(Warning: This story ends with a violent tragedy that may upset some folks. Proceed with caution. If you are concerned, here is a SPOILER: it involves the death a child)
Adrienne as Orethyia “Thyia” Burke, Human Monk of the Path of the Four Winds
Crystal as Kizz, Halfling Cleric, Wandering Priestess of Avandra
Jay as Petrov Merrin, Human Wizard and Scholar
Joe as Ugarth, Half-Orc Fighter, Mercenary and Soldier
Travis as Daxil “Dax” Loren, Human Rogue, Agent of the Librarians of Caleborn
Wesley as Theran Lantadal (Treeskin), Wood Elf Druid, Healer, and Follower of the Spirits
Hawk and Bear
Following their exploration of the Ancient Tomb, the party decided to make camp and rest before continuing their journey to the lake. As the party had a simple lunch, Theran noticed a hawk alighting in a nearby tree, staring at the party. Something about the way the hawk was silently watching the party attracted his attention and he began to approach it, with Daxil following nearby and the rest of the party trailing along. The hawk took wing and flew into the forest, keeping just ahead of the party so they could easily follow it.
They came upon an injured adolescent brown bear in a clearing. The creature had been peppered with arrows and lost the use of one of its legs, but had been left to die. The crude arrows suggested that the wolfheart gnolls had attacked it. The injured bear tried to defend itself in fear of the party, but the party was careful not to injure it further. Theran was able to use his healing magic, ultimately, to help the bear. Three bloodied arrows were left behind, but the party had no interest in them.
The hawk returned still watching the party and the heroes continued to follow it.
As Luck Would Have It…
Meanwhile, in the forest, a wandering halfling cleric entered a clearing near the edge of a steep bluff. While she enjoyed her own lunch, the wind carried a soft, somber song to her ears. A faceless angel of Avandra descended from above and beckoned the halfling forward.
But the party suddenly emerged into the clearing. They saw the halfling and a scraggy mountain harpy singing its ensorceling song and enticing the halfling toward the cliffs edge. As the party went to her rescue, a flock of harpies revealed themselves in the trees and a fierce battle ensued.
When the battle was over, the halfling revealed that she, too, had been hired by the Baroness Corianna Aralayne and had been sent a few days behind the party to catch up. For the moment, the party was intent on continuing their journey, so they decided to keep the introductions brief. The forest was proving to be quite dangerous.
The Albino Stag
The party continued its journey for some time and then, Theran, still leading the way, spotted a pale creature shadowing the party, a snowy white stag. Theran again decided to follow the stag and the party had no choice but to go along with him.
As the stag lead them through the woods, the temperature dropped. Eventually, they came to a snow-covered clearing (despite the season and the clear sky) with snowflakes drifting in the air. A massive fir tree dominated the clearing and a number of odd trinkets (mostly old junk) lay scattered about, half buried in the snow.
Theran felt the place was important to the spirits. He paid his respects and laid his ceremonial cudgel at the base of the tree as a gift. Ugarth offered a war trophy, Kizz offered a lucky coin, and the party left a few other gifts as well. Then, they continued on their way.
Soon afterward, just before evening fell, they found themselves at the lake and decided to make camp just away from the shore.
Lights in the Darkness
As the sun set, the party noticed a glowing mote in the mountains to the south east of their location, like a lighthouse on the horizon, but high up. As the sunlight faded, so too did the golden light. The party briefly discussed investigating it, but concluded it would be too far a walk and they were unprepared for mountain climbing.
There was a brief bit of excitement when a hawk soaring overhead with a recently killed rabbit was attacked by a second hawk. A scuffle dropped a dead hawk and rabbit right into their camp. A lucky bit of dinner.
Later on, as the howls of wolves welcomed the nearly full moon, they noticed a campfire flickering amongst the trees down the lakeshore from their position. Kizz, Daxil, and Theran decided to investigate.
Camping nearby, the party discovered three hearty young humans. The oldest, a boy in his late teens, the youngest a preteen boy, and in the middle, a teenaged girl. All three were well-equipped for camping in the forest. The girl was cleaning a freshly killed rabbit. All three were remaining fairly quiet.
In the form of a mouse, Theran scouted the camp. He noticed that the camp had an odd smell, like ammonia, that irritated his nostrils and made it difficult to smell anything else.
