The Kingmaker

"Enter the Stolen Lands, a wilderness claimed by nobles, bandits, and beasts alike. Into this territory the fractious country of Brevoy sends its emissaries, tasking them with subduing the lawless folk and deadly creatures that have made it a realm of savagery and shame. Beyond the last rugged frontier stretches the home of voracious monsters, capricious fey, wily natives, and bandits who bow to the rule of a merciless lord none dare defy. Can the PCs survive the Stolen Lands, bring their dangers to heel, and lay the foundations of a new kingdom? Or will they just be one more fateful band, lost forever to the ravenous wilds?"

The Stolen Lands, a wild lawless place awaiting the hand of strong justice. A politically ambiguous place where many parties vie for control. Into this cauldron of woe walk five heroes-in-the-making to create their own nation. Patriots—but to what cause?

Kingmaker is a Pathfinder Adventure Path role playing game published by Paizo Publishing under the terms of the Open Game License. It provides a rich backdrop for a group of pioneers as they attempt to bring civilization to a wild, untrammeled land. This website is not published, endorsed, or specifically approved by Paizo Publishing.

This blog represents the letters of one of these characters, Marquand, a bitter, righteous man—an Inquisitor defending his faith in the deity Erastil against all the enemies of civilization.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Letter Two: The Old Man

The next day we headed east where, in a quiet meadow, we found Bokken’s hut. The old man was sitting out front, plucking at some sort of stringed instrument.

“You boys got my fangberries?” he growled as he suspiciously watched our approach.

“Not yet,” Cane said.

“Then get off my land!” He waved his instrument at us threateningly.

Not wanting to kill a demented old man we continued on our way. For the rest of the day we crossed the undulating plain. We camped by a spring, telling ghost stories around the campfire. I sat the last watch before dawn vowing to learn alarm the next chance I get. I fed my horse, Autolycus, while eating my own groats, and then we headed southeast, the sun rising to my left over the scrub and grassland where we traveled.

More plains without much activity besides the buzz of the insects, although Piea did find an ornate pearl-inlayed gold brush for her thorny hair. She cares more for her axe than she does for herself, as befits a fighter. Let this be a lesson for you, little Pino—always take care of your tools.

On the third day we headed southeast but again saw very little. I thought about how, with a little water diverted from the river, this area could bloom with farms and ranches. But for now there is nothing here except for the large black bird cawing mockingly as it watches us from above, one wing marred by a jagged red spot.

We were just thinking of where we could stop for the night when the land began sloping downwards. Soon the horses’ hooves were splashing in murky water as we entered dank swampland.

I became more uneasy the further we traveled into it, Autolycus was skittish, very unlike that stolid animal. We had just come upon what looked and smelled like a large midden when it improbably rose from the fetid waters.

“Bluarrgh!” It roared. “Bluarrgh!”

“A shambling mound!” Lev gulped, blanching.

“He’s kind of famous around these parts,” Cane added for our benefit.

“Is that so. . .” Piea frowned as we dismounted. "is he single?"

As I quieted Autolycus, Cane let out a roar as the thing suddenly attacked him, woody rib dense and hard.

“We better run,” cried Lev, his voice quavering like a schoolboy’s.

“Yeah,” Cane agreed, a great wet green-brown streak along the side of his head, blood trickling from his ear.

Ignoring them, Piea power-attacked but somehow missed the moldering heap as it doddered toward her. She backed away cautiously, as did Kelm, supporting Cane as they went. Lev struck with a ray of frost, temporarily blinding the beast, then retreated further. Grunting with pain, Cane shot it with his longbow, windbreaker. I tried commanding it to flee but it shrugged me off like a dog sheds water. It then blindly missed a ragged blow to Piea’s head. Her counterblow sliced deeply into the stinking pile with no obvious effect, then Kelm attacked, as did Lev. Cane and I futilely plunked arrows into it.

Realizing that it was too powerful we started withdrawing but the mound paced us ferociously. With Kelm badgering her for not power-attacking a second time Piea suddenly turned on the beast. Chastened, the rest of us continued plinking at it steadily, “Stick and move!” Cane hollered, as we surrounded the beast, its limbs flailing at us grotesquely, slapping Cane straight in the gob. It couldn’t focus its attention on any one of us. I stepped in front of Cane to protect him from further damage.

Piea stood toe to . . . root with the thing, great axe flying like an acolyte trimming a hedge until it finally stopped moving. “It’s dead!” she shouted triumphantly, raising her arms in triumph.

“It’s like I saw it into the future,” Kelm, the oracle, boasted.

