Saturday, September 14, 2013

Into the Gloaming (09/13/2013)

During our last game session the heroes had discovered the secrets of Skull’s Crossing, the ancient dam that dated back to the Thassilonian Empire and to Runelord Karzoug himself. With the flooding problem at least temporarily abated, the party had reported back to Mayor Maelin Shreed in Turtleback Ferry with their findings, collected their 4000 GP reward, and from that vantage point struck off to the south and west to an area known as Whitewillow. The plan was to follow-up on the party’s promise to Jakardros Sovark and the remaining Black Arrows that they would look for their missing commander, Lamatar Bayden.

After one of the battles against the ogres inside Fort Rannick the party had been poking through the commanders personal quarters and had found dozens and dozens of parchment sheets, all of which contained beautifully written love sonnets to someone named "Myriana," who (if the sonnets were to be believed) was so beautiful that the moon itself was "blinded when it spied her dancing on the tarn," and who was "the truest grace to know Whitewillow's soft embrace." Besides the letters the party had also found a pair of Boots of the Mire (claimed by Kheo) and a jewelry box that contained a silver locket on a chain; inside the locket was a lock of silky golden hair.

All three of these items were surprises to the surviving Black Arrows - none of them knew their commander had a creative side, much less a poetic side. After some thought both Vale Temros and Jakardros had agreed that the commander did upon occasion leave Fort Rannick for 2-3 days at a time on what he had called his "communion walks," lone treks he made through the region, supposedly to put him closer to the realm he had been charged to guard. Jakardros had stated that the commander was on just such a walk the night of the ogre attack on Fort Rannick – and it was later learned the commander’s scheduled absence was a crucial part of Lucrecia and the Kreeg’s plan of attack on the fort.

Both Jakardros and Vale remained hopeful upon learning of Lamatar's affair and had clung to the possibility that their beloved commander may yet live and was only hiding out in Whitewillow - perhaps preparing to strike back against the ogres. Jakardros explained that "Whitewillow" was a section of the Shimmerglens said to be particularly close to one of the portals to the First World.

The Shimmerglens have long been shrouded in mystery, for these trackless swamps were said to lie quite close to the First World, particularly where they bordered Sanos Forest. Capricious and sometimes malicious creatures were known to harass travelers in this domain. The Wicker Walk between Sanos Forest and the hamlet of Bitter Hollow had been built expressly to offer travelers a way to cross through the swamps without annoying the area's denizens, but stories still abounded of nixies that lay traps to confuse and baffle unwary travelers, of nymphs that seduced men and women and left them besotted and lost in the marsh, and of sprites that stole supplies from travelers and replaced them with rotten fish, poisonous mushrooms, or disturbing little dolls made of clay and string

It was easy for the party to arrange a ferry ride to the shores of the area known as the Shimmerglens. Following the directions they had been provided it was soon determined that horses weren’t going to be much help in the marsh. Initially there were paths for the party to follow, but it wasn’t long before the party came to the realization that they were going to have to slog their way through the swamp to reach their destination.

As the party calibrated their current location and tried to determine way points to ensure they were moving in the right direction a small whirring noise appeared next to Stike’s ear. With a gentle wave he shooed away whatever was causing the noise only to find it wasn’t a mere mosquito, but was instead a small humanoid, flitting about on a set of wings.

Yap (Pixie)
Yap looked like a typical pixie - a waifishly thin humanoid with gossamer wings, large expressive eyes, long pointed ears, and a diminutive 2-foot-tall stature. His rumpled clothes and eyes puffy from crying indicated just how much things were out of place for the poor creature. Yap immediately launched into his message and plea in a rapid, breathless speech, as if he was afraid at any moment the heroes would turn him away.

