Later, on the 16th of Vor, 1329 Avard: The group of them stood in an alleyway in a rich part of town, all clustered around a man in dark red leathers. Tor, the minotaur, held the man up by the scruff of his jacket, as Norion began to question him intently. Norion, Tor, Hrothgar, Trixie, Kerri, and Bjarne all wanted to know why he and his friends snuck into the Lyle House and stole valuables, and mage equipment. Norion, wizard that he was, particularly wanted to know where the few magical items were that had been stolen. The thief had just indicated that the stolen items and monies were inside of a good-sized manor, just across the street.
Norion, his anger rising, began to glow a brilliant white. The glow became so much, that it blinded everyone, lighting up the alley with a light so bright, arms could be seen through closed eyelids. When the bright light was gone -- so was Norion.
The party was stunned for a moment, having expected the wizard Norion to blast the thief into nothingness, or just intimidate him into talking. Unfortunately, Norion's sudden absence left them with even more questions than answers. They hoped that, perhaps, Lok Magius had summoned him back. But they had no time to ponder Norion's absence, as someone was running at them from back in the alleys.
Gabriel had returned from dinner and conversation with the head mage of the Lyle House, only to discover his chest of gold stolen from his room. Using the keen nose of his familiar, a small puppy of considerable intelligence, Gabriel tracked the party as far as he could -- until a bright flash of light signified their presence. He ran up to them, only to find them armed to the teeth, and holding someone in custody.
Bjarne and Hrothgar quickly caught Gabriel up on the situation, even as candles and lanterns began to turn on, inside of the nearby houses. The bright flash of light had awakened a number of people. Tor and Bjarne figured that they had a slim lead on the thieves, already, and when they were unable to get more information out of the thief in red leathers, they began to march straight aways to the good-sized manor, just across the street.
Tor was just about to use the thief as a battering ram, when Gabriel knocked on the door. A moment later, a fellow dressed in exquisite silks and a rapier answered the door. The fellow in silks demanded to know the meaning of the interruptions, exhibiting extraordinary bravery in the face of a defiant minotaur. With his high-born accent and insulting terms, he told the party that they were in violation of the law, and that he would seek justice against the party, through the Lord Reeve -- even as Kerri peed on an expensive carpet imported from half-way across the world.
They recognized the looks that passed between the thief in red leathers, and the high-born in silks -- and so figured them to be playing the party for fools.
The high-born's demands for the Guard, however, had them somewhat confused, especially when a small contingent of the Guard arrived -- and took the side of the high-born, naming him as one 'Master Defeld'. Defeld claimed to have nothing to do with the thief in red leathers, although the Guard lieutenant recognized the thief as one 'Winston', whom had been released from the jails not long before. The lieutenant of the guard demanded that the party wait outside, until the Lord Reeve could be summoned to sort the situation out.
The party began to realize that they might have made a mistake, blundering into the good-sized manor without Cassandra or the Guard to back them up. Tor's status as a member of Firestorm meant that he was in good standing with the law -- but not a part of it. Frustrated and tired of theatrics, they slowly shuffled outside -- after demanding that Winston, in his red leathers, remain in irons.
Everyone milled about outside, under the watchful eye of several of the Guard. Bjarne, Hrothgar, and Kerri, however, managed to slip just out of sight of the Guard, and slipped around behind the good-sized manor (which they had found to be called Kelerin's Manor, after its owner, who ran a curios and furniture shoppe in the better part of town). Hrothgar and Kerri figured that they might be able to pick up the scent of the other two thieves, back behind Kelerin's Manor -- for there had been no sign of their scent inside the reception room of the manor, where they had barged their way in.
The back of the manor had two tall gates of wrought-iron, both of which were locked. Hrothgar leapt up and over one of the gates, and landed in the dense foliage of the manor's gardens. Bjarne landed not too far away, as Kerri climbed up on top of the gate, and stayed there. Maroth, the gas giant, was just up in all its red hues -- throwing the garden into a strange contrast of darkness and blood.
Hrothgar made a strange sound, and then collapsed with a gargling yelp. Bjarne barely caught the huge gnoll, and let out a roar of frustration as Hrothgar's life blood poured through the big man's hands, drenching his arms and his leathers. Kerri had seen nothing, but immediately entangled the entire area, hoping to catch who or what had attacked Hrothgar.
