Dragonquest to the Altan Tepes
The Keep on the Borderlands
"All ashore that's going ashore!" came the rousing cry from the crew, as the barge pulled in to moor at one side of the narrowing river. The companions awoke to gaze at the trail which led from the path, up onto a long mountain ridge where stood the towering fortress which would serve as their shelter for that first night - Castellan Keep. From the safety of the barge Lana surveyed the bleak and icy wasteland for a long while, then stepped onto the mountain rock. The quest was underway.
With their breath forming swirling clouds of mist, the companions tramped up the trail and passed through the Keep's open gates. Threy had been unable to join the expedition, having enrolled at the weapons school at Bridleton in Thyatis to try and improve his mastery of the mace. Karnus had brought along a newcomer however - a young man named Marcus, a relatively inexperienced magic-user whose travelling companion had disappeared somewhere to the north, by all accounts in the vicinity of the Keep.
Drewen put out a metal-plated arm to stop a young officer who was rushing past, seemingly on a pressing errand. The dwarf enquired about the possibility of lodging within the Keep. His request caused the solider to scratch his head with one hand, as if confused. The arrival of visitors to the Keep seemed uncommon. The youth explained that the Keep hardly ever received guests, situated as it was among such inhospitable frozen peaks. Who were these five in any case? Drewen began customary introductions but after mentioning himself and the young bishop Vasily, the soldier ran to fetch his sergeant. News of the five's exploits had reached even this remote outpost, and every hospitality would be extended to the party for as long as they chose to stay within the Keep's walls.
A while later the five were relaxing in the Keep's tavern. On the morrow they would commence their daunting trek into the mountains. In the meantime, a warm fire was blazing to keep the chill of the outside at bay, and pitchers of ale were strong stuff and cheap - a combination which pleased Drewen greatly. A grizzly old sergeant glanced at the table of adventurers and shook his head, muttering to his comrades - "there goes another band of young hopefuls for the Caves of Chaos..."
"Who might you be referring to?" Lana demanded.
"Yerselves, young novices," came the man's gruff response, drawing on his pipe.
"Oh we're novices indeed," Karnus echoed sarcastically, "considering how we've never ventured outside of Specularum before now."
"Mmm," agreed Lana, "let's hope we don't catch chills. It's nippy out, perhaps we should head home after all." The mages chortled to one another.
Vasily looked solemn, and leaned back in his chair to address the old soldier. "You mentioned caves?"
The caves in question lay to the west and were home to various tribes of humanoids - orcs, goblins and kobolds - who had caused little trouble since clashing with the Keep's forces a few months before. They did however provide a permanent source of adventure for battle-hungry young adventurers. Hearing this, Vasily was typically eager to infiltrate the lair and wage war in Halav's name, but was reminded by his comrades that their primary objective was to recover white dragon scales to help with Lana's spell research. The cleric of Halav crossed his arms in a huff. The Caves would need to wait.
Setting off the next morning, the party trekked north by north-easterly, before falling victim to ambush by a dozen spear-wielding hobgoblins. After the party put on an impressive display of weapon skills, with even the newcomer Marcus managing to singlehandedly fell one of the humanoids, the surviving hobgoblins turned and fled. Later, when surrounded by a pack of dire wolves, it was through use of a Speak with Animals spell that Vasily managed to dissuade the beasts from attacking. Instead the cleric suggested that the recently slain hobgoblins would provide the wolves with an easier meal with less likelihood of injury. Otherwise the party suffered little hardship (besides fatigue and chilled bones) on their ascent into the peaks.
The companions spied a cave opening and decided to investigate. Staring inside, Drewen's infravision discerned the outline of tunnel walls leading into deeper darkness, with a possible hint of red denoting a heat source. It was decided to probe further, therefore Lana struck a spark to the wick of her lantern and the five entered.
Venturing along the tunnel, the five made out a cave ahead but in the blink of an eye there came a disruption and a magical Web sprang into being, barring the way. Startled, the party reached for their weapons and began to mutter among themselves, when a voice was heard from beyond the barrier.
"Turn back!" came the voice, speaking Thyatian with a guttural accent. "You have no place here!"
Drewen swung his torch, and it connected with something unseen. There came a curse in the Hobgoblin tongue and a crude axe fell to the ground, seemingly materialising out of thin air. The party convered a short while with the wokan, who it transpired was living a hermit's existence high in the icy mountains. The hobgoblin's opinion was that a white dragon would find the party sooner than they found it. The wokan's pet, a white-furred wolf named "Icehowl", was said to be away hunting but was to return soon therefore the party decided to depart while the coast was clear.
