“We’re out!” Saria did a little dance, flicking off swamp mud from her boots. She then stamped her feet, demonstrating the firmness of the ground which was a nice change. It was just after dawn, their lizardfolk escort had just left, and everyone was happy to be out of the swamp.
Hal looked at the others – Saria was similar to himself, muddy from the knees on down, flicks of mud elsewhere, evidence of insect bites on exposed skin. Vrahl was fully half brown mud and half grey skin tone – being so heavy the goliath barbarian had sunk more deeply into the swampy ground where it was softer. Only Mila looked fresh and more or less unscathed by the swamp. Hal thought it was because the ranger shed mud when she shapeshifted into raven form. Mila’s attendant ravens looked like they were happy to be out of the swamp also. They cawed at each other, at Mila, and at Hal when they saw he was looking at them. Hal looked at The Book of Hyrsam. Like Mila, and unlike everyone else, it seemed to have emerged unscathed from the swamp experience. It wasn’t even damp. Hal was not surprised. For the first time he felt a twinge of irrational irritation. Was he just a puppet of the power behind the book? The halfling touched the book, feeling instantly soothed as the voices assured him of his value. Although they didn’t say he wasn’t a puppet, a part of Hal noted.
“To Goldenfields!” said Mila, taking steps eastward.
“Let’s go to Daggerford first,” suggested Hal. “It’s kind of on the way, and we can check in with Skylar Whats-his-name, and we can get supplies.” And, he thought but didn’t say, I need to get some special ink so I can scribe in this comprehend languages spell into the book. And I need to send off a message to The Lady’s College to tell them of his adventures and the hidden library.
“Oh yes,” said Saria. “I need a bath and some me time. That swamp water gets everywhere.”
“Good to check in with Skylar,” agreed Vrahl.
If eye rolling could make noise, Mila would have released a thunderwave. She stood facing away from them, her face to the sky and shoulders tight. Hal thought her accent was thicker when she was gripped by strong emotion.
“Fine. Ve to go Daggerford.” Her ravens cawed, accusingly, Hal thought.
“I think we should go via Cromm’s Hold,” said Saria, “It’s close by. We can get the latest news, see if we can find out any more about the Cult of the Dragon heading through there.” Hal thought he heard a small growl coming from Mila, who still had their back to them.
They headed north along the edge of the swamp, Mila’s ravens scouting ahead. They’d been going for two hours when Mila stopped everyone. One of the recently returned ravens perched on her shoulder.
“Trouble!” she said, drawing her weapons. Saria and Vrahl followed suit.
‘Urgh! Here we go again,’ thought Hal. ‘Honestly, how did regular people get from point A to point B without a shape-shifting ranger, deadly rogue, and giant-sized barbarian to escort them?’ He caressed the book, feeling his anxiety calm as the whispering soothed and coaxed. The power behind the book wanted to investigate, to know what Hal knew, to see what he saw, to experience as much of the world as possible. Hal still wasn’t sure how much was the power, or a segment of that power, or how much was the book. He wanted to know, and the book responded, promising Hal would know, the book would tell him, not to worry.
Cromm’s Hold had been a medium sized keep with thick walls. Now it was just massive amounts of rubble. Nothing remained except the broken stones from the walls.
“What could have done this?” asked Saria, her mouth hanging open in shock. The rest were likewise stunned at the devastation.
“No bodies,” said Vrahl.
“No tracks,” said Mila, looking around. “Well, there are tracks, but they appear to be of the defenders, and most fled. If an army did this, it was a ghost army.”
“Dragon attack?” asked Hal. “It might explain lack of bodies, and lack of enemy tracks.”
“We need to look at the rubble,” said Saria. “See if there are scorch marks from dragon breath.”
They looked around, keeping a wary eye out. They found that amongst the rubble there were huge round stones, which had obviously been used to batter the keep.
“Giants,” said Vrahl. “They use shaped stones like this.”
“But no tracks,” Saria reminded them.
“Flying castle!” said Hal. “I’ve read history books about giants, I think cloud giants, using flying castles!”
“Over here!” Mila was standing next to a round granite boulder near where the centre of the keep would have been. The ravens were perched on it, cawing. “They smell death,” Mila said. “There are bodies under here. There is a slim chance someone could still be alive, but I doubt it.”
The excavation was difficult, the boulder was huge and they had to dig around it, to try and get it to roll away from the spot. It was going to take longer than there was daylight so they made camp, fed themselves and set watches. The night was cold and they huddled around the fire. The fire though, attracted attention.
