Death of a spymaster
Count Kird, it seems, is very well informed. He knows that the party accepted a commission to murder the leader of the Order of the Tower. He confiscates all the tael from the battlefield and demands that the party surrender into his custody.
They agree, and not just because they are currently weak. They think they can face a court trial and prove that they were only acting under duress. The ranger asserts they were going to be double agents. This faith in the system convinces Kird of their honesty, though he doesn't tell them that.
Instead, Kird points out that they are terrible double agents, in that they didn't come and report to him, but instead spent the last few weeks larking about in a dungeon. "But..." he adds, "if you are willing to prove your loyalty to Edersarr, I do have a proposition in mind."
He offers them a job: murder the man who hired them for murder. They are to travel back to Varsoulou, meet the Minister of Coin, and kill him. Then they must fight their way past the city's defenses and escape as best they can. Kird can only offer them the most minimal aid: he will convince the Order of the Tower to seal its doors and fly the mourning flag, so as to convince Varsouloean spies that the Viscount is dead. He tell the party he can maintain the deception for only three weeks; this gives them enough cover to at least arrange a meeting with Erligil.
The party is dubious; Erligil seems like a dangerous and well protected foe. Count Kird sweetens the pot: if they succeed, he will enoble them as landlords. They will receive the village and as much land to the south as they can hold. More importantly from their point of view, they will no longer be subject to the king's tax. All of their old tax debt will be wiped away, and even their status as escaped peasants will cease to matter.
After this, they bargain only for the mundane necessities. Horses, rations, and more arrows for the ranger. Kird readily agrees to such simple requests. He rides away, cautioning them to lay low, and the next day a trader wanders into town with six horses to sell. The trader takes only a single copper piece to make it a legitimate transaction. The party, now rested, recovered, and respelled, mount up and travel west again, with murder on their mind. They take poor Lodvun's head as a prop, knowing that pretending it is the Viscount's head will only buy then a brief opening.
The journey is without incident (they've already cleared a path, and new monsters have not had time to move in). In County Kaewaey they trade their foreign horses for local ones, recognizing that the Edersarrian beasts are dead giveaways. They also split up, seeking to hide the barbarian, their most powerful weapon, from Erligil's spies. The cleric goes with the barbarian to keep him out of trouble with his diplomatic skill, the wizard goes alone since he is a member of the Golden Library and thus has a legitimate reason to be in Varsoulou, and the ranger and druid travel under the bard's guidance. Since the bard can speak with the local accent, they still have their desert robes from last time, and they are on local horses, they travel into the capital without any trouble.
There the three members take up residence in the inn they had patronized before. The wizard also stays at the inn, but in disguise and separate from the group. The other two find lesser quarters down by the docks.
The bard spends money freely, seeking to appear as a man about to come into wealth and thus unconcerned with penny-pitching. Although this physically pains the druid, it is a good plan. The innkeeper gives them the best of everything and they rest in luxury for a day. At lunchtime a messenger arrives and lets them know that an old friend will be at a popular theater later that night. This is obviously an invitation from Erligil.
The party comes up with a complex plan to meet Erligil and try and win his trust. Still split up, the wizard goes to the bawdy house but is denied entry; unable to warn his mates he has to watch helplessly as the three enter and find a seat at one of the long tables. Shortly after that, ten knights in armor march in and take a table near them. Erligil appears next to the party, casting off his disguise.
"You look well," he says. "Though fewer in number."
They acknowledge the fact. "There were losses," the bard says.
"So you succeeded? Did you bring proof?"
"We might have a head hidden somewhere," the bard answers. "Did you bring our gold?"
There is a brief discussion over terms. The bard is adamant that the party is owed 60,000 gold; Erligil contends that the deal was 10,000 each, and since there are only three of them, that is 30,000. In the end he offers a compromise: a half-share for the dead, bringing the total to 45,000 gold. This is over 200 lbs of the stuff, so it's literally a staggering fortune. Despite that the bard is annoyed, and only concedes once he realizes it's the best deal he'll get.
"Tomorrow, then," Erligil says. "Bring your proof and I will take it to the castle. If it checks out, you can come to the castle and collect your pay. I might even arrange a meeting with the queen, if you ask nicely."
He leaves then, suggesting the party do the same, as the quality of the house's entertainment leaves much to be desired. The druid sticks around till closing time so he can scope out the entrances and exits. The bard hatches a clever plot; he approaches the barkeep and asks how much it would cost to rent out the entire hall for tomorrow night. "A private party," he says, "Just me and my friends." The barkeep suggests the outrageous price of five gold; the bard slides ten across the counter.
