The heroes had reached Sukiskyn - home to Stephen's family. A servant ushered them inside the fortified homestead, and sturdy wooden gates were barred and bolted behind them. After a hasty introduction to the rest of Stephen's clan including his brother Piotr, the head of the family, it was reported that at least two goblin tribes were camped in the fields outside. It would fall to the five companions to join the family in protecting Sukiskyn. Battle raged for well over an hour - the clerics and mages exhausted their magical abilities and fell back to fighting hand-to-hand with goblins and giant bats, as doorways were hacked through and ladders were set against the homestead's stone walls. Drewen battled the chieftain of the Red Blade tribe and when the hardy dwarf emerged victorious, the tribe's few remaining goblins fled into the woods.
Night's Dark Terror
One of Stephen's daughters caught a glimpse of yellow in the fields beyond the homestead walls, and thought this might be an acquaintance of hers. Could the goblins have taken her friend captive? It would later become apparent that this was not so.
At last the homestead was made safe, and the goblins retreated into the surrounding forest. It was discovered that the goblins of the Viper clan had broken into stables situated outside the main complex and had stolen many of the family's white horses. Enraged, Taras asked for volunteers to pursue the thieves and recover the horses. Karnus and Lana were exhausted and without spells, and could do little to assist in further combat. Threy stated that he felt likewise. Therefore Taras, Drewen and Vasily rode out across the moors to hunt the horse thieves. After several miles they located a clearing where a recent battle had been waged; half a dozen goblins were lying bleeding and unconscious in the undergrowth. By the look of massive bitemarks on their sides, they had been attacked by some sort of beast. Pressing onward the next day, they came upon a ranch where an elfmaiden came out to greet them. The stolen horses were found feeding in a nearby stable yet the elf refused to give them up, claiming they were her property. While the companions negotiated the horses' release, the elf's henchmen tried to sneak up on Drewen. The dwarf's keen senses gave him warning and his hammer swung at the assassins, who dropped to the dirt moments later. Only the elfwoman remained. She caused Taras and Vasily to succumb to magical sleep, then engaged Drewen in combat. Although she proved capable with a weapon she could not withstand the dwarf's relentless attacks, and hurriedly levitated out of Drewen's reach. She agreed to release the horses, whereupon Drewen ceased his attacks. The three companions led the recovered horses back the Sukiskyn the next day.
Victory turns sour ... the search begins
The heroes had thought to celebrate their success at Sukiskyn, but found that in the midst of fighting two nights ago the goblins had kidnapped their employer Stephen. The party unanimously agreed to mount a rescue mission and ventured into the dense woodland of the Dymrak Forest, where many goblin tribes were known to dwell. The party went from lair to lair, demanding information from each goblin chieftain they could find but to no avail. Knowledge of Stephen's whereabouts eluded them. After days of fruitless seaching the companions resolved to find the Viper goblins who were known as the most well-informed of the local tribes. The party suspected that Steven had been kidnapped by Vlack, a hobgoblin warlord known to operate in the area; they hoped the Vipers would be able to confirm their suspicions.
The heroes' search led throughout the surrounding moors and woods, from a cluster of cursed burial mounds in the north to a dwarven gold mine in the midst of the mountains, even as far as the mythical Lake of Lost Dreams. Here they performed service for a group of elves, acquiring a stolen statue from the Illya pixies on the Island of Lost Dreams. In return the elves directed the party toward a valley far to the southeast, where Vlack's associates were known to dwell. The valley had long ago succumbed to an ancient curse, which caused all of its vegetation to wither and assume a stone-like quality.
While the party sought the petrified valley Karnus took a turn for the worse. He had been exposed to the poison of a trap in a crypt below the Island of Lost Dreams, which had a curious effect - it drove the already-edgy mage to become uncontrollably neurotic, suspecting that the other party members were conspiring against him. One afternoon Karnus was overtaken by paranoia, turned invisible and galloped away at high speed. Later that night he returned accompanied by a twelve foot tall elemental, which he had summoned through the enchanted stone. He seemed ready to order the earthen giant to attack his companions, however Vasily spoke heartfelt words, which were echoed by the others, and Karnus calmed. He did however halfheartedly aim a sapphire magic missile at Threy's backside for good measure. Whether this was a result of the drug remains unclear.
