By Bob Grant
Shards of Bloostone is the property of the author, Bob Grant and is used with permission by Candlekeep. Email Bob with any comments and feedback on this story.
This campaign is still ongoing and updates will be given here periodically when sent by the author.
"The Shards of Bloodstone" is a campaign being played in Pittsburgh, PA, USA and has been running since February of 2004. The setting, as the name implies, is in the former kingdom of Damara, beginning in Tarsakh of the year 1360 (the Year of the Turret). The campaign begins the spring following the defeat of the witch king Zhengyi. The political climate is as described in FR9 "The Bloodstone Lands". The party begins the campaign in the city of Trailsend, in the barony of Polten, where Baron Donlevy the Young has just returned to Trailsend after two years in hiding, and has reclaimed the baronial seat from Zorth Greistuhle, who remains as Donlevy's advisor. The provinces of the former kingdom remain fractured and divisive, with Gareth Dragonsbane holding sway over the northern and western areas, and Dimian Ree controlling the central and southern areas. Soravia is still not liberated from the remnants of the Witch-Kings armies that stalk that area.
We've started from 1st level, and there are a total of six player characters and one NPC:
Fallon uth Pendemyr
|Female Half-elf Ranger||
A child of a Brandiar noble, Fallon and her elven mother fled their holdings near Goliad when their lands were overrun by Zhengyi's initial invasion in DR 1348. Fallon's human paladin father died fighting a rearguard action while the refugees fled south. As the refugees made their way towards Impiltur, Fallon's mother was slain by a group of raiding orcs. Fallon was found and raised by a group of rangers and druids residing in the northwestern section of Rawlinswood. She retains a deep hatred for orcs, and longs to return to Brandiar and Soravia to cleanse those lands of the remnants of Zhengyi's scum.
|Hiro Var||Male Half-orc Barbarian||
An accepted member of the Nar tribe of Var for most of his life, Hiro suddenly found himself exiled from the tribe by a new tribal chieftain who tolerated no half-breeds in his clan. Hiro was "sent into the west" and found himself near Trailsend. Hiro is an honorable being, and is searching for like-minded people with whom he can ally. Hiro honors his former tribe deeply, but harbors resentment for its new chieftain.
|Kaelin Drache||Male Human Rogue||
The son of Steppenhall shepherds, Kaelin found the prospect of becoming a shepherd unpalatable, and fled his family at the age of ten, eventually finding his way to Trailsend. There he learned the fine arts of begging, breaking and entering and confidence games. He eked out a meager living until his skills were honed, whereupon he became a chameleon in Trailsend, maintaining a number of identities and personalities, each designed to bring him further wealth. Kaelin had just begun a promising business venture with Baron Zorth, but the unexpected return of Donlevy the Young put a crimp in those plans, and Zorth recommended to Kaelin that he leave the city for a few months until the political situation settled down.
|Jonrek Silverun||Male Half-elf Cleric of Tyr||
Raised by the green elves of the Gray Forest near Impiltur, Jonrek's father was a cleric of Tyr, trained by the clerics in Trailsend. After his father's death, Jonrek made a decision to follow in his father's footsteps and become a priest of Grimjaws himself. Jonrek traveled to Trailsend seeking the fine men that trained his father in Tyr's ways.
|Corian Tanner||Female Human Sorceress||
Upon completing her studies with the renown mage Feriblan of Heliogabalus, Corian has returned to her native Trailsend with information pertaining to a wizard's keep in eastern Soravia. A wizard named Eralion, who was rumored to have attempted lichdom many years ago, once owned the keep. Two possibilities exist: Either Eralion has become a lich and has withdrawn to the seclusion of his keep, or he has perished in the attempt to become a lich, in which case his keep (and spell books) are unguarded. Corian has information that points to the latter possibility, and intends to find out for herself.
|Ashe||Female Human Druid (and her wolf companion Shadow)||
Having been raised her whole life by the Tellerth druid's circle in Rawlinswood, Ashe is very naive about the doings of the "civilized" world. Ashe's druid mother has sent her out into the wider world in a quest for knowledge and greater understanding of the delicate nature of the Balance. Ashe is to return to Rawlinswood when she feels she has learned what she was sent to learn. She agreed to travel to Trailsend with Donlevy and his retinue, with whom she has a passing acquaintance. From there, Ashe intends to learn what she can learn, although she is greatly frightened by the "civilized" world.
|Berthold Aelfson||Male Human Fighter||
Originally from Hinterford in the far northern reaches of Soravia, Berthold was a child of well-to-do ice merchants, and acted as a guard for many of the caravans that left Hinterford hauling large shipments of ice southward. That changed when Zhengyi's forces invaded Damara and overran Soravia. Today, Hinterford is still enslaved by the bandit remnants of Zhengyi's orcs, goblins and ogres, and Berthold intends to liberate his former home once sufficient resources are obtained. The disposition and whereabouts of his family are unknown.
The campaign began in Trailsend with Corian soliciting adventurers to undertake a mission into eastern Soravia. The mission objective was to explore a keep once owned by a wizard named Eralion. Corian had obtained information that Eralion had attempted to become a lich, but had failed and perished in the attempt. If true, Corian assumes that the wizard's wealth and spell books are there for the taking.
Each person in the group was interviewed by Corian, and after meeting with each, she gathered the entire group together to meet one another. Fallon the ranger took an instant dislike to Hiro the half-orc, but the group seemed to polarize into two groups: the "urban" characters (Kaelin the rogue, Jonrek the cleric and Corian the sorceress) and the "outdoors" characters (Fallon, Hiro and Ashe the druid). After agreeing upon the distribution of wealth and discussing the group ethics, the party set out on what was to be an eight-day journey north and east.
While traveling north along the eastern shore of Lake Mogador, the party encountered no difficulties more severe than the early Tarsakh cold. However, on their first night outside of Trailsend, just south of Withermeet, Hiro and the wolf Shadow attempted to hunt some game for dinner. When they encountered a farm fence, Hiro decided to turn around and hunt in the opposite direction, but the wolf suddenly leaped the fence and took down a large heifer grazing in the fields. Not knowing what the proper "civilized" thing to do would be, Hiro slung the dead cow over his shoulders (he has a 20 strength) and carried it back to the camp.
A large debate ensued about the legal ramifications of killing a farmer's cow. Jonrek demanded that the group make restitution to the cow's owner, and the rest of the party grudgingly agreed. Kaelin volunteered to "negotiate" with the farmer on behalf of the party, but Jonrek insisted on accompanying him, to be sure the transaction was honesty and fairly performed.
Once the party passed through the town of Daleport, they left the main roads and began to follow a track northeast towards Steppenhall. The group was accosted by a band of three raiding orcs, but the party made short work of them with minimal damage taken. While camping on the banks of the Icelace River that evening, Fallon was drawn to the sound of an infant's crying, only to be attacked by a hideous beast called (according to Ashe) a leucrotta. Matters became worse when it was discovered that the creature was not alone! Apparently, its mother was standing by, observing her offspring in action. That is, until Ashe set the mother leucrotta on fire. This seemed to spur the mother into the combat as well. The conflict ended well, with the juvenile being slain and the mother driven off, but both Jonrek and Shadow had taken serious wounds in the melee, and required immediate healing.
After recovering sufficiently from the leucrotta encounter, the group eventually passed through Steppenhall, their last stop in civilization before they reached Fairhill. While in Steppenhall, they met Berthold Aelfson, who agreed to accompany the party to Fairhill, and perhaps beyond.
For two days, the party made progress towards Fairhill despite frequent snow squalls. While making camp on the second evening outside Steppenhall, Corian informed the group that there is more to her story than what she originally revealed. Corian indeed had information about the disposition of the wizard Eralion, and the information she gained told her that Eralion perished in his attempt to become a lich. Positively. No chance he could have succeeded. She knows this because she stole a letter written by Eralion more than 20 years ago, addressed to Corian's mentor (who, as it turns out, was also Eralion's mentor many years ago).
In the letter, Eralion related his intention to become a lich, using knowledge gained directly from the demon lord Orcus. Included with the letter was an amulet, which was supposed to grant entry to Eralion's keep. Corian filched both the letter and the amulet. Later, she casually inquired of her mentor about Eralion, and about the possibility that he might have become a lich. Her mentor assured her that Eralion was nowhere near powerful enough to attempt the procedure, and if he did try, he would have died. Period. No chance he could have succeeded. Her mentor also lamented the fact that Eralion had borrowed several valuable spell books and had never bothered to return them.
Armed with this information, Corian was determined to gain access to the abandoned keep, and obtain the spell books for herself. She is quite sure, she tells the group, that Eralion is dead, and his keep is only accessible to her through the amulet.
Corian was concerned, however, because when she stole the letter and amulet, she believed that she might have been observed. One of her fellow students, a surly and disagreeable wizard named Vortigern, owned a raven familiar, and Corian thought that she saw the raven sitting outside on the windowsill when she pocketed the letter and amulet.
She told the party this information now, because she thought that she spotted the same raven familiar following them since they departed from Steppenhall. She believed that Vortigern was following the group, and may try to take the amulet from them.
While digesting this new knowledge divulged by Corian, the party continued to move on towards Fairhill. Around noon the next day, the group came upon a scene of slaughter: A family of farmers had been brutally massacred by what appeared to be slashing weapons. While the party was gathering the bodies to make a decent burial, an ambush was sprung! From the distant woods, magic missiles and a volley of arrows sliced through the air. Simultaneously, the ground beneath the group's feet roiled and erupted in skeletal forms. Lastly the bodies of the newly dead farmers began to writhe and jerk, reanimated as zombies.
Vortigern, Corian's nemesis, had begun his end game to capture the amulet. While the undead and Vortigern's half-orc archers engaged the rest of the group, Vortigern and his unusual familiar attempted to wrest the amulet from Corian's backpack. The raven familiar turned invisible (?) and tried to open Corian's backpack while Vortigern assaulted her with magic missile spells. Not being able to see the creature, but to feel it rifling her pack, Corian grabbed the invisible beast and dug her fingernails into its hot, leathery flesh. The creature writhed in pain and desperately tried to break Corian's grip, but her tenacity held the thing tightly. Finally, Kaelin maneuvered his way over to Corian and held out his rapier, while Corian attempted to skewer the creature on the steady blade. Although they did not impale the creature, they wounded it sorely before it was able to break free of Corian's grasp and Kaelin's blade.
