Thunder rumbled somewhere high in the misty, gray sky, speaking of a storm somewhere on the other side of the mountains.
Only a few heads turned to mark it as the caravan picked its way carefully over the broken skree at the foot of the ancient mountain. They were more concerned about finding the road again after detouring thanks to the washed out bridge, possibly the result of the storm that was now only distant noise.
‘Caravan’ was a kindness when used to describe them; three wagons, only one in good repair, and two lines of seven newly taken captives. They were all hardened men and women; bandits by trade, who had bled merchants and travelers for years before the prince’s decree had them hunted down and put to hard labor.
They trudged along in manacles and finger hobbles with their mouths stuffed with cloth and tied with this cord. Rumor said that the bandits harbored wizards in their number. They might have only been rumors, but the guards weren’t taking chances.
A full complement of eight guards rode patrol; five on horses that danced and winged at having to walk on the skree and three on rag thieves; large, flightless birds with thick, stubby beaks and wide feet that made for perfect balance anywhere.
Five more guards manned the wagons; keeping watch on the most valuable prisoners.
“Do we know which one Moenras is in?” Warrick leaned over the table, trying to take in the pewter miniatures representing the caravan, guards and their mounts from every angle.
He, along with Tink, JC, and their friends Ron and Jamie were in one of the back rooms of the Dungeon reserved for gaming. It was a comfortable little room with a huge table, couch and padded, high backed arm chairs. A vending machine stocked with energy drinks, soda and snacks was just outside the door, as was an ingenious little moneymaker in the form of a machine that custom printed and painted miniatures in five different materials.
Unknown to Ron and Jamie, whom the others had met during a nearly disastrous demonstration of full immersion gaming technology, their group’s miniatures were custom created courtesy of Warrick’s powers instead.
JC, in the role of Gamemaster, shook his head. “You know that they put him in the rear wagon here,” He highlighted it on his tablet, which in turn did the same on the tablets of the others. A small sensor box kept track of the physical miniatures and mapped them into the program they were all running, overlaying information on them. That was how he always gamed and he wasn’t changing it because of his best friend’s annoying habit of acting like he could see something different if he just stared at the physical minis long enough.
Taking the hint, Warrick sat back down on the couch next to Tink who smirked at him getting put in his place.
“But,” JC continued, “You haven’t seen any trace of them since they rounded up the independents in Tunda’s Valley.”
“This is going to get messy.” Ron frowned at the set-up. He was of medium height, but skeletally thin with a sharp nose that held up his thick rimmed glasses. Since he’d stopped trying to grow out his thin mustache, he’d started to look rather dapper.
“Will you stop worrying? I’ve got this; my plan is perfect.” Jamie was a big girl, but carried it off well. After a few months as part of the gaming group, she’d started emulating Tink’s hairstyle, but had far more hair than Tink. The result was an elegant twirl atop her head held together by an old fashioned metal comb shaped like a butterfly.
“Or it’ll get Njango killed.” said Warrick with a laugh. Njango was Tink’s character, a shadow rogue of a race of insectile humanoids called the Farn-ri.
Jamie made a face at him and sipped her coffee. “You’re just jealous. Barls’ probably jealous of Njango.”
Barl was Warrick’s dual classed Oakhallowed Elf illusionist/swordsman and he was currently suffering his own indignity.
“Oh, Lillitha is going to hear a lot of new elven curse words.” Warrick warned, already thinking of something for his crotchety and sharp-tongued wizard to say.
Ron reached across the table to slide the bowl of salsa closer to him. “All I’m going to say is; told you so.”
“Yeah, we probably should have figured that the prince’s thugs could track his own, personal horses. I just thought we’d have more time to sell them. I mean we needed to recoup our losses after he stiff us on our fee for escorting him to Gorgarados.”
“And throwing us in jail so no one would find out that he went there to steal a roc hatchling.” Added Jamie.
Warrick nodded. “The guy needs to be dealt with. Who’s for freelancing for the independents once we take down this caravan?” The others all nodded, including Ron.
