An evening at the Boar and Horn
Following the purging of Gutripper Hollow, the party continued their journey south towards the capital. As the second day of travel came to a close, they saw an inn. Surrounded by what appeared to be a very old stone wall in a state of disrepair, the inn itself looked to be in good condition.
As they passed through the gate, they were met by a grumpy haflling and a couple of stable boys. The halfling fixed them with a suspicious glare and questioned them a little before a much cheerier dwarf emerged and scolded him for being so unwelcoming to their guests. The stable boys took their horses and the dwarf ushered them into the inn’s common room.
For an inn in the middle of nowhere, it was doing a decent trade – largely hunters working in the area, but with a couple of other groups. The dwarf introduced himself as Garek, the inn as the Boar and Horn and his halfling partner as Nevit Meadowbright, and set them up at the bar. Orimine indulged Garek in some light conversation, while Helenas struck up a few tunes to entertain the patrons with accompaniment from Lukin on his panpipes and Brother Otto set into the inn’s food supplies.
In Orimine’s conversation with Garek, she was able to gather that a strange group of cloaked figures had passed through earlier in the day, inspecting the inn and grounds but then moving on. She also learnt that two of the groups of patrons were down from Oakreach. Surveying the groups, she saw that the first appeared to be a merchant and his entourage and the other looked to be a couple of Trevish officials and their guards. She approached the merchant and chatted with him. He told her they had left Oakreach because of violence in the streets following the murder two nights ago.
She was stopped by the guards as she approached the officials. After presenting her diplomatic papers, the guards allowed her to take a seat at the officials tables. The officials were concerned that the violence in Oakreach was a threat to regional stability and that Tarid Gorn’s murder may insight Orrathi rebellion. They were making haste to the capital to report these concerns.
As the night wore on, Helenas heard a familiar tune floating across the room, The Stars are Brightest O’er the Sea. Looking up she saw the source was, once again, Kaethel Lonair and once again, he was drawing her attention exactly as he left the room. Quickly passing the lead to Lukin, she hastened toward the door, sending a message spell asking Kaethel to wait for her. He did not pause, instead answering, “Time is of the essence”. Helenas rushed for the door, attracting the attention of her companions who pursued. Lukin, sensing that if he lingered, he may be left behind, abandoned the entertainment duties.
Outside, Kaethel had made seemingly impossibly quick progress toward a dilapidated tower on the northeast corner of the old wall. The party gave chase, reaching the bottom of the tower as a flash lit up its top. They entered the tower cautiously and followed the staircase around its edge to the top. Once there, Orimine pulled out her monocle and was rewarded with the sight of a glowing silver portcullis a step beyond the edge of the tower. She passed the monocle to Helenas for a look and eventually Otto, too. Looking at it, the group surmised they may have been led to a portal to the Shining Fortress, the legendary home of Varun, the Winged Guardian.
As the group considered whether or not to go through the portal, the sound of hoofbeats came to them. Soon, they saw more of the cultists they had seen at Tarid Gorn’s abode and battled on the road approaching the tower on horseback. Deciding the portal to be their best option, they approached and as Otto drew closer, the portcullis rose. Testing their faith, they stepped out into the air beside the tower and through the portal, Helenas humming Steel and Silver as they went. Once again the swirling sensation they had experienced under the hill in Autumnhaven took hold and they found themselves stepping out of the other side of the portcullis into a small fortified area.
Delays at the Woodsman’s Gate
Six guards stood in front of them and called for them to halt. The party started to explain that they were chasing Kaethel as the captain of the guards stepped up behind his men. He asked for their names and called down his bookkeeper, an elf by the name of Fierolin. The bookkeeper recorded their names and their origins as the captain, a human by the name of Ramus, questioned them further. Soon, he told them he would request permission to send them across the Great Moat and commanded Fierolin to send word to the landing on the far side. The bookkeeper released a perfectly white dove which flew out over the water. As he did, the party took stock of the sight before them for the first time.
The fortifications they stood within appeared to be on a small island. Beyond the fortifications, lay an immense body of perfectly still water, black under the bright stars and full moon of the night sky. Beyond the Great Moat, was a fortress, larger than they could possibly have imagined, its white walls, shining even in the dim light, stretching out of sight in either direction. The fortress was built in five levels, rising like a great mountain and was well lit throughout, its reflection shimmering brilliantly on the still water below.
Looking around at her companions through her monocle, Orimine noted that here, they bore a glow of natural world colours – the brown of the earth, green of grass and leaf and blue of water.