The fight was long and brutal, but ultimately victorious. Fallon, Hiro and the wolf Shadow were all near death, but were healed in time. The rest of the party had been sorely wounded, and required much rest to regain their strength. The undead had been defeated, but Vortigern, the half-orcs and the strange familiar had escaped. Fortunately, the amulet remained in Corian's possession.
Taking refuge in the family's home for rest and healing, the group confronted Corian and expressed their dissatisfaction with her lack of honesty. Corian reiterated her story and swore that she had told all that she knew to the group. The group examined the amulet, as well as the letter from Eralion. At the end of the night, the decision was made to continue on to Fairhill, but that Corian would not be responsible for making decisions on the party's behalf. Two days later, the group had healed enough to continue their journey.
By nightfall the next day (Tarsakh 15), the group had arrived in the remote village of Fairhill.
Shortly after the group had arrived and split up to gather information, Kaelin gathered the party together at the end of the evening, their first in the village of Fairhill. Kaelin announces that he had “bad news, good news, and an opportunity” that resulted from a conversation he held with the town magistrate, Arlen.
The Bad News: Eralion's keep was infested with orcs who have been raiding the area lately. Their numbers were undetermined, but their strength was probably much greater than that of the party.
The Good News : Kaelin seemed to have convinced the magistrate to assist the party in clearing out the orcs from the keep. The town militia consisted of approximately 25 men and women. He had scheduled a meeting with the group, Arlen and Shandril at noon the next day.
The Opportunity : If the group was interested, Kaelin also discovered other potential challenges that exist in and around the village, such as the mystery of the smith's missing daughter, who was apparently a bard, and who has not been seen since last autumn.
Furthermore, Kaelin informed the group that he had spotted Vortigern's unusual raven familiar in town, and could only assume that Vortigern is in Fairhill as well, and most likely was planning another attack on the party. The group immediately decided to stay together and not split up any further. The group all assembled in the rented rooms at the Drunken Cockatrice, where they discussed their options.
After the meeting with Arlen and Shandril, the group agreed that the best course of action was to scout the keep and determine the exact strength of the orcish force. Once their strength was assessed, the group would be able to formulate a plan of attack in conjunction with the town militia.
Arlen also informed the group that a member of the town militia, Lauriel, would be assigned to the scouting mission as the village's representative. The group had a very unpleasant meeting with Baran, the captain of the guard, but left the meeting unmolested. The group decided to depart at first light to reconnoiter the keep. The rest of the day was spent wandering around town. The group met many of the townsfolk, and also heard rumors that the keep was not inhabited by a lich, but rather by a vampire. They also were introduced to Lannet, a friendly but enigmatic halfling from the south of Damara.
During the course of the night, the group was awakened by the sound of an alarm bell ringing earnestly. It was discovered that an orc raid had occurred, and that in addition to burning the shrine to Chauntea, the orcs had stolen an object called The Crucible of Chauntea, an artifact that Shandril needed in order to bless the crops at planting. Five members of the militia lay dead, and the orc force was thought to number over a dozen. Shandril begged the party to pursue the orcs and recover the Crucible. She gave Fallon use of her magical blade, Charyou Tree , in hopes that it would aid the party in defeating the orcs. The town also provided the group with mounts to aid them in their pursuit.
Thirty minutes later, the group was hot on the trail of the fleeing orcs. The ground was soft and moist, allowing Fallon to track the orc band without much difficulty. After about two hours of tracking, the party heard the boisterous singing of the orc's celebration, and planned their attack.
The party flanked the orc band to the east by about 100 feet, taking cover in a wooded ridge overlooking the orc's general position. The orcs heard the party, and send two scouts to investigate. The scouts wandered right into the party's trap and were eliminated by missile fire. The main body of the orc force attacked, only to wander into an entangle spell strategically placed by Ashe. Although the party was outnumbered, the orcs were killed with little damage to the characters (although Hiro was sorely wounded, Jonrek was able to treat him before he perished).
T he party looted the dead orcs, recovering some coinage, but more importantly locating the stolen Crucible of Chauntea, fortunately undamaged. Shortly after the orcs were defeated, a delegation from Fairhill arrived on the scene, consisting of a militiaman, Lauriel and Brother Kath. Lauriel wasted no time in urging the group to return to Fairhill with the crucible. After some debate, the group agreed to return the Crucible to Fairhill straight away.
The party returned to the grateful thanks of Shandril, but was informed that Baran had forbid the inclusion of any of Fairhill's militia on any scouting expedition to Eralion's keep until such time as he was certain that the village was safe from further attack. A potentially disastrous argument between Baran and Berthold was narrowly averted, and the party decided to venture out on their own to scout the keep the next morning. The only concession that Baran was willing to make to the party was the inclusion of his lieutenant, Lauriel, on the scouting expedition.
The group set out the next morning for the keep. Shortly after passing the site of the first orc encounter, the party encountered another group of orcs, this one only consisting of five creatures in total. Although their numbers were less than the previous group, the circumstances were much more balanced, and the ensuing fight was brutal The orcs were defeated, but Fallon, Ashe, Shadow, Kaelin, Corian and Berthold all fell at various points during the fight. Jonrek healed as many people as he could, but the group was too sorely wounded to continue on to the keep. They turned back and returned to Fairhill.
After some much-needed healing from Shandril and Kath, the group was ready to return, and by late afternoon, the group spotted a side trail that eventually led to a back entrance to Eralion's keep. A lone sentry stood watch in a high tower inside the keep, but otherwise the group spotted no other guards or sentries. Kaelin moved into position by the door, and spotting nothing inside after a cursory look, slipped inside the door to find a 20' diameter tower whose 2nd level had collapsed in the center of the room. The debris had been cleared around the perimeter of the first floor, and Kaelin spotted a door on the opposite side of the tower. Opening the other door, he saw the tower where the sentry stood guard, an orc by all appearances. A few buildings were visible from his vantage point, but no activity beyond the lone sentry was observed. Kaelin made his way back to the rest of the group and reported his findings.
The group agreed that the best way to proceed was to eliminate the sentry and then enter the keep. A number of people using ranged weapons coordinated a simultaneous attack on the hapless lone orc, and Fallon's well-placed arrow punctured the orc's lung, allowing no more than a quiet gasp to escape the dying monster's mouth. The group then filed in to the tower, taking positions around the perimeter of the room. However, Shadow the wolf bounded up on top of the pile of debris in the middle of the room, only to find a large amount of green slime dripping down onto his back from the upper level of the tower. Ashe used her produce flame spell to burn off the slime, but her wolf companion was badly shaken, and was no longer in any condition for combat. Ashe instructed the wolf to stay in a safe area until she called for him.
Seeing no other enemies in the courtyard, the group exited the tower and entered the main courtyard of Eralion's keep. The building immediately to the south of them, along the western wall, appeared to be a chapel or temple of some kind. Ashe, Fallon, Corian and Jonrek took positions next to the two windows in the north wall of the chapel and attempted to hear any noises through the thick tapestries that curtained the windows. Berthold and Lauriel got ready to throw the door open, and Hiro and Kaelin moved east about 50 feet to keep an eye out for any other approaching enemies.
The group heard a discussion going on in the chapel, perhaps no more than two or three voices. Armed with this knowledge, Berthold threw the door wide open and charged inside the chapel, Lauriel hot on his heels. They immediately appear in front of a group of four axe-wielding orcs, who appeared perplexed at the sudden intrusion. “Who are you?” one of the orcs had time to inquire before Berthold and Lauriel engaged the enemy. As the battle was joined, a human voice from the back of the chapel bellows “What in the abyss is going on out there!?”, and a half-orc dressed in blackened chain mail and wielding a skull tipped spiked mace emerged from the back of the chapel. Seeing the developing battle, he looked over his shoulder and said to an unseen companion “My friend, it appears your chance has arrived.”
The half orc then began casting a spell, and a diminutive beast flew out from the back of the chapel: The Hot Leather Beast! The creature was about a foot and a half tall, with dry leathery skin, long, talon-tipped fingers and toes, wiry, bristle-like hair growing from its back, and small bat-like wings. As the beast approached Berthold and Lauriel, it disappeared, and evaded Berthold's wild attempt to knock it down.
Meanwhile, Hiro spotted a group of three orcs patrolling inside the east wall of the keep, about 75 feet further east from his position. The combat in the chapel had reached a noise level where it was audible to the orcs on patrol at the other end of the keep, and they rushed across the courtyard, only to be met by Hiro, who leaped out at them from behind a wall and dropped one of the three almost immediately. Hiro had little problem with the patrolling orcs. He dropped two, and felled the third as it tried to escape and summon more help.
Ashe and Jonrek heard the commotion inside the chapel and each grabbed the heavy curtains that line the windows and tore them down. Jonrek and Ashe both prepared to cast spells through the narrow windows at the appropriate time.
The half-orc in the chapel launched into his Big Bad Evil Guy speech. He introduced himself as Tavik, who was in command of the forces at the keep. He admitted that it had been enjoyable toying with the group so far, but now the time for games has ended, and he would eliminate the party forthwith. Just at that moment, Ashe released her flare spell, which went off directly in front of Tavik's face, breaking his concentration and ruining the spell he had begun to cast. Then, from the shadows of the back of the temple emerged the party's recent nemesis, Vortigern the wizard.
