The town’s woman collapses in the entry way of the town hall, exhausted and panicked. The cold and snow from the growing storm outside swirls and howls into the packed and silent room. Morn immediately recognizes her from his vision and whispers as much to his companions. A man then breaks through the stunned crowd and rushes to the woman’s side. John Birch identifies the two as Becka and Victor Hollen. Their young daughter, and only child’s name is Cleeah.
A rising murmur of panic spreads throughout the gathered town’s folk. Sheriff, Ethryk Gullheim, steps forward and calls for calm, asking Becka to explain what’s happened. She says she was at home with Cleeah and that she heard a commotion coming from her daughter’s room. There was the sound of splintering wood, an unearthly screeching and a child’s scream cut ominously short. She rushed into the bedroom to find Cleeah gone and the latched shutters smashed and scoured. She called out her daughter’s name and looked out the window but could see nothing through the dark and the snow. She then rushed to the town hall for help. Ethryk tells everyone to quickly return to their homes, but calls upon a dozen or so to remain. They head for the Hollen home to investigate.
Our heroes follow but remain out of sight. Eventually they come upon the home and find the crowd gathered around the torn and smashed shutters. The ranger, Taelin, then notices unusual tracks leading away from the Hollen home. They’re unlike any tracks he’s ever seen and seem to be heading north into the forest. The party then hears the sheriff organizing his men and women in groups and tells them where they should each start their search. The party sets out ahead of them and follows the tracks into the northern wood. After a short while of tracking Taelin cannot help but be suspicious of how easy the tracks are to follow. There seems to be no effort to cover signs of passing and the tracks even seem to take a slower but easy-to-follow route through the wild growth. The party grows more cautious and soon comes upon another sign. A child’s toy, a stuffed owl, lies next to the tracks, slightly dusted with snow. They must be close.
The party picks up the pace and soon catches up with their quarry.
“Suddenly, ahead, you see something half-buried in the snow. A dark burlap sack, bulging and motionless. Just behind it, obscured by the shadows, is a dark figure, clad in a dirty, yellow cloak. You notice an unnatural, undulating movement beneath its robes and the slits of its eyes burn with a sickly emerald radiance from the darkness under its hood. It beckons you forward with a motion of its long, skeletal claws.”
Our heroes call out, asking what it wants. The creature responds in a tortured and rasping voice. “We want… you to die… in terror… in agony.”
“It lets out a hissing and derisive chuckle as it drifts backwards, fading into the shadows. And emerging from the driving snow are five robed, humanoid figures. Upon their faces are hideous ebony masks, fashioned into various demonic visages. The steel of their blades flash in the torch light.”
The party rushes into battle, their enemies barely visible through the roaring blizzard. Arrows whistle as they fly through the dark, magical energy crackles and steel rings against steel. In what seems to be but an instant, the dark cultists lie bleeding in the snow. The burlap sack is opened and young Cleeah is revealed. She is unconscious though appears relatively unharmed physically. The young girl is revived and it is obvious that her memories of this night and the creature that spirited her away will be carried with her for years to come. Her stuffed owl is returned and seems to bring her some modicum of peace.
One by one the cultists are unmasked. They are villagers of Ebonton, men and women seen about the town, though none whom the party has had close contact with. And finally the mask of the final cultist is lifted. Victor Hollen’s skin is pale and the snow beneath him drinks greedily of his life’s blood, but he lives. His eyes are glassy and struggle to focus but are still filled with hate and cruelty. “My life for his vile darkness, the blood of my blood for Gholyameth…” he croaks and rasps his final words through clenched, bloody teeth. His body then breathes its last and lies still, collecting the heavy flakes of the storm.
The cold is biting and saps our heroes’ strength. They realize that they could be in serious trouble as they stand in the middle of the forest during a terrible blizzard. Cleeah is bundled up and the party follows Taelin’s lead as the ranger attempts to navigate through the dark woods and back to Ebonton. Before long the party emerges from the tree line and into the fields of the village. They trudge and push the final distance through the fresh, knee-deep snow. Looking back they see the torches of the returning members of Ethryk’s search party in the distance; far fewer than had originally set out however.
