It's a Saturday and we're in Aldershot for session four of Evils of Illmire. Having fled the town following their late night excursion, our heroes were pondering their next move.
Let's geckoing Miles of cultivated land dotted with farmsteads surrounded the town of Illmire and many of these farmsteads, particularly the more remote and isolated had been abandoned in recent years. It was in one such farmstead that our heroes found themselves following their escape from Illmire: A ramshackle, forsaken old farmhouse that was a neglected and rotting timber shell littered with old furniture and houseware deemed unworthy of removal by the previous inhabitants. Plant life had worked its way through discoloured floorboards, sprouting vigorously throughout the interior and decorating it in lush green while nature herself was threatening to reclaim the very building. It provided ample shelter for the night. Morning came and our heroes decided to return to the fens.
Verdant farmland gave way to rough, grassy bogland and after some time walking our heroes found themselves searching through a gently rolling but near featureless landscape. Hours passed before they spied a distant irregularity on the horizon and made for it. Closing on the irregularity, our heroes discovered a peculiar low rocky outcrop emerging from the surrounding mire by a few feet, at one end was a circular basin, the rim occupied by perhaps a dozen giant geckoes basking in the sun. At the bottom of the basin, our heroes saw a tunnel descending into the darkness.
Treading carefully, our heroes managed to traverse the basin without disturbing the resting lizards who regarded them with cool alien gazes. The tunnel snaked downwards precariously, proving to be slippery under foot, but they managed to follow the path without mishap. The tunnel soon opened up into a mossy chamber and the path became a ledge overlooking a vertical drop into darkness. Our heroes shone their lights into the abyss, numerous giant geckos could be seen here clinging to the shaft walls, their heads turning to face this newly introduced light. Beyond the lizards they saw weird and distant undulating shapes, the realisation came that they were staring at the reflections of their own light in water.
Brother Jerry put a light cantrip on a stone and dropped it into the shaft. It hit water with a sharp plop that reverbed up the shaft, the light from the pebble wavered distortedly through the water as it sank. After a second it stopped moving, its light reduced to an indistinct and dim, diffused glow. It had hit the bottom, our heroes surmised. The ledge continued past the drop and into a tunnel, our heroes decided to explore the tunnel.
The passage was rocky and uneven, light from our heroes' torches cast writhing and twisting shadows across the craggy surfaces as they moved along. It was a short distance before the tunnel ended in a cave, several geckos could be seen here, some of which were also clinging to the uneven walls. Detritus and decades old residue were scattered across the floor here, a careful search revealed a decayed and half eaten corpse half concealed by dirt. The remains were beyond recognition, but he clearly wore a fraying leather cuirass vest, while a dagger that glinted in the lantern light was gripped in one rotted hand. A cursory examination revealed its ruby crusted hilt, it looked valuable, so our heroes took it. Meanwhile, with some effort, Plato took the corpse's boots. It was a start to his shoe collection. There was no other way out of this cave, so our heroes returned to the shaft.
A rope was secured to a sufficiently sturdy outcrop in the chamber wall with a piton and then one-by-one, our heroes descended to a narrow muddy bank on the eastern edge of the water, all except Bert that is, who lost his grip and plunged headfirst into pool below with a yell and an almighty splash, it didn't go well for the dwarf who thrashed and spluttered, unable to tread water, he had to be pulled to safety by Plato and Brother Jerry. Once everyone was down, Brother Jerry explained that during his descent, he'd peered into the pool's under-lit waters and thought he's seen what amounted to a black shadow at the western edge of the light's reach and well below the water. Brother Jerry was convinced this was an underwater tunnel. After some conversation, it was decided by our heroes that Tina was the best swimmer and she should explore the pool.
Tina took another of their ropes, bound herself to it and dove in. Lit by Brother Jerry's light stone, the initial swimming was easy, Tina could see the muck and sludge at the pool's bottom in the vividly stark light - and beyond that; a patch of lightless void which she swam towards. Pushing on, the glow behind her began receding, while the void expanded. As the light's potency began failing, Tina spotted the slight glimmering of the surface's underside, she was through the tunnel. As Tina swam up into a darkened area, she caught the movement of some gigantic form, black against black and barely visible. It was enough for Tina, there was no hesitation, no delay as she reversed heading and swam back towards the light with all her strength. "Get out," Tina shouted, bursting through the surface of the pool!
