The heroes had fought their way through the various haunts that infested the Vekker Brothers cabin, and while they had discovered what had happened here long ago it still wasn't clear why it had happened. The final haunt, the spirit of Silas Vekker himself, had told the party that if they would help him reconcile with his brother Karivek he would return the favor by revealing the way to Xin-Shalast. The party decided to take him up on his offer, but their night of rest was plagued with twisted dreams of cannibalism, which just reinforced the still remaining question: what had happened here all those years ago?
The blizzard raged through the night, but had lessened by the next morning. The party had made it this far without the hindrance of snow, but that was not the case anymore. According to the maps they had found the mine they were looking for was maybe only a mile away, but the direction was almost straight up and the path would now be covered with a foot or more of snow all along the way, making the trek all that more treacherous. What might have been a fun hike in the summer time now turned into a grueling ordeal, until the party found the ledge that supposedly led to the mine. The ledge led around a mountain peak, with a sheer cliff face on the other side. The wind blew extremely strong and the party members had to step carefully to avoid falling into the chasm.
The ledge in question was near the mountain's peak. The other side of the ledge was a sheer cliff face, the bottom of which was lost in the gloaming far below. The ground of the 5-foot-wide shelf was rough and uneven, covered with rubble and rocks, and the treacherous footing was made more dangerous by the presence of an eerie fog that hung over the path. The party managed to avoid falling into the mists below, and soon stepped into an indentation into the mountain side with a long flat area covered with piles of snow.
Near the eastern end of the ledge a small number of gravestones protruded from the mist, each marked with dwarven names (including that of Silas Vekker). Towards the back of this small plateau was what appeared to be the entrance to a mine, and in front of the entrance there appeared to be a snow covered body. The heroes approached cautiously, and Reynard used a Mage Hand to carefully brush away the snow from the body. The corpse still wore its padded armor, but was itself in frightful shape. Not only was it broken and mangled as if it had fallen from a great height, but the body's legs ended in charred, blackened stumps where the feet had been burnt off. There was no doubt this was the body of Karivek Vekker, the one the heroes had been searching for.
The heroes decided to drag the body back down the mountainside to the cabin, but as they attempted to secure the body the ghostly presence of Karivek Vekker was awoken, at which point he flew up into the air to attack. In death, Karivek's mouth was filled with fangs that dripped streamers of blood that faded away to mist before they stuck the ground. Although he was incorporeal, his freezing temperature left a rime of ice across any surface he traveled near - such as by leaving frosty hand prints on walls as he passed through them.
Among the various powers Karivek had gained upon becoming a ghost was an ability to attract and manipulate certain creatures with the cold sub-type. Currently, an enormous frost worm, attracted by Karivek's supernatural control over cold, dwelt in the area and served the ghost as a guardian. The huge beast lay in wait under the packed ice and snow in the middle of the ledge, and erupted from hiding to attack with its breath weapon as soon as it the battle ensued.
The battle was brief but intense. The giant worm soon fell to fire-related spells from Reynard and Selinor, and Stike’s mighty sword and Kheo’s bow soon killed the ghost of Karivek. On Karivek’s brutally mangled body they found a set of +4 Improved Cold Resistance Padded Armor, but as soon as the battle was completed a mysterious howl echoed across the mountain peaks. This same howl had been heard previously when the heroes first approached the cabin. The first howl had sounded like it was far off in the distance, but this one sounded like the echo was right on top of them. A sudden snow storm picked up again, with the snow and gusting winds reducing visibility even further. Seeing few options the party gathered around Reynard and the party – plus the corpse of Karivek Vekker - Teleported back to the safety of Vekker’s cabin.
Upon their their return to the cabin with Karivek's bones a strange sense of calm seemed to fill the structure. Even the howling sounds of the blizzard outside seemed muted and quiet. As soon as the heroes brought in the bones Silas Vekker appeared again, an expression of sadness and forgiveness etched on his face. Yet Karivek was not yet quite ready to accept his brother. The cannibal ghost manifested as well, his bones crumbling to dust and reforming in his ghostly incarnation. The two ghosts silently faced off against each other, seemingly caught in a struggle of wills as wispy strings of ectoplasm and wafts of ghostly presence lashed out and coiled about one another.
As soon as the reconciliation of the brothers began a huge bang was heard, as if a monster outside the cabin was trying to knock down the walls of the sturdy cabin to get in. The banging continued, and the heroes experienced the feeling of someone or something trying to inflict further desires of hunger and cannibalism upon them. The two brothers continued their reconciliation, but Kheo decided it was time for action and sprang through the door and unto the front porch, only to see their nemesis – a Wendigo. This hideous creature had the head of a feral elk with jagged teeth and sharp antlers and its humanoid legs end in blackened, burnt stumps.
Suddenly it became clear to the party what had happened to the Vekker’s. Beings of ancient evil, wendigos were known to haunt the minds of mortals, driving them to desperation and, ultimately, cannibalistic madness. They enjoyed whittling down prey before they struck, often trailing their victims for days, even weeks, as they plagued their victims journeys with nightmares and foul weather. The heroes had inadvertently stepped into the wendigo’s playground, and now the fight was on.
The wendigo’s preferred choice of attack was to grab an opponent, fly into the air with them, have them run in mid-air so strenuously that their legs became blackened stumps, and then drop their victim many hundreds of feet to the ground below to their death. This explained the condition of Karivek’s broken body, but the heroes managed to avoid this fate and soon the wendigo was dead, but not before he had commanded the ghostly Vekker brothers to join him in the attack.
As before the heroes quickly put down the ghostly brothers, only to see the two bodies reconstitute themselves, and their reconciliation begin again. After ten long silent minutes Silas won the silent confrontation with his brother, at which point Karivek's ghost suddenly relaxed and sighed. His teeth returned to normal and his feet grew back before he faded away into nothingness. Silas turned to face the heroes, his expression now at peace but not without an element of sadness. His final words to the heroes before he faded were a warning:
"You have saved my brother. You have saved me. I should reward you by simply taking the path to Xin-Shalast with me into the beyond, yet I sense that you still harbor a desire to see those golden ruins. Very well. Look to the pages of my ledger for the way, and may Torag watch over you in the darkness to come ... "
As he finished speaking Silas faded away as well, and as he did several parchment pages appeared and floated lazily to the ground. These were the missing five pages from Silas's ledger, the ones that provided exacting details on the route to Xin-Shalast. With the brothers now at peace and the Wendigo defeated, the Vekker’s cabin was a good place to rest up and study the directions Silas had left behind.
The first step for the heroes, according to the Vekkers' directions, was to continue traveling up the Kazaron River until they reached the second tributary. The ledger identified this river as the legendary River Avah, yet it also said the winding route between the Kadar Mountains was not one for the faint of heart. There were no banks to walk along and the river itself often rose in cataracts of up to 300 feet in height as it climbed ever higher into the mountains. The waters of the River Avah were freezing cold, yet they themselves never froze. As the heroes followed the river upstream, the air grew thin and the sky a deep blue. When the party reached what they thought was their target they had climbed thousands of feet to a height of just over 15,000 feet above sea level, and the effects of the thinner air began to present themselves. (DM Note: The rules for high altitude effects are included at the end of this post).
Despite following the directions provided by Silas Vekker, the River Avah could not be found. Several additional days were spent as the heroes plodded through the snows trying to find the fabled river, but no clues revealed themselves – no empty river bed, no gaps amongst the hills or trees could be identified, and any magical attempts to find the source failed to reveal the secret as well. Finally in a moment of frustration it was decided to re-read the pages of Silas Vekker’s ledger. In the corner of one of the pages they found the word “fast” and it was decided that perhaps the brothers had ventured too far from home on one of their trips and in their hunger they had accidentally stumbled onto the secret. After the first full day without food a glittering full moon shown down on to a heretofore unseen river bed that led further into the mountains and the heroes continued their advance.
The phantom River Avah led through a partially frozen wetland - the Fen of the Icemists. Once a lake, this region was clogged with silt by several volcanic eruptions at the time of Thassilon's fall, creating this treacherous and unique high-altitude fen. The waters of the Icemists were in a constant state of freezing and thawing, with the mix of high altitude and latent volcanism creating a mist-shrouded frozen region of water and swaths of icy mud. No plants existed in the Ice mists apart from the ever-present stalks of strange pale fungi and clots of floating lichens that covered and hid deep tarns of freezing water - the entire region had about it a chilling aura of frozen menace.
The Fen of the Icemists was riddled with hummocks of solid ground and protruding rocks. The heroes were careful to move through the fen without falling into the water, but doing so required a slow and cautious rate of movement. Once Kheo took a misstep and fell into a hidden pool of slush and went in over his head. The other party members quickly drug him out, only to see the pool quickly freeze over directly behind him.
The Icemists maintained an eerie silence, the whistling of the wind being the only noise present. No chirping of birds, no furry creatures jumping in and out of the water, and no sounds of animals scooting through the feeble underbrush. The party did spot what appeared to be an otter that stood on a far hummock, its gaze intense upon the party as they crept past through the treacherous fen. Later an owl was spotted, its gaze too never leaving the party as they continued their slog through the half-frozen swamp. The presence of these two creatures only further highlighted the otherwise barren nature of the fen.
