The announcement had been seen by many. Yet only three adventurers appeared at the Blade and Stars others at the hour requested by Smythe—some came for the coin, others seeking experience and a bold challenge. At first it seemed an incomplete group, but as the four men spoke and introduced themselves, Smythe's confidence rose knowing that these hired men should suit the task well. They were as follows: Dart, a skilled crossbowman and scout; Nersial, an elven arcane fighter; Zyak Strongbox, a devote hin with a habit of noting everything down in a notebook; and of course Jon Smythe himself, the simple bookseller. There was no oddness amongst the group from the onset, and this relieved Smythe. Some wine was poured and Smythe spoke of the task at hand, what was known—or not known—about the location of the book known as the Draconomicon, as well as to where they as a group would have to travel to seek further answers—the Wizard at the High Hedge.
Time was taken after the initial meeting to supply each as seemed necessary, some already having prepared in advance. Then off to the Baldur's Gate docks, as it had been determined to travel quickly south via ferry. As the ferry lines run, it was necessary to transfer via Roaringshore. Nersial spoke out against spending too much time there, and this was noted by the group.
There, at the dock, as the group of four waited for the connecting ferry to the beach below Candlekeep, they spied an oddly dressed man, bare of feet, posing on the edge of the dock, staring far off out to sea. The four approached the obvious foreigner, and learned his name: Weung Zhen Wei. Denying he was a monk—and continuing to deny this throughout the quest—Weung stated he sought out place and time to challenge his fighting abilities. Smythe, seeing a good opportunity, invited the non-monk along, without any immediate offer of pay or contract. The monk asked for nothing as well, and joined the group. It was then that the company amounted to five.
Deposited on the beach south of Candlekeep, the group of five observed many a wild beast crawling the shoreline and nearby woods, and this company of five would have to travel through them all—beetles, dire badgers and bears—before they would reach the Hedge Wizard. On the beach, Zyak and Nersial summoned the might of the arcane and of the Gods, enchanting themselves and the group with protective wards, for this overland leg of the journey held possible unknown dangers. Dart was sent ahead as scout, also to lure in each beast with a shot from his crossbow. The company of five was not hindered in the least by any of these beast, even when they attempted to swarm, defending their territory as wild beasts are will to do.
The long overland travel ended at the gate to the Hedge Wizards castle, none of the company of five having sustained not a scratch. There was a growing confidence amongst the company that their skills formed a well-rounded fighting force.
At the gates to the hedge wizard's castle, Smythe informed the group he would question the wizard alone, as with too many disturbances to the inner sanctuary could ruin an opportunity to gain the location of the Draconomicon. The group, minus Smythe, camped outside near the fountain, keeping watch against the dire bears, as Smythe entered alone.
Only an hour passed, and Smythe returned, perplexed but hopeful. He had received a riddle, it seems: Solve the maze in the woods; a tome lies amongst the horns
. Smythe was clueless to unlocking the riddle, but Nersial and Zyak both spoke of the deeper part of Cloakwood forest, where a Minotaur lair resided. Dart expressed some concern over entering this lair. Zyak made hasty drawings in his book of the descriptions of the famous beast, as Nersial spoke at length about the minotaur. Convinced this was the location of the Draconomicon, Smythe gave word to pack up and move again, backtracking and further north, towards the Cloakwood, to this lair of the Minotaur.
Arriving in the Cloakwood, Smythe's group were guided by Nersial, who knew the path to the lair well. Dart was again sent ahead, to scout the dangers that lay in the forest. After repeated attacks by lizardmen, beetles and wood-women, the group reached the edge of the midway of the Cloakwood. At this point, the group was stopped by a meddling dwarf, who wished to join a group of hunters. Smythe informed the dwarf that his group was contracted for a mission—not hunters—and that he led them...and that Smythe could not afford another. The dwarf cared little for coin, only the chance to inspect the Minotaur's lair was enough in payment. The group was open to this, knowing that one more able adventurer would lesson the chance for disaster. The dwarf, who called himself Mordanus Ironfaar, was welcomed into the party. Now, the company grew to six.
Deeper into the Cloakwood, the company of six faced new challenges, both traps and an ambush by the shadow druids and the spiders therein. The group knew that it was best to move onward through the unknown dangers that lie ahead, rather than to remain idle, or worse, return back, so they pushed forward towards the Minotaur lair. They reached the cave mouth rather easily after the initial ambushes, and a camp was made, so that Zyak and Nersial could prepare their spells for the coming dungeon crawl. Dart, Smythe and Weung kept watch, but the night was mostly quiet. Sounds of battle could be heard off in the distance, but nothing approached the six as they camped.
The camp was cleared, and the company of six peered into the cave...whatever lay inside, stirred. Again, Dart took a lead as scout, but the group hesitated at first after they entered the cave, until Nersial presented a detailed map of the maze, from which the company could assuredly reach the innermost reaches of the Minotaur's maze...and, as was hoped, succeed in acquiring the Draconomicon. Once the group had moved deep enough into the maze caverns and were no longer within eyeshot of the entrance, minotaur after minotaur rushed to engage the group of six. The tightness of the caverns made battle more chaotic, and often, two or three of the party had to both attack and defend alone. Nonetheless, a combined might of the company prevailed. And as they reached the gates to the maze proper, a certain confidence continued to grow amongst them all.
