Morn creeps slowly and quietly through the bright, snowy glade. He weaves his way between all manner of forest animals and cautiously approaches the odd stone that matches John Birch‘s description. As he passes the beasts Morn notices that the life and light is gone from their eyes. They seem nothing more that soulless husks as they stand enthralled by the stone. Morn continues on, ever more curious to discover more about this strange artifact. As he approaches nearer he notices that the sun lit glade grows dimmer and dimmer, the light seemingly devoured by the stone. And then the rogue’s vision goes dark and he is struck by momentary paralysis. A vision overwhelms Morn’s mind:
“The room is dark but for the dim moonlight that trickles through the window, filtered by the driving snow beyond. A young child, a girl, sobs into her mother’s shoulder as they sit upon a small bed. The woman trembles in terror as she holds her daughter close, covering her small ears against that terrible sound. The father sits in the darkness nearby his hands covering his face, covering his tears. He tries to pretend that the shrieking outside is just the howling winter wind, but he knows that he lies to himself. The thought, that he would be powerless to protect his family should that unnameable thing shriek for them, overwhelms him.”
Through sheer force of will, Morn drives the sickening and oppressive evil from his mind. His sight and faculties returned, Morn looks about the glade only to see the creatures all looking directly at him. A light now fills their eyes, a light of seething and boundless hatred.
Shaiah, concerned by Morn’s boldness, enters the glade and slowly follows his path toward the stone, spear at the ready. Her alarm grows as she notices Morn stop suddenly in his tracks, unnaturally frozen in place. It lasts but a moment before Morn comes to and spins around in alarm, taking stock of his surroundings. The party notices some of the more dangerous animals starting to move, their anger focused on Morn and Shaiah.
The rogue backs away from the stalking timber wolves as he slowly draws the gleaming blade of his rapier. The predators bare their teeth with a snarl and leap to the attack. With a flash of steel, Morn cuts down the first wolf in a spray of crimson. He looks back to see the other two closing the distance with alarming speed.
One of the elk rushes at Shaiah, its antlers lowered as it attacks. The halfling leaps aside but cannot avoid a sharp tine from cutting a deep gash into her side. Her teeth gritted in pain, Shaiah jabs her spear and pierces the elk’s flank. The druid’s heart flares in anger at the evil power that forced her hand into injuring this innocent beast. As the elk rears up, shrieking in pain and surprise, Shaiah notices the red glow of anger flee from the beast’s eyes. It turns away in fear, limping out of the glade and into the forest.
Taelin advances into the glade, crouched low to keep his profile small. Arrows nocked, the ranger raises his bow, sending missiles whistling into the glade. Neela clambers up the nearest tree and takes stock of the erupting battlefield. The sorceress pulls on her inner fire and sends a hail of golden streaks raining down upon the attacking animals. The giant badger and the remain elk flee into the forest after the assault breaks them from the dark power that held them in thrall. The mountain lion she injured only appears angrier however. Before she can rejoice in her success her eyes grow wide as she notices the massive boar barreling down the incline directly for her tree.
The squealing beast rams its rock-hard skull into the tree, sending a shower of snow exploding from the branches. Neela barely manages to keep her grip and avoid tumbling from the safety of the tree. The boar looks up at the sorceress with hatred in its eyes, letting out a terrible shrieking roar. Its cry is cut short however, as Balasar‘s sword crashes down upon it. The charging two-handed slash cleaves the beast in two, the gout of blood and viscera steaming in the chill winter air. The dragonborn silently flicks the boar’s blood from his blade and looks up just in time to see Morn’s foolhardy bravado in stark display. The thief rushes the remaining wolves only to be quickly overcome by the beasts’ slavering and merciless jaws. Shaiah rushes to his aid.
Taelin leaps up the low ridge toward the center of the glade, arrows flying and finds himself face to face with the hissing mountain lion, a feathered shaft protruding from its side. The great cat rakes at the ranger with its claws.
Neela expends the last of her more powerful magic, felling more of the beasts with bolts of magical energy. She leaps from the low branches and cautiously approaches the violent skirmish. Shaiah culls power from her nature bond and pours healing energy into Morn’s torn and bleeding body. Morn is pulled from the clutching grasp of death and returns to consciousness. The remaining wolf, and final threat, puts itself into a position to defend the strange stone as if it were a den of newborn cubs. Taelin’s arrows spur it into action and it charges the ranger. It’s leaping bite sinks deep and the two tumble to the earth with a crash. Shaiah’s spear fells the wolf before it can seal the ranger’s fate and Balasar uses his holy power to bring Taelin back from the brink.
