Darkest Waters

Mining For Dark Secrets
Pressing onward, our heroes delve into the secrets of the mine.

The sinkhole gives way to a lower chamber, its center dominated by a heap of crumbled limestone, podwered quartz, remnants of rotted timber, and the mangled remains of a rusty ladder. Once, this was a vertical shaft set with an iron ladder, with a hoist mechanism to raise ore and lower supplies. The shaft collapsed at some point in the intervening decades, dumping sediment and debris into the cavern below. Only Ezio’s sword lights the room, but there is a distant glow where the cavern shrinks to a passageway. Part natural formation, the passage has known the blow of hammer and pick, expanding it. Timbers, some more rotted than others, and half covered in limestone deposits, still shore up the walls and ceiling in places.

The first torch marks a junction of sorts, one passage leading straight on, another jutting off to the left and angling down. The torch is identical to those carried by the bandits they encountered above, a stout brand wrapped in hempen rope and dipped in some oily tar. It burns slowly, and resists moisture or air current. Its light is not overbirght, but it will last for some hours. A crude wall sconce holds the torch, fashioned of a broken shovelhead and anchored to the wall by a piton. Just beyond the edges of the torches illumination, the glow of another can be seen, along the passage ahead. The passage to the left is dark, and the sharpest ears among their number can hear the sound of lapping water. A pool of some depth, perhaps.

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Drawing Blood From Ghosts
Steel and spell suffice to exorcise the haunting.

Eyes strain against the darkness, and ear against the silence. Only Nithauk’s vision is unimpeded, and even he can see no more than an easy dagger-throw into the gloom. The booted strides approach, moving with purpose and disciplined haste. Whoever it is knows their way in the dark mine. Faral spots the flickering torchlight first, but soon they are all aware of it. The ghosts of the mine apparently need light, a fact that is somehow reassuring. That their foe is no more at home in the darkness than they are ameliorates the threat a little. Soon the light divides into individual torches, a half dozen, casting wild shadows as the flames gutter and flare. The burning brands are held aloft by gauntlets of leather and chain, carried by men of flash and blood. Hard men, clad in high quality armor and armed beyond the means of miners. Or bandits. Save for the lack of insignia or standards, these could be military scouts.

Their leader carries no torch, and wears no helm. Six feet of lean muscle clad in scale armor, the man is a human in his prime. His hair is a red-orange, strikingly fire-like in appearance, especially by the uncertain light of torches. He hangs back slightly from the front line, his gaze darting about, fixed on the edges of the light’s reach. He sees Nithauk’s traps where his men do not, and has time to utter a single warning. “Ambush, ’ware!” The first two men stumble in the snares, and the noise makers attached send up a clatter of metal on stone. A pair of arrows fly, the second following a split second after the first. With an agile twist, the leader of these mystery soldiers evades the first arrow. The second scrapes a furrow in his armor, glancing off his torso. It draws no blood, though he winces in pain at what will surely become a wicked bruise. His hands fill with steel in a blur, a long sword in his right and a shorter blade in his left. Just in time, as Scir’s charge carries him through the line and forces the leader to stagger back lest the barbarian’s axe cleave him in two.

All around, the pandemonium of battle breaks out. Nithauk looms suddenly on the enemy flank, appearing from the gloom like a hulking shadow which fears no light. His blade flashes and a soldier staggers away from him. A lick of red spills down the blade and drips off. Before the man can mount a counter attack, the Goliath has faded back into the dark. Ezio raises his blade, and murmurs a prayer to his Saint. A translucent copy of the glowing weapon appears, wielded by an invisible hand. It spins through the air to menace the leader with Scir. Cuts meets the ragged charge of the soldiers, turning aside a mace blow with his shield and parrying another with his sword. His counter attack sends a man reeling, the corner of his shield broken clean off. Standard to the back, Kane Raziel has only for the fire-haired man, hot hate naked on his face. A death curse spills from his lips in the secret Cant of the Vistani, assuring the spirits that this man was doomed. The warlock’s visage holds only mortal emotion, save to the leader himself. That man sees the true darkness in Kane’s intent, and knows the full promise of gypsy vengeance in his heart. A spell lashes at his eyes, attempting to rob him of sight. He blinks and spins away from Scir, narrowly avoiding the harmful magic.

Shouts and ringing blows, hissing arrows and crackling spells. The battles rages for a minute… two… cries of battle turn to those of pain, grunts of effort give way to final gasps. At last only Scir and the leader battle, back at the every edges of available light. The glow from Ezio’s mystical weapon show the blood lust and certainty of victory on the Dragonborn’s features; the fanatical rage and growing desperation on the leader’s face. A large dagger comes whistling out from beyond the light and punches through a thin point in his armor, below one arm. The man staggers, struggles to draw breath, and cries out “Slave Tlathak, may Vecna aid me!” Whatever outcome the man was expecting from his religious invocation, it is clear in his shocked expression that it was not to have his head burst into flames. For an instant, he pain and confusion are there to see, and then they melt away with his flesh and hair. A scream dies in his throat, as flames rush down into his lungs and seer away his voice. His body falls limp, the fires spreading with unnatural speed. That which does not burn is rendered to ruined slag, and even bone is consumed. All but the skull.

This floats back up until it is hovering eye level with the startled Dragonborn. A voice speaks in his head, mocking and cruel. When it has finished its monologue, a ghostly hand appears to reach from behind and grip the skull, snuffing out the flames. The hand is from a corpse, withered and bony. Its thumb hooks into the corner of the skull’s mouth, and its middle two fingers slide over the scorched crown to fill the eye sockets. The first and fourth finger point upward, granting the skull demonic “horns”. The apparition fades then, leaving Scir with the fading battle rage and a sick feeling in his gut. He drops his axe beside the still warm ashes of the slain leader and staggers away. Leaning against the wall, he slumps down and covers his face with blood-soaked hands. The others quickly strip the soldiers of anything worth keeping, and begin discussing their next move. Most favor withdrawing to make camp. Nithauk sits in the darkness, deeper into the large cavern, ears peeled. Once or twice he thinks he hears a foot fall, or the brush of leather on stone, but he cannot be certain. Eventually, he agrees that a meal and rest would do him good as well.

Later, seated around the campfire, Scir relates his conversation with the apparition of the burning skull. Long after the others have bedded down, or taken up watch, Scir and Nithauk talk about the Dragonborn’s reaction to the battle. It is a revelation to Nithauk, but he offers no judgement or any indication of his thoughts on the matter. Each man makes his own luck, forges his own destiny, and it was up to Scir to find his. The Goliath could not find it for him. He listens, the story slipped away into a pouch in his mind. A rogue need not steal only coin. Secrets were more valuable than any bauble, and these Nithauk collects with greater passion than any wealth. Secrets would keep his dreams company when next he faced the Long Sleep. And unlike coin or gem, he could carry as many as he could learn. While some might have a burden all their own, they would not slow him in combat.

The next day, Scir was mostly back to himself, and the rest of them were more than ready to exorcise any remaining “ghosts” in the mine. These bandits, like those at the keep in the Tanglewood, were equipped with excellent gear and training. Moreover, they stank of rotting fish (though Scir was dead certain the leader had not). They were on the trail, and it was past time they put an end to the blight these criminals represented. Allying themselves with goblins, kidnapping spellcasters, slaughtering pilgrims… justice would be swift and final. And they might finally find Jalenna. The wizard’s scrying indicated she was farther away than the Belstone Mines, but perhaps the spell was misled by the iron and quartz in the hills. With optimistic spirits and no shortage of courage, they forged once more into the dark mine. Nithauk, with his growing affinity for darkness, struck out on point. Ezio forms the center of the party, his sword casting its radiance as bright as any torch, and without the flickering vagaries of flame.

Once or twice, where the floor of the mine has a build-up of sediment or moisture, they find boot prints. The soldiers’ path is easy to follow back into the depths. Nithauk and Faral both note a couple sets of prints that are not booted. One looks to have been formed by a barefoot child, albeit a chubby one. The other is the smooth print of a softer soled shoe, a sandal or moccasin. As such, they are on high alert as they explore. It becomes obvious the miners had exhausted all the worthwhile Belstone veins, as they find many a cavern and all are empty of anything but chips and shards of the blue mineral. In one chamber, they find a truly strange phenomenon, egg-shaped deposits of smooth white quartz, shot through with golden yellow specks. They range in size from a robin’s egg to some as large as Nithauk’s fist. They are perched on stalagmites, some only as high as their knees, and others at eye level. Water drips from above, flows around the smooth surface, finding no purchase on the quartz. The lime-rich flow slows on the supporting stalagmite, depositing sediment and growing the natural structure slowly. The wet egg-shaped stones seems fused at their base to the stone of the stalagmites, and reflect their light about in a strangely liquid fashion. Muting the glow of Ezio’s sword, they find that the stones actually shed a faint light, almost imperceptible save in pitch darkness. The yellowed specks are luminous, some sort of phosphorescent mineral, by Cuts’ reckoning. Why the minder’s never harvested such a unique treasure is unknown. Perhaps it was superstition. They do look an awful lot like eggs.

Eventually, the draw of the mysterious geological formations fades, as one by one they remember the reason they are down here. Promising themselves to investigate further once the bandits are vanquished and Jalenna returned home, they press on. Eventually they find a dead end, a large cavern which clearly yielded a fortune in Belstones once. Two thirds of the cavern are dominated by a massive stope that looks to have provided enough blue quartz to panel the walls of a cathedral. Here then was the first truly profitable strike in the mine. At first they discuss backtracking, certain they have missed something. A side passage hidden by shadows perhaps, or concealed by arcane means by the ritualist who laid the warding trap at the mine’s entrance. It is Faral who notices the way down, drawn by the slight breeze. His senses are honed for the wilderness, not spelunking. However, his devotion to the goddess of the winds has made him alert to changes in current and pressure in the air, beyond anything he’s noticed before. He leads them to the sinkhole tucked away in a corner of the cavern. The scents of torches, men, water, and death can be discerned drifting on the flow of air. Here is the way.

