So a group of stalwart adventurers found themselves in the Red Acorn Tavern, having recently arrived in the Eichenlands at the Commonwealth frontier citadel of Fort Standish. The usual patrons, a mix of travellers, merchants, pilgrims, and fortress soldiers, ate, drank, and gossiped about local events while Ted Mundersen, the loquacious landlord of "The Nut", held court with the silent accompaniment of his brother and cook Ned, whose eloquent facial expressions served as counterpoint and commentary on his brother's tall tales. While stories were bandied about of the dangers south of the Pilgrim's Highway, a newly arrived elvish bowman by the name of Earilas noticed a flyer posted on the wall of the tavern which read thusly:
"A Call for Fyghtyng Men, Yeomen, and the Stout of Heart. The Offyce of the Ryte Honorable Castellan has warranted Bountys for Monsters, payd upon presentation of Letter of Marque sygned by Captayn Clarence Costygan, Esq. and accompanyed by proof of death. Ynquyre at the West Tower. " Following this was a listing of various fell monsters and the value in gold merits that could be won for their demise.
Intrigued by an opportunity to fill his purse with coin, but knowing that such a dangerous undertaking would require companions, the elf set to asking about the tavern if anyone would be willing to join an adventuring party for the purpose of bounty hunting. Four others answered his call, a halfling sorceror named Dariadan Redkettle, a fighting horseman named Sallum, a bard named Osrogard Osgood, and a snake handling druid named Osborn Serpentus.
The newly formed party then went to see the Captain of the Road Wardens, Clarence Costigan, to obtain their letter of marque. They found him in his office, poring over maps and guard schedules. A sober, considerate man and seasoned campaigner, he looked them over, and agreed to write them their letter, which gave them leave to roam the lands bearing arms, hunting the like of goblins, ogres, gnolls, and worgs for set bounties, and absolved the Commonwealth and the Road Wardens of liability should the group suffer misadventure in the pursuit of their quarry. The letter was signed in Earilas' name, and the hunters set out to earn some coin, for scraping together the 10 gold merit fee for the document taxed the meager resources of the group.
Once the gold had been paid and the letter signed and sealed, Captain Costigan informed them that recently farmlands to the East had been suffering from raids by goblins mounted on great, ravenous worgs, and from scattered bands of gnolls, who at one time had free reign of the northern lands from their strongholds in a place known as the Bleak Valley, but who had recently been routed by an incursion of goblinoids. He said his patrols had often sighted the worg riders, and feared the creatures were scouting for an incursion into the lands around the Fort.
So without much further ado, the group set out into the farmlands surrounding the Fort, to see evidence of the goblin raids and for their tracker, Serpentus, to find a trail to follow. After asking around to the north of the Fort, they set out East, eventually stopping as the sun was going down at the steading of an old farmer named Shmansen, who agreed to put them up in his sod roofed barn for the night. The group stood watch, hoping that perhaps the goblins would show themselves, but all was quiet that night. The next morning Mrs. Shmansen served them a breakfast of eggs, salt pork, and brown bread, and the group conceived of a plan to lure some goblin raiders to them. They purchased a piglet from the farmer and a poke to carry it in, and set out on their way.
In a few hours they had passed from the rolling farmlands to unsettled plains, and from there, into the thick forests of oak and maple that this area was known for. Skilled as he was in landcraft, Serpentus the Druid had little problem finding spoor of the goblin raiders, paw prints the size of saucers from wolves the size of ponies, and the occasional long toed, narrow footprint that bespoke of goblins. They followed the trail deep into the forest, once chancing upon a broken spear, presumably snapped as it's owner batted at low hanging branches while moving at a gallop. The head was a broken sword point lashed to a blackened shaft with ill smelling gut cord, clearly of goblin manufacture.
As the light began to fade on their second day in the field, they settled in for the night, after Serpentus nosed out an area not trafficked by the raiders. They kept a low fire and set watches. On Sallum's watch, the forest echoed with throaty howls, much deeper and bestial than the clear calls of normal wolves, and accompanied by harsh jabbering cries and the banging of spears on shields. The squire awakened his comrades, and they sat up listening to the fearsome cacophany that filled the darkened forest, but no worg or goblin showed themselves that night.