The five rested that night and next morning entered the strange valley where what the elves had said proved true - most of the plant and animal life had been turned to stone, seemingly centuries ago. The party battled goblins before entering their lair through the hollow trunk of an immense oak tree, now solid grey stone. Inside, they found a hall filled by the goblins of the tribe, their leader and his bodyguards. The goblin reacted angrily to the outsiders' intrusion. The five companions were forced to defend themselves however the goblins fought to the death. The party's reward for overcoming these foes lay within a the stuffed carcass of a mountain lion. The outlines of coins could be seen bulging through the lion's fur. Lana attempted to carefully slice through the animal's outside with her dagger. To her dismay, the sharp blade cut through two treasures - a clerical spell scroll, and a single boot which exuded a faint aura when exposed to a casting of Detect Magic. The party figured that the only other means of removing these items would have been to place one's hand between the lion's razor sharp teeth, which none of them was willing to attempt.
There was a second area to the halls which was found to belong to the hobgoblins though they were evidently elsewhere at that moment, carrying out Vlack's orders perhaps. A group of thouls (magical creatures which were part-ghoul, part-troll and part-hobgoblin) were encountered in what the party presumed was Vlack's bedchamber. There was also a chamber filled with giant ferrets. Treasure was located in the hollow of a branch of wood, which had been rigged to collapse the room's ceiling if anyone tried to open the compartment. The party rescued an old woman named Babouska whom the hobgoblins had been keeping captive. The old dear claimed to have seen Stephen being led out of the lair a week earlier. She had no idea where he had been taken.
To the ends of the earth
Angry and frustrated at how long the rescue was taking, the companions felt they had no choice but to return to Sukiskyn and report failure. They had pursued every possible loose end, and had spent a month in the wilderness, yet they were no closer to finding Stephen. For all they knew he might be dead. The homesteaders welcomed the party but were griefstricken to see them return without their kin. The elderly cleric Irina suggested one last option - the fabled horseman of the moors, Loshrad the Centaur, who was aware of all that happened in his domain. However, the centaur was a guardian of the wild horses of the moors and had opposed the family's business in the past, so it was expected that he might refuse to assist in their time of need. Still, he seemed the only hope of recovering Stephen. Few of the party members were keen to partake in the bizarre ritual which would be required to attract Loshrad's attention, therefore the honour fell to Vasily. For three nights Vasily stood on one leg atop a local hill, bathed in moonlight whilst whistling into the wind. During the third performance of this ceremony, Loshrad appeared to the young cleric. He appeared as a magnificent black stallion at first. Lana swore she had glimpsed that very horse several times in the past month. Before the companions' eyes the horse's upper body transformed to become the head and torso of a human male.
Loshrad made no attempt to conceal his lack of concern for Stephen, but agreed to trade knowledge of his whereabouts for a favour - that the party would eliminate two werewolves who had been preying upon Loshrad's horses. Weary though they were, the party agreed and complied. Returning once their task was complete, Loshrad instructed them to travel to a far-off plateau in the north, upon which they would find the remains of a ruined city. Loshrad said he felt certain Vlack operated from those ruins.
It took time finding the plateau, which was on the opposite side of the river to the north. As the party entered the lower plateau they were showered in missile attacks by men on horseback, who were riding out to meet them. The men were armed and armoured, and clearly hostile. Lana and Karnus took out a handful with magic missiles, Drewen fired crossbow bolts and the clerics hurled slingstones, then closed to do melee. It was noted that the men's wrists bore chafe-marks, as if from manacles. Also Drewen noted a strange glaze across the men's eyes, as if they were in some kind of trance.
The Forgotten City ... Vlack confronted
The enemies were defeated and the party ascended to the upper plateau where the ruins of Xitaqa came into sight. What startled Karnus was the centremost building - a crumbling tower, identical to the image on the medallion he had taken from the river bandit. The party entered the ruins keenly, eager to reach the central tower, making their way through narrow gulleys and alleyways, passing many dozens of small huts and buildings all carved from the rockface. Several groups of goblins were encountered along the way, leading groups of rock baboons - fearsome apes who attacked rapidly despite the heavy bone clubs they bore.