Nithauk finds the remnants of an iron ladder, rusted away. Rope fibers cling to it, revealing that the bandits climbed in and out of the sinkhole. There is no rope now… but the bandits were all slain. Who untied the rope? Nithauk thinks back to the soft sounds that might have been retreating footfalls. Faral mentions once again the tracks they have seen which do match any of the bandit’s footwear. The mine has ghosts alright, but apparently more in the manner that their roguish comrade is a ghost. Which means these ghosts can bleed too. Kane puts voice to the thought they all have. In a voice as cold as naked steel on a winter morning, he promises the darkness below that death is coming. No amount of stone or shadow can protect those who have earned a Vistani oath of vengeance. Knowing that the Goblinoids of the Bloody Claw and the Vecna cultists are in league, and suspecting that this is their last redoubt, the warlock’s blood sings for the shedding of theirs.

Watching Kane’s gloved hands flex, and seeing the savage light in his eyes, one might guess that his quest to find Jalenna is secondary to his need for revenge, at least for the moment. Not that any of them are immune to the hunger to right the wrongs the region have suffered at the hands of these bandits. Cuts mutters that it is not death they bring, but justice. If the bandits surrender, they can serve a prison sentence. Scir grunts his agreement, ever one to balance battle lust with fair thinking. Nithauk says nothing, though his raised hands forestalls whatever retort Kane would have made. Ezio actually laughs, softly. His Eladrin voice is musical, but it is the cadence of a battle march he uses to sum up their various sentiments. “Whether it is death or justice they see in us, by Saint Altais’rin of Kord, war coming.” He is the first on down the rope, the glow of his sword spilling from its sheath. Nithauk smirks at the rope, and climbs as he prefers, naught but the rock and his own skill. It is rotten stone, powdered iron ore and minute quartize veins rendering the limestone prone to crumble. It is the most challenging climb the Goliath has had in weeks, and he nearly falls twice. Let the others talk of war, death, and justice, these are merely different labels for the same thing. What it really is… is a challenge. And challenge is always good.

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Into the Haunted Mines
Intrepid as ever, our heroes brave the ghosts of Belstone Mine.

It takes only a couple of days to locate the entrance to the long abandoned mine. Even to their untrained eyes, with minimal skill at tracking, it is obvious the rumors of abandonment have been exaggerated. Booted feet, both the races of Men and those of Goblin, have traversed this entrance recently. And frequently. They cannot identify with certainty the timing, but Old Grizz had said the last attempt to open the mine had been decades ago. The tracks they find are days and weeks old, not tens of years. Setting up tethers for their pack horses, they move their supplies into recently purchased enchanted satchels. These can holds a couple hundred pounds of weight and yet feel as light as an empty pack. Water, food, rope, and climbing gears is distributed among them, and no one is remotely burdened. Thus provisioned, they head into the mine.

It is clear that this was once a natural passageway, carved into the soft limestone by the flow of water. The miners, a century ago, had simply followed water, widening and shoring up the passage as they dug. The cave winds slowly downward until the light is a memory behind them, and they are navigating by the muted torch-light glow of Ezio’s Sunblade. On point, Nithauk does not seem to need the light. Ever since the battle with death cultist Rechander, and more specifically with the Goliath zombie serving the priest, the rogue has demonstrated an increasing affinity for darkness. It does not seem to impede his sight, at least nearby. Around a sharp bend the floor drops down a short, steeper slope at the same time the walls and ceiling arc away, into a larger chamber. Nithauk takes only a single stride forward and halts in surprise, the hairs on his neck rising.

A ghostly shape takes form in the air before him, its faint luminescence blinding to his darkvision. Squinting against the glare even has he crouches in preparation for a defensive maneuver, he can just make out the contours of a deadly wyvern. The ghostly reptile beats is wings once, twice, three times. There is no buffet of downdraft, no sound at all. The apparition’s tail lashes forward, and the stinger passes right through the rogue’s torso. A numbing chill enters his veins, slowing his heart and breathing despite his attempts to resist. A sort of paralysis takes over his body, though it does not cause him to fall over or fully stop his vital functions. He stands, rigid, helpless, but alive. The apparition fades as quickly as it formed, its last light vanishing as the rest of our heroes catch up to their comrade.

By Ezio’s light, they can see the ritual circle on the cavern floor, arcane reagents mixed into the mud and staining the limestone. The circle has been inscribed many, many times. And it is not a cheap ritual. Moreover, its true purpose is not the paralysis, which is merely a side effect. Its true purpose is to alert its caster. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but surprise is the better part of military victory. While Nithauk recovers from the grip of the wyvern’s illusory venom, Kane sets about deciphering what he can about the caster of the ritual from their work. The others begin preparing an ambush for whoever comes running to check on the triggered spell. If they had indeed just rung a bell in the enemy fortress, the next step seemed clearly to capture or kill the doorman. It is in the midst of these preparations that an unexpected visitor finds them.

Alar had parted ways from them three months prior, taking up a vigil near the shard of the shattered god in Splitrock Dale. They did not expect to see him again, save for on a return to that place. If indeed the ranger could hope to survive the steady onslaught of goblins eager to take back control of the benevolent and helpful aura the shard emits. Now he is here, after a fashion. Something is clearly different about the elf. He is more poised, more certain of himself. Greener. Kane senses none of the darkness in the elf’s aura, as if his blood was somehow purified of its old taint. The reunion is hurried, and hushed, as they are all waiting for their ambush to be sprung. None the less, they press their former traveling companion for an explanation. And he provides it.

Camping day after day in the healing aura of the god-shard seems to have purged all that might have been unclean from his body and blood. The darkness of his memories as well. And with this, the last of his wilding youth, the genetic indecision that plagues elves when they have not chosen a course for their life. Embracing his Green Elven heretige, the ranger has accepted the guidance of a new goddess. Visions from a Saint of Akadi, Lady of the Winds, warned him of a dire need. His own former companions were nearby and headed into danger. With fresh purpose, he abandoned the Splitrock Dale once more to its natural course, and set out for the place his visions showed him. This place. In accepting his heritage, he also informs them that he is taking back the name he first chose upon reaching adulthood. Faral, as he wishes to be known, is back. And perhaps not a moment too soon.

As his whispered tale draws to a close, Nithauk gestures for quiet. Somewhere off in the darkness, beyond his sight, a footfall. Many footfalls… booted feet… approaching at a brisk, militaristic march. No attempt at stealth, but not a headlong rush either. He counts maybe a half-dozen. Ezio dims the light of his sword, and readies himself. Cuts takes up a defensive stance for his comrades to rally around. Kane stands to the back, the energy of a spell already gathering along the length of his wand. Scir grips his axe, the first stirrings of a battle rage already worming their way through his blood. Nithauk steps off to the flank and conceals himself in the shadows. Out in the dark, a tangle of trip-lines and noise-makers waits to advertise the approaching foe, and he is ready to put a well thrown blade into the first to reach his traps. Faral lays an arrow across his bow, nocking it snugly. A second arrow is gripped in his teeth, readied to following closely on the first. In tense silence they wait, ready to greet their welcoming committee most harshly.

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In Search of Direction
Burdened more by questions than their newfound wealth, our heroes seek their bearings.

Following Nithauk’s maps and their intuitions about the layout of the Tanglewood, it takes only a few days to reach the Thatchwork and the farmland around Holtan. It is evening as they approach the ford at Tilburn, wading across the bracing waters of the Churnwash and into town. After all they have seen and endured, the town feels almost strange to them. At once comfortable familiar and somehow not itself. They soon learn why when they step into The Baron of Mutton common room. The townsfolk all have the slightly dazed demeanor of those who are recovering too slowly from some emotional shock. Pressing for information and listening to muted conversation reveals the cause. The priest, Hesein, devotee of Merita of the Groves, saint of Erathis, has been kidnapped.

They waste no time, heading to the home of Garyth the Constable. He is still awake, though his shop is closed. They share a mug of warmed cider with him, as he relates what they know. The door of the priest’s quarters attached to the small temple were forced open, and a minor struggle took place. However, the attackers overcame him and took him captive without anyone else in town being alerted. The dogs at Nethan’s Livery were agitated that night, but not sufficiently to alarm their handlers. Garyth and Karipur had led a posse along the tracks left behind, but the trail abruptly vanished about three days of slow walking to the north. Neither Karipur’s formidable hunting skill, or Garyth’s experience as a tracker of criminals, could discern a meaningful trail.

The conclusion as last was that a Natural ritual had been used to confuse and mask the trail. Equally disconcerting was the fact that the trail had contained tracks of both Goblins and Men. It was unheard of for such an alliance to form. Even the most craven among the various races of Man hated goblin-kind. Likewise, even the most passive and civilized among the races of Goblins hated man-kind. This is so well known as to be established fact, leaving both rangers unsettled in the extreme. So deeply does it concern them, that they agreed to tell no one of this fact. Only Zasheera, Arianne, and Sir Damien Catharn know of the unspeakable alliance. Garyth is stern is his remonstration that the people of Farandale must not be thrown into a panic. Grudgingly, our heroes concur with this logic.