The blizzard picked up strength and the companions were hard pressed to make progress, as the biting wind blew incessantly in their faces. Marcus was shivering uncontrollably and could feel his strength ebbing. Likewise Karnus gave a sudden cry before stumbling. The blue-robed mage placed a hand to shield his vision but could see no caves nearby which might provide shelter. Frustrated, he intoned an arcane chant over the howl of the gale. A globe of fire erupted a short way off, setting a tall pine tree ablaze and warming the adjacent rock. Once the flames died down, Karnus bid his companions follow his lead and the five huddled by the heated mountainside until the blizzard passed.
The mountain valley ... the follower of Zirchev
The trail led onward, the footing proving treacherous along the way, therefore the party thought it prudent to link themselves using Karnus' enchanted rope of climbing. After a while they made into a pass and located a cluster of stone structures - seemingly small dwellings. A tall, bear-like man with a straggly beard emerged from one of these to speak with Vasily. The burly stranger beckoned the party toward a hut nestled at the foot of two peaks, whose door was carved with a familiar symbol. The same symbol was emblazoned alongside two others on the shield Vasily bore; it having been commissioned by the Church of Traladara to represent its pantheon.
The hut's owner introduced himself as Smurdyakov, a cleric of the Immortal Zirchev whose beliefs and exploits the man extolled at length. The cleric revealed that he had been chosen as guardian of the valley's inhabitants, and told of his recent battle with a white dragon which plagued the outlying territories, and had been known to carry off animals and even humans. The cleric agreed to lead the heroes to the dragon's lair, which he believed was half a day's trek away. The beast's hoard of coins would be of no use to Smurdyakov in the wilderness where he made his home, therefore he was content to let the party take all the treasure if they could vanquish the creature.
After a full morning's march the party arrived at a sheer cliff face, at the top of which an opening could be made out. Karnus' rope of climbing was put to use, and the five companions made their way to the top without difficulty.
Venturing through the opening a short way, the five turned a corner and were dazzled as a single beam of light breaking through the ceiling was reflected by a sea of sheening silver coins. The treasure was guarded however; not just one, but three pairs of eyes surveyed the five individuals with visible curiosity.
The white dragons
The party reeled in surprise - Smurdyakov had told them to expect one dragon, whereas here was a family of three. Presumably their lair had never been disturbed before. Lana's instinctive reaction to reach for her dagger seemed pointless. Attempting to engage the beasts in combat would no doubt prove suicidal. Taking the initiative, she gritted her teeth and bowed before the creatures, speaking aloud to bring the uncomfortable silence to a close:-
"Forgive our intrusion, noble wyrms," Lana called in the Dragon tongue, "and know that we wish you no ill,. We have travelled far in the hope of being granted audience and we beg you to indulge us in the manner we desire."
Her companions were unnerved by their proximity to such dangerous creatures, and hissed for Lana to join them in fleeing. The lead dragon waved a claw casually through the air, inviting Lana not to be dissuaded by her companions. Lana spoke of the black and green dragons the party had previously encountered, so unwilling to conduct civil conversation ... how much more sophisticated these whites seemed.
Lana announced sincerely that she and her companions sought friendly co-operation, with a view to obtaining some of the dragons' scales for the purposes of spell creation. What service might they render the dragons, she asked.
"I must say your request is peculiar", spoke the largest dragon, while his mate raked a claw through the silver hoard. Drewen appeared mesmerised by the sheen of precious metal before him. "... yet not entirely unfeasible," the dragon continued. "It seems we might be able to provide one another assistance." Lana nodded, stating that the party would help in any matter they considered just and motivated by noble sentiment. Hearing this, the dragon spoke sadly of the passing of his son, slain by a frost giant as recently as a few weeks ago. The murderous giant by the name of Garamundvar dwelled in a frozen castle to the north. The dragons had attempted revenge but their attacks proved feeble against the giant - for Garamundvar was naturally impervious to their icy breath. In return for the heroes' assistance in confronting Garamundvar, the lead dragon promised a reward. A clawful of dead scales were raked from the cavern floor as visual incentive.
Lana relayed the dragons' proposals to her comrades. As the least experienced person present, Marcus struggled to contain his apprehension at the prospect of engaging such a formidable adversary as a frost giant. Lana assured him that with planning and teamwork the task might not prove as insurmountable as Marcus anticipated.
After agreeing terms, the dragons flew the heroes north to a peak high above the tree line, where the cold was yet more piercing - even Vasily shuddered beneath his heavy wolf furs. After a day's march the forbidding outline of the giant's fortress came into view. A trail of strangely assembled rocks formed an avenue leading toward a staircase carved out of ice. At its top the giant's castle appeared to be constructed out of whole felled pine trees. Karnus suggested scouting the perimeter of the fortress and located a cave to one side of the steps which he thought might conceal a way into the castle. As the blue-robed mage dropped down off the main path to investigate the cave opening, Lana's alert senses tingled as she thought she discerned movement to one side. Turning her head, she saw almost nothing but white. Acting on impulse, she scarcely had enough time to erect a magical Shield before being attacked by perfectly camouflaged opponents. Two white-furred snow apes closed to engage each of the companions.
