The story so far...
The adventure begins
In Stoldale, south of the Cairngorms, an announcement was proclaimed: Winter Haven, a small town on the frontier, sought armed help to solve a bandit problem. A number of individuals took up the offer: Myraneth, a young eladrin mage seeking excitement and knowledge; Varis, an embittered elven outcast; Elgan, a travelling half-elven priest recently blessed with divine gifts; and Bisclavret, a lupine tiefling tactician.
Travelling together for convenience, just short of their goal, they stopped to investigate a noise on the roadside, which proved to be a snared rabbit. As they examined the area, however, they spotted a body lying in the bushes nearby, alerting them just in time to avoid an ambush by kobolds. The adventurers suffered painful wounds in the struggle, but managed to defeat their attackers, though one fled before it could be captured.
The surviving kobolds proved resistant to interrogation, but the party managed to extract some information from them. Apparently they were not mere bandits but part of a local tribe, and boasted of its power and size. They considered the area part of their ancestral lands, and claimed it for “the Dragon”, an old blanket term for kobolds, lizardfolk, dragons, and other reptilian peoples in the more xenophobic ideologies. As such, they had no hesitation in plundering travellers, and killing those that resisted, like the dwarven trapper nearby. The loot was apparently given as tribute to “Irontooth”, a name unknown to the group, but one that Elgan was able to identify as non-Draconic in origin. One kobold made a grab for Bisclavret’s weapon and had to be killed; the other knew very little and was likewise killed. The kobold bodies were stacked by the roadside as a warning for other travellers, and for the kobolds themselves.
Carrying the body of the dwarf, along with the rabbit his snares had caught, the group continued to Winter Haven. They were brought to the guard house, where Lord Padraig came to see them and hear their story. He offered the adventurers a reward for solving the kobold problem – by whatever means they chose.
The party stayed overnight to rest, and attended the funeral of the dwarf, Douven Staul, a courtesy that earned them goodwill and thanks from his acquaintances, especially his fellow-dwarf, Thair the smith. During the wake and the rest of the day, they met a number of local personages and gained some information.
Myrenath and Varis visited Valthrun the Prescient, the local wizard. To Myrenath’s disappointment, it emerged that “wizard” was just a local term of respect; he has only a smattering of magical power. Valthrun is a scholar, who moved to study the geology and geography of the region. Though now too frail to mount his own expeditions, he has a great store of obscure knowledge and is highly observant. He suggested that the name “Irontooth” is of Goblin origin, probably linked to the old goblin kingdoms across the mountains, and perhaps the name of a tribe, a king, or even a powerful spirit. He also suggested that the local rivers were the most likely hideout for kobolds, as the soft rock nearby is lined with caves. However, the visitors felt that he wasn’t revealing quite everything he might know. Then again, neither were they. Myrenath made tentative enquiries about other magic-users, looking for someone to advise her in her studies, but found that skilled mages rarely visit these outlying, uncivilised regions.
Varis encountered Delphina Moongem, an eccentric self-exiled elf who has adopted a semi-urban life as a flower merchant, gathering wildflowers from around the town for sale. She mentioned seeing occasional goblins on her expeditions to the north of the town, but has not yet had any trouble with them. Having spent all his coin on fresh gear, Varis was unable to buy the bunch of violets she offered him.
In Wrafton’s Inn, where they were staying, the party were graciously received by Old Eilian, probably the oldest resident of Winter Haven, and a discreetly powerful figure in the town. Though long-winded and occasionally forgetful, he has unparalleled knowledge of local history and has fought both kobolds and goblins in his youth. Somewhat to the party’s surprise, he denied that the kobolds had become a serious problem, compared to many previous conflicts; there had always been minor skirmishes and banditry in the region. The current pattern of attacks on travellers was much more consistent than the usual opportunistic banditry, but didn't compare with the massed attacks he'd seen in his youth. On being asked about “Irontooth”, he confidently asserted that it was some kind of king or chieftain, though this seemed more of a guess than anything. As they were leaving, he asked politely but pointedly whether Elgan would be “assisting at the temple”, a favour often asked of those with healing gifts, and Elgan assured him he would.
The group sold off the kobolds’ weapons in the marketplace, before returning to the inn and meeting Ninaran, a reclusive elven hunter recently arrived in the area. She was polite enough, but clearly wished to be left in peace. She confirmed seeing both kobolds and goblins in her hunts, but had nothing else to tell them. She is a formidable-looking woman, and obviously well able to evade or deter trouble on her solitary hunts. She knew Douven only slightly, and apparently considers trapping rather an unworthy activity for a hunter.
