Hungry Like the Wolf
...or, the search for Xitaqa goes to the dogs!
Taras shrugged, seemingly uninterested.
Vandelay remained impassive, but Belgarath folded his arms across his chest in frustration, and Caasi shifted uneasily on her feet. Kane’s eyes narrowed as the elf explained, “It is important. It might be where your uncle is… detained.”
“I am sorry,” Taras said, his expression more drawn, “The name means nothing to me.”
The one-armed servant, Stellios, passed the man and elf carrying a crock pot.
“What name?” the balding man asked, puffing slightly.
Belgarath turned his eye on Stellios, “A name that none here seem to know: Xitaqa…” the Mage offered, saying the word as if conjuring.
“Gesundheit!” Stellios replied, grinning. None of the party members appeared to find his remark humorous.
“You misunderstand, human,” Vandelay interjected, “We are searching for the ‘ruins at old Xitaqa’ that the elderly crone, Babushka, said the goblins have taken Stephan to…”
Stellios heaved the crock on to a nearby shelf, then idly scratched his bald pate, “Eh… if you can’t find it, why don’t you ask the Horse-man of the Moor?”
Taras let out a sharp, barking laugh, “As if such an old wives-tale would help us! My grandmother would have suggested such a thing, were she still alive, but you, Stellios…?”
Stellios’ expression became more serious, clearly perturbed at being mocked, “Well, why not? Have you found anyone else who knows?”
“Pfagh! And a ‘protector of the horses’ is going to help the horse-traders, yes?” Taras shook his head in disgust, “Then my uncle is truly lost,” he said with finality, turning and walking away.
There was a pause as the man left, then Caasi asked, “How do we find this ‘Horse-man of the Moor’…?”
19th of Sviftmont to 30th Sviftmont, AC 999
Characters: Caasi (Cleric 3), Fodora (Fighter 1, Caasi’s Henchwoman), Belgarath (Mage 3), Mearl (Fighter 2, Belgarath’s Henchman), 3 War Dogs belonging to Belgarath, Kane (Elven Ranger 3), 2 Hunting Dogs and 1 War Dog belonging to Kane, Vandelay (Elven Spellsword 1), Roland (Normal Man 0, Vandelay’s Henchman)
Mortal Wounds: None!
Levelled: Caasi reached 4th Level
The party spent a day asking around Sukiskyn to see if anyone had heard of Xitaqa. While none had, the man-servant, Stellios, offered an old legend of the “Horse-man of the Moor” as a possible source of information (which Taras dismissed), that the adventurers assumed to be some kind of crazy druid. Pyotr’s daughter, Irina, pointed out that the word “Xitaqa” wasn’t Traladaran, but that the Traldar forbearers of her folk had once inhabited all the river-valleys of the Grand Duchy, before the Great Beastman Invasion.
Unable to think of any other way to divine the location of the ruins, the party headed for Helix, both in hopes of finding more information about Xitaqa, as well as discerning the secrets of the enchanted items they had recently realised they were carrying.
While passing through Helix, Kane and Vandelay stopped briefly to approach the goggle-eyed local sage, Mazzahs the Magnificent, and asked him about both the enchanted shield they had found in the Wolfskull lair, and the origin and location of Xitaqa. While Mazzahs could not be certain of the shield’s provenance, he surmised Alfheim as the most likely place of origin. He knew it was enchanted, but not the details of its dweomer. On the subject of Xitaqa, Mazzahs had considerably more to say…
While the sage didn’t know the exact location of Xitaqa, he recognized the word as being derived from the dead language of what he believed was a long-extinct progenitor race, pre-dating even the Traldar, and responsible for the construction of many of the ruins that now sat in out-of-the-way places in the Duchy. This long-gone race had even had a hand in the construction of the Barrowmaze, if the artefacts Mazzahs had collected were any indication. They had also enchanted many protective artefacts created in silver, and in jade. The Sage had seen enough of this race’s dead language to know that Xitaqa meant city of the branch, or fork (of a tree).
