July 24th, noon
Before following the tracks into the desert, the party needs to figure out what to do with the single intact crate of bugs. You elect to bury it in the sand, so you can come back to it if necessary, but Therin and co. can’t use them for whatever she needs them for.
So into the desert you go. Fenrir the druid guides you past some minor desert hazards, like a sinkhole. One poisonous snake attempts to bite him, but he dodges nimbly out of the way and cuts it in two with his scimitar. A dust devil has obscured part of the path, but Fenrir’s tracking skills easily find it again.
The afternoon sun beats down upon you, but you are shielded by endure elements. Soon the ground starts becoming more rock than sand, and rocky outcroppings become more frequent. Then you reach the edge of a box canyon. At the base of the canyon (about 300 feet straight down), there is a small dig sit, which appears to have unearthed three layers of some kind of ziggurat.
Khemed notes that the ziggurat bears a resemblance to the step pyramids that were popular before true pyramids came into style. But the actual design is far older than he has any familiarity with.
There appears to be no way down the sheer cliff, and the party does not have enough rope to scale it. Jane abruptly realizes the significance of her most recent prophetic dream, in which she was climbing down a cliff on a rope, but it ended before she reached the bottom.
The rocky ground means continuing to follow the trail becomes much harder. Fenrir has lost the trail, but Shira manages to pick it back up (bards are Jacks of All Trades after all). The path leads to a natural cave near the edge of the cliff, which descends downward. At the first fork in the passage, Fenrir rolls a Natural 1 for his Survival check to choose the correct path, so he confidently leads the party down the wrong path, directly into a gelatinous cube.
The cube manages to engulf over half the party at some point during the fight, and knocks Khemed down to zero hit points. Shira’s healing bug Jeremiah stabilizes him afterward though, and everyone is left thoroughly grossed out, but alive. You find a potion of healing in the remains of the cube’s previous victims, which is nice.
Continuing down the cave, you cross an offshoot passage which contains a natural bubbling spring. Feeling generally gross and covered in ooze from the cube, Shira immediately sheds all her clothes and hops in. At which point a water weird, displeased at having its spring so contaminated, immediately rises from where it lurked below the surface and constricts Shira in its watery coils.
Shira spends most of the fight bound and grappled by the weird while the rest of the party hacks and blasts at it, eventually bringing it down. Undisturbed by the encounter, Shira immediately goes back to what she was doing, washing the cube residue off herself and her clothes. The rest of the party cleans up some as well, before going back to the cube’s passage to make camp for the night.
July 25th, morning
You are woken in the morning by the sounds of men talking and crates being dragged across the stone floor of the cave. Sticking her head around the corner, Shira sees men and crates being moved up the passageway, back toward the top of the cliff. You elect not to draw attention to yourselves, and wait for them to pass before continuing downward.
You eventually exit the cave with no further issues, and before you stands the ziggurat. The unearthed section is only 70 feet tall (it definitely seems mostly buried), at the top of which is a lone crossbowman standing guard. To deal with this, Fenrir turns into a bear, carries Keladry and Shira stealthily up the back side of the ziggurat, and knocks the guard unconscious with a swipe of his claw. Then Keladry stands where the guard was standing while Fenrir drags the guard back down for interrogation.
When he comes to without his weapons or armor, the guard is suitably intimidated by the LARGE BEAR looming over him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know much. He knows that “the bosses” are inside the ziggurat, but doesn’t know who they are or what they’re doing. He’s a local mercenary, who’s company was hired by someone from out of town, so he’s at least two or three steps removed from the people you actually want to know about. You tie him up and leave him in the cave, to deal with later, and head towards the ziggurat.
There are stairs leading to the top of the ziggurat. At the top, there is a 15 foot square platform, in the corners of which are the remains of what used to be stone columns. Near the center, there is another, smaller platform, about 5 feet square and 5 feet tall. On the side opposite the exterior stairs, there is a trapdoor. When opened, this reveals a short (10-ft) ladder ending leading to a narrow stairwell.
It is dark in the stairwell. The stairs descend quite a ways, definitely farther than the amount of ziggurat that had been uncovered on the outside. As you descend, the air cools noticeably until it is relatively comfortable, even without your endure elements.
Eventually, the stairs open into a passageway extending in front of you. Along the walls are doors, some open and some closed. At the far end of the hallway, there appears to be a much larger stairwell, going even further down.
All the open doorways lead to single rooms. Searching reveals that the rooms probably contained ancient objects (hundreds of years old, if not thousands), but that everything had already been picked clean. Probably a long time ago at that, based on the dust build up. The rooms with the closed doors (at least the first one you try after listening to verify no one is inside) are locked. Fenrir, still in bear form, straight up punches through the solid wooden door, then opens it using the handle on the other side. The noise echoes off the quiet hallways, and you all, realizing your mistake, immediately hide inside the doorway in preparation for anyone who comes to investigate.
