When we left our heroes they were leaving the dubious safety of the village’s largest house, on a reckless mission to close the hell hole. The villagers watched them fade into the darkness beyond the dim glow from the shuttered windows, and the demons circled cautiously in the darkness, grunting and hissing but temporarily cowed enough to restrain themselves from attacking. The party carried lanterns, and a small marsh light sauntered ahead of them under Thyvalt’s control, the pool of light soon lost from view in the deep blackness of this demon-infested night.

As they moved away from the village, the group drew together, their lanterns seeming to dim in the inky darkness, strange sounds disturbing the usual bucolic peace of farms and forests. No frogs croaked; no foxes bayed; no fireflies drew up from the pools and streams of the rice paddies to their left as they walked. Where once Thyvalt had known to expect an ageing, wizened toad to croak resonant grunts at his passing there was only silence. The nightingale in the hedges beyond Linus’s bean fields was obstinately silent, and the owls beyond the carp pool dared not stir. They had entered a liminal space, somewhere between two worlds, and soon they were lost in it, all sight of the village obscured in the mist and the impenetrable shadows. The only sound in this cloistered emptiness was the grunt and hiss of the demons circling beyond the light of their brave lanterns; the only movement the gentle swishing and sighing of the trees, and occasional shapes stirring in the mist – shapes that were darker than night, except where flaming red eyes pierced the gloom. The only reminder of the gentle farming community they had left behind them were the post-markers by the road, which loomed slowly on their left side as they walked, even the comforting fenceposts rendered eery and unnatural in the glow of the witch light and mist.

Cog soon noticed a lull in the hissing and groaning of the lurking demons, and guessed an ambush was coming. He directed the little cluster of mortals off the trail, gesturing for silence and care, and brought them straight on top of a nest of imps lurking near the road. Battle was joined before anyone had a chance to draw breath, and soon over. Lithvard threw a lantern amongst the imps, blinding them in a flare of burning oil and splintered glass, while Cog 11 disappeared into the shadows and Thyvalt drew a useless curse screaming from the netherworld. The imps spread out to attack or spit, and six lumbering dretches dragged themselves out of the shadows to their death. These dretches did not come by choice, but were driven by a giant red flame demon, whipping them with a spiked chain. Ayn called forth the Spirits of the Righteous, and four pillars of fire greeted her entreaties, consuming a dretch and terrifying the others, while Cog 11 appeared from the shadows to gut four of the imps in a sliding, diving whirlwind of wicked knives and mist. Where Ayn’s pillars of fire guttered out they left a huge gap in the mist, and into this gap charged a red-skinned, dog-haired demon, that barked and whumfed its way to its own doom. Lithvard hurled a fire spear at the big demon and Thyvalt yelled imprecations of pain and terror in a desperate voice, hoping to scare away the beasts before they could be surrounded; but to no avail, for these creatures were devoid of fear or mercy. It was then that Syrion hurled himself into the line, singing battle songs in a brave and clear voice, sword singing, drawing all the drenches to him to tear uselessly at his armour. Ayn and Lithvard joined back to back, hurling contrasting bolts of magical energy – one brilliant white and apocalyptic, the other burning with wrathful fire – until all five dretches were thoroughly consumed, their corpses steaming and wreathes of foul-smelling demon-wrack drifting through the mist. Syrion and Thyvalt entered close combat with the giant red demon, but seeing all its minions scattered it turned to flee, taking the dog demon with it. Seeing it injured and terrified the party decided discretion might be the better part of valour, and quickly halted pursuit. They stood on the edge of the road, panting and gasping in the lantern light, Syrion cursing a myriad cuts and small burns and Cog 11 leaning against a fence post, staring into the mist with wide dark eyes.

They moved on. The hell-hole beckoned, a green glow in the mist ahead.

Closer to the hell hole the mist was burnt away, revealing the creek bed limned in green light from the hell hole, over which loomed a scraggly willow tree. The willow tree and nearby bushes were cast into stark relief against the distant fog by the green light of the hole, which scintillated and purred in the shadows of the far creek bank, ominous and impure. As they approached a demon slunk out of the hole and into the mist, reality shimmering disturbingly as it hauled itself through the dimensions and into reality.

