Crown of the Dead [D&D v.3.5] – Part 23

This adventure was Friday September 18, 2015. K.D., E.G. and C.H. were present.

Half-Orc Ranger Xorn looks at the timber-lease map, considers their surroundings, and makes a correction to the party’s course across the grassy plains. Cleric of Pelor Joseph McMickelson follows behind. Bringing up the rear, wary of zombies, is Gnome Barbarian Wee Jack. He keeps his axe ready.

The party is further west of Riddley’s Crown than ever before. This is unexplored territory for them. The destination is ‘Westmarch Tower’, a site on their map that may be a twin of the abandoned tower that was a goblin base. The hope is to find another hidden room or two in the cellar, equally stocked with treasure as the one they found yesterday.

Xorn comes to a halt. McMickelson, not paying attention, stops just short of bumping into him. Wee Jack looks ahead and sees what stopped his Ranger friend in his tracks.

A hundred yards away stands a lone wooden post, about four feet tall, out of place in the wild grasses. A weathered, grey human skull is set on top, appearing to keep watch to the east.

The Barbarian and Ranger Spot more of these markers, at even intervals to the north and south of this one. Those also have humanoid skulls on them, a gruesome line of sentinels. Obviously this is some kind of border, one which was never mentioned back at the enclave. It does not appear to signify any difference between the grasslands before and after it.

Up close there is no magical or ritual significance to the totem. Joseph McMickelson voices his displeasure at the blasphemous display. He takes down the skull and buries it in the damp soil, then catches up to Wee Jack. Lingering behind, Xorn unearths the skull and places it back where it was, just to annoy the cleric.

The group hikes a quarter-mile further west, wondering whose or what lands they trespass. There are still zombies about, and the occasional brief skirmish, but nothing especially dangerous. Up ahead, a dry creek bed precedes a steep natural embankment. The sandy channel winds to the south; Xorn checks the map and wonders if this was once “Finelass Creek”.

The stream-carved slope is no obstacle. Twenty minutes past this rise, the Ranger Spots their destination. The western watchtower is visible behind a thin row of trees at the north edge of the plains. Regular axe-work has pushed the forest back from the tower; there is a broader clearing than at the goblins’ base. Someone might be living here. The group quickens its pace on a north-west tack over the rolling hills.

More details become visible. Foremost, this tower is in terrible shape. Only half its outside wall still stands to full height. The rest has crumbled and fallen aside, or collapsed in on itself. It now seems unlikely that anyone could live or shelter in this watchtower. Nature is slowly reclaiming it.

But there is movement near the ruins. McMickelson curses. In the clearing, three Medium-size Skeletons with shovels are digging in the dirt. Two Large-size Ogre Skeletons trudge a slow patrol around the base of the tower. They carry very large swords. A zombie stands among the row of trees nearest the party.

A dirt path lined with bright white skulls leads from the thin row of trees to where Xorn, Wee Jack, and Joseph McMickelson stand and stare. A neat and well-maintained sign is posted :

On the other side of the path, a second sign :

Wee Jack and Xorn are on high alert. Cleric McMickelson is incensed at the sight of the Undead almost certainly under a necromancer’s control. The two Ogre skeletons have not noticed them; nor have the skeletons working at excavation. The lone zombie has – but instead of shambling towards them to engage, it turns and shuffles towards the tower.

The Ranger and Barbarian hash out a plan of attack. The Cleric of Pelor cannot wait to start breaking bones, starting with those Ogres. The zombie has disappeared into a darkened archway leading under the watchtower ruins. A few moments later, just in time to interrupt the party’s impending assault, someone emerges from where the zombie went in.

This person is definitely a living Human. Mid-forties, brown hair, with the ruddy tanned skin of an outdoorsman. He is dressed in grey-black robes and is unarmed. He hustles to meet the new arrivals, his haste a sign he does not wish to keep his guests waiting. A smile and a friendly wave precede him.

Wee Jack, McMickelson, and Xorn very cautiously advance along the grim path toward this fellow. They stop well short of the treeline. The Skeletons working the clearing and the Ogre skeletons on patrol have taken no notice. The zombie messenger has not re-appeared.

The man in the robes is Hallic Voss, self-described ‘necromechanic’ and proprietor of Voss’ Custom Corporeals. Immediately, Voss sets eyes on the Cleric of Pelor and asks if McMickelson is ‘a scout or a spy’. ‘Neither’ is the Cleric’s puzzled reply. Unconvinced, Voss politely but firmly requests that the Cleric leave the premises.

Joseph backs off several paces, until the Necromechanic seems satisfied. McMickelson watches him closely, wishing for any provocation as an invitation to attack. But Voss is apparently keen on keeping this conversation civil and business-like; his hands remain in plain view, and he makes no sudden movements or somatic gestures. His eye contact and charismatic words work to allay the party’s obvious concerns.

Hallic Voss asks Wee Jack and Xorn if they have come to see him. Or, perhaps they are bound for “the Necropolis” – which the party comes to understand is a settlement of necromancers and related outcasts, on the plains to the south-west of here. That is a surprising bit of information.