My mistress, she is ... ill. Very ill. Death would have been a kindness. The land sickens with her heart, and it cannot be cleansed until her misery is purged. I cannot do this myself. Please, you must help her! You are friends with her human lover, yes? He wouldn't want her left like this! I can, take you to her - maybe you can do something. I have tried everything to cure her forlorn heart, but to no avail. She wails and moans in Whitewillow, and the trees and plants and nixies and frogs and everything are dying or worse! I can take you there! Please!"

As the party agreed to respond to Yap’s request for assistance the pixie's mood brightened considerably. He wanted to leave immediately and even found a boat for the party to navigate through the dismal swamp with. Yap insisted on accompanying the party throughout their adventures in the Shimmerglens and promised a reward of three doses of Pixie Dust if the heroes would let him come with them. Unfortunately, Yap was something of a liability. His manic attitude and desperate urge to reach Myriana and save her led him to not only be an incessant chatterbox, but also to make poor tactical decisions. Despite this he remained a good-natured (if desperate) creature, and keeping him as a member of the party was a kindness.

Yap then told the heroes more of the demise of his beloved mistress. Apparently ogres, accompanied by a red-haired lady, had come to the Whitewillow on the same night Fort Rannick had fallen. They had captured, tortured, and killed Myriana – of Lamatar he could not say what had become of him. It was after that horrible experience that the blight had started to appear in the marshlands as the ghost of Myriana raged in the absence of her loved one.

The Shimmerglens themselves quickly grew tangled and densely packed once one traveled out of sight of the swamp's edge - the easiest way to get around was by the rowboat that Yap had found for the party. The abundance of rain that had plagued the northern most reaches of this area were curiously absent here - all that remained was the subtle chill of winter's approach. Twisted black trees rose wretchedly from shallow pools, seeming to have lurched from the land, their arthritic branches curled into miserable tortured claws. The sun seemed to scorn this place and a cold, dark mist loomed within the canopy of bone-bare branches above. Evil murmurs rode an unnatural wind that flew forth from the glens, and shadows danced in the dark mists within.

The trees of the swampy region of Whitewillow, once beautiful and mystic with drooping boughs of sparkling ivory leaves, had gone dark and twisted. Now, they appeared to shift and move when they should not. Shadows played cruel tricks on the sharpest eyes, and sanity-shredding whispers would cause even the canniest woodsman to lose his way. As Yap led the party deeper into the depths of Whitewillow the degree of the corruption continued to grow. Spiders, languid and fat with poison, hung from trees. Dying birds twitched in the shallows. Slithering things with too many eyes squirted away through the water. Whitewillow was about a mile in diameter, and as the heroes marched deeper and deeper into the horror that Whitewillow had become their fears began to mount.

APPARITIONS OF DEATH: Suddenly a chill silence surrounded the party, though they could occasionally glimpse tall, dark-robed figures in their peripheral vision. The creatures' enlarged skeletal claws extended from their outstretched arms as if reaching toward the party. Kheo and Stike were visibly shaken from the experience. When the heroes actually looked they saw these apparitions are nothing more than horribly twisted black trees. If attacked, the trees weep blood and seem to cackle in the wind.

DEAD POOL: A natural pool of water created by runoff from the hulking dark trees stood in a clearing ahead of the party. The water looked clear and refreshing enough, though a successful DC 20 Survival check noted that no algae or larval insects dwelled in the pool, possibly indicating the water was poisoned. Reynard peeked into the pool and saw the other party members appear reflected back as decaying corpses and glaring hungrily at Reynard as if they were about to attack and devour him.

GHOSTLY REVELS: All around the boat ghostly translucent forms emerged from the trees. Fey of all sorts - spectral satyrs, ghostly grigs, phantom nixies, and sprightly spirits floated gently from the swamp around the party, followed by a parade of phantom animals. These were once the proud denizens of Whitewillow, now polluted by their mistress's unsettled soul. The fey cavorted and frolicked as they marched, eventually washing over the heroes. They caressed, danced through, and embraced the party before passing on into the misty gloom of Whitewillow. Stike took seven points of negative energy damage as the unnatural chill of the spectral fey burns him. The ghostly fey and their undead animals ignored the party; the unfathomable business of the dead drew them elsewhere and they were gone.

