Darkest Waters

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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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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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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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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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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