After some time, the dove returned and the captain announced that they had been granted permission to take the ferry to the Shining Fortress, but warned them that the ferryman would demand a toll of each of them. When asked what the toll was, he said that it was different for every passenger. The party waited for the ferry to return, discovering from the captain that they had arrived at the Woodsman’s Gate, so named for a heroic woodsman who had defended the folk of the forest in the natural world from marauding gnolls at the sight of the Boar and Horn long ago. He was unable to shed any light on Kaethel other than that the elf had indeed passed through here and that he was known to the realm. He had been ferried across the moat not long before the party arrived, which was why they now had to wait for the ferry to return.
After twenty minutes or so, the party watched as the ferry returned to the landing on the island. It was a simple affair, little more than a large wooden raft or barge. The Ferryman appeared to propel the vessel by heaving it along a thick rope tied off at either end. As it pulled up to the landing, the group gazed upon the Ferryman himself. He was a tall humanoid figure, skin of silvery grey and hairless. His eyes were deep pupil-less pools of blue and he had an expression that belied neither hostility nor kindness. He was clad in a simple kilt and sturdy boots. The party embarked and silently, the Ferryman began his labour, pulling the barge out across the moat.
As they reached the mid-point of the moat, the Ferryman stopped and turned to face them. In a deep, resounding voice, he spoke:
“The time has come to pay your toll. I will speak to each of you individually. Do not interrupt. Consider your answers carefully, for the Great Moat is as deep as it is wide.”
He turned first to Brother Otto, who felt a gentle probing of his thoughts, but did not resist.
“Brother Otto, your heart is righteous, yet you overvalue yourself. Your masters have told you to find humility, show me what you have learnt. If you desire passage, you must answer me this question: What is the greatest strength a being can have?”
Otto was a little taken aback by this seeming riddle, but cast his mind back through his experience over the past couple of weeks. Thinking of Athram the Mason, he spoke about the willingness to serve and protect others and finally came to the conclusion that understanding one’s own weaknesses was the greatest strength.
The Ferryman paused a moment and declared, “Your answer is … satisfactory.”
Next he turned to Helenas. Helenas was less receptive to his probing, trying to hold him out. He impassively stated, “Your unwillingness to cooperate is noted,” and then continued:
“Helenas Olara, your heart is pure, but you refuse to open it. If you cannot trust those around you, then you leave little reason for them to trust you. If you desire passage, you must tell me the story of one of the figurines you carry.”
Helenas thought for a moment, reluctant as always to share her own stories, but realising the gravity of the situation reached into her belongings and produced the smallest of her figurines.
“This is my child, whose father perished in the sea and whose first breath was also his last.”
Her companions stared wide-eyed at the revelation for a moment by catching themselves before the Ferryman spoke again.
“Your answer is … satisfactory.”
He turned halfway towards Orimine and then caught himself, looking ever so slightly up and to her side.
“Lukin, your heart is also pure, but you are conflicted. If you desire passage, you must tell me why your service to Orimine Leviathan der Infernal pains you so.”
Lukin looked at Orimine with guilt in his eyes.
“My lady Orimine serves the Winter Queen as do I and I believe her to be a worthy master, but I feel she is still loyal to her people, who have done my kin great harm in the past and will surely do so again. I dread that the day will come when she must make a choice between my people and hers and what her decision will be.”
His gaze fell to his shoes as the Ferryman gave his response, “Your answer is … satisfactory.”
Finally, the Ferryman turned to Orimine, who was experiencing a peculiar sensation, sympathy, for her new companion, but quickly refocused knowing that her toll was due. She did not resist as the Ferryman touched her mind.
“Orimine Leviathan der Infernal, your heart is whimsical, your loyalties divided and many of your kind number among the enemies of my lord. If you desire passage, I require from you a resolution formed of your own free will, but meeting with my approval and bound by your word and the power of my lord.”
The tiefling stammered a little over her answer, uncomfortable with the concept of making promises, but thinking of Lukin, her father and her new friends, she came to a decision.
“I will temper my actions against my people’s natural instinct towards evil and corruption, instead aiming for the greater good and the prosperity of the many so long as it is within my power to do so.”
After a slightly longer pause, the Ferryman gave his now familiar response:
“Your answer is … satisfactory.”
Turning back to his work, he resumed heaving on the rope and before long, the ferry pulled up to a small landing at the foot of the Shining Fortress.
