Bardoc wrestled with Thunderhoof, the son of his one-time closest companion, until both centaurs were exhausted and it appeared only a stalemate would be achieved. The Karameikans watched from a respectful distance, none willing to intervene in this duel of honour. At last Bardoc emerged victorious.
Journey to Alfheim - Part Two
Vasily and Lana stepped forward to reason with the centaur, recalling his former glory days and his once-unquestionable allegiance to the Forest and its inhabitants. Ever so slowly, Bardoc's demeanour became subdued. Realising what a wretch he had become and hanging his head in shame he sought to retreat, yet Thunderhoof cantered after the departing ex-hero vowing never to return to the Canolbarth unless it was with a reformed Bardoc by his side.
Now that the elven steeds had been safeguarded, the centaurs proved true to their word and set the party on a trail bound for Desnae, even escorting them part of the way. Once the centaurs took their leave, the party arrived at an area of the forest where the enormous tree trunks were surrounded by impenetrable black thickets, stinging nettles and deep ditches. Looking upward, rope bridges could be seen linking platforms which had been fixed to some of the trees. It seemed the party had reached Desnae at last. Invoking a Fly spell Lana floated up to one of the platforms but was met with hostility by the elves who turned out to belong to the Mealidel clan, and would not tolerate an outsider's presence in their domain. Lana made her apologies and descended to the forest floor.
Travelling on the party encountered Dominicus Greybeard, a wandering cleric of the Church of Thyatis. He was tending the wounds of an injured vixen. The elderly priest bid the companions take a wooden box to Carlisan, Counsellor to the Clanmaster of the Chossum Clan, as payment of an old debt. Unable to overcome their curiosity, the companions peeked inside the box, which was not locked, and glimpsed costly gems within.
Desnae at last
Reaching Desnae a few days later the party was surprised to discover that unlike other elven settlements the Chossum clanseat was mostly at ground level. The trunks of the mighty oaks were surrounded by warehouses and taverns, with only a few dwellings nestling among the upper branches. Meeting with Carlisan, the right-hand man of the Chossum Clanleader, the companions found this elf to be pleasant initially, though evidently shrewd and a keen businessman. It seemed that once Carlisan had assured himself of the party's good favour his attention turned to more pressing matters. In any event the elf recalled that Valen Karameikos had passed through recently, in the company of a female elf by the name of Damareen. They had headed east toward the area known as Selinar, where the great elven lakes were to be found. If the party were to stand any chance of catching up with the young nobleman (whose progress was after all being directed by one of the native forest-folk) they would need to enlist the services of a seasoned tracker.
The party agonised for a while before embarking for Alfheim Town aboard rafts piloted by a dwarven crew. After a brief rest they set out east, guided by an experienced woodsman from the Grunalf clan. Here the party gained an addition in the form of Adriana Karameikos, hot on the party's heels having set out from Karameikos a few days earlier but having followed the less-direct road from Darokin City instead of embarking through the wilderness as the party had done.
Run-in with Clan Longrunner
Trekking through the eastern area of Alfheim the party was ambushed by one 'Flamefists', the agressive leader of a Longrunner scout patrol. On pain of death he ordered the companions to turn away from their current quest, which would only lead them closer to the twisted magic point commonly referred to as Stalkbrow.
Flamefists was angered by the party's insistence that they be granted access to Stalkbrow; he evidently believed the outsiders did not know what manner of foe they would encounter. The party professed their concern for young Valen and their willingness to do whatever they could to weaken this malevolent force within the Longrunner borders. Finally the party was allowed to meet with a second Longrunner patrol, made up of elven wizards and human druids, who briefed the party on what lay ahead and what they might expect.
Just as the party had experienced areas of beneficial and almost playful magic within the Canolbarth Forest, they had learned that balance needed to be maintained. Dragontree was considered a point of bad magic, from which monsters such as dragons and displacer beasts would periodically escape. Stalkbrow was said to be the worst of the 'bad' magic points since its magic manifested in ways which were less obvious than Dragontree. The emanations of Stalkbrow were rumoured not to attack men's bodies, but their minds.