MYSTERIOUS DERELICT: Deep in the swamp the heroes suddenly came upon a derelict ship inexplicably located hundreds of miles from the Varisian shore. The vessel was badly worn and covered in thick dark green moss, but was completely intact and was obviously of a seagoing model. The ship appeared to be deserted, but the party decided to continue on and look for Myriana with the intent of coming back later to further investigate the large ship.

WHISPERS OF REGRET: The party then came upon the mangled body of a beautiful dryad half protruding from a tree whose limbs had been smashed from the trunk by massive clubs. As the party approached they heard soft feminine whispers in their ears - "She should not have fallen in love - her heart brought this upon us - why won't she let us go?" Selinor and Kheo heard the furtive whisper, which increased their resolve to lift the curse that vexed the swamp. These two also gained a +2 bonus on all Will saving throws made against encounters while in the Whitewillow.

The tangled swamp finally gave way to a relatively large clearing, a calm pool of unnaturally still water ringed by twisted, decayed willow trees. The wind blew, but the trees did not sway. It was as if the very land has died. Yap quailed at the edge of the clearing. "We're here . . . my lady waits for you within. I dare not go any closer ... " as the pixie stepped back to cower behind a gnarled tree.

As the party entered her twisted glade the ghostly nymph rose with a howl from the waters. Once soul-shakingly beautiful, the nymph princess Myriana was now a haggard, ghostly horror. Her disembodied arms floated at her sides, exposed bone and sinew that stretched toward her torso but ever too far out of reach. Her lower torso faded away to smoke, savaged too cruelly by the ogres for even her insane ghost to retain. But her most terrifying feature was her eyes: wells of hellish horror that cried out silently in an agony beyond anything a mortal creature could ever know. They reduced those who try to hold her gaze to gibbering children. She was beauty undone, and torment incarnate. Although she didn't immediately attack the party her blinding beauty was in full effect. In a shrieking, hate-filled voice she accused the heroes of failing Lamatar, of failing to protect Fort Rannick, and of allowing the Kreeg ogres to take him to their lair high on Hook Mountain.

The initial reaction of the party to was to attack, but Stike instead decided to ask what they could do to help. She simply bemoaned the fact that her love Lamatar had been taken by ogres and that she was unable to save him. She knew in her heart he was now dead, but when she tried to reincarnate him foul magic prevented his soul from returning to his new body. She begged the party to find his remains and return them to her - she needed not the entire body, but a lock of hair or a single finger would do.

As the party agreed to return Lamatar to the Whitewillow Myriana moaned "Return my beloved to me! Return my commander to my heart, or I shall find him with my vines and my dark trees will eat the land and churn your people to bone and misery. Return Lamatar to my embrace!" With that her shade faded back into the waters, leaving an eerie silence in the middle of the gloomy swamp.

Yap immediately returned to the party and insisted that they must indeed help his lady as they had promised. All of a sudden Yap stopped, turned, and then whispered to the party “A noise … someone is coming,” and with a whir he was gone.

Not wanting to be sitting in a boat in the middle of a haunted swamp if a battle was needed the party quickly reached the shore and hid among the twisted willows that resided there. As they peered into the clearing another rowboat came around the corner carrying two people - Jakardros Sovark and Shalelu Andosana.

Jakardros yelled out a friendly greeting, and Selinor gave a cautious response. Jakardros grinned and said “We decided to not let you go to Hook Mountain all by yourself. We thought maybe you could use a hand, and besides, we didn’t want to miss all the fun.

Shalelu held up a bundle and said “And we brought some jackets and gloves – it can get pretty cold up on the Hook.

The two groups rejoined and the heroes told Jakardros and Shalelu what had happened with Myriana and Lamatar. The news of Commander Bayden only strengthened Jakardros’s resolve to take the attack to the ogre’s, so the group began to work their way back out of the swamp. Yap opted to stay behind, but not until after reminding each party member - numerous times - of their promise to relieve Myriana’s torment. The party did look for the mysterious seagoing vessel they had passed on the way in, but it was gone, with no evidence of it ever having existed.

DM Note: The heroes have now reached 10th level.

To reach the base of Hook Mountain was no huge problem, but the last few miles up the mountain included several frightening climbs. Jakardros was able to direct the party to follow hunting trails used by the Kreeg ogres and the group was able to make the climb to the hold in three hours or so.

As the heroes finally crested the last craggy outcrop about a half-mile from Hook Mountain's 10,000-foot-high peak they found a gaping cave that belched forth foul black smoke. The cave entrance looked out over a wide ledge of windswept stone, while the chambers within were prowled by ogres aplenty as they clutched their rusty hooks and constantly looked out for anyone foolish enough to encroach upon their den. The clanhold itself was a large cave. Jakardros told the party the Kreeg's had lived here for generations and the walls and ceilings were thick with the soot of their fires. The caves were roomy, even for ogres. Passageways averaged 25 feet high, while the caverns themselves tended to have vaulted domelike ceilings up to 50 feet tall.

Constant flurries of wind-borne snow and frost lashed at a gaping hole in the side of Hook Mountain here. Smoke poured forth from the cave entrance, only to be instantly dispersed by the wind. Two Kreeg fighters stood guard at the mouth of the clanhold, swathed in furs and leathers. These usually easily distracted ogres seemed to be keeping an especially sharp lookout. The party crept as close as they could without being spotted and made their plans for their attack. With the cave mouth a good 200 feet wide and the two ogre guards at least 100 feet apart, the decision was made to jump and take out the closer of the two and hope the other did not give off a warning.

Reynard D-Door’d Stike, Jakardros and himself next to the startled ogre guard, while Kheo, Selinor and Selinor made their way down the last part of the mountain pass to the cave mouth, using their arrows and ranged effects. The first ogre was soon whittled down, and the other ogre guard, who had initially moved to join the fight, suddenly decided that perhaps reinforcements might be a good option and he took a quick turn and stated to run into the depths of the cave.

Reynard used another D-Door to head off the escape of the running ogre and soon the second ogre guard was dead as well. The party then stepped into the mouth of the cave. Jagged spurs of bone protruded from the stone on either side of the cave entrance, each towering twenty feet in height – apparently the ribs of some monstrous behemoth. Jakardros related that the bones of a blue dragon laid low by Kreeg ancestors still adorned the clanholds' entryway, a testament to the ancient ogre overlords of Hook Mountain. The Kreeg's had decorated the bones with crude scrimshaw carvings and incorporated the seven-pointed Sihedron Rune into the markings in many locations.

Not spying any tricks or magic, the party stepped through the array of ribs and came face-to-face with an enormous statue – a forty-foot-tall giant with black skin covered by fissures and cracks, like the bed of a dried river. He wore majestic armor, gilded and encrusted with gems, and gripped a towering glaive in his armored fists. The giant's face was hidden by a ferocious full helm forged into the sneering grimace of a fanged devil. Around the giant's neck hung a car-wheel sized medallion - a seven-pointed star.

This gigantic "statue" was in fact a preserved body - the remains of the rune giant Gargadros, a onetime general in Karzoug's army. In the chaos that followed the fall of Thassilon, Gargadros seized Hook Mountain and the surrounding environs as his own and became the first of the line of Dread Kings. Jakardros said the Kreeg’s' current leader, Grolki Kreeg, claimed to be able to trace his heritage directly to this great warlord, a fact of which he was most proud. Draped around Gargadros's neck was a Sihedron medallion.

And we’ll pick it up from there next time. For tonight's efforts each party member earned 16,500 XP, giving them (88,500 + 16,500) 105,000 XP earned so far, with 155,000 XP required to reach Level 11.

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