Cane backtracked to its lair (to be honest, anyone could have followed the trail of that smell) where we found remnants of its victims and a few pitiable coins: 24 gp, 10 sp, 34 cp, which we shared, although I troth my share to victims of the autumn plague. The extra coppers, we decided, would go to buying donuts for the good folks at Oleg’s.

We spent the night well away from the marsh and the next day headed west across the unending plain, which rolled in all directions like crossing Lake Reykal in a small boat. I kept alert by searching the horizon, seeing nothing but our black friend circling overhead. I found myself nodding with the boredom and the heat. That’s when I heard Cane exclaim from up ahead and I saw in the distance one small hill on which a lone oak tree stood vigil, a crow’s claw scraping the sky.

The tree itself was nothing special except that it was the only living thing for many miles around. The earth at the base of the tree looked if as it had been recently disturbed. Kelm expressed doubts that this was the tree we were looking for even as we uncovered a bundle wrapped in cloth. Eagerly, we laid it on the dry grass nearby and unfolded the cloth. It contained:
  • wand of burning hand, 4 charges
  • masterwork dagger
  • silver ring, 75gp
 Finally there was a waterdamaged spellbook with a handful of legible spells:
    • identify
    • mage armor
    • reduce person
    • silent image
    • unseen servant  
    I said a quick prayer for the ones who had left the items here, hoping they don't belong with the righteous.

    We argued for awhile over whether or not to keep the book while Kelm obsessed over our trail rations. Lev claimed the wand. To please Kelm we partook in the lamentable trail rations, although they were gummy and leathery at once, an unusual combination. I would have preferred to wait for Cane’s rabbit stew tonight.

    We continued riding through the same sparse landscape, searching always for the sycamore tree until once more we stood before our river, a tributary of the Sellen. The river is wide here and would have proven difficult to cross except that, after traveling along the bank for a time, we came upon a place where a thick green rope crossed the water. An aged, rotted sign announced the place as Nettle’s Crossing 5 coppers. A rusted bell hanging on a nail nearby. Cane shook it clattering, like an angry schoolmarm, but no one arrived.

    Suddenly, out of the depths of the river rose a hideously rotted corpse, skin glistering like a street vendor’s mackerel at day’s end. It approached us steadily, rising from the water like an offended prosecutor, pointing its finger accusingly. “You. Are. Not. My. Tormentors!” it cried. “Throw. The. Stag. Lord’s. Body. Into. The. River. That. I May. Look. Upon. His. Death. . . . Or. You. Will. Join. Me. Instead!”

    There was not much we could say to that, dear girl, except, “It’s on our list of things to do.” Then Nettle—I assume that’s who it was—sank back into the murk.

    Cane wanted to remain on our side of the river but Kelm quickly pointed out that to reach the Stag Lord we’d have to cross eventually so we each paid 5 copper to cling to the moss-slick rope. I'm sure you’ve already guessed the rest. Like at the family picnic last year, your fat uncle fell into the water halfway across. I struggled almost to shore to the hoots of my companions as Cane stripped his gear and pulled me to dry land. As I coughed the water from my lungs he offered to give me the kiss of life, as the others egged him on, but I settled for friendship instead.

    While I was squeezing the water from my clothes, we went over the map Kelm has been keeping and discovered that the Swordlords had pulled a fast one and our territory was far smaller than had been described, and that we were in danger of crossing into our neighbor’s country. "And they're badasses so we don't want to start off on their bad side."

    “Guys,” I said standing at the bank, miserable in my wet clothes.

    “In a minute,” one of them called. “I think we got screwed.”

    “It's less work for us," Piea replied, "and we’ve still got the gold mine.”

    “Guys.” All I heard was the sound of their arguing. “Guys!”

    “What the holy hell do you want, Marquand?”

    I pointed across the river silently to where our horses stood watching us incuriously.

    Thankfully, Cane and Piea, swam the horses across (paying five more coppers to shinny back across the rope) and we were soon back on the trail. From atop a low rise we saw a bare tall tree scratching the hairy chin of oblivion—the sycamore tree.

    Near its base was a root-lined shaft sinking 10 feet into the earth. Restless for action, Lev went down first, blending uncannily into the murk. After a moment's wait we followed him down, turning east at a juncture.

    “Waaheeh!” we heard an unfamiliar cry up ahead, “Wait!” Lev hollered, quickly followed by a terrified “Wowwooo!” and a distant thud.

    We hurried into a workroom with three crude benches, tools, and hardware. At one end of the room was a wicked slope descending into darkness. Suddenly Kelm brightened, “Lev’s communicating with me from down below,” he told us. “He says the room is filled with mites."

    “Sweet, holy Serenrae!” we all heard echoing from down below.

    Kelm looked up without expression. "They’ve been cutting up kobolds a piece at a time and when he dies they start on another. They're a big pile of them down there."


