- Alabastor Quan, a gnome rogue-turned-illusionist and failed circus ringmaster; wielder of a cursed dagger and member of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild.
- Armand Percival Reginald Francois Eustace de la Marche III, a suspiciously pale, apparently human noble and sorcerer, and certainly not a ghoul (how dare such a thing be suggested).
- Caulis, a homunculus warlock liberated from its master; has made a pact with certain Faerie Powers.
- Garvin Otherwise, a human rogue and burglar of the Ravenswing Thieves’ Guild, with a very, very peculiar past and a zoog pet, Lenore.
- Yam, an eccentric gnome illusionist and local graduate student at Umbral University. Yam cares little for money. Yam is curious. Yam is Yam.
XP Awarded: 400 XP
The long winter of Hex showed no sign of letting up. Spring was now long overdue, and as the days and weeks passed, things were looking increasingly dire. The river remained frozen, crippling the city’s port and thus stunting vital trade. Consequently, businesses were struggling. Farmers outside the city were growing increasingly concerned as their fields remain buried by snow. The dagonians had gone into a torpor, most sleeping from fourteen to twenty hours a day, a handful slipping into states of near-hibernation. The waspkin stayed in their hives, shutting down most of the city’s messenger services. Fungoids had disappeared from the streets, fled underground to avoid the cruel frosts. Only the city’s trollbloods seemed to be enjoying the bracing weather, holding raucous celebrations in Goatsbridge and Trollhome, the rickety shanty-town on the south shores of Hex which extends beneath the bridge.
Newspapers and rumours were full of ominous suggestions. If the winter did not end soon, many worried that the reserves of food would eventually be depleted and famine could result. The threat of starvation was worrisome enough, but the merchant class had a more abstract but no less serious fear – the economic damage being inflicted by the lingering winter had gone from irksome to potentially catastrophic. Fortunes were in danger of disappearing, with losses in the millions of guineas, if not more.
Meanwhile, however, the party were busy deciding what to do with the newly recovered Book of Dreams. Debates raged – should they give the Oneironomicon directly to Melchior? Could they conceal their activities from the Velvet Shadow? Could they stow the tome at the shrine of the Thirteenth Queen?
Eventually, a compromise was reached, and the party decided to place the precious grimoire in a safety deposit box at the Bird & Key City Bank, Hex’s most secure financial institution, where it would be magically warded with various non-detection spells and magical traps. Though expensive, this would keep some would-be thief from divining the book’s location. For added precaution the group required several passwords from at least three of their number to be stated as part of the access conditions for the box, and even disguised the book itself with an illusion just to be safe, making it appear quite mundane to the casual reader. These measures taken, the adventurers considered their next move. Cephalus, unfortunately, was now in a state of extreme torpor, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that something needed to be done concerning the terrible winter. Wondering what was being done on the part of Hex’s authorities to remedy this calamity, the party resolved to visit Master Melchior – although, they agreed, they would not tell him that they had recovered the second of the Greater Mysteries. Not yet.
Meanwhile, Garvin had once again visited the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen. Here he scrawled a portal using the Portal Chalk, establishing a more secure point of return from wherever the party ventured next.
Several members of the expedition that retrieved the Book of Dreams met at the Green Star to decide their next move. Yam had a particular favour to ask of the group, but another situation seemed more dire: the winter itself. Emboldened by their success with the Oneironomicon, the group wondered whether they might investigate the seemingly preternatural winter.
“Cephalus is half-asleep these days,” Alabastor pointed out.
“And this winter is unnatural,” Caulis said with distaste. “I’m supposed to be growing new leaves this time of year, but look at me.” The homunculus gestured to its barren limbs.
“Yes, I’m even beginning to worry for some of the specimens in my greenhouse,” Armand said, having completed several additional experiments involving his window of metamorphoses and certain botanical cuttings taken from the Nightmare Tunnels and elsewhere. “The conditions are such that they can survive for some time without the benefit of summer sun, but eventually even the most hardy plants will die if this winter continues.”
“The Evokers at the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm probably know what’s happening,” Caulis pointed out. “Perhaps we should try there.”
“Could be. Do you think we should talk to the trollbloods in Trollhome?” Alabastor said. “They seem to be the only ones happy with this situation.”
