The Devil's Handmaiden
The party decides to investigate this local legend. Ancient history claims a high rank priest tried to baptize an idol in the river, but it was not deep enough to submerge the ten foot tall statue of pure gold, so he called an earthquake to damn up the river and create the lake. Rumor insists the statue is still there, under the lake, an affront to the god and therefore the source of the curse upon the lake. The locals will not fish from the lake or even enter it.
The druid goes fishing, hoping to find some physical evidence; the bard is chatting up the inhabitants; and the rest of the gang heads out into the woods to do some old-fashioned legwork - save for the cleric who holes up in the inn to study his new-found religion (the player couldn't make it to this session).
Naturally they find the secret dungeon entrance on the first day, because fate! (And because players always roll 20's when it's least convenient.) The ranger casts a light spell (possibly the first time I've ever seen that spell used) and he, the barbarian, and the wizard push aside the hanging vines to enter a small cave.
There are suspicious looking lumps on the ground and an iron grate in the middle of the floor. The ranger carefully investigates and determines that the lumps are the remains of bodies, decayed and grown over with mold and fungus. He finds the tael still in the skull; these men (women? humanoids?) died of something other than violence, as their souls have not been harvested.
The barbarian immediately trashes the rest of the lumps, kicking up more tael, several silver bracelets, and a cloud of dust. Of course the barbarian makes his Fortitude save (despite having no CON bonus - this is a very slender barbarian), but the other two are not so lucky. They develop a nasty hacking cough.
Peering through the grate they can see a ladder descending into darkness. As the day is getting late, they return back to the inn, just in time to find the druid trying to give away fresh grilled trout. He's getting no takers, and the bard is explaining why: another local legend tells of a man whose entire family turned into fish-people after eating from the cursed lake. Their house still stands abandoned and empty.
The new arrivals are trying to break into this fascinating discussion about provincial mythology to reveal their discovery, communicated around a series of coughs. While this impromptu conference is occurring at the edge of the lake, the bard witnesses an epic battle: an old homeless woman has crept up on a raven helping itself to discarded fish guts and ambushed it.
The old lady is losing, because ravens are actually pretty tough (it is a staple of D&D that the average housecat can beat a commoner in a straight fight). The druid intervenes, mostly to rescue the raven, and the bard extracts her story.
She claims that the raven murdered her husband, a beekeeper who used to live three miles outside of town. The druid, concerned, asks if she means this particular raven, to which she confesses she can't actually tell one raven from another, but they're all in on it anyway. She also happily devours the trout, which should question her sanity but only endears her to the druid.
The party nobly invites the woman back to the inn, where they argue with the innkeeper about adding her to their bill without increasing it. Yes, our heroes are quibbling over silver pieces. They are now faced with several options: pursue the cave entrance, investigate the abandoned house, hike out to the beekeeper's cottage, or spy on the haughty Grayson Palek, a fire sorcerer with a summer mansion in the village.
(Always give them too many options. It keeps them from doing anything clever.)
Pity moves their hearts and they decide to help the old woman. She gives them clear directions to her cottage and stays behind in the inn with the cleric - the ranger was leery of leaving her on her own, in case she developed a sudden case of gills and fins.
In the morning they pool their skills and spells very resourcefully to give the two infected characters the best possible saves against disease, and both make it. Only two more successful saves and they will have beaten the disease. There's been a discussion about how they are nobles now, subject to the Law of Arms, and the villagers are treating them differently now. While they are still very young men, the old innkeeper calls them "sir" and the farmers smile and hide their daughters. Everybody likes having nobles around, because they kill monsters, but nobody wants to get too close to dangerous men who do danger for a living. So they set off for the beehives full of vim and vigor. And then, of course, everything goes south.
The cottage is ransacked and contains nothing interesting. The beehives themselves seem normal, until the druid's hawk alerts them to the presence of a raven in a very large tree. Once again fate favors their die rolls and they all instantly realize this raven is behaving in completely unnatural ways. The ranger takes a shot at it, but misses (as expected - he really does have terrible luck with dice).
