07 October 2007

A Bear in the Hand

As dawn broke over Ganesford on the morning of 15 Lastreap, the Party got a taste of what autumn in the Bjerglands was going to be like. A suddenly chill wind whistled through the shutters covering the second-story windows of Malryn Olgin’s house, driving raindrops between the cracks as the PCs hunched over their gruel and “coffee” (which, in Northern Zare, generally consists of a hideous decoction of burnt bread crumbs sweetened with honey). Their fast broken and ablutions done with, the Party bade farewell to Olgin, loaded their wagon, saddled their steeds and rode over to the Tankard where, the previous night, they had seen the Dwarven Chanter perform.

Bjorn had had a much more pleasant night, wrapped in layers of wool and down-filled cotton, and had woken to the tantalizing odours emanating from a silver tray loaded down with plenty of roasted this and baked that. Well-fed, brushed, combed, and smelling vaguely of attar of roses, he met the rest of the Party in the stableyard of the Tankard, and wished them a cheery “Good morning” as they rode together to the Hospital of the Hand, where they recovered the still-comatose Ankallys from Gyle Fanwaith and his healers. Settling her carefully in the bed of their wagon, well-wrapped against the rain, they turned their faces to the west, and rode along the narrow River Road into the Sweetwaters Vale.

The day passed without incident. The more adventuresome and less patient of our heroes chafed somewhat at the slow pace of the wagon horses, but it was not to be helped; they Party was still transporting more than a thousand pounds of silver, armour, sundry weapons and other brick-a-brack that they had recovered from the wreck of the Sea Wyrm and the Broken Temple of Karg. Not everything was in the wagon, however, Bjorn looked resplendent and awe-inspiring in the ancient, Dwarf-forged armour bequeathed him by the ghost of Ekruhalagar, while Breygon carried the odd little shortsword they had found in the shipwreck. Very little of this was apparent to the casual onlooker, of course, as the adventurers rode wrapped tightly in their oilskin cloaks, hunched over the necks of their horses against the penetrating drizzle.

The evening’s camp was a more pleasant affair. The tents they had been carrying since Fort Ryker gave the Party a dry place to sleep, although there was little possibility of drying their clothing overnight. They set a watch, but nothing disturbed their slumber. Breygon, during his watch, thought that things felt a little “off” in the woods, but it was nothing more than a feeling; mere passing megrims that did not justify disturbing anyone’s well-earned rest.

The following morning brought similar weather, although the rain had been replaced by a chill fog flowing like smoke down the river valley, and clinging to the trees like wisps of spun wool. The mist reduced visibility to the point where Breygon, riding point as usual, heard the commotion long before he saw what was causing it: stamping, shuffling, thumping, and at last, the comforting whinny of dozens of horses. He and Gwen rode on ahead to find a trio of ranch-hands attempting to maintain control of a small herd of horses, jostling each other near where a long lake approached the road. Much to Breygon’s consternation, their leader was a half-orc – a gruff fellow who, despite his looks, spoke fairly, introducing himself and his crew as employees of Sieur Varlgant bringing a herd in to Bymill. And then he pointed out the problem: a small, huddled form curled up on the ground, unmoving, and slicked with blood.

In a flash, Breygon was off his horse. The injured creature was a Wilder Elf, a female, one of the wild tribal scions of the ancient days of Harad. They were not a common sight anywhere in the world, but they still haunted the wild lands here and there. This one was badly wounded; her leather garments were torn to rags, and the flesh beneath them had been savaged by the claws of some fell beast. As the wagon rolled up, Breygon called to Bjorn, and in a trice, the cleric had healed her.

Trouble was, nobody spoke her language (which, of course, was Sylvan). After a few attempts at communicating by hand-signs, Bjorn called upon Esu to grant him the power of comprehension, and he was soon translating her liquid speech for the rest of the Party. Her name, it transpired, was “Apstrasys”, which Lyra recognized as a contraction of the Elven word accipitraces, meaning “Eyes of the hawk”. She had been serving as rearguard for her tribe, the Pardugentis (“People of the leopard”, said Lyra), as they undertook their annual migration southwards, when she and her companion (a snow leopard called Fithayar), were attacked by an enormous bear. The creature, she recalled, shuddering, behaved as no bear should, but was foul-smelling, slavering and insanely vicious. The tribe’s mightiest warriors had already passed, protecting the non-combatants, and with the remainder of the younger warriors, she and Fithayar threw themselves into its path to allow them to escape. Many of the younger warriors were killed; but Apstrasys, more skilled than most, survived, although she does not know how she escaped, or indeed how she ended up near the River Road.