In the center of the courtyard, the hot leather beast became visible once again and cast a suggestion spell on Corian. “ Gives us the amulet ” the thing hissed in its coarse voice. “But…I…don't have it” Corian responded dreamily, throwing the familiar into hisses of rage. Fallon, Jonrek and Kaelin, seeing the creature become visible, closed in to engage it in melee combat. Corian snapped out of the effects of the spell, recognized the creature, screamed “DIE YOU FREAK!” and launched a magic missile at it. Kaelin also succeeded in hitting the creature. Looking around at its enemies, the creature spotted Kaelin. “ You I remember you ” it shrieked, and lashed out at Kaelin, scoring a hit, and injecting him with the poison liquid contained it its barbed tail. Fortunately, only a minute quantity of poison entered the wound, and Kaelin was able to shake off the effects of the poison. Corian scored another hit on the beast with her second magic missile spell. Badly wounded, the creature attempted to fly straight up, but before it could get away, Jonrek wound up with his flail and scored a solid hit, knocking the creature to the ground. Jonrek finished the beast off with a satisfying coup de grace, crushing the beast's skull beneath his flail. The Hot Leather Beast would trouble the group no further.
In the chapel, Lauriel and Berthold had felled two of the four orcs, and Ashe had foiled Vortigern's attempt to cast a spell by poking him in the side through the window with her scimitar. Tavik, seeing that spell casting was proving difficult, resorted to a more direct approach and attacked Lauriel with his mace, chanting some type of incantation. The blow struck home and Lauriel was knocked senseless by the power of the hit. Berthold realized that he was in a disadvantageous position without Lauriel's support, and withdrew from the chapel into the courtyard to join his remaining companions.
Tavik, having lost Berthold as a viable target, chose instead to cast a hold person spell at the only opponent visible through the chapel door: Hiro. The burly half-orc was able to resist the mental effects of the spell, and, seeing an opportunity to make a strong impression, went into a full rage, charged full tilt into the chapel and launched himself at Tavik, driving the evil leader into the back wall of the chapel with great force. The two opponents hacked at each other for several seconds, but Hiro proved the stronger of the two, and Tavik fell at last. Vortigern the wizard, who had been peppering Hiro with magic missile spells, suddenly realized that the tide of the battle was turning against him, and fled up a ladder at the back of the chapel, into the bell tower, and over the crumbling western wall, fleeing for his life.
More orcs were arriving from the eastern side of the keep. In an attempt to slow them down, Ashe cast an entangle spell, and although there was not much vegetation in the courtyard of the keep, the few roots and weeds were enough to slightly hinder the approaching orc's progress. The rest of the group switched to their melee weapons and began to pick the orcs off one by one. Kaelin took the opportunity to enter the chapel, climb the ladder and take a high ground position in the bell tower.
Hiro was still in the throes of a barbarian rage, and though sorely wounded, was consumed with battle lust, and immediately chased after the panicked mage. Just as Vortigern scrambled down to the bottom of the crumbling wall, Hiro leapt down to him from the bell tower, landing inches away from the wizard. “Hi”, Hiro said simply. Shrieking in pure terror now, Vortigern fled to the south in a desperate attempt to get away from the hulking half-orc. Vortigern reached another crumbling wall further to the south, and attempted to re-enter the keep, but lost his balance and fell to the bottom of the pile of debris just as Hiro arrived. Wasting no more time, Hiro brandished his great axe high above his head, and landed a blow that clove the wizard's skull in twain. Coming out of his rage and trembling with exhaustion, Hiro attempted to heave the wizard's body over the palisade wall, but only succeeded in impaling the corpse on one of the many sharpened sticks that protruded from the palisade's slopes.
Back in the courtyard, Berthold went back into the chapel and began to drag Tavik's dying body into the courtyard, where he hoped it would be viewed by the remaining forces and break their morale. However, just as Berthold was about to deliver a coup de grace to the dying half-orc, his body suddenly disappeared in an implosion of air, leaving Berthold and the rest of the party baffled.
It seemed at this point that the group had matters well in hand. Only five orcs remained, and they were hindered by Ashe's spell and gradually falling to a hail of missile fire. Just as the group was about to celebrate their victory, the rest of the keep's forces entered the courtyard from the southwest, including Vortigern's half-orc bodyguards, several more orcs and a huge ogre named Grosh. Corian only had time to cast a flare spell in front of the massive ogre before an orcish great axe landed squarely in her belly, dropping her instantly.
Another surprise greeted the party when an unknown and unseen ally began to fire a crossbow at the newcomer enemies. The situation appeared grim for the party. Both Corian and Lauriel were either unconscious or dying, Hiro and Kaelin were inches from unconsciousness, Berthold was wounded, and Jonrek had no more healing spells left to cast. Only Ashe, Jonrek and Fallon were still moderately healthy. The ogre was only scratched, and about a half-dozen orcs and half-orcs remained standing. Lacking any viable means of retreat, the party began to realize that this was a fight to the death.
As things began to look desperate for the group, Tymora must have granted her favor to the band of adventurers. First, Fallon began to hit the ogre with a number of severe wounds, the first she had scored since the ogre entered the fray. Second, the ogre struck Jonrek, but the blow was only glancing, and although he sustained a great deal of damage, Jonrek remained conscious and was able to remain in the melee. Third, Lauriel unexpectedly emerged from the chapel, seemingly in reasonably good health. Spitting out a cork from her mouth and casting aside a glass vial, it became clear to the rest of the party that she had consumed some sort of healing potion, and had rejoined the combat. She immediately engaged with Grenag and Slaaroc, Vortigern's former bodyguards. Grosh the ogre struck Ashe's wolf a mighty blow, knocking the unfortunate creature out, but not yet dead. Crossbow bolts continued to strike the ogre from an unknown ally on the roof of the gatehouse.
Hiro arrived back at the courtyard about this time, carrying the mutilated body of the wizard Vortigern. Heaving the near-decapitated body of the mage into the center of the melee, Hiro shouted at the top of his lungs “Wasn't somebody supposed to be guarding HIM ? ” The effect on the remaining foes was visible, and the attacks against the group began to waver in their ferocity and determination. Seeing the deterioration of morale beginning, Kaelin rushed back down from the bell tower and retrieved Tavik's skull-tipped mace. Feeling nothing more than a funny feeling in his belly, Kaelin climbed back to the bell tower, and, brandishing the mace high above his head, screamed “Tavik is defeated! Your cause is hopeless! Flee or die!”
All discipline finally left the remaining orcs when a final hit from Fallon dropped the ogre to his knees, reeling from the onslaught. Berthold thrust his magical longsword through the ogre's heart, slaying him instantly. Seeing all of their leaders vanquished, the surviving orcs broke ranks and fled to the nearest exit from the keep. The group took a few more parting shots at them, but Jonrek immediately charged over to attend to Corian, while Ashe saw to her wolf's safety. Ashe stabilized Shadow's bleeding in time to save him, but Jonrek rose sadly and announced that Corian had perished.
The group spent the rest of the night in the chapel, keeping guards posted in the bell tower and outside the chapel. The evening passed without further incident, and in the morning, the group began the process of recovering from the battle. Healing was performed; Corian's body was placed in Tavik's cot at the back of the chapel, and would be later carried to Fairhill for proper burial. The bodies of their enemies were piled in the central courtyard and burned after all valuables had been removed.
Upon searching Tavik's personal quarters, the group located his personal journal. Tavik's journal consisted mostly of ravings and rants about the glory of the demon lord Orcus, and of the inherent weaknesses and inferiority of other gods. Tavik makes several references to his Most Unholy Lord's “Glorious Appearance” as though it were some event that he would personally witness in the future. There were several items in the journal of interest to the party:
- Tavik was a soldier in Zhengyi's army, under the command of Banak, high priest of Orcus. After their defeat at the Ford of Goliad last autumn, Tavik escaped with a group of about 100 orcs and 2 ogres. He struggled his way back to Castle Perilous in Vaasa just as the first snows of winter began to fall, only to find the stronghold of the Witch-King collapsed and destroyed. Tavik almost surrendered to despair at that moment, but during the night, Orcus visited him with a vision. He was instructed to lead his group of followers east to the plains of Narfell, where he would find and settle the ancient city of Mintas Rhelgor. Tavik would be the high priest of a new bastion of Orcus worship that would enslave the entire area and be the center of a vast and mighty empire.
- Filled with visions of power and glory, Tavik braved the winter and led his troops across the Galena Mountains and eastward through Soravia. The winter took its toll on his forces, but the majority survived the difficult journey across the icy mountains and snowy plains.
- Tavik stopped briefly in the Soravian town of Kinnery to consult with a local sage named Mundelraun. Apparently, Tavik had no idea of how to locate the ancient city, having never heard of it before. Mundelraun gave Tavik some history about the place (he did not go into detail in the journal) and Mundelraun also informed him that, although he personally did not know the location of the city, he did know of certain letters that gave detailed instructions on how to get there from Damara. It would seem that King Feldrin III of Damara sponsored an expedition to the city in DR 1313. The leader of the expedition sent several letters to the king, detailing their progress right up until their arrival at the city. No further letters were sent, and the expedition disappeared without a trace. Mundelraun explains that the letters were originally in the care of the royal palace in Heliogabalus, but were then transferred to the library of a renowned mage named Feriblan. Muldelraun also informed Tavik that the letters were borrowed by another mage named Eralion, who owned a keep near the village of Fairhill, and that the letters were never returned. If Tavik wished to find those letters, he would have to find Eralion's keep. Detailed instructions on how to get to Fairhill were given to Tavik.
- Tavik's forces arrived at the keep in late Ches and eliminated a small group of bandits that had been wintering there. Once the bandits were eradicated, the unit settled in to the keep, still some threescore strong with one ogre surviving. Tavik immediately began to search for the letters but could not locate them, nor could he find any trace of the wizard that once lived in the keep. The only place left to look was a trap door in the southwest tower, which would not open, even for the ogre. Tavik assumed that some magic prevented him from opening the door, but he could not dispel it.
- Tavik immediately began to schedule raids on farms near Fairhill. A great deal of good would be needed if the group was to travel into Narfell, and there was almost none left after the long winter trek. Tavik also believed that someone in the village had knowledge of how to open the trap door in the keep. He conceived of a plan to raid the village and steal an item of religious significance to the community. He would then bargain the return of the item in exchange for assistance in opening the trap door. Tavik was sire that the letters he sought were beneath that trap door.
