[7 Lamashan 4707]
As the first rays of another autumn morning begin filtering through the shutters into Arnald Swiss’s room at the Rusty Dragon, a sharp knocking can be heard at his door. The cause of the noise proves to be Shalelu Andosana, fully outfitted for travel. She brusquely tells Arnald that she didn’t sleep well and doesn’t want to wait for Sheriff Hemlock to turn his attention away from training the new recruits to finding experienced warriors to help continue the search for Nualia. Instead, Shalelu explains, she plans to take a risky course of action in order to capture or kill the silver-haired worshipper of Lamashtu before the cultist can obtain reinforcements or find the mysterious weapon boasted about in Tsuto’s journal. Shalelu says she’s long heard tale of a pair of dangerous outcasts living just a couple of miles south of Sandpoint. According to local gossip, they’re dangerous and untrustworthy, but after the death of Felix and Nedrin, she’s decided that it may just be time to throw caution to the wind and fight fire with fire. She gives Arnald time to get dressed before setting off at a quick pace.
She and Arnald pass sleepy guards as they leave Sandpoint via the southern bridge and walk briskly along the Lost Coast Road before reaching the area where a wide stream disappears into the rocky hills south of town. There, at the abandoned Bradley farmstead, an old fisherman’s shack serves as the home of two of the area’s most disreputable occupants. Shalelu nocks an arrow and motions for Arnald to ready himself for battle as the two approach the shack cautiously. Inside, however, the visitors’ approach has not gone undetected. “Not so fast, one more step and it’ll be your last!” a voice rings out. Shalelu shouts back that she’s come on business, and succinctly summarizes the threat posed by Nualia and the events of the previous raids on Thistletop. Tense negotiations lead Shalelu to grudgingly offer those inside the shack one of her personal magical items, an enchanted amulet, in order to purchase their loyalty for the mission to come.
The ill-fitting door to the shack creaks open, and a figure emerges: a powerful-looking half-orc, wearing a kilt and a long-sleeved tunic, with a long braid of hair. Accompanied by a goat, the half-orc, whose name will eventually be known as Eugeni, approaches as, by arrangement, Arnald delivers the magical amulet. With terms agreed upon and payment rendered, the door to the shack opens again and the remaining resident emerges: a member of the feathered, bird-like species commonly known as tengu. The tengu, whose name is Ome, is accompanied by a startling sight: a massive giant wasp, the size of a full-grown cat! The two pairs of adventurers watch each other tensely.
Shalelu proposes that, before attempting their ultimate goal of dealing with Nualia, the four adventurers should learn to evaluate each other’s strengths and weaknesses by undertaking an easier task. The four settle on attempting to collect the bounty offered by the Sandpoint Mercantile League for the capture or death of the notorious bandit Shank, known to have operated for years from the small forest that now bears his name. For almost four years now, Shank has been plaguing the Lost Coast Road, holding up lone travellers and entire carriages, leaving his victims poorer but alive. Yet in the past six months, the highwayman has turned to kidnapping—with no ransom demands having been made!
The newly-formed hunting band follow the Lost Coast Road back through Sandpoint and out the northern gate. As the road continues east parallel to the coast, a brightly-coloured wagonful of the area’s indigenous Varisians wave and smile. Later in the morning, the adventurers reach a patch of the road just south of Shank’s Wood where Shalelu says the highwayman was last known to have attacked. Ome kneels down to look for signs, and although it’s been weeks since the attack, the tengu is confident she’s found tracks heading into the forest! Shalelu is dubious of Ome’s findings, but reluctantly agrees to accompany them into the woods. Ome reports that several sets of goblin prints criss-cross the area and make tracking difficult, but after about a mile she suddenly stands up and points. A gurgling brook runs from east to west in front of them, spanned by a mossy fallen log. On the far side of the water, an old trapper’s cabin made from scavenged timber and driftwood can be discerned through the treeline.
