Warning: BTAM spoilers ahead!
On an overcast, rain sodden October morning the Black Dogs march out of Thungen, cross a bridge over the Wern and strike out North East towards the heavily wooded hills, the supposed location of Goblin Hill. The ground is slick with the wet first fallen leaves of autumn and the unseasonal carpet of insects crawling over them.
Gunther Mohl, the captured bandit leader strikes a fair pace and the morning easily passes, however at one point Esmerelda notices figures flitting through the shadows off to the side – for now she keeps it to herself. Close to midday the party spot a lone figure sitting against a tree, and a closer investigation shows its is just a small boy of no more than 7 or 8 summers; grubby from living outdoors, thin from lack of food, yet still with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Hemming’s natural distrust of just about anyone has started to rub of on Miklos as the pair of them fully expect some trap or trickery; Balock is more trusting and of the group comes across as the least likely to cause trouble. None of the new Black Dogs, Ingrid, Esmerelda and Genevieve have any particular interest in the child.
Questioning the boy, they learn his name – Berwic – and that he is in the woods with his sister and a gang of other abandoned children, all looking to survive under the leadership of the oldest boy Wilfried. Eventually the conversation leads to questions about Goblin Hill and what these children might know. Berwic offers to take one of the PC’s to meet Wilfried, but they must be unarmed; the boy points to Balock who he seems to trust the most. While the rest of the Black Dogs wait in the cold and damp, Berwic leads Balock off into the woods; doubling back to hide the trail and make sure he’s not being followed.
At last they come to a small clearing where an older boy, introducing himself as Wilfried, awaits with a couple of other children. Berwic explains that Balock is after information about Goblin Hill – the children call this Insect Hill because of all the bugs there. In exchange for all of his rations and a fine dagger (which Balock had concealed) Wilfried tells the rogue about the north entrance to the hill. He followed a gang of men wearing hoods who led a chained gang of people to the northern doors where they knocked and handed them over. Trying to confirm the nature of the masked villains, Balock pulls a hood out of his pack – Wilfried misunderstands and the kids flee. Balock realising he doesn’t know quite where he is tries to follow the trail back to the rest of the party, but becomes lost and it is some hours before he finds his way back. With just a few hours of daylight remaining the adventurers travel a little further before setting up camp.
With no fire, little moonlight and drizzling rain it is a miserable night. However as Miklos and Esmerelda take the last watch they see a glowing figure rushing towards them, moving with an unnatural celerity. Before they can react both are frozen; as the ghostly figure approaches it’s grotesque distorted face halts just inches from Miklos’ and it looks intently at him – the cleric has the feeling it is looking past his physical presence, perhaps into his soul. After just a moment the spectre does the same to the rest of the party; oblivious to it’s presence they sleep through. Then it returns to Miklos and it’s face changes into a warmer, friendlier visage before moving through the whole party and then disappearing.While the characters are not quite sure what has just happened, it’s a pleasure to give the players some good news – between now and the end of the game each character can change the result of any one dice roll.
Rested and fed the party continue their journey to Goblin Hill, fully expecting to reach the dreaded haunt of The Mother and her Insect Cult before the end of the day. A reflective mood comes over the adventurers as they feel themselves moving towards a conclusion; how Hemming’s lack of empathy for his fellow man has only intensified, how Miklos has become far more cynical, less ready to trust, more willing to take life, and how Balock of the three original Black Dogs has held onto his humanity with both hands and still shows a compassionate, caring side. They are shaken from their reverie by a sad scene – a woman hanging from a tree, dead only a day or two. Hoofprints can still be seen with no evidence of human footprints. How did this poor woman meet her end? Was her life taken by force, or did she bring it about herself, perhaps lost to the despair and suffering this terrible war has brought.
The day moves on and within a few more hours the bulk of Goblin Hill can be seen through the dense trees. Insects now crawl everywhere and the air is thick with mosquitoes and midges. Gunther asks to be set free – he tells the Black Dogs that the back door is not far now. Hemming and Miklos do not trust him and refuse to let him go; he is given one a route to freedom though – take up arms on behalf of the party, lead them into Goblin Hill and when all is done he will be set free. With no alternative the bandit agrees, his hands are untied and he is armed with a spear and dagger.
Moving much closer towards the entrance described by Gunther a roughly carved wooden sign is seen with two words; ‘Welcome!’ in German and ‘Beware!’ in Arabic. Bushes across the secret entrance are pulled aside and reveal a large cave mouth with a tunnel heading down into the darkness beyond. Itching and scratching from the inescapable insect infestation, the party form up, torches and lamps are lit and they advance into the darkness.
The tunnel floor is made of compressed earth, at least what can be seen through the insects crawling all over it. Every couple of feet a stone rod appears to stretch across the tunnel floor; these could be the edges of stairs, the gaps between now filled with ancient soil. Moving slowly, cautiously with weapons ready and eyes alert to danger the party feel the darkness closing in; the air shimmers with all kinds of insects, many attracted to the glow of the lamps and torches and it takes a moment for the mind to adjust as the floor seems to writhe and surge, thick with crawling bugs. All that can be heard is a constant rustle, the creeping of tiny legs of tiny carapaces, millions upon millions of them.
It takes a few minutes of careful, steady progress before the corridor seems to open into a larger cavern – although it is difficult to tell as the range of their light is limited. Referring to the map taken from Gunther, the Black Dogs believe they know where to go, how to proceed. Onwards into the darkness they go…