- His last entry, dated only two days ago, notes the arrival of an unexpected visitor: a mage with an imp familiar and two half-orc bodyguards. Tavik almost slew them outright, but decided to find out the wizard's business at the keep before killing him. The wizard, Vortigern by name, was in search of spell books owned by the original resident of the keep. Vortigern knew that the spell books were stored in an area of the keep that could only be accessed with a magical amulet. Tavik immediately recognized the amulet as the mechanism that would open the trap door, but prepared to kill the mage when he admitted that he did not possess the amulet. Vortigern pleaded for his life, claiming that he came to the keep to ambush the group of adventurers that possessed the amulet. They were weak, Vortigern claimed, and also naïve, and would easily be defeated by their combined forces.
- Tavik and Vortigern struck a deal that night. Tavik would assist Vortigern in ambushing Corian and her companions, and would gain the amulet, which would be used to open the trap door. Vortigern would be allowed to take the spell books he sought, but nothing else. In return, Tavik promised Vortigern that he would be left alive, and that once Tavik had obtained the letters he sought, he and his followers would leave the keep to Vortigern to do with as he pleased.
- Despite the fact that Tavik did not need to raid Fairhill to steal the Crucible of Chauntea , the last sentence in his journal indicated that the raid would proceed just because he relished the death and havoc it would cause.
Finally understanding the roles each of their enemies played in the scheme of things, there was only one thing left to do: Find Eralion's spell books and leave.
The group rested one more day and began to explore the southwest tower. Beneath a soiled pile of furs and curtains the group located the trap door. The door pulled open easily, and opened into a chamber below, without any visible means of descent. Tying a rope to the handle on the tower door, the group lowered Kaelin down to get a better look. He observed a circular room filled with wrecked furniture and torn tapestries. In the center of the room was another trap door, this one inscribed with runes, one of which exactly matched the rune on Corian's amulet. The trap door had been nailed shut with masonry nails, and the cracks had been filled with silver pieces. Remembering the rumors about vampires in this keep, Kaelin reluctantly waved the amulet over the trap door. Instantly, the nails flew out of the wood with a popping sound, and the silver pieces sprang out of the cracks and clinked to the stone floor nearby. The trap door had risen up enough to get a handhold on it, so the group once again lowered Kaelin in for a look at the level beneath.
Again, Kaelin observed a circular room, this one ringed with armored statues. A door was set in the eastern wall of the room. As Kaelin was reporting his findings, the “statues” sprang to life, revealing themselves to be zombies. Kaelin was quickly pulled up to the level below, and the zombies were eliminated by missile fire from above. After the undead creatures were defeated, the group descended and found Eralion's bedroom behind the eastern door. The group located several tomes, including what appeared to be a treatise on demonology, as well as Eralion's spell books. The group also found a partially ruined set of letters documenting an expedition to the ancient city of Mintas Rhelgor. Anxious to finish the exploration of the keep, the group found one more trap door in the center of the zombie chamber, and opened it as well, lowering Kaelin in once more.
Kaelin observed another circular chamber, this one with a set of six sarcophagi lining the wall. In the center of the room, resting on a large stone sarcophagus, lay the desiccated skeletal form of Eralion, still grasping his staff tightly in one hand. As Kaelin looked around at the details of the room, a barely audible voice whispered
Taking a daring chance, Kaelin responded “It is I.”
“Welcome, my friend.”
“Did you succeed in becoming a lich, my student?”
“Tricked? By whom?”
“If you are not a lich, my friend, what are you?”
“Sssssomething … .elssse.”
“Is there anything that I can do to help you?”
“How do I do that?”
“Trap doorsss. Open them.”
Kaelin tugged desperately on the rope and the group hauled him back to the level above. Relating the conversation to the rest of the party, the group debated what the best course of action would be. After a great deal of debate, the group decided to seal the trap doors back up, and leave the cursed mage to whatever fate met him beneath his cursed keep. They regained the ground level and packed their belongings to head back to Fairhill.
As the group made ready to leave Eralion's Keep for good, Kaelin, still weakened by the shadow's touch, approached the companions one by one. Apparently troubled by the torments endured by the undead wizard, Kaelin besought each of them to return with him, once he regained his strength, to “free” Eralion. All eventually agreed, though some required more persuading than others.
The road to Fairhill was mercifully clear of enemies, but the journey was arduous. Hiro bore Corian's remains, while other party members carried heavy sacks of plunder from the keep, including the spellbooks the group had traveled so far to recover. For Kaelin, it was a struggle merely to carry himself back to Fairhill.
Nevertheless, the group arrived safely and, much to the pleasure of Shandril and Arlen, announced that the orcs in the keep had been soundly routed. Despite worries that the some of the orcs, after taking the party's horses, may have set upon the village, there had been no sign of the beasts.
Lauriel took her leave of the group and reported back to Baran for duty. Refusing any payment for her aid, the lieutenant told the party, instead, to make a donation to the Temple of Chauntea. Lauriel's report to her commander must have been positive, because shortly after their arrival, Baran found the group and offered an apology for his prior hasty judgment of them.
Everywhere they turned, the party received a hero's welcome. Glarian offered them free room and board at the Cockatrice … Arlen even offered to throw a banquet in their honor—though they refused, thinking it inappropriate in light of Corian's death and the destruction of the temple. After a brief detour to the blacksmith's shop, Kaelin took to bed, while others offered their strength to the cause of rebuilding the temple. As they toiled, the group became acquainted with another stranger in town, a ranger a long way from home. Originally from the Moonshaes, Caeg had been passing through Fairhill and, seeing that a temple of his own patron goddess had been sacked, opted to stay and aid in its restoration. Caeg gushed profusely about the group's heroism for defeating the band of orcs, and eventually asked to accompany them on any future adventures.
The group also ran into a figure from their past. Lannett, the friendly but enigmatic halfling, greeted them at the temple. He admitted he had, in fact, followed them to Erailion's Keep, and that the small crossbow bolts that struck the ogre were his. Fallon took Lannett back to the inn so that Kaelin could question him. There, Lannet told the companions he had followed them because they were “interesting.” Kaelin gave the halfling five gold for his troubles, which actually seemed to offend the little fellow. Fallon hoped to smooth over the situation by getting Lannett hopelessly sauced at the pub, which did seem improve his mood.
Later that night, the party discussed not only the prospect of letting Caeg join them, but also their impetus for staying together at all. The mission for which they had been assembled had drawn to a tragic close for the one who brought them together. Nothing, it seemed, prevented them from going their separate ways. After much discussion, many members revealed their own motivations for desiring lives of adventure. Though few of their reasons were the same, none seemed to conflict, so it was decided that the group would remain together, at least for now. After all, they had defeated a cleric of Orcus, an ogre, an imp and an evil mage, not to mention dozens of orcs. Something was obviously working… Though he seemed rather green, not to mention overly-eager, Caeg would also be invited to travel with the group.
The following morning, Shandril performed funeral services for Corian. She also
cured Kaelin of some of his strength damage, and, though Kaelin was still weak, kept a promise to Ashe and cured Shadow of some of his constitution damage, using up all of her restoration spells until the following day. Seeing that Kaelin was still in no condition to travel, the party remained in Fairhill another day, and continued to work on the temple.
The day was relatively uneventful, though the group was faced with an interesting proposition. Arlen approached them and offered to allow them to take up residence in Eralion's Keep. He posed the idea to them as a mutually beneficial arrangement—the party's presence would deter the unending stream of bandits and monsters that had taken up residence in the keep since Eralion's demise—but the group had their doubts. The structure of the keep had been so heavily compromised that it would undoubtedly take more than the relatively poor band of adventurers could afford to restore and maintain it. Berthold told Arlen the group would have to refuse his offer, at least for the time being.
On the party's third day in town, Shandril was finally able to restore Kaelin to his former strength. Before leaving to finish the job at the keep, the group took a few moments to help Shandril destroy the Candle of Defiling Jonrek had carried away from Eralion's desecrated chapel.
The road back to the keep was once again clear, and the group arrived, on foot, in a few short hours. Upon their arrival, they immediately set about cleansing the defiled chapel with holy water Shandril had given them. Once all of the bloody graffiti in tribute to Orcus had been wiped away, the companions wasted no time in climbing back down to Eralion's self-imposed tomb. They used the magic amulet to gain entrance to the lower levels, and, finding the zombies they had killed earlier still very much dead (and not moving), pressed on into the lowest chamber.
After formulating a very clever plan for who would be lowered first into the tomb and which weapons would be blessed by Jonrek or imbued with Ashe's shillelagh spell, the group opened the hatch and everything went to the Nine Hells…
The very shadow that had so weakened Kaelin burst through the opening and immediately began to attack the adventurers, who were squeezed very tightly in the small tower. Those closest to the shadow heard the faintest whisper escape its form as it swiped what looked to be a hand at Fallon, narrowly missing…
“ Liar! ” hissed the undead form that the group now knew to be Eralion. It had been the mage who touched Kaelin when the group last visited this room!
Those with magical weapons—Berthold, Fallon and Kaelin—attacked the shadow right away, while others were forced to find different strategies. Ashe heroically suffered an attack of opportunity, losing a measure of her strength, to cast shillelagh on Hiro's club. The burly half-orc was then enabled to enter the fray. Jonrek tried unsuccessfully to turn the enraged shadow, while Caeg showered everyone, except Eralion, with a vial of holy water.
Eralion was eventually defeated, but only after weakening not only Ashe, but Berthold as well. The shadow disappeared with a loud “POP,” and a pair of very supple leather bracers fell to the floor. Berthold tucked the bracers in his belt and Hiro once again lowered Kaelin into the lower chamber to have a look around. Kaelin gave the group the “all clear”—only after propelling Eralion's skeletal remains from atop his sarcophagus in a rather undignified fashion as he tried to wrest the mage's staff from his death-grip. The group descended, one by one, to join him below.
After making absolute certain that none of the corpses contained in the six sarcophagi along the walls had been reanimated, the group proceeded to search the chamber. They were amazed to find that Eralion's sarcophagus was filled with treasure—coins, jewelry, weapons and other strange items. Though most of the coins were copper, the group was able to pick out about 200 gold pieces, which they transferred to a sack. A detect magic spell by Jonrek revealed that many of the items, including the leather bracers were magical.
