The half-orcs had fewer than twenty seconds to prepare for the giant owlbear. Grabthar and Torg, both enlarged by the sorceress, stood in the open to draw the creature out and expose its flank to Zac’s and Spear’s bows. Ten Thousand Skies piled healing onto the barbarian and stayed close behind him to deliver more as needed; Olena and Eshah spread out behind the warriors with plans to curse and then topple the owlbear as it moved into the reach of their enlarged weapons. The bard bolstered all with an inspiring performance.
And then it emerged: an amalgam of fur and feathers, more than twice the height of the Stag Lord’s beast, and wearing finely crafted custom barding of studded leather. Its red-rimmed eyes twitched with blind rage. Grabthar roared a bestial challenge. The bizarre half-bear, half-owl monstrosity raised its huge, ursine claws in anger, howled its acceptance, and charged at the barbarian.
Zac’s first arrow found its mark, but Spear’s went wide. Olena’s enchantment of bad luck contributed to the owlbear’s slip in Eshah’s grease just in front of Grabthar. The raging barbarian smashed the prone monstrosity; it suffered two more crushing blows from the warriors as it stood. With shocking speed, the giant beast swatted Grabthar with an awesome blow, sending the bloodied barbarian up and over Ten Thousand Skies, landing on his back a full (enlarged) body length away. The druid immediately healed Grabthar as Olena hexed the owlbear’s attacks.
Both archers stuck the monster; Eshah followed with a flameball. The smell of burning fur and feathers stung Grabthar’s flaring nostrils as he stood, snorted, and hefted his gigantic earthbreaker as he stepped toward the owlbear, ignoring the druid shadowing and healing him. Torg actually stepped back, using his enlarged reach and polearm to land a powerful strike from twenty feet away. But with a single stride, the huge beast could rake the fighter, and the force of the attack knocked him sprawling.
Zac struck with another arrow and vanished; Spear’s shot went wide but Eshah’s second flameball landed. The owlbear blinked away the fiery flash to see the business end of blurred earthbreaker, which cracked it across the beak. The enraged monster ducked under Torg’s next attack and shredded the barbarian with a furious flurry of claws. Ten Thousand Skies spoke words of druidic power and pressed his hand on Grabthar’s back, as much to help keep the deathless warrior upright as to heal him.
The ninja reappeared, firing three arrows in quick succession: the first hit the owlbear at the base of its skull, the second under its feathered arm, and the third in the center of its broad back. The owlbear stumbled back one step, then toppled forward like a felled tree, kicking up a cloud of dust when it slammed into the packed earth, dead.
The half-orcs healed and steeled themselves to re-enter the cave and eradicate the remaining dangers. They dispatched the remaining violet fungi and another shrieker at range and torched the spiders in their web-filled nest nest. The shambling mound had apparently fled from its smaller cave through a large crack out the side of the hill.
The owlbear’s lair was a huge deep cavern that contained a large nest of bones, rocks, fur, and feather piled against one wall. Behind the nest, the half-orcs found a human male body which appeared to be a barbarian bandit who died of owlbear-inflicted wounds within the last fortnight. The corpse lit up Eshah’s spell of magic detection with substantial gear including an unusual ring. Ten Thousand Skies identified the ring’s power as similar to a ring of animal friendship but affecting magical beasts – such as owlbears. The ring of bestial friendship was made from a lock of green hair woven around several small gemstones.
The dead man also carried a map of the Greenbelt with Redemption and the owlbear lair clearly marked in sweeping green Sylvan, with the Common translation scrawled roughly over it in black. In the bottom margin was written “My Love” in green cursive Common.
Following a final passage deeper into the lair, the explorers found the fly-covered carcass of another giant beast, surrounded by at least a half dozen dead bandits. A quiet, pitiful hooting from behind the dead owlbear – which was nearly the size of her mate outside – revealed three owlbear cubs, one of which was still alive. The dead cubs, and their mother, bore fatal longsword wounds.
