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September 15, 2004

Balinor/Morty/Tarplin Adventure #2: The Money Pit

Party Roster:

Balinor, 9th level Northerner fighter, 86 hp, played by Joel
Morty, 7th/6th human fighter/thief (bard), 74 hp, played by Jay
Robynne, 5th level woodsman, 38 hp, played by Rhonda (Darleen this time)
Bodkin, 4th level dwarven fighter, 36 hp, played by Katherine
Tarplin, 8th/5th half-elf druid/mage, 30 hp, played by Alan
Leo, 3rd level human Nevronian cleric, 19 hp, played by David
Morhion, 2nd level Northerner Nevronian cleric, 18 hp, henchman of Balinor

(Events of 9/5/04 in Charlotte; Game world April-May 2192)

When we last left our not particularly beleaguered but intrigued party, the Band (named as such because of Tarplin’s flute skill, Morty’s lyre, Bodkin’s singing and Balinor’s penchant for blunt percussion instruments) had been investigating the King of the World phenomenon.

For the last 250 years, and at an accelerated pace for the last 200 or so, various beings have been coming out of the Rog area claiming to be King of the World, or members of the Army of Valor, or other similar grand delusions. They seemed violent and malevolent, killing anyone who seemed in their way. Some of these creatures were generally non-violent types, while others were naturally vicious. They ranged in height from kobolds to hill giants, and included some rather rare creatures like crab people and a lammasu servant of Kor, god of the Sun.

We had spent a decent amount of money on this already, and it got much worse, but interestingly, just about nothing we did was a waste of it, as it turned out.

Recalling the correlations we had learned earlier (reservoir level is lowest during the late spring/early summer months; the less rainfall the more and bigger creatures were affected, over a longer period of time), we set out to eliminate the most obvious source of the problem, the reservoir. Via a half-dozen Waterbreathing spells and Detect Magic spells, we were able to search the entire bottom of the reservoir over about a day and a half. We found two magical things at the bottom: one, a large stick driven into the ground, we knew about; Constable Stovens had told us that the stick was a druidic gift to warn if the water was compromised. The second was half a dozen holy symbols: four Nevronian, one Auroran, and one Felcon (the god of travelers). There were no corpses, just holy symbols. Suspecting this fell into one of those areas we shouldn’t be trying to fix, we simply handed the holy symbols over to the Constable and let him deal with it. In short, we found nothing weird down there at all. It seemed the reservoir was to some extent, at least, a red herring.

The second simple thing to try was to write notes to the masters of the various animals that had been tailing us almost since we had arrived. We wrote a series of diplomatic notes asking their masters if they wanted to provide us with any information that might help against this menace. We were being followed by at least nine crows, a hawk, and an owl (and as it turned out, the Commandant’s rat was still lurking). Using a Detect Balance on six random crows, the owl and the hawk, we were able to determine that two of the crows were actually familiars, while the hawk and another crow were Animal Friends (whether shamanic or druidic, we couldn’t tell). The others were probably just animals given cheese/carrion/whatever to follow us around and report. We offered notes to the animals, and the two crows seemed hesitant, while no one else even responded at first. Tarplin laid down a note on the ground, and one of the crows picked up a rock and dropped it on the note. When nothing happened, it picked it up and flew off. The second crow dropped a branch on its note, then picked it up. A third crow took a note, and shredded it, then handed it back to Tarplin. The other animals looked vaguely confused, although I think we got the hawk to take one.

In any case, that evening, one of the animals returned (the hawk?) and refused to give its new note to anyone but Tarplin. Tarplin read it, and said it was just well wishes from a druid, but no information. The next morning, on our way back to the tailings pile to consult with our halfing guide (who decided to be referred to as “Boss”), a crow dropped a glass flask aimed at Tarplin’s head. He dodged to the side, and the bottle shattered on the ground, splashing some sort of fizzy substance all around, killing all the vegetation within a few feet. Tarplin looked shocked, but he also noticed a metal sheet with words scrawled on it. With some precautions, we looked at it from an angle without picking it up, and it was a warning to “let sleeping holy symbols lie.” Sigh. Gotta love Rog. We took the metal sheet, but didn’t touch it because it had some sort of Wizard Mark on it.

