“You stir from your slumber, still sore from the days of hard travel, yet well rested due to the solid roof above and warm bed below. As you open your eyes and begin to stretch you notice that the room is much darker than it should be. You remember not pulling the curtains last night and the morning sun should be pouring into the room, bright and warm. Your gaze flits towards the window to find the sun blocked by a creature’s humongous head. It surveys the room with curiosity, it’s gigantic eyes wide and searching beneath its thick and pronounced brow-ridge.”
Balasar wakes to find this giant of a creature surveying the room. His companions, Shiah and Taelin are fast asleep. The halfling is curled up on the wide window sill beneath the humongous brute’s gaze and the ranger sleeps on the floor, his back against the rooms only door. Thankfully, the dragonborn paladin has studied many of the wicked beasts that roam the wilds of Oerik and recognizes this one as an ogre.
He notices that this ogre is different however. This one lacks the physical scarring that invariably comes with the hard and dangerous life among the ogre tribes of the wild. He also seems relatively clean and well groomed. Balasar slowly climbs from bed and carefully raises the window. He introduces himself and asks the ogre his name. The creature says that it’s name is Nathaniel and seems friendly enough, if rather simple.
Earlier, Neela wakes in her cold and dim cell to the sound of Grun scrubbing his sick from the flagstones of the hall with a brush and bucket. Soon, Kullman releases her from her cell before escorting her and Grun(who looks terrible) to the Leaky Barrel Tavern. As they approach they notice a townswoman at the well outside the inn pulling water. She turns the crank and when the bucket reaches the top the woman gasps in shock. She lets go of the crank and falls backward in her attempt get away from the object of her fright. The bucket tumbles to the bottom of the well with a splash. Kullman rushes to help the woman and Neela approaches the well to investigate. The sorceress turns the crank and when the bucket rises above the lip of the well she can’t help but notice a man’s pale, severed head floating there, a look of indescribable horror upon his face. Kullman curses under his breath when he sees. Grun approaches, demanding to know what they’ve found. Kullman tries to stop him and takes a right hook to the chin for his troubles. Grun shoves past Neela to the bucket. He pulls the head from the water in silence before collapsing to his knees and screaming at the top of his lungs. “DARRRVENNN!”
Presently, Morn, a human, professional thief from the streets of Greyhawk finally arrives in Ebonton after a long and exhausting trip to catch up with his compatriots. He sees the commotion and approaches cautiously.
Grun’s primal scream interrupts Balasar’s and Nathaniel’s conversation.
“The creature’s eyes grow even wider with surprise and what you can only conclude to be fright. It flees from the window with as much speed and grace as its massive size will allow. As it stomps down the street, looking back at the window over its shoulder, it barrels into a cart stacked high with bulging burlap sacks. The cart explodes into a shower of grain and kindling. The creature groans in pain and picks itself up. It limps toward and hides behind a small house perhaps fifty yards down and across the street. You can see it peeking around the corner with terror on its face and the sound of people shouting in surprise and confusion can be heard beneath the floorboards at your feet.”
Balasar rushes out of the room and down the stairs. Taelin leaps from the second story window to the street below. Shaiah decides that rushing at an ogre in nothing but her bedclothes isn’t the wisest of actions and begins to don her armor.
Meanwhile, Grun suddenly bolts toward the treeline of the northern forest with Darven’s head clutched to his chest. Neela gives chase but soon realizes it’s a lost cause. She then rejoins the others, who have made their way down the street to approach Nathaniel the ogre. As they do, Nigel Tunamen, the barkeep of the Leaky Barrel, arrives on the scene with town watchmen(including Jern). He demands justice for his destroyed property calling Nathaniel a menace that should have been driven from the town years ago. The party manages to convince Jern and the other watchmen that there’s no danger. A woman then calls out for the watchmen to leave her brother alone. She is human and of no obvious blood relation to Nathaniel. She says that her family will pay for the damages and that her father will build Nigel a new wagon. Nigel storms off and Jern gives the woman a stern warning to keep a closer eye on Nathaniel. She then introduces herself as Lani Birch and the party tells her that they’ve come in response to her family’s call for help.
She leads the party to her father’s workshop.
“Lani leads you through a large sliding door and you enter a wide spacious work shop that smells of sawdust and lacquer. Chairs, tables, wagon wheels, mugs, yokes, the shafts of spears and axes and countless other items line the walls and shelves of the room. At a work bench stands an elderly man clad in an apron and thick gloves who wields a hammer and chisel. He looks drawn and tired, like he’s been awake for days. ‘I heard all the yelling, what’s the problem now?’”
Lani introduces our heroes to her father, John Birch. Also, they learn that Lani has a younger brother named Adlyn. John begins to detail Ebonton’s recent troubles from his perspective and eventually Lani manages to pressure her father into telling a more personal story of his encounter with the dark forces plaguing the village.