The next morning, they visit Greystone Eaves so Nithauk can pick up an item requested a few weeks back from Falstirn. The old Gray elf hands over the intricate crossbow, almost as pleased with it as he might be if he’d crafted it himself. It is of Dwarven make, the complicated mechanisms used in its design driving the cost up to more than three times that of a regular crossbow. In Nithauk’s large hands, it is easily wielded as a hand crossbow, through most would need two hands to effectively aim it. By manipulating a lever, the clever contraption can be collapsed into itself, easily stowed and even slightly concealable. With the weapon paid for, they depart, though Nithauk assures Falstirn that he desires to speak again soon.

Finding a ride to Samurth is easy given their arrangement with the river merchants, and they find themselves at the tower of Rathlaris by late evening. It is immediately evident that all is not well with the old wizard. He looks haggard, his features pale and drawn, his hands shaky, and his speech erratic. Lack of sleep seems to be the culprit, and indeed he confesses that he’s been having awful nightmares. While they are damaging his health and compromising his sanity, he assures them they also bring him hope. Jalenna is most definitely alive, for the dreams are hers first. They have intruded on his sleep due to his exhaustive attempts to reach her with magic. The dreams are of darkness and moisture, of formless and menacing shapes moving through unknowable blackness. Of fear and flight, a sense of drowning, of failing will. Helplessness, terror, fury, and fading hope. His apprentice, though her predicament is clearly dire, yet lives; and is struggling against her grim situation.

Working with the frazzled, sleep-deprived wizard, our heroes go over the massive haul of coin and other treasures they have hauled from the old keep. Additionally, Rathlaris helps them positively identify the location as long lost Spireholm, stricken from history so whatever curse was awoken there will never again be disturbed. Never, until now. For better or for worse, the keep is a secret no longer. As the old wizard aids them in identifying the items found on their journey, Kane avails himself of the man’s library, guided by his own understanding of the Infernal aura cursing Spireholm and by offhand comments Rathlaris has made. Perhaps there is a way to lift the cursed aura, or so the warlock hopes to learn.

Faced with the realization that they are now quite wealthy, our heroes spend much time in the marketplace of Samurth. Coin spends quickly among the dealers in rare and enchanted items, and soon all of them boast new arcane armor, weapons, and potions. Readying themselves to chase the latest clues, following the cold trail of Hesein, the latest kidnapping victim. Helping them prepare has a marked and positive effect on Rathlaris, who seems both more cogent and less fragile when they finally leave his tower a few days hence. The hours of research, potion brewing, enchantment transfers, and simple conversation have invigorated the man. When they depart, he is even talking about trying to get some decent sleep, using a new form of mental warding he and Kane stumbled across in his library. It will dampen the intensity of his dreams, but not cut them off completely. He promises to continue researching how Kane might lift the curse from SPireholm as well.

Once more taking to the river, for the more arduous journey back to Tilburne, our heroes are in high spirits. As devastating as the kidnapping of Hesein has been for the people of the village, it is their first solid lead since the trail went cold in the Heldast Wood. They are back on the trail of Jalenna, which is the trail of the kidnapped priest as well. None of the bandits at Spireholm had red hair, though the death cultist Rechander did have scary eyes. No, it now seems likely that two groups of kidnappers are acting together. This second group would be the same villains who attacked the Vistani caravan on the moors, taking the pilgrims and killing the rest. One way or another, the kidnappers are running out of places to hide.

Late in the afternoon, they disembark at Karipur’s farm, wading through the frigid autumn waters to visit the ranger. Drying out by his hearth, they share dinner and trade stories of what is known between them. He explains how he is certain a ritual was used to confound the kidnappers trail. They tell of the elimination of the bandits in the Tanglewood. He explains that Arianne has been watching the goblin and gnoll activity in the region, and noticing that the tribes are all weak. Left to their own devices, the gnollish and goblinoid hoards in the north clashed violently but evenly. Those in the south have all been devastated by the incursion of the mysterious Bloody Claw tribe, which appeared seemingly from nowhere. It promises to be a relatively peaceful coming year in the western reaches of Farandale.

On the advice of Karipur, they head from Tilburne into the Lansryde Hills, searching for the elusive ranger Zasheera. Her relationship to the avian creatures of the Dale may provide them some additional insight. They find her at her most frequent haunt, along the shores of Eelrock Lake. Over a breakfast of gray-skinned rock eels, they learn what she knows of all that moves beneath the sky in Farandale. The story unfolds much as they have surmised from their more torturous land-based investigations, though her perspective ties disparate events together more clearly. The bandits are operating from bases beneath cover, hidden from the eyes of her airborne allies. Caves, tunnels, fortresses… mines.

Nithauk, especially, recalls speaking to Old Grizz about his failed mining venture in the Lansryde. Mining for Belstone, an azure quartz of pleasing appearance and unique resonant qualities. Of tragedies striking on three separate occasions, causing many deaths, and the belief that the mine was haunted. Perhaps the bandits are using this mine, or other natural caves in the hills, as their hideout. Parting ways with the eccentric Zasheera, they head north in seach of the abandoned mine. Only when they are out of earshot does Kane share his own revelation about the woman. She is not human, but a kind of Shifter called a swanmay. It is no wonder she has ties to the other avian creatures of Farandale, or that she eschews towns and man-made structures. Her human appearance masks a more wild soul; and a mind more cunning than rational, more bestial than sentient. A strange, if useful, ally for them to have.

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Claiming the Ruins
Their battle won, our heroes delve into the secrets this keep holds within.

While they are far from fully rested, our heroes are fortified enough to continue their exploration. The afternoon sun has dipped low, and twilight is only an hour or so away. Gathering themselves and their gear, they head in to tackle the catacombs anew. There is no way any bandits did not hear the battle in the hall, and so it is unlikely any lurk below. All the same, a bit of caution is definitely in order. Their reserves are low, fatigue just a bit of exertion away. Fatigue dulls a rogue’s senses, makes a warrior’s reaction slow, and cripples the judgment of spell casters. In short, it is one if the most insidious foes an adventurer faces. No one questions why Nithauk insists on dragging the body of the evil priest with them by a rope. The set of his jaw and the clouds that gather in his expression suggest it is a matter best left alone for now.

Once more they are surrounded by the damp and gloom of the cellar depths. The steady flicker of everburning torches augments the constant glow of Ezio’s Sunblade, beating back the darkness. Again, they examine the sickening scene of the desecrated shrine, and the crypt with its macabre skull pyramid. Further down the hall, they find a locked door, cobwebs frosting its surface. Nithauk works at the lock for some minutes before finally prizing it open. Beyond they find a modestly appointed room, layered in dust, and devoid of moisture or vermin. Kane detects the lingering remnants of old spells on every wall, the floor, and the ceiling. Rituals cast so often, and for so long, that their memory is impressed on the flagstones and mortar. Magic to repel the seeping waters that dampen the rest of the cellars. Magic also to drive away the skittering and scampering vermin evident elsewhere in these subterranean halls.

The small suite appears to have housed a scholar of some sort. A study to one side holds a lectern, bookshelves, and a writing desk. The central room contains spartan furnishings to seat a few people. The last room provides a grisly find. A four-post bed on which is laid a skeleton, tucked into the covers as if sleeping. The finger bones are interlaced in placid repose atop the covers, an elegant iron ring adorning one hand. Closer inspection reveals that the vertebrae of the skeleton between the shoulders and skull have been crushed to powder. Once again, Kane detects the lingering echo of infernal magic. Some time long ago a fell presence stalked these halls. Ezio slips the ring from the skeletal finger, suggesting that they show it to Rathlaris and find out more about it. No one argues, and everyone seems eager to move on from the grim bed chamber.

Scir and Cuts spend some time examining the walls in a curious dead-end hallway in the corner of the suite, certain that there must be a door hidden there. Persistence pays off eventually, along with some from Nithauk, and their search reveals a cunningly concealed door. A veneer of stone, matching its surroundings, but affixed to a wooden frame, betrayed by an oddly hollow sound when struck. The door is released by a small pieces of flagstone atop a pressure switch, and sticks a bit, forcing them to heave it open the remaining distance. Almost instantly, an icy wind buffets the first two through the door, chilling them to the bone and covering them in a layer of frost. Staggering back from the wintry assault, they huddle around their torches to warm themselves. It takes some minutes to alleviate the numbness in their limbs and ease the stinging of their ravaged skin. Further inspection reveals the remains of a glyph on the inside of the door, a ritual devised as a trap to kill the unwary.

Cautiously, they move into the small chamber their efforts have revealed. The alcove is laden with treasure, some of it very old and some quite new. The bulk of the bandits’ hoard from the look of things. Bolts of fine cloth, chests and urns full of coin, and small coffers of gems. All in all, a baron’s ransom. Enough to fill their every pouch, satchel, and saddlebag to bursting. It quickly becomes clear that they will need more than one trip to clear all the wealth stashed in this place. Months of bandit activity, coupled with some treasures gathered from throughout the ruined keep, have culminated in staggering amounts of treasure. There is more coin here than Mikal has ever seen. More than Nithauk has ever pilfered. Sums approaching those Ezio saw from afar as a child, growing up among the wealthier families of Arkandia. They are wealthy. If they can survive the return trip to civilization, while laden under a burden of coin and gems.

The next two rooms they investigate are less exciting. The midden is investigated at length, as many of the bandits bore the stench of rotting fish about them. Perhaps, our heroes surmise, some clues about this can be found in the well water of the keep. This theory proves to be a dead end. The well water is clean enough, and the midden smells only of the usual unpleasantness one expects of such things. Beyond that is a larder, the larger of the rats within easily dispatched, and the rest scampering from their torchlight. A decent supply of food and ale is available here, enough to have kept the bandits in comfort for much of the winter, all of it if they were disciplined in their consumption. The final room in the catacombs proves the most interesting. There is a a gleam of soft, flickering light visible through the bars on the door. A prison of some sort, perhaps.