Arriving at the base of the tower, the bronze double doors which served as the main entrance were barricaded by hobgoblins who fired bows as the party advanced up the steps. Once inside, they sought the innermost chamber where they finally confronted the warlord Vlakk. He was accompanied by his pet - a snow-white wolf, capable of projecting an icy blast from its mouth. Threy and Drewen both suffered such blasts but fought on and soon the beast lay dead. Vasily engaged the hobgoblin one-on-one for the glory of Halav. The young cleric's valour was rewarded after a few heavy swings of his hammer, the cruel hobgoblin chieftain slumped at Vasily's feet.
Having located Vlakk, Stephen could not be far away. The party pressed into the ruined city, eager to find their missing employer and depart. They explored the tower's basement - a long library filled with dusty scrolls and books, the memories of a lost civilisation. The documents bore strange, spidery script which neither Karnus nor Lana could understand. As both mages pocketed what treasures they could, a set of beady eyes emerged from the shadows behind the stairs - a huge spider. The party recognised the thing as a black widow whose fangs bore deadly venom. Lana being an arachnophobe responded at once, blasting the creature with amber missiles and killing it before its venom could inflict harm on her or her companions. Still, a second spider remained. Lurking in the depths of the stairwell, it refused to emerge into the torchlight, apparently guarding its web. Lana sent a second magical assault into the shadowy corner, then lunged with her dagger to slay the second creature before it could cause harm.
A second basement hall was uncovered, with small alcoves carved into its walls. The companions theorised that these were meant for burials or perhaps storage. The hall was completely empty however, devoid even of dust. What was keeping this place so clean?
The answer became apparent when, heading along a tunnel which led from the hall, the companions turned and found a gelatinous cube mere feet behind them. Acting on instinct Lana fired a lightning bolt through the ten foot mass, but to no avail; the cube's surface merely rippled a little while it continued its advance.
All five party members were forced to combat the cubes in close quarters, and managed to succeed though they sustained heavy injuries. It was clear that they were too fatigued to face any more of the tower's inhabitants, so they retreated to a small building within the ruins to camp overnight. The mages and clerics would recover their spells and would be better able to defend themselves the next day.
Rising the next morning the companions made their way toward the upper levels of the ruined tower, and entered a room which appeared empty but from which a bellowing could be heard. Upon entering the room, Drewen and Vasily were set upon by an unseen assailant. A moment later, Lana thought she saw a flash of yellow escaping through a door on the far side of the room - she remembered a similar sighting at Sukiskyn. Could this yellow-garbed stranger be the one who had kidnapped Stephen, had Vlack been just a subordinate?
Drewen and Vasily fought valiantly against the savage foe who they could not see, and eventually a loud thump was heard as the monster hit the floor, dead. Dragging the body out of the room and onto the stairs, it became visible - a minotaur. A set of keys was hanging on its belt. Now that there was silence in the room, the heroes could heard a moaning.
The moaning was coming from Stephen, chained and manacled to the floor in a corner of the room. Finally the party had located their former employer. Stephen spoke of how he had been tortured by his minotaur jailer at the bidding of the creature's master - a yellow-robed wizard called Golthar. Golthar was a high-ranking operative of the Iron Ring slaving organisation, and had been trying to force Steven to reveal the whereabouts of a special tapestry. Why this tapestry was sought after nobody present knew.
The party vowed to make Golthar pay for the harm inflicted on Steven. Advancing up the stairs and through a room guarded by two living statues of pink jade, Drewen lifted a portrait off the wall to reveal a passage leading to a further set of steps. These led to a locked door, which Lana opened using magic and flung open. Golthar was inside! The yellow-robed mage blasted through the wall of his garishly decorated bedchamber, and flew into the skies beyond.
Lana cast a Fly spell of her own and gave chase. The two mages flew for miles, passing out of the ruins of Xitaqa and soaring over treetops and marshland below. Lana called repeatedly for Golthar to turn and face her and finally he did, hovering a few hundred feet ahead. Words of magic came to both mages' lips as they both called Mirror Images into being. Golthar's enchantment worked better, as four yellow robes turned to face Lana's two. Lana called for Golthar's surrender, that he should turn himself over and be brought to justice. He had much to answer for, since his goblin minions had caused the deaths of dozens of innocent homesteaders through recent months.
