(Marginal note: less mint, more juniper – the mentha arvensis is more aromatic than the alpha pinene, but the increased aggression makes it difficult to think strategically in the midst of a fight.)
We’ve left the ancient outpost behind – Dragda made sure that there was a note for Sirette, and she’s used her axe to blaze marks on the trees so that she can find us with relative ease. We’ve struck out to the east, and we had plans to cut back to the north, but we’ve found some intriguing ruins. It had been a castle – to be fair, much of it is still standing – but it has certainly seen better days.
It has also certainly seen worse days. Our first clue to its existence was the wreck of a siege engine pointed in its general direction. It had been a catapult, or perhaps a trebuchet. To satisfy his curiosity on this point, Keller started poking around the machine with his newly attuned staff. This had the unfortunate result of rousing the remains of the weapon’s crew. A massively broad, ten foot tall skeleton levered itself out of the rubble and began to reach for him.
Fortuitously, I had been discussing a mixture I was working on using some herbs that we had scavenged while traveling, and I had a sample on hand. I drank it back and grabbed Keller by the back of his robe, shoving him behind me as my elixir took effect: within moments I was the same height as the skeleton – if not quite as broad. And no where near as sturdy. Perhaps annoyed that I had taken his first target away, the skeleton simply swatted me down, knocking me senseless in a single hit.
(Margin – cutaway sketch of acorn with notes: Powdered paricarp of Quercus seed next time instead of the dried cotyledons. Extra size and strength are useless if they make you easy to hit.)
Dragda jumped up on the wreck of the catapult and began some virtuoso axe work, cracking and chipping away at the skeleton. Her quick thinking drew the creature’s attention long enough for Fungdark to cast a quick healing spell on me. Keller stepped back to a safer distance and began to pelt the thing with magical force bolts. The skeleton clawed at Dragda, but she was able to withstand the attack with relative ease, and continued to carve chips out of the animated bones.
Partially restored by Fungdark’s magic, I grabbed the heftiest wooden beam I could drag out of the ruined catapult and brought it down hard on the back of the thing’s skull. The wood shattered and it staggered slightly but continued to claw at Dragda, dealing out some serious gouges. Her riposte ruined several of its ribs, and Keller’s force-bolts knocked some more bones out of joint. Fungdark sent an arrow clattering through its ribs, but it didn’t seem fazed. If we didn’t take it down quickly we were in a bit of a pickle: none of us could withstand another hit from the giant skeleton. I’d gotten lucky with one swing, but Keller’s magic was nearly drained, Fungdark’s weaponry was entirely ineffective against the thing, and it was only through sheer strength that Dragda was able to damage it with her axe. Concentrating, I called up a wave of positive light, flooding the area with energy. With the damage we had inflicted, this was enough to disrupt the necromantic force that was animating the skeleton. It collapsed into a pile of inanimate bone shards.
We rested for a while, healing and recovering our energies. Keller found some gold in the ruins of the catapult – probably the pay for the giant that had been operating the weapon. He sighted along a line where the thing would have been firing and spotted part of a stone wall through a gap in the trees. Once we were rested, we set off in that direction.
The castle we found had been the site of a pretty intense battle. We walked around it carefully, scouting from a distance and looking for any signs of habitation. The walls were breached in several locations, but the main structure was mostly intact – a three story keep with an enclosed courtyard and a detached tower at the far corner of the yard. The battle must have gone badly for both sides – in addition to the breaches, there were more ruined siege weapons scattered around. If the defenders had won, they had abandoned the place without rebuilding. If the attackers had been victorious, they hadn’t bothered to repair their weapons or bury their dead.
We decided to investigate the tower first, entering via a gap in the outer wall. The interior was in disrepair, the floor of the second level sagging in the middle. A quick check of the stairs revealed that it was unlikely to support the weight of anyone other than Fungdark. Instead we followed a path downward, stairs into catacombs, catacombs into caves.
It wasn’t long before we found the remnants of some of the castle’s defenders. Or perhaps attackers. At this point, they all were bound to the service of some necromancer – skeletal figures and putrid zombies lurched into action, throwing themselves claw-first at us as we explored the frigid spaces underneath the keep. We positioned ourselves well, using natural narrowings of the cavern and the rough-hewn doorways to choke the flood of the undead. Dragda’s axe made short work of those that got close and I tossed a few bottles of liquid flame over her head and into the throng to drive them out of the shadows and into her blade. There were a few undead that were more than mindless minions though – casting spells past the knot of their rotting soldiers and into our midst. Keller’s arcane bolts and Fungdark’s mundane arrows made short work of them.
(Margin – Illustration of two nested bottles of thin glass sealed with a single lump of wax. The interior is labeled “cibus”, the exterior is marked with a circle crowned in flame. The entire drawing is titled “Hypergolic”)
After a rest, we continued. Exploring further, we found a number of peculiar areas – a corridor with five patches of glowing light on the wall, several locked or barred doors. At the end of one long corridor, we decided to open a door and see what it hid. A bit of acid on the door’s lock and hinges weakened things enough for Dragda to drag the whole door free from the wall, revealing our prize. We had found a cavernous room with several exits: the former door which we had demolished, a set of double doors on one side and a portcullis-sealed passage on the other. We were ready to continue our exploration when Keller and I spotted an odd cloudiness in a passage on the other side of the room.
In the spirit of experimentation, I heaved a rock toward it, expecting it to disperse the mist and land on the other side of the room. Instead, it struck something semi-solid in midair, rebounding to tumble onto the floor as a cubical mass of transparent gel slid across the cavern floor toward us.
The four of us quickly scattered, trying to avoid any attacks that it might level against us as a group. Dragda carved a slab out of its substance with her axe, and Fungdark struck up a Gnomish battle chant. In a matter of seconds though, it washed over us. I lost sight of Dragda as I was trapped in its gooey interior. As quickly as I could I shoved a flask of hypergolic reagent into the stinging jelly and pulled the stopper. Concentrating on the blessings of the Free Wanderer, I felt the ground beneath my feet and twisted sideways into a low leap, pulling free from the creature just as the chemicals I’d deposited burst into flame. The battle that followed was short and furious. I splashed the sides of the cube with my last two bottles of fire while Keller slammed it with arcane force. The creature quickly slumped into a pile of goo and we stepped back to take a much needed rest.