The group had a chance to meet the remnants of the thieves guild/leader of Varohelm this meeting. Varohelm was always a strange place years ago for my players. Tucked away in the southwestern section of a larger Duchy that was always sending its young and gold further north to feed a distant and seemingly uncaring monarch and its dozens of stupid wars and causes - the people of Varohelm had nothing in common with the rest of the duchy.
Not insular, just overwhelmed and out of place. Two major wizards lived here at one time: Erazmus and Ceril Stormbringer - and neither was a white and black hat. Both were pretty despicable in their own way - depending on which side of the line you stood on. What I did for this group was fast forward time 15 plus years after the two wizards finally killed each other off and imagined what the place would look like.
And it looks like shit.
Spells and ensorcelled creatures run amok, broken cities and shattered people, the one time mantra of "Lead the Evil to Our Door, Good we Are we'll take No More" that the populace would chant when the roustabouts and elfhunters would march was silenced and broken. The church was a ruin of its former self, poverty was rampant, and everyone who could possibly leave...had already left. What they had remaining was serf and peasantry with little or no way to get out of the land safely and cheaply.
And as for the thieves guild? They took over the nobility, sort of disbanded and broke up as every high ranking member eventually left and each time they left, they took more and more riches and wealth from the land. So what was left was a handful of thugs and degenerates who had been left behind to run things, fleecing the flesh off what few riches were left behind, and leaving a progressively less capable mix of thieves and thugs to run things.
And that's what the party has now. There is no longer a guild, any guild organization left long ago. What you have are the last of the guild trained thieves (the ones who weren't smart, capable, or rich enough to leave any of the other times) in control of the river trade, ripping everyone off, and they are looking to cash out and leave the Helmian Lands/Darkenwoods behind. But they need money - lots of it to pay all the bribes and graft, and transport they need for their people to go with them (otherwise they'll never get out) - but there isn't any money left over, nothing else to take.
Until a group shows up and the stories say of a magic vault of some sort at Castle Sterling that no one was able to open before. And who knows about it? Two capos/rulers who heard it from their bosses who heard it from their bosses some 15 years ago. And the story they know is that it has wealth. The group opens it up? They keep half. If they don't? There isn't a civilized spot anywhere in the Helmian Lands the party can hole up in before they are exposed and hunted down, slain, and end up with nothing.
They can go it alone and stick to the wild if they want, but the land is crawling with other things that would kill them or at least try.
Write up follows:
We went over a number of plans and possibilities for us for the trip, at one point talking about getting a ballista, but settled on going to the stabler and getting a few donkeys and then hitting the greengrocer and seeing about getting some rations.
We purchased two donkeys including bags, blankets, leads, and bridles. We also purchased two switches, one of them scourging, the other not. We also purchased food stuff, knowing that after 3 days it would start to spoil. However, between Steiner and Flimflam, the two priests felt confident that their god would help them to have the food either not spoil or purify at a later date.
Meanwhile, we asked subtly about the land nearer to Castle Sterling, learning that it was most likely a bog of swamplands and we should be ready and prepared for the worst. A trip to the moneychanger (and his arrogant attitude) had us convert some of our coinage. We were…surprised to learn that the exchange had new Argosian coins, stamped with this year’s date marking available – which disturbed us since most likely Shakun doesn’t have them available yet and it’s not yet 30 days into the new year. Is this something that might come up later? A problem? Something we should be aware of? For now we noted it and moved on.
We talked to our people about leaving tomorrow and that we should eat well and expect a long trip through some difficult terrain. All the henchmen and hirelings were thrilled to actually get to the meat of the adventure and promised to be ready. During the evening and our meal, Flimflam was invited to see Lord Gongruck, apparently the high honcho and leader of Varohelm. Expecting a similar situation as we had with Sir Balderi, Flimflam had himself mentally prepared.
It was when he learned that he was supposed to come alone that the group grew concerned. A group of 4 went together and three were asked to wait outside, including his dog and any weapon bigger and more dangerous than a knife. Finally assured this would be without any issue (not that the gnome didn’t believe this) he was escorted into the faintly decaying manor house that Lord Gongruck presided from.
Lord Gongruck was an older man past 60, balding white hair, gout, heavy set, jowly. He had two associates with him, Antonius and Vincius – both of them that could best be described as either muscle or lieutenants. Conversation was difficult at first since most of the façade and ruse the party had established was pulled back and exposed as flimsy at best. The hunting for great cats story held, barely, but Lord Gongruck just KNEW that the party was interested in Castle Sterling and the lands around it – suspecting that magic was involved on some level.