So the masters of the zoo following us were unhelpful idiots. So the easy and cheap ideas were finished, and now it was time to spend more money. We rehired Boss as a guide to take us on tours through the cave complex that the pickpocket had fled into while running from the “crazy birds” and the Watch that was chasing him. He had emerged two days later and begun assassinating people in town. Putting all the facts together, we were looking for some place that was:

-Accessible to a creature of up to hill giant size
-Infrequently traveled
-Within a day’s journey of the Rog end of the cave

That, unfortunately, would take weeks to check out. Our theories about water table levels didn’t work particularly well with this either. So we decided to put ourselves in the mindset of a desperate man fleeing from the law. Give him some basic knowledge about the caves. Where we would he have gone?

According to Boss, there were four main access paths that ran through the complex. Three and Four are the easy ones, broad corridors that everyone travels on. Fleeing down one of those would be like saying, “Come catch me and sell me back to the highest bidder.”

Tunnel One is the most difficult route to travel due to random monster hazards and people generally don’t use it. Tunnel Two is infrequently traveled and although it makes a decent route for parts of the year, it floods when it is wet and the water table is high. Hmmm. This seemed to be on the right track. Access through Tunnel Two was greatly hampered by flash floods and rainy seasons! Perhaps this held the secret? In dry years, it would be available year round… so was this corruption effect in Tunnel Two?

Morty or Tarplin (?) asked Boss how often he traveled through the caves—apparently three times a year. And did he ever travel by Tunnel Two? Yes, except when the flooding forced him to take Tunnel One…

Neurons fired, and we collectively realized at least part of what was going on. Ok, so the traffic in Tunnel One would be generally minimal, except in wet years when people were forced to use it instead of Tunnel Two. So the drier the season, the less Tunnel One was used.

Tunnel One, it seemed, was virtually abandoned during dry years. This fit our criteria of rarely traveled except by those with very strange reasons.

In addition, Tunnel One connected to both the sea caves and a two-day long tunnel leading to the druid-run Argo Forest. This was interesting. The Argo Tunnel was fairly big and could explain the appearance of larger creatures on some occasions.

But of course something was still missing. This didn’t explain the “more and bigger creatures in drier years” part. Small creatures would be more commonly diverted to Tunnel One than big creatures in wet years (if the big creatures were tall enough not to worry about the flooding). This would cause the small creatures to be affected more often. But there were actually more potential targets in wet years. In addition, what did this have to do with the reservoir level and the mines?

So we had an incomplete picture. Something else closer to our original line of thought about access via water level was involved, but we still didn’t know how.

Assuming the effect doesn’t move around the mountains, then it has to be an area that all the creatures went to. Thinking about the most unusual creature, the lammasu, we reflected back on the Korian party that had likely brought it to this plane. They had established a truce with the local pirates in order to hunt slavers in the sea caves. Balinor pointed out that if this lammasu creature had been Implored by a Korian party, as we strongly suspected from reading their log, then it would have been near the slaver camp. Where were the slavers? According to boss, their camp had been in a set of caves off of Tunnel One. They were a bit more than a day’s journey from the Rog entrance, but that was ok, because the creature had likely been trapped AFTER they summoned it, especially since the Korians apparently didn’t know anything weird had happened to the lammasu. So it could have been back a bit, but in the direction of the slaver camp.

So Tunnel One was looking good. We shelled out 500 gp for a three-day tour, guided by none other than Boss. We traveled down the corridor, slaying a pair of jumping spiders, a weird clay ooze thing that fell on Balinor’s head (which was pulled off by the incredibly strong Leo—and we discovered it was immune to many magical effects but not good old weapon damage), and a few sea slugs. The slugs had varying levels of intelligence; for example, when asked via speak with slugs, “Has anyone passed this way recently?” we got:

“I’m a slug.”

At some point we realized that the slugs were so easily camouflaged into the cave surroundings that we couldn’t afford to let them find us at night while we were camping, so Tarplin informed them that we were going to kill them, and ended the spell. Then he turned away as we brought them down.

After a day’s journey (at our slower rate) we reached a three-way intersection. Boss pointed that a left led to the cave to the Argo, while a right/straight took us toward the slavers and the sea caves. We continued toward the sea caves, but acknowledged that our pickpocket could have fled in either direction.