At this point, the Half-Orc leader of the horse wranglers spoke up. “Belike she came downstream,” he grunted, pointing to the far end of the lake, where a quick-running river splashed down out of the hills. “The water’d break her scent-trail, and it’s running fast enough to bear a little tyke like she a goodly ways.” Then he eyed Breygon warily and added, “We’re behind our time already, sirs. If you’d take it from here, I’d be obliged.”

Breygon, who recognized a story hook when he saw one, nodded curtly and replied, “Be on your way, then.” As the wranglers rounded up the horses and moved off westwards, the Party continued questioning Apstrasys. She had no idea what happened to her tribe, although she assumed that they went on, or her companion, Fithayar. Despite her fatigue and remaining wounds, she adamantly insisted on determining the answer to both questions. Ever alert to the importance of maintaining the natural balance of the world, Breygon agreed with her, although more out of a concern about finding out what was wrong with the bear that had attacked them than for any other reason. The rest of the Party was amenable, and so, ranger and Wilder Elf in the lead, and working on the assumption that Apstrasys had floated downriver after being wounded, they circled the lake, and after parking the wagon, camouflaging it, and hobbling their horses, they began moving up the creek and into the woods.

It turned out that the half-orc’s surmise was correct (always trust the DM to have a NPC ready to point out the next step in the adventurer when the party is standing around trying to figure out where to go next); Apstrasys had indeed floated down the swift-running creek. Breygon found blood smears on some of the rocks, and they followed the mountain stream uphill for the next hour or so. More bloodstains showed where the Wilder Elf had crawled into the creek, and a few moments later, they picked up the bear’s backtrail.

Breygon immediately noticed something wrong: the bear was sick. It’s trail was marked with a lingering stench of disease and decay, and fouled with the odd blob of greenish pus. This was an easy trail to follow, and after a half-hour’s climbing, they reached a low cliff opening that could only be the creature’s lair.

Weapons drawn, the Party advanced to the cave. Breygon and Gwen led the way. The cave mouth itself was relatively low, only about 5’ high and 15’ broad, but the cavern beyond was much larger. It was not a pleasant place; the stone floor was befouled with patches of dried blood and the same sort of viridian ooze that they had found marking the bear’s trail, and clots of fur clung to the rough stone walls. Even to the uninitiated, the atmosphere was horrid; dank air, the stench of rotting flesh and foul water…and something else: a heavy, oppressive feeling, as if something was drawing the very life out of the air in their lungs.

Stepping over a wrack of torn and sundered bones representing the gnawed carcasses of deer and other forest animals, Breygon and Gwen probed deeper into the cave. A gleam of light caught their eyes and they veered right, entering higher cavern containing a broad, shallow pool of greenish, moss-laden water. Drops fell from the tips of limestone stalactites far overhead, their splashes falling dully into the thick air rather than echoing. The Party examined the pool, finding only skeletons and half-rotted carcasses and a few coins; nobody cared to look any more deeply than that. Bjorn muttered a prayer to the Allfather, begging the ability to see the vestiges of evil with the eyes of the world, but saw nothing in here.

They then proceeded to the west side of the cavern, where things were more interesting. Here they found two large piles of debris: branches, leaves, earth and shrubbery piled high and worked, through long use, into the shape of a bear-bed. That this was the bear’s lair was so patently obvious that Breygon began to get nervous about being caught with his back to a wall, and so he concentrated momentarily, and cast a divination that would allow him to sense the approach of animals.

The heaps were unbelievably foul, containing rotting corpses as well as vegetation – but they caught the eye, for here and there bits of metal gleamed through. Gwen, Lyra and Joraz spent a few moments poking through the debris, coming up with a few odd items here and there, including a scabbarded sword on a gilded belt, and a long, curved staff topped with a razor-sharp blade, that Lyra instantly recognized as a Falx Altus, the Grand Glaive of the Royal Guard of Elvehelm. Bjorn, however, with Breygon behind, followed his divine vision to the far west end of the cavern, where a strange niche lay tucked against the rough stone wall. It was almost like a cage: a small hole, no larger than a wine-cask, had been carved into the stone, so long ago that the dripping water had formed bar-like stalactites over the opening. Peering through the rough stone bars, Bjorn was able to discern an object in the niche: a large, heavy river-washed stone, with a curled fist of black rock perched atop it. The heavy sense of foreboding and doom seemed strongest in this part of the cave.

