The Heist: Part 1
The party considers their new mission with trepidation: steal a magic item without killing anyone. This is far outside their normal operating method. However, they are all ready for a respite from the chaos of the battlefield. Well, perhaps not all; the Barbarian asks if maybe they can just kill a little bit.
After considerable discussion, the party decides to disguise themselves as merchants. They spend 2,000 gp on silk (Eslyt arranges the purchase in her name and has the crates transported to their boat in the dark of night, to foil any Arkooian spies). The Druid recommends investing in a few other trinkets like a merchant’s scale and yardstick, and they all get enough training from a local merchant to be able to pass at least a cursory question or two. They spend another 2,000 gp on healing potions and spider climb potions, apparently expecting to drop down from the ceiling like a heist movie.
The voyage is calm and undisturbed (the GM didn’t want to roll for random encounters) and after a week they hail around the coast and land on Arkoommeamn soil. The Bard easily talks his way past the port authorities, presenting the party as simple merchants. The fact that they are heavily armed is not at all surprising, since the merchant trade is perilously close to adventuring.
After hiring a cart and loading up their crates of silk, they travel through a small county and into the capital. The city is well patrolled; the guards on the gatehouse in the stone wall look in their crates and hand them a small card with the local rules printed on it: no nudity, no pearls on commoners, and trial by combat is a legal right. The town has wide roads, fit for horsemen, and a solid castle in the center. The party trundles right up to the drawbridge, past a troop of pikemen, and attempts to talk their way through the knights on gate duty.
“Do you have a trading license?” a knight asks.
The Bard notes that this is not on the rules card.
“It’s not a bloody law book, is it?” the knight answers. “Come back on market day and maybe you’ll have a better chance.”
After learning that market day is four days off, they search out accommodations and are quickly referred to the Golden Wing Inn. The inn specializes in a chicken dish that is drenched in saffron to give it a unique golden color. The effect on the flavor is not entirely felicitous but the dish remains a staple of local culture.
The proprietoress, Gizela, is also a bard of some skill. She takes an interest in her latest customers and their foreign accents. A brief bard-off ensues, where the Bard totally gets the better of the innkeeper, and the information only flows one way. The party sells their cover as merchants while discovering that the only person in the castle who would be interested in their silks is… the Countess Malgorzata.
Gizela goes so far as to suggest she will introduce them to the local merchant house where they can acquire a trading license. She buys them a round and the party relaxes a bit. Meanwhile she flirts with the Barbarian, and soon sends him up to his room to fetch a trophy from one of his many adventures. Upon entering he discovers a burglar rifling through their things.
“Excuse me,” he says, “but that’s mine.”
“Oh, sorry,” says the burglar. “Here you go,” and grabbing a random weapon out of the Barbarian’s sack, stabs him with it.
The weapon is +1 rapier. The Barbarian is sixth rank. The stab barely annoys him; he pummels the burglar into unconsciousness in a single round, then grabs his bag in one hand and the burglar in another, and drags the man down the stairs. By the time they reach the ground floor the burglar is a bad way; the Druid crouches at his side and begins to tend his wounds while Gizela apologizes profusely.
It is terribly embarrassing for an innkeeper to have her guests burgled. “I put out traps and everything,” she says, “but you know how it is.” In recompense she comps them their rooms and meals, and then asks… “So what are you going to do with him?”
“What do you normally do with burglars?” the Cleric asks.
“We stab them,” she answers. The Barbarian perks up at this and starts searching his bag for a knife. Meanwhile the Druid has restored the wounded man to consciousness and is helping him to the door. “Although usually, we stab them while they’re actually in the act, not five minutes later in a different room on a different floor,” Gizela continues, frowning at the Druid.
“Can I demand trial-by-combat?” the Barbarian asks.
“You could,” she replies, “although that seems a bit predictable.” Then she is hit with an idea. “How many times did you hit him?”
“Well, twice,” the Barbarian admits.
She runs a hand across his rippling muscles. “That means he must be ranked; no common man could stand a single blow from such an arm. So… you could duel him!” Gizela makes a compelling case, and soon the Barbarian has agreed to a duel under unusual terms: the Barbarian will be unarmed and unarmoured, while the burglar will have the purloined rapier. The duel will be fought the next night, on the inn stage, as an entertainment.