From within, they can hear sounds of a person humming softly, and the panting of one or two large dogs. The light comes from a large brazier, banked low and burning with only the smallest bit of smoke. They cannot see, through the narrow bars set high in the door, who is humming. Ezio eventually decides on a most straightforward approach, and raps one gauntlet-covered fist on the door firmly, calling out a greeting in the Common tongue. A husky, though definitely female, voice calls out for him to go away. That there is no one there. Confused glances are exchanged among our heroes, while from within come the sounds of movement. Then silence. Slowly, Scir opens the door. Immediately two mastiffs begin to growl, showing teeth and advancing from the corners of the room. Baring his own mouthful of sharp teeth, the Dragonborn answers their growl in kind, glaring them down. Whining, both dogs retreat to their corners and lay down.

Moving around Scir, Nithauk and Ezio head further into the small jail. Four cells line a small hallway, and they find a woman sitting in the back of the second cell. The door is shut, but not locked. The woman is humming to herself, tunelessly, and fiddling with something in her hands. The object seems to consume every ounce of her attention, and she ignores attempts to address her. Carefully, the rogue and the priest push into the small cell. The woman does not react, until Ezio crouches in front of her and waves a hand between her gaze and the object in her hands. It is a river stone, smoother on one side than the other, with clear signs that something has been scraped over both side more times that anyone could count. A sharpening stone. The woman is passing it back and forth between her hands while rotating it rhythmically, humming as she does. When Ezio’s wave breaks her gaze, she looks up and blinks. The stone’s rotation reverses without a missed beat, but never stops passing from hand to hand.

The conversation is surreal, to say the least. The woman seems unaware, or uncaring, that she is not confined to the cell. She is calm, far too calm, in a manner that seems more like dementia. Her answers to their questions are disjointed, revealing someone not quite in touch with reality. Of the bandits, or their captives, she seems to know little or nothing. It has been a long while since she had visitors, and she prefers to be alone. Death does not concern her, since everyone dies and there is no one to bother you then. By turns, she praises the gods for the comfort their names bring to the fearful, and damns them for being imaginary. Eventually, even the most diplomatic among them give up in frustration. Kane, never the most patient to begin with, is ready to abandon the crazy woman to her fate in minutes. Scir does not even try, as he is occupied in keeping the dogs cowed. Cuts decides to collect rope from their horses, and helps Scir tie the dogs up. Mikal resigns from the interrogation with a sad smile and a gesture to indicate the woman is beyond reaching, or help; her mind far detached from reality.

At last, even Nithauk gives up, leaving only Ezio attempting to reach past the woman’s madness and communicate with her. With a prayer to Kord for more straightforward battles to fight, the cleric turns to leave. A blow behind one knee staggers him, and a weight lands on his back to further breaks his balance. Hands are flung forward to arrest his fall, and so cannot intervene as a length of cord snaps taut around his throat. The garrote locks implacably into place, and Ezio struggles for air. His chain gauntlets render his hands too clumsy to disengage the cruel, cunning tool. The last thing he hears as blackness swallows sound and vision, is a husky feminine voice beckoning for the “puppies” to come along.

Nithauk is trailing in the wake of his companions when he realizes Ezio is not behind him. Nor does the priest answer when he calls out. Concerned, he rushes back. Of the madwoman, and the dogs, there is no sign. The cleric lies face down in the cell, lips turning a dangerous blue, a lethal garrote locked in place around his neck. Swiftly, the rogue disengages the device, pocketing it for later investigation. Working with only half an idea as to a healer’s craft, he struggles to revive the cleric. Against his own dread-laden expectations, he succeeds. Ezio gasps for air and croaks past damaged vocal chords that the woman escaped. Swiftly then, the rogue pursues the only course she could have taken. The others were climbing a second set of stairs, meaning the woman had to have gone back to the first. He finds traces of dog fur on the stones, and damp footprints in the hall above. The tracks of large dogs in the courtyard… the gate open… the trail vanishes into the Tanglewood, now blue-gray in the twilight gloom.

Discretion is ever the best portion of valor, and Nithauk decides not to chase an insane strangler or her two trained hounds into a shadowy forest. Racing back, he alerts the others and returns to Ezio. The cleric has managed to rasp out a prayer, and apply healing magic to his own injuries. Never the less, he is shaken and weak. Laying him on the woman’s cot, the rogue feels something beneath it bump against his foot. Something heavy. Kneeling down, he finds a locked chest concealed by the draped blankets, and pulls if forth. Beneath the unfocused gaze of the priest, he sets to picking the lock. It is easy… too easy, he realizes… even as he feels the lock disengage and the spring-driven needle plunge into his palm. He tastes a cloying sweetness in the back of throat, but cannot seem to swallow around the sudden lump that forms. Saliva spills onto his lips, an oddly yellow froth. His gaze swims as mucus fills his nostrils and tear ducts. His limbs feel leaden, and an itch travels down the inside of his arm toward his chest. His heart beats with increasing difficulty, and his breath labors past an ever more constricted airway.

Ezio reaches out, calling on Kord once more, even as Scir reaches the door of the jail at a run. Just in time to see the Goliath keeling over to one side, the cleric with his horribly bruised neck and trembling hand still reaching for the rogue. Swiftly, the barbarian, rolls the rogue over and attempts to pump his chest. Keeping some air moving might buy time. In the wilds of Arkandia, many poisonous plants and animals exist, and Scir knows a little of the remedies one might use if they work quickly. Directing Cuts to the rogue’s hand, Scir bids him grip the arm tightly and squeeze back towards the point where the needle entered. Their ministrations prove effective, though perhaps some natural hardiness on Nithauk’s part contributes. In any case, they manage to rouse him, and then leap away as he is violently ill in the wake of the poison.

Lifting back the lid to the rogue’s find, they reveal an astonishing collection of personal jewelry. It ranges from baubles a merchant’s wife might wear, all the way to the sort of finery only a wealthy noble could afford. Some of it is even mildly enchanted to combat tarnish, and provide additional luster. This chest is added to their already expansive haul. Leaving the rogue and the cleric to recuperate form their brushes with death, the others finish searching all the rooms above and below ground. An enchanted crossbow and some bolts in the armory. More food stuffs and dry goods in a storage building along the wall. Plenty of firewood and kindling to last the winter. But no sign of where the evil priest and the undead had come from. It is now well into the evening hours, the sun fully set, and our heroes settle to a meal in the main hall. A good smoky fire is enough to cover most of the scent of battle and death in the room, and they are too tired to care about the rest.

It is over dinner, discussing the layout of the keep and all they had discovered within, that inspiration strikes. With renewed vigor, they descend again into the cellar. They are searching now for another of those concealed doors, with the cunning veneer of stone over a wooden frame. It takes a couple hours to find it, but they finally do. Two more rooms are revealed, sumptuously appointed and decorated in the adulation of Vecna. The priest worshipped this god of necromancy, undeath, and arcane tyranny. Specifically, the nefarious saint known as Slave Kalanthak, the Despot’s Seneschal. Judging from the ornate (albiet horrific) tapestries, the saint teaches that blind obedience and unflinching servitude to an evil master is the true path to power. One cannot hope to be powerful than a god, so what better tyrant to serve? What greater power might one wield than to carry out the orders of a deity? Apparently, no atrocity is unthinkable, if it is carried out in the name of one’s master. Such is the power a slave can possess, to crush and kill any who stand in your way… all at the behest of another.

Here they find yet more treasure, much of it in objects of artistic value. And brandies. Apparently, the priest had a taste for the finest liquors, and there are some truly expensive bottles in his collection. They also find more copies of the ritual that created the warding glyph which encased some of them in cold and frost, as well as the dark ritual book used by the priest. Sealed in a small coffer, cautiously opened by Nithauk, they find a curious key, bulky and shaped most strangely. Finally, in the bottom of one chest, there are two flasks, silver-plated and stoppered with a wax seal. The contents are liquid, and smell most foul when one is opened. Like rotting fish.

In the back of the room, behind a tapestry, they find yet another door. This one is not some cunningly concealed part of the keep, but a recent addition. Opening it reveals a short passage, more crude than the halls behind them, hastily dug and shored up. This passage breaks into natural tunnels just a short way down. These tunnels and caves are old, formed by water, and filled with recent goblin-sign. Laden with treasure and exhausted to the point of tottering, our heroes decide to withdraw and regroup. They needs must consult Rathlaris, and perhaps others in the Dale. But they will be back. This could be what they are searching for, these hidden caves. Perhaps this is how the bandits made their captives vanish.

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Into the Dark Keep
Our heroes delve into the secrets of the keep in the woods.

There is no turning back now, as our heroes gather in the back corner of the keep. Unknown numbers of bandits around them, to come running the moment they are discovered. Bandits and perhaps more lurking below, in the old cellars of the keep. Even as they collect themselves, they hear voices from out past the kitchen, two raised in argumentative tones, the third subdued and sullen. Scir is able to hear just enough of their speech to know someone is being sent to investigate the sounds made by Nithauk’s crashing descent into the keep. Quickly, they scramble to hide. Moments later, a malnourished adolescent bearing scars and recent bruises, steps through the door from the great hall. No sooner does the door shut behind him when a dagger point depresses the flesh of his throat, just under a line of hapless stubble that might one day be a beard.

The lad is no fool, and offers up neither a struggle or a sound, allowing them to lead him back to the base of the tower. He makes a soft choked sound at the sight of the half-elf’s broken body, but it seems more like surprise than grief. The youth proves thoroughly eager to answer their questions in return for his life, and they learn his name is Dreyus. From picking pockets in some distant village, he has traveled here reluctantly in the company of the bandits. His Common is oddly accented, and his dress marks him as a foreigner to these frontier lands as well. He tell them of the other bandits, skilled and organized, and led by a frightening death priest. The knows little of the bandit’s purpose, as his tasks among them are mainly serving their whims and dodging their abuse. He does urge them to make certain of two deaths among the bandits. He describes two particularly dangerous and savage lieutenants with a taste for torture.

