Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #20: Too Much Climbing

The Stairs
"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 4.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 1; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 4.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 4; and Zafira, camel mount.

Last time, our heroes came within sight of the Shalash Escarpment. They killed some hyenas in order to secure their intended camp site, and the next day fought several undead--and their master, Ragalash--on their way to the base of The Stairs.

The four PCs had little difficulty following the caravan's tracks through the gullies, and caught up with the kobolds at a point where they would have to emerge from cover before advancing further. This last short leg before reaching the Stairs was barren and rocky, with little to hide them until they entered the base of the steep ravine that formed the lower part of the route up the Shalash Escarpment. There was an obvious path across the rocky terrain here, worn smooth by long use as a caravan trail. The kobolds were very jumpy as they emerged into the open to follow this path, despite the dark of a moonless night and having their larger escorts back with them again. Fatou sent out her owl as a scout again, but the familiar found nothing to panic her this time.

Just before the entrance to the ravine, two broken and very worn stone statues of dragons flanked the path. Both were missing most of their wings, and bits of their tails and crests, and the head of one lay in fragments beside it. The kobolds calmed down as they approached these monuments, and half-bowed as they passed between them. The merchant Vartoranax gave Tyrrentyg some small object, which the herald carried to the more intact dragon and placed inside its mouth before rejoining the caravan.

The PCs were curious about these dragons, and moved closer to the one Tyrrentyg had approached. The statue was huge--easily 15-20 feet from snout to tail. The statue still retained enough of its crest of horns that Fatou could identify it as a brass dragon, a desert-dwelling species of metallic dragon (and therefore usually good-aligned). Edel guessed that the sculpture was at least five centuries old--which would predate the emergence of orcs or kobolds from the Underdark, early in the Third Age (and not long after humans first reached the continents of Iath and Hemut). The group could see a tiny pouch in the statue's mouth, but judged it best to not interfere with what they assumed was a religious observance by the dragon-worshiping kobolds.

They then went to look at the other statue. Despite its poor condition, including some deliberate vandalism (especially around the broken neck), the bard and cleric easily identified it as a blue dragon--the more commonly known variety of desert dragon (and being chromatic, almost always evil). Jumari made a clumsy attempt to climb onto the dragon's back and eventually succeeded, and took a moment to look around from this higher point. She saw little of note beyond the kobolds watching as they continued walking, pointing at her and talking amongst themselves.

The heroes soon rejoined the caravan, and began the ascent of The Stairs. The path was steep, especially at first, and followed a series of switchbacks up the cliff face. Some parts of the route showed signs of being worked in the past to make the path easier: it was never too steep or rough that a well-laden pack beast couldn't traverse it, and it was only occasionally narrow enough to require traveling single file. Vartoranax called regular breaks every hour or so, to avoid exhausting his people or animals. Through Tyrrentyg, he asked the larger folk to travel in front of the main group. On past trips, the kobolds had rarely had any trouble come at them from behind once they were on The Stairs, but they sometimes met travelers coming the other way.

After a couple hours, Fatou spotted something small moving among the rocks overlooking the path, pacing the caravan. When the cleric tried to point it out, the creature ducked out of sight. She sent Nochaesh to investigate, but the owl couldn't find whatever Fatou had seen. The other heroes pulled out their ranged weapons, and kept moving. At the next switchback, all but ZhaZha saw it fly across the path ahead of them, moving to the rocks above this next leg of the path. They still could not be sure what it was, but could see that it had wings and a long tail (too long to be a bird).

They spotted the creature again now and then as they continued upward, but it kept its distance. A couple of hours later, Fatou saw it flying away from their route, up and off to the east. This time, she could see that it looked like a tiny dragon in flight, but could not tell its color in the dark. She told her friends, and the caravan's guide, Nylrynn, but decided to wait until later to tell the rest of the kobolds (she saw no reason to get them worked up over nothing). Jumari guessed that it might be a baby blue dragon. ZhaZha expressed a wish to ride it, but Edel pointed out that if it was a dragon, it would not grow large enough for her to ride within her lifetime.

After a couple more hours, the caravan passed a place where another path had split off from the main route up The Stairs, but an old rockfall had buried that fork. Fatou thought the dragon had been headed that way, so the PCs discussed whether to go looking for it. Fatou and Jumari climbed to the top of the near edge of the rockfall, in order to see how far it extended. It looked too difficult for them to cross, as neither of them was skilled at climbing or boulder-hopping. They saw no sign of the dragon, so climbed back down. (To underscore the difficulty of that path, Fatou slipped and fell on the way down, injuring herself.)

The caravan reached the top of The Stairs in the pre-dawn hours. They passed another pair of dragon statues here, but being more exposed to wind and sand, these carvings were even more worn than the two at the bottom. As they approached the kobolds' usual campsite, a rocky overhang a few bowshots from the plateau's edge, the PCs could see a fire and some tents already occupying the space. They decided to go ahead to ask these travelers to share the space, and Nylrynn stayed back to inform the rest of the caravan.