With all immediate threats dealt with, the party catches its breath and turns their attention to the odd, carved artifact that brought them here. Morn presses his luck and approaches close. He lays his hand on the stone. It sets his skin to crawling and seems to cover him with an oppressive pall of hate and fear. Shaiah joins him and finds herself overwhelmed by a new vision:
“A boy trudges through the ankle-deep snow that covers the rolling and rocky slopes of the Lortmil foothills. The sheep, his charges, surround him, pawing through the snow, grazing on the preserved, autumn forage. But, the boy’s gaze is ever drawn toward that soot-black bastion nestled within those dark, snow-dusted crags of the looming mountain. Who built that terrible, broken citadel? For what purpose? What crawls and slumbers within? All questions he’s asked himself a thousand times before. With as many different answers lurking within his daydreams and nightmares. ‘Lorne, Lorne! By the gods… LORNE!’ Comes a distant call. The boy is suddenly broken from his reverie.
‘Er… uh… yes father?’
‘What in Nerull’s frozen hell do you think your doing?!’ Growls the man through his thick, frost-caked beard as he pushes forward with the aid of his shepherd’s crook. ‘Your sheep are wandering and that idiot dog is giving me a headache.’
Lorne looks over at the hound, who barks and howls uncontrollably at the dark treeline in the distance. The boy walks over an kneels next his faithful sheep dog. He pulls her close, worried by her strange behavior. ’What’s wrong girl?’ He whispers. ‘What is it?’ The trembling hound calms to a whimper and buries her nose into his furs. And then he hears it, carried high on the thin mountain air, sharp as a razor. An almost inaudible keening that chills his blood like a bitter, winter gale. And it seems to come from all around, from every direction. But, Lorne is not fooled. He pulls his friend closer and imagines what stalks just beyond the edge of that dark and twisted wood, ready to emerge onto those fields of pure, white snow.”
The paralyzing vision threatens to consume Shaiah, but the halfing manages to drag herself away from that dark precipice. The druid steels herself against the awful pressure of fear that emanates from the stone and examines it more closely. An image is graven into it surface. An asymmetrical countenance composed of unfathomable shapes and strange whorls that seem to defy earthly geometries. She thinks back to John Birch’s description and his unfounded certainty that the image is of a living being that waits just beyond the veil of this world. This artifact must be some sort of magical anchor and siphon that pulls in energy. Perhaps in aid of whatever creature is depicted upon the stone. Shaiah steps away and Taelin advances. A vision descends upon him:
“The hunter’s heart pounds and his breath comes in short, shallow gasps as he cowers. The thing claws at the bark of the tree above and pulls. It can taste his fear. The hunter clutches his skinning knife in a tremor wracked fist and when he thinks of what he had seen through the trees, his mind reels. The thing slithers upward weaving its way through the branches. It needs his fear.
‘A hunters’ blind is supposed to protect the hunter,’ he silently mouths, repeating it uselessly over and over, as if it would save him from the inevitable. And then he see it, pulling and pouring itself into the blind, as inconceivable and obscene as a madman’s nightmare. The hunter screams.”
The half-elf drives the evil back, the hunter’s terror still lingering in the dark recesses of his mind. The ranger backs away and gives the dragonborn a look of caution as the paladin strides ahead. The strange visions assail Balasar the same as the others and he finds himself seeing through the eyes of a hound sniffing around the dark, night-time streets of a village. Before long the hound comes upon the scent and sound of a prowling alien presence that fills the animal with terror. It attempts to flee, but too late. Finally, Neela approaches. The sorceress finds herself peering from the second story window of a windmill. The steady and familiar creaking of the mill’s blades, calmly turning in the cold, winter breeze, can be heard in the background. The dark edge of the forest looms in the near distance below and from the shadows between the moonlit boles a set of piercing, emerald eyes appear. The glowing malevolent slits are filled with hate and seem to drive fear into her like a frozen blade. The pain and terror overcomes Neela’s will and as she tries to tear herself away from the vision she finds herself plunged into a sea of impenetrable darkness with only those terrible, sickly green eyes amid the void. Stricken with blindness, she stumbles and collapses only to be caught by her friends. They hold her close and try to abate the coming torrent of panic.
A consensus is quickly reached and the only option is that the stone be destroyed. Shaiah calls upon a powerful thunderwave that cracks the stone, blasting it from its position. Hundreds of birds amid the surrounding forest canopy explode into the air as the resounding thunderclap startles them from their hypnotic reverie. The sky darkens momentarily as the avian swarm gains its bearings and dissipates into the sky. Where the stone once rested is a pattern of precious stones carefully arranged into precise geometrical patterns. Shaiah collects them. Balasar sprays the stone with his caustic breath weapon and a final blow from the druid’s spear destroys the stone for good. It releases a blast of negative energy as it is rent asunder, sending Shaiah flying backward. But, the deed is done and the glade is once again returned to unfettered peace. The enthralled animals flee back into the forest and underbrush.