Meeting with Lord Padraig in the evening, the adventurers learned a little more about the area and their task. Lord Padraig is a respected leader, but cannot not muster enough local soldiers to take on the kobolds without outside help; the people of Winter Haven defend themselves readily enough, but have no interest in mounting dangerous expeditions. He’s also puzzled by the raiding; after the first few weeks, trade has dropped off seriously and the kobolds cannot be taking much loot. However, they are continuing their banditry, without seriously attacking villages or farms. Kobolds are intelligent, if unfriendly, and Lord Padraig can’t understand their actions. The adventurers asked if the kobolds might be trying to restrict movement around Winter Haven, which Lord Padraid agreed was plausible but could not explain. They agreed and signed a simple contract, under the watch of three elders and Sister Linora, the priestess. The adventurers will resolve the kobold problem to the satisfaction of the town council, in return for 100 gold pieces, a base in the town, and reasonable support from the townsfolk. Lord Padraig showed them where he thinks the kobold lair is, based on the pattern of their attacks and the few traces his trackers have been able to find without too much danger: the woods around the Sather, the largest river in the Winter Haven region.
After resting overnight to be at their best, the adventurers set out early in the morning, in the direction of the earlier ambush. Now on their guard, they travelled cautiously with weapons to hand in case of attack. However, they saw nothing as they approached the scene. Sometime in the past two days, others had obviously passed by: the dead kobolds had been moved, and arranged in resting positions. The party agreed the most likely explanation was that other kobolds had come looking for them and performed some form of last rites over the bodies. Examining the ground carefully, they found a trail of kobold footprints leading south towards the Sather, and struck off in pursuit.
The trail grew fainter as the party continued, with the footprints spreading out and doubling back on themselves, suggesting that the kobolds were making more effort to disguise their movements. This seemed to be a clue that they were approaching the kobolds' lair, and the bandits were taking extra care to avoid being tracked down. However, sharp eyes kept them on the right path. Reaching the northern bank of the Sather, they found tracks leading both east and west. After some discussion, the party headed east, where the river grew weaker towards its source, and the valleys around the Deepfall would provide shelter for a bandit lair.
Following the ever-fainter trail, the party approached the waterfall. Constantly on the watch, they picked up the faint sounds of movement in the undergrowth ahead, despite the roaring waters ahead.
A number of kobold sentries emerged to confront them. The kobolds initially took refuge in an ancient circle of moss-ridden standing stones, hurling javelins at the adventurers, while across on the southern the bank others huddled in the bushes. Myraneth strode across the shallow river, slaying the kobolds there with thunderous explosions, and circled round towards the waterfall. As she moved, she sensed a magical aura around the stone circle, though too weakly to discern its effects. Meanwhile, her friends replied to the javelins with a barrage of arrows, bolts and beams of divine light, forcing the kobolds to abandon their position and attack in melee.
On the northern bank, a kobold slinger emerged shouting warnings in Draconic, clearly the one they had driven off during the ambush two days before. Varis, Elgan and Bisclavret drew their swords and maces to confront the attacking kobolds, while Myraneth came under attack from the slinger and had to rush back across the river to face him. Alarmed, he called something which Elgan understood as "warn the others", and began to retreat. Myraneth struggled back through the plunge pool, getting soaked in the spray from the waterfall, and managed to blast the slinger into the churning water of the pool as he fled - up towards the valley, they assumed.
However, he struggled to his feet - and plunged straight through the curtain of water into a dark space beyond. They had found the kobolds' lair, and now the alarm had been raised.
With time now running short, the party cut down the remaining kobolds and quickly searched the area for possible alternate entrances, wary of charging straight into the cave now their enemies had been alerted. Varis scaled the side of the falls to scan the valley above, but could see no sign of flight or alternative entrances. Meanwhile, Myraneth examined the stone circle. It was obviously ancient, probably not a kobold construction, but far older than the most recent human kingdoms in the area. She realised that a residual magical effect of the stones empowered anyone within the circle, helping them to fight more effectively. Perhaps it was an ancient magical defence, for a camp or temple. It seemed likely that the waterfall, combined with the stone circle, might once have been the site of a shrine or a holy place. They thought of returning to Winter Haven with the news, but decided the bandits might move their base while they were seeking help. They also considered trying to lure the kobolds out - or starve them out - so they could confront them with the benefit of the stone circle, and on their won terms. However, there was no knowing if reinforcements might arrive, or what other ways the kobolds (notoriously slippery) might find to escape. The party could not find a better strategy, and the thought of reinforcements or returning patrols was weighing on their minds. That being the case, against their better judgement, they dove straight into the cave.
As the adventurers entered, they saw a line of kobolds standing on guard, though lulled a bit by the minutes of inactivity. Elgan and Myraneth managed to act before the kobolds could, blasting one kobold with searing radiance and blocking another section of the caves with a roiling cloud of ice. The freezing air felled several kobolds and froze another in its tracks. The deadly cloud blocked the kobolds' movements and limited their line of attack, forcing them to charge from the other side. To the right, a cloaked figure appeared in a tunnel mouth; to the left, a hulking armour-clad goblin began to bark orders in bad Draconic. Elgan recognised the cloaked kobold as a Wyrmpriest, an official in the Cult of the Dragon, just as the creature barked out a gout of flame that sent them all reeling. As they struggled to regain their composture, the goblin charged down the cave towards them, barging kobolds aside and laying into Varis with a pair of brutal-looking axes. The ranger was forced to drop his bow and pull out his blades to defend himself.