Bjarne saw movement, as someone struggled in the thick foliage against Kerri's entanglement. He roared a challenge, and attacked with his battle axe. A woman with dark hair, and a short sword that exuded darkness, was caught in the entanglement. Bjarne attacked in a fury of blood lust. Hrothgar was dead, his life's blood having been blown out through a ghastly wound that went all the way to his heart.
Tor just heard the furious bellow, and collapsed. The whole time he had held the thief Winston in his hands, the thief had been stabbing him covertly with a hidden dagger. Tor's thick hide had prevented even him from feeling the tiny pin pricks from the tip of the poisoned blade, and Winston had given up, figuring the minotaur immune to poisons. It just took the poison awhile to filter through Tor's system, as the giant collapsed nearly on top of several guards.
The lieutenant and one of his aides ran toward the disturbance, while the other members of the Guard remained behind to keep an eye on the rest of the party.
Trixie, meanwhile, had remained inside the manor -- unseen and unnoticed by all. The tiny sprite listened in horror as 'Master Defeld' spoke with both the thief, and the lone Guard inside -- all three were allied together! At Bjarne's bellow, outside, Defeld made a quick decision -- to mop up all of the evidence, and make the Guard, and the party, disappear. The member of the Guard inside, a dwarf, immediately rushed out to crush as many of the other members of the Guard as he could, even as the shadows began to move. People in dark red leathers were stepping out from beneath the balcony's shadowed alcoves, and their short bows were drawn and ready. The carnage had begun.
On the roof tops, men and women in dark red leathers began to spill out of windows.
In the gardens, several tried to come up a hidden passage, but the entangle foiled their attempts.
Despite this, the grounds began to boil with dark red evil. The whirring sound of fletchings streaking through the air, filled the night. All of the Guard were slaughtered. Three Guardsmen that had been on patrol about the city wall that abutted the back of Kelerin's Manor came to investigate, but before they could issue a cry of warning, they were cut down -- and the assassins had begun to climb the wall to fetch their bodies.
Bjarne, furious beyond thought, grabbed the decapitated head Hrothgar's assassin by the hair, and kicked open the wrought-iron fence's gate -- completely ignoring the entanglement. In a rage of hatred and vengeance, he rushed around the house, ignoring the hail of arrows, and burst into the manor through the front doors. Bjarne threw the head aside, and grabbed a nearby table, rushing forward to attack Defeld, his archers, and several other figures that had come out of hiding within the manor.
One flick of a hidden switch near Defeld had Bjarne tumbling through a trap door. The room he found himself in was filled with enormous scorpions, kept in a marbled pit beneath the manor. Even as the trap door began to reset itself, throwing him into darkness, the scorpions attacked.
Trixie, horrified at everything going on, had flittered out the front door, and up and over the house, to try to warn Kerri and the others. The situation was growing desperate, even as Kerri and the Guard lieutenant and his aide were coming under a hail of arrows. When the Guard lieutenant went down, Trixie scrambled, flying for help. Defeld had stalled them all, earlier, insisting on a priest with power capable of discerning the truth, and the tiny sprite hoped to find the priest en route, with more of the Guard coming.
Gabriel, having answered Bjarne's roar, wound up at Kerri's side, even as the Guard lieutenant's aide went down. Gabriel leapt through a nearby window, winding up in a well-maintained stable that was part of the house's overall design. Keeping his wolf puppy in one arm, he sent a flair of wolves out to attack as many of the assassins as he could, and then used one wolfen spell to ensorcel a nearby assassin -- altering the assassin's mind state, such that he thought Gabriel his friend. Gabriel penetrated even further into the manor, with his assassin 'friend' his guide.
Kerri ran up a tree, her own cat-like familiar holding onto her for dear life. Several assassins tried to shoot her out of the tree, but her return fire was considerably more accurate from the cover of the tree, and considerably more deadly, augmented as much of her fire was, by her own magical missiles.
The situation looked grim, even as the assassins cleaned up all traces of the party's presence, and the presence of the Guard. It took six of them to drag Tor's body up into the house, and to drop him and all the other bodies into the scorpions' pit.
The neighbors, in all of this, had wisely left their windows shuttered, and their doors barred. None dared look out into the street, for fear of becoming fresh victims to the assassins' guild.
Trixie, flying low and fast, finally found her man -- a dwarf in a priest's robes, escorted by several members of the Guard. Her small, rapid-fire voice was almost gibberish to the curious dwarf, until Trixie slowed down enough to spell out, "People dying ahead!"