“I also wonder about the other reality we saw,” Armand said. “The vampires of Erubescence… could this be their work?”
“Perhaps we should go to Master Melchior,” Garvin suggested. “He’s supposed to be this powerufl archwizard, he must have some ideas. And maybe he can give us an ‘in’ with the Evokers.”
“That’s a good idea,” Yam said. “My problem is… well, it’s stable. If everyone in Hex dies because it’s too cold, it won’t matter anyway.”
So resolved, the party returned to the School of Thaumaturgy & Enchantment, passing through the griffin-guarded gates, Garvin noting that his waspkin friend at the university seemed healthy enough despite the ravages of cold. Once in Melchior’s study they found the brain without its usual illusion, but after making themselves known, Melchior conjured his phantasmal semblance.
“How goes the hunt for the book?” he asked eagerly.
“Very well,” Armand said smoothly – and not untruthfully. “But we have run into something of a snag. One of our party members, Cephalus, is much-afflicted by the cold. You must have noticed the winter outside?”
“Yes, most unfortunate,” Melchior said, waving an illusory hand at the window. He seemed a bit detached from the harrowing weather beyond his walls. “I’m sure Octavia and her weather-witches will have it sorted soon enough.”
“We’re worried it might be more than a spot of bad weather,” Garvin said. He and Armand explained about the vampire-ruled version of Hex they had discovered during their expedition into the Nightmare Tunnels, glossing over some of the details of the Portal Chalk. This news seemed to startle Melchior from his lassitude.
“This is most disturbing,” the archmage said. “Yes, you’d best talk to Octavia Greyleaf at once. I’ll write you a letter of introduction to let her know you can be trusted.” He took quill and ink and scribbled a hasty note – all magically of course, the feather floating in mid-air – then sealed it with his personal sigil. “You’ll find her in the Weatherspire at the Citadel. I’m afraid I don’t have any further insights myself, but Octavia will know what’s going on.”
As they left the school and headed for Downpour Heights, the party discussed Melchior’s seeming detachment.
“This is what worries me,” Alabastor said. “He seems so… withdrawn from daily goings-on in Hex.”
“This is precisely why well be essential when he does publish his New Organon,” Armand noted.
Setting out east, the party made their way from the Dreamer’s Quarter to Downpour Heights. As they passed through the wards that surrounded the district, the light and sound cordoned off within the district suddenly assailed them, as they were plunged into torrential rains which, in the city’s current winter state, were mixed with hail, freezing rain, and flurries of snow. Thunder rumbled round their ears and flashes of lightning seared their retinas as they entered the gloomy industrial district.
The place was dominated by the Fulgoria, or Lightning-Harvesters, which absorbed the electricity generated in the magically generated stormclouds and stored it in arcane batteries. Windmills and water reservoirs also dominated the district, along with associated machines, many of them gnome-built. The streets themselves, however, were quite uncrowded – a handful of individuals passing through the district could be seen, along with a few technicians and others employed at the generators.
The Citadel of the Perpetual Storm hovered over Hex like some small but ever-present moon, perfectly still, swathed in clouds heavy with rain, illuminated by flashes of lightning. While a handful of flying craft carefully warded against the storm came and went from the floating Citadel, the chief means of access was a single, rather precarious-looking cable car which extends from the street up to a tiny entrance near the bottom of the chunk of floating rock on which the Citadel is built.
The Citadel, of course, was the university of evocation. In centuries past this branch of magic was most associated with warfare – fireballs and lightning bolts and the like – and this military aspect had never been fully expunged, as evinced by the dour stone keep that dominated the flying castle. These days, however, the elementalists and weather-witches trained at the Citadel had a different focus: namely, energy production. Creating winds, water, fire, and lightning and then using these elements as power sources has helped to catapult Hex’s industrial ambitions, transforming it from a small university town into an economic powerhouse and a marvel of engineering. In addition, the faculty at the Citadel managed the weather around Hex to ensure bountiful harvests. Clearly, something had gone rather terribly wrong…
The normally near-deserted streets grew suddenly crowded as the party approached the cable car station. A sizable mob of people had gathered about the small station. Enraged, the crowd seethed, besetting a hapless pair of Evokers – uniformed in the livery of the Stormguard – blocking the entrance to the station, along with a handful of Warders, the city’s elite arcane police.
