The five headed off in the direction that the starter had indicated. Stu took point and Jimmy lagged behind, bookending the more pitifully armed and armored party members. Stu had an armband tied to his left arm, which indicated to the NPCs that he had the Wilderness ability. Characters who had trained that ability were less likely to be surprised when travelling out in the woods. Any foes they ran into would be sure to make sufficient noise so that the player himself would be warned in time. Groups without such a character would not get any extra warning, which could be deadly if the monsters carried bows.
The open field gave way to forest, the brilliant fall foliage overhead blocking out much of the sun. The light that made it through to the forest floor was dappled and ephemeral, shifting as the leaves swayed gently in the breeze. Other than the sound of the wind whispering through the branches and the party’s footfalls, all was silent. In the novels Allison had read, the lack of animal noises signaled something nasty that had scared the local fauna. But she figured that it was just as likely her friends and her causing the birds and squirrels to be still as it was some goblins lying in wait.
The friends walked along a rudimentary path that led to one of the campsites further away from the central lodge. Earlier, Chuck had explained to Allison that for practical reasons each adventure typically covered roughly the same part of the reserve. None of the organizers had the time or inclination to create brand new paths and structures every time. The stories changed, of course, and how the terrain was used varied from weekend to weekend, but they had walked down this very path several times before.
Suddenly, Stu raised his fist as a signal to stop. Everyone stumbled to a stop and looked wildly around for danger. Chuck held his dagger at the ready and TJ casually opened his beanbag pouch to prepare to cast a spell. Jimmy inched closer to the rest of the group, his sword raised and ready to strike. Everyone’s ears strained to catch any sounds.
When no danger materialized, Stu’s hand dropped back down and he once again began to move forward. Not three steps later, a cough rang out from beside the path and he spun, his bow drawn and aimed at a nearby bush. A cackling voice called out, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Unarmed and friendly-like I am. You see me, yes?”
With a smirk, Allison pointed out that he was still hiding behind the bush. The voice replied, “Come out, can I? Or shoot me and smite me will you and leave my poor Wilfred without a father?”
With a long look back along the path, Jimmy moved forward to stand protectively between the bushes and the rest of the party. Stu’s bow was still drawn but he looked inquiringly over to the others. TJ cleared his voice and called out, “Yes, you can come out, if you mean us no harm. But be aware that if you act in a hostile manner toward us, it will go all the worse for you.”
“Oh yes, great master, yes kind I will be. And polite. And friendly-like. Oh yes!” The voice sounded to Allison like a cross between Gollum and Yoda. A head peeked out of the bush that Stu had been aiming at, followed quickly by the rest of the creature. The judge’s face was covered by a grotesque mask that sported a long nose and bushy eyebrows, and wore a generic brown robe that covered his entire body.
“Goblin,” TJ murmured to Allison. “Not a serious threat to us unless he has a couple dozen more hiding among the trees. However they’re devious and are not to be trusted.”
The goblin turned to look at TJ and said, “Oh, not to be trusted, are we? Who the land beside the Lake of Dreams promised to give us, and then their mind they changed? Hmm? The crafts and other pretty things of the Bonecrusher clan promised to buy and then on pain of death just took them? Hmm? Who the devious ones are, hmm? Not the Bonecrushers, for sure that is.” He then turned and stared directly at Simon, “The truth about who is the more devious, your people know don’t they? Eh?”
Simon looked ready to speak but TJ interrupted, “Yeah well, it’s true those events were unfortunate. But none of us had a hand in them. You should have no quarrel with us. Speak your peace and then be gone.”
“Oh, speak my peace, eh? Well here is the peace I am speaking. Danger in these woods there is. Greater danger than the Bonecrusher clan has ever seen. Greater danger than the Bonecrusher clan ever wants to see. If on this path you continue, an unfortunate doom you will meet. But if that doom you meet and overcome, earn the friendship of the Bonecrusher clan you will, as well as any shinnies we may have.” The goblin began cackling madly, but after several seconds fell into a coughing fit. Waving, he stepped back into the shadows of the bushes.
“Wait! Can’t you tell us anything more?” Asked Chuck. But by that point the creature had become completely hidden from view. A moment later the robed figure was back, but this time with a judge’s armband rather than the goblin’s mask. He looked blankly at the group and said, “The goblin has disappeared.” The cackle and mask gone, his transition from goblin to game official indicated that that particular NPC no longer was in play for their party.