Before leaving Eralion's Keep, the group took care of some unfinished business. They located the phylactery Eralion had used to store a piece of his flesh in preparation for his attempt at lichdom, and burned the accursed item. They then gathered up the mage's skeleton—including an arm Kaelin had accidentally removed—and bore it to the surface for a proper burial. They resealed their magical vault with the amulet and once again returned to Fairhill for some well-needed rest.
After the group had counted the coinage found in Eralion's crypt and readied their gear, they departed for Fairhill on the morning of Tarsakh 24. Upon arrival, Fallon reminded the group about their commitment to donate some funds for the reconstruction of the temple. The group allocated 50 gold talers as a suitable donation. Shandril thanked the group for their generosity, but also informed them that an owlbear had been spotted last night near a farm to the south, and asked if the group would be willing to hunt and kill it. Although the party realized that the village of Fairhill was beginning to rely upon them a bit too much, they agreed to undertake the task, and then get out of Dodge as soon as possible.
Baran, the captain of the guard, allowed 5 of his militia to accompany the group on their hunt. After speaking with the farmer that had spotted the owlbear, the group tracked it in an easterly direction for about 4 hours. The owlbear attacked the party suddenly without warning, and after its first attack, three of the militiamen were gored and unconscious. Its first attack was its only one, however, as the group collectively scored a number of hits that brought the creature down in a matter of seconds. Jonrek saw to the healing of the injured soldiers, and Hiro extracted the beast's beak to use as a helmet ornament. Fallon returned the sword Charyou Tree to the militiamen, and the group bid a not-so-fond farewell to the village of Fairhill.
Arriving in Steppenhall four days later, the group paused only to rest overnight, and then continued their journey. Their ultimate destination: Heliogabalus, former capital of Damara.
No untoward encounters hindered the group on their final leg, and passing through the village of Daleport, the group crossed the bridge over the Icelace River, and arrived in Heliogabalus late in the afternoon of the third day of Mirtul. Finding the lodging choices somewhat expensive, the group secured housing in a shabby section of town at an establishment called the White Horse Inn. After settling in, the party sought out the services of a commercial mage to appraise the value of the spellbooks found in Eralion's keep. Finding a mage named Nesselbryll, they presented the spellbooks, but the mage recognized Feriblan's mark on the cover, and refused to appraise them, thinking them stolen. The group then attempted to see Feriblan directly, but were told to make an appointment, which they did for the following evening. Afterward, the group split up: Kaelin, Berthold and Hiro headed for a tavern to gather information, Fallon and Ashe went to the City Gate to obtain peaceknots for their weaponry, and Jonrek and Caeg located a temple of Tyr, where Jonrek could be officially advanced in rank within the church.
The group slept overnight, and then made some preliminary exploration of the city the next day. That evening, they were to meet Feriblan at one of Heliogabalus' most expensive eateries, The Bloodstone Inn . They were cautioned by several people that Feriblan always expects his hosts to pay for dinner. Feriblan arrived about 30 minutes late, and promptly ordered several bottles of wine. As soon as Feriblan recognized the spellbooks as his own, the negotiations began. Feriblan was only interested in one of the spellbooks; the spells contained in the other had all been recovered or re-written in the ensuing 25 years since the originals were lost. The second book, however, contained spells of his own creation, or of uncommon knowledge, and he was interested in recovering them.
Kaelin expected to use his negotiating skills to secure a good amount of money. He did not expect both Berthold and Ashe to join in on the negotiations. By the end of the evening, a price of 1700 gold talers had been agreed to. Kaelin controlled his rage until after Feriblan left, but afterwards exploded at the others, telling them that they had probably cost the group hundreds, if not thousands of talers because of their interference. Ashe remained sullen, but Berthold retorted that Kaelin didn't bother to discuss any negotiation strategy before the meeting, and Berthold was just trying to look out for the group's best interests. He stated that Kaelin had a lot of secrets, and that didn't make him very trustworthy in the group's eyes. Kaelin stormed out of the restaurant without further debate.
After Kaelin stormed out of the restaurant, the others lost interest in their drinks and decided to head back to the inn.
The following day, they met Feriblan at a jeweler's shop in town and agreed to accept payment in bloodstone rather than gems, rendering the jeweler's services unnecessary. The group followed the eccentric wizard back to his castle, where he bid them to make themselves comfortable in his sitting room until his servants could ready the payment.
Some tense moments passed as Feriblan began to question the circumstances under which the party had found his books. A well-placed lie by Fallon appeared to satisfy the mage's prying curiosity, though a seemingly innocent question as to whether the group encountered any wizards “floating around” Eralion's Keep caused Hiro to spray a mouthful of very expensive wine all over Feriblan's even more expensive rug.
At last, the crate of 100 bloodstone bars was ready and, after Berthold had counted each and every one, the adventurers took their leave of the wizard. Hiro hoisted the 200-pound box up over one shoulder and they all made their way to visit Nesselbryl, the commercial mage they had dealt with a few days prior, in order to have their magical items identified. Kaelin took his leave from the group during this time, to take care of some personal business.
Nesselbryl informed the group she would be able to cast only four identify spells that day. It was agreed that Berthold's sword, Eralion's bracers, Vortigern's ring and Eralion's staff would be first. Berthold also convinced Nesselbryl to take Feriblan's other spellbook off of the group's hands on consignment.
The following day, the group returned, this time with Kaelin, to identify their remaining items. Tavik's mace was the first item to be identified. Before Nesselbryl even cast the identify spell she could tell it was an evil weapon belonging to a follower of Orcus—a fact, she said, that would certainly cause suspicion among the citizenry of Heliogabalus if a member of the group were ever seen wielding it. Once she identified the weapon, the group learned that the mace was enchanted to cause extra harm to paladins.
Nesselbryl also identified two vials of liquid. One was a potion of cure light wounds, and the other a longevity potion.
Back at the White Horse , the group divided up their items. Hiro got the bracers of armor and Fallon claimed the ring of protection. It was decided that the dust of disappearance and the potion of healing would be saved for such a time a time as they might come in handy. Kaelin, realizing that he was terribly outnumbered now that his companions were aware of the true nature of his mace, surrendered the weapon to be destroyed by clerics of Tyr. After the evil magic in the weapon was dispelled, Keeper of the Balance Pebble twisted it into a holy symbol of Tyr and presented it as a gift to Jonrek.
Kaelin sold the staff and the longevity potion for a very good price to Nesselbryl, who, it seemed, had taken quite a liking to the young “diplomat.” The two went to dinner the following evening and, though gentlemen tell no tales, it's fair to say that Kaelin had an enjoyable evening. Hiro spent the night alone in the double room he and Kaelin usually shared.
With their newfound wealth burning holes in their belt pouches, the group began to re-outfit themselves with fresh weapons, armor and horses. They relaxed for some days while waiting for their new equipment to be forged and heard many rumors.
In particular, they learned that the Bloodstone Council, led by Gareth Dragonsbane, had met and made the several announcements: 1) They plan to build a monastery in the Bloodstone Village area, called the Monastery of the Golden Cup. 2) They also plan to build two massive gates at either end of Bloodstone Pass. These gates would each act as a fortress, effectively sealing Vaasa and Damara off from one another. 3) The Soravian Military had been commissioned to clear the remnants of Zhengyi's forces from the north. The adventurers had little time to digest the meaning of these rumors. About a week after their arrival in Heliogabalus, Lily, the proprietress of the White Horse Inn, informed Berthold that a messenger had tracked him to the inn and wished to meet the fighter in a nearby tavern. Berthold went to meet this unidentified messenger and was perplexed to find the disheveled figure of Theodoric Tonk, the son of the sheepherder he had briefly worked for in Stepenhall, drinking alone in a corner. Tonk had received a message for Berthold some weeks ago and was dismayed to learn that he had missed the party when they passed through Steppenhall at the end of Tarsakh. Without further explanation, the shepherd passed Berthold a scroll containing the following message:
It is very unlikely that this message will reach you, but I had to take whatever chances I could to try and rescue your mother and me. I got the opportunity to write this message on a coincadence of chanse circumstances. I'm sending it to Steppenhall since that was the last place we heard you had arrived. I pray to Tymora that she will be with the messenger and that this message finds you alive and free.
Your mother and I are held in slavery by the force of orcs, goblins and other creatures that have captured Hinterford. It has been almost half a year that we have been held captive, and the creatures that rule this town are becoming desparate. Most of the townfolk that live here have either fled or become enslaved. The human bandits that once commanded the creatures all fled after the witchking's defeat, and they are now ruled by a goblin (I think) named Hoobis. He's not like any other goblin in the enemy forces, tho, because he was wings like a bat. He is thorowly evil, and very strong. Most of the other orcs and goblins fear him, and even the ogres and trolls show him grudging respect.
Because there are no civilized folks left in town, no one was able to plow the fields during the planting season, and the flocks were killed and eaten without thought for the future. Now, the food supply has run dangerously low, and the creatures have begun to eat the slaves in order to not starve to death. They don't seem to be above eating humans and half-orcs. There's no one left with any power to stop the monsters from killing all the slaves. Myree, the priestess of Auril, was killed almost immediately, and Runnik, the retired army captain was just taken by the creatures last week. I fear that he isn't alive any longer.
I don't know if you've finished your training as a guard yet, but our time is running out. If there is anything you can do to help the people of this town, the time is now. Your mother is terrified and no longer speaks. She has a look in her eyes that suggests madness has overtaken her. I am powerless to help.
If you aren't able to help us yourself, please let others know of our plight, and ask them to assist. Our time is running out.
Berthold distractedly tossed Tonk a few talers for his troubles and returned to his friends with a haunted but determined expression. After explaining the situation to the group, he informed them of his decision to save his parents at any cost, and assured them they had no obligation to follow. Everyone immediately offered to do what they could, though Kaelin expressed some reservations that Berthold would act rashly and endanger the group in an attempt to free not just his parents, but all the enslaved villagers in Hinterford.
Fallon offered to enlist the aid of Gwaeron's Gallants, the rangers who had raised her, in the effort, but Berthold refused, insisting that the journey to Rawlinswood would take more time than he felt his parents could afford. Fallon, understanding his position, did not argue.