He also cautions them to avoid the cellar depths, telling them that there are implacable and horrifying creatures of undeath patrolling the darkened halls. His fear of the catacombs is palpable, and no amount of threatening or cajoling will urge him down the stairs. With various light sources, from Ezio’s unsheathed sword to Nithauk’s carefully shielded sunrod, they creep down the spiral stairs. The depths of the keep prove to be dark and damp, with a a stench of death hanging heavy in the air. Through an archway, they find the remains of a chapel, once sanctified to Pelor, now desecrated by blood sacrifice. Steeling themselves to investigate, they search from clues about the grisly ritual.

Ezio is able to discern that the shrine was once dedicated to Jansraed the Golden, a Saint of Pelor, god of the sun and life. It has been desecrated, but not by an specific ritual or religious act. Instead, simple and brutal murder of sentient creatures has corrupted the sanctity of the place. A velvet tapestry is draped over a table, stained black with blood. The legs of the oaken table, where they can be seen, are stained a red-black. Congealed gore is pooled all around the table, glittering wetly in the flickering candlelight. The candles themselves are gruesome, rendered from the tallow of past victims. Backing away from the horrifying scene, they move further into the catacombs.

Through a dust laden door they find a crypt, every sarcophagus opened and the bones scattered about the room. A layer of dust covers everything. Most disturbing is the perfect pyramid of skulls, mostly human, stacked in the deepest reaches of the crypt. To all appearances, a few dozen skull, many of them from children, are stacked here. As with the rest of the room, the pile is covered with dust, though there is no sign of cobwebs. Kane notes that the infernal aura he detected on the fallow grounds outside is strongest here. But no undead, not even the most feebly animated skeletal remains. They decide to pull back from the thus far deserted depths of the keep, for they can hear distant sounds of movement above. The mysteries if the these dark halls will have to wait until the more immediate threat is dealt with.

Back up near the kitchens, they hear the two argumentative voices approaching again. This time they seem confused as to what is taking their servant so long to report, and sound most displeased at the delay. Their displeasure is rendered moot as they open the door from the great hall. A glowering construct of enchanted wood and mithral plates, forged in ancient time for long forgotten battles, stands before them. Cuts advances, glaring at the lead bandit over his shield, his sword clearing its sheath in a metallic hiss. The larger of the two stands to meet the advance, a nervous frown slowing replacing the initial naked shock on his features. Like Dreyus, the man is a foreigner. Unlike the boy, he is well fed and well equipped. So too, his more slender companion. The second bandit flinches in surprise, but recovers even faster than the larger one. An agile flip back onto his hands, and then another rotation, landing back some ten feet atop the large table which dominates the hall.

Even as Cuts and the larger bandit clash, the acrobatic one sends a knife spinning end over end… at the wall. Its pommel weight strikes a large bell set into the wall beside the hearth. The crashing ring of the bell reverberates through the keep, and shouts of alarm can be heard from the direction of the courtyard. With a roar from Scir, our heroes charge into the hall behind their Warforged ally, and the battle is joined. Crossbow quarrels and throwing knives whistle through the air, while blades sing off shields and parries. The main doors to the hall burst open as the bandits arrive in force. Snarling dogs trained to battle lead the way, followed by a mix of bandits. Elves, dwarves, humans… men and women… all bearing quality arms and displaying considerable skill.

Cuts takes up a deadly defensive stances, longsword flashing through an endless dance that slips past the guard of any who get close. Mikal’s battle song lends inspiration to allies, and sews confusion among he enemy. Even as he sings, he hurls plateware, cutterly, and even loaves of hard bread. The rain of improvised projectiles further confuses the bandits, directing their attention back to the lethal storm of steal that is Cuts. Scir criss-crosses their crumbling ranks, his clawed feet ripping into their shins, his shoulder battering their chests, and his axe finishing them off. Nithauk unleashes throwing knives and deft slashes as he ducks and weaves through the chaos of the battle. Ezio calls on Kord, wreathing one in radiant flames. Moments later, the apparition of a burning sword appears at his command, floating above the bandits to strike down at them. Kane gestures and an invisible hand grips one hapless bandit by the throat, dragging her into range of Cuts’ sword. Glaring at another, he conjures nightmare images from their subconscious, the sudden terror nearly causing them an aneurysm.

The battle is all but over in a few minutes, the bandits mostly slain. One, a Crimson elf with twin blades, continues to hold her own against Cuts, but she is tiring while the Warforged… cannot. Their battle slowly edges out the door into the courtyard. Even as it does, the door from the kitchens explodes into kindling. With a strength that knows no self-preservation, the undead creature has battered through it in a single blow. The bones of its hands and forearms are crushed to powder, but it does not seem to notice. Shambling forward with malevolent intent, the zombie prepares to attack Mikal. The bard’s song is useless on a creature who no longer hears music. Fortunately, Kane’s magic cares not whether the creature can hear or not. With a snarling curse in some eldritch tongue, the warlock channels fell power into the animated corpse until it bursts into flames and staggers back.

More zombies spill into the room, and with them a wave of chilling darkness that saps strength from limbs and will from the mind. Ezio meets this energy with its opposite, warmth and light flaring out from his holy symbol as he faces the undead creatures. Rallying to the new threat, our heroes engage the foul monsters bravely, first holding them and then driving them back. Nithauk uses his great size and considerable speed to devastating effect, executing a spinning grapple that sends one zombie careening back through the others. Bones break and flesh tears, weakening the hold of the animating magic. Into this temporary breach, Ezio and Scir advance, toward the heart of the deathly aura. Stepping to meet them, an undead Goliath crushes lesser zombies underfoot, dissipating the necromantic spells which lend the corpses their unlife. The Dragonborn lets his battle frenzy take over, his roar spiraling up into a crescendo of rage. In seconds, the massive zombie is prone on the floor. Next to the vicious cuts from a great axe, the slashes created by Ezio’s sword seem like nothing. However, the shimmering white flames still licking the edges of each cut tell a different story, and the cleric shares equally in the speedy kill.

Down the corridor, they can see the death priest chanting his spells, defended by two hulking skeletons. These last two undead creatures are horrific to look upon. The bones and claws of wild creatures are mingled with those of the races of men and goblins. Barbs jut outward from every joint, the hands end in vicious talons, and the over-sized skulls boast a staggering array of teeth and fangs. With a menacing clatter, the skeletons advance, accompanied by spell after spell from the evil priest. The chill creeping into their muscles, and the creeping fear at the edges of their thoughts, begin to slow even the frenzied Scir. Kane totters forward, his armor soaked through with sweat and gore, much of the latter now his own. Mikal staggers to lean against a wall, his heart and lungs clinging to life by the feeblest of measures. Nithauk appears to have no exposed skin which is not lacerated and weeping blood. Ezio stands unbowed before the onslaught of evil magic, a steady trickle of crimson from his nose, eyes, and ears.

With a hoarse and savage cry, Scir calls on the deepest reserves of fury in his blood. Flexing his powerful legs, he heaves the two skeletons aside and lunges forard. The great axe flashes through the air and cleaves into the torso of the evil priest. Ribs shatter into fragments, and the blade cuts a gaping rent from shoulder to hip, stopping only as it scrapes on the man’s spine. Blood and spittle foam from the priest’s mouth, drowning his last incantation in a soggy gurgle. Viscera and bile spill to the floor as the limp body slides off Scir’s axe and crumples to the flagstones. Both skeletons explode in the same instant, the dark magic binding them together and granting them unlife now hurling them apart as it dissipates. The hail of bone and talon tears through our heroes, threatening their demise even in the moment of victory. With the last of his strength, Ezio calls out a word of healing, staunching the wounds of his allies on all sides.

The silence that follows is broken only a few shuddering breaths and groans. They have survived. Their worst battle since facing the warped creatures of the Anthalp Vast, and they have emerged victorious. Barely, but they have. Cuts draws their collective attention when he lumbers into the hall from the courtyard. He moves slowly, the wooden fibers of his body slashed and chipped in numerous places. Here and there, mithral plates hang so loosely they threaten to fall free. The Warforged is already repairing, the same magic that imbued him with movement and purpose now mending the damage to his battered form. His sword and sword arm are awash in red, clearly indicating that the last bandit is no more. Too much of her blood is on spattered on Cuts for her to still live. They share a moment, eyes tracking from face to face. Slowly, split and swollen lips peel back from red-stained teeth. Bruised cheeks flex painfully, as one by one they surrender to an exultant grin. Cuts cannot smile, but the light in his eyes betrays elation and mirth as well. The joy of survival, the affirmation of life and of victory.

Kane spits to the side, clearing his throat and chuckling darkly. Mikal’s laugh is less bitter, more heartfelt. Scir’s bellowing laughter is tinged with that dangerous hint of hysteria that always lingers in the wake of an all-consuming battle rage. Ezio shouts out praise to Kord, smiling as though he does not feel his own injuries. Nithauk is the most reserved, his smile tainted by sorrow as he scrapes up the piles of dirt left behind when the Goliath zombie was released from necromantic thrall. They take water from the well to wash the battle from their skin, armor, and weapons. Binding one another wounds, and sharing a bit of ale from the bandits’ stores, they slowly replenish their strength. The ruined keep is theirs. Now, to find out what they’ve won.

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In Tangled Woods to Venture
Piercing the dark depths of the Tanglewood.

