Before the Black Castle
[Beginning with Kane’s setup, this is the combined “novelized” pre-game roleplay thread that the players in the Black Castle adventure created in our run-up to the game, as Kane makes reference to early in the video. I am posting it with permission from all parties to share with the forum as additional context for the exciting adventure he gamemastered us through. It was an honor to game with each of my co-authors, and I hope this compilation has done their respective contributions justice. Feel free to read this, and then enjoy the video…]
Four stolid soldiers-of-fortune stand in the war room with General Hobb and Commander Kraghorn, leaders of the combined military forces of Grey and Duradin, as they discuss the assault on the Black Castle. They describe the plan of the dawn attack…
“Your team begins its approach to Crask as the armies march their way inland until we reach the Bramble Barrier, a vast forest of thick vines and thorns knotted together and very difficult to cross en masse.”
“To make matters worse, once we get through the Brambles, we still have to contend with the Black Wall, a daunting construct of black stone rising 200 feet and surrounding the entirety of the fortress.”
“We’ve identified our best path through the Brambles, and we have a solution to get through the wall. We can assault it with catapult from a distance and blast a gap in the wall large enough for our main force to rush through as soon as we make it through the forest.”
“This is where your team comes in. Our scouts indicate that something is maintaining a magical defense over the wall that our catapult won’t be able to breach. Our hope is that your small squad can slip in, identify the source of the magical barrier, and bring it down before we launch our main assault. We can wait for a signal, but the longer we stay on Crask the more time the enemy will have to respond, so you have only until the sunrise to bring the barrier down before we launch our first volley.”
“After that, our forces will begin their approach. We won’t be able to avoid your team while it is in the target area or aid you with reinforcements immediately, so it will be up to you to stay alive and find your own way out of there.“
In the darkness around the meeting table, four figures nod in assent:
- Baka, a wise, strong Orcish shaman, bedecked with antler and skull, clad in the armored robes of a veteran warchanter
- Neuth, a human male, dexterous and sharp-eyed, dressed and armored as a ranger but with the intelligent air of a mage, his woodland bow resting in his palm
- Tomoe, a silent Dwarven assassin, a daughter from under the mountain raised by the Shadow Clans and dressed in their all-black garb, sword on her back with more blades secreted about her
- Athanor, the defender who once was human, now something else clad in the hardest armor, his eyes aglow behind the steel of his great helm
Some time later, as the party trudges through the brambles approaching the wall, Baka chants an old Orcish war mantra, a song of honorable death, a sort of whispered haka.
"I have seen wizards and their schemes fall before, broken over Orc knees, smashed by Orc skulls. This will be no different. The wind is at our backs…” Baka conjures a light wind to refresh the party and push them forward, toward the Black Wall. The soft, low growl of his war song resumes.
Tomoe Goldenaxe glides with imperceptible sound and minimal effort through the hellish tangle of brambles ahead of the foursome. She picks every point of contact on the ground with a practiced mindfulness, the toes of her tabi boots flicking away rhizomes and tendrils before the balls of her feet strike. Behind her, she hears the comparatively heavy footfalls of the orc shaman over his whispered chants. She stifles a disapproving sigh, as it’s never a good idea to break noise discipline without reason in enemy territory, but as she feels the refreshing, gentle breeze tug at her fiery auburn locks—the wind coming from the opposite direction it should—she recognizes that the cleric must carry with him some respectably powerful magic and decides to cut him some slack, as they’ve only just met and he’s sure to be good in the fight to come. Uttered in a greenskin language she doesn’t comprehend, she finds the cadence of his war song strangely soothing as they continue their (relatively) stealthy approach.
Neuth looks on; he can barely believe they have set foot in Crask. For so long, the island was shrouded in mystery and darkness, and only rumors told of what dangers and evils dwelt there. Maybe, just maybe, the battle forthcoming in this strange land will reveal the answers that he seeks. With the wind behind, he feels somehow hopeful, despite their perilous task ahead.
The team treads through the brambles, with nothing but thorns and dark, gnarled branches in sight; anything beyond a few paces is lost from view. The ground is soft and moist, but nothing seems to grow. No grass. No flowers. Just dried, rotten leaves and thorns that reach out to snag and cut at every opportunity. Occasionally, a sliver of the waning moon above shows through, but its light offers no solace in this cursed place. High-pitched cackles and the occasional caw of a crow enters their ears, and they can feel the malevolence of their environs.
“What kind of dwarf is this?” Baka grumbles in playful sarcasm. “Trying to be an elf? And your boots…are they stockings?! Come now, Tomoe. Indulge us with a little display of your skill, and show us what you can do!” Baka hopes a little distraction from the gloom will do the company some good.