Myraneth held the left of the line with volleys of thunder magic, driving away any kobold who dared to attack her, while Elgan chanted prayers of protection and struck at the creatures with his mage. Harried by a pair of kobolds, he was forced to back slowly along the line of the waterfall as he fought. Bisclavret fell on the Wyrmpriest, determined to end this obvious threat, while Varis faced off against their goblin ally.
A particularly skilful strike flicked the goblin's weapons aside and cut deep slashes across his body, which roused him to fury. He battered the ranger repeatedly with both axes, ignoring the injuries it suffered in return, while kobolds surrounded them both and stabbed with their spears whenever an opening offered. Only Elgan's prayers kept the elf on his feet. Across the cave, Myraneth sent a spell twisting between the struggling warriors, turning the floor into a sheet of ice right under the kobolds' feet and toppling several to the ground. The Wyrmpriest fell in an undignified heap and screamed a curse in Draconic. The armoured goblin missed a strike at the young wizardess, but span around to sink an axe deeply into Varis' side, almost flooring him.
At last, Varis managed to find an opening, rolling away from the goblin and snatching his bow from the floor. Bounding to his feet, he notched two arrows and sank them into his enemy from only feet away, finally killing the hardy warrior. Myraneth's magical senses felt a prickle of power as a spell dissipated. In revenge, the furious Wyrmpriest unleashed another spell, wreathing Varis in fire, and pain finally overwhelmed the battered elf, who toppled unconscious to the floor.
Bisclavret took the opportunity to drive his sword straight through the distracted cultist. Elgan, alarmed at seeing his friend fall, rushed over to extinguish the flames and administer healing, while Myraneth pulled out her trusty longsword and stepped forward to defend them. A few more seconds of tumultous combat saw the last of the kobolds slain, and allowed the heroes to tend Varis' wounds. They were all battered and bloody, but victorious nonetheless.
After a brief rest to recover from their exertions, the party began to examine the caves. They searched suspiciously for traps, but it seemed safe to carry on. In the flickering torchlight, they discovered rows of grubby reed-stuffed sleeping mats where the kobolds had apparently slept, and assorted small boxes or pouches with meagre personal belongings, as well as a few small coints. Another small cave, branching off to the west, was obviously for the higher-status members of the band: the mattresses were more luxurious and the walls decorated with chalked patterns. Most of the interesting stuff is found in a box - which the key opens - in what is obviously the "high status" area of the cave, with the lushest furs and thickest mattresses to lie on. One bed obviously belonged to the goblin, based on the pair of axe-stands nearby and the mundane possessions next to it. The other seemed to be for the Wyrmpriest. Nearby stood a small wooden chest. Ignoring them for now, the party kept searching, and spotted a shaft of faint light in another corner; the lower end of a rabbit tunnel. From the marks on the tunnel floor and walls, the slinger - and possibly others - had apparently scrabbled up that way to escape. There was no way any of the party could fit through such a gap. While the others searched, Myraneth examined the bodies carefully, looking for signs of magical power. The Wyrmpriest's staff, robes and armour proved to be ordinary enough under their decorations, but she found an intriguing obsidian necklace carved in the form of a creature. Passing on to the goblin, she tried to trace the magical effect she had sensed earlier. Her limited arcane training was not enough to identify the details of the spell, but she was fairly sure it had been some kind of enchantment, perhaps controlling the goblin's behaviour? That might explain his presence in a gang of kobolds. On the other hand, it could be a telepathic link... in which case, was another enemy now aware of their actions? A faint emanation from the goblin's body distracted her, and she realised that the battered chainmail it wore was also ensorcelled. That would surely be a valuable trophy.
Signs of intrigue
Satisfied that the caves were safe for now, the party returned to searching the bodies. Mostly the kobolds had small spears and leathery armour, of limited interest to the party, but Varis retrieved the goblin's fanged metal helmet as a trophy. They also examined the dragon-skull mask worn by the priest. Myraneth detected magical manipulation, used to shape the mask from the more mundane skull of a sheep or goat, but no apparent magical powers. However, they took the mask as well, as proof of their victory. In the goblin's pouch they found a silver key, which looked to fit the lock of the chest. All four were reluctant to open the chest, in case it was trapped, especially as they were already hurt. In the end they decided the cult's members would be unlikely to thieve from each other, and so the chest was probably safe. After testing their theory with a few well-aimed rocks, the more injured members huddled round the corner while Bisclavret carefully unlocked it. Nothing happened. Breathing a sigh of relief, they approached to unpack the chest. It contained several pouches filled with coins and valuables, clearly worth several hundred gold pieces, and presumably taken from their victims. Was this the "tribute for Irontooth"? Mixed in with the pouches were a few other possessions - daggers, interesting shells, and a rolled-up scrap of parchment. Bisclavret handed the scrap expectantly to Elgan, the only one who understood Draconic, who unrolled it. The first thing he noticed was that the writing was not Draconic; rather to their surprise, it was Common. The message was addressed to Irontooth. It read:
My spy in Winterhaven suggests we keep an eye out for visitors to the area. It probably does not matter. In a few more days, I’ll finish opening the rift. Then Winterhaven’s people will serve as food for those Lord Orcus sends to do my bidding. KALAREL.