    Pino, I hesitate to tell a little girl of these things, but you must learn that the world is an evil place.

    From above we heard shrieking and cursing as the mites turned their surprised fury upon Lev, puncturing him with their biting darts—death by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately, we could not reach them because Kelm had doddered into the passageway, clinging to the roots to keep his balance, acting as the proverbial cork in the bottle. From below we could hear a hoot of pain whenever a dart landed on Lev’s flesh. Finally, Kelm rolled down, landing with a thud, arms extended, “Ta-daa! How you doin’, bwa?” he crowed, only to be immediately tagged on the ass by a dart. “Woot-da!” he hollered.

    I was able to cast bane on the little boogers, putting the fear of Rovagug in them, weakening what little wits they had to begin with. Then Piea waded into the fray, mite-pieces flying everywhere. Lev spoke to them as an angry giant. I wish he had given me warning. “Fe-fi-fo-fitch!” he thundered. “I’m gonna kill every sonsabitch!” I almost felt sorry for them save for what they did to the kobolds. “I need a Twizzler™ for this!” Lev growled like a fifty foot tall timberwolf, scaring them, and me, a little further.

    Finally, Cane skidded down the incline, quickly killing the first mite he encountered. I watched it’s head roll away, still wearing the skullcap of the schoolboy it had probably abducted and devoured some time past. “Kill them," said a voice like broken glass from behind me. It was the little kobold. "Kill them all.”

    Another squealed as Kelm took its life. Shaking off his wounds, Lev talked with the kobold—Mikmek—as I picked off one of the mites with my longbow and Piea slit one across the abdomen, causing its guts to squirt out while it bleated pitiably until she took mercy on it by slicing it's throat like a hog at the city market. “Noisy,” she shrugged.

    Lev had Mikmek talking in common—if not common sense—and we were treated to a self-serving tale that is not worth retelling.

    “Wha’!?” came the cry as Cane, who had been poking around in the shadows, fell down another hole to the next level, where he woke a giant whiptailed centipede. “Help! Help! There’s a great huge nasty thing down heah!” he cried in terror. Kelm took aim, blind as he is and hit it twice with his crossbow and I used my longbow as Piea leaped down into the fray, missing her first attempt at the creature. She bloodied it the second time, dodging it’s fangs and tail all the while. Finally, Lev mailed in a touch attack, finishing it off. 

    They quickly searched its nest but found nothing except little round balls of filth as the rest of us climbed down to join them.

    “Come on! You’re wasting time! Let’s kill these mites!” I looked up to see Mikmek beckoning us back.

    “We’re working on it,” Piea grumbled as Lev persuaded him to join us.

    This led us to another room, which was truly filthy, like first-year students at the academy. There was a rickety table held together with twine, covered with a grime encrusted red-checked tablecloth, heaped with twigs, dirt, gravel and—wonders—a map. At one corner a bloodied ivory statuette of a reptilian devil weighed down a scrap of paper. “The statue!” Mikmek cried, lunging to snatch it before Lev could stop him.

    A scraping sound emerged from the darkness where four mites waited by what seemed to be a large boulder in the tunnel ahead. Only this boulder was slowly rolling towards us, the sound of it's approach was like chalk on blackboard. When it finally lumbered into the light we were disgusted to see a huge yellowish tick ridden like a pack animal by a fat brown mite. You can imagine my disgust. It reminded me of the bloated wood ticks we find on your dog, Pooter, only this one was as big as Swordlord Harry’s stagecoach!

    I quickly moved into the tunnel, putting an arrow through its rider. The monster tick, now spattered with the gore of its master, turned on us savagely. It scooped up Lev, shaking him like a rag doll until he fell senseless to the ground. Seeing us distracted Mikmek grabbed the statue and hightailed it out of the corridor with Cane close behind, leaving us without his strong arm in our time of peril.

    Desperately I dropped my bow and pulled out my sword, searching for the weakness in its armor. Kelm bloodied it with his crossbow, but it still managed to take a savage bite out of Piea. To my horror I watched as it seeded her with its young! Oh, Pino, may you never witness such a thing!.

    With fury I struck it into a seam in its armor and was rewarded with a cold gush of dark blood. I heard a meaty thunk as Kelm’s bolt struck home. Eerily the creature made noisome chittering sounds, like feasting maggots heard through an Andoran listener’s tube.

    I hit it again, “cutting off a piece of its ear,” as the song goes. Piea, limp and unconscious, dropped to the ground. Suddenly, Cane ran back onto the scene, a look of horror on his face as he beheld our situation. Once more I drove my sword home and suddenly the battle was over.

    Kelm bounced up and down with joy as I struggled to catch my breath.

