fear now was that the red men might return again in the autumn, and seize what little they had left.
Skadi, who remembered all too well what it was like to be a starving peasant herself, was indignant at their plight. She set Sovan and Circe to work helping out with Cure Disease and Purify Food and Drink spells, and organised the skeletons into hunting parties to start gathering food in the swamps. Circe used Water Breathing and Speak to Animals spells to strike bargains with some large local fish, promising them food in exchange for driving shoals of smaller fish into the nets of the fishermen. As they travelled up the coast, feeding the hungry and curing the sick, they heard rumours of a haunted valley a day's travel inland: a place whose woods had, for the last couple of years, apparently been thick with terrifying apparitions. Working out that this haunting had apparently started at roughly the same time as the drought in the eastern Stonemoors, and that the location of this valley furthermore correlated with Tiny's instinctive sense that a fairly powerful source of arcanowave radiation lay somewhere to the east, they decided to pay the place a visit.
Scouting came first, of course, so they rigged up another zombie-bird-and-seeing-skull combo and sent it down to the lake at the bottom of the valley, where the radiation appeared to be coming from. Looking through the eyes of the skull, they saw a longhouse built on an island in the lake, with a longship tied up on the shore - clearly a seagoing vessel, and one that could never have sailed down the narrow stream leading into the valley. Sending the bird back with instructions to look in through the house's windows, they saw a band of men inside smoking fish, their muscular arms and backs bespeaking lives spent on the rowing-bench, while a tall woman with long dark hair worked on some kind of intricate woodcarving by the fire. The woman then looked up, saw a zombie bird carrying a skull outside her window, and threw a knife at it - and while the bird flew onwards on its preprogrammed route, someone came up behind it and smashed it to bits. Their curiosity piqued by what this odd band - raiders from the Black Isle, by the looks of them - could be doing in the middle of a 'haunted' valley, the PCs decided to go down and take a closer look for themselves.
Descending the thickly-wooded slopes the valley, the PCs found themselves assailed by strange visions: burning vulture-men, icy ghouls, and glimpses of the frost-slicked streets of some frozen city, where metallic clanking sounds filled the air and a huge tower loomed in the distance. Although these were clearly illusions, they were much more 'real' than any they had previously encountered - audio-visual, semi-solid, and cold enough to leave the party genuinely shivering - and they even used Dispel Magic spells to nope out of a couple of particularly nasty ones. Finally they reached the shores of the lake, and the illusions vanished - or so they thought. But then Hash, ever eagle-eyed, pointed out that although it was still the middle of the day, the pole star could be seen distinctly shining in the sky above their heads...
What do the illusions mean? Who are the red men? Do the PCs even really care, or will they just leave the Stonemoors and never come back as soon as their ship arrives at Fort Tiny? Will these writeups ever catch back up with the actual game? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga!