Steam rose from the warm, brackish water of Skull Lake in the early morning. The Lizardfolk were all closely connected to the natural world, and could tell that something was somehow “off” about the season. The air was too cool, the foliage not dense enough. Somehow, and none of them understood how, they had returned from the Fey Wild at a different time than they had entered it.
The heroes treaded water, surveying the scene. The swampland that normally bordered Skull Lake to their left had been clear cut, and was now a featureless muddy plain, wholly without trees or plant life. They could see figures moving around the docks, and who they assumed was Boatsman D’All paddling his skiff on a fishing trip. After a quick discussion, they decided to split their party. Hsessriss would stealthily creep towards the boat and discover if it was indeed his friend, and the rest of the group would swim away from the village and make a base camp south of the devastation.
Walks Without Purpose was still grievously injured from their underwater Feywild battle, and nearly drowned before Lefty saved him. Jones found the safest route to the cover of the swam, avoiding a giant eel that thought they looked tasty. Once the gang was safely hidden in the swamp, Brand healed Walks Without Purpose.
Boatsman D’All saw Hsessriss’ approach, even though only his nostrils broke the water’s surface. D’All stopped the Ranger’s approach with the tip of his oar, then silently gestured for him to hold onto the bow of the skiff. Back at the base camp, D’All filled them in on what they had missed. It had been over a year since the heroes had left Home, and more than six months since the Brutal Horde conquered them. The barbarians outnumbered the villagers four-to-one, and had been granted unspeakable powers by their god, a demon called Ellerak the Schizoid King. Most of the villagers had been cowed into subservience. Those who rebelled were tortured and killed, often in an arena that the horde called, “The Circus.” It is there that Warlord D’Kwann entertained himself, feeding villagers to his pet Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Some of the villagers had collaborated with the Brutal Horde, allying themselves with Warlord D’Kwann. Slavetaker Oten and his wife Baa think that they have made themselves indispensable, but they’re just being used. Warlord D’Kwann’s lazy idiot of a son Urzahh Crackshell has seized Oten’s luxurious house on Slave Hill, and his goons drunkenly revel there at all hours. Mohc the Trader, the Tortle who trades goods with both travelers and locals, has been outspoken against the Horde, but when push comes to shove he still provides them with goods and weapons.
The shrine to Rae atop Suntouch Hill had been raised, and a crude effigy of Warlord D’Kwann had been erected in its place with slave labor. Firekeeper Charr had been imprisoned and tortured for months, but as of yet refused to give Warlord D’Kwann the secrets of fire magic. D’All was uncertain how much longer the priestess would be able to last. She was caged in front of the circus with other prisoners, where they served as a lesson to the other villagers. Two Claw and Snapjaw, two of the hunters that the party had saved from the Horde, had been publicly executed. Toku and Ssillian the Wise were both kept alive, but like the fishermen were being worked to death to provide food for their captors.
Warlord D’Kwann had a powerful shaman at his disposal, a Druid named Aghra. It was she who had spearheaded the deforestation of Home. Hsessriss was horrified to discover that she was in opposition to the sacred hunt of Camactli. She caged animals to breed them for meat and forced villagers to dig food from the ground, like a herbivore. An outraged Hsessriss wanted to destroy her first, and more than any other threat to the village.
Boatsman D’All knew that he would be missed by his keepers if he was gone any longer, but he offered to smuggle the party into Home on his skiff. Knowing that Lefty would be a hindrance on a stealth mission, Walks without Purpose told him to stay at the base camp. He instructed the Ankylosaurus to listen for the sound of his flute in E-flat. That noise would mean for him to come join them. The heroes planned to sneak into the village and make contact with Mohc, the hunters from the lodge, and anyone else that they could use against the Horde, but no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
Hsessriss left the skiff first, planning on sneaking quietly past barbarian sentries. The loud squelching sound of him sinking into the mud alerted everyone, and the stealth mission turned into a fight to the death. Jones cast a Prestidigitation Cantrip to briefly distract the barbarians, allowing Walks without Purpose to swim under the docks and hide. Brand immediately cast sacred flame, calling down a geyser of divine fire and killing one of the sentries. This made the young raptor a target. One sentry impaled her with a thrown spear, the other blew his horn to summon more o the Brutal Horde. Boatsman D’Kwann began to paddle his skiff as far away from the fight as he could.
Walks without Purpose grabbed Brand’s enemy from behind and began to choke him with his staff. Another barbarian skewered Walks like a hook being baited. Brand attempted to shoot one with her short bow, but missed. A healing word from her kept Walks without Purpose in the fight. Jones cast Magic Missile at one of the sentries, then she swam out of range.