At precisely this moment, Breygon’s head snapped up. His divine senses had twinged; something was coming, something very, very big, and it was only moments away. The Party disposed themselves around the cavern, spreading out to avoid being taken in one fell swoop. Apstrasys armed herself with her knife and a broken tree-limb, and Gwen concealed herself behind an outcropping of stone. They waited silently. A minute later, they heard a heavy tread, a deep snuffling, and the scraping noise of something forcing its way into a too-tight opening.

When the bear came around the cave wall, they saw at last how big it was: the most dire of Dire Bears, fully 20’ long, and weighing several tonnes at least. And it was in dreadful condition; it’s fur was matted and half-fallen out, blood and pus oozed from suppurating gashes and wounds, and a thick, white ichor dripped from it’s eye sockets, where tiny, blood-maddened orbs gleamed redly. It roared and charged at the intruders that it could smell clearly, but only barely see: Breygon and Bjorn.

The next few moments were chaotic. The cleric and the ranger held the beast largely at bay, aided by Joraz, while Apstrasys and Lyra sniped at its flanks. Gwen darted in behind the beast and landed several cunning blows. At length, after an exhausting minute or so, the creature lay dead, and the Party leaned on their swords to rest and catch their breath.

And then it happened. The bear’s carcass began to twitch, its dead flesh bubbling and roiling, and then burst apart in a welter of blood, shattered organic refuse and maggots. A fell red light glowed from within the sundered corpse, and out of this light a diabolical figure slowly unfolded itself: a man-sized, man-shaped figure, bald and with blank, staring eyes, clad in elaborate, black and green armour festooned with long, razor-sharp spikes. Its hand ended in massive, three-pronged claws. It raised these to the ceiling, and a blinding wave of agony washed over the adventurers, staggering them in their tracks. It stepped menacingly towards Bjorn and Breygon, and the fight was on again. As it raked at them with its claws, Bjorn clubbed the towering creature mercilessly with his hammer, and Breygon hacked methodically at it with his swords. It shrugged off the wounds, moaning with soul-wrenching glee. Lyra spent her last few spells launching Magic Missiles at its back, and Apstrasys threw herself into the fray, and was clubbed to the ground for her pains. Gwen stepped in, slashing at its thighs, and received similar treatment. The Party was in dire straits, until Bjorn landed a final blow with his blessed hammer; and with a deafening shriek of rage, the fiend collapsed in upon itself, and vanished in a hiss of flame, leaving naught behind but the stench of brimstone. And, of course, a lot of rotting bear guts.
(It was this event that is satirized in this little Order of the Stick rip-off).

That pretty much wrapped up the side quest. Bjorn broke out the rest of his healing spells and got everybody sorted out, including Apstrasys, who had taken a few bad hits, both from the diseased Dire Bear, and the nasty fiend they had fought at the last – which, with a quick Knowledge (Religion) check, Bjorn determined to be an outsider known as a Meindraugr – a “Pain Devil”, one of the minions of the Dark, a creature answering to Lycenyllona, the Avatar of Agony.

Holding their noses, the Party then rifled the bear’s bedding one more time for good measure. In addition to the Grand Glaive (an enchanted weapon with the name Novacumactabilis inscribed on its blade) and the gilded sword belt and scabbard containing a number of emeralds (and a broken Masterwork Longsword), they found a few dozen gold pieces; a beaten copper scroll tube; and a small leather-and-wood pouch holding three vials filled with a syrupy white liquid. A few moments of effort also enabled them to wrestle the giant stone hand out of its stalactite cage. Nobody really wanted to take it along, but Bjorn insisted, arguing that it had detected as strongly evil, and he didn’t intend to leave it behind to work more mischief. So along it came.
The trek back down the hillside went a lot more quickly. They found their wagon and horses undisturbed (after all, they’d only been gone a couple of hours), and prepared to depart for Bymill. Apstrasys thanked them for their aid in destroying the wounded bear, and bade them farewell. She would have added that she was going to try to find Fithayar’s body before following her tribe, but by this time Bjorn’s Comprehend Languages spell had worn off, and nobody was good enough at improvised sign language to be able to manage complex sentences, so she simply bowed, and loped off into the woods.