The priest, Father Garin Grimhammer of the Wolves' Den of Rahne, began to run after the sprite. It was the duty of the priests of Rahne to help maintain order, and to train the Guard. The Guard, for their part, were just as eager to save lives.
Gabriel nearly made it out of the manor, and was looking for any way possible to set the building on fire. There was little time, even with the help of 'his own' assassin. On the way through the kitchens, they threw a huge jar of expensive ale into the oven, and fled even as the kitchen exploded.
Outside, Father Grimhammer had half of the Guard with him go to see to Gabriel and his friend, even as they paused at the front of Kelerin's Manor. Kerri managed to keep one of the assassin's bodies from being cleaned up, and with Trixie's approval, Father Grimhammer called for even more of the Guard...
When the night was done, the Lord Reeve and all the Guard were in arms, and had gone over Kelerin's Manor from top to bottom. Kelerin had escaped, leaving behind his lieutenant, Gaman, to take the fall for the assassin's guild. Of the other members of the guild -- nothing was to be found. The entire guild had escaped.
The scorpions' pit had become the namesake of the assassins, the Scorpion's Guild. Kelerin of Kelerin's Shoppe was apparently the Scorpion himself, master of a guild designed to accumulate wealth, and sew chaos. The High Priestess of Habrem, Area Collata, was brought in to aid the Lord Reeve in his examinations of the living, and the dead. Area's auguries assured her that Hrothgar had work yet to be done, for his spirit reentered his body, the moment her healing songs were done repairing it.
When he died, Hrothgar found himself in a land of souls, stretching as far as the eye could see. A kobold in dark robes, with only its tail and its feet and hands visible, tried to escort Hrothgar to some distant point -- a point that felt comfortable, safe, secure, and was full of the goddess Rahne's purpose. But Hrothgar refused. "I wait here. Friends need me."
Hrothgar sputtered to life, given his gift by Habrem's blessing, or Rahne's will -- or both.
Interviews with the dead, and examinations of the bodies, revealed that all of the Scorpions Guild members had tattoos of scorpions, including the traitorous dwarven member of the Guard who was allied with the guild. (The Lord Reeve ordered Bjarne to execute the dwarf, on the spot.)
Tor was revived with antidotes taken from many of the fallen guildsmen, including Kelerin's fall man, Gaman.
The Lord Count himself went through the scene. On the Lord Reeve's advice, he had the deed to Kelerin's Manor made out to the entire party -- to use them, with their permission, as bait to lure the Scorpion Guild back, for vengeance. The entire Guard was turned out, as were many members of the militia, to keep watch on Kelerin's Manor, the Lyle House, and Kelerin's Shoppe.
Kelerin's Shoppe had been run by an old, retired blacksmith named Roderick -- who spilled all. Kelerin had threatened to kill Roderick's daughter, if the old smith ever spoke. With all the Guard, the priests and priestesses of the city, and even the Lord Count involved, Roderick felt that it was time to reveal as much as he could.
But of where the Scorpion Guild -- and the Scorpion himself -- would go, no one knew.
It was some time after midnight, with the party sitting around the large dining room of Kelerin's Manor, that they had a chance to rest. They wondered where Norion was. They wondered if the assassins would return. They wondered where Cassandra was. And they wondered when they would have their chance, for vengeance. In the meanwhile, the Guard slept upstairs, some of them patrolling the house.
-so ends the early morning hours 17th of Vor, 1329 Avard.
Brandy, Fred, and I had spent a year apart from our friends, and our families, while we were out in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Brandy had not seen her children, except for one brief week of vacation, in well over a year. Finally, the children were returning, having spent the time with her mother-in-law. We refused to allow Brandy to play, and Brandy refused to play, until she had had a chance to spend some time with her two boys, about four and two years of age, if I recall correctly. Cassandra had been left out of the game play, at the end of the last session, because she was also the assistant Chaplain for the Guard (father Grimhammer being the primary Chaplain of the Guard). In her capacities as chaplain, she had been tending to the wounded of the Whiskey, the bar that had been torn up by Trixie's bardic music. For game purposes, Cassandra was still out, healing members of the Guard, when all of this went down at the Scorpion Guild. From her perspective, all of the Guard were activated for some emergency elsewhere in the city, and she was the only person left to help heal the wounded down by the docks. By the time the whole story catches up to her, it will have all transpired, and then she will have to go to Kelerin's Manor herself, to check on Tor and the rest of the party.