The starving cub was terrified but had no strength to flee. Zac applied his wilderness training, attempting to calm the beast, but it snapped at the ninja’s extended hand. Ten Thousand Skies’ wild empathy was more effective, especially coupled with proffered food and water. At the druid’s urging, the group agreed to not kill or abandon the cub, but instead bring it with them.
Ten Thousand Skies coaxed the baby owlbear away from its dead mother and out of the lair, using snacks to distract the cub from noticing its dead father being stripped of its valuable barding. The cub continued to follow them until it was exhausted – which didn’t take long – and then the druid fashioned a sling to carry the swaddled little beast as it slept – which it did almost the entire ride back to Redemption (when it wasn’t eating).
Upon their return to the capital, news of the leaders’ victory swept throughout Sazerac, dramatically improving the kingdom’s morale. With the Greenbelt fully explored and all significant threats neutralized, the half-orcs devoted the next year to dramatically expanding, developing, and improving the kingdom.
During this period:
- To support the booming construction industry, Sazerac expanded into the Narlmarches. After receiving the counsel of consent of their fairy allies, Melianse and Tiressia, the leaders met with Corax, whose lumber operations (and influence in the region) had expanded significantly through the forest. Despite his fey-hating prejudices, the leaders successfully negotiated the incorporation of Corax’s logging territories into the kingdom.
- Fork’s old bull died. Bully had become a Redemption fixture, visible from much of the town as he grazed in a small pasture outside the hilltop castle. Upon hearing the news, Fork’s former Restov noble sent a letter of condolence, along with resources for a new tavern, the Blind Bull, to be built in the capital in Bully’s honor.
- Sazerac’s western expansion reached Tatzlford. The village had grown into a sizeable (though sparsely populated) settlement due primarily to the enthusiasm of founder and mayor Loy Rezbin and his wife Latricia Evanore, a priestess of Erastil. Mayor Lezbin and the community welcomed Sazerac’s annexation of Tatzlford.
- During the leaders’ extended visit to Tatzlford, a charismatic orator named Grigori gave speeches in Redemption criticizing and denigrating their leadership and building a wellspring of support among the disaffected settlers. Upon their return, the leaders engaged Grigori in a public debate; Grand Diplomat Bardelay was able to use his considerable eloquence to discredit the rabble-rouser and win back the trust of the townsfolk. The leaders followed the fleeing Grigori back to the inn; the innkeeper indicated that Grigori had been in town less than a week. When they confronted Grigori, the rabble-rouser vanished with a wicked grin. They interrogated his horse and learned that Grigori had ridden from the west, beyond the Narlmarches; possibly from Fort Drelev.
- Suspecting that outside forces were actively working against their growing kingdom, Ten Thousand Skies asked their fey allies about the names “the Queen of Forgotten Time” and “the Green Queen” . The druid first visited the pranksters, Tyg-Titter-Tut and Perlivash. At the very mention of the names, the grig shrieked, the fairy dragon gasped, and both turned invisible and flew away. Ten Thousand Skies waited for their return. After three days, Perlivash, still invisible, whispered in the druid’s ear – “you must not speak her name” – then fled again. Melianse was pleased to see the druid, but when he raised the topic, the nixie’s eyes went wide and she shook her head as she sank beneath the surface of her pool. She did not resurface. The dryad Tiressia was slightly more forthcoming with her fellow weather druid, though her satyr consort Falchos pleaded with her not to say anything. Tiressia whispered that those titles (which Falchos insisted she not repeat) belonged to the same creature: a powerful nymph from the First World. The satyr then played his pipes; the haunting melody nearly made Ten Thousand Skies forget what he had heard, but the willful druid resisted the supernatural enchantment. Tiressia apologized for the desperate satyr’s deception: “He is only trying to protect me – and you.”
- A new settlement, Hallowed Grove, was founded with the restored Temple of the Elk at its center. The settlement soon became a spiritual destination for all in the kingdom – including the boggard Garuum, who moved from his soggy lair into new housing near the temple. Olena spent time with Garuum (who had fully converted to worshipping Erastil), improving his proficiency with the native language of croaks and belched pops spoken by boggards.