Gizela has her men throw the burglar into a room to heal up, and begins plying the Barbarian with alcohol and compliments. She keeps him up all night, and starts in again the very next morning, clearly intending to send the Barbarian into the ring exhausted and drunk. This is, after all, the only way to make the fight even remotely interesting.
The rest of the party shakes their head but decides to use the event as cover while they snoop around town. The Bard trawls through town looking for rumors and eventually discovers that the Countess Malgorzata will be traveling out of town just after market day, to visit her sister in another county. He also arranges for a trading license from House Staszewski, but rather than pay the 100 gp fee offers a bit of betting advice: the Barbarian, regardless of odds. The merchant brothers Fortunat and Eryk are men of swords and action themselves, so they agree to terms. They will attend the fight and bet on the Barbarian. If he wins, the party gets their trading license for free; if he loses, they will pay double.
That night a drunk and staggered Barbarian takes the stage with a healed and clearly hopped up on alchemy burglar. The rogue wins initiative, stabbing the Barbarian for what would be serious damage to an ordinary man but is barely a scratch for him. The Barbarian responds with a flurry of fists, but his impaired state means he misses half the time.
The next round the poison kicks in. The Barbarian for once fails to shrug it off and suffers the maximum penalty, losing 6 points of DEX. Another result like that will see him paralysed! He flies into a rage, knowing that in his weakened state he will simply collapse into unconsciousness when the rage ends. The fight lasts all of five rounds before the Barbarian beats down the rogue, taking only minimal damage as the rogue fails to land any critical hits or sneak attack damage.
At the conclusion of the fight, surrounded by a madly cheering crowd, drunk, exhausted, and poisoned, the Barbarian gives into his rage and beats the rogue to death before passing out.
While this violence disturbs the party, it wins Gizela’s approval. She takes the rest of the party aside and makes them an astounding offer: a huge bounty of gold for every witch they slay. The astounding part is that it is exactly the same offer the shadowy rogue Esyllt made them back in Flefliequelp.
The Druid had already been forced to sell a little tael for pocket money, and had discovered that tael also sold for more than normal here as well. This cannot be a coincidence. Something odd is going on throughout the entire domain.
Gizela’s motive is clear enough; she wants to weaken the local government so she can take its place. But who could want the helm neutralized through such violent means and with such a wealth to pay for it? The party can tell Gizela does not have the money just lying around, though she adamantly will not reveal where it might come from.
Somewhat disconcertingly, the allegedly Team Good party spends a considerable time considering the murder-for-hire proposition. But on market day they take their silk to the castle and are reminded of their real quest.
Their trading license gets them onto the castle grounds, and soon the Countess comes down to inspect their wares. She is accompanied by four knights, a baronet, and two lady’s maids. The cleric notices that one of the guards is carrying a finely made wooden box, but astonishingly fails to draw the obvious inference. Fortunately the bard picks up the thread; while haggling over the price of their silk he asks the lady if she might have other rare goods to trade instead of coin, a perfectly legitimate question coming from a merchant. She laughs and answers, “Well, yes, and also no,” with a glance towards the box. The rest of the party notices that said box is exactly large enough to hold a helmet.
In a fit of inspiration the bard trades their 2,000 gp of silk for 1,000 gp and an invitation to dinner at the court, allegedly in the hopes of making a good impression on the king for the sake of future business.
That night they return to the castle for a sumptuous meal. The King is friendly enough, asking them about their travels, and is taken by the Bard’s recounting of their adventures in the City of Tomorrow, though he clearly doesn’t believe it. Meanwhile the Ranger has been trying to get the guard holding the box drunk, the Druid is trying to talk finance with the Master of Coin, and the Barbarian has challenged the King to an arm-wrestling match (which, much to his surprise, the Barbarian loses).
The Bard takes this opportunity to fascinate the rest of the King’s retinue, Master Rafal, Countess Fabolia, and Malgorzata. Only the witch fails her save and sits enraptured with his music, but this is good enough: he works in a suggestion that she should show them the Helm, as he greatly desires to look on an object of such beauty and power.
