Date: Winter, 1332 Avard
Goldbeard's Cauldron was a solid hunk of rock in the middle of the undulating Rakoran forests. It was perhaps a mile long at it longest, and rose into the air to 600ft at its highest point. A massive dome of igneous intrusion, the Cauldron had been mined for precious ores ages ago, and the nearby forests supplied the foundries with heat enough to smelt the metals in place, concentrating it into enormous blast furnaces carved out of the Cauldron itself.
But that was ages ago. The mine eventually played out, after the Goldbeard Clan dug as deep as they could in varied pits inside the Cauldron. The dwarves left themselves a hidden treasure, just on the off chance that their descendants would need it against dark times. And then they left. The mines were abandoned. Nature took its course. Bats and beasts moved in. The enormous mining and smelting chambers, each some five hundred or more feet across, had columns carved out to buttress the ceiling. The columns failed in some cases, and some of the chambers were opened up to the outside. The doors were left open, though time and bandits and vagrants and armies and peoples eventually took most of them off their hinges. The pits filled in with detritus and guano and webs and bones and water.
And eventually, a demon moved in. He was not very powerful, but he longed for the treasure – whatever it was. Only a dwarf with the right ancestry and the right skills could open the treasure, and so the demon waited. An adventuring group with a dwarf in their midst attempted to find the treasure. The demon waited and watched, its rat-like form blending in with the other rats. One of the adventurers was an arcane archer with some affinity for animals, a man named Edward Gray.
Edward kept guard while the rest tried to find the treasure. On their first pass, it was well hidden, but perhaps by chance – or by design – they found it on their second pass through the labyrinthine and enormous hallways of the Cauldron. The dwarves in their group attempted to open treasure, only to discover that one of them was a bastard, and not truly of the line of Goldbeard. They could not get at the treasure by force or magic or cunning, and so prepared to move out. And that's when the rats came.
The hordes attacked in such numbers that despite fireballs and arcane arrows and blades, their bites could not be kept back. They buried the false Goldbeard in a mountain of furry flesh, drawing up into a rat-like man-like beast some twenty feet tall made of scaly tails and orange eyes and thousands upon thousands of vicious teeth.
The adventurers were eaten, save one. Edward stayed well enough away, firing arrow after arrow into the demon, trying to wear it down even as he backed away down the twenty foot tall and twenty foot wide rough-hewn corridors of the Cauldron.
That one, the demon possessed. Its powers tasted wondrous, and its kinship with beasts gave the rat-demon even more control over the rats, taking all of them in the Cauldron and even the nearby woods for its own.
And then it waited, again, for half a decade to pass.
The next group of adventurers was a group of just three – but one of them was an archer. What was left of Edward Gray wanted to scream at the three to run away, but the demon waited patiently, watching through the eyes of its myriad of rats. The two that were not archers were alike in every way, fighters in close combat with feet and hands. The demon wondered at their purpose, watching them.
It watched long enough. Their deaths might lure others. It had been near the treasure for too long to move away from it. The Cauldron had become the rat demon's home, and it could not leave. But if others came, especially one of the Goldbeard blood, then there was still hope. Edward Gray attacked, using his rats to screen the attack against the twin brothers, using his possessed bow to keep the other archer behind cover.
Something went wrong. The twin brothers were masters of their bodies. The archer was as much a match for Edward, or more. The rats began to die in numbers too great. Edward's body was torn asunder by arrows and fists and feet. The demon gave up on letting one of them go to bring others – as it had recently done for others, using their fiery wounds to bring others closer. The three who hurt it so much were slated to die.
The rat demon reached its full height, drawing rats up into itself to make a body as large as its ego, big enough to hold its power. The twin brothers went down, but the archer kept its distance. Legs ten feet long helped close the distance, but it was a ruse. The twin brothers were resuscitated by a tiny owl that attacked with claws and threw rats into the walls.
All three fled the rat demon. It fumed at the loss of Edward Gray. Others would come to the Cauldron, however – and maybe they would bring with them a dwarf of the blood.
DM's Notes: Sam had been watching Catching Fire in the Hunger Games series, and was interested in a contest along those lines. Unwittingly, he gave me an idea for putting the team up against an arcane archer with the ability to control animals. And what if, just by chance, such an archer accidentally came up against a demon that possessed him? I'm not sure whether the guys were horrified or irritated at having a twenty foot tall golem made of rats trying to eat them, but they sure left the Cauldron in a hurry. Paul had a bit of a migraine, and he seemed to just about deflate when first Koristhene, and then Jariskorn, both went negative. I took pity upon him, that night; he'd earned it. One of his characters was my most recent character death; he did not deserve a second death so soon.
Edward Gray had been wearing a ring in the shape of a falling star of onyx, the tail of the star wrapped around the finger in cold iron. The ring was a signet among those loyal to Samis; thieves and bandits and priests loyal to the Goddess of Darkness would listen well to one with such a ring, knowing that the bearer had the support of Star's End. That was a mistake the monastery had sent the team to fix. Such advertisements were too flashy, with too much at stake to lead others back to the monks. That was why they had been sent; not to find out why the other team had vanished, but to eradicate any leads back to the monastery. And if they found the treasure, while they were at it…
Reference: Campaign IX
Padai was truly challenged on this adventure. He had never come across an arcane archer before, and the swarming rats complicated matters. Still, he was able to fire some great shots while never being exposed to Gray's line of fire. A dazing shot delivered by a fire arrow followed by clever shots with freezing arrows took the body of Edward Gray, and then the beast came…
Padai is a bounty hunter, but not one without honor and a sense of loyalty. He had had adventures with these monks before, and long days on the road and in the monastery build some bonds among the three Elves. Maybe that s why he risked himself to defend Koristhene when he went down. Unfortunately, Padai was not able to strike home with his wind walker arrow to drive the rat demon backward and away from his companion. In a last ditch effort, Padai successfully lured the demon and his rats away from the now two monks that had fallen, giving them time to recover.
After this encounter I can fully understand why it is important to have a balance of abilities in an adventuring party. As the party was traveling to the battle I noticed how all three characters would have near-OP results on the same few skill checks, and then not have other skills. There was nobody to fill the gaps and the party suffered. On the bright side, Padai's bond with the twin monks has undoubtably grown stronger. I suspect there is a lifelong mutual trust among these three now. Padai made out well after the demon dissipated. He went back to recover Edward Gray's head, which earned him his 800 GP bounty, and also found a rat killer's coat (leather +2). He also pocketed the ring bearing the emblem of the Stars End Monastery.