“You stumble back into the village, freezing and exhausted. The worst of the storm has passed but the wind and snow still howl through the valley. The sign in front of the Leaky Barrel dances madly on its chains and the door bursts open. Lani Birch runs out into the cold. ’He’s gone,’ her voice is filled with stress and anger and her face is a mask of hopelessness. ‘They took him!’”
The party attempts to calm Lani down and asks her what happened. They make for the Birch workshop and Lani relays the events of past few hours along the way. It seems as though the stress of recent events have pushed the villagers to the breaking point. They organized into a mob shortly after the search party left and came upon the workshop demanding the family turn Zarah over. They called her a witch and a demon, accusing her of bringing this calamity upon Ebonton. After the John Birch’s adamant refusal to release her the mob forced its way in and took Zarah by force. The blind mystic was dragged to the town hall and was mere seconds away from swinging from gallows when Oromund Pell and his acolytes came upon the scene. The cleric of St. Cuthbert seized control of the maddened crowd and rebuked them for their hubris. He told them that it was not their place to judge Zarah’s fate. But, that it was the purview of the gods. In their shame they acquiesced. Taking charge of the mystic, Oromund told the crowd that Zarah would be taken up the mountain pass to the abandoned convent of Istus, where the goddess of fate would judge her. Pushing his way through the throng John Birch cursed Oromund, saying that entering the convent defenseless was a guarantied death sentence. In a final fit of frustration and hopelessness John struck the cleric and made a quickly foiled attempt to rescue Zarah. The acolytes subdued the old man and after Oromund picked himself up off the ground he decreed that John would join the wizened mystic in the convent for judgment. There was nothing John’s children could do and soon the clerics were mounted along with their bound prisoners, heading for the mountain pass.
The party arrives at the workshop to find a sobbing and inconsolable Nathaniel along with the brooding Adlyn. Our heroes pledge to rescue Zarah and their father and agree to not openly reveal their knowledge of the cult that exists among the town’s people. Lani pries up the few boards of a hiding place and pulls out an exquisitely crafted hunter’s shortbow. She gives it to the party, saying that her father crafted it shortly after the troubles started and had Zarah enchant it with some sort of mystical power. She says that it is the finest weapon John has ever made and would be most useful in the hands of heroes.
The party gives their thanks and sets out in pursuit after gathering their gear from the inn. Just before they begin their ascent though, the party notices someone has been following them. They call out to the darkness and Grun, the town watchman, reveals himself. He says that he witnessed the party’s battle with the cultists and examined the aftermath. He trusts the party and seeks to help them in anyway he can. The party agrees to let Grun follow and begin the journey with an extra sword-arm at their side. The way up the pass is treacherous and frustratingly slow in the wake of the waning storm, coupled with the dark of night. Hours pass and before long a pair of torches can be seen winding down the pass toward the party. Oromund and his two acolytes approach. Their prisoners are nowhere to be seen. Shaiah and Balasar waylay the trio as the other party members hide behind a rocky outcropping nearby. Oromund demands the two stand aside and allow them passage. The halfling refuses, accusing them of bringing strife and panic to the already oppressed village and for potentially murdering the two innocent people they left in the convent. The cleric claims that Zarah and John will be judged fairly by Istus and that they shall only die by her will. Shaiah’s hot heart gets the better of her and she launches an attack. The paladin takes a stance of non-violence and moves to shield the halfling from retaliation. The clerics’ divine magic is strong however and the companions agree to a temporary truce. Oromund and his followers pass with a final warning against entering the convent or crossing their paths again.
Our heroes catch their breaths and soon continue up the pass once again.
“Your winding and treacherous path up the mountain has come to an end. The convent now stands before you. It is a towering ruin of dark gray stone built into the mountain side, pressed upon from all sides by massive snow drifts. Age and neglect have broken what was once a true feat of architecture and artistry. You notice a set of great double doors that appear to be the only proper entrance. They stand wide open and the darkness beyond seems to beckon.”
What evil waits beyond the threshold? And will our heroes find John and Zarah alive within?