“If you take down the caravan.” JC reminded with a malicious grin. “Let’s see if your plan works first, because there’s plenty of room on the wagons and the dungeon back at the capital.”
Tink flicked through her character sheet in a separate window, looking at all her mundane items. Njango stole everything she could get her chitinous hands on, all with the excuse that she might need it later. Now, she was pretty sure she would need some of it.
“He really means it too.” She said without looking up. I think we were supposed to let ourselves be dragged down to the dungeon instead of fighting out way out of the city.”
“I can deal either way,” said JC, “But let’s see what you’ve got.”
“Alright then, Mr. GM.” Jamie sat back in her seat, eyes shining with glee. “From where I am, can I tell which of the people on that line is Eli Rhum; that exiled student from the Sorcerous League that was in Tunda’s Valley when the raid hit?”
“Roll detect.” JC replied.
Despite the high tech, their group rolled real dice when they could. Jamie’s were translucent red with white numbers painted on. She took out a twenty-sided dice out of her felt dicebag and rolled them. “Ha! Eighteen, plus my detect, plus elevation is… Twenty-seven.”
JC nodded and highlighted one of the characters in the chained line. “Alright, you spot him. This guy right here.”
Consulting her own tablet, Jamie looked even more pleased. “Excellent, he’s in range. I’m casting invisible knife…”
Lillitha era Thonredar, eighth rank sorceress of the Circle of Forcemasons was not comfortable or happy. She was used to great halls warmed by roaring fires and beautiful clothes and all manner of other comfort. All that was over now, thanks to that thrice-damned prince. To think she’d spent the last few years hoping to court him!
The dog had betrayed her and the others he’d hired to bring him safely to the sacred temple of Gorgarados; attempting to lock them away in order to keep secret his dark designs for the rest of his father’s domain. And because of that, now she was covered in mud, crouching in a crevasse in the rocks, and plotting her vengeance.
Trying to ignore the cold and the wet, the dirty mud and the dust trying to infiltrate her lungs, she turned her thoughts inward, seeking the silvery mist that was force magic in her mind’s eye. With practiced effort, she separated a bit of that gossamer substance from the infinite flow and imposed her will on it, forging it into an impossibly sharp dagger. It appeared, hovering the air in front of her, only detectable by the way the post-rain air condensed on it’s blade and ran off.
Satisfied that she had a firm metaphysical grip on the conjured weapon, Lillitha retrieved a twisted sprig of spring mint from her component pouch and deftly undid said twist. Without any other effort on her part, sympathetic magics cause the sprigs carried by her compatriots to untwist as well.
Now it was time to see if all her careful planning was up to the task.
All four players rolled reaction rolls to see who went first, this despite Ron’s character being in chains.
Jamie rolled highest and groaned in frustration. “Why can’t I roll like that when I need it? Stupid dice. Holding action.”
JC moved the caravan another unit, then looked up at Warrick. “You’re up, bro.”
Warrick nodded. “Okay, here we got: I’m staying in hiding under the rocks and casting Grim Specter in the middle of this group of horses here.” He leaned over the table to point at where he wanted it. “Concealment roll?”
“Do it.” JC agreed.
“Total of twenty, I think that’s good enough. Specter going down right there. Can I get that fifth horse, or just his rider?”
“You’ve got him.”
“Awesome, remember the rules for mounts panicking. Let’s see some will checks.”
Much like Lillitha, Barl was used to warmth and comfort. Unlike her, he had known sixty years of hardship as a mage conscript in the frontier wars to the north before happening upon a nicer life. He wasn’t uncomfortable in the nest of skree he’d hidden himself in, just annoyed at the inconvenience.
It would make him feel so much better thinking about how he would point this out to the no doubt wet and bedraggled Lillitha after this was done.
When he felt the piece of mint twitch in sympathy, a grim smile touched his face. Once more, old man—to battle.
Distract, divide, decimate. That was the essence of the plan. And nothing he knew distracted more than fear. And untested city horses like the fine, silky manes beasts the guards rode weren’t trained to deal with it. His gaze fell on a spot in the midst of them and his mind sank into a special part of his mind, one walled off to hold in the demons.