The group left Helix and carried on to Kelvin, Belgarath stopping long enough to purchase another War Dog from the market, as well as a trained Hawk. He and Caasi then left the city headed for Guido’s Fort, while Kane and Vandelay stayed in Kelvin to find and consult a sage on the questions Mazzahs the Magnificent had been unable to answer.
The elves’ search was not in vain, and after lining some palms with gold, they connected with a Mage named Reticulo, who was visiting the city from Darokin in pursuit of esoteric research. Unfortunately, Reticulo had never heard of Xitaqa, but he was considerably more familiar with Alfheim than Mazzahs. He told the two elves that the shield bore mighty defensive enchantments, and that few such specimens existed outside of Alfheim. No doubt the elves of The Forest Kingdom would pay dearly to return the shield to their people. In spite of this, it was decided that Vandelay would bear the shield ( making the Spellsword’s already formidable AC even higher! ).
Meanwhile, Caasi and Belgarath made the uneventful journey to Guido’s Fort, only to discover a buzzing beehive of activity. The number of militia present had noticeably increased, and they were actively drilling on the parade grounds. The pair quickly gathered coins and an enchanted cloak from the hidden chest in Belgarath’s townhouse, then sought out Ivana Boritsa, Reeve of Guido’s Fort, to determine the source of all the activity.
Ivana told them that bandit activity had increased markedly on the road around Penhaligon, and that extra militia drawn up in defense of the Fort were now being used to patrol the roads and scour the nearby countryside for the source of the bandit scourge. In the meantime, there had been no further abductions, and two other parties had crossed the River to the Hill; the first, in late summer, had returned unharmed but seemingly bearing little of value. The second, some weeks ago, had not returned, and as yet no one knew their fate.
The pair left the Fort behind with the uneasy feeling that the problems in the region were coming to a head, but with no clear sense of what might happen next. They reached Kelvin and reunited with their companions, exchanging much of their accumulated coinage and treasure for the trip back to Sukiskyn. Belgarath the Miser did his best to secure favourable terms, but in the end found himself outmatched by the slick money changer (the first time Belgarath had encountered someone with a higher rank in Bargaining!).
As the party went through their stash of items to sell and trade, they also turned up a black, glassy amulet they had taken from around the neck of the Dark Cleric under the Ruined Monastery. Realising it might be a potent embodiment of the forces of Entropy, they decided to take it to the Church of Karameikos in Kelvin for Caasi’s superiors to deal with.
Upon entering the cathedral, an argument broke out over who would be the one to present the amulet. Fearing mere possession of the thing would taint the bearer in the eyes of the Church, the amulet was tossed around like a hot potato as everyone tried to absolve themselves of responsibility for possession of the thing. Exasperated, Caasi finally relented, and nervously approached the prelate…
“Um… excuse me?” she stammered.
“What troubles you, my child?”
“Well, I have this friend… and they have this thing, that they’re not sure about. They got it someplace dark and dirty, and they’re worried about what other people will think if they find out what they have…”
“My child,” the Prelate said, soothingly, “For a reasonable donation such mortal ailments, as you – or your ‘friend’ – have, can be cured by the Immortals…”
“Okay, I… wait, what? You think I’m diseased?!”
Grasping the Prelate’s confusion, Caasi produced the obsidian unholy symbol from her tunic, and handed it to the Cleric.
The Cleric tut-tutted as he turned it over in his hands, before pronouncing it to be a symbol of He Who Shall Not Be Named. The Prelate drew out where it had been found, and then had to explain to Caasi the nature of Sinkholes of Evil, places where the power of the Sphere of Entropy bled through into the material world, and the importance of destroying them when found. Seeing the young Cleric was completely baffled, he went on to explain the nature of the Dark Triad to which Orcus belonged, and their lingering worship in the shadowed places of the Grand Duchy. Seeing his impromptu pupil wide-eyed and overwhelmed, the Prelate chided her for not attending to her spiritual studies, then promised to dispose of the unholy symbol.
“Are you going to throw it into a volcano, or something?” Caasi said, excitedly.
“I am going to whack it with my mace until it breaks.”
“Oh.” Caasi said, more than a little let down.