Syrion grunted and charged forward, his sword leaving a trail of sparks on the stones of the creek bed as he rushed in to guard the hole. Everyone else followed, trying to hold their fear at bay as they realised that the creek bed was now swarming with demons, materialising out of that hideous gap in space and time as the characters attacked. The two demons they had fought before came crashing through the brush of the far side of the creek to join the battle, as a hell hound and a green-skinned, spiky human-like thing popped out of the whole, stinking of sulphur and rot and snarling with anger. The green thing, the red winged monster and its dog-haired friend all attacked Syrion, determined this time to snuff him out; the hellhound struck at Thyvalt. Syrion, laying about him with his sword, yelled to Thyvalt and Ayn to begin the ritual, but they refused to leave him, and joined battle. Ayn called on her gods, who were apparently more terrified of demons than she, for they abandoned her and her flame pillars fizzled uselessly in the demonic mist. The great red thing took a vicious swipe at Lithvard, a blow so ferocious it would surely have killed the little druid, but Syrion stepped in at the last moment and took the brunt of it on one armoured shoulder, grunting as something important gave way inside his enormous chest. Somewhere a demon cast a spell, and Thyvalt began attacking Lithvard, useless in his confusion but a confusing threat nonetheless. While Lithvard struggled with Thyvalt to try and bring him back from darkness, the dog-haired demon turned on Syrion, halberd striking at shield and armour. Ayn continued to aid him, striking with her sword at any demon that came close enough, while Cog tried to ambush the big red thing and Syrion desperately fended off a cascade of monstrous blows. The demons were grinding them down, but somehow they fought them off. Syrion smashed the halberd-wielding dog-haired demon and Cog disembowelled the green-skinned thing, appearing out of the mist at its feet and gutting it from hip to hip. Thyvalt recovered from his confusion and he and Lithvard dispatched the others – just as a new beast, made entirely of mist and shadows, appeared from the deeps. Gasping with exhaustion, everyone turned on it and cut it to ribbons before it could even fully draw itself from the hole, and for a moment the creek bed was suffused with calm, a calm broken only by the gentle hissing, popping, groaning sound of dying demons dissolving and rotting and returning to their foul brood nests.

Time being suddenly on their side, Thyvalt and Ayn began the ritual. Thyvalt plunged his sword into the ground, and Ayn began chanting, clutching the sword and swaying from side to side, looking for all the world like a singing shade in her uniform of flowing black robes, dimly illuminated in the sickly green light of the hell-hole and swathed in mist. Lithvard noticed something about the tree and began to investigate it. While this was happening more demons started dragging themselves from the hole, and Syrion, Thyvalt and Cog set about the unpleasant business of slaughtering them as they came.

A grim and desperate battle followed, as new demons emerged from the hole only to be cut down by the three defenders, who began to suffer increasing damage from the claws and teeth of the fiends. Clouds gathered and mist began to swirl around the fixed point where the sword was embedded in the ground. The sword itself had begun to glow red hot, and Ayn was trembling and shaking in fear. Glowing glyphs appeared and hung in the air, shimmering in the mist, forming a tenuous pattern in the air around the sword. The ground began to rumble and the hell-hole grew gradually brighter, becoming so bright that the branches of the willow tree cast shadows on the overhanging clouds. As Syrion, Cog and Thyvalt fought on, Lithvard talked to the tree and Ayn chanted, and the glyphs began to pulse in unison. Ayn’s voice grew in strength, and she hurled an imprecation at the sky:

Thou shalt not envy the light, thou shalt not spread thy demonic blight.
Thou shalt not defile what is right
Thou shalt perish in the night

More demons began clambering from the hole, but now the mist and the overhanging clouds were beginning to be sucked into the hell-hole, stray tendrils at first and then larger, thicker strands of mist as the hell-hole began to swirl and groan. Syrion slew the last extant demon, and the demons crawling out of the whole began to waver, fighting now against some powerful force from below that gripped them and began to stretch them. They screamed and struggled, but to no avail – Ayn’s wrath had them now, and the sword was flaring up with purpose. The tree began to move under Lithvard’s guidance, its roots reaching out to curl around the whole and choke it off, entangling the emerging demons and drawing them back in, choking and breaking as it did so. Its branches grabbed arms and spines, tearing them off and beginning to seal up the hole. Demons screamed and the hole began to narrow, glowing brighter and roaring like the wind through doorway in winter. The tree roots tightened their grip, and horrible crunching sounds and screams resounded through the creek as the demons met their horrible end. Moments later, with an anti-climactic sigh and a blink, the whole was gone. Our heroes stood in an empty, darkened creek bed, blinking at the darkness and tripping over the roots of an old, hoary willow tree. The battle was over. They had prevailed!