- Olena and Bluss approached the Old Beldame about adding the lands surrounding “her” swamp to Sazerac. The witch reluctantly assented but requested that the leaders leave the area undeveloped. Olena agreed, and Marshal Bluss promised to restrict traffic through the area.
- Rathus Kinn requested an audience with Eshah, which the ruler granted. When Rathus arrived with his 19-year old son Roland, he was surprised to find all of the half-orcs present, but said “I thought it would be good for all of us to get to know each other a bit.” It quickly became apparent that the intent of the meeting was to introduce Eshah and Roland (who did get along well), but the perceptive young ruler detected that there was more to it, particularly given how the young man stared at her. Rathus explained it by noting that “Roland’s nursemaid was a half-orc.” Roland added “you look just like her.” Rathus laughed off his son’s comment: “He hasn’t seen many half-orcs.”
- Deep in the woods of the western Narlmarches, the abandoned elven keep was restored at the heart of a new settlement, Findeladlarapolis, named for the elven goddess of art and architecture.
- The leaders returned to Candlemere Lake, where they eliminated the remaining will o’ the wisps that haunted the island and dispelled the malevolent aura that exuded from the tower ruin. The settlement of Candlemere was established around the rebuilt Candlemere Tower, which was soon occupied by a wizard of fine repute.
- Further expansion into the forest west of Candlemere led the leaders back to their ally, Frek. The king of the lizardfolk was thrilled to join the kingdom. Frek proudly reported that under his leadership, the tribe no longer ate sentient humanoids. They were, however, very concerned that the will o’ the wisp which masqueraded as the Spirit of Stisshak was not among those killed at Candlemere.
- In Redemption, the Menagerie of Magical Beasts was constructed to house and study the leaders’ rescued owlbear cub (which was already a head taller than Grabthar) and other monsters displaced by the civilization of the Stolen Lands.
Autumn in Sazerac brought a new charter from the swordlords:
The leaders collected what information they had about Varnhold and the Nomen Heights, dusted of their exploration gear, saddled their horses, and set out east from Olegburg along the South Rostland Road (except for Bluss, who stayed in Olegburg to attend to some kingdom business).
With an eye toward further kingdom expansion, the half-orcs fully explored the fertile grasslands around the well-traveled road, then quickened their pace as the landscape became more rugged. On the fifth day, they reached Fort Serenko, a wooden fortification had stood for years on the southern border of Brevoy. The half-orcs found that the fort had been abandoned, evidently in a swift but orderly manner. They camped in the empty but secure structure.
Continuing east, the next evening brought them to Nivatka’s Crossing, the southernmost village in Rostland. The village, surrounded by a wooden palisade and set on the northeastern bank of the Shrike River, was an alert town of tradesman, hunters, fisherman, and trappers. They were sturdy, down to earth folks with stunted senses of humor and a healthy suspicion of visitors. They stayed over at the small inn, but spent most of their time at the tavern. The more socially skilled half-orcs were able to learn several rumors about the area, and also compile a list of potential quests they could undertake while exploring.
The half-orcs crossed the Shrike and headed south on the road to Varnhold. The next day, they passed over the Kiravoy River on a wooden bridge of new construction, surrounded by hills already been developed for farming – all evidence of the efforts of the settlers of Varnhold.
They entered a wide valley between two low mountains of the Tors of Levenies. In the late afternoon, Varnhold came into view: more than twenty buildings spread around a ford in the Kiravoy River, above which stood a low, flat-topped hill; atop this hill stood a hewn-log stockade and blockhouse. As they approached the village, Ten Thousand Skies spied a thin column of smoke drifting upward from within the stockade’s compound.
They tied up their mounts and moved carefully into the village. The first structure they passed was a poorly built farm cottage with a muddy pigpen – which held a feral hog the size of a horse that had apparently broken into the pen to feed on the bodies of his starved kin. The monstrous boar spotted the half-orcs and charged, smashing through the split-rail fence. The hog resisted the druid’s attempt to charm it and survived the initial battery of magical and physical attacks from the half-orcs, but was felled by a massive raging strike from Grabthar.