    Some time later, after we’d revived Lev and Piea, we explored the mites' bunker, finding four more trampled in their rush to escape our swords. “Where’s Mikmek?” Piea asked Cane but he shrugged, averting his eyes. She looked to me, “The statue?” When she turned back Cane had gone.

    “Guess he lost track.”

    We found lots of little daggers and darts and a sack under the table yielded:
    •    12 small spears
    •    32 gp
    •    120 sp
    •    193 cp

    On a table we found a map and a paper arranged into two columns but in a language none of us understand. Packing the stuff up we followed a path leading upwards to a cavern, the floor crisscrossed with shallow trenches. The floor was wet, the trenches putrid and foul and stinking dunghills, infested with vermin and dark centipede eggs, like raisins in a muffin. At one end of the room three more giant centipedes waved their legs in alarm at our approach. Fortunately, they were nymphs, hardly worth our time. Then we destroyed the eggs despite Kelm's protests that they make delicious omelets.

    Once we finished clearing out the vermin we returned to the map on the table, which turned out to be of another set of caves southeast of here. We argued about what to do next, with Lev and Kelm wanting to forge ahead and the rest of us wanting to hustle Piea back to Oleg’s to cure her of the infestation that even now was moving about beneath her skin. While I’m no fan of democracy, in this case the majority abided, Kelm grousing all the way—one of the many drawbacks of the democratic process.

    We reached Oleg’s at midnight. Surprisingly, the gates were shut and barred.

    “Halt, who goes there?” an unfamiliar voice challenged.

    “We have a decree from the Swordlords,” Lev wheedled unnecessarily. “Ask Oleg.”

    I waited on one side as the badinage continued. The night was black and I wanted to be sure to be well away from my partners’ voices if the Post's defenders decided to ambush us. Thankfully, I heard the gates squeak open as a man holding a torch beckoned us inside. There a rough-looking mercenary awaited us with his bullyboys. “I am Kesten Garess,” he rumbled.

    As we introduced ourselves I noticed their tents set up at the south end of the stables. I should be happy to see Garess but I've already got a bad feeling about the man. Maybe I'm misjudging him. That's when Svetlana arrived to sweep us all into a midnight feast of leftover moon-radish soup and, yes, moon-radish wine—I promise you a bottle at your wedding. Then we bargained with Garess—my opinion of him dropping again—over Piea’s life, trading our stake in the dead bandits for the antitoxin she needed. Kelm shook his head disapprovingly. “Selfish,” he muttered when Piea couldn't hear him.

    The next morning we bid Garess and his boys goodbye. I felt disturbed that we’d found out so little about them and how their mission fits in with ours. Is Garess here to help us or hinder? Is he the Swordlords’ insurance against our ambitions? Will he be exploring the countryside or will he leave that to us? Can we depend on him to watch our backs?

    Heading westward we encountered the forest, once more finding little except one lonely weathered skeleton. Cane stayed on point, refusing all offers to let him rest. Another day passed and we considered going back to the trading post to retrieve our new equipment but decided to explore one more day to the southeast towards the river. We crossed into a stand of birch trees, stopping to set up camp.

    In the morning we discovered to our embarrassment that we had been invaded during the night by the fey. Since none of us had been willing to stand guard we had only ourselves to blame. They had taken a liking to our cookwear, leaving with the half pot of beans we’d saved for breakfast. Lev tried to wheedle them to show themselves but was met with a justifiable hoot of derision.

    Admitting our defeat, we turned southwest and in a quiet glade found an abandoned temple invaded by the forest. Pillars, some toppled, framed a courtyard overgrown with vine and shrub. Vegetation poked from between the courtyard's paving stones as we dismounted to walk quietly within. In the very heart of the quiet space stood a reeking pool of water.

    Above us towered a cliff of hard stone at least 100 feet high. An immense carving of an elk was scribed in the cliff’s face, its drooping antlers framing the wide entrance to a cave with a flight of stone steps leading up to it. I felt no doubt that this was a place holy to Erastil, filling me with an odd sense of purpose. I say odd because, as you know, I arrived late to the worship of "Old Deadeye," mostly at your father's behest. To find myself moved by Him manifest is unexpected, but welcome. I'm beginning to think I've done the right thing, I am walking the correct path, embracing the fate meant for me, given to me by your father, Jaquizz.

    As if to mock me, a giant grizzly bear emerged from the cave, like an actor answering his cue, roaring its anger at our arrival. It was met by Piea’s competing roar of defiance as she hacked a hole in it. Lev froze off a couple pieces of its rump. “Ha, haa!” he cackled excitedly, like a schoolboy harrying a dog. In his excitement Cane fumbled his sword, somehow embedding it deeply into solid stone. I rushed to the bear’s opposite side as he savaged Piea. (As this rate she will soon have more scars than Zon-Kuthon!) Holding her in its slavering jaws it flailed wildly at the rest of us. I was able to slip under its guard, making the killing stroke as, with a gurgle, it dropped Piea and fell to the cave floor.