The Party made it back to the River Road without further incident, and continued westwards. Around about noon, they came over a slight rise, and there before them, gleaming like a pebble in a setting of purest brass, lay the town of Bymill, throbbing like a pustulent canker...sorry, I meant 'gleaming jewel'...in the bosom of the Sweetwaters Vale.

But more on that later.

* * * * *


1. Exterior

High, steep hill; lots of trees, vines, etc.

2. Cave entrance

Cave opening is 20’ wide, 12’ high, overhung with roots. Stench of death and decay; piles of bones and stripped, rotting carcases outside.

3. Foul pool

Pool is 2-3’ deep at edges, 10’ deep in centre; fed by slow spring. Stagnant, foul, filled with bones and discarded carcases. Several skeletons with rusted armour; several weapons, mostly rusty and rotting. One MW Light Mace and about 25 GP, 150 SP at the bottom (takes some doing to find – Search DC 20).

4. Bear’s Lair

The bear’s lair is full of dung, garbage, bones, rotting, torn-up carcases and various detritus. There is a 50% chance the bear is absent. If present, it will attack anyone or anything who enters.

(Huge Dire Animal: 20’ long, 10’ high, 6,000 pounds)
HD 12d8+48 (102 HP)
Init +5 (+1Dex, +4 Improved Initiative)
Speed 40’
AC 17 (Size -1, +1 Dex, +7 Nat)
Attacks: 2 claws +18 melee, bite +13 melee
Damage: claw 2d4+10, bite 2d8+5 + disease
Face/Reach 10’x20’/10’
Special Attacks: Improved Grab (if hits with claw attack, gets automatic claw damage next round); Disease (Filth Fever DC 12, 1d3 days, 1d3 Dex/1d3 Con)
Special Qualities: Scent (Detect opponents within 30’); DR 10/+1; SR 15; Fear Aura: 20’ radius, Will DC 14 or flee for 1d4 rounds.
Saves: F+12, R+9, W+9
Abilities: Str 31, Dex 13, Con 19, Int 2, Wis 12, Cha 10
Skills: Hide +3, Listen+7, Move Silently+6, Spot+7, Swim+13
Appearance: Bear is enormous, dead black, with spiky, filthy hair matted with blood and gore; foaming at the mouth, eyes are glowing green, with green pus dripping from them; in addition to growling, makes horrific, deafening, shrieking noises.

Bear’s bedding and crap contains:
(1) Search DC 12: a +2 High Elven War Scythe
(2) Search DC 14: a gilded swordbelt and scabbard bearing 8 emeralds (150 gp each) and a broken MW longsword).
(3) Search DC 16: a rotting leather pouch containing 75 gp
(4) Search DC 18: a beaten copper scroll tube containing a Scroll of 3 Spells (Fly, Charm Monster, Stinking Cloud)
(5) Search DC 20: a small, wood-reinforced leather “potion pouch” in good condition, containing 3 Potions of Daylight (if broken, Daylight as cast by 9th level Wizard).


In a rough stone niche along the west wall of this cave is an enormous petrified hand, a clenched stone fist rather three times than a human hand; it looks like it was broken from a larger statue and fixed to a smooth river stone. The hand radiates strong but ancient evil and conjuration magic. This is the Hand of Baalgezael, an evil Cloud Giant sorcerer, an acolyte of Gargarik who lived millennia ago, and who was a specialist in conjuring fiends (Baalgezael was slain by an Ekhani wizard, who turned him to stone, and then smashed the resulting statue apart; some of Baalgezael’s minions made off with the hand, and enshrined it as a holy artefact). It’s only power is that it serves as the focus for summoning devils. Once per year it has a 5% chance of Gating a devil from the Infernal planes into Anuru (roll randomly).


The Hand was enshrined here by the acolytes of Ballgezael during the Eon of Darkness, more than 2000 years ago. They have long since vanished. Some years ago, the Hand Gated in a Meindraugr, and the Dire Bear, who had since moved into the cave, killed it; but its diabolical spirit then possessed the Bear. The Hand can only be destroyed by having Remove Curse (or equivalent) cast on it in a Consecrated area by a Good Cleric. Anyone doing so must make a Spellcraft check of DC 25; failure means that a backlash of profane energy will do 8d6 Vile damage in a 20’ radius, and have the effect of a Desecrate spell of CL 15.