They searched the cottage and several other nearby homes, all of which showed signs of being derelict for at least several weeks, though they appeared to have been abandoned in the midst of normal activities. One of the houses also held the shop of a tanner. Behind the structure was a fenced enclosure with three strangely incomplete horse hides stretched upon it. Zac grimly confirmed that they were centaur hides missing the humanoid portion.
The ground sloped steeply down the river bank, where the Kiravoy ran wide and shallow. As the half-orcs waded into the ford, a huge lobster-like creature with a thick armored shell and a mouth full of writing tentacles rose from a deeper pool just downriver: a chuul! The monster shrugged off a precision bow shot from Zac and Torg’s approaching strike and, despite being hexed by Olena and blinded by Eshah’s glitterdust, grabbed Torg with a monstrous claw, then transferred the fighter into its tentacles; Spear’s bardic magic gave Torg the boost he needed to shrug off the tentacles’ paralytic secretion and break the grapple. Grabthar landed two devastating blows, but it was the weather druid who killed the chuul, calling a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky to fry the monster.
As the chuul’s charred carapace drifted downstream, the half-orcs crossed the ford. The opposite bank rose at a gentler slope into the town proper. Ten Thousand Skies’ stopped Olena with his spear shaft just before the witch stepped onto a camouflaged trap: a 20-foot deep pit lined with poisoned spikes. “Someone else has been here,” Zac said quietly as he inspected the crude trap. “The settlers of Varnhold wouldn’t place a trap in the middle of their own thoroughfare.”
The explorers checked a few more cottages; all were abandoned. They reached the village commons, a greensward occupying the center of town, and moved on to the two-story inn with a sign above the door depicting a madly galloping horse with a green mane and a fish’s tail extending from its hindquarters: the Waterhorse. A single word was hastily scratched into the wood on the front door: “NOMEN.” The door opened into a common room. The tables were still set with rotting plates of food, but that was far from the strangest sight: a small humanoid that stood, silent and perfectly still, facing a paper-strewn table in the corner of the room, one hand clutching a book. A shimmering nimbus of amber surrounded the unmoving form. Olena identified the field of force as a triggered sepia snake sigil. “You must not read from the book,” she instructed, pointing at the tome the creature still held.
The creature looked like a disheveled, ugly gnome with grey skin, large pointed ears, a bulbous nose, scraggly hair and a patchy beard. Spear identified it as a spriggan, a violent and malicious offshoot of gnomes with the supernatural ability to grow to immense size at will. The back of the spriggan’s skull was a shattered mess of blood and bone, though his face betrayed no notice of the mortal wound. Olena tried healing the spriggan, but her cure spell had no effect through the amber field. Eshah detected no remaining magic on the book the spriggan held: Secrets of the Rashalka Mounds.
The papers on the table appeared to be research materials, including several books with titles like Iobarian Prehistory, The Centaur Skyles of Central Casmaron, and The Untold Heritage of the Taldan Armies of Exploration. Among the works was an incomplete ethnography of the indigenous tribes of the Iobarian steppes. Mixed in with the books were a number of charcoal sketches of a heavy jade bracelet bearing peculiar markings which the researcher – presumably the missing professor Ervil Pendrod – had attributed to the pre-migration Nomen centaurs.
At the bottom of the stack sat a letter dated 2 months prior from Maegar Varn and addressed to Maestro Pendrod. The letter described the discovery by Willas Gundarson, Varn’s trusted Ulfen march warden, of the jade bracelet on the banks of “a river of local provenance” and requested Pendrod’s presence for further study of the artifact.
A search of the inn’s rooms revealed that Pendrod was the only guest. Among the more mundane possessions in his travel trunk was a small library of further reference works. The tomes seemed to be of less immediate relevance to his current research, but Olena noticed Pendrod had marked and reproduced a passage in a centuries-old geography book created by one Carmyn e’Brothasa, chronicler of Taldor’s Third Army of Exploration into the north:
Pendrod’s own handwriting in the margin of the text contained a simple but strange note: “Vordakai – perhaps a Nomen centaur god?” The book, frustratingly, did not provide a location to the semi-mythical island mentioned in the text, nor did it provide any further clues to Pendrod’s cryptic note.