The first day passed pleasantly, and our heroes make good time. The eastern shore of the Veldcut River is somewhat cultivated by the score of woodsmen and farmers who make their home in the Blessingwood. It is only once they head west into the untamed Tanglewood that the journey becomes arduous. Every mile traveled feels like five, as they have to hack their way through dense brambles and spiny undergrowth. When they cannot cut their way through particularly impassable area, they wander for an hour or more to circle the tangle and continue on their way. They see goblin sign, and gnoll, though the latter is scarce compared to the Heldast Wood Game is plentiful, though skittish. Occasionally they cross wolf tracks, and others none of them can identify.

They travel like this for a half dozen arduous days, working their way in the general direction of the far off Dogtree Brook. From the headwaters of that stream, they followed Mikal and the goblinoid prisoner for three days into the forest. Now they are approaching from the opposite direction. Something lies in the middle, and they mean to find it. A goblin clan secreted in caves? A bandit hideout in the trees? Against all logic, some combination of the two? Whatever they find, they will pry forth its dark secrets with fire and steel, magic and might. These rapacious villains have much to answer for, both goblin and bandit. It is unheard of that the races of men and the races of goblin might work hand in hand. A foul covenant, a repugnant alliance. The truth, at least in part, lies somewhere in the tangled depths of this forest, and our heroes mean to expose it.

One week in, they discover… something. It was once a keep, even a formidable one. Now only the central building remains. The outer walls have been shattered and tumbled, leaving only scattered stones. Some are flung a hundred paces or more into the surrounding woods. The topped remains of a spire, four or five stories in height, lay broke on the ground like a felled tree. The grounds all around the central building, between it and the remnants of the wall, are devoid of vegetation. Indeed, the soil looks lifeless, as if salted in the wake of some war. Kane Raziel feels the palpable echo of great power, both malevolent and long since departed, churned into the very earth. The stench of it reminds him… reminds him of the scent which accompanies the learning of new spells. Each time he scowls into the infernal darkness, and wrenches power from its grasp for his own use, he catches this same scent. A diabolical being visited this place once. Compared to that echo, the smoke rising from the larger chimney on the keep is almost benign.

Almost… after all, they are not in these tangled woods in search of allies. If bandits roam the region, this is an ideal place to hide. Unless, of course, whatever forgotten evil visited this place decides to return. That is not their present concern, and they advance on the corrupted clearing with grim determination. Were Alar with them, he might track for them, get a feel for who is using the keep. They have no one with skills to match the ranger, and opt for a more direct method of learning what is within. They approach. Kane takes up the rear, his senses focused on the Arcane, barely registering the terrain. Something fiendish struck this place, a long time ago. The rest of them focus on the forest, the place where it abruptly ends, and the keep lying in the center of the clearing.

Nithauk takes the lead, creeping out across the fallow ground. The late afternoon sun casts the shadow of the keep almost to the forest edge, and the Goliath crosses from one shadow to another in a span of two silent strides. He steps around the scattered fragments of the outer wall, moving on soft but swift tread. Half way to the keep the ground suddenly collapses beneath him. On his lightning reflexes and mountaineering experience save him, as he scrambles free of the sinkhole. Man-made, half again his height in depth, and filled with stakes… not exactly a welcoming place. He continues forward a bit more cautiously, gaining the base of the wall without further incident. Despite the minor noise made by the pit trap, he does not seem to have triggered any alarm. Without hesitation, he begins to climb.

The squat inner watch tower is no challenge for such a skilled climber, and Nithauk easily scales it. As his fellow heroes watch from the forest edge, he swings a leg over the crenelation and pulls himself onto the tower. Rolling to his feet, he realizes immediately that he is not alone. Almost as if in slow motion, he see the half-elven woman register his sudden appearance out of the corner of her eye. Her slack-jawed shock, near panic, and combative response flash across her features in quick succession. The crossbow in her hands is only a second slow as she raises it and wheels. Nithauk reads it in her eyes… the certainty that she is too late. The rogue needs answers, so it is not a dagger he reaches for, but a tactic oft employed by Mikal. He bluffs. Claims to be her relief. And for a moment, he sees that she wants to believe. Any story, however outrageous, is a little more credible if it means she is not about to die.

He speaks quickly, aware that his accent is foreign and his appearance exotic. Never the less, he spins the lie. Ally, new recruit, no threat to her. She hesitates, the hard iron tip of her quarrel barely trembles as she carefully aims it… near… the sudden newcomer. Nithauk can see the quality of the weapon, and that the rust on the quarrel’s head is deliberate. Intended to breed a fever in the blood of any struck by it. Simple, effective, brutal… a rogue’s trick. Like the would-be kidnappers from the river, she is far better equipped and trained than the average bandit. A caravan guard turned thief, is Nithauk’s best guess. He notices another thing when the breeze shifts. The scent of rotting fish. He moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, around the tower. The half-elf creeps towards its center, towards an iron lever. Nithauk cannot fathom the lever’s purpose, but definitely decides the half-elf should not be permitted to touch it.

The half-elf slowly removes one hand from her crossbow, still aiming for a point deliberately near, yet not on, Nithauk’s torso. Both move at once, the standoff ending in twin blurs of motion. The Goliath lunges, intent on grappling with the half-elf. She discharges her weapon one-handed, wildly. Her other hand reaches for the strange iron lever. Even as he ducks under the whizzing quarrel, Nithauk knows he cannot prevent her from pulling the lever. Any more than she can halt his sudden charge. The rotting timbers beneath their feet betray them both, interrupting all strategy by the simple tactic of giving way. With a groan and a crack, the floor vanishes beneath them. The duo tumble into gloom, with Nithauk gaining a beneficial position above the bandit. The landing is abrupt, brutal, and by no means silent. The Goliath rolls to one side, dazed by the impact. The half-elf stays where she lands, blood pooling already beneath her head. Her last breaths come in sickening gurgles and desperate gasps. It is mercy when Nithauk, still shaking his head to clear it, drives a blade up under her chin to end her pain.

Outside, the rest of our heroes grow weary of waiting, impatient at the separation from their comrade. They make their own approaches across the fallow ground. Twice more, traps are triggered. Mikal is snagged by a snare and dashed against stone. Kane slides down into a pit, missing the wicked spikes by naught but luck. Winded and bruised, but far from defeated, they reach the wall. Minutes later, all of them have gained the rooftop of the modest keep. The sloping roof is fashioned of slate laid onto timbers, and makes stealthy movement across it a challenge. Some of them risk it, and climb to the peak. The rest stay off the slate, making their way over to the tower, and the flatter stone roof there. A second squat double chimney is visible here, shorter and broader than the one from which smoke is visibly drifting. One side of the chimney top is cold, darkened by soot, and seems to have known no fire for a long time. The other side has known fire, and is warm to the touch.

The center of the keep is a dirt-floored courtyard, dominated by a stone well. Over at the eastern side of the keep, an elven woman in leather armor is practicing combat maneuvers next to a large gate. She fights with twin blades, and seems rather formidably skilled. Beyond this, the courtyard seems empty, and all doors that face onto it closed. After extensive deliberation, most of them elect to climb down the cold chimney in search of Nithauk. Kane stays behind a bit longer. Quietly slipping down from the roof, he approaches the northern-most doors, which seem to be those of a stable. He peers in, expecting to see horses or mules. But no, only mangy dogs, poorly fed and chained up. Keeping his distance, the warlock climbs back up and joins his comrades in sneaking down into the keep. They all move as quietly as they can, conscious of how little they know of the dangers here. Both the nature and numbers of their foe is a bit of a mystery, so they tread with caution, despite their impatience.

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More Questions Than Answers
Interrogating the goblin prisoner leaves our heroes with even more questions.

The bard acts as interpreter, translating between the prisoner and our heroes. The questions come hard and fast, and the answers don’t always translate very well. Goblin is a crude tongue, with harsh simplifications in its noun structure. Its verbs conjugate awkwardly, changing stem based on such simple concepts as gender and race; and often they don’t exist for concepts beyond war and basic survival. Pronouns are basic: self and other, for the most part. All in all, it is a taxing job for Mikal, requiring all his skill as a linguist and his full intellect to convey meaning in the absence of adequate vocabulary.

From the goblin, they learn that its tribe (calling itself The Blackrock Tribe) believes that the healing stone was hurled to the earth as a present from their god at the beginning of time. Of course, from the vague references in its tale, everyone (especially Cuts) is pretty certain that the “beginning of time” was less than a half millennium ago. A bit brief, given that written elven history extends back 10 times that, or so it is said. The goblin knows nothing of the stone’s powers, and firmly believes it requires some incantation by a shaman to make it work. It seems the tribe’s most powerful shaman detected intruders near the rock, and dispatched the war party to deal with them.

The questions soon turn from the rock, to more pressing matters. The goblin provides them discouraging news, though it is at least it is news. There has been no sign of any human woman this far north in Splitrock Dale. Our heroes learn the “races of man” are all but foreign here, and that this goblin (at least) has never seen a female of those races. The goblin does admit that he has heard of such females, and that they make poor slaves usually. Males of the races of men are better shock troops and laborers, they are somehow less stubborn in the long run, and physically stronger. Another noteworthy trait is that these goblins rabidly oppose eating the flesh of slain foes of any race… a direct reaction to their hated enemies, the gnolls.

Another interesting bit of news is that the Blackrock Tribe goblins have encountered the Bloody Claw tribe. Their chieftain did not like the way the Bloody Claw emissaries smelled, and their shamans did not feel the emissary witch doctor was appropriately reverent to Maglubyet. The emissaries were killed; deemed not even worth keeping as slaves. Since then, the Blackrock goblins had killed every single Bloody Claw they had seen at any borders of their territory. It seemed the Bloody Claw were recruiting from the local tribes. The goblin captive confirms that the Bloody Claw are new, and from nowhere in Farandale or the surrounding lands. It is a little disconcerting that none of the area tribes know where the Bloody Claw came from.