    Its sigh was all too human and, where  a savage animal once lay, the grizzled form of an old man appeared, a smile on his face, happily freed from some curse or other, perhaps from the time the temple itself was abandoned. I kneeled in humble prayer, glad to have done this service for him, my faith in Erastil confirmed. The oppressive feeling, that I had not even noticed I bore, lifted. When we returned to the temple we saw that even the fetid pool had cleared, pristine again. We drank of it heartily as Cane sheepishly freed his weapon from its stone, bearing our jibes manfully. Looking about me I vowed to again make this a place of worship .

    The next day we returned to Oleg’s, happy to note that the supply van had arrived intact. I immediately stripped off my leather armor without thinking of the ladies present. Not minding their titters—at my age any attention from a woman is flattering—I slipped on my new chain shirt, its extra weight offset by a darkwood buckler.

    When I emerged later in the afternoon after a nap I found Kelm reading from a notice posted on the fort’s gate:

    "Every Greenbelt hunter has a story about Tuskgutter, each wilder than the last. The ill-tempered beast took my leg a year ago, and it’s about time someone took down this monster!

    "I pledge my masterwork longbow, as well as six magic beastslaying arrows to anyone who kills Tuskgutter.

    "Bring the head of the beast to Oleg’s Trading Post. I plan to stuff it as a trophy, and I might just share the head cheese I'll make out of it with you as well!

    "Old, retired Vekkel Benzen"

    On that I'll bid you adieu, sweet girl.

    Obey your Mother,
    Uncle Marquand

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Letter One—Oleg’s Trading Post

    Dear Pino,
    I hope things are going well for you and your Mother. I know I had to leave rather suddenly, but when duty calls the righteous respond.

    Thursday morning I was summoned to the hall of the Swordlords of Aldori where Lord Kazelov gave us our charter to represent their interests in an area known as “The Green Belt.” Yes, I know, we need to find a better name—Marquandland comes to mind.

    He then took me into the next room where I met the adventurers they’ve chosen to be my partners in this quest. We spent the rest of the day going over maps and listening to a vague song and dance meant to cover the Swordlords’ backsides if there is trouble—and to remind us that three other groups will be making a similar undertaking in other parts of the Stolen Lands. So we are definitely replaceable.

    I then hurried back to my room, gathered my gear, and said goodbye to you and your Mother. My stay has been a short one but I believe I've managed to make you my friend. You were brave although I saw tears in your eyes. I felt like crying as well, but that wouldn't do for an Inquisitor, so I kept them inside. Then I walked to the town gate where I joined my four new compatriots.

    We set off for the south, passing the time by sharing our stories:

    First there is Kelm Taslor, an Oracle by divine acclimation, which means he can tell the future but not the time of day. He’s very full of himself, having been pampered from birth and told as a wee lad that he has a great destiny to fulfill. This, and blindness, make him a bit dreamy, with a tendency to look through you instead of into your eyes. Nevertheless, he’s sturdy, with fire in his belly, and sees the things that eyes can’t.

    Lev Davidowich is a fetchling Sorcerer, a rabble rouser and born leader. I’ve hung many of his kind but now I walk another path. Erastil believers—as you know—feel that all things are parts of the larger every thing. Competing ideas are good, making society a richer stew. I admit this is hard for me to comprehend but I’m trying. Followers of Abadar (my previous deity) believe that ruthlessly pruning the tree of society of its deadwood is what makes society strong. But ask yourself: what results when it is the live branches that are sheered? What do you cut when the tree itself is dead?

    I apologize for the digression, dear Pino, politics is boring. Davidowich is a natural offspring of the Lebeda family and a glib talker. His travels have imbued him with a strong sense of the injustice in our world, which I share. The difference between us is that he still thinks the world can be changed. This makes him a dangerous man despite his happy-go-lucky facade.

    Cane Alexson is the Ranger of our group, certainly the most useful. He’s lived most of his life in the woods and is, as you might expect, a true bumpkin. He’s smart, though, and will learn if he survives long enough. He’s dogged, determined, and dependable—the 3-Ds of character that city folk often forget.

    Piea is also from a region like the one where we’re going. She’s tough and resilient, having fended for herself from a very early age. She may seem too eager for a fight, but I don’t think a blade can be tempered any other way. I’ve swung plenty of her kind as well, but the Piea I’ve come to know is an argument for giving some people a second chance.

    They are all courageous and a little foolhardy, but I guess that’s why all of us are out here. We’re only lacking your father’s advice, which may yet prove fatal.