The six looked at each other briefly before Allison said with a sigh, “Well that was ominous, but not terribly informative. I guess we just keep on moving and see what happens?”
Chuck looked at her and said, “Oh, no, I don’t think we’re quite through here yet.” He approached the judge and showed him one of the skill chits attached to his carabineer. “I search the area, particularly the bushes where he had been hiding.”
The judge smiled and said, “Aha, well as it happens, with that many ranks in search you spot something glinting on the ground. Upon closer inspection, you find this. You’re lucky, we hadn’t really expected anyone to be able to spot that. Assists wouldn’t have helped.” Looking at TJ he said, “Galphalon’s a wizard, right?” At TJ’s nod, he handed a laminated 3X5 notecard and a purple armband to Chuck and concluded with, “There is nothing else for you to see here. It’s time to move on.” This was a none-too-subtle hint that they should be out of sight before the next group came behind so as not to ruin the experience for the other gamers.
Chuck gave the notecard a quick glance and emitted a low whistle. “Good stuff folks. Let’s get moving and everyone can take a look at it on the way.” He shot a jealous glance at Allison. “You are one lucky little newbie. Wait til you see what you get to play with!” He handed her the armband and said, “Put that on right away.” Despite the confused look on her face, she did as he instructed.
Stu gave the card only a brief glance before resuming his position as scout, but he was grinning when he handed it to TJ. As TJ read through the card he said, “Woah, yeah. Chuckles was right about this one. Check this thing out.” He handed it to Allison.
“What’s it say?” Jimmy called out from behind. He had resumed his position as rear guard and was anxiously looking into the trees, sword still at the ready. The initial encounter with the goblin hadn’t taken very long, so there could well be an ambush set up ahead. “I want to know what it is too!”
Allison read the card aloud. “’Ring of Ancient Triumph. One of the magical implements created during the third age of the Ny’Zull dynasty by the master Dwarven craftsman Dylan Bloodforge.’ Good grief, there is a lot of exposition here. How are we supposed to know all that?”
TJ answered, “That’s why he asked if I was a wizard, as opposed to some other spellcaster, like a mage or a sorcerer. It is assumed that as part of my studies I have learned all sorts of history about magic from past days. If I hadn’t been here he would have given us a different card, which wouldn’t have included any of the backstory and might not actually even have told us anything about the ring’s power. But keep reading, you haven’t gotten to the good part
She continued, “’This ring was crafted for the High Autarch of the Ny’Zull’s religion, and can only be worn by one who channels divine power.’ I guess that’s me, right?” TJ nodded and winked. “’As the ultimate conduit between the Heavens and the priesthood, the High Autarch was expected to manifest the Gods’ power for all the people to see. When the Ny’Zull pantheon began to wane during the Godswar, the High Autarch commissioned this ring to be made as a way to bolster his weakening power. The wearer of this ring is granted the following abilities. One, five extra spell casts each day, of any spell rank.’ Woah. That doubles the number of spells I’ve got. I bet I won’t be running out of those heals on you after all, will I? ‘Two, the power of the ring encases the wearer in a magical shell that reduces the effectiveness of weapons, mundane and magical. This effectively increases the wearer’s armor rating by six points, and negates any magical effects projected by enemy weapons.’ That sounds cool enough. ‘Three, the ring radiates an aura of majesty that influences the way others see him or her. All reactions will be shifted positively by one tier, and all creatures of rank three or lower are awed by the bearer. They will defend themselves if provoked, but will not of their own volition attack them.’ Now THAT is cool. Any of you guys lower than rank four? If so, you may begin bowing down in front of me now.” She turned a pirouette and dipped into a deep curtsey.
“Nope, sorry, Allison,” Simon said with a chuckle. “None of us are threes. But Chuck wasn’t kidding. That ring has no business being in the hands of a newbie. They must have figured that if someone in the party had sufficient search skill to find it, anyone capable of wearing it would also be a pretty high level. That’s the sort of thing you’ll probably never see again in-game. None of us have anything that rivals it in power. Unless you do, Stu.”
“Nope, not me. Just my trusty bow.”
Chuck let out a laugh and said, “You know what this means, Allison, don’t you?”
“You’re going to have to keep coming back to play.”
“Because if word gets out that an item like that went to a first-timer who never came back, you’re going to have people egging your house for years to come.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see. This is turning out to be more fun than I expected.”
The snap of a twig was the only warning they had before all hell broke loose.