Once Mikal believes they have exhausted all their questions, the debate becomes what to do with the prisoner. They are hardened men, these adventurers, but slaughtering a creature that has surrendered does not sit entirely well. Goblins are closer to animal cunning than the full intelligence of a member of the races of men, but they understand surrender. The debate rages for some time, between letting the creature go or killing it. Complicating the moral debate is the fact that the goblin has already resigned itself to being executed or enslaved. Apparently the creature expects to be treated exactly as its own tribe would treat a prisoner. In the end, it is Ezio who provides the morally acceptable compromise. The goblin is handed back its weapon, and the two face off for a duel. It is hard fought, fast and furious, but ultimately never really in doubt. Though it costs him in perspiration and superficial bruises, the priest bests the archer and sends the creature to its final rest. It is a death that a cleric of a warrior deity can be honored to participate in, as opposed to murder of someone or something helpless.

Armed with the information from the now deceased goblin, our heroes question the value of spending more time in the Splitrock Dale. It seems unlikely that the bandits they seek came into the Dale, and all other trails have gone cold. After some further deliberation, they decide to head back towards civilization. They need to compare their findings with what others have learned, and check in with their numerous allies in the region. Their packs are bristling with weapons claimed from dead foes and lost barrows. They have lore and mysteries filling their heads to the breaking point. It all needs some thought, a sense of perspective, and perhaps a bit of historical reference. And so they hike over the hills to Karipur’s farm, knowing they can enjoy a hearty fresh meal and dry beds. As they anticipate, though they hoped otherwise, there is no news of Jalenna, or any other victims of the kidnappers.

Sitting down to a meal with Karipur and his farm hands, they learn little new. The people of Farandale have come to terms with the loss of the pilgrims, though slowly. Many still view it as a grim omen of worse things to come. News has now spread all the way to t Tilburne that some riverboats are going missing in Shrieking Mire. There are those who mutter darkly that the two events are connected, but most scoff at such conspiracy theories. There have been, as far as anyone knows, no new kidnappings. However, the peasantry are getting jumpy, seeing bandits and goblins behind every tree. The paranoia is taking its toll on the many woodsmen, farmers, and remote citizens of the Dale. While there have always been threats, the sense of uncertainty is sapping the usual stoicism of the Dale-folk. They are afraid, not of the evils they know, but of those they have no name for. Everyone knows they might end up killed by goblin or gnoll raiders seeking food and goods. Or accosted by bandits for everything they have of even minute value. It is a known threat, and the fear of it is countered with preparedness. However, kidnapped and made to vanish without a trace… this is cause for a nameless sort of dread. There is no way to prepare for the unknowable.

Their determination renewed, our heroes take the next passing river barge eastward to Samurth. They have much to discuss with Rathlaris, and new plans to make. The Splitrock Dale did not hold the answers they sought, so now they turn their focus south. The unplumbed depths of the Tanglewood beckon their curiosity and challenge their bravery. Rumors of giant spiders and more, and of mysteries not even the enigmatic Arianne has fully explored with her wolf pack. If nothing else, it will be a nice change of pace from climbing up and down the rugged hills they found in the Heldast Wood. The terrain in the Tanglewood is, at least according to Karipur, a bit flatter. And the game more plentiful. When they leave, Alar, stays behind. He intends to take up a post at the black stone, hiding in the woodlands and policing the Splitrock Dale from there.

Samurth is much as they left it last. The matter of the missing river barges is less a matter of alarm, and more a tragedy met with resignation now. New deaths at outlying farms along the edge of the Shrieking Mire are likewise more cause for fatalistic shrugs these days. The swamp has become more dangerous. So be it. Soon, the Baron will probably announce a recruiting drive for after the Autumn harvest. Able-bodied youths tired of the farm, or fishing, will apprentice into the militia instead. A riskier way of life, and one that serves to drain the surplus stores from the town. Soldiers don’t farm, or add to the economy in any way save spending their wage at the tavern. No one can eat coins come winter, so a recruiting drive is its own sort of hardship.

Rathlaris receives them graciously enough, though they are as aware as ever that social graces are not his strong suit. As such, he is gruff and abrupt in his manner, sometimes bordering on rude. He masks his sorrow at the disappearance of Jalenna with apparent indifference, burying those feelings behind his books. The same is true of the various concerns throughout the region. He seems unconcerned about slaughtered farmers, missing boatmen, abducted pilgrims, or anything else in his chosen home is enduring. Only the very insightful among them sense his care… his sense of helplessness. To be a wizard of no small ability, and yet unable to prevent tragedy, eats at the man. His answer is retreat. Tome and scrolls and maps, lore and history, all the wealth of knowledge he has to study… armor against a simple truth. Rathlaris is an old man. He might live another ten winters if he is cautious, fifteen if he is lucky as well. Less by a lot of he takes the wrong kinds of risks. Age is a relentless destroyer of confidence, even as it brings wisdom.

After picking the wizard’s brain for all the lore they can, learning the history and enchantments on the items they have discovered, as well as confirming what they have surmised about the goblin tribes, the god-shard, and other mysteries of the region. They learn some interesting facts about the scroll which mentions “Spireholm”. Apparently, all books and scrolls that pertain to that era have been altered. Sometimes part of a page, sometimes multiple pages, but always complete destruction. The records are wiped. Kane Raziel espouses particular suspicions about this, but there is no strong evidence one way another. As with so many things, the answer generates more questions. Always more questions than answers. Tired of the lack of answers, our heroes decide to answer one. Specifically, the question of what connects the bandits to the Tanglewood. Equipping themselves for the journey, they set out along the Veldcut River.

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A Battle Fiercely Waged
Our heroes battle a goblin war party and emerge victorious.

The battle is all around them now, as goblins rush the pile of rocks from every side. Boars peel off, squealing, as their riders leap off. The goblin war leader advances deliberately, letting the underlings form the initial rush. The shaman hovers on a block of phantasmal earth, surveying the battle. The elite core of the war party reaches the boulders first, and the first few begin to climb. They are met by the staunch shield and deadly blade of Cuts, along with the killing cold of Kane’s aura. Nithauk hurls poisoned javelins, employing the weapons of the gnolls. All accompanied by the rousing battle songs Mikal sings for them. Ezio and Content Not Found: pc-scir hang back at first, ready to back up their allies if the goblins gain the rock. Alar is similarly patient, waiting as long as possible before revealing himself.

The battle rages fiercely, with two and three goblins falling to dead for each minor cut or blow suffered by our heroes. Time and again the savage goblinoid warriors tumble from the faces of the boulders, dislodged by harsh strikes and befuddling bardic magic. And amidst all this, the steady onslaught of Kane’s spells. Steadily, the war party is whittled down in number. And then the fatal blow to their seemingly unshakable morale. The shaman is struck down, its ritual dissipating and its last breath a fading curse in its own tongue. As ferociously as the goblins had given themself to the battle, they now gave themselves to flight. Some even risking broken bones to leap from the rocks. Hurling themselves into the saddle, they drive their squealing boars to a frenzy of speed, riding hard to the north.

The elite warrior of the goblin tribe fight on, but now they are hard pressed. Even with their massive war chieftain striking out to brutal effect, and their archer harrying our heroes, the goblins’ cause is lost. When the chieftain falls, and Alar’s arrows bring down the last of the elites, the archer surrenders. Badly bloodied, gasping for breath and feeling lucky to be alive, our heroes descend from their perch. The face of the rock pile is slick with blood, and goblin dead litter the ground. Even as they take stock of their own injuries, Mikal is composing the first stanza of a poem about the battle. Such a fearsome battle deserves a ballad as epic in proportion.

As they gather around the surrendered archer, they feel a curious thing. Standing within the aura of the black rock, the ache of their wounds abates, and their cuts cease to bleed with astonishing speed. It is as if the divine power lingering in the stone, this shard of a fallen god, enhances the healing energies of the body. They recover at twice the rate they normally would, and within minutes the worst of their injuries are made well. The goblin archer is similarly healed, and the stone’s power seems indiscriminate. Such magic explains the lush vegetation in this otherwise relatively sparse savanna, as well as the plentiful game. Ambient arcane energy, a splinter of the full power a deity possesses, has turned this rocky hillock into a verdant oasis. What this might have to do with a tribe of goblins bearing a crude insignia of the black rock is of some interest. With Mikal as translator, our heroes turn their attention to their prisoner.

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Shattered Gods and Brewing Turmoil
In which our heroes stumble onto more than one mystery.

The paladin and his companions laid to a proper burial,our heroes continue on the trail of the bandits who destroyed the Vistani caravan. With every passing day, Alar becomes more frustrated. Though he still finds goblin and demi-human tracks, sometimes even missed, he is ever more certain they have lost the trail that led them into the Heldast Wood. When they discover a fairly fresh battlefield littered with goblin and gnollish dead, they fall back to a secure campsite and discuss their options. Nithauk lags behind slightly, plucking up a few more of the gnollish weapons for his growing collection. What they lack in sophisticated materials, they compensate for with insidious cunning. Natural toxins, dirty tricks, and ferocity take the place of metal and technology. The rogue is fascinated by the dichotomy, and by the practical worth of knowing how to fashion a weapon in the wild.