When morning came, the group set out again, skirting the edge of the woods by about a league but moving along the faint trails the raiders ran on their forays into the human farmlands. The party was beginning to become concerned about food, because they had neglected to bring more than a couple of days rations with them for this trek. When the sun began to set, the group decided to put their plan into action, setting out a campfire with the pig roasting on a spit, and then concealed themselves at the edge of the fire's light, save for Serpentus, who stayed by the fire to tend it.
Soon the smell of roast pork indeed attracted attention, but not from the quarry the group was expecting. The sound of snapping twigs, jangling scale mail, and gutteral, growling speech signaled the coming of a band of gnolls, who made a bee line for the fire, their fangs dripping with drool and their glazed eyes alight with hunger. Sadly, none of the group were very adept at concealment, so both sides were well aware of each other, and the battle was joined.
Earilas pulled out a handful of elven arrows and jammed them into the ground before him for easy access, as Osgood the bard struck up a song of courage and readied his crossbow. The elf's first shot struck one of the leading gnolls right in the throat and the beast went down. Next, the halfling Redkettle sprung at the gnolls from their flank and cast a spell that lit the grey oak trunks with a shimmering, rainbow colored corona of light, which stunned the brute nearest to him while the others recoiled, shielding their eyes from the sudden brightness. Sallum leapt upon his trusty horse Bill's back and charged with his guisarme, striking a gnoll in the chest with considerable force and tossing the creature's lifeless body aside like a ragdoll as he swung the shaft of his polearm. Serpentus conjured a deadly viper and cast it at one of the beasts, which yelped in alarm as it suffered the serpent's sting. Finding numbers so diminished from such stiff resistance, the remaining gnolls turned to flee, but were finished off by a combination of arrow fire, a more guisarme work from Sallum, and another corona of shimmering color from the halfling, who proceeded to finish the stunned beasts off with his half spear.
The group dragged the bodies into the light of the campfire and examined them, cutting off the tails as proofs for the 7 Gold Merit bounty per gnoll. Each one also had a few gold Sonnemarks on their person, mostly crudely drilled through and worn as amulets and jewellry. These creatures looked as if they had been starving, probably having had a rough time at the hands of the goblin folk who had overrun their forests. They all bore ritual scars on their faces, the dark lines standing out in sharp relief to their mangy yellow pelts. Sallum claimed a coat of scale mail and one of their shields as an upgrade to his studded leather armor, although it took some cantrips from Redkettle to make it a bit more presentable. The deer hide smock was tanned proficiently enough, but the metal was just random bits of rusted iron and steel laced to the hide with sinew, while the shield was planks of wood lashed together with boiled hide, a crude design of a fanged mouth and glaring eyes painted on it in white clay and red ochre.
The party set out after dragging the bodies to look as if it was the gnoll's camp that had been raided, eating the roast pork for breakfast as they hurried south to leave the forest and get onto the Pilgrim's highway two leagues to the South. They resolved to bring more provisions for a longer trip next time, but for now they wanted merely to reach the villiage of Millford, where the highway and the winding Drachenstak River met, before sunset.
Travel on the highway was fairly rapid, and soon Millford was in sight. Tired and footsore but relieved, expecting to put in to the inn and sleep in a warm bed, the party was taken totally off guard as the overgrown cobblestones of the highway exploded beside them in an attack from a huge, burrowing armored insect with huge, acid dripping mandibles.
The creature lunged for Sallum's horse, and it was only his tremendous skill at the reins that saved him and his mount. The party drew their weapons to battle the monster as the horse wheeled away out of it's reach. The creature's antennae twitched, and it lunged again, this time clamping it's jaws around the Serpentus' midsection with a sickening crunch. The hapless druid fainted in agony and dropped to the ground in a heap as the beast released him and turned to make another go at the meal of horseflesh it had been seeking. Meanwhile, the elf and bard were peppering the creature with arrows, and Redkettle attempted to bedazzle the creature with his spray of colors, but to little avail. The insectoid menace reared back with a retching, gargling sound and unleashed a torrent of foamy yellow fluid that filled the air with a scent similar to rotting pumpkins. Sallum raised his shield just in time as the others dodged and ducked. The gnollish shield burst into smoke as the vile liquid began to dissolve the hide and oaken planks, shattering into a soupy ruin as the horseman hurriedly cast it aside. He struck back at the monster with his guisarme, causing it to squeal and clatter in the depths of it's throat as he struck it's pale, bloated underbelly, while several of Earilas' shafts struck true into the creature's hideous head. Leaking brown ichor, the beast withdrew into the hole it had made in the highway, leaving the party to race to the stricken' druid's side and administer bindings to his wounds before he succumbed to them. They carried him into Millford and sought out the villiage's inn. An oaken post out front carved in the shape of an owl proclaimed the establishment's name.