The party immediately began debating the contents of the note. Is there really a spy in Winter Haven? Who can it be? Who can they trust? Varis was inclined to trust nobody, and they considered trying to hide their attack on the bandits until they had more information. However, it would be obvious to anyone that they had been in a fight, and rouse suspicion if they tried to hide it. Besides, the destruction of the kobold lair would quickly alert the spy. They considered trying to creep into Winter Haven at night, and speak with someone they could trust without the other townsfolk knowing. But as a frontier town, the guards were on the alert for enemies creeping in by night, especially with the recent raids; and besides, who did they trust? The spy could anyone, from a groom in Lord Padraig's household to Valthruan or perhaps even Lord Padraig himself. Valthruan was a little strange, and seemed to be hiding something from them; on the other hand, he had suggested the river caves as a likely hiding place for the kobolds. Was he genuinely trying to help, or leading them into a trap? Perhaps he had hired the kobolds, and was now keen to dispose of them? Lord Padraig had asked for their help, and without his intervention they would never have come to Winter Haven - but then again, he didn't send any of the militia to hunt the bandits... Ninaran, the reclusive elven hunter, seemed a very obvious candidate for a spy - perhaps a little too obvious. Surely a spy would try to seem friendly and approachable, looking to worm their way into the party's confidence.
Rereading the note several times, they realise that it doesn't reveal very much about them. Perhaps the spy didn't know very much - it could be almost anyone in the town. Indeed, the warning might have been triggered by Lord Padraig's appeal for help, not by the party themselves.
The "rift" was also a source of concern. What was the "rift"? Was it connected with the stone circle? Myraneth could only detect weak magic around it, and it didn't seem to be a site of major significance. Nobody had mentioned it to them. What was the connection with Orcus, the demon lord of undeath? Was someone - "Kalarel" - trying to summon Orcus from the Abyss?
DM's note: In game terms, the loot in the cave is worth 420gp from the box (in coins, jewellery and so on) and 18gp + 12sp from the various kobolds. There are also a dozen or so spears, various daggers and javelins, none of them particularly interesting. From the kobolds inside and outside, you could recover one suit of scale mail, one of chainmail, three heavy shields, two light shields, a couple of gluepots designed for slings (which immobilise the target with a successful hit), and a short sword. The goblin's axes are goblin-made battleaxes, but otherwise unremarkable.
Return to Winter Haven
Keeping a close watch on the entrance to the caves, the four adventurers quickly realised they had little option but to return to Winter Haven. Even if “Kalarel” did not already know what had happened, they would surely find out soon enough, and there was no realistic way to cover up the battle.
Worried about what the unknown spy might do, they considered trying to keep news of the plot a secret, even though they would have to report their victory over the kobolds. On the other hand, the innocent villagers of Winter Haven deserved a chance to protect themselves from whatever evil was coming, or at least to flee. At last, they decided to keep news of the plot to themselves to begin with, and try to find someone trustworthy to help them take action secretly. Sister Linora and Lord Padraig seemed the likeliest candidates, especially as Lord Padraig had sent for them in the first place – but the plot could be murkier than they believed. Caution was definitely the watchword for now.
Before leaving, the party stripped their enemies’ bodies of anything that might be useful, including their weapons and armour. The villagers of Winter Haven might well need all the equipment they could get in the coming days. Elgan tucked the note and the obsidian necklace into his belt pouch, and between them they lugged the armour and weaponry back to town, alert for any sign of further attackers. Despite the tension, they saw nothing but wildlife until they came within sight of Winter Haven. Myraneth was worried the town might already have been attacked, and they circled it slowly, looking for warning signs. The everyday smoke drifted away on the wind, and they spotted two guards strolling patiently along the parapets, apparently at ease. Moving east, Varis’ keen elven eyes made out the open gates, and the guards leaning calmly at their posts. Reassured that all was as usual, the party decided on a straightforward approach. They strode up the path to the town, and were recognised at a distance by the guards, who gave a friendly wave and greeted them eagerly. The signs of battle were clear, and from the trophies they carried, it was clear they had won the day. Explaining briefly what had happened, to stave off their questions, the four asked to see Lord Padraig at once. A few townspeople stopped to question them as they hastened to the manor, and it was clear that the news would be common knowledge before the day was up.