The party decided to greet the children. Urman Jagrson, the eldest, introduced his sister, Lissa Nassasdottir, and their younger brother Jona. They were friendly and trusting of the strangers and invited them to share their camp. Lissa seemed a little suspicious about the party, but Urman quickly shushed her. Urman sent Jona to get more kindling and invited the party to go break their own camp and then come back to share their fire. It became clear that Urman and his sister wanted to talk privately and the party wanted to do the same, so the party acquiesced.
Returning the camp, a short while later, the party found Jona already asleep by the fire. Lissa was sunk into sullen silence and Urman was ladling out cups of rabbit and vegetable stew. All three children seemed to be remarkably competent.
Through idle chatter, the party learned that the three children came from a small village on the shore of the lake, about a day’s walk from the camp. Their mother was a hunter and their father used to be and they had grown up in the forest. The children were on their way to see their uncle, a trapper and furrier who “preferred to live alone.”
The conversation was difficult. As clever and competent as the children were, they were not particularly worldly. While the party wanted to learn more about the village (Highwald), the children couldn’t offer much in the way useful information. The village had hunters, fishermen, a few vegetable farms, lumberjacks, and a sawmill.
The party asked about the strange light in the mountains, which Lissa explained was a tower devoted to the gods, but no one went up that way. She seemed to scoff at the idea of visiting it, for some reason.
Conversation turned to the dangers of the forest. And that is when things took a sour turn. The children were quite familiar with the gnolls – everyone in the village was. The gnolls were depraved creatures who delighted in slaughter. If they picked up your scent or your trail, they would follow you for days to ambush you. The children seemed convinced that the camp was in danger. They had not passed through gnoll territory and they had learned how to cover their trail long ago. Every hunter knew how to hide their trail and mask their scene.
The party revealed they had done none of that.
Lissa and Urman became grim and nervous at once. Lissa immediately snuck off into the forest to search around the camp to see if she could spot anything while Urman tried to convince the party to break camp immediately. He felt the light was good enough and he was a good enough trailblazer to get the party back to the village by noon the next day if they marched hard.
The party was not convinced. They were exhausted, having fought hard all day. After the skeletons in the tomb and the scuffle with the harpies, a forced march with no chance to rest was a terrible prospect. But Urman insisted that being ambushed in the night by the gnolls would be a death sentence.
The party toyed with the idea of staying behind in camp and letting the children return to the village alone, but ultimately decided on a forced march.
Urman and Lissa were angry, but set about their various tasks efficiently. Theran noticed Lissa making a small offering to the forest spirits as they cleared the camp, buried their fire (and the leftover stew) and covered their tracks. Urman blazed the trail, Lissa followed behind, dragging a spread sheet and scattering scent mask behind her.
Too Short a Childhood
It was too little, too late. The gnolls had indeed followed the party. And by the time the party started moving, their scouts were close enough to hear and see the group. The party was caught completely by surprise.
Wolves leapt out of the forest, trying to take down the party’s rear guard. Archer gnolls fired arrows over the wolves and then joined the fray with primitive axes. The brutal monsters were wild and furious, but efficient. Their wolves had suffered brutal treatment and had been well-trained as a result. Jona panicked and tried to run and one of the wolves, trained to pick off the strays, lunged after him. The party barely managed to rescue him. Kizz tackled Jona and calmed him down.
When Lissa was injured, Urman flew into battle like a berserker, screaming and howling, but to little effect. Theran tried to cover the girl, but he fell to the gnolls attacks as well. Ugarth struggled to protect the furious boy. Eventually, the party left the gnolls and their hunting wolves dead, but they had suffered casualties. Theran was badly wounded, but alive. Thaiya was able to bind his wounds and Kizz brought him back to consciousness.
But Lissa was not so lucky.
Urman was enraged and inconsolable, but slowly got himself under control. Ugarth was reminded of soldiers on the battlefield who lost friends but knew they had to keep fighting. He reflected that this must not be the child’s first brush with tragedy for him to be able to swallow his emotions and do what must be done. The party had to keep moving now, in case there were more gnolls nearby. Lissa’s tiny body was wrapped in a cloak. Urman told Jona she had fallen asleep and they were going to carry her back. The young boy was still in shock over the gnolls and simply followed along, stunned.
Just before afternoon, the party, bearing the young girl’s corpse, reached the village of Highwald on the border of the Winter’s Edge Province…