“They’re responsible for this! They’re experimenting on us, like rats in one of their labs!” one of the mob cried out, raising a cudgel. Rain and wet snow pattered off the assembled dissidents, some shielded by umbrellas, most drenched to the skin. “We need to go up there and make them stop! They’re killing us!”
“I assure you, we’re doing everything we can to change the weather back to normal!” one of the Citadel wizards insisted. “If it weren’t for us you’d all be buried in ten feet of snow!”
“Liars!” a woman shouted, and someone else hurled a rock. Several Warders growled an incantation and the stone-thrower was paralyzed, chains of magical force wrapping themselves round their limbs. Another Warder conjured a ball of swirling vapour, holding the spell ready to cast.
“The tram up to the Citadel is currently closed,” the Warder stated, teargas-ball at the ready – a fresh-faced but tough-looking man with gleaming spectacles. “Please disperse.”
The crowd roared in agitation.
“We need to get through somehow,” Alabastor said, thinking.
“I’ve got an idea,” Yam said. “Get ready to move.”
“Wait, what?” Garvin said, but it was too late – Yam had conjured a flash of illusory lightning, followed by a cantrip to add a thunderclap a moment later. The crowd shrieked and dispersed madly, shoving and tripping; the party hurried forwards. Armand was seized – his finery, perhaps inciting the ire or greed of the distinctly working-class crowd – but Garvin, having hastily conjured shadows to pass through the crowd without trace, grabbed the sorcerer and pulled him through the crowd to the station.
“Our thanks,” one of the Stormguard said. “That was a sticky situation.”
“We’ll overlook the improper use of magic to start a panic,” the bespectacled Warder said. “Now, what do you want?”
“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf,” Armand said, presenting Melchior’s letter. The guards, seeing the seal, relaxed.
“Very well. You can go on up,” one of the Stormguard affirmed. “Inside, take the elevator up and head right for the Weatherspire.”
The group gave their thanks and hurried inside the damp cable car station, packing into the warded car. One of the Evokers pulled a switch, and the car began to move.
The rickety cable car slowly made its way up towards the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm, the lightning playing about the flying castle growing louder and brighter as it ascended, the car’s tinted windows shielding the party from the worst of its flash. As the car got higher and higher a view of the city spreads out below. Snow-covered rooftops extended in every direction, while the ice on the Radula river glistened coldly. Smoke rose from thousands of chimneys as the inhabitants of the city burned through vast quantities of wood and gas to keep themselves warm.
The cable car was swallowed by the floating rock on which the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm was built, and came to a stop in a large room carved out of stone. A short walkway led from the car to a platform with an elevator beyond. Guarding the lift wee two mechanical automata that seem to be possessed by elemental spirits – one seethed with steam and fire, its furnace glowing orange, while the other crackled with electricity, a generator humming and sparking. Both had the appearance of ornate suits of armour and carry massive swords.
“State your identity and the purpose of your visit to the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm,” the guardians intoned.
Elemental Guardians, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).
“We’re here to see Octavia Greyleaf on behalf of Master Melchior,” Armand repeated, again presenting the invitation. The guardians scanned the sigil, then assented. The group hurried into the lift and took the elevator up through several levels, arriving in the bailey of the Citadel. From here they made their way to the Weatherspire, a tower fashioned from a glittering fulgurite, a massive tube of glass formed from where a lightning-strike hit the earth. The gleaming crystalline mass had been carved with windows, doors, and balconies, reinforced with metal. Within, a spiralling stair led up to an observation platform where a number of exhausted-looking wizards and other spellcasters were casting a steady stream of spells into the surrounding clouds, apparently attempting to change the weather from its wintry conditions.
They found Octavia Greylead, the leader of the weather-witches at the very top of the Weatherspire in a large chamber in which an illusory map of Hex and the surrounding countryside has been conjured, complete with weather-patterns. The map seemed to update itself in real time, and was being projected by some sort of gleaming iridescent device that looks to be of Librarian origins.