Welcomed into the reception chamber, the party were fed and their wounds tended efficiently while they waited for Lord Padraig to return from overseeing work on his lands. He returned quickly, still in riding boots and clearly directly from his work, and greeted them warmly. Though the four kept a close watch on him, they saw nothing but honest relief in his demeanour at the news that the kobold threat was over. He declared their contract well-concluded, and solemnly produced a purse containing the hundred gold pieces they had been promised, while renewing his promise that anything of value they had found with the kobolds was theirs to keep, “and welcome!”. Accepting their payment readily, the group offered the weaponry and armour they had gathered as a contribution to the town militia, an unexpected move which clearly pleased the lord. He assuring them that they were welcome to remain at his expense as long as they wished, and after a little more talk, rose to return to his work. As soon as the door closed, the party discussed their situation in hurried whispers, and decided they had to trust him with the plot.
Spilling the beans
Outside in the courtyard, they saw Lord Padraig strolling towards the stables, with the relieved bearing of a busy man with one less burden to bear. It tugged at their heartstrings to burden him again, but something had to be done. Hearing their footsteps, he turned and smiled politely, wondering what could be the matter. As the conversation proceeded in low tones, his smile vanished. Elgan produced the note for him to read, while the wary Varis peered around them for possible eavesdroppers. Educated and intelligent as Lord Padraig was, the import of the note struck him immediately, and left him aghast. It was all they could do to stop him racing off to call the townspeople immediately. The adventurers were deeply concerned that they spy not learn of what they knew, but realised that Lord Padraig’s responsibility was to keep the townspeople safe. At last, they found a compromise: the lord would speak privately to the captain of the guard and make preparations, with weapons ready to be handed out and defences ready for a siege. Luckily, by long-standing custom, a stockpile of supplies was kept in the town in case they were cut off by siege or weather. Lord Padraig also agreed to proclaim an extra day of militia training, so that everyone would be ready. Myraneth suggested that they use the new equipment as a pretext, which the lord readily accepted.
Lord Padraig was unable to tell what the plot might be, but assured them emphatically that Valthrun would be able to help them. His high regard for Valthrun’s learning was obvious, and he flatly rejected any suggestion that the scholar might not be trustworthy, having known him personally for years. Finally, they agreed that the party would speak to Valthrun and try to learn more about the threat, while Lord Padraig quietly prepared the village for defence.
Elgan took the note and necklace, and went alone to visit Sister Linora. As luck would have it, he found her at work in the temple, keeping the registers up to date. She welcomed him and gave him refreshment, apparently seeing the visit as a courtesy call between acolytes. The news that Elgan imparted ended the easy atmosphere immediately. Though used to dealing with tough frontier life, the prospect of a threat from the Demon Lord Orcus was clearly horrifying. The priestess naturally felt the townspeople should be warned at once, and messengers sent for help, particularly a message to her chapel’s mother abbey in the south. Elgan tried to dissuade her, at which Sister Linora sharply told him he didn’t seem to understand what they were dealing with: a demonic invasion was not something to keep quiet. At last, they reached agreement that she would give him until the following dawn to provide a better solution, or she would send a message to the abbey. Elgan also showed her the obsidian necklace he had found. She recognised it as a symbol of the Cult of the Dragon, but the dragon’s head was a skeleton, something she had never seen before. She couldn’t tell him what it might mean; it was probably related to the strange relationship between the dragon cultists and the servants of Orcus. Elgan left her beginning a vigil for the safety of the town, begging Avandra for aid.
Meanwhile, Myraneth visited Valthrun. A servant recognised her and welcomed her into the comfortable house, showing her into the crowded study where Valthrun was reading. He was delighted to see her and quickly supplied refreshments, which she accepted gladly. The young elf asked her if they could speak privately, which puzzled the old scholar deeply; however, seeing that she was serious, he cleared a space in the room and spent a few minutes performing a ritual. Myraneth felt the tingle of magic, and sensed a slight pressure in the room, as though it was isolated from the rest of the house. Reassured, she explained the situation. Understandably, Valthrun was taken aback by her report, and deeply concerned. She repeated the contents of the note, and asked for his advice. Valthrun was unable to call to mind any specific individual called Kalarel, though he recognised the name as a foreign one, from the lands further to the west. The “rift”, he suggested, was almost certainly a planar gate, a space where the planes of reality were thin and passage between them was possible. Since Orcus resided in the Abyss, the rift might well lead there, and their mysterious enemy could intend to open it and allow demons to flood into the world. He quickly riffled through a series of theological texts, half-instructing Myraneth as he went. Reminding her that Orcus had great power over the dead, he pointed out that demons might not be the only threat; they might face a horde of the walking dead. Concerned, he asked her to investigate the town's graveyard to ensure all was safe.
Valthrun was unable to tell her any more immediately, but agreed to set to work
at once to research the subject. If there was a rift in the neighbourhood, he
hoped to find reference to it somewhere in his library. As soon as he learned
anything of use, he would send a servant to fetch her.
“I know this sounds a bit strange, but please... don’t send a servant,” she replied. “Please come yourself.”
