They take such care arranging a rope-assisted descent that I waive the ability checks and tell them they are all standing on the rocks alongside the stream in short order. Stillman leads the way upstream.
As they are rounding a bend, they hear growling from above and behind them, and they stop their march to assume defensive positions. Two thorndogs come into view, racing along the top of the ravine on the north side, passing, and disappearing out of sight upstream. The group remains cautious, with half of its number scaling the south rocky wall to see if anything is chasing the dogs. After a few minutes, nothing unusual is detected, so they continue on their way.
They leave the ravine and move along the stone face until they reach the dragon-mouth entrance. It looks too spooky and dark, so they bypass it and continue exploring, soon finding themselves between a rock and a thorny place — a single-file procession squeezing between the sheer wall of the spire and the threatening vines of the forest.
A howl goes up from close to the south, and Stillman, still in the lead, stops. Thorndogs have picked up their scent. Other howls answer from the east. Some panicky words are thrown around, and the group starts to shuffle back the way it came.
Stillman's attention is diverted to the sound of something rapidly approaching from the east. He turns, scooping up one of his pigs from underfoot, in time to see the mangy thorndog sprint into view, racing towards him with its fangs bared. Asking for forgiveness, he hurls the pig in front of the dog as it nears. I give the dog a DC 10 Will save to avoid taking the bait, and the dog makes it, leaping over the terrified pig and right for the irresponsible swineherd. Stillman staggers back and cries out in pain as the dog's teeth sink into his left leg below the knee for 2 hp of damage.
Durwen, next in line, picks up Stillman's other pig and hurls it directly at the dog, but misses. Both pigs run squealing for their lives, threading their way between the legs of the adventurers, frantically fleeing the scene, never to be seen again. Stillman tries to strike the dog with his staff, misses, backs up screaming into Durwen as everyone moves as quickly as they can back toward the front of the spire.
The dog releases its grip on Stillman's leg and goes for his throat, ripping his cry for help into a strangled, wet gurgle. Durwen, sweating profusely and terrified, turns and runs for his life. Luckily (Durwen makes a Luck check), the dog pauses to dine, giving him time to escape.
Illustration by Stefan Poag.
They find themselves back at the dragon's maw. Milling about nervously just outside, everyone peers up into the dark. Devon, specifying that he is scanning the stone steps that lead up to a set of double doors, makes a DC 15 INT check and notices an 'X' struck in charcoal on the seventh step. Finmunni peers up at the roof of the maw, trying to discern anything unusual above that step. She makes a DC 15 INT check, and doesn't notice anything about the roof, but does see two figures lurking in the shadows at the top of the steps. Why didn't she see them with her darkvision? I rule that the bright sun outside the maw interferes with her ability to see in darkness (phew!).
Everyone breaks and runs to the north, but Durwen has enough of his wits about him to yank the greatsword from Devon's hands before he takes off after the others, invoking the mercy of Arimar over and over.
They reach the cave mouth and scramble up as quickly as they can. Everyone makes the DC 5 AGI check to climb the slippery rocks, and they dash splashing into the darkness of the underground stream until they are a good 20' inside. There's a brief pause to catch breath, and figure out how to light their way. Oswald uses his hand axe to hacks a wedge out of one end of one of his sticks of firewood, and stuffs a couple of handfuls of Thelma's thatching straw into it. The straw is lit, and burns well enough to catch the piece of firewood. This makeshift light source is passed to Perry, at the head of the group, and they continue sloshing up the narrow tunnel.
There are no thornlings in sight on the beach or near the dragon totem, but there are signs of a fight on the sand, and some sort of mound covered with a crude hide blanket. Perry leads a cautious approach out of the water, and the seven villagers gather in a semi-circle about the mound at Thelma's instruction, preparing to yank back the blanket and kill whatever it conceals.
Suddenly, a thornling appears at the top of the stairs to the south, rounding the corner with a spear in one hand and an armful of what looks like expensive red cloth. It freezes at the unexpected sight of seven more interlopers. Initiative is rolled.
Durwen, at the top of the order, dashes straight up the stairs, holding the greatsword straight and low, and drives the silvered blade right through the creature's small ribcage. As he yanks it back out, the thornling lets out a final half-howl and pitches forward onto the stairs, dropping the spear and bolt of cloth.
Thelma yanks the hide covering off of the mystery mound, revealing the corpse of the witch doctor. There is some speculation that the bolt of cloth was being brought as a fancier shroud for the dead spellcaster (true).
Howls echo through stone corridors; Durwen retreats to the beach, and the party arranges itself in a semi-circle around the stairwell. The pitter-pat if thorny paws grows in volume. Nervous glances are exchanged. Hands are shifted on weapons for better grips, in anticipation of what is to come.
May Arimar bless Stillman the Swineherd and Devon the Undertaker, whose fates aligned with misfortune. Stillman, who in his final moments abandoned his responsibility to his herd and fell prey to a twisted dog; Devon, struck through by a thornling's crossbow bolt without ever having a chance to swing his sword.
Here ends the second session.