Escape from Kaiserbaum
I've been playing D&D with the kids for awhile, but our latest campaign has been so much fun they asked me to start writing up the sessions as short stories. I wrote this one this afternoon, the editing may be a little less stringent than what you'd find in one of my published titles. With their permission, I'm sharing with all of you for your enjoyment.
One of the things making this campaign so much fun is that we've incorporated Professor Dungeon Master's gritty low-magic ruleset, Deathbringer available at Drivethrurpg here. No sponsorship received, I'm just a fan. Also, check out his YouTube channel here.
Image created on nexmuse.com from a photograph by author.
The reek of the sewer assaulted Crogan’s nostrils as he wrenched the grate out of its moorings and gestured for his companions to proceed him into the filth-coated depths. It was the middle of the night in the city of Kaiserbaum and their gang, the Graytails, always made sure the lanterns in this back alley were dark. Or at least they had, tonight was probably the last night the Graytails held sway over anything in Kaiserbaum. The gang war was over, they'd lost.
The taller of Crogan’s two companions, Roach, ersatz street doctor extraordinaire, hesitated on the threshold. Roach was a tall, reed-thin man with black hair under a brown hood with a beaked leather mask hanging on his right hip and a wicked meat cleaver sheathed on his left next to a racoon’s tail, matching the tail on Crogan’s belt. His linen clothes were covered by a thick leather apron marred by several gouges and dark stains of unknown origin.
“Why should we go first, Crogan?” Roach asked in a nasal voice. “Should your sword arm not proceed us?”
Crogan spared a disgusted look for the surgeon.
“Well, Doc, you can certainly take trail, but I’m going to need you to pull this grate back into place behind us if you do.”
Roach opened his mouth to reply with a sneer on his face, but their third companion cut him off.
“Roach, we’ve got no time,” Sciurus said. “I’ll lead the way.”
Short, bearded, and stocky, Sciurus was often mistaken for a dwarf, but was, indeed, fully human. He was also a rising star among the Graytails’ ranks as a burglar and second-story man. Or, he had been. Sciurus matched deed to word and walked first into the excrement filled tunnel. Roach grimaced, pulled the beaked masked from his side and donned it, ensuring to cinch down the straps so it formed a good seal around his face.
The turf war between the Graytails and Dieter Schwartzmesser’s Reapers had been a fact of life since Crogan’s first days in the Graytails. Growing up on the streets of Kaiserbaum had hardened Crogan’s knuckles and honed his wits. Graytail enforcers had picked the boy out as a likely candidate for their trade before his thirteenth birthday. They’d refined his skills with his fists and in the grapple, then taught him the sword and shield, knife and crossbow, as well.
The struggle with the Reapers had swayed back and forth for years in a sort of fluid equilibrium; until tonight. Now, every tavern, inn, warehouse, and bolt-hole formerly under the Graytails dominion was crawling either with Reapers or the Baron’s red -uniformed guardsmen. Crogan had counted for himself a dozen senior Graytails already hanging from the massive oak from which the city took its name. Their dangling, lifeless bodies served as a grim reminder of the finality of justice in the Barony of Hoehnwehr.
And apparently Dieter Schwartzmesser secured enough funds to purchase the Baron’s justice wholesale.
“It’s getting too dark,” Sciurus said, his normally cheerful voice laced with apprehension. “I’m lighting a torch.”
“That may draw unwanted attention,” Roach warned.
“Anything that lives down here can probably hone-in using scent or sound,” Crogan said as he knocked a bolt and levered the string back on his crossbow. “With some light, at least we might have a chance to land a blow or two in before they start chewing on us.”
“Why your crossbow and not your sword and shield?” Roach asked, his voice sounding muffled and hollow from behind the mask.
Crogan stifled a reply reminding the doctor to tend to his quackery and potion-making, rather than venturing opinions on Crogan’s combat tactics.
“Well, Doctor Roach,” Crogan said. “If it turns out I have the chance to end some crawling horror with a well-placed bolt before it has a chance to lay a claw on one of us, so much the better, right?”
Crogan squeezed past Roach—no mean feat in the narrow sewer tunnel. The ceiling, walls and floor were all slick green stone in the firelight, the muck muted their footsteps, and the smell only worsened the deeper they went. There was a reason the Graytails had chosen to cache equipment here on the way out of the city.