The woman studying the swirling mass of clouds intently looked basically human, but her eyes shifted slightly in colour every few moments, and her slightly pointed ears marked her as a changeling. Her hair was bright silver, gathered back in a tight bun. She looked vexed.
“Who are you?” she asked warily.
“We’re here to help!” Yam proclaimed.
“Help with what?”
“What? You’re here to help with the winter? What are you talking about?”
“We’re here on the recommendation of Master Melchior,” Armand said, handing Octavia the letter. She opened it and scanned it with her ever-shifting eyes, ringed with dark circles.
“Well, Melchior seems to think you’re capable enough,” she said. “I suppose we can use all the help we can get, at this point.”
The party introduced themselves properly, identifying some of their affiliations, such as Umbral University.
“Can you tell us anything about the storm?” Garvin asked. “You seem to be trying to control it.”
“Trying. And failing. The cold weather isn’t just persistent,” Octavia said. “It’s magical – and, I’ve come to believe, sentient.” Beneath her grim assessment, she almost sounded a bit giddy, excited to be explaining this strange theory. “If this weren’t so potentially cataclysmic this would all be… fascinating. It’s been clear for some time that the weather won’t just dissipate, that something out there is generating these strange weather patterns. But it’s more than that. Every time we strike back, every time we try to engineer some counter-effect – to shift the winds, to warm the air, or cool it – the weather responds, reacts in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It moves around us, avoids our every attempt to make it stop. This” – she gestures to the snow-covered vision of the city – “This is the best we can do. A stalemate. An unstable equilibrium. We’re desperately countering every move this thing is making. But it’s getting wilier. It’s adapting, I swear, learning our techniques, compensating, faster than we can stop it. It’s not just that the winter isn’t ending. Soon it’s going to get worse. A lot worse.
“It’s also clear that this long winter is purely a local phenomena. Nornhold, Tetractys, Erubesence, Verdigris – they’ve all had mild, short winters. It’s only here that it’s sticking around.”
“What could be causing this?” Alabastor asked.
“I have… well, I have a theory,” she said. “I think it’s an elemental; in fact, several elementals, somehow fused into a single gigantic being, a sort of gestalt. Air, obviously, is the main component, but there’s water as well, and even fire, to create the warm fronts needed to help generate so much snow. The resulting spirit is massive, distributed, and infinitely cunning. And it’s only getting stronger. If I’m right, we can’t wait this winter out, and we can’t rely on our normal means of changing the weather. If this winter is alive… we need to kill it.”
“Where exactly is this coming from?” Caulis asked.
“The storm is blowing in from the north,” Octavia says. She twitched her fingers and the illusion shifts, moving northwards to display a rugged country of dense woods, crags, hills, and sharp peaks. “Troll Country.”
Alabastor’s eyes narrowed. Like most gnomes, he had grown up with many stories of trolls and their depredations, for trolls and gnomes have an ancient hatred, the former often hunting and enslaving the latter. He knew them as they had appeared in his parents’ stories: as gigantic brutes, flesh-eaters, cruel and stupid. He had met trollbloods in Hex, of course, but had always avoided them.
“Monsters,” Alabastor muttered.
Caulis, as a scholar, knew more of the trolls and their history with Hex. Hundreds of troll tribes dwelt in this harsh, unforgiving lands north of Hex, some of them having interbred with the local hillfolk. While in past centuries troll raids were a severe threat to Hex and made trade through this region difficult, Hex’s growing magical might eventually drove the trolls back into the depths of this land, sending many fleeing into the caves that riddle the area and wind down towards the Sunless Realms below. Some of the friendlier troll tribes, such as the Goretooth Tribe, had even become allies of Hex, albeit tentative ones, rewarded for their support of Hexian interests with goods and favourable trading agreements; others had been appeased with treaties, offering the trolls token sovereignty and safety in exchange for their non-aggression. Caulis knew also of the terrible magical weapons Hex had used in its subjugation of the troll-tribes – acid rains, gorgongas, eldritch contagions, madness-inducing mists, conjured volcanoes, and other arcane cataclysms. Such weapons had left Troll Country scarred and, in places, near-uninhabitable.
“You said it’s an elemental… or a bunch of elementals,” Yam said. “Like some sort of elemental orgy?”
“Well, I suppose…” Octavia said.