What the angels don’t see
Upon landing, the party were met by a small welcoming committee – a human in simple robes, an elvish knight protector and a human paladin. The paladin stepped forward and introduced herself as Bethra Longbraid and her companions as Guardman Viala and Steward Arno. Bethra offered them lodgings to recuperate from their journey, frustrating Helenas with further delays in their pursuit of Kaethel. She apologised profusely, seeming almost embarrassed to not be more helpful, but explained that there was a way of doing things here and that she would do her best to plead their case to the planetar, an angelic commander, of the district. Reluctantly, the group agreed to wait until the morning. Guardsman Viala and Steward Arno showed the group to their simple, but comfortable accommodations.
When the morning came around, Bethra arrived bright and early with her husband, Harian, a somewhat dishevelled looking human wizard. She told them that she would be going to see the planetar and that Harian would be able to show them around in the meantime. Helenas observed that Bethra and Harian appeared somewhat different from the other people they had encountered here thus far, which Harian confirmed, explaining that most of the people on the disc were petitioners, the souls of the dead from the natural world that had found their way to the deity that befitted their life. Here in the Shining Fortress, he continued, they were in most ways similar to how they had been in life, but with a stronger influence of Varun and his realm.
Harian and Bethra, on the other hand, had both been born in the natural world. Bethra had been rescued by an angel after her village was destroyed by savage humanoids. She was only five at the time and had spent the remaining 21 years of her life so far here in the Shining Fortress, training to be part of the forces of her saviour. Harian proclaimed that he had been drawn here by love. He explained that after some years of disc jumping, he had dreamt of Bethra and had come here to find her. Bethra blushed at his comments, but regaining her composure, she told them she needed to be off to plead their case and took her leave.
Harian was a happy and willing guide, explaining that though he was content here, it could sometimes be a bit dull spending his days among Varun’s faithful. He did, however, have one favour to ask. He explained that Varun and those who served him here in the Shining Fortress were blind to the actions of the Winged Guardian’s brother, Valax the Jailer, not just figuratively, but quite literally. He told them that Bethra’s long stay here had blinded her too and that even he, who had only been here about five years was starting to lose the ability to perceive Valax’s servants, but that he believed they were stealing from his personal library. He asked them to help him to locate the thieves if they could.
As he talked, he walked them to his library. As he reached the library, he found the door forced and the interior ransacked and he cursed under his breath. Though Helenas was still frustrated about not being able to follow Kaethel, the group agreed to help Harian and started by examining this latest crime scene. Their search turned up two things. First, Otto found a scrunched up piece of paper. Unfolding it he found a note addressed to Helenas. He handed it to her and she read:
My apologies for my coy behaviour in our last couple of encounters. I wish I could explain to you why it had to be that way, but the time will come when we have the chance to discuss what has passed and will come.
As a gesture of apology and friendship, I leave for you my viol. It is a truly special instrument into which I have poured my heart and soul. I believe you are the player to truly bring out its potential.
It also responds well to the discs. I recommend you try playing Silver and Steel while you are here in the Shining Fortress.
Yours in song and truth,
The viol was nowhere to be found, but the second piece of evidence was a piece of darkcloth caught on the door, a material used by the denizens of the Underdark, the underground realm of the natural world. It had an iron grey glow to it. Asking Harian about this, he suggested that from what he knew of Valax and his faithful, they may well be looking for duergar – dark dwarves that dwelt in the deepest places in the world and were infamous as slavers.
Thinking about where duergar might dwell were they here in the Shining Fortress, the party decided to head into the nearest crafting district and from there to look for a tavern. Sure enough, their investigations proved fruitful instantly. A trio of dwarves sitting around a table bore the same iron grey glow through Orimine’s monocle as the piece of cloth.
Deciding not to engage the dwarves in such a public place, the party waited for them to leave and then Orimine asked Lukin to follow them as quietly as possible. They headed from the tavern to a small residence not far from the crafting district, but it seemed they may have noticed their tiny pursuer, because Lukin reported that within the house, they were preparing themselves for combat.
Helenas decided to try and trick them into letting her in. While Harian drew the attention of the locals away, she went to the door and called out a name. After a pause, one of the dwarves replied to her, attempting to play along with whatever was going on. The conversation continued in this manner for some time. Helenas went to the window and saw that inside, the dwarves appeared to believe she couldn’t see them. Finally, she tried the door and finding it unlocked, went inside.
The dwarves sprung their “ambush”, calling out that “The bugs will be pleased!” but not quickly enough as Otto charged to the aid of his half-elf friend. Lukin meanwhile smashed a window to give Orimine a clear shot from outside.