The raven flies into the tree and caws; a half-dozen giant bees fly out of the tree and attack. Now we're talking about really giant bees here; three feet long, in fact. On top of that, the ordinary bees are forming themselves into a huge swarm. The party falls out into battle formation.
It turns out the party really doesn't understand battle formation yet. The ranger is on one flank, the barbarian on another, both too far to help the center, where the wizard is holding the fort. He casts a Sleep spell and chooses to target the natural bee swarm (a mercy on two fronts, as he rolls incredibly low, not even enough to knock out one giant bee but just enough to subdue the swarm, which makes the DM happy because now we don't have to look up the Swarm rules).
The giant bees descend to battle; one stings the wizard right in the chest. He fails his pretty easy Fortitude save (which of course is already diminished because he's sick) and the bee's poison rips through his system. Now his CON score is even lower.
The barbarian gets stung, but as usual seems immune to poison. The ranger is doing his typically ineffective thing. The druid has discovered the joy of the Shillelagh spell and wades into battle. The bard rushes up to help the wizard.
By the end of the fight almost everyone in the party is half (or worse) dead and poisoned. Only the bard is untouched; at this point we realize the bard has never actually suffered any damage, in any battle. Apparently his face really is too pretty to hit. While the druid and bard try to collect more poison, which is futile because all of bee's poison currently resides in the party, the barbarian saws off the heads of the bees and makes his knowledge roll to realize that none of these are queens. The druid sends his hawk up to see if there are still more in the tree, and when the answer is yes, the party beats a hasty retreat.
They boil the heads down in the cottage and are gratified to discover a substantial amount of tael. Under cover of darkness they retreat to the inn, where the cleric mostly heals them. In the morning, the wizard fails his Fortitude save; so while he recovers a bit from the bee's poison, he gets worse from the disease. (This is a man with a CON of 10, so he didn't have a lot of room from the start.)
They talk about going back and finishing off the bees, but instead wind up searching through the woods for a herb that will give their sick guys a better chance to beat the disease. While there out there, they get the drop on a band of ruffians with a pair of pack mules - yes, the same two mules they had sold before. Being good guys, they decide to parley rather than commit unprovoked homicide.
There happens to be a raven sitting on one of the pack mules, so the bard, in his charming way, calls out, "Nice bird you've got there." Surprisingly, this results in immediate hostilities. The raven points them out to the men, who form up into a line and charge.
Our heroes are concerned about this fight for all of six seconds. The very first round shows how far they've come. These mooks are essentially the same quality of troop that the Wild Lord Boros had intimidated them with, but our heroes are no longer common farmboys. They drop three of enemy with fatal injuries, and the remaining two immediately surrender. The raven caws in disgust and flies off.
Bluster and intimidation can't get the survivors to explain the significance of the raven. "It's worth my life to tell you," says one. The prisoners want to be taken to town and handed over to local law enforcement, which at this point seems like a better option than summary execution in the woods. The party plies them with the beer the mules are carrying on the way back to town, and eventually one warms up enough to the bard to offer him some advice. "Join us - I'll put in a good word with the boss, and you guys are so tough you can probably sign in at the second level." Turns out he's a member of a secret demonic cult that is patterned off a good multi-level marketing scheme.
In town they decide to dump the prisoners on Grayson Palek, because he's the closest representative of the crown (outside of themselves) and because they think it might clarify the man's relationship to the matter. He radiates suspicion every time they talk to him. It doesn't help that they saw a raven on top of his mansion.
That night the bard is awakened by his dear mule's annoyed snort. The party peeks out the window and sees ruffians making off with their animals. They sensibly take a few rounds to armor up before sneaking down the hall to the main room. Just as they start to open the door, it opens from the outside: a whole squad of thugs is staring them in the face.