    Along the way we came across wayfarers, merchants, and bandits. The latter two groups gave us wide berth for the same reason—we had no money for them to steal, but the first group would often camp with us for protection and to pass along gossip about the Stolen Lands. And this is how we eventually found ourselves standing before Oleg’s Trading Post on the north side of the Green Belt.

    It was a dirty little place but well fortified. At each corner of the palisade was a tall tower but there was no one watching as we strolled right into the compound. There were several rough timber buildings, a wagon, some tables and chairs near a smoldering fire. A woman stood there expectantly and unafraid.

    “I am Svetlana,” she said offering her hand. Her lack of concern led me to check the perimeter again and I spied a man working on the roof of one of the buildings. “Candy asses,” I heard him mutter.

    Lev took the lead, Adam’s apple bobbing as he explained who we were and why we were there. By this time Oleg (as you might have anticipated, the man was he) had climbed down to join us.

    “I thought they were sending the King’s guard!” he groused. “That’s the last time I ask them for help.”

    “It’s the bandits,” Svetlana said. “They clean out everything we have. It’s frustrating. And we ask Restov for help—they’re always talking about how important we are—and instead of a Swordlord they send us . . . this.” She sniffed disdainfully.

    “They clean out the missus, too,” Oleg grumbled.

    “That’s why we’re here!” Piea replied fiercely. I guess I’m not the only one with a past to make up for.

    “Well, we’ll find out if you’re worth your sand when they show up tomorrow.”

    The bandits are led by a woman wielding two axes. Kressle. Everyone is afraid of her. The stories they tell, well, you are well-informed for your age but it’s not something I’d tell a little girl. There may be a dozen running with her crew.

    At dawn I climbed to the top of one of the towers overlooking the courtyard. The others waited in hiding down below, although Kelm was having one of his visions and being led around by the hand. Lev fussed about. making sure everyone was in their proper places.

    We only had to wait a short while when five rough looking men showed up. I watched stoically as Oleg limped up to them, pleading his poverty, his whiney voice piercing the distance like a well-aimed arrow. The boss cursed him roundly, sending two of his boys into the storeroom.

    Lev made a dirty face at one of them and he started running away like a child from a monk of Rovagug. It was easy for me to hit him using my longbow. He squealed in distress. Then Cane and Piea went into action and soon all but one of them was dead. The last one was running for his life but the two quickly mounted the bandits’ horses, although Cane took a nasty header owing to a wound he’d received during the fight. There were no worries, though, as Piea quickly rode the bandit to ground and killed him so that there would be no one left to warn Kressle of our arrival.

    Oleg pranced around like a boy at a wedding, no sign of his infirmary any longer, and began stringing the bandits up on his palisade by their intestines at Piea’s grisly suggestion.

    “I like you, young lady,” he said, drawing a sharp look from his wife.

    “Who are you calling a lady?” Piea replied evenly. Wisely, he shut up.

    On the leader we found:
    • two flasks of alchemist’s fire
    • a dagger
    • composite longbow +2
    • 20 arrows
    • two days of trail rations
    • silver pendant with a stag’s head
    • leather armor
    • 35 gold pieces

    From the others we stripped:

    • 4 sets of leather armor
    • 4 longbows
    • 80 arrows
    • 4 short swords
    • 8 days of trail rations
    • 40 gold pieces

    Lev offered to share the wealth with Oleg and Svetlana but surprisingly they declined, saying the return of their wares was enough for them. Oh, and maybe us clearing out the rest of the bandits. To sweeten the incentive Oleg produced a circular purporting to be from the High Court of Restov offering 400 gp for the heads of at least 6 bandits. I had no idea this line of work paid so well.

    Oleg opened up after that, telling us about the area we’ve been sent to tame. None of it sounded too serious, but he did tell us to be on the lookout for Bokken, a crazy guy, alchemist perhaps, or shaman, herbalist, or otherwise, who lived nearby.

    Oleg also has more pockets than a second-rate magician as he sold us two cure light wounds and two vials of antitoxin.

    We set off in the rain on the bandits’ horses, a sorry malnourished lot. Although I often rode a horse as a lad I haven’t had much reason to lately. You would laugh to see your old uncle jouncing along like a “bowlful of jelly.” I envied Piea and Cane’s practiced ease whilst Kelm seemed to be floating several inches above his saddle. I struggled the best that I could, rain dripping off the wide brim of my hat. Lev seemed to mind the imposition of the rain the most and who can blame him? Rain is bad management.

    We lost the trail, found it, lost it again, and, as it was getting dark, we set up a cold camp and spent the night. I spent a long time listening to the rain dribbling onto my head as I sat watch. The next morning we set off again with the rain coming from southwest.