But then, from behind, a creature unexpected appeared in the shadows: a leopard, crouching low. The group of six stopped to take defensive positions, but the leopard darted down another hallway in the maze. None of the group of six could make sense of the appearance of such a creature here, but the dwarf named Mordanus made a convincing argument that since it did not attack outright, it was not to worry. Others, such as Smythe, remained cautious.
company of six, guided by Nersial and his map, searched room after room, felling many a minotaur and opening every chest in the hopes of finding the Draconomicon. But, the going was slow, and the wards of Zyak and Nersial—the dwarf as well—began to fade over time, and it seemed that the deeper the group went, the more isolated and dangerous the situation. It was then that, in turning a corner, they stopped face to face with a half-breed Orc.
Armored, with a stag-adorned helmut, the large figure addressed the group, and many took to arms. The half-orc began to parlay with the group, as if their encounter was nothing particular. Smythe, however, was not easily persuaded. And, others in the group, did keep a keen eye on the half-orc, taking flanking positions, knowing that the half-orcen kind are some of the most violent and untrustworthy of races in all the lands. Smythe challenged the half-orc to prove his intentions, whatever they may be. And, Smythe began to question the half-orc whether or not he had acquired a tome while in this Minotaur maze—for Smythe, he had come this far, too far, to have his prize taken from him, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Through a terse back an forth, and with the dwarf communicating in the language of Orc to ease the tensions between them all, it was determined that Grun, the half-orc warrior, was far too stupid to even know what a tome was, nonetheless see value in the object.
The company of six let the half-orc pass...and at the same moment, became aware again that the leopard was still following them, for now and again as they pushed ahead in the maze, the beast would appear out of the shadows briefly, then disappear before any from the group could react. It was a game of hide and seek that was being played, but not all were willing participants.
Onward, the company of six marched. According to Nersial, there was one last chamber, deep within the maze. As the company of six approached, a certain heaviness in the air was felt, and each prepared for what was assumed to be a final battle with what old only be a commanding group of Minotaurs, defending their great treasure horde. Alas, as the group entered the final chamber, there was no fight to be had, no challenge whatsoever...only a single tomb in a large burial chamber. Smythe approached the tomb. He gathered the group, and together they held open the tomb's lid, while Smythe reached inside to examine the contents, blindly with only his hand deep within the large tomb. Lo and behold, amongst the bones and ancient but rusted armor, was a book, wrapped in linens. It all seemed so easy....
Smythe unwrapped the tome from its linen wrapping, and placed it out for all to see. The silence was telling, as the group stood there. The tome, now free from it's wrapping, presented another challenge: a lock held the book shut, holding fast both fron and back cover. This lock shined with an eery light, and it was obvious to each and every member of the company of six that it was magically warded—none present could succeed past it's wards, if they even dare attempt it. No title lay on the cover; no inscription on the spine. It was as if all the answers lay there, in this book, but there was no key to unlock it, no word of power to gain access.
In that moment of both success and dismay, it occurred to the company of six that standing idle in the lair of the minotaurs was a fools choice, and they must make haste to leave the place, while their wards still held against time. But the departure from the deepest corners of the maze was not free from danger, as the minotaurs continued to wait in ambush almost every turn. The group of six indeed came upon many a mauled minotaur corpse as they retraced their steps, and paw prints in blood did appear from time to time. The leopard would remain a mystery, it seems. As would the dwarf named Mordanus, who, without notice or say, disappeared from the group. Some suggested that the two were in league, possibly, as the dwarf did exercise the magic of a druid...but also magic created from the blood...
Finally, as the group had nearly reached the exit to open air, and in a moment of relaxed guard, minotaurs in force descended upon the group, tearing through the groups ranks, and attacked their leader—Smythe was deeply wounded by a sheer greataxe swung deep into his back. The group—hired and now committed to fulfill this quest—rallied to Smythe as he stumbled from the wound, pushing back the minotaur onslaught until every horned beast in sight lay upon on the ground in a pool of their own blood. Smythe, bleeding but still conscious, was quickly healed by Zyak and others. Tense was the moment that—through all that had transpired so far in the journey—one single slip in the concentration of the group as a whole, could have a near death consequence. Relieved—and with the bleeding stopped—Smythe walked exhausted towards the fresh air of night, protected on all sides by the trust of the companions he had initially bought loyalty from, but now showed a quality of respect towards each other, overall...something no coin could purchase.
The air of night opened the lungs to a cleaner breath, and the group of now five, organized themselves to make camp, and discuss the current state of events. A tome was found, but none could know if it was indeed the Draconomicon. None other than a greater mage could open the warded lock, that was for certain and easily agreed upon by the group. Smythe was at odds in the situation, for he had acquired something of importance, but could not rest that his mission was fulfilled. However, seeing that this journey was only possible by way of each member of the group, Smythe insisted in paying each man their share promised from the onset. Weung, the non-monk, held up a hand against any payment.
Then, in turn, each of the group of five gave their word that should Smythe need again their skills, each would willingly join anew, some for the valuable coin gained in such a company, others for the chance to gain knowledge and the challenge alone, a yearning to prove their merits, a quality that drives many an adventurer.
Pleased that he had employed the best that the Sword Coast had to offer, Smythe acknowledged what was gained amongst this company.
"Follow me eastward, to the great Inn my compatriots, for we will drink and eat together one last time after this long journey together," spoke Smythe. "Alas, here is the prize, but it is not yet a puzzle solved," Smythe continued on to say, while pointing to the tome recovered from the minotaur lair. "What resides beneath those locked covers is either the end, or the beginning...when the new day dawns, I will bring this tome to one that can remove the wards, hopefully...
and from there the story continues on....
///In case anyone is curious, this was all done without any DM assistance, although I did put out a call for interest to the team. Each player took it upon themselves to make this event come alive, and I thank them. Good times, and more to come!
As J.G. Ballard has said, "It's a mistake to hold back and refuse to accept one's own nature."