A minor detail from the previous entry; the players assured me the reward was 10,000 gold pieces, not 5,000. Trust players to remember a little thing like that.
A new mission
The party continues traveling west through new territory. This is the stuff of adventuring! Even if it is occurring in the relatively safe area between two major kingdoms.
And rendered safer by a dose of extreme caution. They discover a beast most foul, a huge lizard surrounded by broken statues, and like heroes of old they... bravely fled. A minor encounter with a ghost of a woman trapped by an ancient tragedy - she lacks the strength to close the valve that is drowning her husband - is resolved by the Barbarian's rage against injustice. (This was supposed to be the start of a quest for a minor magic item but I didn't have it properly planned out, the party brute-forced the solution, and they already have too many open threads anyway.) After a few more uneventful days they reach civilized lands again, finding a stone tower commanding the plain.
The tower is aware of their approach, sending out a herald to greet them. People don't normally come out of the west, after all, other than invading Varsoulouean armies. Their native Edersarrian accents establish their right to be there; meanwhile, the platoon of knights that have formed up in front of the tower establishes the the balance of power. Our brave party looks upon its quest target, encased in steel, mounted on a massive warhorse, and surrounded by a dozen other such figures, and... bravely flees. "Just passing through," they assure the herald, and quickly head to the village behind the tower to have a drink in a tavern full of pictures and stories about how totally awesome the Order of the Tower is. After much consideration they decide their true duty lies in finishing their first quest, i.e. to find a safe path to Varsoulou (safe being defined as the absence of monsters). Thus they head back east on their original path, deciding that the mysterious wheeled creature would be easier to resolve than the petrifying lizard.
They find the machine's tracks and discover a blockage: a log is preventing it from crossing a ford in the river. The machine keeps driving around in a huge loop, always returning to this spot. Curious, they remove the log and wait in hiding for the machine to come around again. The machine detects them, however, and provokes a confrontation (I had to fudge it a bit here as the party was being pretty cautious), eventually resulting in one of them being caught by its huge stone fist and pinned against its side by dozens of stone clamps. The rest ride to the rescue and are soon captured as well. Only the Druid is safe, for mysterious reasons, and yet as he watches the machine begin to trundle away with his companions to some unknown destination, he attacks it, knowing it means his own capture. Sadly he watches as the machine carries him away from the party's two mules, treasured pets and companions and not incidentally carrying all of the party's gold.
The machine trundles south at incredible speed, never tiring and never stopping, for an entire day an night. Our heroes begin to fear they will die of exposure or thirst before the fiendish journey ends, until it turns down into a shallow valley that houses the ruins of a once-great city. The machine delivers them to center of town, where automated prisoner processing in the form of stone tubes and hands strips them of their weapons and armor and deposits them in an ancient stone prison.
But they are proper adventurers now and not to be undone by simple traps; one Soften Stone spell later they are free. They find their equipment on roof in an old stone box full of rusted metal. A careful search reveals that a mace and a dozen arrows are buried under the detritus but still in perfect shape - certain proof that they are magical. Re-armed and armored, they quickly work out how to avoid the wandering patrol cars (there are two other machines already patrolling the city, and their new one returns to its duties without any fanfare) and set out to explore the ruins.
Whereupon they stumble upon many and various beasties and... bravely flee. They climb a tower and rob a harpy's nest of her gems but don't wait around for her to return. They spot some owlbears engaged in a mysterious ritual but decide not to interfere. The Barbarian does attempt to play with a pride of lions, but after they begin to flay him the Druid turns the party invisible to animals and they creep away. They find an old library inhabited by ogres and politely decline to stay for dinner. (This is entirely my fault for creating a sandbox world. The players know that there is no plot and thus no plot armor; if they pick a fight with a dragon they'll have no one to blame for their deaths but themselves. So they keep looking for the easy marks, like any professional criminal gang would.) When they spot some lizardfolk in a grove of trees it looks like there
might be a little action, but the lizardfolk run away from the bard's
opening chords and the party runs the other way. Eventually the lizardfolk return in force and the party has the brilliant idea of setting the lizards against the ogres. They lead their pursuers to the ogre's door, only to find the ogres and lizardfolk are apparently old friends. Trapped between two sets of monsters, they choose to charge the ogres and seal the doorway behind them with magical mist, hoping it will dissuade the lizardfolk for a least a little while.
A pair of ogres proves to be an engaging but short fight, made more exciting when another pair of ogres joins in. The Druid's wolf pet rips out the throat of all four ogres, which is just as well as the Barbarian takes a tree branch to the face and almost dies. (The party has discovered one of the major weaknesses of D&D as a game system: an attack that can credibly threaten one of the martial classes would extirpate one of the casters. This is a flaw I'm not even attempting to mediate; it's on them to adapt to the nature of the world as created by the rules.) When the mist expires they are relieved to see that the sounds of combat (and their victory) have apparently convinced the lizardfolk to retreat. Obviously they search the library for treasure, turning up a set of arcane scrolls only the Wizard can use (but he's still back in the Golden Library in Varsoulou, where he has plenty of scrolls without ogre stench all over them). They spend the night being bitten by tiny poisonous spiders and wake up in the morning cranky, hungry, and surrounded by rotting giant corpses.