Exhausted, they lowered their weapons. Syrion, covered in bruises and scratches, shoulder broken, battered beyond mortal endurance, sank down onto his shield and then, with a shudder, fell sideways, to lie on the dusty ground moaning and gasping. Ayn fell to her knees, shaking in terror at things only she had seen. Lithvard leaned against the tree, panting and muttering his thanks, while Thyvalt looked around in exhausted wonder. Cog 11 emerged from the mist, flicking demon ichor from his face and panting, though unhurt.

They had closed a hell-hole.

Somewhere far away, the hooded servant of a giant dragon approaches it, bows and speaks. “My lord, shall we execute the plan? All arrangements are in place.” The dragon moves its huge eye slowly, alien iris narrowing so that only the narrowest slit of black cut through the gold of the iris. “No,” it hissed, the very ground trembling at the restrained power of its mighty voice. “It is too late. The scent is gone.”

The characters knew nothing of these icons. They rested on the creek bed until some of them had  regained a little strength, and then carried Syrion back to the village. They emerged into the village square with the first light of dawn, Syrion still unconscious on a makeshift litter, groaning in pain and exhaustion.

They had closed a hell-hole. They had prevailed against all the forces of hell. What next for them? They could feel it moving now – some fate had them in its grip. Where would it take them, and what would become of them? Only time, and many adventures, would tell…

[I’m splitting the session report for Eroding Empire session 2 into two parts, because one was a large battle deserving of its own post]

At the end of the first session of the Eroding Empire, our heroes had just killed a brace of demons, but had suddenly realized that in the heat of battle they forgot to guard Thyvalt’s father. They dashed to his home, fearing the worst, but found him unharmed in his bed, trying to drag himself a little more upright. Once they had assured themselves of his safety, he declared “More will come!” and then whispered in aggrieved tones,

“They didn’t keep their word!”

Everyone stopped their fussing to look at him. Seeing he had an audience, he sagged back into his mattresses and said in a low voice, “Let me tell you a tale of treachery and hard choices, son.”

Many years ago, before Thyvalt was born, the village and its area experienced a terrible drought. For several seasons there was almost no rain, and in the second year the bad weather brought plagues of insects and rats. At first they thought the village could weather it; then they thought they could buy food from other towns like Tameron, but those towns began to sell food at too high a price. In the third year some of them left looking for work to support them until the drought broke, but they returned broken with tales of hardship and failure. After this they began to think that the town was doomed, and Thyvalt’s parents were considering leaving the village to find somewhere new to live when a strange woman came to the town, promising to restore the balance to the weather and replenish their fields. Her price was steep but they were desperate, so they agreed to pay it.

The woman invoked a ritual of fertility that was shocking and horrific, and so disturbing that though Thyvalt’s father remembers it as if it had just happened yesterday, he refused to speak of it to his son. Suffice to say it was a thing of horror. But it worked, and the villagers woke a day later to find the town’s fields and farms restored, a gentle and refreshing rain drifting over fertile land eager to be tilled. The woman left that same morning, and the villager’s counted their blessings … until they realized that she had opened a hellhole in the willowgrove down by the old creek. It was then that the monsters started to come …

Again, Thyvalt’s father groaned and whispered accusingly, “They didn’t keep their word!” But they had no time now to ask him more – out in the shadows they heard more demons howling. Another wave had come! Our heroes rushed to the door and looked out into the mist-shrouded night, to see more beasts gathering on the edge of the square. Realizing they couldn’t hope to make a stand all night against these creatures with an elderly man to protect, Syrion charged boldly across the open square to a large house on the far side, where the villagers had gathered together in false hope of safety in numbers. He banged on the door and raged until one of the bolder villagers slid a window open a tiny distance and, poking his nose out behind a knife, whispered a query. Syrion demanded that they let the old man in, and threatened to tear the building down around them if they did not comply. This doughty villager immediately agreed to Syrion’s request, and quickly slid the window shut. Gesturing madly to his fellows, Syrion moved into the middle of the open square to take a defensive position.