Relieved of their small burden, the party regrouped and headed back to Sukiskyn. Belgarath made one last stop at a glassblower’s workshop on their way out of Kelvin, as he had a special purchase in mind. Amazingly, the glassblower had what the Mage was looking for, in the form of a beautifully crafted glass eye ( Reserve XP! ).
“We must forgo such distractions, and keep our eye on the prize,” Kane admonished the Mage, but, as ever, Belgarath was immune to humour.
Arriving back in Sukiskyn, the party went to Stellios in hopes that his ‘Horse-man of the Moor’ might yet help them find the information they needed.
“How do we find this ‘Horse-man’ of yours?” Belgarath asked the servant, his eyes pointing in different directions.
Stellios seemed flustered, and uncertain where to look, “Well… you must travel on to the high Moor…” he began.
“And then,” the servant continued, “At midnight…”
“You have to whistle…”
“For three nights…”
“While standing on one leg!”
“…you can’t be serious.”
Stellios was entirely sincere, however, as his last attempt at humour with Belgarath had fallen completely flat.
Resigned to the ritual, the party packed their horses and wagon, and headed for the far end of the grasslands, near to the ruins of Segenyev. There they camped, setting a watch by the light of the pitiful fire they made with what little brush they could find. The Spellsword, Vandelay, took the midnight watch with his Henchman, Roland, and was stuck standing one foot for some thirty minutes, whistling elven opera into the wind and waking everyone, until forced to stop as his leg grew sore. The remainder of the night passed without incident.
The second day Vandelay and Roland built a turf fort to provide a more defensible position. Later that afternoon, Kane spotted a large, tawny cat slinking through the grass towards their camp. He approached, and as he did, noticed a second large cat sneaking in. Mearl moved to deal with the second animal, but the Elven Ranger waved him off, slowly moving towards the animal, and attempting to befriend it...
I asked Kane’s player how he intended to do this, and his response was to hold out his fist, pinkie and thumb extended, then waggle his hand slowly while saying, “…wowwwwww-wowwwww-wowwwwww…” a la Crocodile Dundee. Unfortunately, even with Friend of Birds and Beasts, the Reaction Roll came up a 5, and both mountain lions ran off.
Disappointed, the party set watches for the night, and waited for Vandelay to whistle elven opera.
As the Spellsword stood lonely vigil on one leg, whistling, the sound of hoofbeats came rolling in from the darkened plain. As they approached, the party could see a group of horses, with a rider on the lead horse. As they horses came into the meagre light cast by the party’s fire, they were shocked to find the lead horse did not bear a rider, but was, in fact, a centaur!
Vandelay stepped forward to speak, but before he could, the centaur made sounds that were like nothing so much as whinnying. Amazingly, the party’s own horses pawed the ground with their hooves and tossed their heads as they responded in kind. Only after this strange exchange did the Horse-man appear to acknowledge the party.
“Who are you?” the Horse-man asked.
“I am Vandelay, Spellsword of the Callarii people, and these are my sworn companions. We were told we might summon your aid in this manner...”
The centaur nodded, then introduced himself, “I am Loshad. I am, and have long been… the guardian of the horses of this plain. But, tell me,” he asked, “…why are you standing on one foot?”
Chagrined, Vandelay dropped his leg before speaking, “We wish to know the location of the ‘ruins at old Xitaqa.’ Can you tell us where this is?”
Loshad seemed to consider the group before replying, “I know this place. And I can tell you it’s location…”
The tension melted from the group with this news, but then Loshad continued, “…and I will do so, provided you agree to two conditions!”
Wary, but hopeful, Vandelay enquired, “And what are your conditions?”
“First, you must bring to me, five days from now, in this place, the heads of Bailakask, and her son, Kalkask. They are skinchangers that prey upon the herds under my protection, and are mortal enemies of the horses. I will tell you where they lair…”
“And the second condition?” Vandelay asked.
“That you set these horses you have free to roam the plain within one month.”
There was considerable consternation at this, as the party had only recently acquired their steeds, but as Loshad’s offer was the best lead they had, it was decided they should accept. Loshad explained how to find the “skinchangers” lair, and then Belgarath asked, “What advice would you give in confronting these skinchangers?”
