In which a wooden dragon refuses to yield its secrets.
Our group of seven is arranged around the stairs leading up from the totem cave, weapons at the ready, waiting to ambush the dog-men when they enter. Perry takes up position in full view, his back to the stairs, pretending to inspect the dead witch doctor in hopes the enemy will take the bait. Unfortunately, Oswald is not quite out of sight when the first creature turns the corner into the stairwell, so the thornling freezes for a split second, lets out a frightened yap, and retreats the way it came. There are grumblings about Oswald’s oversight.
The yapping and howling of the thornlings is audible and frenetic; they are clearly having a heated argument. As the PCs try to formulate a new plan, they hear a deeper, barking growl that silences the other voices and speaks with commanding authority. I have decided that the surviving members of the thornling honor guard went to summon their king, who is enraged at the presence of intruders. But he will not risk leading the attack himself, so he berates the honor guard to mount an assault on the beach. All the PCs hear is growling and barking, but I play through it in my head so I have a clear idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. Due to previous deaths, there are 5 members of the honor guard remaining, and those now obey their king’s command and charge down the passage toward the stairs.
The PCs have been busy, though, throwing a dead thornling and half a dozen pieces of Oswald’s firewood onto the stairs to create an obstacle. The first enemy rounds the corner, sees the pile, and jumps over it, making a DC 10 Reflex save to do so. Snarling, it lunges at Thelma with its crude spear and hits for 1D6 damage, which I roll in full view: a 1. The spearhead grazes her side, cutting through her jerkin and leaving a nasty gash.
The next thornling leaps the obstacle and lands between Thelma and Wilfred, jabbing at the scribe and missing. More thornlings would follow, but there is no room to move forward onto the crowded beach.
I can’t remember who lands the blows, but surrounded by seven villagers, the two engaged thornlings don’t stand a chance, and quickly go down. When the first one dies, I roll to check morale, and the honor guard maintains its resolve. The third thornling vaults the obstacle, manages to keep its footing between its brothers’ corpses (success on a DC 5 Reflex save), and thrusts its spear at Finmunni. A miss. Thelma takes it down with a critical hit to the eye socket from behind, and is forced to pause for a moment to put one foot on the creature’s head so he can use both hands to yank the axe back out.
Three dead members of the honor guard is more than half their number, so I make another morale check, and they fail. There’s the sound of scrambling back up the passage as the last two retreat, to be met by the incensed bellowing of their king.
Quickly, the PCs strip the dead thornlings of their bucklers, and Finmunni recovers an intact suit of hide armor, which she dons. Thanks to being small of stature, and thus able to wear thornling armor, Finmunni and Gareth now have AC 16 and 15, respectively; not bad.
Oswald and Wilfred pick up the thornlings’ bodies and throw them into a heap at the top of the stairs, placing the witch doctor’s corpse on top. Thelma takes a sheaf of straw out of her pack and stuffs it under the pile, and Oswald uses his brand to light the tinder. In short order, the sickening stink of burning flesh and fur drives the PCs away from the stairs, and flames rise from the gruesome pyre. Oswald and Thelma set about making a couple more makeshift torches from her straw and his firewood.
While the rest of the group prepares to defend against another potential assault, Durwen takes one of the brands and explores further upstream, searching for an alternate route, until he finds the sheer wall and the waterfall that courses down it. Scanning for the source of the waterfall in the darkness above, he holds the brand aloft, and the faint firelight reveals the edge of the slot from which the water emerges.
Meanwhile, Finmunni sniffs the cold cave air and detects the warm scent of gold. She follows her nose to the foreboding dragon totem, but is reluctant to approach closer than 5′, since it emanates an unnatural cold and fills her and all who come near with a terrible feeling of dread. She asks Oswald to tie the silk rope into a lasso, and they toss it over the head of the totem, managing to pull it tight across the dragon’s open mouth (DC 15 AGI check). The rocky bed of the stream is slippery, so they back up to get better footing on the beach. Thelma joins in. I don’t tell them, but I decide they have one shot at a DC 22 STR check to pull hard enough to break off the top of the totem. Finmunni rolls a 20, +1 for her STR, +2 for the assist (+1 per assisting PC, to a max. of +2), = 23. The totem cricks, cracks at the base, then topples monumentally into the water, making a huge splash.
Wilfred, Daisy, and Perry are still gathered as close to the stairwell as they can manage, given the choking stink of thornling barbecue, weapons at the ready, but there is no sign of the opposition. The foul black smoke from the pyre is being drawn out the passage from which the thornlings made their attack.
Finmunni, Oswald, and Thelma pull the totem to shore and drag it up so that it lies flat on its back. The PCs are unaware that there are three pressure plates running down the spine of the totem: pressing #1 triggers a magical illusion of a black dragon attacking; pressing #2 opens a secret compartment containing 14gp, 137cp, a pot of poison, a healing potion, and a magical pearl; #3 triggers a poison needle trap. I decide that each time they move it with its spine on the ground, I will ask for a Luck check to see if one of the pressure plates is accidentally triggered. When they move it onto the beach, the Luck check is failed, so nothing happens.
First, they examine the head and eyes for buttons, latches, etc. I ask for some red herring rolls, and tell them they find nothing unusual. Thelma and Oswald use their axes to hack off the totem’s lower jaw, looking for treasure in its head. Nothing. Finmunni walks the length of the totem, sniffing, and I tell her that the smell is strongest in the middle, but she can’t pinpoint it further. Thelma and Oswald begin hacking into the belly of the totem, and each time I ask them make an attack roll against AC 12. Their axe heads glance off a few times, they get one hit that does 3 hp (“You knock out a wood chip the size of your hand.”), before they decide to abandon the task (the totem is about 3′ thick).
Much grumbling and frustration as they lever the wooden dragon back into the stream (failing another Luck check to accidentally trigger one of the pressure plates), in an effort to put some distance between themselves and the cold aura of doom emanating from the thing.
Still no thornlings. It’s agreed that they are most likely lying in wait. Durwen reports in on the waterfall, and everyone sloshes to that end of the tunnel. Perry ties one end of the silk rope to his spear and hurls it up at the slot, rolling a 20. It goes through, and upon being pulled back wedges across the slot, creating a climbing anchor.
Durwen hands someone his brand and scales the slippery wall (DC 12 AGI check), pulling himself through the slot into the pitch black chamber at the top.