    Coming over a rise we saw the land drop down into a depression, where a pond might be found on a rich Rostland farm. But here was a pond of bones. “Alas, Yorgy,” I thought, while cradling the skull of a child.

    We stared down into a dark pit at the center of the boneyard when Kelm shouted, “I’ve glimpsed the future—spider!” and a monstrous black creature suddenly emerged, attacking Cane, wrapping her big hairy legs around him hungrily as her fangs craved him.

    Lev plinked at it using his crossbow and I with my longbow as Piea hit it a few licks. Hearing Cane bellow I realized the spider had bit him, seeing a red line of poison coursing towards his heart, which wouldn’t be harmed, but once poison traveled from there to his liver and kidneys there would be no hope. (Thank Eristal he’d had the sense to buy antitoxin at Oleg’s.) With a shout of glee Piea slew the beast and it fell back into its lair emitting one long loogie of green pus that missed me by inches. A judge learns early how to dodge spit.

    Piea and Cane climbed down into the spider’s hole where they discovered another of the thieves under the its carcass and quickly stripped him of everything valuable. Inside one boot (which she coveted) Piea found a single scrap of paper. On it was a crude drawing of a dead claw-shaped tree atop a barren hill with an X scrawled in blood at the tree’s base. We went back to Oleg’s that night.

    We found a much warmer welcome from the couple, who had supper waiting for us and even a little entertainment from the locals, who came out of the woods to admire the bodies we'd brought back. A few were persuaded to fetch their instruments and girlfriends and we enjoyed their uninhibited singing and dancing that night.

    The next morning we disguised ourselves in the bandits’ gear before setting off. Fortunately, I washed my set before retiring the night before, so the smell was tolerable and I wasn’t bothered by lice, although I noticed a couple of my companions scratching their nether parts.

    The rain had stopped and Cane found their trail again. We followed it west of the spider’s lair for several hours before losing it for good. Every so often Kelm would exclaim cryptically about a vision only he could see and then quiet down again like a man waking from a dream. Humanity contains such fragments, it’s hard to ken how they all fit together.

    We emerged into a field of wild radishes. In its midst five kobolds were gorging on their final meal, rubbing their stomachs, moaning. They jumped up when they noticed us.

    “Oi!” one of them grunted. “Do you think we can take them?” They whispered amongst themselves. “These are our radishes.”

    “We don’t want your flipping radishes,” Cane growled.

    “Take us to your leader,” Lev added.

    “Floop you,” another taunted as they suddenly charged Cane, drawing blood. Lev took a shot with his crossbow but missed the slippery little devils. Cane was able to kill one, but the other slashed his foot, ruining a good boot. Kelm suddenly hooted, “You are about to get killed by kobolds!”

    Piea then charged into the fray but missed her small target. Meanwhile Kelm helped stop Cane’s bleeding. I then tried my luck but my swing went wide as Lev put a morningstar to good use upside the skull of one of the kobolds, crushing its head like an overripe melon. Cane finished by chopping another one’s brainpan in twain, spilling its brains onto the ground in front of me.

    Lev jumped up and down like a small boy, exalting in his first blooding. “I killed something with my morningstar!” he cried. I wish I could say it was the first death attributable to my hand. Never start killing things, dear Pino, because once you start you can never stop.

    Piea chopped one in half while Kelm merely touched his and it dropped dead, retching up its sad belly of radishes. There is no more honor in killing a pack of kobolds as in killing rats, but there is more danger as they use knives as well as teeth. The only mistake you can make is to pity them.

    While we stripped the bodies—it was hardly worth the effort—Lev picked radishes, singing happily off key until finally Piea joined him in a victory dance.

    Retuning to Oleg’s, Svetlana was ecstatic when she saw what we carried. “Oh, Moon Radishes,” she exclaimed before using them to make a most tasty soup. I must send you the recipe.

    Later, as we sat about the fire, Oleg, who had been sipping too much moon radish wine, suddenly got sentimental. “Those bandits, they stole Svetlana’s gold wedding ring,” he cried. “If you find it I promise you a thousand gold in trade.” We all were amazed at his offer. Not for the first time I reflected that this little outpost was really just a front for Oleg’s real operation, whatever that is. He bears watching, or maybe befriending.

    The next morning we headed southeast for a time and then southwest through the plains until we reached hill country. There we noticed a dark crack in the earth. Looking it over carefully, Lev and Cane discovered a tunnel leading to a larger space. Once they’d determined it was empty we followed, noticing the dull yellow grain in the walls, realizing with astonishment that we’d discovered gold! (I want you to keep this our own little secret, Pino. Who’s to say what riff-raff will follow us once the word gets out?)