Arnald, as the most heavily armoured of the group, is chosen to take the lead in approaching the shack. He calls out, and soon the poorly-hung front door opens. An older man with unkempt grey hair peers out cautiously. When asked about the bandit Shank, the man says he hasn’t had any run-ins with bandits but that there are several goblins about. He says that he’s a trapper and fisherman, and invites Arnald in for a cup of tea.
The interior of the cabin is dark and smoky for some reason. Arnald loses sight of the man and the next thing he knows, a thick leathery arm is wrapping around his head! Arnald calls out in distress as something sharp sinks into his neck and a sloppy sucking sound can be heard. Shalelu rushes into the shack, but although she hears Arnald yelling she can’t tell exactly where he is because of the smoke. She notices a small firepit on the ground and, thinking quickly, smothers it with a blanket. Seconds later, Eugeni makes a dramatic entrance: having become magically twice as large, he smashes through the wall of the shack, sending shards of wood everywhere! Ome follows through, bow at the ready. The air begins to clear as the three adventurers see that Arnald is struggling futilely against his attackers grip. And, for the first time, they realize his attacker is no elderly trapper: it’s a grotesque, faceless creature with leathery skin!
The creature, which Eugeni identifies as an Ugothol (or “faceless stalker”) continues to squeeze and drain the life out of Arnald as the others attack it and inflict several deep wounds. The aberration offers to let Arnald go if they’ll let it go, but they refuse; when bartering fails, the creature threatens a lifetime of stalking the adventurers, as they’ll never know when they’re safe. But when the Ugothol pushes Arnald away and tries to flee, Eugeni knocks the creature to the ground and then Arnald finally gets vengeance and cuts the creature in twain with one might swing of his greataxe! Eugeni and Ome quickly scour the interior of the shack and discover a small cache of money and magical items hidden underneath a filthy bed made of fur and branches. The two adventurers use their bodies to shield their find from the others, and keep most of the treasure to themselves. Outside, Shalelu finds a ten-foot deep pit containing mud, decomposing bodies (“Shank’s” victims), and a disgusting maggot-like grub the size of a small dog! Arnald is very interested in searching the pit, but the others persuade him to leave it alone.
Shalelu announces herself more-or-less satisfied with the newcomers’ skill in battle. Although it’s out of their way, the group must return to Sandpoint before tackling Thistletop because the elf’s bow splintered in the battle against the faceless stalker. They reach the town again in the early afternoon and Shalelu leaves the other three to wait at the northern gate while she goes to buy a new bow. While she’s gone, Ome asks Arnald for more information on what happened on his previous foray to Thistletop. His answers are vague and full of jokes, much to the tengu’s annoyance. Eugenie quietly tells his long-time friend that the human sellsword is clearly not the brains of the operation. The three talk about passing the time gambling, but realize they don’t have dice or a deck of cards to play with. Arnald heads into town and to the general store. Seeing the “No Adventurers!” sign in the window, he tries to disguise himself by pulling up the hood on his winter cloak. But Ven Vinder isn’t fooled, and when Arnald is slow in leaving, Ven swings his cudgel so hard it makes an audible “crack” when it connects with Arnald’s skull! The mercenary gets the message and leaves before further violence erupts.
Once the four adventurers are back together, they head back east. Shalelu is able to find a route through Nettlewood that avoids most of the dense forest’s obstacles and dangers. Soon, in the later afternoon, they stand on the edge of the promontory, across from which is the isle fortress of Thistletop. Shalelu, Arnald, and Ome are able to scramble down the 80’ cliff and into the water below with little difficulty, but Eugenie slips and tumbles awkwardly, hurting himself in the process. Fortunately, the half-orc’s friend is able to draw up divine magic to heal him. The group then swims across the narrow channel and are able to scale Thistletop using the rope to the former lair of the tentamort. The adventurers make haste towards the research room containing a secret door to the stairs below. Shalelu notices that many of the books and scrolls that had been there are now gone.