Shaken but understanding, he agreed. He had no firm idea where their enemy might lurk, but suggested several sheltered locations away from the villages, where a group might remain hidden for some time. He also informed her that in the past, bandits and outlaws had made a home in the ruined keep further north, as well as in several caves in the area. Patrols were now sent out every few years to check such sites, and to keep them clear of undergrowth that might provide concealment. Myraneth made a mental note to investigate these places. Before she left, she produced the suit of magical armour they had found, and asked him to examine it in case it could provide a clue. After a few minutes of investigation, Valthrun shook his head. It was a suit of old dwarven make, he announced, bespelled to increase the wearer's stamina and keep them going during long battles or journeys. There was nothing to connect it to their quest. Disappointed, Myraneth returned to the inn.
DM's note: The armour is dwarven chain mail +1. As well as increasing the armour's AC by +1 (to 7), it grants a +1 bonus on Endurance checks. Once per day, as a free action, the wearer can regain hit points as though using a healing surge (but without expending a surge).
Varis took his coins to the market, mindful that he had been unable to buy Delphinia’s flowers the day before, and hoping to pick up some information from the elf or the passers-by. The elf welcomed him cheerfully, though concerned by his battered appearance, and was her usual talkative self. She tried to persuade Varis to let her treat his wounds, and when he politely rebuffed her, insisted on pressing a pot of salve into his hand, assuring him it would do him good. When Varis explained that he had returned to buy some flowers, she showed him the whole range of her supplies. She had no flowers with magical properties, no, though she did supply herbs and ingredients, sometimes to Valthrun for his experiments, or to Sister Linora for medicines. Mostly her trade was exotic flowers and spices for the merchants, and for the kitchens of the townspeople. A tray of wild garlic caught Varis' attention, and he asked her whether it was really effective against the undead. The bewildered Delphinia admitted she didn't really know, having never needed to test it, but suggested it would be nice in a bowl of soup. Varis decided to buy some anyway, and paid her the copper piece she asked, noting his purchase down carefully in the small notebook he carried. A few minutes' chat revealed nothing of obvious importance. He talked to Delphinia about her collecting expeditions, and where she found the plants to sell. She didn't remember seeing anything suspicious, but willingly told him about the goblins she sometimes saw towards the north. Mostly they seemed to be out hunting or gathering food, just like the people of Winter Haven; but she was wary of them, and stayed out of sight when she could.
DM's note: This pot of Mountain Sparrowseye salve has mild healing properties. If you apply it when you take a short rest, you regain +1 hit point for each healing surge you spend. There is enough in the pot for three uses (three rests, not three surges). You can use the salve on someone else's wounds, not just your own.
While the others went on their expeditions, Bisclavret returned to Wrafton's Inn to keep an eye on the townsfolk, and perhaps pick up some gossip. News of their victory had obviously got around by this point: despite the people's earlier wariness of the tiefling, he was greeted with friendly gestures and a couple of cheers from the dozen or so residents inside, as well as a nod of approval from old Elian in the back. Most were the older members, though a few were crafters taking a break from their labour, or hunters back from their excursions. Several immediately offered to stand the hero a drink, and four mugs of dark beer were presented to him. Accepting politely, Bisclavret supped at them slowly, determined to keep a clear head. He willingly recounted the story of their adventure, and a pile of copper pieces, straws and other small items accumulated slowly on the table as he described the battles and began an impromptu lecture on tactics. After an hour or so, the audience discreetly withdrew as Elian came over, having waited a while to maintain his dignity. He spoke to the tiefling in friendly, general terms, carefully not asking about the battle, and Bisclavret realised he was unwilling to seem like an eager yokel. Remembering the old farmer's social position, Bisclavret bought him another drink and engaged him in respectful conversation, trying to uncover anything of interest from his considerable store of local history. Elian's tongue loosened at the second pint, and his dignity at the third, and he began to ask about the kobolds. Bisclavret willingly described it all again, and sensed the farmer's friendliness expanding. Steering Elian onto the subject of previous troubles, the conversation moved from goat thefts to old stories of the border wars, and then to local legends. Bisclavret learned of the water spirit once cast out of the tarn by Garradale, and the lost village in the mountains that could be seen at midday each midsummer. Another tale told of the lord in the old keep to the north, who was bitten by a werewolf out hunting, and transformed at the next full moon, slaying his whole family and half the soldiers before he could be driven underground to die. Elian told the tale with relish, finishing with the information that the howls of a ghostly wolf could still be heard when the moon was full. Bisclavret made further inquiries, and Elian drew a plan of the area on the table with his beer. The warlord recognised the layout as an old Nerathian Empire design, dating it back several centuries. It seemed an unusual arrangement for what was presumably a border fortress, but perhaps there was a good reason.
The others drifted in to join them as the stories continued, and as dusk approached, a hearty meal was set before them. They dined on stuffed partridge, roasted parsnips glazed in honey, and assorted greens. As the meal ended, Valthrun dropped in to join them, ostensibly for a drink. He invited the four adventurers to join him that evening for a game of backgammon, and they guessed that he had learned something important. Before they did so, they gathered in their room for a hushed conversation to exchange their news. Pooling the information, they decided that Elgan should return to Sister Linora and accept her offer to contact the abbey; if undead or demons were involved, divine assistance would be crucial to the safety of the town. The others decided to investigate the graveyard before visiting Valthrun, as they were keen to examine it before dark. Luckily, all four had keen eyes that could see clearly in the twilight. Alert for any sign of trouble, they noted in passing that there were slightly more guards on the town wall than they had seen earlier, and those they saw seemed slightly less at ease. Apparently Lord Padraig had been hard at work.