While Hsessriss fought against four sentries, Jones hatched a strange plan. She reached out telepathically to one of the Brutal Horde, claiming to be his new god and saying that Brand’s use of Sacred Flame proved it. Refusing to serve any god other than the Schizoid King, the barbarian took a knife to his own ear canals and attempted to deafen himself. “Fool,” Jones taunted. “You cannot be rid of me so easily. Bow before your NEW GODS!” Overcome by an existential crisis of faith, the barbarian drowned himself in the middle of the battle.
Several of the villagers gathered around the melee, watching but not interfering. Boatsman D’All had warned them that many of the villagers couldn’t be trusted, and would certainly betray them for preferential treatment. As the tide began to turn against the heroes, many of the villagers hid in their huts. Two of the nearby fishermen took cover under the docks, but they remained nearby the battle.
Hsesseriss would have been killed by the sentries, but Brand cast a Warding Flair to protect him. Jones attempted to use the Suggestion spell to trick a sentry into leaving the battle and attempting to knock down the statue of Warlord D’Kwann, but he was able to shake off the command. Walks without Purpose made as many hand to hand attacks as he could, but they all knew they were outnumbered and outmatched. Brand used her newly-given Fae ability to breathe fire as Hsessriss caused his javelin to erupt in a Thornstrike spell. Brand was nearly out of magical healing, and the Brutal Horde kept swarming them.
In a last ditch effort to end the fight and save their lives, Walks without Purpose called upon a special power of the Let Hand of Arborius. Thrusting his wooden fist into the waters of Skull Lake, he cast a massive Plant Growth spell. Trees, vines, and ferns exploded from him as an epicenter, radiating out 100 feet in all directions. In an eyeblink, the lake’s surface was covered in plant life of all possible descriptions. It grew so fast that many of the Brutal Horde were literally impaled by growing tree branches, or choked to death by twisting vines. The heroes looked on in stunned horror as the plant growth crushed the docks, the fishing huts, the brickyard, and a half dozen other nearby locations. They had no idea how many people had just died, on both sides, but knew that this would be their one chance to escape back to their base camp. Hsessriss was hung by vines, and nearly strangled to death before Brand was able to cut him down with her talons. Using her last healing magic to stabilize him, the party began to flee. The two surviving Fisherman, A’Yorr and No Legs begged to come with them. Once Boatsman D’All’s skif was cut free from the floating tendrils of plants, they managed to escape. It was not yet midday.
Back at the camp, Walks without Purpose told Lefty what had happened during their attempted ambush. The Ankylosaurus seemed somehow ashamed. The Fishermen were able to confirm Boatsman D’All’s information, and even fill in more details. They drew designs in the mud of the Brutal Horde’s facepaint. Learning their symbology would make it easier for the heroes to recognize their enemies, or even impersonate them. The Fishermen told the heroes that if Warlord D’Kwann wasn’t out raiding, he would be likely watching fights to the death at his Circus. Hsesseriss was convinced that Slavetaker Oten was enough of an opportunist that they could turn against the Horde, but nobody else was confident in that plan.
Brand knew vaguely that at the distant mouth of the River Styxx there was a theocratic nation called Rae-Al that was devoted to the Sun God. She thought that it was important to somehow get them word that Home’s shrine had been desecrated and they were worshipping a false god.
The Yuan-Ti of Stygia have found a way to communicate with markings instead of sounds, and Jones has a basic understanding of it. With no way of knowing if anyone in Rae-Al would be able to understand their message, they sent the Fishermen and Boatsman D’All Southeast to the mouth of the River Styxx. Brand enclosed a burned branch with the note, smudging an approximation of her holy symbol as a signature. Then the heroes took a long rest to replenish themselves. It would take them fifteen hours to make the long way around Home, attacking the Slavetaker’s house as their primary target. If they were lucky the Brutal Horde would spend the night in drunken revelry, as they have most since they conquered the village.
The party took their time, circling through the eastern reaches of Slaughter Swamp. Jones had vague plans of making improvised weapons with leeches, so she collected many during their trek. As they got close to the village, Hsesseriss made eye contact with K’Zarr, the crazy old hermit Tortle that dwelled in the outskirts of home. K’Zarr winked, and held a finger to his break to indicate shushing before fading back into the swamp. Not entirely sure what to make of their encounter, the party pushed on.
Rather than attacking in broad daylight again, the party decided to wait until dark to assault Slavetaker Oten’s house. They hoped to kill Urzahh Crackshell and any other Brutal Horde they came across, while kidnapping the duplicitous slaver. Meanwhile, .Hsesseriss would disguise himself as a sentry and try to bluff his way past the guards to free Firekeeper Charr. These plans also went awry fast.
Warlord D’Kwann was not apparently present at his circus, but dozens of his barbarians were. They were drunkenly celebrating, as the Fisherman had predicted. The cause of their celebration was quite vicious though. Twelve villagers had been strung up and tortured to death in the arena, clearly as punishment for the party’s actions at the docks. Hsesseriss grunted that life was cheap, and Brand shared the sentiment that in life there is only predator and prey. Only Walks without Purpose seemed to be bothered by the brutal waste of life.