There was a scramble as they clambered up the rope. Once back on the ledge, they dared a glance back into the pool below. There, silhouetted against the light of Brother Jerry's stone was a monstrous reptilian shape of massive size, it seemed to be moving towards the shaft's slimy wall. Our heroes ran and kept running, fortunately, the slippery path did not hinder them, nor did the resting geckos and still they ran, perhaps for a mile, perhaps for a mile more.
Red sun at night Our heroes were sure there were no signs of pursuit, they had stopped, labouring to control their heavy breathing while scrutinising the now distant outcrop and nothing was moving. Satisfied they were safe, they turned south and marched on.
Several miles passed, slowly the ground began rising and soon they were out of the marshy, insect ridden fens. As they continued through grassland, the temperature dipped subtly and they encountered a thin mist, soon after this they realised they'd found the lake's northern shore. Our heroes decided to return to the fens and continue searching.
Unfortunately, the searching did not yield any results. A lush streak of red sky spreading across the western horizon marked the oncoming darkness and our heroes camped for the night. They took the opportunity to rest after setting watches, unfortunately it did not help. Some hours later, large flittering creatures darted through the night to their campsite, unseen by our heroes and descent on them with the element of surprise. They were insectoid and massive by that standard, strange membranous wings stretched between their six spindly, pointed and pincered limbs while a large and wickedly sharp looking proboscis extended from their heads: Stirges. Caught unaware, our heroes were on the backfoot, Brother Jerry and Bert were both struck, the creatures' long proboscises puncturing their flesh and beginning to drain their blood. As the fight continued, our heroes began to get the upper hand, killing and driving off the stirges, however, by that time both Brother Jerry and Bert had fainted from blood loss, while the remaining stirges, having drunk their fill of blood, fluttered into the night.
A walk in the woods Sunrise came without further incident. Once our heroes rose and and after Brother Jerry laid some healing prayers upon them, they decided to continue in search of the forest they'd heard about. With the morning sun at their backs and long shadows stretching before them, they headed west. By the time they'd left the fens and encountered the outskirts of the forest, their shadows had shortened while the sun had blazed to its zenith.
Despite the sounds of distant birds and wildlife, it seemed eerily empty in the forest. Tall trees grew here, with slender yet sturdy trunks and lush green crowns that interlocked to form an expansive canopy which provided our heroes a cool respite from the midday glare and put the forest floor into perennial shade. There was little undergrowth, save where gaps in the canopy permitted shafts of sunlight to stream in and strike the ground and provoke eruptions of luxurious, grasping vegetation.
As our heroes marched on, they thought they sensed something, something close perhaps? Straining to see, they spotted nothing and after some searching, moved on.
Soon they were deep in the forest, signs of the outside world had been swallowed by the trees, still, they continued deeper. After a while, they became aware of a presence. Upwards, amid the gloomy foliage they saw peculiar obscured shapes, a smattering of simple buildings, a sprawl of walkways, fleeting movement. Our heroes realised they were staring at a settlement among the trees branches above. They saw the amphibian faces of froglings staring back at them from the protection of their village. The froglings were wary but not threatening, our heroes attempted communication but knew it would be futile and so it was. After a while they continued on their way.
As our heroes marched on, they noticed a band of the froglings trailing them at a distance, they seemed curious more than aggressive so our heroes made no moves against them. Several miles passed and then the trees began to thin out somewhat, the afternoon sky became more and more visible through widening gaps, most noticeably though, the trees began to change. Gone were the hearty, vigorous specimens of the canopy, replaced by miserable, fading thin-branched and ailing woodland. It was here that the froglings stopped tracking our heroes and refused to travel further out of the canopy.
Our heroes pondered the significance of this for a short while before continuing.
Pressing on, they saw the trees becoming more and more sickly, greying boughs were topped by dull, almost colourless leaves. Where branches should have hung heavy with thick foliage, they instead hung heavy with thick webbing. The portentousness was not lost on our heroes. They stopped to consider their options, keeping one eye on the dimming sky as they discussed matters. It was decided that it would be imprudent to spend the hours of night in this part of the forest and returned to the shady confines of the earlier forest.
Twilight was dark beneath the shade of the canopy as our heroes made camp and settled for the night. It did not pass uneventfully. The stillness was broken by the attack of several reptilian humanoids, squat with muscular frames, with a baleful malevolence countenance they stared at our heroes as they charged without provocation. Our heroes recognised them as troglodytes and senses were assailed by a terrible smell these creatures closed to attack. A brutal fight in the night followed, by it's conclusion, the troglodytes had been defeated but Bert and Tina had taken heavy injuries.