The group left first thing the following morning and rode hard for several days, stopping as little as possible and camping along the river to save time. During this time, they passed through the ruined city of Merkurn, where they were warned that the road ahead of them would be fraught with danger.
Still, they pressed on, northward through the plains of Soravia. On their fourth day of travel, just as the group rounded a large rock formation, Berthold—his mind miles away—was surprised by the sight of a humungous troll. The beast swiped viciously at the fighter, wounding him sorely. Berthold tried to fend off the giant creature, but was soon rendered unconscious when it set upon him once again with its massive claws and teeth. Shadow, heeding Ashe's call, charged at the troll but was unable to land a solid bite on any of the brute's hulking limbs.
After dismounting from his horse, Jonrek ran to Berthold and healed him of his wounds, only to watch in horror as the troll once again knocked the fighter senseless. By this time, both Fallon and Ashe had wheeled their horses around the line of companions and charged against the beast. Ashe—with a horrified Kaelin riding behind her and scrambling to dismount—chucked her shortspear into the troll's leg. Fallon, frustrated at her inability to use her longbow from atop her warhorse, dismounted and fired an arrow into the monster's shoulder.
Hiro rode into the tangle and grabbed the reins of Berthold's mount, leading him away to safety, all the while cursing his companions' idiocy for trying to fight a troll. Without Berthold to punish, the troll switched its attentions to Shadow, knocking the wolf unconscious at its feet. Ashe, enraged over her beloved companion, closed in the distance between herself and the troll. She reared her warhorse up, causing her mount's deadly hooves pummel the creature, while she, herself, sliced at it with her scimitar.
By then, Kaelin had successfully removed himself from Ashe's horse and was safely on the ground. He added an arrow of his own to the growing collection of weapons protruding from the troll's body. Meanwhile, behind the troll, Caeg had leapt from his horse onto the nearby rock formation. He stealthily fired two arrows right through the beast's throat, staggering but not quite killing it.
Once he was certain that Berthold was safe, at least for the time being, Hiro once again threw himself into the confusion of bodies and heaved his greataxe at the monster's skull, taking it down once and for all.
While Jonrek attended to the healing of Berthold and Shadow, the rest of group saw to burning the troll's corpse.
With the troll's corpse disposed, the group, decided to set up camp for the night. They did not wish to risk another encounter without the benefits of Jonrek's healing spells, which had been used up following the difficult encounter.
Much of the night passed peacefully, but just before sunrise Ashe and Hiro's watch was disturbed by the eerie howl of wolves. The druid and barbarian awoke their sleeping companions as a precaution, and, as the howling grew closer, the group formed a circle of defense. Within minutes, two dire wolves charged into the group's ring of vision. Caeg, Fallon and Kaelin fired arrows at the beasts as soon as they were in sight, but the missile fire did nothing to slow the onslaught. Jonrek, wielding his longspear, was the next to attack, impaling, but not killing one of the creatures.
The other wolf clamped down on Hiro's arm, tearing away a sizable chunk of flesh. The wound only served to anger the massive half-orc, however, who, in turn, swung into the beast with his greataxe. The two rangers and the “diplomat” switched to their melee weapons and the party quickly defeated the dire wolves with mostly minimal injuries to themselves.
Hiro removed the beasts' canine teeth as a trophy before Fallon and Caeg dragged the carcasses into the bushes and blessed the animals' eternal spirits.
The following day, the group came within sight of the great glacier and knew they were close to their destination. The day's ride was unmarred by enemies, though the adventurers did encounter a refugee from Thimble, the central town in the cluster of towns where Hinterford lay. Bozomus had escaped from bondage to a band of monstrous creatures leftover from Zhenghi's reign and was prepared to surrender to the party until he discovered they were not aligned with his captors. He attempted to dissuade the group from their course, assuring them that their chosen path led only to death. Berthold, however, was unmoved, thinking only of his parents' safety. The others, bound to his will by both friendship and honor, also refused to abandon their quest. The companions sent the stranger off—pointing him in the direction of the nearest town and providing him with seven days' rations and a dagger—and were on their way.
That night, the group's rest was again disturbed by howls, though, this time, Ashe could say with certainty that those producing the noise were no natural animals. The party made ready for another attack, but were no less surprised when a massive creature that looked like a wolf with a snow-white coat burst into view and enveloped Jonrek in a blast of freezing vapor. The cleric, already suffering from the effects of the magical attack, crumpled into a frozen heap when the beast followed up with a vicious bite.
Shadow threw himself at the dangerous creature, and the two animals—black wolf and white wolf—locked into a fierce struggle of snarling and snapping. The wolf's violent attack against the creature distracted it from the rest of the group, allowing Ashe to run to Jonrek's side and pull the group's potion of healing from the cleric's pack. She poured the warm liquid down her wounded friend's throat and knew instantly that, though he remained unconscious, Jonrek no longer teetered on the brink of death.
Realizing there was nothing more she could do for the wounded half-elf, Ashe joined Shadow in his battle against the much larger foe. On the other side of the camp, Hiro laid his axe into the other beast. Fallon placed herself opposite the half-orc, hoping to flank the creature, but her assistance proved unnecessary. Hiro, now in the throes of intense rage, took the beast out with his next swing.
By this time, nearly everyone else had joined in the effort against the other winter wolf. Only Kaelin and Caeg remained outside of the circle, bows drawn. Fallon ran to her companions' sides, with Hiro close behind her. As soon as she reached the heated—or, more accurately, frigid, as the creature had loosed its wicked breath weapon again—conflict, an arrow whizzed by her head, barely missing her. She looked up, expecting to see another enemy, but was greeted only by the sight of a rather sheepish looking Caeg. Kaelin, realizing he would need an intervention from the gods to successfully shoot the winter wolf through the ever-growing tangle of friendly bodies, cautiously drew his rapier and closed in on the beast. He was nearly bowled over when Hiro, just a few steps behind Fallon, charged into combat, finishing this winter wolf off as succinctly as its cohort.
Both Shadow and Berthold had taken serious wounds in the conflict, and, with Jonrek still unconscious, the remaining party members did their best to bind up their wounds before settling in for some rest.
The following morning, Jonrek regained consciousness and spent some time in prayer before healing himself and some of his companions. Though Berthold was anxious to reach Hinterford, he grudgingly suggested the group rest another day before continuing their journey. The road had indeed proven dangerous, and no one wished to face more enemies until everyone's strength was renewed.
Shortly after daybreak, however, their rest was disturbed by a hail of arrows from across a nearby stream. One of the arrows lodged right into Kaelin's gut, immediately toppling the wiry rogue. Caeg and Jonrek ran to his side, while Berthold and Fallon leapt on their horses and raced across the stream toward the unseen enemies. Hiro unslung his axe and ran at the attackers, nearly keeping pace with his allies' horses.
Having used up all of his spells for the day, Jonrek was forced to try and stabilize Kaelin through more traditional methods. The gravity of the wound made the task extremely difficult, even with Caeg assisting. After several failed attempts to help their injured friend, Jonrek released Caeg to enter the battle. The cleric needed space to work. Caeg mounted up and rode off.
More than a hundred feet away from the thunderous hooves of Caeg's horse, a fierce battle was already underway. Berthold's mount had crashed through the bushes the ambushing party had been using for cover, and the fighter easily felled one of the attackers, an orc. Before Berthold could spur his mount deeper into the brush, however, he was approached by a second orc, tougher and better armed than the first. Though the orc was unable to penetrate Berthold's solid defenses, the fighter had similar difficulties dispatching this second enemy.
Near him, Fallon was surrounded on all sides by attacking orcs. The orcs had little luck striking at the ranger, however, as her horse fiercely bucked and kicked, landing solid hoof-blows on many of the brutes. Hiro soon caught up with his companions and began slashing away at everything that moved. The barbarian was thrown into another fit of rage when a burst of light flew out from behind a nearby bush and bore painfully into his flesh. The hulking barbarian effortlessly crushed two orcs on his way to dispatch the magic-user.
Ashe and Shadow arrived shortly after and joined Berthold's efforts to defeat the orc captain. Though the enemy proved himself tough and resourceful, he was no match for the triple-threat he faced. The orc captain met his final defeat at the end of a Caeg's sword, shortly after the ranger caught up with his companions. The orc sorcerer was able to fire off one more attack, a daze spell aimed at Fallon, before Hiro's axe brought his spellcasting to an end. The final orc, seeing that the tide of the battle had turned against him, attempted to flee, but was overrun by Berthold, who swiftly cut him down.
After searching the orcs for any valuables, the party decided it prudent to move camp. They packed up their belongings, secured the still unconscious Kaelin to Ashe's horse and set out.
After their encounter with the orcs, the group moved camp and spent some time recuperating. Jonrek prayed to recover his spells and brought Kaelin back to consciousness before tending to the other injured party members. The group then continued their ride toward Hinterford, hindered only by a fell and chilling thunderstorm that dampened even the spirits of the druid, barbarian and two rangers, while making the more urban party members thoroughly miserable.
As they neared the town, still sodden from their encounter with the rain, the silhouette of a tower appeared on the horizon. Berthold informed his companions that the tower had been an outpost for the town guard before Zhenghi's army took control. Hiro and Fallon volunteered to go and scout the tower to make certain none of the enemy force was housed there. As they scanned the area, Fallon discovered some fresh giant-sized footprints in the earth. Carefully approaching the structure, the pair peered inside an unobstructed doorway—the door appeared to have been ripped violently from the hinges—but saw nothing inside. They then began to circle the perimeter of the tower, but didn't get far before they heard a scraping noise behind them. Hiro took a few steps away from the wall and was dismayed to see a giant two-headed humanoid leering brutishly at him.
“Hello, my two-headed friend,” offered the half-orc cheerfully. His good-natured greeting was lost on the ettin, however. It began to charge toward Hiro, who wasted no time in running away from the beast. As it streaked past, Fallon fired an arrow at the lunging giant, narrowly missing.
