Or so it seemed: the heroes awoke untold hours later. They had been injured but were alive, held in a straw-floored makeshift prison with six other people. The heroes' fellow prisoners were gangly, weak, and malnourished. The adventurers had found the remaining members of the Agricultural Ministry's missing research teams. Now, they had to escape and set them free...
A leering goblin warden gleefully asked them which of them wanted to be eaten first, while another goblin out in the hall told him to hurry up and pick because "the crawler" hadn't eaten in a while and was getting hungry. After Lander tried to convince the goblin guard to set them free, the goblin decided it was Lander who should be eaten next. When he opened the cell door, the team sprang into action: Lander attempted to blast him with a spell but missed, while Garnet wrenched the goblin's scimitar away as Jinvar grabbed their captor. The goblin put up a good fight but at last Jinvar bashed the goblin's head into the bars and the filthy creature fell limp and dead. The heroes decided to make sure the area was safe before setting the prisoners free, and so they left them behind to feign their captivity.
In the hallways, a lone goblin walked a patrol. The heroes snuck up behind the goblin and ran him through with the scimitar. They took this goblin's weapons too, but stumbled upon a makeshift living quarters and their gear. After donning their own weapons and armor, they searched the room: it was filled with arcane books and alchemical paraphernalia, nothing that really interested them. However, they found a crate containing several strange brass eggs. The eggs were covered with a pattern of deep symmetrical lines, and behind a small hatch on each one they found toggles and buttons. They stored the eggs in their packs for the time being, and decided to wait until later to figure out what they were for.
Descending a staircase for several floors, the heroes came upon an empty, U-shaped hallway. At the extreme other side of the hallway they found a passage to the ruins of an underground city that had been crushed under a massive rockslide. In this cavern they also found a waterfall and a roughly constructed water-wheel that was connected to a strange web of timbers and supports that criss-crossed the roof of the cavern and hallways.
The team backtracked to the middle of the U-shaped hallway. A pair of ancient metal doors blocked their path. A control panel of some kind beside the door had a space for a hexagonal-shaped object, but without the object they couldn't open the doors. Garnet realized that there were structural weaknesses: the hall's inner sanctum was webbed with cracks, and one of the shaky pillars in the hall could be knocked down against the wall to open a hole to get inside at the machine they had seen from the balcony.
The team worked on the pillar, Lander's eldritch blasts weakened it while Jinvar and Garnet's strength pushed against it. At last, the pillar toppled and fell, and a wide hole opened in the cracked wall. Beyond the dust and rubble, the man stood before the strange towering machine. He was clad in hooded black robes that fit his body closely, and across his chest and waist were a number of utility belts filled with pouches and flasks of mysterious purpose.
The black-clad man cast mage-armor upon himself once again as he shouted, "No, not now! Not when I'm so close!" He made no move to attack the heroes, instead he furiously attempted to study the book he held.
Just then the machine burst into life, as a ring-shaped opening flared into a brilliant blue light. The machine was producing a portal, but a portal to where...?
The heroes scuffled with the wizard. In the fight they injured him, but he seemed focused on the portal and the book rather than fighting them. Jinvar attempted to wrestle the wizard into compliance, demanding to know what was happening and how to stop it, but the strange mage refused. He told them he was being paid too much money to even consider going against his employers' wishes.
Lander and Garnet examined the bizarre machine, and tried to make sense of the strange controls. As weird shapes began to congeal on the other side of the portal, Garnet figured out the basic controls of the machine and managed to shut the power down, one system at a time. At last, as a beastly form seemed ready to emerge through the portal, the machine shut down and the portal closed. Lander smashed the instrument panel with his sword.
The wizard was enraged and let loose a shocking grasp spell upon Jinvar. His other attempts had been in vain, but not this time. As Jinvar was electrocuted he dropped his grasp on the wizard, who ran for a lever on the far side of the room. Garnet and Lander pursued him, and as he scrambled for the lever the wizard produced his own brass egg, similar to the others the heroes had found.
"This is Steros," he announced into the egg, "I've failed in my mission, the site is compromised. I'm bringing it all down!"
Just then, Garnet caught up with the wizard and cut him down before he could reach the lever. As the wizard fell, the egg rolled from his grasp and unfolded into a clockwork mechanical hawk. The device took off, flying faster than they could pursue it; it flew from the underground building, into the caves and presumably to the world outside. They had lost it.
The heroes debated over their next step for a long time: they had found what seemed to be the source of the dying land outside and had shut it down, but Jinvar was convinced the machine should be destroyed to keep others from using it again. They attempted to rig the self-destruct mechanism the wizard had built so it would collapse while they were at a safe distance, but were unable to get it to work. At last, Jinvar declared that he alone would stay in the facility as Garnet and Lander got the prisoners to safety outside, and then he would throw the switch and try to get out in time.
When everything was ready and the others were safe, Jinvar threw the switch. With a mighty rumble, the building and cavern began to collapse as the water-wheel and mechanism sprang to life and ripped the ceilings down. Jinvar dashed down the crumbling hallways as rubble and debris fell at his heels, threatening to crush or trip him. In the caves he was passed by a few fleeing goblins, running to save their own lives and not caring about the human in their midst. At last, Jinvar threw himself from the mouth of the cave as rocks and debris sealed the mouth of the cavern and the ruins!
The heroes began to walk the long road back to Hawksmith: in several spots they found the tiny sprigs of weeds beginning to break through the barren ground. Already, life was returning to "the deadlands"...
*Behind the screen: In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention here that the first encounter of the night was a TPK. In my second night of DM'ing, I had managed to wipe out the entire party. I wasn't too happy about this, even though my experienced players were proud of me (apparently it's a rite of passage to wipe your friends' entire party). There was debate: Should we just quit for the night? Should they make new characters and just pick up where they left off? I made a ruling decision: the bugbear and goblins hadn't been attacking to kill, they had been attacking the party to subdue them for capture (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
Look, I wasn't planning on throwing away all the time and energy I had spent designing this campaign just to pack it in on Night #2. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, plus I'm not that kind of DM and didn't want to set out to kill my friends. It was a learning experience, though: be sure to plan those encounters thoroughly in the future.
Everything during this session kinda reinforced the fact that the unexpected WILL happen when playing a tabletop RPG. It's impossible to plan for everything, and it's actually fun when you roll with the improv. I hadn't expected Jinvar's player to elect to sacrifice himself to save everyone by staying behind to throw the switch, but that's roleplaying: it's what his character would do, since he was out to redeem himself after being disgraced. And so this awesome Indiana Jones-style escape sequence began, and it was a ton of fun.
Final verdict: DM'ing is a blast, and I'm enjoying it. Not sure when we'll pick up again, but the players are down for it the next time our regular game can't pull together. So I've started working on what waits for them back in town, where they might go from here, and what they might face. I can't wait.