A tangled web With rugged resolve, our heroes set off on the following morning, determined to explore the cobwebbed region and soon they found themselves back in the unsettling and diseased forest. Our heroes continued west for a time through copses and trees shrouded by gloomy quietness in near silence until abruptly, upon hearing a noise, stopped. There was the rustling of disturbed flora and perhaps the snap of a thin twig. Cautiously, they scanned their surroundings and off to the side, saw the quick movements of a slender figure cloaked in black, face obscured by an equally black hood. The individual seemed to be entirely occupied with searching for something through the undergrowth and had failed to notice our heroes.
"Hello there," went Brother Jerry loudly. The figure snapped around instantly, cloak whirling while they faced our heroes. For a moment there was no movement, the individual was still, then they turned and ran, disappearing behind the closest dismal tree. Brother Jerry was intent on finding out who this was and ran after them, he rounded the tree and the figure was gone? Quickly, he looked about him, there was a scraping noise - from behind some bushes. Was there someone there... yes! "Hello there," he restated. The figure lunged for him, dagger in hand. Brother Jerry was fast but so was his assailant, he managed to bring his mace to bear as the attacker thrust with their dagger.
A few paces away, the others had heard Brother Jerry greeting someone with his usual exuberant cheerfulness, it was followed by the briefest of yelling and then... silence. They looked at each other, confounded confusion across their faces. Cautiously, they too rounded the dismal tree... and saw sprawled among the plant litter was Brother Jerry, unconscious and sporting three wounds while lying in his own pooling blood. Quickly, Tina staunched his wounds and brought him to wakefulness.
Brother Jerry did not recall much of the encounter; when the figure had sprung forward, he had realised it was woman but little else about her. As they had exchanged blows, she avoided his attack with insultingly effortless ease while counterattacking with a flurry of dagger strikes and then.. nothing. The next thing Brother Jerry was aware of was Bert, Plato and Tina looking down at him with concern.
Once the wounds of Brother Jerry had been tended to, our heroes pressed on, finding cobwebs ever more abundant while the trees worsened, stripped eventually, of all leaves and reduced to petrified mocking relics of autumnal woodland. Then soon, even those trees began to thin out as the landscape changed dramatically, our heroes halted and stared.
Ahead was the weird whiteish face of a soaring ridge that stretched across their path, the colour was not due rock of some sort or snow or anything such as that, it was due to layers of enormous webbing that spanned the entire ridge. Our heroes kept a distance and observed. At ground level and at three places along the ridge were irregular, naturalistic-looking black spots behind webbing, three unlit, unwelcoming cave mouths that no doubt led under the ridge. No movement was spotted over the ridge so they approached the most southerly cave.
Webbing crisscrossed the threshold and our heroes had to cautiously clear it away to quietly gain entry. Beyond that gossamer boundary was a large, unlit natural cave. Gently wafting webbing hung in every corner, nook and cranny and our heroes' torchlight cast strange wavering shadows along the rough walls and ceiling. There was only one other exit, it led away into darkness and no doubt deeper under the ridge. The path was wide but short and took our heroes to another chamber, lighting it up as they entered.
Here too, the cave was large and festooned in cobwebs. Our heroes crept in but even so, they had attracted the attention of something, a strange distorted buzzing grew to fill the cave and flitting shapes emerged from the gloom beyond light - more stirges. Fortunately, our heroes were not unprepared this time and they quickly dispatched the winged beasts. The tunnel continued on the other side of the cave and so did our heroes.
Shortly the tunnel opened into an even larger rocky cave, its furthest reaches receding into shadow. Unlike the previous caves, much of the webbing was missing and the floor here was coated in piled layers of dirt, dung and debris. Our heroes noticed curious glints catching the flickering torchlight. To their surprise it was the chitinous black shells of numerous giant beetles busily working away among the muck! However, the light had disturbed a number of beetles who turned aggressively and charged across the filthy floor at our heroes. They did not prove to be much of a threat and the skirmish went our heroes' way fairly quickly.
Despite their victories, the encounters and battles had left our heroes exhausted and depleted, after some discussion, they made the choice to retreat, recover and return. The webbed caves would have wait. Travelling a safe way from the ridge and blighted forest, our heroes found a small secluded dell under the lush canopy of the eastern forest and made camp, with resolute desire to return.