Heading onward with the blessing (more or less) of the Longrunner clan the party camped one night on the shore of one of the great lakes but noticed a mist rolling toward them, from off the waters of the lake. They attempted to run but were enveloped in the rolling fog. When their vision cleared they had re-appeared on a vast, unremarkable plain of grey landscape. The sky overhead was empty and featureless. Suitably unnerved they had little choice but to head toward the only feature they could see - a castle some distance away. As they neared the peculiar construction they noticed that one side of the building was made of smooth polished stone, while the other was jagged natural rock. Inside they met with Olmundvar, the Watcher, who explained that the party had chanced upon a magical vortex to find themselves here on the 'Observatory', a place created by the forces of Neutrality between the Prime and Ethereal planes, to monitor the world of men. To demonstrate, he bid the party gaze into a great scrying pool, the waters of which showed the forces of Thyatis and Alphatia amassing to wage war on the Isle of Dawn, where the party had recently rescued Karnus' sister from Thyatian slavers. The focus of the current conflict was a heavily fortified castle, under siege from a vast army bearing banners of white fabric depicting a spray of rainbow colour. As the companions watched, the keep's outer defences were breached and the triumphant army surged inside.
After viewing this scene the Watcher bid the heroes depart quickly lest they be trapped in this strange dimension and fail in their quest to save Valen Karameikos. The heroes took turns exiting via a set of great double doors. In doing so they felt themselves being affected and changed forever by the opposing forces of Law and Chaos. One by one they emerged on the branch of one of the great trees, unmistakeably back in Alfheim. A swarm of flying lizards descended and the party was obliged to react in self-defence. When the battle ended, it became clear that not all was as it should be. Threy was missing.
As much as the companions were concerned about what had become of the surly cleric, they could not waste time as Stalkbrow was not far off and Valen's rescue was imminent. Within only hours of trekking onward the party emerged onto a flat plain devoid of trees, miles wide, in the middle of which two giant hills stood in the image of a furrowed brow. Most unnervingly the hills appeared to be moving toward the party. Within minutes the earthen mounds reared up before the party - a pair of enormous evil-looking eyes glaring down upon their tiny forms. A heartbeat later the hills morphed into a giant hand and engulfed the party. Without exception their minds blacked out.
As they regained consciousness the companions' surroundings appeared transparent and insubstantial. A hazy figure stood cloaked before them. This entity introduced itself as the spirit of Stalkbrow. It claimed to have been awoken by the cries of a small clan who had been rejected by their fellow faerie folk. Lana cringed as on cue around a hundred wood imps (such as she had battled in the Dymrak Forest weeks before) emerged from nooks and hollows in the hillside. The spirit had fed and grown from the malice within these creatures' hearts. Similarly, the spirit revealed that it held prisoners. Throwing open its cloak, the outlines of human and elven forms could be seen writhing in chains of shadow, unable to escape, each bound to the spirit by grievances and petty hatreds. Among the prisoners was Valen, his face contorted in anguish. Adriana cried out upon spying her brother and demanded that the spirit relinquish its captives.
The spirit laughed defiantly and grew larger, the young woman's resentment providing it sustenance. It accused Vasily of harbouring hatred for the Thyatian invaders and humanoids which infested his homeland. Karnus and Lana allegedly held mutual distrust and jealously for one another's magical prowess, while Drewen was accused of harbouring resentment that his companions viewed him as a mere fighting machine. The spectre addressed each party member in turn, claiming that the hatred they each bore but fought to conceal meant not one of them stood any chance of defeating the powerful spectre. All but one however. Turning its attention upon Betula the spirit was unable to find any trace of negativity within the young dryad's soul. Recoiling in an outward show of hate and fear the spirit called for its minions. A dozen undead elves ascended the hill, each cloaked in darkness and bearing blazing red spheres in their hands. The spirit howled with delight and bid its Wyrds focus their attacks on Betula.
Read the next instalment - Showdown at Stalkbrow
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