The Varnhold Vanishing
It has been three years since Queen Rhoswen tried to escape her prison. The realm grows, and - largely by acclaim - has been named Eadfria, after the fallen hero of the nation. The guard in particular - especially the veterans who remember his leadership in the early days - mark his death each year with a brief ceremony outside the barracks in Lakeside. Of the other explorers from twelve years ago, only Aldwulf is still adventuring: Guthmund was lost when he succumbed to lycanthropy, while Alhandra has retired from the dangerous life and now runs the hospital in Lakeside, leading a small team of clerics and alchemists who heal all comers.
Cuichelm and Aldwulf, with their newer companions Owena and Coenred, have been travelling around the realm, but it has been a quiet few years. A few isolated incidents with apparent fey incursions, and strange portals opening, caused some alarm: but each time, the problem was easy to solve. A travelling half-orc, Hinnerk by name, met the heroes while they were investigating one of these, and despite some initial caution, he has become a valued member of the team.
Lamashan was always considered a bad month. The Mother of Monsters, Lamashtu, is its patron: and it is viewed as a time when evil things crawl in the darkness. Small wonder, then, that it was in Lamashan that the silence from Varnhold became too long to ignore. A long summer, a good harvest, and established trade had led to Eadfria being in a celebratory mood, and when the previous month's caravan did not arrive, no-one was too concerned. When the second caravan in a row was late, then a week late, then two: the council asked the heroes to investigate, and so they set off. The long journey over the mountains is safe enough now, patrolled on both sides to keep bandits and monsters at bay, and despite the exposed position of the Pass Road, the great roc does not often attack groups of travellers. It seemed like a quiet trip, with little to worry about, until the heroes entered Varnhold Vale.
The Vale was quiet. Too quiet. The outlying farms were deserted, with nothing moving beyond the crops in the breeze. There was no birdsong, no hum of insects: only the wind made any sound. Varnhold, too, was deserted: the town was empty, with no people to be seen. Some hogs had starved in their pen, but the bodies were undecayed; no scavengers had touched the corpses. Apart from that, there was no sign of life anywhere.
A slow and cautious investigation was the next step: each building in turn was checked. The doors were unlocked, and some stood open: meals and mugs of ale, undecayed, stood on tables in the inn; but any footprints had long been washed away by rain. The deserted town stood, a mute witness to whatever had removed its inhabitants. Three clues only were there:
- Carved into the inn door, likely by a dagger, the single word NARON. Everyone recognised this as the name of the centaur tribe to the east, who were known to raid Varnhold lands on occastion.
- The guest room of Maestro Pendrod, a researcher and former teacher of Maegar Varn's. He was staying at the inn, to research a heavy jade bracelet that had been found "near the source of a river, in the mountains". His notes mentioned the centaurs, suggesting the bracelet might be ancient centaur workmanship, but they tailed off abruptly, with the last page repeating the mysterious word Murammon.
- A beautiful darkwood and ivory bow, found in the fort: Owena recognised it as centaur workmanship.
The party set off to the East, relieved to hear wildlife again as they travelled away from Varnhold. A couple of days' ride away from centaur lands, they were attacked in the night by two shadow mastiffs, apparently summoned or teleported directly near their camp. Who did this remains a mystery...
And so, the heroes left the fertile river valley and crossed the barren lands. It was rough terrain, and slow going, with rocky table-lands separated by sharp ravines. On the evening of the third day, an unexpected sight lay before them as they crossed a ridge: a beautiful river valley, rich fields and stands of trees bathed in the evening sun. It was separated from the desert by a strange wall of mist, and when Hinnerk bravely ventured through, he found shapes in the mist that sapped his energy and his strength. What's more, the inside did not reveal the idyllic landscape he had expected: the ground was barren and scorched, and burned centaur corpses lay scattered all around. Hinnerk, still attached to his safety rope, went back to fetch the others. Several of the centaurs' skeletons stood up and attacked but, despite the fatigue caused by the spirits in the mist, the heroes were able to defeat them. Hinnerk cast a spell to speak with one of the departed spirits, and asked his three questions:
- What killed you? - "Burning ghosts"
- Did you or your tribe cause the disappearance at Varnhold? - "I don't know".