“They and their wolf-pack hunt by night. If you approach the lair then, most of them will be away on the hunt. That is the time to strike!”
Loshad departed, and the party began discussing plans. They possessed few enchanted weapons, with Caasi’s Ebon Mace, and Kane’s handful of Black Fletched Arrows the extent of their enchanted arsenal. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was risky to try and reach Helix to purchase silver weapons, and that Kelvin and back would be impossible in the time they had. Remembering that the smith from the destroyed lumber camp at Ilyakana had settled at Sukiskyn, Belgarath came up with a cunning plan.
The party gathered all the silver coinage they could, nearly 1,000sp in all, then dropped all the gear they could afford to spare in the wagon. Horses were loaded for fast travel, and the party left the wagon behind, conducting a forced “march” back to Sukiskyn. They arrived in a single exhausting day. The group immediately had the smith commence work on silver arrowheads, sling bullets, and a silver spear head, all made from the melted remains of the silver coinage the party had been carrying.
With two full days rest behind them, and a handful of silver weapons, the party headed on horseback to the site of the Werewolves’ lair. Arriving in the vicinity, north of Segenyev, the group travelled along a line of bluffs as evening approached, finding numerous wolf-tracks. Skilled as ever, Kane followed the tracks with his Hunting Dog to lead the group within sight of a cave. The party moved upwind of the cave, then Belgarath sent his owl Familiar, Stikini, to perch and watch. Well after dark, the owl returned, and reported that a number of wolves, one of them very large, had left the cave and headed west onto the Moor.
The party waited in darkness and silence for most of another hour, before leaving their horses behind (attended by Roland) and approaching the cave entrance. The opening was low, meaning all would have to duck slightly, and cut through the exposed sandstone face of a bluff. Moving into the opening, the party could see what appeared to be the skulls of horses, mounted on wooden pegs on either side of the tunnel. There was a low stench in the air, reminiscent of corruption. They could see the other end of the tunnel a dozen feet away, with the light of the starry sky as a backdrop.
Passing to the far end, the party’s movement was brought to an abrupt halt at the sound of a low, rumbling growl. A torch was thrown into the space beyond, illuminating two dark-pelted wolves, hackles raised, growling at the party’s approach. Moving to attack, the party released their dogs, and a howling, yelping melee began between the animals. Kane’s Hunting Dog was borne down by the Wolves, but the wolves themselves were killed by the party in turn. Three more pairs of eyes bloomed in the darkness beyond the light of the guttering torch, as the remainder of the wolf-pack present leapt to defend their den. These, too, were quickly cut down by the party, after which Belgarath moved to the aid of Kane’s injured Hunting Dog. His immense skill meant the dog would survive with no permanent injury, but would play no further part in any battles that night.
Belgarath got a decent roll on the Mortal Wounds table, then used his Animal Husbandry to cure the resulting Mortal Wound.
The group was now standing at the end of a slightly winding box canyon, open to the sky above, with steep walls some thirty feet high. The left-hand wall of the canyon was pierced by cave entrances at irregular intervals, some five in all. Halfway down to the canyon’s far end at the top of the wall on the right stood what appeared to be a figure, overlooking the canyon’s floor. A faint glint could be seen from its eyes. Stikini flew over to investigate, and discovered an unusual statue of a robed, jackal-headed man. The statue’s eyes gleamed with the twinkle of inset gems. Communicating this to his master (“Whoooo! Whoooo!”), the owl then took watch over the canyon.
Kane checked the nearest cave, and, finding nothing but dust and chewed bones (along with the stink of an animal den), carried his injured Hunting Dog inside to rest. After he did so, Kane and Fodora found a path and headed up to the statue to cover the floor of the canyon with their bows, while Caasi began searching the remaining caves.
It was at this point that Vandelay’s player was forced to leave, as he had a hard stop at midnight. The remainder of the group decided they wanted to continue, and Vandelay’s player agreed to have me NPC Vandelay, though he was more than a little concerned by our good-natured jibes about pushing the playerless elf to the front!