Suddenly a creature appeared in front of them, a beautiful elven woman with long dark hair, pale purple skin, and exaggerated ears and limbs. The icy nymph introduced herself as Svevenka. She stated she was quite well aware of who the party members were, and expressed that she had a pretty good guess as to why they were here in her fen. She further explained that Selinor still carried her cousin’s Myriana’s inspiration. She had learned of her cousin’s death back in the swamps near Fort Rannick and her fey contacts had told her of the heroes role in putting the tortured Myriana’s soul to rest.
Svevenka warned the party that all was not right in the region, and that they would do best to avoid traveling farther north. For one thing, the city of Xin-Shalast and the mountain of Mhar Massif stood at a point that closely interacted with a foreign plane named Leng. The heroes reported they had been feeling a sense of wrongness about them as they had continued north, and Svevenka explained that was the magic of Leng leaching through to this plane. Leng was something the party had read about in the ancient Thassilonian library underneath Jorgenfist, but its relationship to Karzoug or to Thassilon had never truly been explained.
When the conversation turned to Xin-Shalast and the desire to confront Karzoug the nymph grew thoughtful and perhaps a bit excited. While she did not wish to leave her beloved Icemists unprotected, she volunteered her aid and told the party that this place could be a safe harbor for them if they wished. She also agreed to put her spells at their disposal. Svevenka knew quite a bit about the region, and when the heroes asked for advice she was able warn them about the giants, lamias, and abominable snowmen that had recently been seen streaming north and now dwelt in Xin-Shalast.
She also warned them about the occluding field that surrounded Mhar Massif's peak. She suspected that the denizens of Xin-Shalast had created the field to protect it and that they must have some magical method of protecting themselves from the field, but these were merely guesses on her part. She also thought whatever magic was needed to get past the occluding field would also allow the creature to survive at the great height of the mountains peak where the lack of oxygen would otherwise incapacitate a normal creature. She knew little of Leng, but expressed the opinion that there must be a reason that Karzoug had built his castle home there.
Svevenka also stated that not all of the city’s residents may not necessarily be enemies. She told the party about Xin-Shalast's skulks - descendants of the city's original citizens that still lived still in the city's ruins. Svevenka knew there were two factions among the skulks - the relatively peaceful (and less powerful) "Spared" and the vampiric minions of the Hidden Beast, a creature with whom Svevenka has fought before. She expressed a doubt that the heroes would actually be able to find a member of the Spared, but she had little doubt the Spared would be able to find them. She further expressed there may be others within Xin-Shalast that may be willing to help, as the possible return of Karzoug and the rise of a new Thassilon empire may not something that was universally welcomed by all within the hidden city.
Svevenka provided several tokens of thanks to the party for their assistance: a +3 Dagger, Headband of Inspired Wisdom +2, Ring of Force Shield, and a Ring of Major Fire Resistance. Svevenka also safely guided the heroes through the remaining area of the fen until the waters were joined by an ancient road paved with flat stones that had a faint sheen of gold to them. The nymph stated this road continued north to Xin-Shalast - from this point on the party had a physical route to follow and need no longer depended upon the phantom waters of the Avah. The road itself was 100 feet wide, and while its surface had occasional patchy swaths of ice, it provided a welcome flat surface upon which to travel.
And we’ll pick it up there next time. For tonight’s effort the party earned 108,450 XP, giving them (731,550 + 108,450) 840,000 XP earned so far, with 890,000 XP required to reach Level 16. The rules for the effects of High Altitude (Core Rulebook, Pg 430) are as follows:
Low Peak or High Pass (5,000 to 15,000 feet): Ascending to the highest slopes of low mountains, or most normal travel through high mountains, falls into this category. All non-acclimated creatures labor to breathe in the thin air at this altitude. Characters must succeed on a Fortitude save each hour (DC 15, +1 per previous check) or be fatigued. The fatigue ends when the character descends to an altitude with more air. Acclimated characters do not have to attempt the Fortitude save.
High Peak (more than 15,000 feet): The highest mountains exceed 15,000 feet in height. At these elevations, creatures are subject to both high altitude fatigue (as described above) and altitude sickness, whether or not they’re acclimated to high altitudes. Altitude sickness represents long-term oxygen deprivation, and affects mental and physical ability scores. After each 6-hour period a character spends at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, he must succeed on a Fortitude save (DC 15, +1 per previous check) or take 1 point of damage to all ability scores. Creatures acclimated to high altitude receive a +4 competence bonus on their saving throws to resist high altitude effects and altitude sickness, but eventually even seasoned mountaineers must abandon these dangerous elevations.