Elgan returned to Sister Linora, still praying in the chapel. She rose as he arrived, and demanded his answer. He explained their decision, and asked if she had any way to contact the abbey discreetly - a messenger, for example, might alert their enemies and put them in further danger. The priestess suggested a sacred ritual to bind the message to a wild bird, which would be brought safely to the abbey by the power of Avandra. Elgan agreed, and watched silently as she performed the ritual, calling and blessing a wild starling that flew away to the south as the ritual concluded. From all he could make out, it had been successful. He then explained Valthrun's concerns about the graveyard; before he finished, Linora had grasped his meaning and was unearthing a stout cudgel in case of trouble. They hastened out of the town, and the guards moved aside to let them pass, accustomed to the priestess' irregular habits.
The two priests met the rest of the party at the graveyard, some five minutes' walk from the town walls. It was a cleared area amidst the undergrowth, surrounded by walls to keep animals out. A mixture of graves, tiny shrines and simple markers filled the ground, each according to the faith and traditions of the one interred there. Slowly and carefully, they approached the ground and examined it as well as they could. There were clear signs of visitors, but Sister Linora assured them that was normal, as the local people came to tidy the graves or offer up prayers. Neither Linora nor Elgan could detect any sign of desecration, and the faintly sacred aura around the field marked the diligent observation of protective rituals. Nevertheless, Linora began to perform a further blessing on the ground, sprinkling holy water, and Elgan lent his strength to hers for the ward. The others left to see what Valthrun had discovered.
Met and ushered inside by Valthrun himself, Myraneth instantly recognised the warding she had seen before. Valthrun had obviously taken measures to keep their discussion confidential. There were no refreshments this time, but books and papers littered every surface, a far cry from the room's usual neatness. He explained that he had eventually discovered the probable location of the rift, in a book dealing with the history of the old Empire, now fragmented for several centuries.
According to the book, the region had come under attack by a host of strange beings, including creatures that seemed dead, but walked of their own accord. Bringing the full might of their armies to bear, the Empire drove them back to the mountains, where they found a tear in reality within a cave. The rift was an opening onto the Shadowfell, a skewed reflection or echo of the Material Plane, home to shadow creatures and many restless spirits. Though much of the Shadowfell is merely strange and unearthly, other regions are dangerous, and many powerful entities and death-worshippers make their home there. A powerful seal was placed over the tear, intended to seal it for eternity, and a keep built to safeguard the tear. What had happened, or where the keep might be, was no longer known.
Valthrun was certain that the story referred to the old keep north of Winter Haven; only such close proximity could explain why the town had been troubled. The place had always been seen as haunted or cursed, and left well alone; they had not even raided it for building stone, as was the usual fate of abandoned buildings. The suggestion tied in with Bisclavret's theory that the keep was not a true defensive post, but something else. After some discussion, they decided that the only option open to them was to investigate the keep, leaving the town to defend itself if they were unable to prevent the rift being opened. The thought of the unknown spy still troubled them, and they wondered how best to hide their intentions. Valthrun suggested that they offer to help with the militia training, and carry messages to the villages east of Winter Haven; they could easily swing around to the north afterwards, and continue on to the keep. But they were all weary, and night had already fallen, making a twelve-mile journey difficult enough at the best of times. If they were indeed heading into enemy territory, it would be deeply unwise. They decided it would be best to rest for the night, gather their strength, and set off at first light. Valthrun said Lord Padraig had given orders that they be let through the gates at any time, so they should have no trouble. Before they returned to the inn, the scholar gave them an old map of the keep, unearthed from one of his books. It was ancient and incomplete, showing only one section of the keep, but might prove useful.
To the Keep
The night passed uneventfully, and the four awoke refreshed, ready for their journey. The day was harsh, with gusts of wind raising the dusty earth, and a sharp chill in the air. Two ponies were ready for them in the stables, with provisions for a full week, and they loaded their own equipment into the saddlebags. Setting out even before the sun had fully risen, they passed the guards at the gate, noting with approval their newly-sharpened spears and watchful demeanour. Once outside, they divided: Elgan and Varis headed east to Kempsey, while Myraneth and Bisclavret took the King's Road north, agreeing to meet in Garradale.
The eastern pair made slow progress along the rough tracks, but arrived in Kempsey without incident. The small lakeside village was quiet, but a few residents, mostly children, noted their arrival and watched warily. However, once they explained their errand, the locals relaxed somewhat. They had lost a few animals to the kobolds, and two of their friends, so the news that they were defeated was a great relief. They agreed to spread Lord Padraig's summons to the farms nearby, and waved the visitors off on their way north.