Hearing Hiro's shouted salutation from their hidden position, the rest of the group rode in on horseback toward the monster, planning to take the beast down from a distance, using ranged weapons. Their plan was foiled, however, when the ettin lost interest in Hiro and turned his attentions to his new attackers—in particular Berthold. Seeing his friends in trouble, Hiro immediately reversed his course and moved in to flank the monster opposite Berthold. Fallon, likewise, moved in, switching to her sword, while Ashe and Jonrek each cast a spell. Jonrek animated a spirit weapon to attack the beast independently of its owner, while Ashe softened the earth at the ettin's feet, stealing some of the giant's mobility. Though the ettin was formidable, the group managed to take it down without suffering much damage themselves, thanks in no small part to a pair of arrows planted with deadly accuracy by Caeg into one of the beast's ugly heads.
After defeating the ettin, the party searched the tower and, finding it clear, decided to use it as a base of operations for their rescue mission. Once the group had rested briefly, they began to formulate a plan for infiltrating the goblin-infested ruin that had once been Berthold's hometown. Kaelin, Ashe and Hiro volunteered to undertake a daring plan; Hiro would pose as a member of the occupying force, and Kaelin and Ashe would become his “prisoners,” allowing all three of them to infiltrate the town and gather information needed to free Berthold's parents.
Once the group agreed on the plan, Ashe and Kaelin were stripped of their armor and weapons—except for a pair of daggers and Kaelin's thieves' tools, which the rogue expertly concealed beneath the folds of their clothing—covered in filth and ettin blood, bound with ropes about their hands and necks and led away by their “captor” toward Hinterford. The trio walked only a short distance before they came upon a work party of goblins overseeing human slaves planting crops to feed their starving masters.
Hiro greeted the goblins in orcish and was scolded by one of the beasts for failing to speak common. He explained to the goblins, in common, that he was a scout from another town in the “star,” as the cluster of five towns that included Hinterford was informally called, and had captured two spies skulking around the area, along with a pair of fighters. Hiro told them he had killed one of the companions and a fourth had escaped. The goblins seemed initially skeptical of Hiro's story, asking him numerous questions about where he had come from and why he was bringing his prisoners to Hinterford instead of to his own commander, but the half-orc's simple, unscripted replies seemed to appease them.
They roughly searched the two prisoners, finding Ashe's dagger, but not Kaelin's hidden cache, and scolded Hiro for his negligence. The discovery prompted the half-orc to level a vicious backhand across the druid's face in order to prove his loyalty to his new “comrades.” The goblins then took him to see their captain, Raun, a thoroughly spiteful and unpleasant ogre. Raun questioned Hiro for some time, seeming even more suspicious than the goblins had been, and informed him that he would have to be taken before Hoobis, the head commander over the forces in Hinterford. Hoobis would ultimately decide whether to take Hiro in as a soldier, or as a prisoner.
Nonplussed, Hiro returned to the town with Raun's division, striking up a conversation with one of the few orcish members of the group about the inferiority and arrogance of the smaller, weaker goblins. Kaelin and Ashe were rounded up with the other prisoners, who, they noticed, were comprised entirely of the very old and the very young. The companions shuddered at the implications, remembering vividly the contents of the letter from Berthold's father and wondering what they'd gotten themselves into. Their worries only multiplied when a ravenous looking goblin began squeezing greedily at their meatier limbs. Kaelin attempted to dissuade the little beast's attentions by exaggeratedly coughing up some of the phlegm that had been rattling around in his chest since the group had gotten caught in the chilly downpour several days before.
The remaining party members tracked the group from a safe distance, ready to sweep in and defend their friends at the slightest hint of trouble. They were relieved when it appeared that their ruse was actually working. Convinced their companions were safe, at least for the time being, the group took refuge in an abandoned farmhouse along the road to Hinterford, planning to wait out the night there and rescue Ashe and Kaelin—who would hopefully have learned the status and location of Berthold's parents—from their work site in the morning.
When the three masquerading party members reached Hinterford, Kaelin and Ashe were herded into a warehouse with the other prisoners, while Hiro was taken before Hoobis. The commander turned out to be the winged goblin Berthold's father had mentioned in his letter. Hoobis questioned Hiro briefly about his loyalties and intentions, focusing primarily on his mixed ancestry and whether or not the newcomer would be comfortable eating human flesh. Hiro informed the commander that he viewed his human blood as a weakness he had fought hard to overcome and said he would do whatever was necessary to survive. Seeming satisfied by the new recruit's answers, Hoobis informed Hiro that he would be housed with Raun so that the captain could keep an eye on the half-orc until a suitable assignment could be found for him.
Relieved that he had been accepted, Hiro accompanied Raun to the pub for dinner, where he ate a watery stew containing small chunks of an unidentified meaty substance, all the while praying he was not eating his friend's parents. As he slurped down the disagreeable “meal,” the barbarian scanned the faces of the human slaves, hoping to recognize a family resemblance to Berthold in any of them. Frustrated that all of the residents of Hinterford looked alike to him, Hiro gave up, completely oblivious to the fact that his own server was Berthold's mother.
While Hiro was busy infiltrating the other side, Kaelin and Ashe got down to the business of finding Berthold's parents and formulating a plan to get them all out. As they made conversation with their fellow prisoners, the pair learned that there was a second warehouse in town where more prisoners were kept. They also discovered that the Aelfsons were, by some cruel trick of fate, being housed in the other building for the night.
Meanwhile, back at the abandoned farmhouse, the other four companions paced nervously, sleeping only in snatches, well aware that they were bedding down deep within enemy territory. Their vigilance proved all the wiser when, a few hours into their hiding, they heard voices coming toward the house. Scrambling into the shadowy corners, the foursome held their breath and braced themselves for a possible attack. They didn't have to wait long before the door burst open and they were spotted by the leader of a patrol of goblins. Realizing they had been seen and would be unable draw their opponents further into the house, the companions attacked, but were hindered by the close quarters of the house's entryway. Jonrek easily took down the first goblin with his spear, but the second one was too quick for Fallon, who had to charge at the beast from her position near the back of the small dwelling. The battle in the doorway forced Berthold and Caeg to leap out of the house's windows in pursuit of the other two goblins, who were already running back to Hinterford. One of them sounded a battle horn into the night as it fled, causing the party members to curse their wretched luck. Though a second goblin was slain near the entrance of the house, the other two had escaped clean, and would likely return with reinforcements. The companions quickly gathered up their packs and retreated back to the tower, disguising their tracks by entering the streambed and following it to their destination.
The sound of the goblin's horn roused Hoobis' minions. A much larger patrol of goblins and orcs was organized and sent out to find the fools who dared to attempt to penetrate the host's defenses. Hiro's evening at the pub was cut short when Raun informed him he was going to have a chance to prove his fighting prowess sooner than the ogre captain had hoped.
Coincidentally, the alarm sent through the town gave Ashe and Kaelin just the diversion they needed to initiate their escape attempt. Their guards repositioned themselves outside of the building to better fend off any external attackers, granting the prisoners a small degree of extra latitude. In the confusion, Kaelin grabbed for one of the torches lining the walls, and instructed Ashe to do the same. The two adventurers then set to work attempting to ignite some of the structure's support beams. The other prisoners quickly wrestled the newcomers to the ground and chastised them for their suicidal antics.
Kaelin explained to the irate prisoners that he and Ashe were attempting to free them, but the frightened captives were less than optimistic. The town blacksmith, Artur, stepped forward as the seeming leader of the group and told Kaelin the townspeople would not agree to any rash actions that would endanger their lives. He agreed to let them two agitators rise if they promised not to try to burn the building down again. Kaelin agreed and the villagers holding him and Ashe down released them from their grapple holds, though the entire group continued to eye them suspiciously. Kaelin thought he sensed a degree of bravado in Artur, however, and believed he could win the blacksmith over with some smooth talking. If the rogue could only convince the surly man to undertake an escape attempt, he realized, the others would most likely follow suit.
Kaelin, summoning the most inspiring speech he could conceive, told the prisoners that, though an escape attempt could mean death for some of them, staying imprisoned would invariably mean death for each and every one of them in due time. He told them that it would be better to die attempting to take back their lives from the scum that had enslaved them than to sit around docilely waiting to be killed. Kaelin's words washed over the group, seeming to fill them with hope and replacing their desperate expressions with the fiercely grim visages of warriors. The transformation was so complete that it even surprised Kaelin, who scarcely expected his reckless plan to work at all. A moment later, a wave of prisoners spilled out of the warehouse doors, trampling their goblin captors underfoot. Many headed for Artur's smithy to arm themselves with whatever weapons and farming implements they could get their hands on. Others followed Kaelin and Ashe to free the remaining prisoners on the opposite end of town.
Chaos ensued as the freed townspeople swarmed through the streets of Hinterford, right into the middle of a patrol of goblins and orcs. Ashe attempted to scatter the patrol by summoning a dire bat right in the middle of the group. Though the creature did inspire terror in the confused captors, it did little to stop the slaughter the angry beasts wrought upon the unarmed peasants. As they wove their way through the gauntlet of enemy troops toward their destination, Kaelin and Ashe also took a great deal of physical punishment. One particularly powerful blow from a passing orc left Kaelin staggered and nearly helpless, but a spell from Ashe temporarily restored a small measure of his strength.
Several hellish moments later, a much smaller group of escapees arrived at the other warehouse, overpowered the handful of goblin guards and burst into the structure. Kaelin immediately called out to the Aelfsons and was awash in momentary relief when a worn looking gentleman answered the call. Kaelin explained that he was a friend of Berthold's and had come to free them. The rogue's relief was cut short, however, when the man protested that his wife was not with him, but serving as a waitress at the pub. Kaelin, realizing that one more hit from a goblin would spell death for him, and that Ashe was in only slightly better condition, promised Berthold's father that, if he followed them now, they would return for her later. He and Ashe each grabbed an arm and coaxed the senior Aelfson forward before instructing the rest of the prisoners to flee into the countryside.
Ashe, Kaelin and Berthold's father, by some improbable intervention of Tymora (and a well-timed entangle spell from Ashe which slowed their pursuers) , managed to escape Hinterford unhindered and fled for cover alongside a diminishing surge of survivors. As the pack of filthy, half-starved villagers ran toward a faraway hillside, the effects of Ashe's spell wore off, leaving Kaelin once again disabled and struggling to remain on his feet. The ragged band eventually reached the hillside, which offered them a small measure of cover, but their rest was short-lived.