The wizard Rafal perhaps notices this use of spell power, but as it is so mundane in its request he cannot be certain. Malgorzata smiles and casually reaches out to the guard standing behind her with the box; he tries to stop her but has the box in one hand and the Ranger’s mug of ale in the other. She opens the box and pulls out the Helm and places it on her head.
The entire room pauses in appreciation; the Helm is indeed beautiful, studded with diamonds and rubies and opals in a frame of red and yellow gold. But is the sheer staggering power it represents that takes the breath away.
The Cleric, who had been observing quietly in the background, makes a holy gesture in appreciation and smoothly works in a Detect Magic spell. He discovers the Helm indeed is magical, and also that the box all but screams “trapped!”
This is enough for the party; they have found what they came to find. They retire for the night and immediately begin making plans to carjack the Countess on the road. They watch her ride out with a troop of knights and know that they have six days to plan an ambush. The party follows her road until they find a spot far from any village or other habitation.
The Druid, upon discovering the sorry state of the local vegetation (the GM’s attempt to weaken the overpowering Entangle spell), spends his time casting Plant Growth until he has a battlefield full of weeds. He also turns the hard packed dirt road into a soggy mud pit. The Barbarian kicks a wheel off their cart and the Bard makes camp a short distance away. Then they wait.
The column of horses eventually returns, but stops a distance off. Three men ride forward and their leader, a Baronet, issues a command. “Get that cart off the road or lose it.”
“We’re working as fast as we can,” says the Ranger.
The Bard ventures a question. “Is the Countess Malgorzata in your train?”
“Why would you ask,” the Baronet replies, “and why would I answer?” He reaches for his sword.
“We’re friends of hers,” the Bard hastily explains with enough grace that the Baronet pauses.
“Your name,” he demands, and when supplied, shouts it back to the column.
“Yes, I know the man,” comes the Countess’ reply.
The Baronet decides not to murder the Bard and instead sends five of his men to dismount and help move the cart. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult as the party is actually trying to keep the cart on the road while the knights are trying to push it off.
Meanwhile the Bard slips back to where he can see the lady. “I apologize for the delay,” he says, “would you like a cup of tea while we wait?”
The Countess seems willing but the Captain at her side grunts, “No, she would not.”
“Well,” the Bard says, “might I counsel you to ride around? The road has gone to mud and I would not see your clothing stained.”
Again the Countess starts to agree, but her keeper grows even surlier. “No.”
The cart is almost clear; in desperation the Bard asks, “Then may I play you off, as a token of gratitude for your help?”
This time the Countess answers before her guard can. “That would nice.”
Once armed with song, the Bard quickly enraptures the Captain, the Countess, and the knight holding the box. He works in a suggestion: “Perhaps you would spare your horses the danger of an uneven road.” This time it works; the Captain nods absently while staring at his horse. Just as the knights remount after moving the cart, the Captain waves them all off the road and around it.
Of course it is a trap. As the column rides past the Bard he snatches the box from the still-befuddled knight, and the Druid and Ranger entangle the mounted column in writhing over-grown weeds.
The Baronet breaks free, as do four other knights down the column. The Cleric and Barbarian race to their horses and mount, leading the other’s horses back to where the Druid and Ranger are casting spells. The Druid casts another entangle, trapping one of the free knights, but the other three break free again although now they are quite a distance away.
The Baronet looks over his shoulder at the disaster and… spurs his horse to the west, in full flight. “A message for the King!” he shouts as he flees. The Ranger leaps into the saddle and gives chase, his lighter and faster horse hopefully a match for the Baronet’s heavy destrier. The Druid and Bard reach their horses and mount up, but can see the three knights coming back at them with lowered lances. Meanwhile the rest of the column has dismounted and is cutting their way out of the grass, a slow but steady process.
And the Countess Malgorzata stands in her stirrups and cries out. “I counted you friends!” Her red hair billows out around her, charged with magic. She may not have the Helm but she is still a pyromancer of not inconsiderable power.
The party is in the soup: split, flanked, and in the crosshairs of a fire-witch. Not a good situation, but not exactly a new one either.