    We stayed the night in our little cave and the next day found a creek wandering through a forest of acorn trees. That’s when a thunderstone landed amongst us, deafening Lev, Piea, and Kelm (to go with his blindness). I was a little apart from the others when several arrows flew in from the brush behind the far bank. Piea was hit, but not severely. Then an arrow whizzed past me from the near side.

    Behind me I spied a bandit and, unthinking, leapt atop an intervening log as if I was one of those on-stage action heroes. You would laugh at your old uncle making such a ridiculous move, but it worked as I stabbed down fiercely at my opponent, and he was unable to hit me. I sliced through his ribs as, mysteriously, the smell of bacon filled the air. Who eats breakfast in the middle of a battle?

    I didn’t see this happen but learned afterward that Cane was challenged by two bandits in the creek, while Lev scared one our foes away, then moved to flank another. Kelm was hit by a thrown hand-ax as Piea pursued two bandits on the far side of the creek, killing one and treeing the other.

    I felt the thump and painful sting of an ax, realizing that the feared bandit queen was finally among us. She was joyous in battle, laughing as she hurt us, one after the other, her minions fighting all the fiercer for her presence. Then Kelm took it all away from her with just a touch.

    On her side of the stream, Piea climbed up the tree after her opponent, sustaining multiple wounds as she struggled to reach him. She finally caught up to him in the treetops, throwing him down to the ground below.

    I cast daze on Kressle, then paused—a mistake—before rushing into battle. Unable to attack, she fell victim to Cane’s graceful killing stroke.

    Only one of them was left alive. While we debated what to do with him, I helped heal Cane as Piea scoffed. “Spells are for hillbillies,” she grated.

    We then found a small camp where a pitiful ration of bacon lie cold in a pan. Cane munched on it absently as we confiscated camping supplies and the usual bandit gear we’d found on the others, although I wish we hadn’t damaged so much of their armor. Kressle was carrying two masterwork hand axes and 85 gold. We found more gold and silver in a small coffer where there were also two silver earrings, a wooden music box, three crates of furs and hides—probably Oleg’s stock—and a polished wooden case with eight bottles of a pungent green herbal liquor. Most frustratingly we found the impression of Svetlana’s ring, but not the ring itself.

    By this time the captured bandit had regained consciousness and we gathered to question him. He was defiant. “We’re looking for a ring,” Kelm asked him quietly, staring at a tree stump instead of the bandit.

    “Mites,” the man answered. “Under the old sycamore tree, they stole it yesterday.”


    “Are there any other bandits out here?” Lev asked him.

    “They’re all south with the Stag Lord.”

    “You served the Stag Lord?”

    “I did. He’s a bloody drunk. All that booze under the platform's for him. He's half of what he used to be, and ain't never been right in the head. A few weeks ago he punched my horse for spittin' in the yard. Personally, I wouldn't care if he dropped dead tomorrow, but even drunk out his mind he's still got a fair amount of fight to him. He’s a monster of a man!"

    We determined his lair was 18 or 20 miles south, so we’ll have to deal with him at a later date.

    “He calls himself the Stag Lord. He's a deadeye with the bow, and I saw him crush a prisoner's hand to mush in one fist. Come to think of it, I've never seen him without his creepy stag helmet on—some of my friends think he ain't got no face under it, but not me—I think that creepy helm is his face!"

    He started rambling at this point, probably the concussion. He said we’d need a password but couldn’t remember what it was.

    “I’ve got this,” said Lev as his finger eerily emitted a freezing cold towards the bandit’s nether realm.

    “By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?” the bandit suddenly gasped. “That’s it, ‘By the Bloody Bones of St. Gilmorg, who wants to know?’”

    “I should probably write that down,” Cane said laconically.

    We took him back to Oleg’s where we found the master of the domain in conversation with a grizzed old veteran. His beard had food, twigs, and maybe a bird or a squirrel nesting in it.

    “Greetings, sir,” Lev bowed.

    The man rudely snorted, a large green booger flying from his nose. “You just stay away from me,” he growled.

    “These are friends of mine, chill out Bokken,” Oleg pleaded.

    “Have you seen any fangberries?” he suddenly asked. “You see any when you’re out and about you bring them to old Bokken. They’re little tiny purple berries and they got a leaf on them that looks like a fang.” He said this with bloody relish. “I’ll give you 25% off any potion if you just get me some fangberry juice.”

    We promised him we would and then old Bokken limped back into the forest after first making sure that we knew where to find him.

    Oleg then took the bandits we’d brought him, happily hanging them around his fort, strange fruit that were already smelling ripe with death. We tied up our live one where he could contemplate his good fortune.

    The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.

    Kiss your mother for me,
    Uncle Marquand