Golthar makes his escape
The slaver wizard was by no means prepared to surrender. He flicked a stiletto blade through Lana's single image, leaving her dangerously exposed. Lana grabbed her dagger and closed to stab her rival, but her attack missed. Her disorientation gave Golthar enough time to summon three glowing missiles, all aimed directly at Lana. Any one of those missiles would have obliterated Lana, and she knew it. Lana stopped dead in anticipation of being blasted out of the skies, but... Golthar decided not to fire. Instead he gloated at her, revelling in the knowledge that he could have killed his adversary but chose not to. After delivering a stinging slap to Lana's face he flew away, safe in the knowledge that the weakened Lana would not dare follow. She had no option but to return to her companions in the tower. She flew the half dozen miles back to Xitaqa in agonising shame.
In the haste of his escape Golthar had left behind an important asset - a silver needle inside an ebony box. Stephen's eyes lit upon seeing this and urged the party to return to Sukiskyn. When touched to a golden tapestry in the homestead's treasure chamber, the needle traced a magical pattern along the lines of the weaving, drawing a treasure map in shimmering thread. This was the tapestry Golthar had sought for months, which Stephen believed showed the way to the Lost Valley of Hutaaka - an ancient nation of jackal-headed men, forgotten by modern civilisation. Old legends spoke of the Hutaakans' treasure being hidden somewhere within their valley.
The family was overjoyed to have Stephen back in their midst, and a feast was held to celebrate his homecoming. All the same, Stephen was eager that he and the party continue in search of the Lost Valley. Days later, the party of six departed Sukiskyn and headed to Rifflian to complete the task for which the party had originally been hired - to sell the white horses to the elf clans. After a week of travel, the deal was struck and a tidy sum of money changed hands for the sale of twenty magnificent steeds. The party were given half the proceeds as their reward for rescuing Steven. While resting in Rifflian, Steven discovered from a gnomish acquaintance that a yellow-robed man had been asking about a party comprising two mages, a dwarf and two others. Golthar had returned with his associates. Once the sale of the horses was concluded, the party departed Rifflian promptly.
Back on the road, Threy and Lana had the feeling they were being watched. Not long after, they were visited by Loshrad the centaur. Far from his home on the moor, he told the six that a number of his beloved horses were being held in inhumane conditions by a brigands a short way up the road. The horseman asked the party to set his horses free, and hinted that there might be treasure as a reward for their efforts. The party made a detour off their trail and discovered the camp, set up not by brigands as they had thought, but by the Iron Ring. The party launched a two-pronged attack to liberate two dozen countryfolk taken captive by the slavers. At the end of the fight, Vasily lifted a staff of smooth wood from a cleric who had fought alongside the slavers, and found that the item possessed seemingly endless powers of restoration. Thus the party acquired its Staff of Healing which Vasily used to tend the injuries of the homesteaders, then sent them home on horseback - the horses Loshrad had mentioned, now freed from the slavers. Once the former prisoners had been carried home, the horses would be released onto the moors to roam freely.
Returning to the road, the party was ambushed one night by bandits firing black-fledged arrows. The party sustained minor wounds and pressed on to reach Threshold a few days later. Lana wished to stop by her master's tower and use his laboratory to craft a spell - a more potent version of Continual Light, with an improved blinding ability. The component for this spell had come from the glands of a ferocious beetle the adventurers had encountered a few weeks earlier - Lana feared that the explosive oil would spoil if she did not use it soon. The rest of the party agreed to wait while Lana put her spell together.