They took Pendrod’s books and research notes, as well as the valuable violin hidden under his bed. Not knowing when the sepia snake sigil would expire, the half-orcs bound the spriggan and hanged him from a noose from the inn’s signpost as a warning to any others who may be following them.
Past the inn was the village’s small church; the familiar bow symbol of Erastil hung above the doors. It was simply furnished with wooden pews and a humble altar – and obviously had been looted, but the thorough explorers located a hidden drawer in the altar that held several scrolls the priest had stashed in case of emergency. The small cemetery held 14 grave markers, the last one standing over a fairly fresh grave; it read “Andrisha the Potter” and was dated six weeks prior.
The half-orcs passed another cottage; a number of wooden children’s toys lied abandoned in the front yard. Inside, the cramped house was occupied by six beds and a loom: this was the home of the colony’s weaver and his family. Eshah spotted a calico cat hiding beneath the loom and watching them warily. After Zac failed spectacularly to befriend the animal, Ten Thousand Skies offered the half-starved pet some dried meat and earned its temporary trust. The druid then magically spoke with the cat, Dragon. The feline was eager to complain: “My feeders left me in the red-sun time when they heard the new bird song. I was busy eating a bit of fish and did not follow them out. My feeders did not come back and I am now quite hungry for some more fish!” Olena helped translate, offering that “red-sun time” likely meant evening/sunset and “new bird song” may be some sort of music. They propped a shutter open so Dragon could go out to hunt.
They crossed the commons to a long, low building a sign showing harness for a horse and a blacksmith’s anvil: the livery and blacksmith. The fenced yard held the carcasses of horses and other livestock, decomposing and ravaged by the crows that continued to pick at them. When they entered the yard, the crows began aggressively flapping and cawing. In response, a huge murder of crows flew out of the hay loft doors. The half-orcs withstood scratches and tears rom the crows’ claws long enough to disperse the swarms with a combination of might and magic.
From the livery yard, the back of the wooden two-story blockhouse was 200 feet due south, with a palisade of sharpened stakes reaching out to twin watch platforms to form the triangular stockade on the far side of it. With daylight fading, they half-orcs decided to make straight for it. Their approach was cut short by precision crossbow fire from the loopholes on the second story. They withdrew and sought cover in a nearby farmhouse.
They decided to delay until nightfall before assaulting the stockade. While they waited, they explored several other structures, including a grain barn infested with rats and the home of the local gemcutter, which was nearly demolished by looters. Zac crept unseen to a sod house dug into the base of the stockade hill. Lying among the debris strewn about by looters was a small wooden box; lying near it was a book that had been torn apart at the spine. Zac collected the loose pages in the box and snuck back to the others.
The book was about three-quarters filled with handwriting in Skald. Eshah cast comprehend languages and determined that it was the journal of Willas Gundarson. It recorded Willas’ career as an ranger in the company of Maegar Varn and included a description of several skirmishes that occurred between the colonists and a tribe of barbaric centaurs that inhabited the hills east of Varnhold, which the Ulfen ranger called “the Nomen centaurs.” The last entry was dated just over a month prior and related a mundane scouting report of Varnhold Pass. An earlier page was dated a month before that and simply said “Found bracelet by the river.” – the rest of that page had been torn away. The next page bore a single large rune inscribed in charcoal; Spear recognized the run as an archaic Ulfen symbol to ward off bad luck.
Surprisingly, the box detected as magical. Olena identified it as a folding boat, apparently overlooked by the looters.
After sundown, the half-orcs prepared to again approach the blockade, but this time taking advantage of stealth and surprise. After casting spells, reading scrolls, and drinking potions, they started up the path that led to the gatehouse. Zac, under the effects of invisibility, ran silently ahead and smashed three vials of alchemist’s fire at the base of the other watchtower. Flames started to creep up the wooden tower as Zac rejoined the party on their charge to the gate. Unseen guards shouted out from both towers. Grabthar and Torg lowered their shoulders; the wooden gate exploded into splinters.