Once the adventurers are on the second subterranean level of the complex, Shalelu and Arnald point out to Ome and Eugenie the exact spot where the corridor ahead is trapped. The four spend a long time discussing various ways to get past the trap until Shalelu, frustrated, backs up and leaps over the pressure plate on the floor! The other three follow her lead without incident. Surprisingly, however, Nualia is nowhere to be found. A cursory look at the room she had been in before shows it to be a study of some sort, as it contains various small tables and chairs and is well-lit by enchanted blazing skulls. Wide stone ledges of red marble line the curving walls of the room and contain strange scrimshaw artwork, taxidermied animals and limbs, and several spots where the dust has been recently disturbed as if things that were once there are now gone.
The adventurers move on to another chamber across the corridor. Here they find an “L” shaped hallway, the southern part of which ends at a pair of stone doors carved with the depictions of two skeletons reaching out to clutch a skull between them. The walls of the eastern part of the chamber narrows down to frame a circular carving of what seems to be immense stacks of tens of thousands of gold coins rising from floor to ceiling. Eugenie casts a minor divination spell to discern that the stacks carry with them the aura of illusion magic.
Pressing on, the adventurers open the skull-marked stone doors. Four pillars support the vaulted ceiling of the room beyond, while alcoves containing standing stone sarcophagi line the walls. The centre of the room is dominated by the statue of a stern man wielding a glaive and holding a book. The adventurers decide to split up and take their time looking for secret doors, but their search is interrupted as insubstantial, inky black, vaguely humanoid-shaped shadows emerge from three of the sarcophagi and fly towards the intruders! Their touch is witheringly cold and drains the vitality of living creatures, a fact Shalelu discovers all too well before retreating out of the room. In her haste, she fails to account for the trap the group bypassed earlier and suffers multiple cuts.
Ome, Eugeni, and Arnald fall back as well and soon realize the manifestations of spiritual energy are bound to the crypt and cannot leave. Ome, having come prepared for many eventualities, coats the tip of several arrows with an alchemical compound that will allow the projectiles to harm the ghostly figures. Eugeni manifests blast after blast of eldritch fire to burn the creatures, and the renewed battle goes well until Arnald strays too close to the entrance to the crypt and gets swarmed! His body grows incredibly weak and he is barely able to fight off the siren song of death before Eugeni destroys the last of the undead lurkers.
A third and perhaps final raid on Thistletop has begun, yet Nualia is nowhere to be found. Has she slipped through the adventurers’ grasp?
Director's Commentary (22/05/2017)
Eugeni and Ome were, of course, the new characters for, respectively, Nedrin's and Felix's players. Eugeni was a half-orc wizard, while Ome was a tengu inquisitor of Calistria. The two players worked together to create some shared background for their characters, which was a nice touch that made it much easier to integrate them into the campaign. The PCs were around 5th level at this time but because of all the character deaths I wanted to have the first encounter for the session be something more manageable than they might find at Thistletop. I used an encounter from the first hardcover volume of the Pathfinder comic involving a Faceless Stalker masquerading as a common highwayman. I liked how the encounter turned out, because the dim lighting and smoke inside the shack made for a naturally more challenging (and exciting) battle than I expected.
Speaking of Thistletop, I had to put some thought into deciding what Nualia would do. The adventure path has instructions for what happens if she escapes, but she actually won the battle and it was the PCs who retreated. But, she was also almost the only living creature alive in the fortress and I didn't want to have a video game style campaign where the boss just sits around waiting for the heroes to come back. So the PCs lost out on a clear victory, some XP, some treasure, and a lot of information when she abandoned Thistletop. She makes a return appearance in Chapter Two, however, and the PCs luck will prove much better.
GMs will note something major in Thistletop that the PCs missed, but that's okay. Not every party has to have the same experiences, and it's good that the adventure path isn't on rails.
I was nervous about the fight against the shadows since they can easily overwhelm and kill PCs, so I was impressed with how well the group did against them.