The others rolled Thyvalt’s father in a sheet and began shuffling across the square towards the house. As they reached Syrion a new horde of demons burst from the shadows to attack: 5 imps, a minotaur-like red-skinned demon, and a grey-skinned, winged thing that looked as if it had stepped straight from a picture book by that new-fangled Axis artist Dante. The imps spat some kind of gore that hit Cog 11 and made him retch, but before they could press the advantage Syrion was at the throat of the grey winged devil, slashing and hacking. Cog 11, hoping to make some distance towards the red-skinned bull demon, tried to slide under the old man in his sheet, which Thyvalt and Ayn were still carrying, but somehow tangled in the sheet and pulled the old man free. Thyvalt and Ayn, relieved of their burden, were now free to join the fight … was this a blunder of Cog 11’s, or some cunning plan to sacrifice the old man so as to guarantee the support of his allies …? Thyvalt, Ayn and Lithvard now began throwing spells at the demons, and Cog 11 slid into the mist to prepare an ambush. All of this frenzied activity happened under the continued barrage of toxic vomit from the little imp creatures, but their aim was poor in the darkness and mist and confusion, and they were forced to scatter under Thyvalt and Lithvard’s magical attacks. Ayn left Thyvalt’s supine father to fend for himself and made battle with the red bull-demon, which Cog-11 had ambushed to some effect, slicing it from hoof to groin.

After a few more moments of desperate struggle the tide turned. The final imp was scorched to death by a fire spear, icy hands appeared from the darkness to tear the red demon apart, and Syrion was able to kick the grey winged thing to the ground and decapitate it. The PCs’ battle cries, grunts and gasps fell still, and they stood in the mist panting and shaking, as the demon bodies suppurated and fumed into nothingness around them. But this time they had no time for congratulations or reflection – demons continued to gather, and they had an old man to protect. They gathered him up and carried him gently across the rest of the square, their ferocious victory having briefly quelled the demons’ appetite for blood. After only a minimum of banging and threats, the courageous villager opened the door to the house and ushered them in. They rushed in, depositing Thyvalt’s father by the fire, and stood to find the village’s full but tiny complement staring at them, as if they were the demons. Cog 11, looking around at them all, whispered to Syrion in a perhaps-too-audible voice, “Beat the elderly until they tell you what you need to know. I check defenses,” and disappeared to inspect the house. Thyvalt and Lithvard set about making Thyvalt’s father comfortable, while Ayn took guard at the door.

Cog 11 returned shortly to announce that the house was indefensible and vulnerable to fire. He may also have suggested forcing the villagers outside as a distraction so that the group could escape, though no one seemed to pay him any heed. Instead, they decided they would have to find and destroy the source of the demons – the hellhole. Thyvalt’s father told them the next instalment of his sad but predictable story of a contract gone bad.

After the woman left, the monsters came. Just a single little slimy thing at first, we killed it and thought it a strange beast. But then there were more, and soon we realized they were demons. What had we done? We paid this woman all our savings in good faith, and she gave us what we wanted at a price she knew we would pay with our lives!? At first the demons just terrorized our livestock, which we had saved at such cost … but soon they took the first of us, and our lives became a hell of furtive farming, occasional deaths, and night terrors.

Until the Crusader’s Knights came. They clattered into the village one evening just as we were returning, weary and wary, to our homes to begin the long, hard watch of the night. They rode huge black horses with fiery red eyes, their hooves striking sparks on our only cobbled road, the riders inscrutable in glyph-adorned armour of shining black. They rode into our square and cantered about it in a rough circle, whooping and hollering, and we were all sure that our time had come. We cowered in our houses, terrified at the form our death would come in. Would they torture us? Feed us to their fell horses? Or worse? But then their captain, a towering giant of a man, dismounted from his gigantic demon horse and strode up to my door. He banged on the door, declaring himself to be a captain of the Crusader’s Knights Eternal, and ordering me to open the door. Of course I did not, so he smashed it in with a word, and strode into my kitchen where I cowered against the bench.