Caasi’s search turned up dust and bones in most of the caves, but one, neater than the rest, held a chest. Unlocked, the chest contained some tattered clothes, as well as a sizeable stash of coins, jewellery, and gems. An expensive saddle turned up in the final cave. Badly chewed, its silver gilt and fittings were nevertheless worth salvaging. While the caves were being searched, The Miser attended to prising the gems from the eye-sockets of the jackal-headed statue, determined to leave no treasure behind.
The canyon thoroughly looted, the party began their standard process of concocting a Rube Goldberg-eque plan to ambush the remainder of the pack upon their return. Kane, Fodora, and Belgarath would stand on the rim beside the statue, able to cover the floor of the canyon, a rope secured to the base of the statue coiled at their feet, the archers armed with silver arrowheads; Vandelay (playerless) would hide in the cave by the entrance, ready to cast Summon Berserkers to prevent the pack’s retreat; the wolf corpses would be piled in a heap at the farthest point in the canyon that could be seen from the entrance; the War Dogs would be kept quiet at the dead-end of the canyon, out of sight of the entrance, but within earshot of their master; and Caasi and Mearl would stand with a shuttered lantern on the path up to the statue, flasks of military oil at the ready, the former armed with a few silver sling bullets, the latter with a few silver bolts and a slivered spear. They would be unable to see the entrance to the canyon, but the bodies of the pack members would hopefully serve as a lure to draw the pack into the ambush.
After a few hours of waiting, a lone voice broke the silence, approaching the cave entrance. The sound echoed weirdly as it passed through the tunnel, and was joined with growls and yapping.
“…mother?” the voice said, as the approaching sounds abruptly ceased.
“Whooo! Whooo!” Stikini called, telling his master what the party already knew: the wolf-pack had returned!
Kane tossed a pebble down the far side of the canyon, the rattle echoing off the sandstone walls.
“I know you’re here…” the voice said – it was low, smooth, commanding – “…why don’t you come out, and we can talk, like… men?”
Kane threw another pebble towards a different point on the canyon wall.
The sounds of sniffing came from the entrance, “I can smell you…” the voice continued, “Your stink is thick in the air!”
Worried that the wolves would smell Vandelay near the entrance, Belgarath whispered across to Mearl, trying to convince his Henchman to walk out into the pack’s line of sight. The Fighter’s eyes were wide with fear, and he merely shook his head in refusal.
In spite of his tremendous Loyalty, Mearl failed his Morale Check when asked to face the terrifying skinchangers!
With the skinchangers refusing to take the bait of the piled wolf corpses, the party was becoming desperate. Thinking quickly, Belgarath cast Ventriloquism and spoke from the pile of dead wolves, “You have committed great crimes!”
There were shuffling footsteps, “Show yourself!” the voice snarled.
Belgarath continued to speak from the wolves’ bodies, “You could have stopped and been ignored, but now you must be ended!”
“You come here and threaten us in our lair?! When I find you…” followed by a few more shuffling steps and the sounds of sniffing.
Hoping to finally lure the pack forward, Caasi took the brave (or foolhardy) decision to step forward, and could see the packs’ eyes glowing by the starlight towards the entrance of the canyon. The silhouette of a lone man stood in the lead. Caasi lifted her now un-shuttered lantern, casting the man in sharp relief. He tensed, shouting, “You have violated our lair, and now YOU DIE!”
The man lunged forward, and as he did, his features ran like melting wax. His jaws distended, massive fangs erupting. His legs cracked and doubled back on themselves, as he landed at a run, and a great, shaggy black pelt erupted from his body. Now fully a wolf, the beast charged Caasi, who let out a small squeak as she nearly soiled her armour.
We’re not certain, but we think Caasi’s player may have pooped herself at this point, too. Fortunately, the party won Initiative.
Caasi and Mearl ( who is very slow ) turned and ran for the path up to the statue. Kane and Fodora loosed their crude slivered arrows at the Werewolf’s back, and while Kane bounced his off the canyon wall, Fodora planted hers between the Werewolf’s shoulders!
Caasi’s player rolled a 20 for Fodora’s attack, then rolled the maximum, 6+1, for damage!