“This was perhaps a month and a half past. Nathaniel and I had gone into the forest to do some logging. We ended up a handful of miles north of the village on the edge of the Misty Fen. I was looking to bring back some willow and alder. We’d not felled more than a couple when I thought I could hear something. I wasn’t sure what it was at first and paid no mind. All manner of bird and beast call the forest home and not a small number of them make strange noises. But, this sound was different. It kept droning on and on. And there seemed to be words to it, though none that I could decipher. If it was a language it certainly wasn’t the common tongue. Nate’s ax had stilled and I could tell that he could hear it too. The boy has a keen ear.
At first, I thought maybe it was fairies or pixies or some other creature of the fey I’d heard stories of when I was a child. But, I soon discounted that theory. It was harsh and ugly and sent a chill through my body despite my heavy furs. I couldn’t tell you why but I made the decision to find the source. There was plenty of work to do and my boy would have rather spent the rest of his life chopping trees than investigate, but I dragged him along anyway. After fifteen or so minutes we were very close and I could see the signs of an open glade ahead. At this point my head was pounding and I felt sick to my stomach. It was louder and I could tell that it was definitely a group chanting and their words seemed to become something more. Something alive and hateful. They seemed to slink through the shadows of the underbrush and slither from branch to branch in the canopy above, watching. And still I press on despite my instincts. We approached quietly and carefully but just before we entered the glade the chanting suddenly stopped. When we emerged from the overgrowth into the glade there was no one. Neither man nor woman or any other creature that would be prone to chant something so vile.
Nate wouldn’t take more than a few steps in and was on the verge of tears so I searched the glade on my own. And, before long I came upon something nearly obscured by a copse of vines and shrubbery. It was a carved stone, old and weathered, the size of a tombstone though roughly hewn. An image was engraved on its exposed surface and what it was I couldn’t say. Only that it was the image of a living thing, with a visage not meant to be witnessed by decent folk. And not a thing that once lived in the past. But, something still alive. Ancient and waiting… I know that sounds like the ravings of an addle-coved old man, but, somehow, I know it’s true and it frightens me in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was a very young lad hiding under his sheets.
The people who are dying, the terror that covers my village like a shroud is connected to it somehow. The full truth and the means to uncover it is beyond me however.”
John suggests that the strange glade might be a good place to begin searching for clues that may shed more light on the darkness. He also suggests that the party approach a seer named Zarah that lives just north of the village. He says that she has had visions related to the recent troubles and that she may be able to aid the party in a multitude of ways.
The party decides to speak to Zarah first.
“You follow a rarely used and overgrown path, eventually entering the light, hilly woods to the south of Ebonton. Soon you come upon a small, quaint hut covered in ivy and crowded by the natural growth that surrounds it. Various woven charms and mystical wards hang from its sills and eves. Smoke pours from a small stone chimney and an odd, though not unpleasant odor, hangs in the air.
You enter the small and cramped abode. The space is strewn with various bowls, vials, small boxes, stoppered gourds and other oddments filled with unknown herbs, oils and powdered substances. Everything seems to have its place though and the hut is relatively clean and tidy despite the sheer volume and variety of objects. A small, smoking hearth fills the hut with warmth and sitting before it is a small, elderly woman. Her wild, pure white hair hangs to her waist and seems to cover her like a cloak as she calmly works a mortar and pestle.”
Our heroes notice that Zarah is blind though she has the disconcerting ability to reveal certain knowledge regarding the party that suggests that she sees in other ways beyond mere sight. Zarah the Mystic speaks very matter-of-factly and tells the party of her visions. She sees villagers stalked by evil and a great massacre of innocents that will come to pass. She speaks of men and women who hide behind hideous masks. A coven that would give their lives to the one who leads them. Finally, she speaks of a strange, malevolent and ancient force that has waited for aeons and dreams darkly as it slumbers just beyond the veil of this reality. It waits for someone to call it home and give it the power to cross the threshold. This is all the warning she can give the party but offers her mystical services and shows off her stock of magical items.
The party thanks her for her time and wisdom before setting off for the village and then the strange glade John Birch spoke of.
“The party enters the dim wilds of the forest, navigating north along the shores of a narrow, icy stream choked with fallen leaves. John Birch leads you expertly through the rough terrain, using his decades of experience navigating this wilderness, the pace is brisk. Soon, you find yourselves approaching the sun washed glade.”
The party slowly makes their way to the edge of the tree line.
“From your vantage point on the edge of the clearing you look upon a serene and beautiful glade who’s snow dusted edge drops sharply into the icy bog of the Misty Fen beyond. It would be a calming view if not for the unsettling scene before you. Near the far side of the glade is a tall, rocky outcropping, slick with gleaming ice. At it’s base, nestled amongst the frosted shrubbery is John Birch’s strange stone, obscured in the shadows. And, standing stock still, with an unnatural and intense focus upon the unusual shrine are dozens of animals indigenous to the mountains and forests of the region. They all stare, their bodies like statues. Squirrels, voles, muskrats and many other small mammals peer from the brush and birds, perched on the bare, skeletal branches above, look on. A handful of beasts are the most worrisome however. A pair of tall elk, a large boar, an unusually massive badger, a sleek mountain lion, far from its den, and a pack of gaunt, gray timber wolves stand transfixed.”
What power holds these creatures in thrall? And how will our heroes approach this unusual dilemma?