Hsesseriss’ split off from the rest of the group and approached the cell. The prisoners were displayed openly, as a show of force. His story to the guard on duty was believable. He claimed that he had been given orders to take Firekeeper Charr to Urzahh so she could entertain him with her suffering. Unfortunately, the cage where the prisoners were being kept was guarded by two shockingly competent sentries. .Hsesseriss threw one off of an elevated platform into a pile of drunks. By then the other guard had raged, and struck .Hsesseriss with his stone spear. The primitive weapon connected, but shattered against the ranger’s thick scales. As they fought hand-to-hand, the other sentry entered a berserker rage and rejoined the fray. As luck would have it, the barbarians surrounding their fight remained unaware. To them, this was just another night of partying.
The rest of the party scaled Slave Hill and snuck around to the back of Slavetaker Oten’s house. They were waiting for just the right moment to make their assault. Brand had prayed to her god for magic, and been granted a spell to summon a monster of her choosing to attack for her. The unspeakable beast that Brand called forth was a Gibbering Mouther. This creature was the composite eyes, mouths, and liquefied matter of its former victims. Driven to insanity by the destruction of their bodies and absorption into the mouther, those victims gibber incoherent madness, forced to consume everything in reach. The ameba-like writhing mass of flesh devoured Slavetaker Oten and many of the household servants before Urzahh Crackshell and his men charged it. Though their weapons pierced its stretchy and bulbous hide, its poisonous spittle blinded them and its incessant babbling drive them insane as it consumed them alive. Jones reached out to the barbarians mentally again, taunting them that this was the face of their new god, before telling the Slavetaker’s wife Baa to come outside and join them, they were friends. Terrified and blinded by monster-spittle, Baa did as she was told.
Hsesseriss stabbed his enemies with his enchanted spear, Bleeder. The vile necrotic damage foamed in their wounds like black puss. Walks without Purpose gave Brand the order to light the slaver’s house on fire, then used his Fist of Unbroken Air to hurl a barbarian off of Slave Hill to his death below. The impact broke the barbarian’s skull like a ripe melon.
By now Firekeeper Charr and her cellmates were actively shaking the bars o their cage, attempting to get out. Hsesseriss had attempted to cut open lashings that held the cage together, but had made little progress. Every time he turned his attention to their rescue, he let himself open to the berserk attacks of the barbarians. Brand cast Burning Hands upon Oten’s palatial house as Walks without Purpose barricaded the door with his fishing nets. Nobody would escape alive.
Jones cast her Magic Missile spell at the cage door, forcing it open with a splintering of wood. Firekeeper Charr was not being held prisoner alone. She was joined by seven severely battered and wounded fighting slaves. All bore the marks of incessant torture. There were two Alligators, one massive Komodo, a brightly colored Gila tribesman, another Yuan-Ti, a seven foot-tall insectoid Thri-Kreen from the Stygian desert, and a fleshless Bone Devil wrapped from head to toe in some form of shackles and bindings.
Hsesseriss went down to an enemy battle axe made of sharpened bone. Fleeing the spreading flames, Brand got close enough to revive him with a Healing Word before casting more incinerating blasts of Sacred Flame on the barbarians. Firekeeper Charr, now understanding that this was a rescue, used her last remaining divine magic to heal the ranger even more. Raising himself back to his unsteady feet, Hsesseriss drove Bleeder into his enemy’s mid-section. As the Necrotic poison pulsed through his veins, the sentry died in confusion and agonizing pain.
Everyone was shocked by the appearance of the winged, skinless devil and its evil-looking scorpion tail, but none of the heroes really understood what it was. Not even Brand’s religious training had ever told stories of such a terrifying creature. Still, it seemed to hate the Brutal Horde more than it hated them, and that was something. It hissed at them with furious hatred. Killer, the Komodo fighting slave, carried the bound devil on his shoulder as they made their way back into the relative safety of Slaughter Swamp. As they escaped, Jones once again cast Suggestion. This time her target was the biggest and drunkest reveler in the arena, a massive Komodo covered in Brutal warpaint and adorned in skulls. She told him, “If you and all your buddies teamed up, you could kill Warlord D’Kwann’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. That would really impress him.” The party could hear them attempting such as they led the prisoners away from the fire and into the darkness.
By now the fire had consumed the fine house on Slave Hill and everything inside it. It was only now that the barbarians seemed to notice that there was something amiss in the village, and the noises hadn’t just been barbarians having fun. The heroes watched as the fire began to spread, and they hoped it wouldn’t destroy what was let of their village. In all they had killed 19 barbarians, gotten 17 of their own villagers slain (counting those crushed to death by the Plant Growth spell), and freed 7 prisoners. The party decided to count it as a win.