At some length, through most of the afternoon and evening, our heroes debate their course of action. They do not wish to abandon the meager trail they have lightly. If it is the right one, backtracking might mean they never catch their quarry. On the other hand, if they are following the wrong trail now, they face the same problem. At last, they reach a majority vote to backtrack. One additional factors weighs on this decision, and that is the ever increasing gnoll presence. It is unlikely the kidnappers have traipsed deep into gnoll territory. If they have, our heroes have lost their chance at direct vengeance, for the gnolls will have done the job for them. They are keenly aware that even a small gnollish war party, as opposed to a hunting party, would be the end of them.

So it is that a few days hence they find themselves almost back to the site of their battle with the gnoll hunters. Alar now chooses one of the other trails, discarded as less likely at the time. He mutters to himself more than once in elvish, and finally reveals the source of his concern around the fire one night. The kidnappers seem to be deliberately mixing their tracks with others, taking a less efficient route so as to better obfuscate their trail. This means that they are aware they might be followed, and possess the skill to protect against it. Both are worrisome prospects. “Bandits” skilled in a tracker’s craft is yet another indicator that these are no simple thugs, but well-trained mercenaries on a specific mission. And they will not be easily taken unawares, overconfident in their sense of secrecy. They are expecting trouble… preparing for it.

These thoughts make Alar grumpy and tense, his longbow constantly strung, with an arrow loosely knocked. The ranger and his weapon travel under equal levels of tension. Kane Raziel notices that the ranger hunts often in the evening and morning hours, supplying them with a steady diet of rabbit, squirrel, and even a small deer. The meat is always a tiny bit dry, and the kill is always dressed far from camp. For his own part, the warlock is forced to concede in his private thoughts that his vengeance for the slaying of kin might not come quickly. This fills him with a quiet rage, falsely calm and laced with a sort of morbid clarity. It is the sort of anger that takes root down deep, like an arrowhead left behind in a wound. You learn to almost savor it; and in the half-dreams before sleep, you imagine the shape it will take when it finally comes forth. By the time he catches those who killed his brethren, it is safe to say proportionate will not describe the justice he metes to them.

Nearly two weeks after first entering the Heldast Wood, they see the trees thinning to the west. They are nearing the Splitrock Dale. In truth, some of them still remember other motivations than vengeance, and are excited. From Rathlaris to Karipur, all who have mentioned the Dale have painted a fascinating picture. An inexplicable rift carved into the land for miles, as if a titanic creature of legend had struck an axe into the earth. Sheer rock walls, and a rolling valley. Flora and fauna almost entirely unrelated to that found on all sides of the Dale, just 60 feet up. In short, a mystery of nature. It would be safe to say that our heroes, to varying degrees, love a good mystery. One does not endure and risk what they have to leave home, without possessing curiosity in near measure to courage. There are places to skulk on the borders of Arkandia, without making the near-suicidal journey across The Anthalp Vast.

However, their collective anticipation is brought up short by yet another obstacle. A very large goblin war party is encamped on the fringes of the Heldast Wood, right in their path. In the fading twilight, they can see no less than a dozen bonfires. The kind of war party that could half-destroy Tilburne, and rob it of most able-bodied men in the town. The kind that could lay waste and slaughter to every farm north of the Churnwash. Thankfully, the goblins seem to have an older axe to grind, and are marching into the forest rather than out. For many hours, our heroes deliberate. They could harry the goblins for a time, killing sentries and scouts with relative ease. A frontal assault is foolhardy, but they could whittle the force down over days. Days they don’t really have. And a risk they might not be able to afford.

In the end, discretion is ruled the better portion of valor, and our heroes leave the goblins to their vendetta. Let the gnolls and goblins do as they have always done, killing each other in numbers enough to leave the more civilized area of Farandale mostly unmolested. Slipping around the war party to south, their trekking is at last rewarded just a day later. As far as they can see to the north and south, the land is split. A towering cliff drops into the valley of Splitrock Dale. It is immediately evident that this is not the ideal place to descend. Especially not with horses. While Nithauk is over the side before anyone realizes his intention, and standing on the grass 60 feet below in less than a quarter-hour, most of them would be hard pressed to make it down safely. Grudgingly, the Goliath revers his path, climbing back to the top with equal ease. His rope and climbing gear never leave his pack, and the rogue looks like he might have been born on a cliff.

Rather than try and emulate his feat, our heroes decide to seek the easier path mentioned by Karipur. At the southern and northern ends, the ranger had said, the way down is much easier. To say Nithaul sulks a little is to trivialize the emotion. But it would not be far wrong. So it is that the rogue constantly jogs ahead an hour, and then climbs up and down the cliff until they catch up. Bathed in a sheen of perspiration, hands blistered and scraped, granite dust covering knee, torso, and shoulder… they have not seen the Goliath this happy in a very long time. Cuts is reminded of a time he and the Goliath spent half a week near a towering ruins back in Arkandia, while Nithauk tried to find a route he could not climb. Fortunately for the Warforged, sitting and waiting was a skill he perfected long before almost anything he’d learned since. Centuries of practice, in fact.

True to Karipur’s word, the southern end of the Dale proved to be a fairly easy descent. Lead ropes are set to guide and aid the horses, and they are all down into the valley in about an hour. It is every bit as alien as they were told. The grass… the shrubs… the exposed stone… it is as if they had traveled in the hour’s descent across as vast a range as the Vast. It defies their understanding of nature, and is a marvel in its own right. But, they are not here solely to explore, as Kane reminds them in his particular brand of tactful. No, not gentle prodding. Yes, much more the glowering and muttering. Exactly that. Natural wonders could wait until the bandits were flayed of life, and their souls lost in the hells befitting their kind. And other such witticisms.

So they set forth, sweeping east to west as they moved steadily northward. They are looking for tracks, or a hideout, or any other sign of the kidnapper bandits. Along the way, they notice some things about the Dale. Cover is sparse. They are trudging over the most subtle of hills, barely ripples on the plain. Here and there, a thrust of granite carved smooth by wind and rain. Or a slightly thicker copse of trees. Now and then, a shallow cave in the cliffs. In the morning, any fog is gone before the sun is even half risen. At night, there is rarely any mist. A fire would be visible for a long, long way. After weeks in the woods, they feel like they’ve wandered into a town square on market day before realizing they had on only a nightshirt. Very exposed.

Until suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a shadow on the horizon. The shadow resolves into a hill. A real one. The hill reveals itself to be studded with great boulders. And littered with vibrant foliage. Here, in the middle of an almost flat expanse of savanna, a massive geological feature. They race to it, climb it, and get their first good look across the Dale since they looked down on it from the cliffs. It is huge. And flat. As far as they can see. Cliff to cliff. Except here. However, the rolling vista quickly ceases to hold their attention when they find a new wonder. The hill is actually three hills; one large in both height and breadth, further topped by two smaller hills. And nestled between the two hills is the fragment of a god.

Blacker than night, smoother than ice, covered in fine cracks from which spill a rose-hued glow intense enough to combat the sun for recognition. And holding within it sufficient Arcane power to destroy everything for leagues in all directions. They do not recognize it at first. The truth comes slowly, as they discuss all they know about history and legend, magic and myth. Kane speaks of the magic within it, Alar of its alien nature. Content Not Found: pc-scir tells of its durability and age, while Nithauk notes how it seems to belong here. The ground is smooth around it, not disturbed. Mikal offers a wager or two about their ability to move it. Cuts notes that the stone feels to him like he feels to himself. A thing, but more. Made, but then somehow remade by its own hand. Ezio speaks aloud of fallen gods. And finally they know it for what it is.

The gods are not permitted to walk Kor. All things within the world must be of it, and mortal. Gods act through their Saints and Artifacts. This is well known. Ezio does not commune with Kord when he chants his morning prayers and performs his martial katas. He honors his god through his brave actions and wise strategy, but it is to a Saint that he prays, a conduit between him and his god. If Kord hurled himself onto the world, he would be sundered. Dead and broken to pieces. His divine power scattered across the world in pockets and pools. Or perhaps, slabs of stone. Once they say it aloud, they know it can be naught else. Somehow, sometime, a divine being suffered this fate, and here lies a fragment of that being. It is a marvel beyond easy description. Mikal struggles to recall a song that conveys accurately the majesty and tragedy of it. You hear of such things… you never imagine you will find them… touch them.

For the first time in weeks, Kane feels some semblance of peace, and his quest for vengeance drives him less ferociously. All of them note the aura which emanates from the stone. It is not so large. Perhaps 10 feet tall and wide, about twice that in length. within a much larger area around it, they feel… not just safe or merely calm, but… cared for. Nurtured. It is a mother’s embrace when you are sad. A friends’ presence when you are lonely. A healer’s hand when you are in pain. A crackling hearth when you are cold, the scent of baking bread when you are hungry. It is comfort without numbness. Peace without sleep. It is perhaps this aura that keeps them from panicking when Scir sees the dust plumes to the north, approaching fast.

They are in the open, save for this hill. If they run, they will be exposed. If they hide they will be surrounded. There is wood and water here, but their food will run out. They have high ground, but this is no fortress. An enemy would have to fight to reach them, but there is no barrier to protect them save their own weapons. They do no panic. They barely worry. Determined, resolute, prepared… they gather to high and hidden points, and ready their weapons. The minutes pass, and the dust plumes turn dark where they touch the ground. The dark splits into shapes. The shapes resolve into figures. Ezio is the first to recognize the figures. Goblins. And worgs. And goblins on worgs. The worst sort of combination. It might surprise you that our heroes do not quake at this. They certainly face injury and loss. They might even die.

Perhaps it is here, in the shadow of a god-shard, that they remember the truth they forged between them while struggling together across the Anthalp Vast. Together, they are immortal. When they leave their lives on the field of glory, they will enter the realms of gods whole beings. Not broken into relics to be scattered and forgotten. They are heroes; the gods are merely witnesses.

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