Crogan was clad in a gray doublet, sword sheathed at his side and shield secured to his pack. He would’ve liked something more substantial, but chain and plate were illegal inside Kaiserbaum city limits unless you were a noble or one of the Baron’s men. Thus, Crogan hadn’t been girded himself in steel for work inside the city, and there’d been no time to return to the hideout and retrieve some. His quilted armor was getting as filthy and discolored as Roach’s surgeon apron.
“Makes sense,” Sciurus said. “I still think we should’ve waited for Delilah, though.”
Crogan grunted agreement, but the beak on Roach’s mask swung side to side.
“She missed the appointed hour,” Roach said. “Either the Reapers got her or she cut a deal with them. As you said, Sciurus, we’ve no time.”
Crogan scanned the darkness for threats, but he was distracted. Delilah had been the fourth and final member of their crew, and a powerfully useful one with her talent for magic. The witch was cold, aloof, and often arrogant, but they had pulled off several jobs together and he didn’t feel right leaving he behind, not knowing what happened to her. The Baron was death on unregistered magic-users, she could very well end up on a pyre if the law, rather than the Reapers caught up with her.
The sludge created by the water and excrement pulled at their boots and only Sciurus managed to maintain his footing without a slip here and there. They continued their trek in silence for several minutes.
Sciurus jerked to a halt, held up a hand to signal a halt, then gestured ahead of them to a place where the sewer came to a T intersection. After a few seconds of silence, Crogan heard why Roach had stopped them. The scrabbling of clawed feet, and heavy, animalistic breathing. Crogan shot a glance over his shoulder, should they retreat?
The entire city was up in arms. Crogan, Sciurus, and Roach had barely escaped an attack on their favorite tavern and, and they’d been unable to reach any of the nobles or guard officers the Greytails had kept fat on bribery. The gang’s leadership was already dead. Whatever was down here might eat them alive, but their only chance of survival lay beyond it, beyond Kaiserbaum’s wall.
Crogan gestured for Sciurus and Roach to stay put, then raised his crossbow to his shoulder, bolt nocked, and stalked forward through the muck, carefully pieing around the corner of the wall ahead to keep an angle on whatever lay behind it. A shrill howl and a muffled cry from behind drew his eye back down the tunnel.
Roach slashed at an anthropoid rat with his meat cleaver, the gray-furred beast dodged back and forth on two legs like a man, but the legs were recurved like an animal’s. It snapped at Roach with sharp, jagged teeth and answered his cleaver with swipes of its own long-fingered, filthy clawed hands. The rat-man came out the better in the exchange and a swipe drew blood and a muffled scream from the doctor.
Crogan took aim, his crossbow twanged and the bolt flew true, embedding itself in the rat-man’s throat. The creature fell with a gurgling cry. Crogan turned just in time to dodge the snapping teeth of another rat-man. Stumbling back into the wall to avoid the new assailant’s claws, Crogan struggled to draw his sword in time. The rat-man pressed his attack with relentless ferocity, but Sciurus had closed the gap.
Sciurus’s long knife flashed, but the rat-man scurried out of the blade’s path. The monster’s reprieve was only temporary, though, as Roach also charged in, meat cleaver swinging. He also missed, but the momentum had shifted against the man-sized vermin.
In the second of breathing space Sciurus and Roach bought him, Crogan finally got his sword free of its scabbard.
With insufficient time to unsling his shield, Crogan took the woodern hilt in a two-handed grip and hacked into the rat-man’s neck. His blade caught briefly in the thick, gristle tissue and bone of its neck for a moment. With a strength born of rage and fear, Crogan yanked the blade free and swung again, cleaving the monster’s head clean from his body. The monster’s rodent features were frozen in a snarling rictus.
Crogan took several deep breaths, scanning the darkness intently to try and spot any other threats. Roach put a thin hand on his shoulder.
“Are you alright? Did it bite or claw you?”
Crogan stood up straight and shook his head.
“I’m fine,” Crogan said, then tilted his chin. “Those claw marks don’t look great though.”
“They don’t feel great either,” Roach said with a raspy chuckle. “But they’ll hold until we get out of here.”