We had noted a huge number of cubbyholes used by the denizens as sleep areas and occasionally had glanced in them. Some of them were even big enough to hold 40 xvarts, or a hill giant, although most were not. We searched the set between the intersection and the sea-cave six-way intersection, but found nothing. At the six-way intersection, we checked about 10 minutes of each passage, and then Boss pointed out that we had only three days. We offered to compensate him for the extra day, but he wouldn’t accept it, because it turned out that a lot of the money we were paying to Boss was “supervision” and to keep this area of the tunnels clear. Doh.

So we had to leave. We went back to the intersection, searched four hours worth of tunnel in the direction of the Argo Forest, and finally had to camp. During the night, on the middle watch, Morty and Morhion spotted some “eyestalks” peeking up over the rim of the entrance to the cubbyhole we were in. Morhion shook Balinor, who quietly pulled out his hammers, and Morty crouched, ready…

Morhion yanked out his Continual Light stone. The eyestalks immediately retreated and we heard scurrying down the corridor. Light in hand, Morty and Balinor dashed to the edge and looked… and saw strange vaguely humanoid loping forms of about seven feet in height. Boss, who appeared to have been asleep at the time, shrugged and explained that they were crab people. This was one more hint that we were on the right track; the crab people were among those who had claimed Leadership of the World.

Nonetheless, our search was fruitless, and we returned to town. At this point, it seemed prudent to check on two things: artifacts related to this effect that had been on Lendore Isle, and interesting ancient sites of note in the Rog area. We sent a letter to Augman for two weeks of sage research. In the meantime, Tarplin decided to train a bat animal friend in case we needed some winged exploration. Morty, always bloodthirsty, asked if there were any missions we could complete for the good of Rog while we were waiting. The Constable explained that there was a farmer claiming his cow had been slain by a pine tree. This seemed bizarre, so we wished Tarplin well and wandered up to his farm.

The farmer had a loaded crossbow pointed at us, until Balinor held up his badge as a deputy, and then the man guardedly let us approach. He explained that his cow had been pierced with dozens of pine needles. We looked at the corpse, which had wandered slightly out of its normal pasture, and confirmed that indeed, it had been pierced in dozens of places. Morty declared that he knew roughly what this was, and that we should hunt it down and kill it. Balinor certainly couldn’t disagree with the chance to bash things, this having been a very non-violent adventure to this point, and Robynne was excited at the chance to use her tracking skills. So we set out, following the strange shuffling pattern in the grass into a stand of pine trees.

Advancing through the thicket, Robynne was suddenly hit by a few very large pine needles hurled at her from a great distance away. Morty snuck around the area, scouting, and Balinor led the front line in a charge. The pine tree thing scurried away faster than Morty could follow (impeded by the trees) and a second one hurled needles at Balinor and then dashed off as well.

With only minor bumps and bruises, the party healed a bit and continued tracking. Again Robynne was struck by pine needles, but Morty was able to sneak around behind the thing… and…

BOOM! The thing exploded in a single hit, apparently badly mangled by Morty’s special explosive damage sword, El Kabong. Just kidding, it’s called Kazaam.

That’s SO much better.

Anyway, Morty then went after the second one and brought it down single-handedly as well (actually Robynne may have shot it, I can’t remember). We searched the bodies, and each one had a sack of pinecones strung around its neck.

That was odd. Hmmm. Perhaps they were slightly sentient?

We brought one of the carcasses and the pinecones back to Tarplin. The druid was horrified; apparently they were some weird variant of treant! Whoops. They had apparently been parents feeding their young. Tarplin flew over to the area where we had taken out the pine trees, and found a pair of two-foot-tall saproling things. They were complaining for more carcasses, and dead things. Tarplin thought this was slightly odd, and went to talk to Quentin.

Quentin explained that they were the pine tree variant on treants (wimpy things, though!).

“So the watchmen of Rog did this?”

“Yep,” Tarplin replied, and the rest of the party looked completely innocent.

”Idiots,” Quentin muttered.

After Morty had completed his penance of planting the pinecones and such, the Band put on a concert in Rog. It was widely attended, especially by the %&#! crows following us around… and we lost 20 gold pieces on it. Bah.