The apes proved formidable opponents. Karnus invoked a Shield of his own but was nevertheless swept into a brawny grapple and crushed to within an inch of his life. A blow from Drewen's hammer forced the beast to release its grip, leaving Karnus gasping for breath. Lana too proved unlucky and was grabbed and crushed until she thought she would pass out. The beast attacking her had an agenda. Without warning its hold relaxed slightly, and it bounded up the steep ice-carved steps of the castle, bearing Lana's struggling form toward the main gate. A volley of shots from Vasily's sling hit the ape but weren't enough to cause it to loosen its grip. Captor and captive disappeared through the main door a heartbeat later. Off to one side, Karnus heard Lana's cries and surmised what was happening but had no clear line of sight and was unable to target any Magic Missiles. With a swing of his staff Karnus' opponent was felled and the nimble mage vaulted up onto the steps to stand beside Drewen in combat.
Captured by the giants
Lana had been dragged kicking and screaming into the main section of the castle and was deposited upon a massive dining table whose legs were pine trees. Around her lay the gnawed carcasses of wild animals alongside plates, assorted cutlery and two immense goblets. A cough to shake the walls of the place caused Lana to realise she was not alone - the Lord and Lady of the castle were present.
Garamundvar was a towering brute of a giant, his skin bleach-white and his white hair and beard had yellowed through lack of washing. His wife was just as tall, rosy-cheeked and wore her long whitish hair in two braids. The giants fixed Lana with a glare, unmistakable malice playing upon their expresions and audible in their words. They spoke of how they enjoyed receiving visitors to their castle. They had captured a "magic man" just weeks before, who had proved entertaining for a while but was subsequently disposed of when his novelty value wore off.
While the giants went to watch the battle they could hear outside, Lana was deposited in a bedchamber whose high door handle she was not expected to be able to reach. Disliking being held captive, Lana quaffed a Potion of Growth and rose to twice her normal height. The door handle was now within her grasp. With the giants temporarily out of the way, she decided to investigate their home in the hope she might find something to give her companions an edge in the inevitable confrontation with the frost giants.
Having defeated the snow apes, the four heroes followed the creatures' tracks through the snow to the rear of the complex where a cave was located. Venturing inside and along a network of natural tunnels, they ascended a rough-hewn staircase before realising they were in the castle's basement. Here they edged their way around a broad pit, at the base of which several starved wolves could be seen prowling. Glints of white could be made out on the floor of the pit... surely not human bone?
Ahead was a door behind which the giants could be heard conversing. The pair had returned from outside having found no trace of the intruders, and were speculating that the little ones must have fled, deserting their female companion. The giantess announced that she would sweep the remainder of the castle, leaving Garamundvar to ponder what tortures he would inflict on the 'magic lady'. Hearing this, Drewen heaved the massive door ajar, giving the giant cause to abandon his train of thought.
Karnus muttered words of magic and a missile of fire burst from his palm to impact against the far end of the corridor beyond the door. Garamundvar hurled himself aside, managing to avoid the most searing heat of the blast. In rage, the giant raised his fist and smote a cruel blow at his nearest target - Drewen. The force of the impact lifted the dwarf off his feet and sent his squat body upward into the ceiling, several ribs cracking under his armour as he smashed through the rafters.
As Garamundvar roared with laughter, a door opened quietly behind him. A second gigantic figure stood silhouetted in the cold light from beyond the doorway. Karnus brought the words of a second spell to mind, thinking this newcomer to be the giantess, but paused when he heard the figure begin a familiar chant. A crackling lightning bolt was released a moment later. Lost in his gloating, Garamundvar never saw the blast coming and his hulking form was engulfed in the energy stream. Nor was he aware of Drewen's gleaming hammer as it hurtled with lethal force toward his forehead, the dwarf having dropped back through the ceiling which he had smashed through seconds before. The castle walls reverberated as the giant collapsed unmoving to the ground.
With a cry of anguish Garamundvar's wife emerged from her pantry and closed to avenge her fallen husband. Weapons and magic missiles flashed like wildfire, while the giantess stabbed with her massive spear. At last she could take no more and gestured with one hand - "Enough!"
The giantess had surrendered but she remained a dangerous opponent. Even as she sought the party's mercy she let her tree-spear fall toward Karnus, almost flattening him. It was decided that the giantess should remain imprisoned within her castle for the rest of her days to reflect upon the cruelty of her past deeds and the loss of her husband. Leaving the next day, Lana cast a Wizard Lock upon the castle gates, knowing the only other exit via the dungeon would be too tight a passage for the giantess' hulking form. To bind the arrangement, the giantess was made to swear upon the memory of her husband that she would remain within the castle walls. Thinking this sufficient precaution, the party departed early the next day.