This doesn’t actually happen, and after a while, you relax and look around. In the room, it looks like makeshift beds are being set up, and that what is possibly construction material is being moved in bit by bit, as if this place was being set up as a base of operations.
Descending a level, the stairwell opens into another hallway, this one extending left and right, perpendicular to the stairway exit. There are more rooms, mostly with open doors revealing nothing interesting inside. There are stairwells at either end of the hallway.
You become aware of an echoing whisper, which seems to be coming from the right stairwell (the left just leads to the kitchens as you’ll discover upon searching later). It’s distorted enough that you can barely make out anything intelligible. What little you can make out seems to be in no language any of you know.
Going down the right stairwell leads to a wider hallway, with taller ceilings. it extends half the length of the hallway upstairs, then ends in a T-junction. When you get that far, then the passageway leading left leads towards a wide stairwell, once again going down. The whispers are coming from the right, where the hallway opens into a large (at least 50-by-50 foot) room. Along the sides of the room, columns reach up to a ceiling the light doesn’t reach.
You can see this because, sitting in the middle of the giant empty chamber, facing away from you, is a human. He’s sitting on the floor, with two candles on either side, rocking back and forth and hissing and muttering to himself. The candles fail to illuminate much of the room, though they send the columns into dancing shadows. He’s dressed in dirty rags and a shredded brown overcoat, and looks like a decrepit homeless lunatic. It sounds like he’s alternating between crying, laughing, and muttering rhythmically to himself. Most of what he’s saying is in no language any of you can speak. Occasionally he slips into common, and you catch fragmentary phrases, such as, “…where to find the materials…” and, “…for activating the device…”
Not knowing what else to do, the party sends Shira to ask if this sorry looking fellow needs help. When she calls out though, the Creepy Whispering Homeless Guy (CHWG for short, as the party has dubbed him) immediately stands and turns in one lightning quick motion, glaring at you in the dim candle light. You can make out that he’s…clearly infected with something. His skin color is wrong, his eyes are sunken and hollow, his skin is bubbled and chaffed raw (show picture). And he hisses, seemingly to himself.
“Who are they? How long were they listening? We can’t know. Trouble. TROUBLE!” he shouts the last bit before backing up quickly and tossing out a gust of wind, blowing out the candles and plunging the room into darkness. You hear a lot of clattering and echoing footsteps on stone. The noises are coming towards you. Roll initiative.
Firing a few spells into the darkness fails to hit anything, but reveals that a group of four new people aside from the CHWG (1, 2, 3, 4) come running out of rooms on the opposite side of the chamber. The CHWG shouts at them, “Leave now, start your tasks, you know what needs to be done.” They sprint out into the hallway past you, and head towards the stairs. Keladry casts light on her shield, providing enough light to recognize Therin. She glares at you, but, urged on by the CHWG, she runs past without attacking.
The party gets a few hits in, but then the high level villain NPC’s all run up the stairway, and the Drifter hits the area the party is in with a transmute rock to mud spell. Then hisses, "Children, come pick clean their bones.” Upon which a swarm of rats poured in from cracks in the walls, a swarm of bats shrieked down from the (too high to see) ceiling, and the entire area filled with locusts and beetles. A few spellcasting bugs were in the giant swarm of vermin too.
This fight was brutal. The massive swarm attacked everything inside it multiple times per round, and at one point split into two smaller swarms in order to attack more party members. And from the swarm there were occasionally fired random blasts of fire, force or ice from the spellcasting scarabs (these bugs were casting first and second level spells, not just cantrips). I think fully three party members fell unconscious/dying at some point during the fight, some (Keladry and Jane) more than once. Here the healing crystals collected from bugs on previous encounters came in very handy, as without them, at least one PC would have almost certainly died. In any case, by the end of the battle, everyone was exhausted and barely clinging to life.
Which is when you hear quiet echoing footsteps coming back down the stone hallway towards you. The players who had already escaped the muck ducked out of sight and froze. Khemed and Fenrir, however, were left out in the open, stranded in the mud. As the footsteps drew closer, Fenrir dropped into the mud to play dead. But Khemed, proud Hierophant of Ra that he is, would not demean himself so, not even in the face of demonstrably far more powerful foes. At least not until Fenrir physically tripped him into the mud next to him.
The footsteps stop at the base of the stairway, and there’s a long, incredibly uncomfortable pause, before you hear Therin’s voice asking if she should gut you where you lie. Then the CHWG’s raspy whispering voice answers her. “The rats will tend to them by morning, help Lucian and the others move as many crates as we can.” He laughs softly. “We don’t want delay, do we? No, we don’t.” Then the footsteps retreat back up the stairwell.
July 24th, afternoon
Fenrir and Khemed wait a minute or two to be sure they’re gone before dragging themselves out of the muck. Then everyone retreats back into the now empty large room to bandage their wounds and try to clean themselves up into some semblance of decency. No one was in any shape to bring the good fight to the clearly much higher leveled NPC’s, so it was several hours before anyone felt up to tentatively exploring the rest of the ziggurat.