Ten Thousand Skies, with divine fire burning in his open hand, rushed inside; above, a lone spriggan guard on a high platform raised his heavy crossbow; ahead, another spriggan standing near a central bonfire tripled in size, pointed at the druid, and barked a command at the four dire wolves clustered nearby. Ten Thousand Skies hurled a fistful of flames, striking the guard; Eshah threw a flameball at the same target. Olena conjured a sleet storm in the yard, blinding and slowing the snarling dire wolves.
Rendered blind by Spear’s magic, the smoldering spriggan guard tried to escape by jumping over the palisade. Torg and Grabthar moved to the edge of the sleet and waited for targets; the first dire wolf to emerge was dead before its paw touched dry ground. The remaining three all fell quickly by earthbreaker, lucerne hammer, and wakizashi.
The half-orcs repositioned and readied for the witch’s conjured storm to expire. When it finally did, the bonfire was extinguished and the yard was empty. Zac crept forward – and was slammed by an anvil which flew from a small outbuilding with an open front. Eshah greased the floor of the smithy, toppling the giant spriggan, who was then blinded by Spear and crushed by Grabthar and Torg.
Before they could take a breath, Olena and Ten Thousand Skies were struck by crossbow bolts shot from the rooftop of the blockhouse. Spear drained a potion and vanished; Zac dove behind a shed, and others rushed forward to put their backs against the blockhouse – but the barbarian fell into a camouflaged pit trap, narrowly avoiding being skewered by the poisoned spikes. A spriggan on the roof shouted an order; three small spriggans emerged from a tool shed and storehouse and fired their crossbows at the half-orcs lined against the blockhouse; the druid took another hit.
Eshah’s glitterdust blinded all three of the shooters. Torg lowered and braced a rope; Olena cast blood scent on the warriors as the barbarian quickly climbed out of the pit. The haggard gnomes grew into hale giants, but they all soon fell under Zac’s arrows, Ten Thousand Skies’ called lightning, Eshah’s flameball,, and the warriors’ blood rage.
Gathered against the blockhouse, the half-orcs healed their injuries before Grabthar and Torg broke down the door. The short hallway was lined with loopholes; Grabthar, Torg, Ten Thousand Skies, and Zac all suffered more wounds before the warriors broke into the next room and killed the shooters. Eshah, guarding the rear, saw four more giant spriggans crawling down the outside of the blockhouse; backlit by the rooftop fire they’d started, the sorceress she could see that one of them wore better armor, wielded an intimidating greatclub, and seemed to be directing the others. Eshah alerted her teammates to the new dangers and targeted the chief (named Agai) with a glitterdust, blinding him but suffering a deep wound from another spriggan’s enlarged halberd.
Grabthar continued to push deeper into the blockhouse; the other half-orcs poured back out into the yard, unloading attacks on the climbing spriggans. Eshah turned to run to a safe spellcasting distance; she gasped as the point of a halberd poked out of her chest. As the spriggan withdrew the bloody blade, Eshah’s eyes flared with fire and a gout of flame burst from the deep wound. She fell to the ground, unmoving.
The battle in the yard was close and brutally fought, but the half-orcs ultimately prevailed. Grabthar confirmed that there were no more threats inside the blockhouse – “but it is on fire.” Eshah, healed back to consciousness, and Ten Thousand Skies used their minor water creation spells to put out the rooftop fire.
They tended to their collective wounds. The only spriggan with any magic was Agai: the chief wielded enchanted weapons and carried a bag of holding, which contained a substantial collection of treasures, some of which were obviously looted from the village. Other items included a wand of spectral hand, a single ring of friend shield,, and an exquisite darkwood and ivory +2 thundering composite longbow. Ten Thousand Skies identified the workmanship of the bow as being similar to that of several other centaur tribes of Iobaria – upon closer examination, he suspected that it was Skybolt, a sacred ancestral relic of the Nomen tribe. Zac graciously volunteered to carry the bow.
The weary half-orcs rekindled the bonfire, tossed the spriggan bodies into the pit, set up a watch rotation, and camped in the yard.