“Ladies, if you’ll quit nattering for a second,” Sciurus said. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
Sciurus was kneeling, fiddling with something on the floor. There was an audible click and Sciurus stood up with a satisfied look on his bearded face and a wound-up wire in his hand. Crogan saw the tiny posts for the trip wire.
“You almost tripped it during the fight, Crogan,” he said.
“Lucky I’ve got you here, then,” Crogan said, doing his best to sound nonchalant.
Crogan secured his crossbow in a harness on his back and strapped his plain, circular wooden shield onto his left arm. They took the right fork, which led them a to a wooden door.
“Excellent,” Roach said. “This should lead us out of the sewers into the cache tunnels.”
Sciurus began to work on the door’s lock, their relative low-rank in the gang meant that while they knew about the cache tunnels, they didn’t possess a key to them. But after a mere three seconds, Sciurus turned the knob and the door creaked open, revealing stone steps spiraling down.
“That was quick work,” Crogan said.
Sciurus shook his head.
“Not my work,” he said, worry evident in his voice. “It was unlocked, and the braziers are already lit.”
Sure enough, a dim glow of orange light crept up the stairs. The three outlaws exchanged worried glances, but before they could ponder, the sounds of steel clanging against stone, and then the eerie reverberating words of the language of magic.
“Press the attack, men,” a voice carried up the stairs. “Don’t give the witch time to breathe!”
Crogan charged down the stairs, Sciurus and Roach close on his heels. At the bottom, a woman faced away from him, he couldn’t see her face, but from her build, raven black hair and the swirling green and black tendrils of energy in her hands, Crogan had no difficulty identifying Delilah Morbek. Three men in cuirasses and red surcoats embroidered with the Baron Hoehnwehr’s Chimera closed on her, swords drawn. Intermittent segments of natural stone wall broke up the cache tunnel, making it impossible to tell if anyone else was here.
The tallest of the three men approached Delilah with sword and shield at the ready. The bronze trim on his surcoat and matching bronze chasing on his steel sallet-style helmet marked him as a captain of the Hoehnwehr Royal Guard. Crogan recognized him after a few more steps into the cache tunnel. The man was Hans Rachsen, a guard captain that had been on the Greytails’ payroll for years. He had done a lot more than just look the other way for his pay, too. He’d fought alongside them more than once.
“Hans, what the hell are you doing?” Crogan blurted. “We’re friends—Roach saved your life when that Reaper hit man put an arrow in your thigh last year. You owe us.”
The guard captain’s eyes remained focused on Delilah.
“The Reapers priced you out, friends,” he said, his voice level. “And with the way the winds are blowing, refusing their pay would be tantamount to suicide. It’s nothing personal.”
“It feels personal, Hans,” Delilah snapped.
“I do what I must to survive, same as you,” Hans said. “If it means anything, I’m terribly sorry to see you here. Especially you, Herr Doctor.”
“Oh, Hans, most people are sorry to see me.” Roach’s nasal voice filtered through his beaked mask sent chills down Crogan’s spine. Something glinting in the orange glow from the braziers sailed through the air. One of Roach’s potion vials clinked off of Hans’ armor and rolled, tinkling away.
“Next time put some shoulder into it, Doc,” Sciurus said as he surged forward to help Delilah.
Crogan lunged at the guardsman to his right with a series of slashes and thrusts, but the man was well-trained and managed to fend off Crogan’s onslaught. Hearing Roach call out from behind him again, Crogan fainted left, lashed out with left foot to create space. His opponent fell back and Crogan whirled around and lunged toward the guardsman who was attacking Roach.
The sword point aimed at Roach’s gut instead caught on Crogan’s shield. He used his momentum and the shield to drive the sword up, opening a large gap in his enemy’s defense. Crogan brought his sword in low then up into his enemy’s armpit with every ounce of thrust his hips and shoulder could manage. The curved-clip tip of his blade broke link, sheared cloth, and penetrated through flesh, blood vessels, and bone, until it met steel on the other side of the body.
The guardsman gave a wheezing death rattle, a look of surprise and agony on his face as Crogan yanked his blade free with schlunk and screech. He turned back to face his original opponent.
“Much obliged,” Roach rasped.
“Help Delilah, I’ll finish this one.” Crogan said without looking over his shoulder.
Roach slinked off into the shadows without further comment.