Mac apparently had some stomach virus that knocked him down in the middle of gaming. He practically passed out, and after we were assured that he was all right, we wondered whether to keep playing, or not. Essentially, the Deus ex Machinas was getting over-used, but... Mac was feeling bad enough, without having to feel like he was interfering with everyone else's gaming. So, the 'machinery of the gods' went into effect, again, to knock Tor down for a bit.
The hardest part about running a session for nine people, is getting everyone together. An old House Rule of mine is that, "We all play, or no one plays." Unfortunately, that would mean we never play, with a group this large. It sucks even worse, when emergencies happen, or when people get sick. Last time, Fred got a phone called emergency, and we had to use the Deus ex Machina on Gabriel. This time, we used it for Mac, Brandy, and Tristan. Admittedly, it was easier for me to run the smaller group with three members gone, giving me a group of only six people, but, still... It's frustrating, and challenging, to run for such a large group.
There is some hope, however sad it may be. Mac is due to retire, soon, and will then go back home to Illinois. We don't want him to leave, but he has a life of his own, outside the Army, waiting for him in Illinois -- three beautiful girls, a good wife, and an adopted son. Unfortunately, the Army's voracious need for soldiers has prevented Mac from retiring, but his injuries have prevented him from deploying with his unit to Iraq. He sits in a sort of military limbo, unable to go, and unable to stay. His family awaits him, in Illinois -- but until the Army lets him retire, he will have to soldier on.
Tristan, too, is getting out of the service. He's served his initial contract, and looks forward to returning to civilian life in northern Idaho. "And it won't be long, till I, till I, till I get on back hom..."
Once Tristan and Mac have their opportunities to get out of the Army, our little group with shrink from nine, to seven. It will still be a challenge to run for seven characters. I'd feel more confident about it, if everyone weren't pressuring me to take on an additional two members -- Dallas Garret and Edward Shearer. Dallas would play a straight fighter, and Edward a straight rogue, both of which the party could use. If they were to join, now, I'd have eleven characters -- far too many to manage, no matter what my friends say. ("C'mon, Joe! You can do it! We have faith in you!") It's far less a matter of faith and ability, and more a matter of how much of a drain on my mental resources it is.
On a special note... I told my guys they could have ECL3 character, when all of this began. Carl opted for a feral gnoll ranger, +1 for being a gnoll, +1 for being feral, and +1 for one level of ranger. He paid for that, dearly, when he ran into the assassin in the back of the house. It was a 5th-level rogue, with a sword of subtlety and mithral mail. The rogue's first sneak attack brought him down to 1 hit point, but Carl wasn't paying attention to his total, thinking of himself as a 3rd-level character, and not a 1st-level ranger. The second sneak attack had a bit more damage, and put him at -12 hit points, killing him. If he had retreated, or called for medical aid, or any of a number of things, while he was at 1 hit point, he would have lived. Also, being a 1st-level character and raised from the dead, meant a permanent loss of 2 Constitution points (dropping him from 18, to 16).
Carl's character died, and I left it up to him to decide whether to have Hrothgar raised from the dead. He decided to do so, but... His 'soul brother', Bjarne, is in a similar position of having less hit points than a 3rd-level character would have. Which is more powerful, then -- a higher level character, or a lower level character with all kinds of abilities. Note that Hrothgar's Fast Healing (2) helped him not in the least in this case, although Bjarne's immunity to poison (because of his half-elemental template) saved him considerable trouble.
In short, we'll have to see, in the long run, which group of characters survives -- the full ECL3's with 3rd-level characters, or the multi-classes critters, like Kerri, a 1st-level sorcerer, 1st-level druid, 1st-level Ticata.
And the next time someone dies, there might not be a cleric nearby with favorable intentions...
Ah, yes; and one more thing -- the "1,501" experience points... I can't believe he did this, but in character, Fred/Gabriel said, "Wait! Don't break the door down, just yet. I have a plus five bonus to my search checks!" Everyone looked at Fred, and mentally whopped him upside the head. I deducted one experience point from the knuckle-head, all in good jest and fun. He realized how foolish that sounded, so we let it go at that. Gabriel would not have been able to make 4th-level, though, had I not pushed in that one extra experience point. I'm a nice guy, though.