Player Characters Present
Having spent the last few sessions deep underground slogging their way up to the volcano of Lord Inferno (and other sessions elsewhere); the players, ready for a change of pace, decided to pursue the report of a spy ring in Guarda. They had already established the existence of a dragon cult, and guessed the spies must have some connection they could exploit, if they could catch them.
One it was established that they had obtained all the relevant information from the Guarda Garrison, the party travelled north then east through the mountains until they reached the narrow pass Sever had found. This cleft, at ground level only a few paces wide, cut through the mountain for hundreds of yards, was very tall, and narrowed as it rose above them, like an axe had cut into the mountain from below and split it to the sky.
About half way through the passage, a pack of Ghouls, who had sensed them going past, was spotted by O'Malfoy when Bumblebore sent him back to check on the sudden noises from behind them. This did give them the advantage of the surprise roll happening now, and not later when the party were closer.
(I had a bit of a DM chuckle here when I realised that the players had gone out of their way to avoid going back to the Ghast lair from last session, only to run into Ghouls here)
O'Malfoy strafed the monsters with his fire breath for a pitiful amount of damage, which would none-the-less prove useful later when Bumblebore used Macho Mandalf's Flying Elbow to good effect. They destroyed the ghouls fairly handily, with Giuseppe's holy warhorse, Boncrusher, losing a lot of HP and Giuseppe himself getting paralysed for the second consecutive session (as I could find no rule on how long Ghoul Paralysis lasts, I decided on 1d12 hours for a paladin. He recovered by the next morning, no one having thought to use the fungus on him).
I made a couple of mistakes in this fight, including exempting the dwarf from the effects of the Ghouls' paralysis, but simple hit point loss was as bigger a problem for him anyway. I also wondered later if the monsters should have ignored the mounts and concentrated on human targets. Anyway, these things tend to even out over time.
Sever tracked the ghouls' clawed prints back to a stone stair hidden in the mountain side, which they must have missed earlier but now was obvious. They sent O'Malfoy in to take a look and found a room below holding lots of refuse and the remains of ghoul meals, but no treasure. The only thing of interest was an archway leading east out of the ghoul lair and further into the mountain side.
It was getting dark out, and, not wanting to be trapped by any nightly encounters, they followed to the cleft in the mountain north, to its end, and camped just into the valley beyond.
The night was uneventful, but their morning ablutions were interrupted by a loud roar from the western side of the valley. Sever took to the sky and investigated; finding that the roar belonged a 6 headed Hydra, it was serving itself a breakfast of some herd animals, which were plentiful in the grassy valley. He also found a large cave at the northern end of the valley, the only other obvious way out. It was about this time that Giuseppe could move again. A short but intense debate followed regarding attacking the monster, but they decided to pass. The lure of the possible dungeon behind them proved more attractive.
So, returning to the ghoul lair, they explored for a while and found a series of corridors and another room, this was also filled with refuse. In one of the corridors they found a trapdoor with a stair case going down two levels. This must be the mother load down there, surely!? Sever and Paro descended the stairs, which wound down into an enclosed room. In this room was... a really big pile of refuse, with an Otyugh living inside. At this discovery, something snapped, and the party decided to give up on the place altogether. When they got back outside Sheamus angled the Rocket Cycle's gun and blasted the entrance until it was blocked off.
They crossed the valley and entered the cave, which was very wide and led down to a natural passage, it took them north east some miles. During this period, eventually, after careful checking, they found signs of traffic, since these could not have been erased by the recent storms, perhaps they were made by their quarry? The underground passage terminated after 4 miles, ascending back to the surface via a another wide cave mouth leading outside.
The party caught a glimpse of a similar looking valley beyond, before running into five Displacer Beasts. The creatures were returning from a late breakfast and were covered in the blood of (presumably) herd animals. Likely their lair was somewhere nearby, and, thanks to Sever's Ranger bonus, the party caught the monsters with their pants completely down, and achieved 3 segments of surprise (following Dorrinal's excellent idea, I rolled surprise for both sides this week. Given this result there was no argument from the players).
Everyone made use of the "3 times normal rate of missile fire in a surprise segment" except for Bumblebore, who directed O'Malfoy, and Shaemus, who didn't want to tax the batteries on the Rocket Cycle and so kept to one shot per segment. This meant 18 arrows from Sever and Giuseppe (both with Strength bonus bows, available in Minas Mandalf), 9 flasks of oil from Paro (don't ask how many he carries, I'll have to check encumbrance on that) which he didn't need to set fire to thanks to the flaming breath of O'Malfoy. It was a slaughter; sometimes the combat dice goes that way, and, as they were soon to discovered, so can the treasure dice.
They grabbed the loot from the monsters' nearby lair and left the cave, entering the valley ahead, which was slightly smaller than the one where they had seen the Hydra. They spied a gap in the mountains to the east, which lead away south east; but, still no sign of their quarry, the presumed dragon cultists. Consulting their map they could see that they were almost equidistance from Schloss Ragnar, Castle Irish, Guarda, and the Master of Winter's valley.
A few uneventful miles later that did indeed find they were in familiar territory, not far from the Master of Winter's valley to the east. This conjured some bad memories, and then fanciful suggestions about going and paying him a visit; perhaps leaving a note in his mail box. However, cooler heads prevailed and they restricted themselves to rude gestures and recriminations.
Nearby, Sever spied a glinting light from one of the mountain peaks, a strangely clear ice formation (which he would come back and investigate in downtime).
As the day was mostly spent when they reached Guarda, they chose to spend the night there, before heading back to Schloss Ragnar to sell their treasure. Whether it occurred to them that their quarry could have followed the same route and were back in Guarda themselves, I don't know...