During this time Vasily was given a glimpse of his future by an old Traladaran woman whom he saved from being hit by a runaway cart. The woman produced a crystal ball from under her ragged cloak, and told the young cleric that she could see a man in yellow by the riverside, under a sign depicting two crossed swords. Vasily imagined this could be no other individual than Golthar. He reported to his companions who decided to investigate. Vasily, Threy, Drewen, Karnus and Stephen headed to Fogor Isle where the Thieves' Guild was located. The thieves informed them that they had no idea where Golthar was. Instead the five scoured the edge of the shore, where fishing boats were moored, and found a derelict dwelling outside which a sign hung displaying crossed blades. The party headed home to arm themselves and returned that night. Karnus turned invisible, and after the others broke through the front window, the mage crept inside. Apart from broken furniture and a great deal of dust, there was nothing. Karnus remained at the entrance to keep look-out while the others scouted around inside. Had the old woman been wrong, was there nothing here?
Their questions were answered when the kitchen floorboards tore apart unexpectedly. A huge, rubbery skinned creature burst through the floor and began attacking the party with its spindly arms, claws and teeth. The thing lashed out viciously and the smell which arose from it was overpowering. Karnus fired a sapphire missile from the doorway while his companions hit out with mace, hammer and sword. Eventually the thing fell over, seemingly dead. Yet as the companions steadied their nerves, the creature lurched back to life. Its wounds could be seen closing, torn flesh mending before their eyes. Karnus identified the monster as a troll. The sure way to keep it from regenerating, he knew, was to inflict fire damage, for burns would not regenerate. Karnus poured as many vials of oil as he carried over the beast, while the others pressed the attack, keeping the beast subdued. After touching a spark to the oil, flames shot up to consume the troll's body and spread to the surrounding walls and timbers. The troll was dead, but the building was set to collapse as flames spread to the upper level.
The five emerged coughing from the burning dwelling and were confronted by a number of beings, waiting patiently. These were wererats, led by Golthar and a dark-skinned woman. Weakened by their encounter with the troll, this was a dangerous turn of events. Golthar and his minions had little patience and were not prepared to parlay at length; when the party refused to disclose the location of the Lost Valley, the wererats sprang forward to attack. Karnus and Stephen were badly bitten, while Threy took on the female cleric, Jolenta and defeated her, taking her mace which he knew to be magical. Golthar managed to escape. Karnus charmed Golthar's bodyguard Sligh, who was to prove a valuable source of information as he accompanied his new friend Karnus and his party on the road ahead.
Resting to heal their wounds, this gave Lana a while longer to complete her spell research. Emerging exhausted after a week cooped up in the Tower, the new spell was christened 'Discontinuable Radiance', and Lana was eager to join the others in pursuing Golthar. It was not known whether the yellow-robed mage knew how to find the valley, or whether he would spy on the party to establish its whereabouts. Fresh horses were purchased and the party of seven set off from Threshold heading west, in what they expected would be the direction of the Valley.
After several hours, the party reached the bank of the Foamfire River and decided to head north, remembering the instructions on the golden tapestry map. The remains of an ancient road were located; could this have led to the Valley? The cobblestones continued for a few miles before giving out, leaving the party to follow the course of the river. Soon a thin column of smoke was spotted, rising a short way into the forest on one side of the river. They decided to investigate. A small clearing was found, containing a smouldering fire, its floor strewn with bones. They found a set of footprints, larger than human, leading away from the clearing and into the mountains. Overhead, ravens were circling. Threy used a clerical spell to speak with the birds. They communicated gruffly but said they had seen death, larger than human, a short distance away, and then flew off, speaking of their hunger... The heroes pressed into the mountains, remembering which way they had come, and soon a thick mist enveloped them. They uncovered a path where three human heads were embedded on spikes in the centre of the road. Riding on with concern, the party came across a series of rings, each made up of similar horrendous spikes, a large ring surrounding a smaller ring, one more in the middle, but the mist made it hard to identify much more. A wailing filled the air. Suddenly two figures burst from the ground to attack Drewen and Lana. Lana barely had time to cast Mirror Image - no sooner than she did so, one monster swiped clean through her replica. Threy shouted words of turning and the figures exploded in flames. In the thick mist, it had been impossible to identify what the creatures were - ghouls. Two more undead emerged, catching Threy unaware. Vasily invoked a turning of his own but not before Threy became paralysed by the creatures' debilitating touch. Then all became still. Only the wailing continued. Enveloped in the fog, the heroes were at a loss as to what to do.
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