Turns out that there is a vault there, supposedly, it’s been years since anyone has been there to check. But this vault was never opened and according to some records it has some treasure in it and Lord Gongruck and his people want it. Or at least half of it. If the party goes there and opens the vault, Gongruck wants half of the monetary treasure within and in exchange will arrange safe passage and transportation out of Varohelm and the Helmian Lands for the group. If we don’t? Then things will not be nearly as easy or safe for the party.
Flimflam was being given an offer he couldn’t refuse…so he didn’t. Handshakes were exchanged and blowjobs were provided for by a bevy of broken women Lord Gongruck had at his disposal. The druid left with the deal…but he did not think it was going to end so simply.
By 9:30 he was back at the Shining Sword and passed on what he had learned to the party. We discussed it briefly but decided for now to focus on our trip to Castle Sterling tomorrow. Spells were studied, goodberries prepared, and all manner of readying was done.
We awoke on the 29th at 6AM and broke our fast, prayed, and packed up. Our keys were given to the innkeeper and we went to the stables to get our donkeys and loaded provisions. Between ourselves and our hirelings, we had enough people to handle to animals. At 7:15 we left town and proceeded on our way.
The main road curved around the north edge of Helm Lake, most of the land showing older signs of clearing and newer signs of planting and fieldwork. However as he left Varohelm further behind the trees of Darkenwood were reclaiming the land and turning the former fields of rye and wheat back into forests. A stout dwarven made bridge of arched stone spanned the western section of the lake at its narrowest point after the two rivers joined together to form the Lake. We turned northward from here (where the western road would take us to Mount Ada and the mining encampment) and headed onward.
The quality of the road began deteriorating rapidly. We could see the land rise ahead of us as the Blackwater River headed downstream towards up from Mount Despair, most of the hills and smaller peaks were tree covered and still some distance away. But the road became fouler, rutted, pocked, and then eventually broken and difficult. Our pace slowed to a couple hundred yards every half turn of a glass as we navigated our way onward through swampier and fouler land.
Flimflam tried to have a talk with plant spell conversation with the Cypress and Cedar trees in the area but didn’t get much of a definitive answer. The day passed on and as the night settled down and the temperature dropped, we shivered and shuddered and pressed onward through the moonlit landscape of swamp, bog, and fen – convinced that Castle Sterling could not be much further. Our druid called on Demeter to keep him in the know if any cats were in the area, hoping that the 600’ radius would be enough of a warning for us to be prepared. Torches were lit, enhanced thanks to Steiner’s log of everburning, and the group slogged their way onward.
By 11 (our guess) that night, the party was tired, cold, damp, and miserable. But they were also frightened because according to Flimflam, a feline presence was shadowing us at a few hundred feet away to our east on the other side of the river. We couldn’t see it, but a few of us were convinced we could see its eyes reflecting in the dark. Our adrenaline firing and our strength renewed (briefly) we marched on, Tranis assuring the group that we were very close to the Castle.
And he was right.
Rising up out of the gloom ahead were the 35’ tall palisaded walls of Castle Sterling. Taller warding towers were seen along the corners and through the open gateway was the flagstone courtyard covered in debris. The man house of the Castle itself was beyond and it appeared there was a tower of some sort along the back of the complex. We fired off a fire arrow far to the east and over the river to attract the attention of the cats (2 of them now according to Flimflam) while we entered the courtyard and looked around.
It seemed to be empty (outside of trash and a dozen years of neglect) and the entire Castle was leaning slightly to the right/east at 5 degrees, testament to the instability of the ground, the encroaching swamp, and the not too distant river from where we were standing.
It had to be midnight and we were worn out and stretched thin. Some of the party lifted and shoved the gateway closed, finding the blocking bar nearby and bracing it in place; the rest of the group went to the closest tower – Southeast, and gave it a look over. Narrow arrowslits covered both the front of the castle and the courtyard, a door that was open but could be closed, three levels, tall ceilings, some racks and pallets, and most importantly, a potbellied stove on the 3rd floor that we could use for heat and comfort.
We coaxed the mules into the tower and left them on the bottom floor while the party made their way through the floors and proceeded to hack up one of the pallets for firewood and started amuch needed warming fire in the stove. We looked at the top of the tower and saw signs that a ballista had been mounted here once upon a time but was gone now. From here we knew we could see far and decided we would look more in the morning. For now we kicked off our boots and the mass of 20? Of us huddled on the 3rd floor to discuss what was to happen next and eventually get some much needed sleep.