The ranger sensibly fights them from the doorway, where they can't overwhelm him. The barbarian takes up a position against the wall, so that if the enemy does charge into the room, he can attack them from the flank. (He's already picked up on Attacks of Opportunity, which is neat because he is the youngest player.) The bard and druid head out the back, and then he wizard casts a Sleep spell, knocking out the entire enemy squad. (Too bad he acts last every round.)
The ranger and the wizard charge out to start murdering helpless men before they can wake. Except there's a second squad out there, and the back door has a squad too. There are lot more thugs this time, and they are fighting in formation, so they don't fold quite so quickly; but the party chews through them, with only one dramatic moment: the bard actually gets hit! And almost dies. But he doesn't, and a song of healing later, he's heading for the front door.
Where some excitement finally occurs. The wizard chases down a straggler and clubs him from behind, only to be surprised himself when a demonic imp plunges its poisoned tail into his back. Now he's suffering CON damage from sickness and bee poison, and also suffering DEX damage from Quasit poison. The barbarian finishes off the last squad - his Cleave feat is turning out to be the perfect counter to squads of mooks - and both he and the ranger leap into battle against the imp.
Only to discover their swords don't seem to hurt it.
The imp spends a few rounds murdering the merely wounded on the ground - making sure the party won't have any prisoners who can talk. Everyone else sensibly retreats into the inn, but the barbarian won't fall back, and finally lands a solid blow on the imp, injuring it slightly. That's enough to scare it off and it flees.
Lord Grayson finally shows up with his half-dozen bodyguards, long after the fight is over. He doesn't really have satisfactory answers for the party, but they're in no shape to press the issue. Their cleric heals them all again (save for the various poisons, which are beyond his power) and in the morning, after long discussion and many covetous glances cast toward the city where they could buy healing, they head into the bush to find the rest of the bandits and their mule.
They find a cave with thugs lounging around outside, and despite being out-numbered three to one, decide to give battle. This time the bard and barbarian flank, the wizard prepares Magic Weapon spells, and the ranger sneaks into position where he can fire on the imp when it appears. The wizard realizes he hasn't enchanted the ranger's bow yet, so he sneaks up to the ranger... and of course gives their position away.
More men come out of the cave and form up squads. Now they're facing twenty armed men and a imp hovering just behind the battle line. The ranger shoots but as usual can't hit the broad side of a barn while the line advances. Still, once melee is joined, the barbarian springs out and gets a flanking attack which decimates a squad, and the bard remembers to sing Inspire Courage, giving everyone a better fighting chance.
The plan works; the barbarian and druid bring down the imp with their magic weapons. This inspires the remaining thugs to a berserk fury, as they've just seen their promised hopes of power and glory brought low. They lay into the barbarian, cutting him to an inch of his life, and he retreats behind the wizard and the druid.
Two men with sticks is not tenable defense against two squads. The wizard goes down, bleeding to death; the ranger is back to being useless, and the bard is tanking an entire squad by himself on the other side of the field. The party starts seriously discussing how to retreat, until the barbarian throws caution to the wind and leaps back into battle. He makes short work of another squad, even though a single hit will take him out; the druid gets the wizard back on his feet with some healing spells; and the remaining two squads see the writing on the wall. They break off and flee; the party retreats into the cave.
They find their mules, a bunch of useless junk, and a receipt for six kegs of beer made out to... Grayson Palek.
Battered, bruised, out of spells, and many still sick and poisoned, they limp back to town again, planning to give it a wide berth and head on into the city for healing and possibly reinforcements. The ranger sneaks into the village to get the cleric, and of course muffs his die roll. But it doesn't matter, because the town is deserted. The cleric comes out of hiding to tell them that Palek's soldiers forced the villagers into the mansion, where even now a scream of agony can be heard. Palek appears to be trying to summon another, possibly larger demon.
Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion... but hopefully only to The Devils' Handmaiden, not the entire campaign. Those imps are pretty tough, and they are out of spells. Only true heroes would wade into such a dangerous battle in such poor shape. Are they true heroes? Will they risk a TPK in only the fourth session? Can the ranger finally roll some decent dice? Find out next month!