- Where can we find out more about what killed you? - "I don't know".
The other thing that Cuichelm picked up on was that the standing stones along the inside of the mist wall bore runes: the same style of runes, he thought, as in the drawing of the bracelet they'd found in Maestro Pendrod's room.
And so, planning more questions to ask - wondering how to find more concrete information - the heroes paused to rest, while Coenred helped Cuichelm recover at least a little of his energy. They pressed on, finding strange rectangular shapes in the grass, that looked like ruined buildings now lost beneath the soil. From the size of them, they must have been huge: either grand palaces, or built by giants. Aldwulf pointed out that centaurs are not a race of builders, not in stone: they prefer mobility and a semi-nomadic lifestyle. With the sun setting, Cuichelm conjured a shelter for the night, which kept everyone safe until morning.
Stepping out of the hut, Cuichelm spotted some shapes moving in the wind: moving against the wind, towards the hut. They were ashy, flying fast; and the heroes gathered in the hut to defend. Unfortunately the walls proved more of a barrier to the heroes than to the burning ghosts, beings of living ash and embers that drained the moisture out of their victims' bodies. Coenred and Owena almost died; and when Coenred tried to negotiate with the ghost it simply hissed - "you can burn". Before it died, it taunted the heroes: "Just wait until Mhokor finds you..."
Scorched and drained, the heroes continued their march to the East. They'd left the valley floor and progressed into rolling terrain, hillsides and valleys, when the ground around them started to move. Coenred scrambled up some nearby rocks for a better view, and saw hordes of undead rising from the ground. There were too many to fight, so the heroes ran: Aldwulf took a strong lead as he nimbly scrambled down steep slopes and dropped off a small cliff, while Cuichelm stayed back a little to delay the burning skeletons with spells. They stumbled out through the wall of mist, not knowing exactly where they were: but it was now springtime, compared to when they had first crossed the wall. Green shoots in the dry grass, and on the sparse bushes: and a light rain in the air. Cuichelm suspected the rune-carved stones were somehow connected, but studying them would be a dangerous task with the undead all around.
Fortunately, the undead did not pursue them through the mist. Soon, however, they met a party of centaur hunters. The leader - Iosis Redmane - was hostile, speaking in Sylvan and demanding "Why did you come out, when our kin did not?". Cuichelm tried to allay suspicions, explaining that the area was infested with burning undead, but the centaur was not convinced: after all, the wizard is not the most charming and diplomatic of people. Eventually the centaurs agreed to escort the party south, to the tribe's elders, but it was grudging acceptance at best. This changed when Owena pulled the centaur bow out of her haversack, offering to return it to the tribe. The leader's demeanour became much more welcoming, much more positive, and she said that the bow Skybolt was an ancestral relic that had been lost for years.
Now as honoured guests, not barely-tolerated trespassers, the party headed southeast with the centaurs. They camped for the night, halfway through the journey, but the night's sleep was disrupted by a scream. The centaurs went to investigate as the weary heroes prepared to defend themselves, but two of them soon reappeared, panic-stricken. "We must flee!", they said, and the party made a desperate retreat through the night. They caught up to the centaurs as the sun was rising, and learned that an evil being, thought to be a legend, had attacked in the night. After some discussion they decided to continue through the day, despite the lack of sleep: and in the evening they arrived at the centaur village. The three elders, in their open-sided pavilion, were welcoming, especially when Iosis told the story of Owena returning Skybolt. They discussed the curse on the centaur hunting grounds, and the emptying of Varnhold: but it seems that two forces are at work. The Nameless Evil, a shadow that stalks in the night before bursting into flame, would have left corpses behind, but its handiwork was visible in the hunting grounds. Aldwulf mentioned what the ghosts had said - the name Mhokor - and felt a chill, as if something had walked across his grave.
Not all the centaurs were as welcoming. A younger group, led by Danide Thunderhoof, claimed the heroes should "go back to Varnhold". Owena took on Danide and two other centaurs in their traditional challenge, a run through the Blood Furrows where the ancient bulette Kankerata hunts. Though she was wounded, Owena emerged triumphant - the first two-legs even to attempt the run, and the rescuer of Xamanthe, a centaur who was caught when one of the caverns collapsed.
