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.