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.