And it was there, in that kitchen, that the deal was made. I don’t know if he chose me through chance or some evil purpose – perhaps someone needs some innate seed of evil that he can nurture, or perhaps I was just the closest door to his evil horse. No matter. He told me he would close the hellhole and destroy all the demons roaming our fields, but in exchange I would have to give up my first born son to the Crusader. Is this how that fell Icon recruits his servants? I confess I did not ask many questions – it was an offer I felt I could not refuse. I should have asked him to find and kill the woman, but I didn’t. Instead I just gave him you, my Thyvalt, though you were not yet born. He laughed, a booming, chilling sound with no humour in it, spat on his great palm and clasped my hand, promised me a long life and a good one, and strode out the door without looking back. And by morning the hellhole was closed and there were rotting piles of demon flesh scattered around our demesne. We never again saw the demons, and once we had summoned up the courage to go down to the willowgrove we saw it free of the hole that had been summoned there. We were saved. The following year you, my son, Thyvalt, were born, and lost to me the moment I saw you were a boy.

But I don’t regret having a child, even should you turn to evil. What I do regret is that I never bargained that blackhearted bastard into promising to close the hellhole permanently. He cheated me, and if you do enter the Crusader’s service I hope you can find him and extract payment!

So, our heroes have to do the job of 20 of the Crusader’s priests, by dawn. Fortunately, they were prepared. Thyvalt possessed a strange sword that he had received many years ago from his master but which he had always felt had some malevolent power contained in it. He also had a long history of fighting demons away in his sleep. Ayn was in close accord with the gods of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death – surely ready allies when a hellhole needs to be closed – and she was well versed in the mysteries of conjuring and abjuration, for her cult were steeped in ancient learning. If they could embed the sword in the hole, and fend off the demons while Ayn invoked the proper prayer, they might be able to close it. No one liked the thought of what would happen if they failed, out there on their own in the dark, but what choice did they have? They had to close it, so close it they would.

Between them, Ayn and Thyvalt put a magic circle around the building that would last until dawn. The group armed themselves, looked back on the terrified villagers, and stepped out into the darkness…

A harbinger of what ...?

A harbinger of what …?

The eroding empire campaign begins in the rain-washed aftermath of the Black Company’s raid on the Doomsday Cult, which was the event that drew our PCs’ disparate lines of fate together. Having fled the Black Company raid, our PCs rested briefly in a clearing some distance from the Doomsday Cult stockade, eying each other suspiciously. The characters were:

  • Thybalt, Tiefling warlock
  • Lithvar, Wood elf druid, the pivot around which all our fates had been drawn together
  • Syrion Dessair, a human paladin who, were he forced to admit to a god that he serves, would probably say “Myself”
  • Ayn (pictured), a human cleric of the Doomsday cult, swathed in black robes and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally
  • Cog 11, a gnome rogue who had decided, on an impulse, to desert his position as scout for the Black Company, and join this strange bunch of wanderers

Though the group mostly shared a common link with Lithvar, Ayn did not, and had only briefly known Syrion (whose motives were, typically for him, very base) and Tyhalt, not the most trustworthy of acquaintances. Thrown in with this strange band, she was even less inclined to trust the scarred and diminutive gnome with the ice-blue, frozen eyes who had led the Black Company to destroy the only good life she had ever known.

No matter! Cog 11 pointed out to everyone that when the Black Company is tasked with destroying a cult, it at least tries to do the job properly, and would be scouring the land for survivors at first light – they needed to get out of this area as quickly as possible and find the relative safety of a town. Lithvar, knowing the area slightly, recommended Tamaran, and after a little pushing and argument they agreed to set out immediately for Tamaran.

Our GM prepared a description of the journey, which I present here:

You set out from the campsite towards Tameron. Everywhere you look you see evidence of last night’s storm, with fallen branches scattered about and dank ground muddy underfoot. Rainwater continues to drip off the leaves above you.

It doesn’t take you long, though, before you can see the sunlight through the trees in front of you. It feels good as you step out of the forest and into the sunlight. You’re greeted with the view of a grassy green valley lying before you, with Tameron lying just a short walk below. A small huddle of buildings lies peacefully in the center of the valley. It is mid-morning and the sun has already begun to dry the muddy roads. You enjoy a cool breeze as you make your way down to Tameron, sticking the edges of the road where the mud has already hardened.