The squadron of scouts sent out to intercept the remaining party members lost the trail and eventually headed back to town, where they learned of the evening's other events. New patrols were sent out to round up any stragglers that had managed to successfully escape the town's perimeter. As one posse of pursuing goblins came nearer to their hiding place, Ashe instructed the townspeople to break up into smaller groups and scatter. She gave them directions to the tower, promising that, if they could only reach the structure, they would be safe.
Separated from the other survivors, Kaelin, Ashe and Berthold's father forced themselves to press on toward the tower, despite the dying screams of their fellow fugitives, which periodically pierced the night air. They reached the tower, following the same route their friends had taken earlier that evening, just before dawn. Berthold shared a hearty embrace with his father while Jonrek healed his companions of their life-threatening wounds. After their hasty reunions, the companions began bracing themselves for an attack.
Some time later, three villagers, terrified and badly winded, approached the tower, practically collapsing in the building's doorway. The adventurers provided what scarce comfort they could, but also handed each of the refugees a spear from the outpost's armory and told them to prepare for the worst. The six companions and their four wards watched tentatively, waiting for the sun to rise over a new, and bittersweet, day. They wondered how Hiro was faring alone behind enemy lines, whether they would be able to save Berthold's mother or whether they, themselves, would even live to see another dawn.
While his friends worried about his welfare, Hiro was busy trying to find a way to get away from the watchful eye of his new commander and return to the party. In the confusion surrounding the search for escapees, Hiro's task became easy. The deceptively intelligent half-orc managed to bluff his way into a two-man patrol, leaving only one tiny goblin standing between him and freedom.
As Hiro and his escort scouted the open plains surrounding Hinterford, the barbarian lifted a hand to silence the goblin, pretending he had heard a noise.
“Shh,” whispered Hiro, “Do you hear that sound?”
Hiro flashed a toothy grin as he raised his axe and brought it to bear upon the little goblin's skull.
“The sound of your death.”
With the goblin out of the way, Hiro was able to flee unseen. Once he'd given Hoobis' minions the slip, he made his way back to the tower, hoping his two friends had made it back alive. The barbarian's superior speed reunited him with the party shortly after the three villagers' arrival, and a chorus of cheers greeted him upon his return. The companions took much pleasure in the tale of their friend's escape, but cut short their celebration to inform him that their task was not completed.
Berthold and his father were adamant that they would not leave without rescuing the fighter's mother, even if it meant charging in alone. Hiro slumped in exasperation, knowing that any course toward Hinterford would lead to almost certain death for any party member that ventured there, but unwilling to abandon Berthold during his time of desperation. The half-orc reluctantly offered to go back to town and tell Raun he had gotten separated from his patrol, but expressed doubts that he would be trusted following his disappearance. Berthold rejected the idea, to Hiro's immense relief, stating that the responsibility for rescuing his mother had to rest on his own shoulders.
After much discussion, the companions agreed to allow Ashe, Kaelin, Hiro and the four villagers some well-needed rest until dawn. Come morning, Jonrek and Ashe would pray for their spells and the entire group would ride toward town and watch the enemy for a while before deciding what to do. Satisfied to have a plan in place, those needing rest turned in for the night. Hiro slept outside under the stars, while the others made themselves comfortable in an upstairs room of the tower. Those who chose not to sleep all remained on watch, still fearing an appearance by Hoobis' scouts.
About two hours into his watch, Caeg, who was posted at the window on the top floor of the tower, heard a noise that sounded like something landing on the roof. Quietly, the ranger crept downstairs to inform Berthold and Jonrek, who were posted at the door, of his suspicions, then went to wake his sleeping companions. Berthold hailed Fallon, who had been walking the perimeter of the structure, as she neared the door and informed her of Caeg's report. She and Bertold both readied their ranged weapons while Jonrek went to wake Hiro where he slept several feet away. Irritated at having his sleep interrupted, the barbarian stalked groggily away from the tower until he could see the roof. Seeing nothing, Hiro decided to draw out the likely intruder.
“Hoobis!” he bellowed at the top of his ample lungs, “Hoobis, come down. I found them!”
The two half-elves and the fighter, still watching from the door, cringed as they heard Hiro's cry echo through the night air. No one was anxious to fight the unusual winged goblin, especially after hearing of his vicious beheading of a goblin in front of Hiro earlier that night. Moments passed, however, and only silence greeted the half-orc's call. Certain their night visitor had, in fact, been Hoobis, and that their hiding place would soon be besieged by the goblin commander's army, the party readied their horses to ride out. Knowing that leaving Berthold's mother behind was not an option, and that stealth was no longer on their side, the group concocted a desperate and utterly reckless plan to ride into town, abduct the fighter's mother from the inn—keeping their enemies at bay with several of Ashe's spells—and ride out, trampling any who got in their way and avoiding the rest. Though none were optimistic about their prospects for survival, all agreed it was their only possible chance.
As it became clear to the three refugees that the group was moving closer toward, and not further away from, the very town they had just escaped, they began to panic. Berthold's father, Wulfgang, refused to lead his neighbors into the heart of danger and suggested taking the frightened villagers to a hiding place in the former ice mines north of Hinterford. The party, uncertain that in their flight from town they would be able to return for the escapees, rejected the idea. Instead, they decided to send the four townspeople south, under Kaelin's protection. The others promised the still badly wounded rogue that, if any of them survived their ill-advised raid on Hinterford, the group would reunite in Merkurn.
The six remaining adventurers made for Hinterford, steeling themselves against their fear, and waited just north of town for the dawn. As the first rays of sunlight peered over the horizon, Ashe and Jonrek began their prayers. No sooner had the cleric and druid lifted their heads than they were bidden to mount up. The companions charged full-speed toward their destination, not even slowing as they entered a veil of obscuring mist rising up from the river at the town's northern edge. As the riders neared the narrow bridge spanning the waterway, a volley of arrows tore into their ranks, striking both Berthold and Ashe at the head of the group. As they galloped closer, the companions saw a skirmish line of a dozen goblins and orcs blocking the pass. Ashe and Berthold were undaunted, however, and spurred their horses onward, determined to trample the opposition under a barrage of hoof-beats and continue onward.
Berthold's line did just that. The hooves of the fighter's mount effortlessly crushed the tiny goblin blocking his portion of the bridge, allowing Fallon, behind him, to follow unimpeded. Ashe's line was sent into chaos, however, when the hulking orc blocking her path dug in his heels and managed to topple the druid's mount in an astounding feat of strength. Luckily, the quick-witted druid was able to leap from her horse, landing on her feet unharmed. Caeg, directly behind her, found himself unable to stop his mount in time to avoid Ashe's fallen steed. The ranger attempted, and failed, to execute a jump, falling out of the saddle, but also landing on his feet, as his horse foundered next to Ashe's. Jonrek, behind them, attempted to veer his mount around the tangle of horses before him, but was also unsuccessful. The cleric, like his two companions before him, managed to leap from the saddle unharmed as his horse joined the ever-growing pileup.
Noting the confusion to his left, Hiro, who rode behind Fallon, took a brief detour as he started across the bridge, trampling the orc that had toppled Ashe's mount before following his two companions into town. The three riders dashed through the streets of Berthold's hometown, arriving unhindered at the door of the Frosty Tankard, the tavern where the fighter's mother worked for her captors. As they rode to the front of the building, Berthold shouted “Gisela, come outside,” hoping his mother would hear him.
When his call went unanswered, the fighter lunged at the rickety old door to the tavern, easily bursting its hinges. Hiro, in similar fashion, hurled himself through one of the building's front windows, landing on his feet amidst a shower of broken glass. Fallon remained outside, guarding the door. Inside, Hiro and Berthold found only four occupants: two goblins, an unarmed female orc and Bethold's mother, Gisela.
As he went to work attacking one of the goblins, Berthold told his mother to run outside, but the stunned woman, overtaken by madness, stood where she was, staring dumbly. Hiro easily dispatched the other goblin before running over take his friend's mother in his arms. Berthold called out, “It's OK, mom, he's a friend,” as his goblin's lifeless form slid from his sword.
Outside, Fallon saw another force in the distance readying an attack. She called inside, alerting her friends to the need for haste. As Berthold emerged from the building, a hail of arrows fell upon them. The distance of the shooters caused most of the shots to fail, but two of them lodged into the fighter as he untied his horse. Fallon rode to the side of the building for cover while Hiro emerged, effortlessly carrying Gisela's limp form.
Meanwhile, back at the bridge, Ashe, Caeg and Jonrek fought to thin out the line of goblin and orc defenders. Ashe immobilized the entire line, save for one particularly resilient goblin, with a Gust of Wind spell, while the ranger, cleric and Shadow the wolf worked to take down their all-but helpless foes. Once their horses were able to rise, Jonrek's mount, being untrained for battle, fled into the open plains before either its owner or Caeg could catch it. Jonrek was able to catch the ranger's only slightly less frightened mount, however, and rode the creature into battle with an unusually adroit goblin. After only a few moments, the three friends had defeated the entire skirmish line.
Ashe remounted and rode into town just as Fallon, with Berthold and Hiro close behind, rode out.
“Go back, our task is complete,” called out the half-elf ranger, as she approached her druid friend.
“I have a purpose here,” responded Ashe.
As Fallon, Berthold and Hiro continued to ride toward the bridge, Ashe cast an Entangle spell at the crossroads next to the tavern, as Hoobis' troops began approaching the junction from both the south and west. The druid then turned and followed her friends out of town, stopping only to cast another Entangle spell on the far side of the bridge from town, ensuring that any pursuers would be significantly slowed in their progress. Jonrek had already cast a Darkness spell on one of the bridge's support beams, serving to conceal the druid's handiwork beyond.
With Berthold's mother slung over her son's saddle and Jonrek riding behind Caeg, the triumphant friends bid a not-so-fond farewell to Hinterford and rode hard into the northland, each praying to his or her respective deity for safe passage to Merkurn.
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