“How could this sort of elemental spirit be created?” Garvin asked.
“There are two types of elementals,” Octavia said, assuming the tone of a lecturer. “Feral, and conjured. If this is a feral elemental – or a group of elementals that have somehow intermingled – then it’s totally unprecedented in size and power. Feral elementals form when some ambient magical energy causes inanimate matter to self-organize, become intelligent. Alive. For a feral elemental of this size to form, there’d have to be some absolutely massive source of ambient magical energy. I don’t know what could be generating that kind of power, but it should be pretty damn obvious. Like… a down Librarian spacecraft or something.”
Yam’s eyes widened. The others exchanged looks, several thinking of the Book of Stars.
“On the other hand, there are conjured elementals – elementals that someone, a spellcaster, has brought intentionally into being. If that’s the case, the caster might be able to dismiss the elemental – or, if they were killed, its possible the entity would disperse. But such an individual would have to be immensely powerful.”
“So, have you sent anyone to look into this?” Armand asked.
“We sent a team of Stormguard and Warders north several days ago, but lost contact with them after they passed north of Wilderwatch and into Troll Country proper. We don’t know what happened to them. If you can find out, the Citadel would be grateful.”
“If we follow them, where should we head first?” Garvin asked.
“I’d head to the Goretooth village,” Octavia said, pointing on the illusory map. “The chieftain there, Gyrd, is reasonable enough, and friendly to Hex.”
“We’ll need an interpreter,” Caulis pointed out. “None of us speak Giant. Is there anyone here that could help?”
Octavia hesitated. “Well.” She swallowed. “There aren’t many here who’ve studied the tongue… except, well, my daughter. Vanessa. She’s an officer and new graduate of the Citadel. But she’s young, and a little brash.”
“We need someone to translate,” Armand said. “We’re capable.”
“Alright, alright. She can go with you, but take her no further than the Goretooth village. At least she can provide some supervision here.”
“Alright,” Alabastor said. “We’ll also need transportation. I saw some dirigibles…”
“Well, now that you seem to have become an official search party, we can help you in that regard. An airship, the Fuschia, is heading to Wilderwatch later today anyway; you can catch a ride. Until the blizzard abates, getting any further north is too dangerous by air.”
“Where can we find Vanessa?” Armand asked.
“She’s down on the observation platform,” Octavia said, her voice somewhat strained, but resolute. “Do you need any other equipment?”
“Healing potions and cold weather gear could be useful,” Garvin said.
“We can provide you with both. I’ll have them loaded onto the Fuschia.”
Vanessa Greylead, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).
The party next headed down to the observation platform. Here they found Vanessa Greyleaf, amidst the group of weather-witches casting spells into the storm.
“Vanessa?” Armand asked.
The woman turned, revealing an eyepatch over her left eye. Her right eye shifted in colour, like her mother’s.
“That’s me,” she said.
“We’re heading into Troll Country,” Caulis said. “Your mother told us you could act as our translator.”
She wiped sweat from her brow. “Finally, some people ready to do something about this. I’m in.”
After equipping themselves with cold weather gear and healing potions from the Citadel’s stores, the party boarded the Fuschia, a dirigible warded against the Perpetual Storm. The captain, a jaunty gnome, introduced himself as Jeremiah Catseye.
“Any advice for travelers heading into Troll Country?” Yam asked.
The Fuschia, as illustrated by Bronwyn McIvor (Caulis’ player).
“Hmm. Stay outta the Dreadmists,” the gnome replied. “Turn your brain ta mush. Muddles everything up till ya can’t tell what’s real from what’s not.”
Having boarded the airship, the group steeled themselves for the journey north, the Fuschia taking to the sky and departing the Citadel. The land below was domesticated – rich farmland, although currently covered in snow and frost. The Tangle brooded darkly to the west, a constant, eerie presence. Several villages lay along the road north; these include the settlements of Thistle, Gnomesbridge, Greensworth, and Highstone. After several hours of flight, the dirigible put down in Wilderwatch. The snowy little village lay on the very edge of Troll Country. Protected by a once-study stone wall, now fallen into disrepair, the settlement was tiny – a few houses, a smithy, a brewery, and an inn were its most notable structures, apart from the imposing bulk of the Fortress of the Order of the Goat, stronghold of the knightly order once charged with protecting Hex and its citizens from the “savages” to the north.