Then the sage research arrived. There were no interesting sites in the Rog area, but Augman had underlined a journal passage, relating an old story to fans of Restenford Defenders’ lore, but from a different perspective…

In 2172, the year the Defenders formed and arrived in Restenford, another adventuring party of mid-level and great promise was exploring the mountains around Rog. They returned to civilization and after a while the Auroran cleric in the party wondered if they were slowly going insane. Apparently the group had become irritable and bickering well beyond anything they had experienced before. On the cleric’s recommendation they sought out the nearest reasonably high-level cleric, who was Qualton, Abbot of the Phaulkonian Church in Restenford.

Qualton’s notes from that day say that they brought him an artifact, and he destroyed it. They felt better and left him.

In a bizarre factual dispute, the party makes absolutely NO mention of any artifact. They claim they visited Qualton and he tried to Remove Curse them, because they believed they fallen under some sort of curse that was causing the mayhem in the party. They left, apparently cured and feeling better.

A few months later, in Barnacus, one member of the party woke up in the middle of the night, and murdered every single one of his comrades. He was hanged, shortly after declaring himself King of the World.

Qualton, of course, went on to begin his OWN world conquest plans, beginning with the murder of the Baron of Restenford in 2175 (see the Defenders Summaries #22-25).

So we had here a bizarre problem. Now it seemed this curse was somehow transmittable? Tarplin theorized that it was a possession rather than an artifact. The possessing being(s) had taken over the party and when Qualton tried to cure them, all but one jumped to him, leaving one party member infected and Qualton under their influence. It then covered its tracks by writing a false log entry about an artifact through Qualton’s body. Cassian and Celeste, Phaulkonian clerics of the Defenders, had always described Qualton as sometimes aloof and distant, sometimes friendly. He had seemed almost a split personality. Either way, it meant that we might not understand what was going on. The fact that it had never appeared to infect anyone outside of the cave in Rog was interesting. Balinor theorized that perhaps Qualton had actually gone to the caves and the whole thing was a lie, but no evidence ever supported this.

Once again, the lammasu sprang to mind. We knew it hadn’t been killed; it had been Abjured by the people in Benct. Of course! Here was one living being that had been affected by the curse and lived to tell the tale! The possession, even if it had somehow traveled the planes with the creature, had undoubtedly been driven out when it arrived back in Elysium or whatever.

So we sent a letter to the Korian church in Barnacus. Implore the same lammasu (they would surely have its name from the log of the original Korian party that had Implored it) and ask it what happened and precisely where it went.

The letter came back later, with tragic news. They had summoned the lammasu, and instead a much more powerful servant of Kor had appeared and demanded to know why they had summoned the lammasu. They stammered and explained our letter, and the creature related a tale of woe.

Apparently as we suspected, the lammasu had been Implored by the Korian party to hunt down slavers. After the task had finished, the lammasu detected the presence of a powerful good artifact radiating in the area and asked permission to check it out. His masters agreed, and he was apparently passing through what he described as an “anti-divination screen” when they abruptly lost contact. Then, shortly after, the lammasu appeared in Benct and was Abjured. Upon arriving back in Kor’s realm, the creature was discovered to be hideously corrupted. Its psyche was horribly twisted into a mask of incredible hate that its proper rulership of the world had been halted. It demanded without compromise that it be sent back to continue its quest. The Korians were forced to annihilate the soul of the poor creature, a great loss to the forces of Kor.

The Korians said it would be of great note if we could solve this old crime, or avenge the poor lammasu. Recovery of the good artifact would be splendid.

This was NOT good. But the creature had identified the location as being fifty feet short of the three-way intersection! At last, we knew where to look…

And as it turned out, Alan guessed the right mechanism that had been eluding us all this time! How did the cave only allow small creatures during wetter years?

It was actually not that complicated, and although we didn’t know it yet, we were tantalizingly close…

We reserved more time and Boss led us back into the cave (at a cool hundred gold per day; the sage research was also a hundred a day, the Implore was 1100 gp, food costs were adding up… it was getting ugly). We walked to the spot where the lammasu had gone and looked around. There was nothing remarkable. Tarplin cast a Locate Plants on “mildew” and discovered some five feet BELOW the floor. We looked down, and spotted a half-inch diameter hole with mildew in it. Having located mildew, we spoke with the mildew via Speak with Mildew.