The dwarven shadow stops in her tracks as silently as she had been walking, and, with a graceful pirouette for which the Dwellers Beneath the Mountains are not normally known, she turns to face the orc shaman in the dim gloom of night. She can tell his taunt was good-natured, but she keeps the corners of her mouth still in flat affect. Tomoe extends her hand over her head and plucks from a twisted branch a pair of dying leaves, which, even in the pale moonlight, bears the same deep red-orange color as her hair. The steady flow of Baka’s conjured wind causes the tails of her black headband to dance on one of her shoulders as she holds the two leaves out, first for him to inspect and then directly overhead as she lays her palm open. Like a pair of fledgling cardinals leaving the nest, the leaves catch the breeze—first one, then the other—and flutter away from her hand on the wind. Tomoe narrows her eyes and pauses for a beat, watch the orc’s eyes as he watches the leaves blow away. Then, with a swift, fluid move, she turns around with speed, precision, and silence. Her brown eyes catch the fading images of the dancing leaves as they tumble unpredictability through the night, now floating half a dozen paces from their position. Tomoe’s face freezes in rapt concentration for one last beat as she watches the leaves criss-cross on the wind, and her hand goes to her belt. There is a bright glint of steel catching moonshine as she retrieves one of her shuriken and looses it with a sharp, powerful underhand throw in a continuous, unbroken motion. The throwing star shatters the quiet of the night with a sharp THUNK as it lodges about knee-height in an overgrown nursery log some ten paces away—with both red leaves smartly impaled and pinned to its bark.
Baka noticeably stumbles for a half step as he is amazed at the feat. “Well done, Red One. Well done…”
Tomoe cracks a smile for the first time since she joined the expedition; she banishes it from her face before she turns to the shaman and offers him a grateful nod for the respect. Then she reclaims her mastercraft shuriken, one of a trio ensconced in discreet pockets within her waist sash. She jerks her head in their original direction of travel and resumes her pace, peering back at Neuth and the mysterious Athanor in the moonlight…
Baka calls out, “Neuth, you look so dour on this grim night. Come! How might you entertain us? Relieve our minds of this dark errand!”
Neuth snaps to, having become lost in thought. “A distraction, eh? Alright then…but it’s got to be a quiet one. We’re still treading dangerous paths." Neuth begins to whisper a tale, often told around warm hearths on cold nights back in Olo, a story of two travelers who found themselves prey to uncertain fate as they traveled through a great blizzard in search of shelter. “As they journeyed, they could not see, but they followed their compass true. Wandering on even as night came, they journeyed farther and farther, until they came upon the village of Dur Olo. Strange though, as they had been traveling south, and they had not gone astray, yet Dur Olo lay north of where they began. They realized the compass had frozen and they were walking blind; only by some great miracle did they find shelter and warmth. Some say those who are true of heart cannot go astray, and they will find hope in spite of all odds."
Baka claps Neuth on the back with a rough hand, gnarled like tree roots. “A good tale. Our hearts will guide us as well. Our fate’s compass is frozen too. It walks directly toward us, but in this tale we are the storm.” At this Baka swings his hands in a mighty clap; lightning splits the darkness of the night as his hands come together, followed by the deep rumble of thunder. “We are the storm that breaks the black wall!” A gentle rain begins to fall.
Tomoe lifts her chin and peers up through the twigs and branches of the largely leafless canopy above them, consulting a contracting sliver of clear, starry sky ahead of them as clouds close in at its periphery, putting a stranglehold on the crescent moon and the one bright star atop a guiding constellation known to her as the Sentinel, which marks their way toward their destination. She dons her hood against the drizzle and smartens her pace…
The approach to the Black Wall takes the team most of the night. Even for a small group moving with purpose, progress has been relatively slow but thankfully uneventful.
As they reach the Black Wall’s base, they survey the thorny vines growing right against and up the blackened stones. A climb of two hundred feet might be be possible, but scaling the Cliffs of Insanity seems like it might be an easier feat.
Then a small whisper breaks the silence. “Psst!”
From the shadows, an Ashen Ranger of Grey slides into view; he “welcomes” the team to the Black Wall. He says you that his squad found a small crack in the base of one of the wall’s towers, and they have been slowly weakening it, but they haven’t broken through, waiting upon the team’s arrival. “Once we open up this small breach,”_ he says,_ “you should have a clear climb to the top of the tower where we believe the shield’s power source is located, but you’ll be diving out of the frying pan and into the fire…”
The Ranger’s metaphor regarding fire sticks in Tomoe’s brain. She realizes, whisked away to go on this night mission and traveling very light, she has brought no fire kit. As quietly as she can, with the small noises of her search efforts only occasionally punctuating the footfalls of the group and Anathor’s subtly labored respiration as they follow the Ranger to the secret breach, she scrounges the dead landscape as she walks, looking for a couple of short, stout branches, a bit of fat wood, birch bark, pine resin, old dwarf’s beard (a lichen), and a chunk of flint to scrape down the spine of her chokuto for a spark—anything appropriately combustible for her to build a torch or two, a couple of small tinder bundles, and the means by which to ignite them. Open flame is normally anathema to her travel and actions on night missions like this one—especially when there is any moonlight—but she knows one cannot be too well prepared behind enemy lines…
Tomoe falls back in with the advancing team beside the armored figure of Athanor.
Athanor has been quiet throughout the journey, with only a faint wheezing emanating from the recesses of his black helmet. Looking upon his trudging, frail frame, it appeared that he could collapse into dust at any moment. Still, he marches on, with burning red eyes that mirror the pits of hell. Upon reaching the secret breach in Black Wall, he falls to one knee and utters his first words in a cracked, dry voice.
“My bones may break…my blood spill…my flesh tear… I swear on the name Athanor that I will be the only of us that dies!”