At the back of the large chamber, there is a smaller room that the NPC’s came out of. Inside is a table bearing a bottle of ink and a few quills, some chairs, and a chest. The latter contains 300 gp in loose change and 2 potions of healing. You also grab some spell gems from the bugs you killed. Down the final set of stairs opposite the large chamber stands a large, imposing stone door barred with metal, clearly the (currently underground) main entrance to the ziggurat.
By the time you make your way up to the section with all the rooms, you realize everyone was long gone. In the dust on the floor, you find the marks of crates being dragged towards the stairwell going up the passageway. You exit the ziggurat and follow the new trail made by your adversaries up the cave to the top of the canyon and then back to town. On the way, you pass the encampment where you were ambushed earlier, but decide that digging up the crate of bugs and dealing with them is more trouble than it’s worth. The whole trip takes 5-6 hours, so when you get to Nivaos it is early evening. You slink back to the inn, heads down, and try to figure out what the hell you’re going to do next.
July 25th, morning
That night, Jane once again does her Creepy Nightmare Foreshadowing™. More to come on that later. Fenrir also, at some points, tells the party about his past regarding one of the villains, Lucian Glass.
This part was somewhat sped up since time was running low for the session. You go to the docks to see if Therin’s ship or any others have left in the past day, and if so, where to. There are some dockworkers milling about, grumbling about how the ships they were meant to be working on that day had shipped out ahead of schedule. Fenrir turns into a cat and sneaks his way into the portmaster’s office to get a look at the last day’s worth of shipping records. Turns out on casual investigation that fully five ships had shipped out last night without warning, all for different destinations!
Therin’s ship, which you know the name of, is heading towards the opposite side of Old R’Kassi. Lucian’s ship, which Fenrir knows the name of, is heading towards Ulvenwald, as is one other ship. On ship is heading for the Grand Victorian mainland, and the last is listed as heading towards the Arctic. Fenrir, with his years of sea experience, knows that “the Arctic” is a place you might list as your destination if you really didn’t want anyone to know where you’re going. So while that might be that ship’s actual destination, odds are that last ship could be heading anywhere else in the world. You agree to get moving before setting final plans for where to go.
When you get to your ship, you find an interesting surprise. The entire crew had been slaughtered, seemingly effortlessly. They were just lying there, soaked in blood in the morning light. You couldn’t see it until you started coming up onto the ship itself, which was why no one had reported it yet.
Since the ship is small, it only requires 4 crew members on shift at any given time. So the party, under the direction of Fenrir with his sailing background and Shira with her bard’s Jack of All Trades, know just enough about sailing a ship that the five of you can successfully get things moving onto the high seas. Exhaustion will quickly set in after more than a few days of round the clock crewing, but that’s a problem to deal with when you’re NOT somewhere that the authorities are demonstrably on your enemy’s side.
However, as you prepare to take off, you see guards come running down the pier at you, shouting that you hadn’t gotten permission from the dock keepers to leave, that we had to list our cargo and destination. Thinking quickly, Fenrir hops off the ship, and rolls pretty high Persuasion to get them to stop and listen to him BEFORE heading up onto the deck covered in blood and gore. Then he goes to fill out the relevant paperwork to leave, thus avoiding what would have certainly been a LARGE conflict had the guards seen all those bodies.
After setting sail, Fenrir messages Sennefer through MacGuiller. While the others try to scrub away the bloodstains on the deck, he and Khemed explain the situation, and ask for him to requisition a new crew to meet them in Nasivern. Despite the disquieting news, Sennefer agrees. He also says that he will be investigating the probably corrupt leadership in Nivaos, “promoting” the mayoral equivalent to the capitol for questioning.
Also after setting sail, Shira’s healing bug Jeremiah molts, gets slightly bigger, and can now cast cure wounds as a first level spell twice a day. This promotes his buggy status from “situationally useful” to “actually legitimately useful source of healing.” So that’s nice.
On the way to Nivaos, several party members come down with some sort of illness, most probably an infection picked up from the swarms of rats and insects in the ziggurat. However, the fact that you have two clerics means that the next sunrise, they can prepare lesser restoration and heal everyone. This does mean the trip to Nasivern takes slightly longer, as you’re fighting both exhaustion and illness as you attempt to maneuver the ship with minimal crew. But after 4 exhausting days during which fortunately nothing bad happens, you pick up a new crew in Nasivern and head out to sea.
So that’s where you are. Fenrir is the de facto captain of the ship, which he decides to re-christen the Raven’s Howl. You’ve decided to head for the closer Ulvenwald destination, the one Lucian’s ship was heading towards, stopping off at Port Alexandria on the way. And finally, everyone leveled up to level 4.