The next day, the elders offered some advice. They did not know who Murannon was: but they knew where advice might be found, though always at a cost. Olah-Kakannor, the Stone of Ghosts, lay three days' journey to the South. There, the spirits could be asked questions, though there was always a cost for their advice. There was also a way to release Aldwulf from his curse, the petals of the moon-roses: an ancient centaur story told the tale of Aecora Silverfire, a mythical hero who had faced down Mhokor and survived. With Xamanthe as a guide, the heroes set out. On the third day, Aldwulf suddenly spotted a towering figure, watching him, though the others could not see it. It abruptly teleported right next to him, struck him with an open hand, then vanished: but not before the others had seen the figure, robed in black and with smoke rising around its feet. Xamanthe refused to go any further, just giving directions "over the ridge to the South", and she ran back to her people.
The heroes soon found the Stone of Ghosts. It was a tall, rough rock, standing on end in a shallow bowl-shaped valley. All around it, thorny vegetation grew, and scattered bones lay in the undergrowth. The heroes advanced, preparing for battle, but nothing attacked: these were, it seemed, just bones. The runes on the stone were of two types. There were ancient elven runes, hard to read with the much larger, more recent, runes carved over them. The newer ones looked something like Giant, or at least a related language, while Cuichelm and Coenred were able to decipher the older runes. They were a spell of warding and concealment, guarding a distant place, and the newer runes were a modification to that ward. What they meant was not clear, so Coenred prepared a prayer to his goddess: "How can we get useful information from Murannon about the disappearance of Varnhold?"
Moments passed, and nothing seemed to happen. Coenred began wondering if the ancient magic of the ghost-stone, or perhaps the spirits themselves, was interfering with his prayer. Then the stone began to resonate. It shook, vibrating like a struck bell, and the runes seemed to flow around and over each other like twisting serpents. The ancient elven runes rose to the surface, shifting and changing. On the East side of the stone, facing the dawn, the message became clear:
You seek the old one - go to the old places You seek the guarded one - go to the guarded places You seek the dead one - go to the dead places He is behind the mirror He is outside the hours He is beyond the tower He is coming
The heroes stopped to wonder what this meant. They knew two towers: the ancient elven watchtower, now ruined, in the Varnhold Pass; and the haunted tower on the island in Candlemere, the lake for which Lakeside was named. Either of these was an old place, a dead place, and a tower: but only one, perhaps a third tower as yet unknown, would be the place to go. The temperature dropped fast before nightfall, with Aldwulf and Cuichelm feeling it most. As the sun set, and mist rose in the small valley, spirits began gathering around the Stone. They were part-formed, indistinct faces above limbless torsos, but they spoke, asking "What questions will you ask?"
The centaurs had said there was always a price. Always a price: and yet asking the questions could gain much. The questions varied, from what preparations they should make to face Murannon - Hinnerk's question - to Cuichelm's question of how they could find the way. Cuichelm felt himself compelled to cleanse the ancient elven tower, the one in the high places, and Hinnerk was told to trust nothing that is dead: every dead thing will be your enemy. The price asked was to leave the bones of the guardian behind them. Aldwulf feared this was a reference to Mhokor, the figure that had been haunting his dreams and days, but the truth was perhaps more horrifying. The scattered bones joined together, tumbling into the giant skeleton of a dragon, and attacked.
Hinnerk was first to fall, bitten almost in two by the monster's jaws. Aldwulf, invisibly sniping from cover, managed to strike at the skeleton's weak points, and it soon fell; Hinnerk's spirit did not depart but was held to his body by the magic of the ghost-stone. The spirits, taking on more form as they strengthened, pushed him back into his battered corpse despite the pain: and as he screamed, his injuries were shared out among the others. Alive, though injured, he rose again, and the smaller skeletons that formed from the giant ruin were easier to defeat.
As peace fell once more, Coenred plucked one of the roses, stumbling through the brambles to do so. In an elaborate ritual, he called for Sarenrae's blessing to lift the curse on Aldwulf, recounting the story of a man who prayed for relief, and woke to a brilliant dawn with his curse removed. The rose began to glow then vanished in a flash of blinding light, and the heroes collapsed unconscious where they stood...