After only an hour's trek from the castle the trio of white dragons descended from the skies and let fall a clawful of white scales to the crisp snow. Biting her lip, Lana realised there were only enough scales for a single attempt at creating her spell. Also, there had been no reward for her companions' hard efforts. Before she could voice protest, the dragons had flapped their mighty wings and were gone. The party had the distinct impression of having been used.
Trekking back southward the five surveyed the treasure they had taken from the keep - an amount of gold and silver coins, some valuable gems, a spell scroll bearing the formidable power of a Wall of Fire and, sadly, the spellbook which had belonged to Trajan - Marcus' onetime friend and colleague - whom the giants had thrown to their wolves for cruel distraction. Marcus shed a tear on remembering his friend, then noticed a figure rising from the horizon to meet the party. It was the cleric Smurdyakov from the Vale to the south. He had seen the party leave the dragons' lair and had thought to follow in case the fickle creatures should betray the party. All seemed well, until camping that night Vasily was visited by bad omens, seemingly a vision bestowed by his Immortal patron Halav. In dreams the cleric saw the giantess descending the walls of her castle, dropping to the ground beneath and mustering comrades to march south. In the morning Karnus' crystal ball confirmed that the giantess had indeed disregarded her oath, and was heading south on foot with three other giants accompanying her.
The party of six retreated to a strategic gorge they had passed earlier on their march, remembering a young white dragon they had seen snoozing on the opposite side. While the party set up defences in anticipation of the giants' arrival, Lana cast Fly upon herself and soared off through the pine forest in search of the beast. Remembering the dragons' natural animosity toward frost giants, the party could do with extra allies. After a while searching Lana came across a medium-sized white feasting upon the frozen remains of a bear. Through play and coaxing the mage convinced the dragon to take to the air though he would not follow her any great distance, and clearly lacked the power of speech. Other tactics were called for. Lana created the phantasmal image of a second white, shimmering in the afternoon light, to attract the real dragon's attention. After a few acrobatic loops and somersaults, the dragon was convinced to follow and flew westward with Lana astride his back maintaining the 'carrot' dragon a short distance in front. Arriving at the camp, there was no sign of the giants and Lana realised she could not maintain the illusion indefinitely. Eventually the image gave a last shimmer and vanished. With a roar of confusion, the real dragon reared its head and released a lungful of cold before swooping off to settle on a nearby cliff ledge. Tired from flight, it slept until morning but then, as the giants had still not arrived, it unfurled its wings and flew away toward a blizzard in the south. In dismal spirits Lana watched it depart then joined Karnus for spellbook study.
Not long after, not a lone giant but four appeared on the horizon. They brought with them an army of agitated snow apes and wolves, which were sent to attack the party while the cunning giants held back beyond the range of spellcasting. The majority of the pack was taken out by Karnus' fireball, while the remainder of the party targeted the survivors with missile attacks. Lana threw some of the apes into Confusion, even affecting one frost giant who stood shaking his head dully. She then manoeuvred to get a better aim for a Lightning Bolt and managed to engulf two giants in the blast. She then closed for hand-to-hand combat, weaving her path through the fray to confront the treacherous giantess.
Smurdyakov had not been seen for some time. Taking a moment to scry, Karnus observed him in a nearby cave, removing his clothes. His reason for doing so became apparent when moments later a polar bear emerged from the cave and headed straight toward the giants. It seemed Smurdyakov was a lycanthrope - a true follower of Zirchev, the Immortal protector of werecreatures.
Lana poured all her energy into combatting the giantess, one-on-one, and with a final dagger thrust managed to fell her opponent. Lana collapsed, aching from many wounds, but to her terror found the hulking form of a snow ape above her. Its club was raised and about to strike. There was nothing Lana could do to avert the blow but at the last second a crossbow bolt embedded in the ape's throat, felling the beast where it stood. The battle had been joined by soldiers from Castellan Keep, who were out on patrol.
After a hospitable and restful stay back at the Keep (involving great merrymaking) the party took their leave and booked passage on the supply boat bound for Specularum. By now Threy would be back from his weapon training and would be wondering where his companions were without him. The journey home was uneventful, passing through Kelvin then past Misha's Ferry and Sukiskyn. The heroes sighed as they reflected on the previous year's events. Karnus was perhaps the most thoughtful as he surveyed the concealed plateau where the hutaakan ruins of Xitaqa were located, known only to him and a handful of others.
The party arrived in Specularum and Lana started researching Ice Storm that same day. Sadly her weeklong research proved fruitless - her attempt to create the spell failed and a second set of scales would need to be obtained before she could try again. In the meantime, the party had other pressing concerns.
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