[Flashback to 4 Kythorn 1372: Markus departs Startop Mountain, riding his warhorse east across the Evermoors towards Silverymoon. After a few hours' journey, he spots a figure laying in a small hollow, futilely trying to crawl east. Wary, Markus keeps his distance and calls out to the man, who is obviously wounded with deep gouges along his back. The figure gasps that he has to deliver a message to Silvermoon: a nightmarish horde of undead armies are marching towards Nesme, and the city will no doubt fall unless reinforcements arrive. Before Markus can respond, he hears the howling of wolves: nearby, and all around him!]
[8 Kythorn 1372]
Morning dawns on the party, bringing with it more cold rain. Mellia looks tired and drawn when she wakes. The adventurers discuss various eventualities that could occur when the group learns whether the orcs have kept their part of the bargain. Aloysius suggests a plot where the adventurers pretend to be re-establishing the slave trade, and can then spring a trap on the orcs. Mellia seems dubious of the wisdom of this. Mellia suggests that if the orcs have Bearos but not the Crown of Horns, the group should remove Bearos from harm and then return in a few days to continue the search for the Horn. Terreck suggests the group simply attack the orcs, to which Aloysius adds that there is no need to worry about the slaves: they are a liability and will simply get in the way. Sha'dar states his opposition to putting innocent lives at risk, to which Aloysius responds with the debater's point that the group doesn't know the slaves are innocent. After more discussion, the consensus is to try to negotiate first, and fight as a last resort. Mellia elicits commitments from the others that, should the group get what it is looking for, it will leave Startop Mountain.
Terreck organizes the group into a battle formation and the adventurers head down into the orc caverns. Sha'dar leaves the others in the guardroom in order to scout west, past the previously-found slave pits. He sees empty barracks, a bedroom of some kind, and a place where caged animals were obviously kept, but
little else of interest.
When the adventurers reach what is presumably the entrance to the mines, they see the orcs have maintained guards and hostages in the same position as last time. A sleeping Abu Joral awakens, and informs the group that a message in response to the one sent below to the Maestro has not yet arrived; he asks for more time. The group is impatient, but decides to wait a little while longer. In conversation, Abu Joral says that he came to Startop Mountain in search of the Worldbreaker, a messianic figure from his faith who will turn barren fields into lush pasture lands, turn slaves into freemen, and end wars. Terreck's keen eyesight shows that, past Joral and the blockade at the end of the corridor, at least a dozen more orcs are being awoken and are moving around.
At last, Mellia hears the grinding of stone far to the south, and minutes later a gaunt, scarred man wearing heavy armor and an unholy symbol of the beastlord Malar arrives. Without introducing himself, the man thrusts a scroll in Joral's direction and proceeds to clean his fingernails with a knife. Joral reads the scroll containing the Maestro's response to the group's inquiry about Bearos and the Crown of Horns. It seems that the Maestro is most displeased about the death of Grim, as he was a reliable and profitable source of slaves for the Bleak Theatre. The Maestro goes on to write that, while he has never heard of the Crown of Horns, he is willing to part with the useless slave Bearos for a trifling sum as the arrangement with Grim is no longer valid. However, the Maestro demands compensation for the cost and labor involved in finding a new source of slaves from the surface, and suggests a starting figure of 5,000 gp or 40 common slaves or 6 exotic specimens for his gladiatorial arenas.
The gaunt figure takes over at this point, and with coarse language indicates he wants to get the bargaining over quickly as he has important business to attend to. The adventurers struggle to decide how to come up with the sum of money the Maestro is asking for. Aloysius asks the figure why they should bother bargaining, and he replies that if there's a fight, Bearos' throat will be the first one slit. Terreck decides on a risky ruse to scare the opposition, and recites an incantation to summon the image of a monstrous, fearsome beast; however, the casting was done in full view of the figure and he recognizes that illusion magicks are involved. He says that's one strike against the group, and he's not the sort to give a second one.
The bargaining continues. The figure knocks a small bit off the total based on Aloysius' bluff that he has some contacts in slaving circles that could speed up the search for a new supplier. When the figure makes a crude comment towards Mellia, the enraged diviner immediately begins the gestures necessary to hurl a
massive ball of fire in his direction. Aloysius manages to talk her out of it just in time, by saying the man isn't worth it. Fargrim decides that, if the group can't meet the sum in hard currency, a contribution of valuable items may suffice. He throws the ring he obtained from the severed hand outside of Luskan to Aloysius to examine, and when the gnome starts to throw it in the direction of the gaunt figure, chaos breaks out. Sha'dar orders his elven hound to stop Aloysius, and the hound does so by biting down hard on the gnome's wrist! The ring drops from the gnome's bloody hand. After Fargrim appraises the ring, he shrugs and offers to throw it into the pot along with a chain shirt obtained from Grim that he knows is magical. Cain offers to throw in the thick gold disk obtained from a half-orc, Mellia contributes two gems, and Aloysius closes the deal by adding 1,000 gp and his bag of holding.
With the deal struck, the exchange is made: Bearos is brought forth, pushed along on his wheeled wooden board. He looks well, for the most part, but has large splotches of rotting flesh on his arms. As the group makes their way to the surface, Bearos explains that strange phenomena have affected all those in the Bleak Theatre, and that he is more fortunate than many. Mellia speculates that perhaps the proximity of the Crown of Horns is causing the phenomena and whether Cain and Fargrim's nightmares are related. Bearos goes on to tell the group some of what he saw below: the Bleak Theatre contains areas for slave auctions and massive gladiatorial arenas, but the Maestro is subordinate to the master (named the Thane) of a nearby fortress.
As they begin to set up camp in the old keep, the group discuss what they should do. Fargrim suggests heading for Mirabar in order to return Bearos and collect the reward for Grim's death. Mellia expresses her assent, as Aloysius has presented her with a bill (plus interest) for his contribution to the bargain struck below. She hopes also to conduct research on Myrkul. Aloysius mentions the bounty in Nesme on monstrous creatures and having seen frost giants west of Startop Mountain, but the others express little interest in this line of thought.
Having successfully completed a difficult task in rescuing Bearos, the adventurers settle in for the night with plans to depart in the morning.
Director's Commentary (June 20, 2015)
One can clearly see in retrospect, 70 sessions and a couple of years later, that this was the crucial turning point in the campaign and the place where it went off the rails. The whole concept of this campaign was that it was an entry-level dungeon crawl "beer and pretzels" game for players new to D&D. I had dropped something like $ 110 on the Castle Whiterock boxed set and was hoping to get my money's worth, so the entire campaign was to be centered around it.
Alas, this session, about getting about halfway through the second level of a fifteen-level megadungeon, the adventurers leave, and for the entire rest of the campaign, never delve into it any further!
I don't blame them for the particular decision to leave in order to get Bearos to safety. After all, his rescue was a major achievement. It's what happened after that which was hard to swallow and started an unfortunate trend of adventurers not adventuring :) Yes, I'm bitter, but I share in the blame because there was a limit to how much I was willing to force them to go into a particular direction even if it meant the campaign became rather inchoate without it.