The Gnome Barbarian guards his words but the half-Orc Ranger, no stranger to the fringe society of necromancy and the dark arts, speaks with no apprehension. Despite the fact that he must be evil, this Hallic Voss fellow comes off as a genuinely pleasant. He describes his business as a buy-and-sell corpse-crafting operation, which builds custom zombie and skeleton creations for clients from the Necropolis and its farming community, and for the occasional outsider like themselves. He hands over a schedule of his services :

Reasonable !

Reasonable !

This document lingers little in Wee Jack’s hands. Xorn examines it at length then tucks it into his Badass Longcoat. The half-Orc and Necromechanic make small talk. Voss hesitates to say much to the associates of a Cleric of Pelor; nonetheless, the party gains a few insights into the western plains beyond the skull-post borderline, including the Necropolis.

There is no business to conduct, and no sense overstaying and risking a violent turn in an already-tense meeting. Wee Jack and Xorn leave Voss to his work.

Once far enough away, Wee Jack and McMickelson measure the urgency of returning another time with more party members and laying waste to the place. Xorn is lukewarm to the idea; Voss doesn’t seem offensive, he’s not the one creating all the Undead in this region, and it sounds like the necromancer society is just outcasts fled here from civilization.

Heading south from Voss’s shop, the party Spots a farmstead to the west. Several skeletons toil in a fenced field, under the watchful command of a farmer. There are clusters of zombies near the farmstead but they don’t appear to threaten it. It is past noon; the party must head back to the enclave. They have plenty of questions on their mind as they walk.

*     *    *

Riddley’s Crown has been busy. Today is Monday, and the weekly caravan has dropped off a sizeable load of supplies, and some new faces. This late in the day, residents are still busy sorting out their shipments and cannot spare the time to answer the party’s many questions.

Administrator Lumberg isn’t busy. And he knows the situation to the west. The official line is that Lord Oakesworth, title-holder to this Undead-plagued region, claims no knowledge of and grants no consent to the outcast necromancers squatting on the remote western plains of his lands.

Here in the privacy of his office, Lumberg admits that his Lordship is a pragmatic and open-minded fellow, one who sees no harm in outcast Death-cultists minding their own business in a forgotten and unwanted corner of remote wilderness. Better out here than lurking in the cities of the coastal kingdom. The necromancers are not responsible for the Undead plague, nor do they play a significant role in its upkeep. For them, the Undead are a convenient deterrent and line of defense against outsiders.

So far as Administrator Lumberg is concerned, peaceable neutrality exists between Riddley’s Crown and the Necropolis. Each leaves the other alone; undead-hunters from the enclave seldom stray too far west, and new arrivals to the Necropolis come north through the bog in the dead of night, passing unseen to their new home and refuge.

Unfortunately, as economic or social hardships create the need, Good-aligned churches from the kingdom will launch a pogrom against the necromancer community. Clerics and Paladins will come in force every couple years, raid and harass and decimate the Necropolis and its settlements to boost the sagging coffers or prestige of the church’s political elites. The fight is never a serious campaign of extermination, nor are the campaigns ever lop-sided contests of conquest or defense. Invasion, retaliation, stalemate, armistice by apathy. Administrator Lumberg has no say in the matter; the enclave provides refuge and lodging to the church soldiers according to its mandate, but takes no part in the campaign. Riddley’s Crown would offer hospitality to necromancers, if they came. Peaceful co-existence is the only means of survival out here.

This is a curious situation; Wee Jack, Joseph, and Xorn ponder it as they disarm at their storefront cabin and clean up before dinner. Voss seemed to suggest that outsiders could visit the Necropolis – but that even without their Clerics of Pelor in tow, Wee Jack and his associates would not be welcome. No matter; it may be a journey for some other time. For right now, the group pockets some “drinkin’ gold”, Xorn selects a nice bottle of rum from their supply, and they step out into the early evening chill.

On their way to the main hall, the group notices a sandwich-board set up in the enclave’s muddy plaza. It advertises the apothecary services of potionist J.G. DUMONT (NPC), who is now set up in the vacant store behind the shuttered Old Oak Tavern.

The main hall is louder and crazier than Wee Jack or Xorn have ever seen it. Four newcomers, all Halfling women and each with impossibly-bright blonde hair, drink recklessly and raise the Hells at one table. Not to be outdone, and obviously trying to catch the Halflings’ attention, the oiled and brawny Corinthians drink and shout and carry on. The two half-Orc hunters, Krusch and Bombast, huddle in a corner. A new Elf Fighter watches with amusement from his small table near the door.

A fifth Halfling woman arrives about ten minutes after Xorn and his friends. This Halfling, slightly older but sunshine-blonde like her cohorts, sees Jenny, yells her name, and leaps onto the half-Elf with a hug that almost drags the cook to the floor. Wee Jack pieces together who is who – the last arrival, WINONA (NPC), is the leader of the hard-drinking, hard-fighting SUICIDE BLONDES. Wavy-blonde ALYSSA (NPC), braided-blonde MOLLY (NPC), spiky-blonde PHOEBE (NPC), and dreadlock-blonde DREW (NPC) are her crew. Jenny would appear to be an honorary member of their sorority, if lacking the hair color.