After disembarking from the airship, the party headed first to the Giantslayer’s Inn, hoping for some rumour of the Stormguard squad or any other clue as to goings-on in Troll Country.
The inn was a rambling building of five storeys, the largest in town unless one counted the mouldering pile of the Fortress. The sign depicted an armoured warrior with a bloody sword in one hand, dragging behind him the massive head of an enormous giant in the other, held by the hair. Inside, the inn did not disappoint: mounted on the walls were the skulls of dozens of trolls, giants, and fearsome beasts, a few of them actually stuffed and preserved. The most impressive was a gargantuan giant’s skull, shelves set in its open mouth and eye sockets glistening with liquor. A huge map of Troll Country was nailed to one wall of the establishment.
A stout, one-eyed gnome tended the bar, using a magical ring to adjust his size to reach high shelves. More gnomes busied themselves about the bar, all of them young women.
With a blizzard raging around Wilderwatch and throughout the surrounding region, the inn was quiet. A few traders, hunters, and farmers made up the crowd, most of them probably locals, while a small handful of trollbloods drank mead in one corner, all of them with prominent tusks.
Alabastor approached the bartender. “Hi there,” he said. “We’re fresh in from Hex. Wondering if you know anything about the Evokers who came through here.”
“Oh yes,” the gnome said, shrinking down to size to speak to Alabastor. “Name’s Archibald. I meet pretty much everyone who comes through this town. Saw those Stormguard come through, headed up north. I think they were headed over to the Goretooth village, where those fellas come from.” He nodded over to the trollbloods in the corner.
“Who killed all these trolls?” Yam asked, staring up at the skulls.
“My ancestors,” Archibald said. “They settled this land, fought off the trolls who terrorized these parts. The inn’s been passed down ever since.”
“Tell us about these Goreteeth,” Alabastor interjected. “Are they trustworthy?”
“Sure. Trolls aren’t a duplicitous bunch. Just mean, and bloodthirsty.” Archibald shrugged. He nodded towards the trollbloods in the corner. “Those lot are Goreteeth. Heading back to their village tomorrow. Gyrd – that’s their chieftain – she seems on the level. Might be she knows more about the raids that’ve been ramping up recently.”
“Aye. Haven’t seen the like for decades. A few farms’ve been burned, people snatched.”
“Who’d you think’s behind it?”
“You might ask the old knights up at the Fortress of the Order of the Goat.”
Cautiously, the party approached these trollbloods. Remaining vague about their mission, they asked if the warriors could act as guides, using Vanessa as a translator.
“We’ll take you to Gyrd,” one of the trollbloods assented in Giant. “I’m sure she’ll be curious for news of Hex.”
“Before we turn in, maybe we should head over to the Order of the Goat,” Garvin suggested. The party agreed, and left the inn for the mouldering remnants of the fortress. They were met by a scrawny youth at the gate, who shrilly invited them within after Vanessa identified herself as a Weather-Witch of the Citadel.
Within the keep, the party found a great hall that had seen better days. A fire smouldering in the hearth, illuminating a dusty, ill-kept room with fraying tapestries depicting ancient battles with trollkind. The knights who warmed themselves by the fire here seemed to mimic the crumbling stronghold in their decrepitude – three scarred old men. The leader identified himself as Sir Baxter. The party introduced themselves and asked if the aged knight had knew anything about the recent raids.
“Could be those damn Skintakers,” the bombastic old knight proclaimed. ” We destroyed their villages, you know – drove the savages out, into the hills. The Caustic Wastes, they call their lands now. Whole place got destroyed by acid, conjured up by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm down in Hex. Those Skintakers who survived fled west. Could be a few are causing trouble again.”
Meanwhile, Yam talked to an even more elderly knight, who seemed to be somewhat senile, and spoke grandiosely of battles with giants thousands of feet tall, and days of bygone glory. Alabastor, spotting a shelf of aged books on one wall, asked if he could peruse the library.
“Certainly,” Sir Baxter said. “You’ll find the histories of this land writ there.”