Everyone had strange dreams. They awoke, refreshed despite the night, and set off to the Northwest, to the tower that Cuichelm was geased to cleanse. The phantom chariot carried them across the plains and up, up into the mountains, though eventually they had to leave it behind as the terrain grew too rough and steep. Passing through a valley, they saw the ruined guard-wall ahead, fragments of the rock visible through the snow. On that last approach, with Cuichelm and Hinnerk feeling fatigue due to the thin air, a pack of wolves attacked them. The desperate predators were driven off or slain, and the destination was in sight as the sun fell behind the mountains to the west.
The wall across the valley was a crumbled ruin, only barely visible through the snow. As the heroes crossed its line, they all perceived a body falling from the top of the wall, crashing into the ground near them. Though it was just a manifestation of their fear, Sir Tinkalot was crushed beneath it. The danger continued as they made their way up the crumbling rocks to the tower itself: both Cuichelm and Owena slipped, almost falling to the ground far below, and a magical defense kept them climbing endlessly for an hour until Aldwulf looked past the illusion guarding the doors. Inside, the tower was haunted: ghostly soldiers, slain in swaths of blood, had Aldwulf and Tinkalot fleeing from the entrance-hall, while the first floor with the former barracks was occupied by a hungry fog: a strange negative-energy ooze, inhabited by skeletons. Cuichelm's quick thinking saved the day, as he formed a perimeter of wind that kept the mindless creature at bay while the heroes were able to destroy it.
Hinnerk then explored up to the second floor. A lookout platform held a beautifully-crafted spyglass, still pointed down the valley to the East, but when Hinnerk looked through it he saw the approaching army that had attacked the tower long ago. Large, armoured humanoids, advancing in formation in the early morning, and then an illusory stab in the back that left Hinnerk feeling paranoid and hyper-vigilant. Alone, he continued to the top of the tower, where a solid wood door stood closed tight.
The door was locked, but it was held closed by magic as well. After Coenred opened it, and the party safely bypassed the haunt at the entrance, Hinnerk's elf spirit scouted ahead. Or was it back? The elf-spirit saw the past as well as the present, a lone soldier trying desperately to hold the door against the attacking cyclopes, while the tower commander sent a message to alert the capital: the tower was falling. The commander himself still sat at the desk, a skeletal corpse dressed in a fine robe, and he was willing to talk, though confused about exactly which century it was. He told the heroes that Murannon had been Lord of the Eastern Marches, responsible for the defense of the mountain range, but that he had never sent the relief force they were expecting. His palace was near Dragonprint Lake, though no trace of it remained above ground now. The other notable information was that Murannon himself was a master of teleportation, and the South Tower was the best place to stop next: either it would give a way in to the palace, or Murannon himself would be there.
Before leaving, the heroes stopped to search for the soul of the traitor, the one who had opened the gate to the attacking cyclopes. She was a pitiful thing, a fragment of a memory, who knew only that she had been so afraid in her dreams. Dreams every night, and a compulsion to open the gate: with that known, the commander was a step closer to being released from his undeath. He gave the heroes his ward-key, that would let them past the defenses of the tower, and the staff he had used to communicate with the ancient capital.
The journey to the Southern Tower was supposed to be an easy one: down the valley, then a ride on Cuichelm's phantom chariot for three days, then a short climb up to the mountain pass. Hinnerk was suspicious of the chariot, but was persuaded to climb aboard, and continued being wary - even of his friends - for the rest of the day. Coenred tried removing the curse on him, but to no avail: and this caused problems the next day when the party stumbled across a band of hobgoblin slavers. The organised team were returning from a raid, with around a hundred slaves tied together. They underestimated the heroes, thinking they were merely more slaves to capture, and received a rude surprise when Cuichelm managed to hit several of them with a Confusion spell. It was still a tough battle, draining almost everyone's resources, especially as Hinnerk was still resisting spells. After the fight, the freed slaves reported that the slavers had been making raids for months now, carrying people off to somewhere unknown. This was another problem to deal with, it seemed...