One of the dwarves used his inborn ability to enlarge himself to near the size of an ogre, but the room was too small for the other to do the same. Another turned invisible, while the third desperately fumbled to strike back after Otto’s flurry of blows. As Orimine sniped from the window, Helenas discovered that the dwarves were resistant to her psychic assaults and switched to some good old-fashioned swordplay, her rapier proving true to its target. Without too much trouble, the group had the three duergar down, their bodies seeming to explode into iron grey motes of light as they were slain.
In a chest at the back of the room, they discovered a trove of misappropriated weapons, tomes from Harian’s collection and amongst all of that, a beautiful viol, undoubtedly the one Kaethel had left for Helenas. At the bottom of the chest was a note with orders for the dwarves to steal what they could and take any mortals they could find prisoner. Their master said they would be taken back once they had enough of a haul. With the viol and tomes recovered, the party retreated to their accommodations to rest up a bit.
After a couple of hours, Bethra returned with word that she had managed to secure an audience for them in the morning. They agreed to dine at a nearby tavern with Bethra and Harian. Helenas found that even Varun’s petitioner’s found her music extremely pleasing, particularly when played on her new viol and the group learned a little more of the couple.
Not so safe in the realm of protection
Retiring after a pleasant enough evening, the party rested up before its meeting with the planetar. Before they had slept long, however, Orimine was roused through her telepathic link with Lukin. Sharing his view, she beheld three suspicious looking figures approaching their accommodations. One was clearly an elf, but wore a fanciful, mismatched set of clothing and a bandana on his head. The second was a human with a thin, drawn face, his nose and ears somewhat pointed and his front teeth somewhat oversized. Behind them was the most sinister of the three, a strange blue, chitinous insect-like creature. It instructed the human and elf to capture the party and turned back.
Orimine woke her companions and they readied themselves for their uninvited guests. As they picked the locks and made their way in, the group attacked, surprising the elf, though the human readied himself just in time. As the party moved to attack, his shape changed before their eyes into a hybrid rat-human form. Disgusted, Helenas cast a spell on it forcing it into fits of laughter that knocked it to the ground. The hideous laugh seemed to upset the elf, whose blows would not seem to land, but fortunately for him, his adversary, Otto, seemed to be just as off-put. The wererat managed to shake off the laughs, but Helenas continued to keep it off balance whispering maddening thoughts to it which caused it to crawl away in horror. Orimine, meanwhile had armoured herself with ice and was flinging eldritch blasts at the elf, while Otto kept him pinned down in hand to hand combat.
Suddenly, though, the elf, bloodied but still determined, seemed to find his rhythm. Swinging skillfully, he parried Otto’s blow and then swung in with three solid hits to the monk that dropped him to the floor, unconscious. The wererat, too, had regained control and charged in at Helenas, but her mockery was still enough to keep him swinging wide. Without their frontline warrior, things were looking a lot more deadly for Helenas and Orimine!
Helenas used a few bars of Steel and Silver to call forth high elf knight protector spirits to ward off the attacks on herself and Orimine, who had moved into combat with the elf. After being rewarded for his attack on Orimine with an icy blast, the elf elected to avoid a repeat of that, and moved to confront Helenas with his wererat companion. Helenas got Otto back on his feet with a healing word and put everything into defence as she backed away from the attackers, herself teetering on the brink of loss of consciousness. Finally, Orimine was able to put down the elf with a well placed eldritch blast and then it was one of Helenas’s knight protectors that struck the last blow against the wererat. Badly shaken, the party checked to make sure that the bite Orimine had received had not infected her with lycanthropy and collapsed back into bed to sleep through the rest of the night as best they could.
In the morning, Bethra and Harian escorted the not-so-well-rested party to a great hall where they were introduced to the planetar Gedrion, Commander of the 15th Battalion of the Shining Fortress. Gedrion was somewhat cold in his manner, but told them that Kaethel had exited by the portal to Trevalior and that he would allow them to exit by the same route. He also questioned them about their activities and hearing about the threat from the Eternal Battlefields said he would send his forces to assist the party and their allies in fighting the devils if they passage could be arranged.
With that, the party decided to move directly on to Trevalior. Bethra and Harian accompanied them to the portal and before they left, at Harian’s encouragement, Bethra handed Helenas a token, the wings of Varun wrapped around a rose, crafted in silver, which she requested be left at the site of her old village if they should ever find themselves there. With that, the party turned and marched through another portcullis, on their way to the capital …