After negotiating a private room for the price of a gold Merit, as well as a silver Talent to rent a bucket to draw some water from the river for washing up, the party headed to the common room leaving Serpentus to sleep. There, Osgood the bard attempted to sing of the party's exploits with the burrowing monster, but only earned a copper Toil for his troubles, as the song wasn't completely finished. (Details like the monster escaping and the party's druid having his torso crushed sort of diminished the heroic tenor of the piece.) The group was looking to see if they could get a bounty for the creature, because it wasn't listed on the notice they saw back at the Red Acorn. It was suggested that they seek out Millford's Sheriff, Herbert Hellmund, who was the villiage's headman and who reported to the Castellan of Fort Standish.
The group found Hellmund on his front porch, smoking his pipe and whittling, and struck up a conversation. It turned out that the burrowing monster, which the Sheriff referred to as an Ankheg, had been terrorizing the local farmsteads for a week, preying on their sheep and pigs. The villiage had recently driven all of their livestock to the town of Poleton, some fourteen leagues to the West, to protect them from the monsters depredations. It became clear that the emptied hunting grounds around Millford had probably made Sallum's mount an irresistable target for the creature.
Sheriff Hellmund was impressed that they'd managed to wound it, and agreed that if they would undertake slaying the beast, he would write a letter to Captain Costigan warranting a bounty of thirty gold Merits.
Back at the inn, Serpentus awoke from his coma, and set about healing the damage to his body with his druidic powers. Within a day, the group was ready to set out in search of the ankheg.
The party made their way back to the hole in the cobblestones where the creature had attempted to waylay them, and stood studying the hole, which was big enough for a crouching man to pass through. They sent Bill, Sallum's horse, back to the villiage, and steeled themselves to go into the tunnel and try to corner the beast in it's lair. The druid made a strong case that they had gravely wounded the beast in their initial encounter, and that it was probably holing up and licking it's wounds. If they waited for it to heal, it would begin to move about a much broader territory, and would be that much more difficult to find.
So the party climbed down into the darkness, with Earilas' nightvision and a torch carried by Osgood to light the rough dug, winding tunnel. They crept deeper and deeper into the gloom, and soon a low, ominous clattering sounded in their ears, a sound of warning from the wounded monster. Preparing for battle, the group rushed down the tunnel, arriving in a circular chamber where the monster laid coiled upon itself in a puddle of it's dark fluids. Redkettle the halfling darted forward and cast a vial that burst into bright flames as the monster screeched and thrashed. Hearing the wretching sound that presaged it's spray of burning acid, the elf and bard leapt forward and finished the monster off with a volly of arrows as the subterranian chamber filled with acrid, stinging smoke. The group counted themselves lucky that they'd slain the beast before it could unleash it's spray in the enclosed space.
They secured stout ropes to it's hooked tail and dragged it's inert bulk out of it's hole and down the road into the village. There, the villagers, the the sheriff at their head, celebrated their heroes, rejoicing for the slaying of the monster that had been besetting their herds. The party drank well in The Owl, and stayed the night for free. The next day, Serpentus, Redkettle, and Sallum set about carving the dead ankheg up. The druid stated that the armored chitinous plates that covered the creatures back could be fashioned by a leatherworker into lightweight breast plates or small shields. This would allow the druid to wear a type of armor normally denied to one of his calling, so he resolved to save up to have the segments fashioned thusly. They bought a barrel of brine in Millford and shipped the plates back to Fort Standish on the next wagon of supplies, and headed back to the fortress bearing Sheriff Hellmund's letter.
The group of hunters was well pleased. They'd earned some needed coin, and had won the good graces of the villiage of Millford. They resolved to be better prepared for their next foray into the wilderness, which would come soon, since twelve Gold Merits apiece only goes so far in the frontier.
(DM's note. This narrative was culled from hasty notes and memories from last night's game. To my players, if any details have been misreported, I apologise.)
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