Belgarath unleashed the dogs who sprinted into combat with the werewolf, then cast Magic Missile, further wounding him. Badly injured, the werewolf lashed out, throwing the dogs ( who could not injure him ) aside as he fled to the nearest cave, Fodora hitting the fleeing werewolf with another held shot. The wolf-pack then charged the party’s dogs, swirling into an unruly mass as the two packs engaged each other. An enormous, grey wolf, far larger than the rest, broke from the others and ran to the base of the canyon wall below the statue, transforming into an unclothed woman with the sound of tearing gristle. The stout woman began scaling the rock face towards the archers!
Seeing the approaching Bailakask, Kane held up a flask of military oil that Belgarath lit, then hurled it at her, spattering Bailakask with a small amount of flaming oil. Undaunted, and cursing floridly, the woman continued her ascent. Back at the canyon’s entrance, Vandelay ( run by me ) came out of his cave and cast Summon Berserkers, the group moving to cut off the Werewolves’ escape route.
The trap now sprung, the party did their best to finish the Werewolves. Kane and Fodora fired at the climbing Bailakask ( who blew her Initiative Roll with a 1! ) with slivered arrows as she neared the rim, injuring her as the remainder of the military oil burned off, doing little more than reddening her skin ( the military oil had only inflicted a total of 3hp damage ). As Bailakask reached the top and began to clamber over, Belgarath cast Uncanny Gyration on her, ripping her from the face of the cliff, and hurling her to the ground below, landing her in a pool of military oil that had been lain before the wolves attacked.
I had thought that Uncanny Gyration would be a key part of any plan, using it to potentially render one of the Werewolves helpless and ready to be turned into a pincushion, but it seems not to have occurred to Belgarath’s player (who regularly laments the “uselessness” of his Mage) until the middle of the battle!
Meanwhile, after a shouted argument ( by the players, as well as the PCs; Belgarath’s player trying to convince Caasi’s player to pursue Kalkask into the darkened cave before he could heal himself ), Caasi ran back down the path to the dark cave Kalkask had fled into. Standing in the cave mouth, Caasi raised her lantern in time to watch the once-again human-shaped werewolf finish an entreaty to Entropic Immortals, before being overwhelmed by a stiffening sensation across her entire body. Fortunately, the power of the Church of Karameikos was with her, and she shook off the dark enchantment ( made her Save versus Spells with an 18, throwing off Hold Person! ). Once again panicked by narrowly avoiding death, Caasi turned and fled, Kalkask transforming back into an enormous wolf and pursuing her. The werewolf easily outdistanced her, savaging her legs from behind ( for 7 damage, raising the fear of Lycanthropy ).
Back near the statue, Bailakask had transformed back into her form of a monstrous grey wolf, rendering her immune to most harm ( she finally won Initiative, no easy feat against Kane who was at +3 to Initiative Rolls! ). The Elven Archer fired a flaming arrow at the military oil the mother werewolf had been dumped in, lighting it on her, to no effect. As she struggled helplessly, lifted off the ground by The Mage, Kane fired a final silver arrow at her, piercing her muzzle and ending Bailakask’s struggles.
As the party’s dogs slowly tore the wolf-pack apart, Caasi turned to defend herself from Kalkask, while Mearl lumbered up to aid her with his crudely slivered spear. Caasi’s enchanted Ebon Mace failed to connect, but the ever-reliable Mearl slammed his spear home into the Werewolf’s side, eliciting a howl of pain. Enraged, the werewolf turned on the man-at-arms, savaging his spear-arm ( 5 points of damage, once again raising the spectre of Lycanthropy ). The pair struggled with the beast, failing to connect, but avoiding further harm as the werewolf scrabbled against Caasi’s magic shield in vain. Throwing the beast off, Caasi brought down her mace, crushing the Werewolf’s skull, while at the same instant, Mearl stabbed his silver spear through its heart ( the two tied for Initiative, and each inflicted enough damage for a kill ). Without a sound, Kalkask fell dead at their feet.
Panting in the silence that descended, the party realised they had triumphed!
We immediately broke for the night, as it was now 2am, to leave all the housekeeping to our next session.