With the stone’s destruction, Neela’s vision returns with time. The party starts back toward Ebonton. During the trek back, Shaiah can’t help but find her gaze ever drawn toward the shadow cloaked crags and crevasses of the Lortmil mountain range to the south. She can just barely make out the dark spires rising from a citadel, nestled amid the tall peaks.
Before long, the party arrives back at the village, exhausted from battle. As they enter the Leaky Barrel tavern they are met by a very old man(at least seventy, perhaps in his eighties) who is pushed in a finely crafted wheelchair. He introduces himself as Edwin Gullheim, owner and proprietor of the tavern. He thanks the party members for their hand in preventing the watchman, Grun, from killing a patron in his establishment. Edwin notifies the party that mayor Gilvar Fenwick has scheduled a town meeting for the late evening. The party rests until the meeting and Edwin orders his chefs to prepare a grand meal for them.
Night falls and the party notices dark clouds, full to bursting, roll in from the east. Flurries have already started and the party hurries to the town hall. They arrive to find nearly all of the town’s adults gathered. Mayor Gilvar, attended by the town’s sheriff, calms the crowd and speaks.
“‘I thank you all for gathering here today so that we may discuss recent events. As we are all aware, a great evil has descended upon our humble village and has taken the bravest and most innocent of our numbers. This dark force is remorseless and without mercy. It hunts and stalks us. And I know why. We have, all of us, sinned. Each in our own way, in our hearts if nothing else. We’ve brought this terror, this punishment, upon ourselves and we must all repent. When you all retire to your homes tonight, each of you, prostrate yourselves before Nerull. Confess your sins! Pray and beg for forgiveness and perhaps we may find redemption in the eyes of the gods who have forsaken us.’
A murmur pours from the crowd. A look of dejected hopelessness is upon nearly every face. Tears and wails of despair erupt from some villagers and others have already sunk to their knees, shouting out to Nerull for forgiveness.”
A stout man, with a clean shaven head and clad in the silver-on-green vestments of a cleric of St. Cuthbert, steps from the crowd. He turns toward the gathering and introduces himself as Oromund Pell. He and his acolytes arrived in the town just a few days prior and the party recognizes his entourage as the man and half-elf woman from the previous night in the tavern. Oromund addresses the crowd.
“‘I beseech you all to be calm. Your good mayor is wise and speaks truthfully about the pall of sin that has spread like an infection throughout your village. Judgment is at hand and the gods shall exact the punishment we all deserve. For that we should all be thankful. But, the gods are wise and not without mercy. Your despair gains you and the gods nothing and only serves to make them ever more bitter and uncaring toward your plight. Seek the light and wisdom of St. Cuthbert. Only through your devotion and obedience, shall this hateful wickedness be driven from your lands. Of this you can be assured.’”
The party speaks up and tries to reason with the town’s people. They explain what they found in the chanting glade and try to convince the people that a real and concrete threat works against them. The crowd is impervious to reason however and turns on our heroes. John Birch steps forward, anger on his face.
“’I’ve had enough of this! Enough of all of it!” John Birch steps forward from the crowd. His face is red and his jaw tight with anger. ‘It isn’t our sins that are killing us. It wasn’t your or my sins that put young Lorne in an early grave before his thirteenth summer. If that’s something you believe then you’re crazy or stupid or both. We need to take action and defend ourselves!’”
The crowd seems to take some stock in his words. And then, the doors to the hall open. Zarah the Blind Mystic enters, cane in hand, and walks to the front of the room. John takes her by the arm and she turns to address the people.
“Zarah gazes blindly at the crowd. ‘This evil is flesh and blood. It rends us with tooth and claw and your prayers will not stop it. Only the strong sword-arm and the potent spell will lay low this malevolent force.’”
A renewed anger spreads through the crowd. There seems to be an inherent distrust among the people for Zarah. John raises his voice once again.
“‘And I’ve seen some of you around the village. Acting strange, like you’re not the same people I’ve known for decades. People I’ve seen grow from mere babes into good men and women. I’ll not point fingers, but you know who you are. The people you were would never let our village fall so far and let all this come to pass without action. I can only hope, from the bottom of by soul, that you’re not involved in all of this. Hope is a rare commodity these days however.’
‘A bold and disturbing accusation Mister Birch,’ says the Cleric of St. Cuthbert. ‘More disturbing however is your casual disregard of the divine powers that obviously protect you and your family. You seem to take more stock and trust in this… godless mystic.’”
The crowd is firmly on the side of Oromund. Tempers grow heated and accusations fly from the crowd at Zarah. Taelin takes charge and moves to escort the mystic from the town hall. A townsman even tries to accost Zarah, though the ranger is easily able to thwart his attempt.
Before the pair can exit, the doors of the hall burst open. A haggard woman, greatly distressed, stumbles inside.
“‘Help! Please! She’s gone. I-it took her! Oh, gods please! My baby is gone.’”