Evidently the Blondes come here a lot. Dredburn makes the mistake of coming in to pick up dinner and the girls recognize him instantly, and fawn so affectionately over him that he actually blushes. Dredburn obviously tries his best to keep the Blondes at figurative arm’s-length until he can escape with his take-out. Wise McMickelson Senses Motive : the Halflings are underage by the Dwarf’s standards.

The night is a melee. The Suicide Blondes and Corinthians seem determined to out-drink, out-sing, and out-perform each other. Wee Jack’s group enjoys from the sidelines. Jenny is constantly running drinks. She enjoys the life brought to her hall after so long and dreary a winter.

Catching a break from serving, Jenny brings Wee Jack an object bundled in cloth. The Redmond Brigade left it behind for him. The Barbarian unwraps the object under the table. The bright firelight outlines a beautiful weapon – a Medium-size light mace, almost certainly magical. There is a unique green-and-silver crest embossed on the shaft, one the party does not recognize. A note inside is from Carol; it thanks Wee Jack again for his friendship.

By eleven o’clock, Joseph McMickelson and his new friends have had their fill of everything. They slip out into the cold March night and stumble back to their cabin. As they lay by their fire, they drift to sleep by the din from the main hall.

Morning-time. Low cloud and mist drift above, fed by columns of wood-smoke from the cabins of the enclave. At breakfast, the main hall is empty and Jenny is clearly exhausted. When asked of other arrivals besides those in here until obscenely late, she mentions the potionist, Dumont; and two, perhaps three loners. Fighters, she has heard. One of them is a female half-Orc. That gets Xorn’s attention.

After their meal, Joseph and Xorn follow Wee Jack to blacksmith’s shop. McMickelson fails a Reflex save and steps in a Hill-Giant-sized pond of liquor vomit that came from one of the Halflings early this morning. He goes to find a rain puddle to clean his boots.

Inside the store, the Gnome hands over the mace for identification. Wizard-monk Riis glances it over and bursts out laughing, tremendously amused by something. It is a +1 light mace, and not Cursed, and was a gift from Readey and his pals. And she absolutely won’t buy it if that’s why Wee Jack is here.

The Barbarian would really like to know what’s so funny about the weapon, suspicious that the smith knew it came from the Redmonds. But Riis, drying some tears from her eyes, won’t say. She concedes only two tidbits – the symbol is that of the Knights of Stormrise; and the Gnome should investigate the second farmstead due east of here. Her laughter resumes as she wanders out back to her forge.

Wee Jack can’t not-go there, now. The party gears up for an excursion. They know which farmstead Riis means; the group passed it last week on the way to the church.

Just before the enclave gate, Xorn and his group are intercepted by an extravagantly-dressed fellow with a precise, coal-black moustache and shiny top-hat. J.G. Dumont introduces himself and begs pardon for his interruption. He invites the adventurers to visit his shop at their convenience, gifting a Potion of Cure Light Wounds to each of them. Graciously accepting their thanks, the potionist wishes them well and strolls away.

A few zombies slow the group’s progress east. They reach the farmstead Riis described. Wee Jack is not sure what to look for.

The closest structure is a tool-shed. Its contents are junk. Across a weedy roadway from the tool-shed is a well-kept cabin. Its front door is wide open. Close inspection of the door-frame shows blunt-force damage; the door had been securely locked until something smashed its way in.

There are no Undead inside the cabin. In fact, the interior was well stocked and organized until it was tossed and looted. Furniture is overturned; camping supplies, equipment, and dry rations are scattered. Weapon- and armor-racks stand conspicuously empty. The front door, the last item noticed in the room, is painted with the same symbol as on the mace. A broken handle and latch share the door-frame’s damage.

The Barbarian puts it all together. This is a safe-house and storage depot for regulars known as the Knights of Stormrise. Readey had the Redmonds help him break in and raid it, taking everything of value they could carry. The Ranger probably saw an easy score and went for it. Likely Carol and Barry didn’t know it wasn’t abandoned – so Carol wouldn’t have known the hazard her gift of a marked weapon would be.

For damned sure, the Gnome isn’t planning to show off this weapon when the Knights arrive. The blacksmith’s grim delight makes sense now. Wee Jack tucks the mace out of sight in his pack. He’ll figure out what to do with it later. Leaving a magic weapon here for Undead to find is not an option.

While they’re here, the party will clear the other houses. They start at the south end of the village. The east-side cabin is ruined and collapsed. The cabin on the west-side of the road is intact, its door is closed. Wee Jack climbs to the tattered roof and finds two Skeletons lurking in the room. Xorn kicks in the door; McMickelson Turns the skeletons. The Undead cower in a corner, unable to retreat. All too easy a fight.

It is now mid-morning on the 30th day of March, by the local calendar.

 

(end of Part 23)

 

 

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About d20horizons

D&D player.
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