“Ekrix!” Delilah shouted and hurled swirling tendrils of green and black arcane energy at Hans. The Guard Captain let out a gut-wrenching scream as the magic impacted his armor, but he remained on his feet.
“Not good enough, Delilah,” Hans ground out and stalked toward her with heavy steps splashing in the muck, his breathing labored.
Damn it. The Old Speech tattooed on Delilah’s arms burned hot. She’d had to conjure several blasts of scalding eldritch energy to fend off the guardsmen. She fought to concentrate despite the pain, despite the large, armored man advancing upon her, sword drawn. Hans was moving slower, clearly hurt, but still deadly.
“Ekirx!” Delilah shouted again, but this time the arcane pattern in her mind slipped and the energy she summoned wracked her body instead. A moment before the swirling emerald and onyx conflagration would’ve consumed her, Delilah altered the spell and it fizzled in a pitiful flash and an puff of smoke. She fell back against the wall, gasping in pain.
Hans raised his sword, time dilated for Delilah, his blade glinted in the dime orange light, descending toward her face.
The sword’s flashing arc flew astray, and the blade clanged against the wall next to her head. Hans gasped and a rictus of agony took hold of his handsome features. He swayed for a moment, then fell forward, onto his face in the filth of the chamber.
Sciurus stood behind the body. He shook his head and tsked as he sank down to wipe the dark blood off his dagger using the dead man’s surcoat.
“Shame, I always liked Hans.”
Closer to the stairs, Crogan went through another exchange with the remaining guard, steel clashing against steel. The guardsman made shield to shield contact, then shoved mightily sending Crogan back a few feet. Rather than pressing his advantage, the man used the gap to turn and flee up the stone steps, back toward the city.
“Come on, Crogan, let him go,” Sciurus shouted. “We’ve got to go.”
A bowstring twanged and an arrow thwitted in the dark. Only Delilah’s street-honed reflexes saved her.
“Hoplos!” Another tattoo flared blue on Delilah’s forearm as she threw her hand up, a shimmering, translucent silver shield materialized, intercepting the arrow before it hit her.
“Surrender!” Crogan shouted, charging forward, shield held before him.
A red-uniformed bowmen crouched, barricaded by the crates and barrels of the Greytail cache. He looked at the three hardened criminals charging him. Dropped his bow and grabbed a torch from its holder on the wall, holding it over an open barrel.
“Hold!” He shouted, his voice quavering. “I know you’ve got Dwarven Powder in this barrel!”
Delilah stopped in her tracks, Sciurus and Crogan stopped beside her. This guardsman was much younger than Hans, she didn’t recognize him.
“Look, friend,” Sciurus said. “There’s no need to blow yourself to hell and back.”
“Just stay back,” he shouted, the flame wavered in his shaking hand as he did. “Stay back or I will drop this torch.”
A tall thin figure slunk out of the shadows behind the archer, cleaver in hand. Delilah drew a deep, steadying breath and brought a new pattern to mind. A simpler one, fit for minor prestidigitation. Another, smaller, tattoo glowed blue on Delilah’s shoulder, and she gave a minor flourish of the wrist and a snuffing motion with the fingers on her right hand.
The torch died instantly, the archer looked at stupidly for a a brief moment before Roach sunk his cleaver into the back of the man’s skull with a sickening crack-thunk. The guardsman crumpled to the floor. Roach bent down and wrenched the thick bladed knife from the man’s skull. He also retrieved the potion bottle that had failed to break on Hans’s armor.
“Glad you made it after all, Delilah,” Roach said.
“You too,” Delilah said, her voice monotone.
“Grab what you can carry, but not so much it slows you,” Crogan said as he finished replenishing his quiver with crossbow bolts and secured an expensive bottle of red wine in his pack. “We must reach the Red River before the Baron’s Guard or the Reapers can catch up.”
It was pre-morning twilight as they emerged from the Kaiserbaum sewers into the woods outside the city. Delilah spared one backward glance at the gray stone walls that had encompassed her unhappy home her whole life.
“Come on,” Crogan said, shoulder his pack. “There’s nothing for us here anymore, nothing but death.”
Hope you enjoyed if you got this far! I'm back to Countdown: Criminal Enterprise and the Mexican Drug War, but I enjoyed a little diversion and will try to continue to write these little vignettes when the kids and I play. Next time--crossing the Red River, and the Duchy of Grafenfeltz.