As you approach the town you are reminded of just how good life can be in the Dragon Empire these days. Farmers are hard at work, their ploughshares swinging at the ground semi-rythmically as they prepare their fields for the planting. A boy of about ten herds a flock of geese past you, at first staring at Ayn as he approaches, but then nodding politely as he passes.

Further in town more people are out and about. Some people are picking up roofing shingles that must have come loose in last night’s storm. One man loops a shingle onto the roof of a nearby house, where another man takes it and starts hammering it into place.

A small group of kids skip by, with a chubby boy lagging behind them slightly. They stop and taunt him, and hold out something as if to say “You want this? Ok, come and get it!” and then start running away again. As the red-faced boy sighs resignedly and waddles off after them again, his rotund body turns your thoughts again to how good the people of the Dragon Empire have it these days. Although they are far from wealthy, barely one step above poverty, it’s been many a generation since famine or even plague visited, and war is kept to minor skirmishes on the borders of the Empire, barely effecting the lives of the common folk. Considering the long history of the 13 Ages of the Dragon Empire, a tubby kid in a town like Tameron is a rare – and joyous – thing indeed.

The kind of description that encourages suspicions of impending destruction … Nonetheless, our heroes needed somewhere to hide, so they marched steadfastly into the town, looking for breakfast and if possible somewhere to hide. Soon after they arrived, as they stood in the main square waiting for the nearest tavern to open, they heard a disturbance and saw a boy riding pell-mell into the town, yelling something about destruction and chaos. Cog 11, suspecting the worst, slid into the shadows behind a verandah. Sure enough, the boy had rushed to town to report the destruction of the Doomsday Cult, which the townsfolk had been quite fond of. People gathered and voices were raised in favour of taking a group to the Stockade to look for survivors. Syrion spoke out against this, pointing out that the Black Company and its camp followers would be hungry for loot and unsure of who was a cultist – best to wait. With this counsel dispensed, the party retired to the tavern to enjoy breakfast.

While they were eating breakfast, a local rube entered the tavern and began reading a tale of sexual transgression involving a young knight and two ladies-in-waiting. Syrion turned bright red; though he did not tell the other characters, someone has somehow managed to document all of Syrian’s romantic exploits in painful detail, and is now distributing scrolls throughout the land depicting his scarlet adventures. Try as he might, Syrion is unable to find the source of these pornographic missives, and though he once again tried to identify the source with this latest reader, he learnt nothing. Of course the listeners did not know the stories concerned this particular visiting Paladin, and simply laughed uproariously at the ribald humour of the thing. A strange fate indeed, to be renowned across the land for this kind of night-time swordsmanship, but unknown to everyone.

During breakfast, a local farmer recognized Thybalt, who is unmistakable as the tiefling lad who used to live in a village not one day’s ride from Tameron, and told him that his father was near death three months ago. With little else to do, the characters decided to accompany Thybalt back to his village, to see if his father was still alive and if he needed any help. However before they set off they decided to return with Ayn, the Tameron sheriff and a group of villagers to the ruined stockade, judging it now safe from Black Company soldiers. They arrived to find a scene of complete destruction, the stockade and buildings collapsed in smouldering ruins and the open areas of the encampment scattered with dead cultists, all hacked and mutilated by camp followers seeking rings, gold teeth and hidden treasures. Ayn drifted around the stockade in bewilderment and shock, looking at the ruins of what her life could have been and stopping to shed tears over every member of her little cult. The irony of a Doomsday cultist distressed at the end of the world as she knew it was not lost on her new comrades, but they waited patiently for her to attend to her grief.

When her grief was done it turned to anger, and Ayn began invoking a ritual pledge of vengeance, calling upon the names of her apocalyptic gods to bless her in a quest for revenge. The sheriff, seeing this, attempted to force a deal out of her: that she would not turn vigilante if he would prevent the townsfolk from disturbing and robbing the bodies of her dead fellows. She agreed readily, though as the group left the ruined stockade she told them she would obey no promise to any mortal power, and only pledges to her dark gods counted for her loyalty.