Alabastor began reading, and the more he read, the more a slowly dawning horror filled him. He had been raised to think of trolls as violent, barbaric creatures, but as he read of slaughters and wars, massacres and mass-killings, he realized that things were much more complicated than he had believed. He read of the volcano that had covered whole villages in lava, of the contagious miasmas devised by the luminaries of Caulchurch and the Académie Macabre – a horrific potion, a contagion with which the Weather-Witches of the Citadel tainted the sky above the territory of the Blackhorn Tribe. The clouds rained down a deadly plague that decimated the land itself, a malady that makes everything sick, the Omniphage. He read of the Dread-Mists, conjured by none other than Umbral University itself, which drove thousands mad; of the gorgongas bombings and the fire-storms and the acid elementals. He read of how Hex had sided with the Goretooth tribe in their struggle against their neighbours, of the webs of betrayals and conspiracies and exterminations. He blanched.
Meanwhile, Garvin poked around the ill-guarded keep, piled with trophies taken from the many trolls slain by the knightly Order of the Goat. He snatched a small bird-skull amulet, which he later identified as granting the ability to converse with avians of all kinds.
“We should get some rest,” Armand said. “These trollbloods are supposed to be leaving at first light.”
Enlightened but exhausted, the party returned to the Giantslayer’s Inn.
The next morning, the group departed with their Goretooth guides, setting out at last into Troll Country.
Troll Country was a rugged land carved by wind and wave, a land of rock and salt and snow. From the air the party had seen the jagged coast to the east where the Grim Sea sat cold and grey beneath an iron-coloured sky stretches north, the odd island protruding from the cruel waves. Mountains loomed knife-sharp and massive from the woodlands that dotted the region, firs and pines and leafless elms forming dark patches amidst the snowy moors and rocky hills. Snow fell, and a chill wind moaned across the land like an angry spirit.
It took several hours to reach the Goretooth village, built inside a palisade of wooden stakes. Hide tents and wooden huts crowded round a series of open fires, sending plumes of greasy smoke into the air. A central hall presided over the village, dwelling-place of the chieftain, Gyrd. The forest pressed close about the village, while to the east, through the trees, could be glimpsed the Grim Sea; sheer cliffs plunged down to the water below, with a series of ladders and trails winding down to a thin strip of rocky beach where fishing craft were moored. The gates were guarded by one massive, enormously fat trollblood with massive curling tusks and one scrawny trollblood with an extra arm, who nodded to the trollblood guides and admitted the party to the village with wary looks. They quickly proceeded to the chieftain’s hall.
The interior of the hall was smoky and dim; shadows cast by a flickering fire danced on the columns of carved Dragon-bone and the walls of tanned animal hides. At the far end of this hall seated on a great chair of bones sprawled a huge figure, at least ten feet tall, with greenish-gray flesh. The Troll wore wolverine pelts and leathers; she rested one hand on the pommel of a gigantic iron claymore, and an impressive axe etched with Giant runes leaned against her macabre throne. Her most notable features were her absolutely massive tusks and prominent fangs, which gleamed white and brilliantly sharp in the hazy gloom. Several trollblood hunters squatted about a fire in the hearth, roasting a massive, spitted boar.
“Travelers from Hex,” Gyrd said. Despite her massive teeth she spoke the common tongue with shocking alacrity and only the slightest trace of a giantish accent, a certain stiltedness to her speech.. “What has brought you to Troll Country?”
“We’re looking into the extended winter,” Armand said. “We’ve been sent by the Citadel of the Perpetual Storm.” He gestured to Vanessa.
“We were told you might have some information,” Garvin said.
“I may indeed have information to share,” Gyrd said. “But my relationship with Hex and its citizens has been one of – how is it your people put it? – quid pro quo.” She smiled – a ghastly, gleaming sight that brought to mind wolves and sharks. “There is a price for my assistance in this matter.”
“To the north of Goretooth lands lie the territory of the Bonegrinders,” Gyrd snarls. “Their chieftain is Vornir, called Vornir Childeater for his favoured meal. With the Skintakers dead or fled to the west, the Bonegrinders have grown in power under Vornir’s leadership. Nightly he feasts on the flesh of thrall children taken in raids, troll and human alike.
