It did mean I had to stop throwing EL 10 encounters at them, though.
After leaving the city, Pony and Skullfist were taken by a MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS [PC notattendigitis] which made them mostly useless, stumbling along on the long cross-country journey and occasionally throwing out a heal or two out of combat, but not actually able to fight.
So, when the second night, the party holed up in a somewhat hidden campsite surrounded by a wall of brambles, they didn't take a watch. Alex was the one on watch when she spotted a strange sort of dog-like creature hiding on the other side of the brambles (but not hiding well enough for her not to see it) muttering to itself, "Hmm, what is that noise? I think I should walk out to the road to investigate it without waking anyone else up, yes, yes, it's probably something that I should sneak up on on the road, yes..."
Since this was weird and threatening, she woke up Ironhoof (who also spotted the creature, that he identified as a Leucrotta) and Lilia (who didn't spot the creature, but managed to shake off the hypnotic mumbling)... she couldn't get a sneak attack through the brambles, but she was worried the creature was going to run off and attack them again later, when maybe they wouldn't see it coming, so she took a shot anyway.
It turned out there were two. The one she shot ran through the one easy path through the brambles to attack the archer in hand to hand, biting her viciously, while the other hid and tried to hypnotize the party into throwing their weapons into the brambles "to show the nice leucrotta that we don't mean any harm, because I wouldn't want to antagonize them." Lilia failed her save against that one, and threw her sling away -- but really, she was mostly a spellcaster anyway. Then it snuck through the brambles and charged at her, biting and clawing her. She tried to summon a magma elemental to get in the monster's way, but it just stepped around and followed her. Ignoring the lava elemental turned out to be a mistake, though, because it slid under the leucrotta's feet and created a pool of lava, burning the thing horribly and setting it on fire. Alex -- who'd escaped from the first leucrotta, which ended up trapped in the narrow pathway between Ironhoof and his dragonne -- shot it a couple times from hiding, and that set it running, although it didn't get far before the flames engulfing it finished it off and it collapsed in a burning heap.
They dragged the dead monsters away, woke up their sick cleric to heal them, and had no further trouble for the rest of the night.
The next day they met up with a group of dwarven 'warriors' escorting a caravan to the Black Run. The dwarves knew more about the bandit troubles, and offered to let the party travel with them for protection. The party was ready to leave the caravan behind as bandit bait to make their own trip less eventful, when the dwarves called out, "Okay, but be careful! Don't let the Unicorns get you!" and then they were interested -- yes, the dwarves were talking about the same bandits that they were headed out to investigate. Elves, calling themselves 'the unicorns', led by (if you believed the rumors) an actual unicorn.
According to the dwarves, the elves didn't have any reason to be angry at them. "Yeah, okay, we polluted the lake, but just with coal dust. Coal dust isn't poison! We drink it all the time and we're fine. And we're digging out coal under their forest, but we had the orcs' aribitrate that dispute and they said we owned the whole seam, and we just had to make sure not to hurt the damn trees. And okay, we're doing a little logging, but that's just to shore up our mine! What do those stupid tree-huggers want, for the whole forest to collapse into a giant sinkhole?"
They also attacked Blip when he came to tell the party something incomprehensible because he kept blinking in and out. He came back in the middle of the night to explain it further, and eventually they got the idea that while the orcs didn't care about the dwarves or elves per se, they needed the mine to keep operating.
This failed to get the party firmly onto their side. So, when they were crossing the salt flats and a cloud of dust kicked up heralded the approach of six unicorns ridden by elves, the party hid. And when the dwarves charged out to face the elven bandits, the party watched. Watched them get slaughtered. The party did note that four of the unicorns were riding horses with decorative horns attached to their heads, and the other two were warhorses with functional, quite nasty, but still artificial horns strapped to their heads, which they used to gore dwarves to death while the elves on their back dual-wielded rapiers to stab more dwarves. They were the main threat, obviously -- the rest were just 1 HD archers.
So they decided to talk with the bandits, and claimed that they didn't know anything about the dwarves and were only travelling with them because two of their party had taken sick with THE PLAGUE. The Unicorns, whether or not they bought that semi-bluff, let the party go, and even take some supplies and one of the wagons to carry their sick people in, as long as they promised not to let the dwarves get their filthy hands on any of it. Then they torched the rest of the caravan as a warning.
When the party reached Black Run, the dwarven encampment (on the surface, since they'd been kicked out of their ancestral homes two hundred years ago, by the kobolds), the dwarves greeted them warmly, asked about the caravan, and then swore tenfold vengeance on the elves for their attacks. It turned out they had a formula for exactly proportional vengeance, of course, and they were going to multiply it by ten because they were REALLY ANGRY.
The party was *also* not impressed seeing Black Run in person -- the land all around was covered in coal dust and despoiled, and the river was actually black. But that night, the dwarves were in a panic because something was going on in the mines, so the three non-sick people headed down to investigate.
After being directed towards the trouble by group after group of dwarves, they eventually came to a group that was less helpful, because they were ghouls. The ghouls used their smaller size and better knowledge of the mines to surround the party and bite Alex and Lilia again, but Lilia had her eidolon out this time, and the dragonne managed to block the main tunnel and hold off about half of them, so they were eventually victorious, with no one getting paralyzed and eaten.
Examining the ghouls, they noticed that they didn't look *exactly* like ghouls -- they were recently dead, and drained of blood through strange bleeding areas on their skin that didn't have actual wounds. Alex recognized them as the sort of wounds left by vampiric mist -- which was *really bad*, not because vampiric mist was especially strong, but because they best way to fight it was with fire. And you really didn't want to use fire in a coal mine -- in fact, the dwarves had made them swear an oath not to use fire before letting them go in.
Ironhoof: "Maybe that's why the elves decided to send in vampiric mist."
Vampiric mist didn't usually make people rise from the dead as ghouls, but people rising as undead was an endemic problem all over the world, thanks to the gods not being there to take lost souls to heaven.
They decided to back off and tell the dwarves what was going on, in the hopes that they'd have some idea what to do about it.
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