A point that was well noted by her new comrades, no doubt.

From the stockade they traveled to Thybalt’s home village, arriving in the late evening to find a tiny hamlet of just a single cluster of large farming houses. They were greeted with suspicion and coldness – Thybalt was never welcome here – but Thybalt was led into his father’s house, to see the slowly crumbling ruins of his once strong and vibrant father. The old man lay on a pile of blankets and mattresses in one corner of the room, no longer able to climb the stairs, and only moved feebly when the PCs entered. A few villagers came with them bearing food, and sat around to eat as Thybalt’s father told him the true story of at least a part of his origins…

Before Thybalt was born the village was in danger from evil, and Thybalt’s father made a deal with the Crusader to protect the village. To fulfill his pact he simply had to give the contents of a small sandalwood box to Thybalt. He gestured to the box, a non-descript thing on top of a cupboard that had probably sat there all through Thybalt’s childhood, undisturbed in its mundanity. Thybalt took down the box, opening it to reveal a scroll. Like a classic knave, he unrolled the scroll and read it. Two words leapt out in swirls of golden light and swam into his eyes; with all the wisdom of corrupt youth, Thybalt immediately blurted out the words.

As soon as he uttered the words, growling them out in some ancient and sinister tongue, three things happened in three different far away places:

  1. Somewhere deep and dark, a figure reads a book at an altar. Behind the figure is a grey wall. As the figure reads the wall folds slowly away, and the grey mass is revealed not to be a wall at all, but the scaly lids of some vast and terrifying eye. The lids open further, and a huge golden lizard eye swims into view. “It has awakened …”
  2. Somewhere else, outside in a grim and windswept plain. Three rocks stand in a line in a rocky, scrubby part of this barren expanse. After a moment the middle rock vibrates, begins to hum, and then explodes. Where the rock stood a vortex opens, its swirling colours a gate into …
  3. Thybalt hears a voice inside his head. “Who has called me?” it asks in a rattling, hollow tone. Thybalt, again showing the good sense that only youth can give, tells the voice his name. “Thybalt the untitled one. Why have you awakened me?” “It is an ancient pact,” replied Thybalt, opting again for truth over wisdom. “I see… There is much I must teach you.”

Though not cognizant of the distant eye and its import, or the vortex on the plains, the others did hear Thybalt say those words, and watched him sink into a trance. When he awoke he was … changed.. in fact, awoken into his Warlock powers.

Satisfied that nothing too unusual had happened – beyond one of their group binding himself to an ancient evil in exchange for a few weak curse powers – the group settled to sleep the night away, falling into slumber near Thybalt’s father’s slowly dying fire, and Thybalt’s slowly dying father. They did not sleep long though, before they were all woken by a high-pitched and terrified scream.

They tumbled outside to find a woman standing near the house, pointing into the open area that all the houses were built around. The night had brought with it a low mist that hung thick and still over the ground, and here in the middle of this small square lay a dead horse, gutted and still steaming, half protruding from the mist. A monstrous red semi-humanoid lizard-thing squatted in front of it, noisily indulging itself on the poor horse’s innards. When the characters moved towards it it fled into the mist and shadows on the edge of the village, but not to escape – oh no, now it was joined by some fellows, that prowled on the edge of the square.

Instinctively the party came together, forming a tight, outward-facing circle. Only Cog 11 chose not to join his comrades in the defensive circle: he preferred to trust concealment in the darkness and the mist than to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his new comrades. Besides, he figured, he would be a more effective combatant if the enemy did not know where he was. He just hoped that these un-Godly beasts used their eyes to see, and not some other sense.
 
Fear gripped the party as they peered out into the darkness, catching fleeting glimpses of shadow-like movement. Something, or somethings were out there, waiting for the opportunity to strike out of the darkness. They knew little of infernal or otherworldly creatures, and their fear of the unknown was almost paralysing. A trembling hand held the only lantern aloft above the center of the circle, sending trembling shadows rippling in all directions, only to rest on the thick, roiling knee-height mist. 
 