The wizard and the warlord travelled rapidly along the road, though years of neglect had made their natural impact on the surface. They met a handful of other travellers, mostly on their way to hunting or fishing grounds, though a few were visiting outlying crofts. These locals were understandably nervous of the pair, especially Bisclavret, but there was no trouble. They noticed the traces of an unusual number of creatures along the isolated road, some of them clearly smaller than humans, and a few barefoot and clawed. There was no doubt that kobolds, and perhaps goblins, had travelled that way. After a while, they encountered a trader leading four donkeys, heading south from the mountains, who was willing to talk a little. He was one of the few who did business with the goblins, and had long-established contacts over the border. The trader, Long Fole, said the local goblins were peaceful enough and unlikely to be raiding at the moment - though border raids had happened in his lifetime. However, his contacts over the mountain had been grumbling about a band of strange goblins passing through, mercenaries or nomads of some kind, and apparently behind some thefts and damage in the area. They thanked him and carried on to Garradale, a small settlement by a slate quarry, where they delivered their message to a startled miller while four small children peered at the tiefling from behind his legs. The people of the village hadn't suffered from the kobolds, being well to the north and off the main roads; however, they were glad the problem had been eliminated. Myraneth asked whether they knew anything of the ruined keep, and was told the locals stayed well away - the place was eerie and sinister. The two friends waited by the quarry, watching the work, until their allies arrived. Then they set off again towards the keep, keeping an eye out for trouble. A few of the children trotted cautiously after them, the most interesting visitors they had seen for years, but eventually gave up and scampered home. As midday approached, the party came in sight of the ruined keep.
The tumbled remains of the keep stood in a hollow, near the entrance to a pass through the mountains. Scrub and hardy mountain trees filled the land, far from civilisation as they were; but around the keep, a rough circle stood mostly clear of vegetation. The last patrol visit had apparently been a few years before, and another would soon be necessary. The party stopped to take careful stock of the area.
The first thing that came to their notice was the silence. The crickets that had
been audible throughout their journey were nowhere to be heard; the few birds
they could hear were far distant. Only the bluster of the wind and the rustle of
the undergrowth broke the silence. A sense of foreboding came over them as they
contemplated the ruins. Myraneth's arcane senses tingled from the brush of some
unrecognisable power emanating from the ruins; beside her, Elgan shivered as the
faint scent of wrongness reached his nostrils. Something unnatural lurked in the
remains of the keep. Varis knelt to examine the ground, and found footmarks
heading towards the centre of the ruins, the tracks of creatures significantly
smaller than they were.
"Goblins," he announced.
Meanwhile, Bisclavret surveyed the keep, his military training assessing the remains and reconstructing the structure that must once have stood there. The remains of a high, hexagonal window confirmed that it was Nerathine. There was the main gate, the walls... the keep itself must have stood near the centre.
The party led their ponies deep into the undergrowth, and left them tied securely in a small clearing, so they wouldn't be seen. Slowly, with great caution, they approached the site and moved through the ruins, weapons at the ready. The sense of unease deepened as they moved inwards, eyes peeled for any sign of an entrance. Bisclavret quietly explained that the surface structures would have been largely for defence; the real heart of the keep would be underground, safe from siege weapons or flying enemies. After long minutes of careful progress, they spied a large hole leading underground. Rubble had clearly been removed from the entrance, and some recent work had been done to secure it. The goblin tracks led directly to this hole, and stone stairs led downwards. They were undoubtedly in the right spot.
Very cautiously, the party started down the stairs, alert for any sound or movement. Within moments, they realised that flickering light was coming from the space below, as though from a torch or fire. As quietly as possible, they withdrew to the surface. After a whispered discussion, Varis tossed a small chunk of rubble down the stairs. There was no response. Hoping to lure out anyone below, Myraneth summoned a flicker of her power, and the sound of a horse walking about came from the top of the stairs. Ears pricked, the adventurers heard hesistant footsteps from below, as though someone approached the stairs in puzzlement, then backed away. After a minute or two, she repeated the spell. The footsteps approached again, then stopped and walked off in the opposite direction. The sound of voices came to their ears, faintly. Elgan, the only one who understood the goblins' tongue, made out what sounded like "idiot" and "again", in a tone of exasperation. There was no sign of anyone emerging from the stairs, and after a little while, they decided to scout for alternative entrances.
There was no sign of any other stairway, but diligent searching found a few small holes, vents or chimneys of some kind. Most were far too small to be of any use, or thoroughly blocked with debris. However, there was one passage about twenty yards to the north-east of the stairs, apparently an old chimney, which seemed fairly clear. They hesitated for a while, wondering how to proceed. At last, they hit on a plan. Varis would climb down the chimneyshaft, hoping to find a way into the keep and scout out an unguarded area. Meanwhile, the other three would head down the stairs and confront whatever waited for them. With luck, they would find themselves on opposite sides of the enemy, and catch them in a pincer movement. If the chimney proved impassible, Varis would climb back up and head after the others.