What he dregged up was a screaming thing of nightmare, a festering scar in his psyche h himself inflicted that he may inflict it on others. Pouring magical energy from the sea of power that dwelt in the roots of the mountain, he wrangled the thing into being.
The manifestation took the form of a nine foot tall cascade of silken smoke, the peak of which blew aside to reveal a bone mask in the shape of a tortured, misshapen skull that howled with all it’s pain and anguish as it touched all within reach with tendrils of its form.
It only lasted a moment, but that was all it took. All four horses nearby broke into panic, two throwing their riders in their mad dash to escape. One of those unlucky souls was trampled in the process. One guards, however, succeeded not only mastering his own fears, but controlling his mount. Drawing steel, he shouted out an alarm before riding forth to find the source of the attack.
“That’s your cue, Tink.” Warrick gave his girlfriend a contemplative look. He knew what the plan called for, but she always had an extra twist to add to it.
She smiled at him, then at JC, her face signaling mischief. “The gravel’s piled lightly enough on the lid that lifting it is a zero effort action at my strength, right?” JC nodded.
“Great, then here’s what happens…”
Tunda’s Valley probably needed every coffin the undertaker could turn out after the raid, but in the chaos following, they probably never realized one was missing. They could take comfort in knowing it was being used to avenge them.
The others had balked at Njango’s idea for her own placing in their plan, but to her, it made perfect sense; why waste effort and positioning time when one could start the fight right in the midst of the enemy. The only downside would be that she would start surrounded, and she had a solution to that too.
Pound for pound, her people were far stronger than humans, so it meant nothing to her to stand up, shrugging the lid of the coffin off along with several inches of the skree she’d been buried under. Instead of her shortswords, however, she was carrying four handkerchiefs, tightly balled around chunks of suet.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Ron asked, in spite of the fact that it was in his favor to let her get away with whatever possible.
“I’ve been eating it all week.” Tink explained. “And if you’ll remember, Njango bought two pounds right before the raid hit—she never had time to eat it.”
“It’s true, she did.” said JC. “But I don’t get the point.”
Tink sat back with a smug look on her face. “Rag-theives are a species of terror birds—predators. And we’ve been tracking the caravan through days’ worth of winter scrub and mountain. There’s no way they aren’t half starved.”
At that, Ron burst out laughing. “A steak gambit? That’s hilarious!”
“Thank you.” Tink gave a little bow in her seat. “Hunger reactions in trained animals is page 158 in the Gamemaster’s Manual, JC.”
Njango threw the suet chunks underhanded at the feet of the rag-theives and two of the beasts went after them hungrily, clacking their beaks at one another and ignoring their riders. The last was wheeled to face Njango, who drew her swords and fell into a ready stance.
Using her actions as a signal, Lillatha took action, sending the invisible knife to neatly cut the cord holding the gag in Eli Rhum’s mouth. The sorcerer only took a brief moment to wonder at his fortune. The next was spent assessing how the guards had been neatly diverted from the captives.
He spat out the filthy rag stuffed in his mouth and brought his hobbled and manacled hands up. A Word of Breaking sent cracks racing through them and in moments, a powerful ally was on the side of the attackers. He set about freeing his fellows.
The action was interrupted by a knocking on the door that preceded the entrance of Molly Greene. She was a in her early thirties, but looked young enough to not stand out among the other, younger staff at the Dungeon. Her dark brown hair hung loose, an early indication that closing time was near.
“Ten minutes, guys.” She said, leaning on the doorframe.
“Is it one already?” asked Jamie.
“Apparently.” Tink said after a quick look at the clock on her tablet.
JC tried to look disappointed, but couldn’t; he’d just been given a week to formulate a scenario that turned that fight back in his favor. “Dramatic cliffhanger then. We’ll get to character advancement after you finish this fight.” He saved the placement of the miniatures on his tablet, then started to break down the map rig.
“Did everyone have a good time?”
There was a general consensus that yes, they did and that everyone looked forward to next session.