Edel recognized the two tents as being of elven design. Two high elves sat near a campfire, a woman in desert garb and a man in obvious mage's robes. Three cloaked figures with bows hid behind tents, rocks, and brush nearby, but Edel, ZhaZha, and Fatou easily spotted them. Edel led his friends closer, holding out his open hands to show they were empty, and called out a greeting in Elven. The two elves by the fire replied in kind, in an accent the bard instantly placed as being from the southern Fendorlis Forest (his own place of origin). He introduced himself and his friends, gave a brief summary of their travels (omitting any mention of the kobolds for now), and asked for news of his homeland. Fatou translated into Orc for Jumari and ZhaZha. The cavalier had her crossbow out, which she pointedly kept aimed in the direction of one of the hidden sentries she had spotted.

The strangers began to reply, but ZhaZha interrupted to complain about the rudeness of using a language some of them couldn't understand. Fatou tried to smooth things over by repeating the request more diplomatically. The elf woman seemed pained at being addressed in such a way, but switched to Common; her accent in that language was much more pronounced than Edel's, because the bard was better traveled. The woman was Kallerin, a merchant from Fendorlis who was traveling south in the hopes of making new business contacts. Her companion was Bellasor.

Jumari asked Edel in Orc if he was telling them about the kobolds. Bellasor looked at her sharply and asked what kobolds she meant. The PCs explained that they had been hired to guard a caravan of kobolds, who paid well. "And if they're up to something, we'll find out," Edel added. The two elves were clearly unhappy hearing that kobolds were nearby; Kallerin explained that they had come south because that race controlled everything to the north. Edel informed them that part of his reason for journeying away from his home was to find allies who could change that. The merchant asked how many kobolds were in the caravan, and was told about two dozen, including a skilled lizard-riding scout, and a "fat cat" (by which Edel meant the rich merchant). ZhaZha finally stated bluntly that the elves' companions didn't need to stay hidden, and with a sigh, the mage gestured to them. These three, also elves, took up guard stances closer to their charges.

Kallerin and Bellosar excused themselves to step away and talk privately. They did not quite move out of earshot of Fatou's keen hearing; she overheard enough to know they were agitated about being near a group of foul draconians (and their hirelings) that outnumbered them by such odds. The elves returned to confess that they had no wish to remain so close to kobolds. Kallerin asked whether, if her group departed, the PCs could guarantee that they wouldn't be pursued. Edel pointed out that his caravan had just spent the night climbing The Stairs, and none of them had much energy to do more than simply make camp. Jumari suggested that some of her friends could escort them past the caravan, while the others told the kobolds about the arrangement.

While the elves packed up their camp with surprising efficiency, Fatou warned them about the dragon she saw, and she wrote down information about how to contact her mullah, her father, and the caravanserai in Zahallan. She and her friends also warned them of the death cult that operated in these lands. In return, Edel received some news of home: The trade route north from here enters the Fendorlis forest at a town named Galdar, which is occupied by kobolds. There is some resistance fighting in the area, but Kallerin and Bellasor either knew or would say no more about it. They also warned that Galdor was near the edge of Changir, a section of southern Fendorlis infested with orcs who the kobolds were having difficulty pacifying; these orcs have caused them as much trouble as the native high elves.

Bellesor also knew of Dorthyra, the town where Edel had studied at the Akassios Academy before the Zolothi invasion. The mage had sent a few years studying there some decades ago. He was not sure if the Academy still operated. He did know that the force that took the town was led by a half-dragon. He assumed this commander was half kobold; the green dragon Zoloth had been known to give her conquering forces many magical gifts, including some dragon-blooded officers.

When the elves were ready to leave, Edel and Fatou accompanied them, and gave a wide berth to the place where the kobolds were waiting. Once they were well past the caravan, Kallerin took her leave and her party continued towards The Stairs; she did not say where they would be stopping to make their new camp. Shortly after parting ways, Edel and Fatou saw a sixth elf appear from hiding and join them.

Meanwhile, Jumari and ZhaZha returned to the kobolds to tell them that the other group (whose identity they did not share) wouldn't be any trouble, and had vacated the campsite. Once the caravan made camp, the PCs told Vartoranax their wish to rest a day here. They had seen something on the trail that they wanted to check out further, as well as making sure the other travelers wouldn't cause any problems. The kobold merchant grudgingly agreed.

The next day was the new moon, so both Fatou and Jumari spent some time in the early evening performing private rites for their respective religions (Fatou in her tent, Jumari at some distance from camp). After this, the four heroes returned to the blocked path below. They could not see the elves on the trail below them, it being a moonless night, and could see no sign of the dragon they had spotted the night before. On the way back up, Edel wondered aloud if they might be able to get some orc help against the kobolds once they reached Fendorlis. 

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