In anticipation of the coming Midsummer Night the players took their lowest-level characters up through the Briars to Skull Mountain to make sure the high-level part would have a relatively easy time of it as they brought in a sage of astronomy to use the observatory. The initial party is meant to clear out the Entry Halls and then head back to the town of Esber.
The party is small, nimble, has no henchmen, and eager to level up. They are
The Wife - Ursula, 2nd level halfling thief
JR - Athanasius, 2nd level human cleric
AJ- Starkiller, 2/2/2 level half-elf fighter/magic-user/cleric
ST- Graystar, 2nd level human wizard
NH- Akira, 3rd level monk with the enchanted punch!
the party collectively hired 3 mercenaries, all heavy foot, a drover, and a lackey. They remained in camp.
Starkiller was fresh from the assault on the Pirate Island of the Fire Cult (an adventure I hope to write up this weekend) and had learned that the various cults seem to be in communication with each other over the entirety of the Freshet Valley Akira had just returned from training in the Monastery of the Order of the Way following his journey into the Pommel Star Cave where his fists and feet became enchanted weapons.
The party stocked up on heavy tents because of the stirges at the peak, grabbed plenty of supplies, got a map of the caverns from Seeker, and headed out.
They encountered a group of woodcutters the first night. The woodcutters, happy to be with an armed band, told of a group of foreigners, heavily armed, that had taken the road two days before. All were dressed in black and silver and had thick accents. The third day they encountered two people a man and woman, obviously injured, walking toward them. Starkiller surreptitiously cast Detect Evil. The pair were in black and silver (brigandine for him, robes for her) and said they had been betrayed by their employers. They asked to stay with the party, but Starkiller sensed evil intent so they were sent on their way as the party continued; as soon as the party rounded a bend they set an ambush. In minutes the man and woman walked around the bend, prepared to throw an axe and cast a spell (respectively) but when they saw the empty trail they hurriedly turned back towards civilization.
It is High Summer so it was very hot, slowing them down. On the fourth day they arrived at the Great Plateau and moved into the hidden campsite that Seeker had found.
Ursula moved toward the mouth cave to scout it out and noticed a strong acrid odor and a deep buzzing noise. She soon spotted a massive nest of giant paper wasps hanging above the cavern entrance, the torpid wasps avoiding the Noon sun. She noted a handful of bodies in black and silver in the nest, all ripe with wasp eggs.
Slipping away she informed the rest of the party. Soon Starkiller pulled out his share of the loot from the Pirate Island - a Wand of Fireballs! A few rounds later the cavern was full of smoke, bits of flaming nest, and dead wasps. The party waited for the air to clear then went inside. The found a bag of topazes on one of the corpses and a scroll case noting that a foreign baron had hired them to see if the 'main altar' was accessible.
The party began scouting the cavern when Ursula got a bad feeling; she looked around and prevented a man in black and silver armor from backstabbing Athanasius with an obviously poisoned knife. With his typical lightning-quick reflexes Akira struck the man, stunning him. A moment later Starkiller finished him off.
Moving to the north door the party noted that the wooden stalls had all been chewed away by the wasps for their nest. Inside they could see the remnants of the massive fight with trolls from almost a year previous. In the store room they found fresh supplies of country hams, jam, pickles, and wheat. They also saw someone trying to slip away through the kitchen!
After a brief pursuit they fought a cultist capable of casting. The fight was tough, but they got him in the end. They learned a bit more about the mission and got a bit of loot.
They then went through what was, essentially, a checklist. Ursula removed the trap on 'secret door #3' and they found a spiral stair that led up to . The first landing led to a screened platform in the right eye. While the enchanted prism in the left eye allows an observer to see the end of the Old Road and the plateau, the matching one in the right eye allows a view of the beginning of the Old Road and the first few miles.
The stair continued up 40' to a door made of black wood inset with pearls. But the pearls seemed to be covered with a sheen of glass. The door was stout, barred, and they could not open it. They went up a long way on the seemingly endless spiral stairs to a landing with a barred window facing north, giving a panoramic view of the Briars down toward the Freshet Valley. The stair went even higher and, after a long climb, came to a door carved from a piece of stone. With effort they opened it and found themselves at the base of the stairs the lead to the magical ocular atop the mountain. Atop the edge of the mountain-top ship drydock they found a massive feather; an owl feather almost 18 inches long and dropped no more than a day before. Graystar kept it.
As they prepared to return to the caverns they spoted a hippogriff and rider to the South, over the lands of High Morath. He seemed to be searching for something, but turned and flew South as the party watched.
The party descended the Right Eye Stair and checked the rest of the Entrance Chambers - other than the evidence of 2-3 days of occupancy at the very entrance it was clear. Using the magical tricks given by Seeker they opened the door to the Long Corridor and scouted all the way to the Pilgrim's Hall, finding nothing unusual. They re-secured the concealed door and returned to camp.
They were barely in camp before the various hirelings excitedly told them of what they had seen. First was a giant owl of huge proportions. Astride it had been a beautiful woman (the 5 hireling argued if it was a human, elven, or half-elven woman and could not agree) with long, red hair and clothed in nothing but a diaphanous sheet of silk. Pursuing her had been a large man riding a hippogriff. The man was firing a heavy crossbow at the owl and woman, cursing as he missed. The woman had only laughed as she flew away.
Puzzled, the party was wary all night and set out for Esber the next morning, early. The met the next party at the Patrol Stop along the Old Road.
The party divided the loot and everyone but Akio had gained enough XP to level up (the main reason these character had been brought).
Player comments, as I recall them:
JR: "As soon as I think I have Skull Mountain figured out it confuses me all over again"
NH: "With the various windows, prisms, and such if the mountain were staffed properly you could never sneak up on it"
ST: "You guys realize that just clearing out the entrance over and over again has been the number one source of levels in the campaign, right?"
AJ: "We are obviously missing secret doors somewhere. But I don't want to check"
JD: "We are never going into that cell [which has two skeletons, each still clasping the other's throat], are we?"
I have had a version of Skull Mountain in the campaign since 1978 and it is always fun for me to run it. As the players become familiar with it the fact that it can still surprise them means a lot.
Tomorrow the main party begins the Midsummer Expedition!