When they reunite with the wizard, he tells them that he couldn't get inside. They realize that virtually everyone in the bar was an agent of Erligil's. The three show up half an hour early the next night to make sure the barman keeps his word, but he silently slides the ten gold coins back across the bar. He forgot that he had a "prior engagement." To appease the bard he gives them free drinks all night.
At the appointed time the bar fills up with rough-looking men. Among them are the wizard in disguise and the cleric and barbarian, all at different tables. Ten armored knights march in, surrounding Erligil. Four take a seat at each table. The spymaster joins the main party at their table with six knights at his back.
The bard mentions that he's slightly offended by the show of force. Erligil apologizes; he never goes anywhere without a honor guard, and as for the rowdies, if a troop of the Queen's dragoons wants a night out on the town, who is he to say no?
The bard distracts Erligil by bringing up Count Wraythas' name. Erligil admits he would pay well for proof of the man's treachery, but first they should conclude the current deal. The bard slides a sack under the table; Erligil peeks inside to see the severed, preserved head; and the party attacks.
They win initiative, which turns out to be crucial. The bard casts Hideous Laughter on Erligil and the man collapses in a heap, unable to fight, flee, or even give orders (a classic trope of D&D: the save-or-die spell). The cleric casts a strength spell on the barbarian and tells him to cut loose. He does, literally. Leaping on top of a table, he draws his axe and spins, killing five men in a single continuous blow (the Great Cleave feat was expressly designed for murdering mooks). Blood spatters everywhere and the rampage only stops on the knight, who staggers back barely alive. The ranger also leaps on his table and stabs at the laughing Erligil, though the outcome is not quite as impressive as the barbarian's.
The knights spend the first round readying weapons and shields, as they had relaxed a bit when Erligil appeared to be in friendly conversation. The soldiers, being common men, are even slower to react.
The ranger continues stabbing at the helpless Erligil, and for once his dice do not betray him. The druid summons his most potent weapon, the dreaded bat swarm. It temporarily cripples two of the knights but the rest battle on. The barbarian murders another five men like a farmer reaping wheat. The wizard starts throwing sleep spells around, which is a mercy compared to many horrible ways to die currently being employed.
Now the knights react, rushing to cover Erligil and hacking at the ranger. They are well armored and well-trained (and first level), so the ranger finds himself in a proper fight. The barbarian tries to intimidate his foes; it buys him only a momentary advantage as the wounded knight at his table backs up until he is joined by more knights.
Two separate battles occur, with most of the party trying to kill Erligil through his screen of knights and soldiers, and the barbarian fighting half the army on the other side of the room. The soldiers have gotten into formation now, so the barbarian's slaughter spree has trickled into mere murderosity.
The party can no longer reach Erligil, so the druid summons wolves behind him. They leap on the helpless man, biting him; yet Erligil is a hero of some rank. He survives the round, the crippling spell is about to wear off, and he has a healing potion hidden in his jacket. The wizard blinds him, which is not as debilitating to a master rogue as one would think; but then the cleric sends in a ghostly hammer, the physical manifestation of his war god's wrath. This puts Erligil deep into negative hit points. But he's still not dead yet; a knight might break off the combat and sprint the bleeding man out of the room; until one of the summoned wolves sinks its teeth into Erligil's neck. The cleverest man in the kingdom has died in half a minute, unable to resist a simple spell from a low-level caster. Truly, the bard has discovered the Killing Joke.
The ranger is struggling with the remaining knights, a task not made easier when the druid's swarm moves onto him, seeking fresh flesh after killing several of the knights. The druid lets the swarm dissipate and the wizard ends the fight by putting the knights to sleep.
The bard cuts off Erligil's head and makes his own intimidation check, raising the severed head high. The common soldiers throw down their weapons and flee. A few knights remain on the other side of the room, fighting the barbarian, but the party's combined might dispatches them quickly.
Now it is time to retreat. The wizard pleads mightily for the chance to loot the tael from all the bodies, asserting that a few paltry seconds spent picking up loot is worth the risk, but the party has learned to value caution over greed. They grab only the tael from the ranked knights and Erligil's head, not even searching his body for treasure.
They rush back to their inn, with the druid summoning water to try and clean up the blood-soaked barbarian so as to not draw more attention that absolutely necessary. The party almost makes it out of town before a squad of mounted knights spots them, sets lances, and charges.