“Hi. I’m mildew,” the stuff observed dreamily.
“Have any humanoid-type creature passed by this way in the past few months?”
A pause. “I’m mildew.”
Another pause. “Can you rub me on the wall, over there? Or on the sleeves of your friends?”
“Sure,” Tarplin said, much to the party’s surprise, and soon everyone smelled pretty badly, except for Bodkin, who dodged emphatically.

In any case, we checked down the half-inch diameter hole, and the mildew pretty much confirmed our guess as to what was going on. We also noted that after about five minutes of staring at it, this section of wall looked subtly smoother than the rest. We realized it was a really thick rock door, and Morty couldn’t determine how it was opened.

Down the hole about twenty feet the shaft expanded and there was water. It descended at least twenty-five feet deep, and we didn’t know what was below that. But Tarplin’s theory about a counterweight was clearly the right answer. The water below us was tied to the water table of the caves, which had been generally lowered by the reservoir and the mines. The water below probably contained some kind of floating counterweight that when lowered lifted the big, thick rock door. Such a door would also shield the room from scrying. It’s clear that the water table lowering was the accident that allowed this door to open. In addition, the door was ten feet tall, or just enough for a hill giant to fit in if it was raised all the way up… which of course depended on how low the water table got, and how dry it was. The mildew said the door opened more during the “hard times” and that there was some light that glowed from behind the door during those times.

We thought we had it all figured out… but how did we open the door now? And should we even do it? This place was hideously dangerous. But clearly we’d invested enough in this that quitting wasn’t really an option. Plus Boss knew about it, so we had to do this quickly, despite his many promises that he wouldn’t spill the beans until after it didn’t matter anymore. This had to be stopped before more people were affected.

So we paid for more time and bought forty feet of pipe, a water pump, some carts, ten barrels to hold the excess water in case we wanted to pump it BACK in to close it… and other things. One of our leading guesses about what was inside was a finite number of possessing spirits. Let’s say each one could inhabit one being and be returned to the cave when that being died. We’d need more “beings” than the forty xvarts that were originally taken over. Of course, if this just multiplied the problem instead of reducing it, we’d be in trouble, but it was worth the guess. So we advertised an electrum piece per live rat given to us within a day. At first, people didn’t even believe this was a real offer, but after dropping ads for live rats all around Rog, two full days later we’d obtained 107 rats. We stuffed them in electrum piece jars with breathing holes, bought another cart, and set off. No doubt everyone wondered what the heck we were doing. We would need to work quickly, or guard our path until we were finished.

We set up our equipment (realizing as we did that anyone could track this setup after we left it) and started pumping. With the four strong people pumping, four hours of work passed… and then there was a rumble. The door opened just a crack, and light peeked through the bottom. But nothing happened. The door was about nine feet thick (!) and after a few minutes, it closed. We realized that the water table was slowly replenishing itself, meaning that if we forced it open, it wouldn’t stay open for more than a matter of hours. As it turned out we couldn’t get it more than four feet up. Nonetheless, that was enough to begin our tests.

We looked down the corridor, and it went thirty feet and turned right. Detect Good, Evil, and Magic all revealed nothing interesting. Tarplin released a rat into the corridor. “A wheel of cheese for you if you tell us what’s in there,” he said, and crossed his fingers.

The rat wandered into the room about five feet, then it stopped. It became agitated and spun around, and then ran back to Tarplin. Something in there was “wrong.”

Great. Well, we still wanted to know what was past the first five feet. So Morty picked up another rat and hurled it to the far wall. Unluckily, its neck snapped and it died on hitting the rock. Morty picked up yet another rat and threw it after the first corpse, but this was landed just slightly dazed. Then it spun around wildly, and… AAAAAHHH! It came zooming back past the party. Morty made a grab for it but missed and it escaped into the tunnel.

So Morty hurled another one down there, and caught it when it came back screaming again, but we could get nothing coherent out of it.

It seemed like undead to us. What was more, we recalled that Qualton had blown his own head off with a Crossbow of Disruption, meaning Qualton in some sense counted as undead. Was our theory correct?