“The Goretooth Tribe lack the numbers to contest the Bonegrinders’ power. But if Vornir were removed from power, the tribe would be thrown into chaos, weakened, and we could strike. Yet if an attempt on his life were to fail, and a Goretooth assassin were discovered, Vornir’s retribution would be swift. However – if you, a group of outsiders, were to kill Vornir, then even if your identities were learned, the Goretooth tribe would be safe.
“My herbalist, Urdin, is skilled in the brewing of poisons. He may be able to assist you.”
“We’ll have to consider this,” Armand said. He and the other adventurers huddled.
“So, what, now we’re going to commit a political assassination?” Alabastor said, incredulous. “I was reading, back at the Order of the Goat, about the things Hex has done here. We’d be perpetuating some… disturbing tactics.”
“If this Vornir actually eats children, I really don’t have a problem with killing him,” Garvin put in.
“If we do, though, there might be some seriously unanticipated consequences,” Caulis pointed out. “Who knows where this will lead.”
“There must be other options to find out information,” Yam pointed out.
“We should figure out if this Vornir is what Gyrd says he is,” Armand said. “Then we can decide whether to act. Let’s act like we’ll kill Vornir, and we can always change our minds.”
The party agreed to this, and informed Gyrd that they would carry out her request.
“A boat will be prepared for you,” she said.
The adventurers next headed to the herbalist’s hut to procure the poison. The interior of the hut smelled of rot and pungent herbs. Various reagents, preserved organs, stone jars, and an array of talismans and charms were stuffed into rickety wooden shelves around the hut’s walls. Several wrinkled hide scrolls were spread out on a low wooden table, alongside a fat tome open to pages covered in crabbed runic formulae. A squat, bearded trollblood busied himself with herbs and potions in the hut. After the party explained their purpose, the herbalist gave them a dose of Purple Worm poison specially formulated to be effective against trollkind.
Equipped and rested, the party made their way down the cliffs to a waiting longboat. A small group of Goretooth trollbloods rowed them across the cold waves of the Grim Sea, up the coast to the neighboring territory of the Bonegrinders. The party were put ashore and made their way through snowy pine forest and across craggy foothills to the Bonegrinder village.
“I’ll send Eleyin to scout ahead,” Caulis said, and the pseudodragon took flight. “See if she can confirm anything about Vornir.” The familiar sent an image of the village back to the homunculus, showing the layout of the village. In particular she scouted the chieftain’s hall, flitting inside using a smoke-hole. She relayed sensory information back to Caulis. The hall stank of carrion. Heaped in a great pile in the midst of the room were gnawed bones – the bones of children. There was a great hearth in which cooks some sort of morbid loaf which reeks of burnt bones, fashioned, it seems, from bonemeal ground in a great mortar and pestle nearby. Sprawled asleep in a pile of furs was a massive troll, prodigiously muscled but also hugely fat, at least twelve feet tall. A huge bloodstained club leaened against one wall.
Flying back out of the camp, Eleyin dodged an arrow shot from an archer in one of the watchtowers guarding the village and returned to the party. Garvin was especially repulsed by Vornir’s appetites, and his resolve to slay the troll began to solidify.
“I’ll see if I can sneak inside,” Garvin said. “And see if I can liberate the thralls, get them into Hex using the Portal Chalk.”
Cloaking himself in shadow, Garvin skulked out of the forest and stole into the village, clambering over the wall and using his abilities to flit to the thrall’s quarters.
Noting the Hex-made padlock on the door he climbed to the roof and slipped down through a hole in the ceiling. The crude hall was quite large, but within the thralls – humans, trollbloods, and goblins, favoured slaves of trollkind – were crammed into tight quarters. These ill-fed, branded slaves included several children, evidently awaiting their grisly fate at Vornir’s hands.
Addressing the thralls and urging them to quiet, Garvin scrawled a portal on one wall using the Portal Chalk. He entered, slipping into the Hive of the Thirteenth Queen.
“There’s going to be some people coming in,” he told the only slightly-bewildered waspkin hierophants of the Queen in Yellow within. “Don’t panic.”
He gestured to the frightened but intrigued thralls behind him and led them, shivering, from the Bonegrinder’s hall and into the city of Hex.
Images: Skyrim landscape concept art