Despite the surprisingly easy fight in the bar, the party knows that lance charges are a thing to fear. They burn through magic, throwing up a web across the road, turning the dirt to mud, and flooding the area with opaque mist. All of this allows them to escape in the night.
Now they face hourly checks for patrols. Several they hide from, despite their miserable skills; two they avoid by use of the Entangle spell. Only at a check point do they find the need to fight another troop of dragoons. The ranger sneaks off to steal their horses while the barbarian simply wades into battle.
These men are armored and prepared. They are not nearly so easy a target as their mates in the bar. Still, the druid's flames and the barbarian's axe are too powerful, and the wizard still has sleep spells. The troop is broken and destroyed with only minor damage to the party - though the barbarian and ranger are running dangerously low on vitality.
Across the border, however, the pressure drops off and the patrols are less frequent as they have more territory to cover. The party finds a place to hide, avoiding one patrol, and only being confronted by another dragoon troop in the morning.
The casters have not yet had time to prepare spells, so the party forms a battle line. This fight is a drudging affair, with heavily armored troops in good formation. The party is slowly being whittled down, but the bard has regained his magic (since he doesn't have to prepare spells) and the barbarian makes his intimidate check. Soon half the dragoon troop is retreating, leaving the other half dead on the ground.
The party steals as many of the dragoon's horses as they can handle and press on. The next challenge gives them pause: ten armored knights, but not the Queen's. These men belong to Count Wraythas, and the leader of the troop is a highly ranked paladin. The party prepares for a desperate fight, but the paladin wants to talk.
"We had no love for that miserable sneak-thief you murdered," the paladin tells them. "From our perspective you have done us a favor. In return I can offer you a small favor. I will have you escorted to the borders of our lands without interference, on the condition that you never return."
The party, fearing both the lances of the paladin's knights and continued attacks by royal forces, agrees. The paladin has a wagon brought up, with a deaf and mute driver. The party is instructed to hide under the hay, where they must remain for two days. They bargain only for a set of horses and the bard's right to ride with the wagon-driver, as his disguise skill and ability to speak the accent makes him unlikely to be discovered. Of course the bard has to toss his weapons and armor under the hay, but he trusts to the power of his wit more than his halberd anyway.
The wagon travels without incident, avoiding detection by several royal patrols. Their driver takes them into the city of Kaewaey, where the bard spends the night shoveling out stables while the rest of the party hides uncomfortably in the hay. At least they have a chance to heal up and renew spells.
The next day the wagon reaches the border of civilized lands. The bard sees a mounted party waiting for them on the other side. It is Count Wraythas himself, with his priest and a troop of knights. The party is concerned but decides to hope he has come to offer them a bonus.
Instead, the moment they cross over into wilderness, the priest casts the dreaded Entangle spell, trapping the wagon in a sea of grasping grasses. Two troops of crossbowmen rise up on either side of the road, having successfully hidden from the bard's view (they rolled a 20 for their ambush!). The bowmen begin launching flaming bolts, setting the wagon on fire and killing the driver, while the Count and his knights wait to ride down anyone escaping the Entangle spell.
This is a bleak moment, with the powerful Count and his well-executed ambush being the most dangerous battle the party has ever faced. If they stay in the wagon they will burn; if the leap out they will be caught by the grass and become targets for the archers; if they escape the grass the knights will run them through. And then (in classic D&D fashion) the wizard makes it all go away with a spell. Under the cover of the smoke from the burning wagon he casts Rope Trick, creating an extra-dimensional hiding place. The party climbs inside and seals themselves off from the rest of the world. The trick works because the Count's priest is a Warrior Monk, the kind of cleric who favors practical theology over academics and thus has the spell-craft skill of a squirrel. After a brief search the Count's men leave, unable to guess where the villains have gone.
Four hours later the party drops back into the real world, into a pile of cold ashes and dead horses, and begins the long trek home.
Back in Edersarr they stop at their little village inn, where they are greeted warmly. In the morning they march up to the city. Count Kird pays them no special attention in public; he can hardly admit that he sent them on a mission to assassinate a foreign minister without starting a the very war he was trying to avoid. But in private he expresses his gratitude, summoning a clerk and writing out their patents of land on the spot. Tonight they will dine with the king as new nobles of the realm, recognized for their general and unspecified activities to the benefit of the kingdom, and of course for their specific and very visible rank.
Our boys have risen from peasant to peerage, and they still haven't turned 17.