Two of the party members, however, were able keep their composure a little more easily than the others. Thybalt had seen these creatures before. They were the same creatures from the hauntings: the ethereal visitors who came to Thybalt in his night to loom menacingly over his bed. Only this time, these monsters seemed somehow… different … their simple physical presence, lifted from dreams and made flesh, emboldened Thybalt – what he could not confront in dreams he realized he could easily kill in the flesh. And there was no trembling in Syrion’s hands as he boldly held his sword forward, ready to pounce. For better or for worse, this boy knows no fear, and was looking forward to the opportunity to demonstrate to the Empire what a fearsome defender of the weak he is.

Moments later two great flame-limned dogs leapt into the square and attacked our heroes. They were followed by a strange, sluggish semi-humanoid creature seemingly made of tar, that sludged its way in from the shadows towards the party. From another direction that red-skinned humanoid lizard came loping out of the shadows on all fours, carrying a spear. Battle was joined!

The fight was short but brutal. After a few passes, Thybalt tried out his new powers, wrapping one of the flame-dogs in shadow-magic that extinguished the dog’s hellfire and tore the dog apart. Cog 11 drifted out of the shadows past the second flame-dog, which sank moments later into the mist, its flames banked and its innards sliding out of several deep cuts to steam in the mist. Ayn called upon her Gods of the End to bless her, and hurled a brilliant shaft of light through the the red lizardman, striking him dead as if he had been hit by a white-hot comet. Finally, Cog 11 hurled a chakram into the head of the tar-man, slicing the top of its head off. Bereft of strength, it slowly oozed out into a puddle in the thinning mist.

Catching their breath as they stood back to back, peering out into the darkness for the next attack, it slowly began to dawn on them that they were still alive. Some of them may have been in life-threatening situations before, and perhaps some of them had even experienced a violent attacker had trying to rip their lives from them before, but for all of them, this was the first time they had stood up to such a threat and defeated it. A combination of adrenaline and fear saw their bodies trembling in the light of the lantern, sending ripples out on the surface of the mist below them. They were alive, which was both a relief and somewhat exhilarating. Drawing breath, they looked around at each other, and for a moment they all drew strength from each others’ position in that circle of belonging. They had done it, and they had done it together.
 
Congratulating themselves on their first successful battle, the group began to clean up. But then, as if the whole group suddenly realised something simultaneously, they exchanged nervous glances with each other before they wordlessly turning their heads in unison toward the wooden shack where Thybalt’s father lay. They had left it unguarded… 

 

Background to our new 13th Age Campaign, written by the GM …

Empires are born, empires grow, and empires fade away. This is an undeniable fact. You can ask any library-dwelling scholar mage and they will tell you that history dictates this so.

An empire begins with the dream of a better world, and is forged with the sweat and the blood of the countless. Under the guidance of wise leaders, chaos is given order, the people become organized, and peace, and prosperity follow. Yet, power and wealth inevitably leads to hubris, to the belief that now is the time when the forces of history can be brought to heel, that this is the eternal empire. This hubris makes us blind to unavoidable urges such greed, lust for power, insecurity, pride, jealousy as they strengthen across the empire. They begin as a small stream, but they soon grow to a mighty river, sweeping across the land eroding the empire away. When the erosion is complete, all that remains are vague memories of a once all-powerful empire and some crumbled ruins hidden deep a distant jungle.

The land in our story has seen an empire crumble twelve times, but twelve times it has also seen a new empire rise again from the ashes, each time heralding a new Age.

The empire in the 13th Age is known as the Dragon Empire. It is a place of order, and a time of prosperity. A benevolent Emperor sits on the throne in Axis, overseeing the government that works to maintain the order across the Dragon Empire. A kind and just Emperor, he has born the burden of the Dragon Empire for many years and has had to make many sacrifices for her.

However, maintaining peace and prosperity across the Dragon Empire is not a burden that the Emperor carries alone. The Archmage and his Order Magus work tirelessly to tame the forces of nature and harness the power of magic to make the Dragon Empire a safer and more pleasant place to live in. The High Priestess and her Church have devoted their lives to the spiritual protection and spiritual development of the citizens of the Dragon Empire. And the Great Gold Wyrm’s selfless sacrifice and the efforts of the Ordo Aurum keep the forces of Chaos at bay.

Will these four pillars be able to resist the forces of history and make the Dragon Empire the eternal empire? Or are the forces of history already at work, eroding the empire from within and from without? That is our story to tell.