Just before dawn, Coenred crept up on where Hinnerk was sleeping. If he tried removing the curse in the darkness, while Hinnerk slept, perhaps the inquisitor would not resist. But Hinnerk was sleeping lightly, woke up, and Coenred feared all was lost. Fortunately, he was too groggy to resist, and the curse was broken. Hinnerk realised how irrational his behaviour had been, and was freed of his paranoia.
The next day, the heroes arrived at the ruins of the south watchtower. The gate-pillars stood alone, the walls around them and the doors they once held long since destroyed. Between them, the air shimmered: and, cautiously, the heroes explored through the teleporter. It led to dark rooms, small and cramped, but with beautiful decorations on the walls. Everyone was in separate rooms, isolated and in the dark. When they found each other, they headed upstairs, through the kitchens and then the public rooms of the buried palace. It was not completely underground, with no natural light, and though Aldwulf scouted ahead, they kept encountering haunts and traps that eroded their morale and resources. The atmosphere was oppressive, with strange echoes making it hard to locate sounds, and a creeping sense of dread.
Coenred began to suspect Aldwulf first. He asked about the reason for all the attacks, all the danger, but Aldwulf brushed him off. Soon, though, the party entered the atrium leading to the teleportation circle. The doors slammed shut and the statues of the four seasons came to life: all except Autumn. This was a dangerous ambush, but what made it worse was that Aldwulf also attacked the others. Only a supreme effort, with all the heroes battered and bloodied, enabled them to destroy the construct that had been impersonating Aldwulf. He told them what had happened when they arrived:
The only thing in the room where he appeared was a strange statue. It was expertly carved, and the stone of its clothing almost seemed to move like cloth, but its face was completely blank. It turned towards him, and he felt himself falling. The next thing he knew, the statue looked like Aldwulf, his body had disappeared, and the statue was walking around in his form.
After a night's wary rest, barricaded in the atrium, Cuichelm began to investigate the controls for the teleportation circle. It offered a range of locations, from "Chapel" to "Bathroom" and "Inner Sanctum". A few mishaps ensued; Coenred's cloak was stained with black ink, and Coenred and Aldwulf ended up teleported to the chapel instead of the study when Owena bumped into Cuichelm as he set the controls. The chapel contained statues of the ancient elven gods of time - past, present, and future - and Coenred realised that the line "outside the hours" meant that Murannon had been cursed and cut off from the gods. Perhaps time was not flowing like it normally would, not here...
And then Cuichelm made a decision, ignoring the others, and teleported them to the bathroom. Sure enough, there was a tunnel behind the mirror, and when Hinnerk smashed the mirror the heroes were able to advance. They made their way down a long flight of stairs, deep underground, to a windowless room with tiers of seating like an amphitheatre. Over a hundred figures were sat, facing a chalkboard at the front, on the benches: but they were corpses, the tops of their skulls and their brains removed. Hinnerk used his magic to speak with the corpse of Maegar Varn, and found that all of Varnhold had followed the sound of "strange dreams in the night". The heroes concluded that Murannon had used the ancient jade bracelet as a scrying focus, before teleporting the residents of Varnhold here, and eating their brains to extract knowledge on the new world he found himself in.
Beyond the auditorium was a small study, where Cuichelm found a spellbook and a book called "On the nature of teleportation and conjuration". He wanted to spend time studying it, but when he touched it he found that it was trapped: green slime started eating away at his flesh, and only some quick thinking by the others prevented him from being dissolved. They caught the slime in a jar, put it on one of the lab benches, and proceeded to explore further. A secret door behind the bookshelf led to a corridor full of walls: fire, ice, mist, and bone: and on the other side they found Murannon in his inner sanctum. He was arrogant and over-confident, taunting the heroes instead of attacking full out, and they managed to injure him to the point that he fled to recover. They followed, back to the auditorium, where a long and bloody battle ensued. Coenred made a brilliant intervention with a silence spell, interrupting Murannon's spellcasting, while Hinnerk and Aldwulf worked together to bring down the ancient lich. After a dangerous moment when Hinnerk was almost paralysed, Aldwulf landed the finishing blow, and Murannon's lair began collapsing around the heroes. They took just a moment to stuff the remains of the lich into Cuichelm's haversack, before fleeing the imminent collapse.