Then Balinor pointed out that since we had forty feet of curved pipe, we could easily use it to look down the passage with a mirror. Was this safe? We didn’t know, but it seemed better than going inside. But we didn’t have a mirror…

“Fifty gold for my mirror,” Boss smirked.
Morty protested. “We’ll give it right back after we’re done.”
Boss looked down the tunnel. “If you put it in there, you can keep it,” he shuddered.

So we moved the pipe so that it could see the room and place the mirror inside, using it like some weird lens. Balinor mind-blanked himself and looked inside.

Around the corner was, almost immediately, a room. Balinor recognized it as a familiar looking architecture… Thim! The Khargish god of herders and herd animals. Balinor remembered the style from his dream trip into the world of the Kharg a thousand years earlier (see Defenders Summaries #80-81). It seemed to be some kind of crypt. Inside was the skeleton of a horse, and a rider. The rider had several bits of gear on it, including chain mail, a dagger with a diamond in the hilt, and a falchion. The horse had mithril horseshoes… but most impressively, a full golden bridle. This seemed familiar to Balinor, but he couldn’t quite remember where he’d seen this.

At this point, Tarplin and Morty were in favor grabbing the stuff and running for it, then dealing with whatever ghosts were in there. Balinor was contemplating risky and probably stupid action in the hopes of “solving” the problem. We couldn’t just leave this place here where other people would be affected by it. Morty looked under Mindblank to confirm that he saw exactly what Balinor had said. Nothing weird there; it really was a horse and rider.

Eventually we decided to gather more information on the bridle. Paying for a full two more weeks of time AND sage research, we mailed Augman about the golden bridle. In addition we had Boss get us some lead boxes in case we wanted to grab the stuff and put it somewhere unscryable, at least.

Augman sent us back two important pieces of information. The first was regarding the Bridle of Farin, an artifact of the Kharg. It was said to make the rider and horse invulnerable and to empower vast armies and lead them to victory. Seemed pretty powerful.

The second bit was that there was a rumor of a place where the Khargish elders used to travel to speak with the ghosts of Khargish kings long past. It was said to be in a place almost impossible to find.

So our theory was now that the Khargish kings’ spirits had gone mad and were possessing everyone who went in, probably because they were angry about the Kharg being mostly destroyed by the Realmish troops in the war Balinor saw during his dream adventure. Balinor recalled that the rider had left with the real Bridle of Farin hours before the Realmish crusaders burst into the room. When the crusaders shattered the case holding the fake Bridle, the city and all the troops were engulfed and destroyed. The Bridle of Farin had been lost, seemingly.

Now, it was definitely true that Balinor probably knew more than almost anyone in the world about this particular event, as he had “witnessed” it firsthand. In addition, he could at least recite the Khargish alphabet, as Northerners are not unrelated to Kharg. Still, this wasn’t exactly a lot to bank on, especially since it seemed likely the damage done by these spirits could be irreversible. Still, Balinor was willing to try. Balinor also wondered if it would be a good idea to get Duke Haermond involved, as he would be quite interested in whether the Kharg ended up with their artifact or not.

Nonetheless, it seemed true that this mystery wasn’t as time-dependent as the loot. So if the ghosts were bound to the crypt room rather than the Bridle (likely, since the ghosts would predate the Bridle’s arrival by many years), then we could just shove the artifact and the other items into the lead boxes with our pipe setup, and loot the room without ever going inside. What would happen we opened the lead boxes… who knew?

So we pushed two boxes in, and put the Bridle in one, and the other stuff in the other. A quick Detect Magic revealed High Magic on all the items (except the Bridle? Artifacts shouldn’t radiate magic). We shut the boxes, and pulled them out of the room… and nothing happened.

And so we stand in the corridor, with two boxes containing either troubling and cursed items… or a fantastically valuable windfall that could be a tale for the ages. What to do next? My suggestion: hightail it for Restenford or Barnacus. Pay for a few more days of cave time to throw people off the scent, and bring Boss with us. Leave via the Argo Forest, and send messages ahead to the Duke (perhaps via Tarplin or the druid of the Argo). This is really important that it get to somewhere secure as soon as possible. Political decisions will have to be made, and we don’t know how dangerous this stuff is.

And of more importance to the story… what is going on inside that crypt room?

Find out, next time!