“Contact!” yelled Saria, “Trolls!”
Huge humanoid shapes ambled out of the darkness, green nobbly skin, black hair that seemed to writhe as if alive and separate from it’s owner, long claws and teeth and an even longer nose.
The battle raged on, and to the party’s horror they found the trolls could quickly regenerate their damage. Gaping wounds closed and healed, a hand slithered back onto a stump and bonded, and sliced eye healed and glowed balefully. It wasn’t until they tried fire, they realised they could win. They hacked the trolls down – when Hal wrote about this later he remembered this had been a harder battle than the description might imply – and then used oil to set fire to the bodies. The trolls died writhing with mouths open in silent screams. Even when fully alight their bodies twitched. They all found it hard to sleep after that.
The next morning after a breakfast cooked by Hal from the supplies given to them by the lizardfolk, they returned to getting the boulder moved. It took many more hours worked, but finally using gravity and Vrahl’s great strength, they rolled the boulder away a few feet. Crushed underneath was not what they were expecting. These bodies were obviously dragon cultist wizards in the middle of a teleport circle. They had teleported in, most likely during the battle, and been caught up in it. They relieved the bodies of their items of value and buried them. No one had any idea how these wizards tied into anything. There was obviously a lot going on and the party were only seeing the tip of the iceberg of some deeper intrigue.
They packed up and followed the trail of the defeated defenders of Cromm’s Hold east to the road and thence to Daggerford.
Daggerford seemed busier than when they were here last. The Barovian refugees were still present in camps, and there was some friction between them, their supporters, and those who claimed that the refugees were a threat to their way of life. There seemed to be more soldiers in the street, looking grim and alert.
Skylar and Roric heard their report. Skylar confirmed the survivors of Cromm’s Hold report it was attacked by giants in a flying castle, but no reason for the attack was known. The discussion of what to do next triggered some kind of argument between the two heroes about whether or not to use the refugees as troops to liberate Phlan or to found a new community somewhere, and the party left them to it.
“Why do people think those heroes are these amazing people?” wondered Mila as they left. “Those guys are.. how do you say?… Jerks!”
They spent a few days in Daggerford recuperating. Hal went shopping for the rare inks he needed to scribe the spell into his book as a ritual. In a sealed box he used a courier to send the masters at The Lady's College some of the Maztican coins, a report of everything they had found, the rubbings from the engravings and runes he had come across, and a description of the hidden library and where to find it. Vrahl and Saria went to the temple to buy healing potions. Mila just disappeared for a few days, perhaps to mix with people from her own culture.
A few days later they met to discuss their next move.
“Goldenfields!” Mila said. “It’s what we said! I want to find the third gem of the Wizard of Wines!”
“But Illefarn is so close,” said Saria. “We’d be able to finish our mission and wrap it up.”
“I want to …” Mila stopped and sighed. “Actually, I know zis is a losing battle. Let us go to Illefarn and find the last cache.” She gave a weak smile. “There is some satisfaction in completing a mission.”
They left Daggerford, striking eastward. Farmland became hills, and hills became mountains, and they climbed steadily upward.
“Illefarn is the name of the old elven empire which stretched for hundreds of miles. The capital sat where Waterdeep sits now,” said Hal, riding on Vrahl’s shoulders. “It broke up into three smaller kingdoms during the Crown Wars. Then, besieged by orcs the elves decided to retreat across the water west to Evermeet.”
“Your stories are boring,” said Vrahl. He leapt across a crevasse, making Hal hold tight in momentary terror, then they waited for Saria and Mila to find a more narrower spot to jump over.
“It’s not a story,” said Hal. “It’s history.”
“History is boring.”
Hal was about to respond indignantly, but stopped when he saw the rise of rock that could only be..
“Mount Illefarn!” he said, pointing.
The others had joined them now and the stopped to look at the mountain.
“Illefarn!” said Saria.
“Actually it’s not Illefarn, it’s Mount Illefarn. There’s a difference. You see..”
“Shut up,” said Mila, moving forward. “No one cares.”
“Well.. really!” sputtered Hal.
They had not gone much further when the ravens alerted them to an ambush. Large brutish creatures – ogres – charged out from behind bushes, and at the same time some haunting music, something like eerie birdsongs, made the party pause momentarily. But in time, they all shook off the magical effects of the song and took to dealing with the ogres. Mila got stuck, as she sometimes did, while changing to half-raven form. It was as if her body was trying to resist the curse. She was out of the battle initially, writhing and moaning on the ground. However she was able to recover, and did join the combat after completing her transformation. In the hybrid form she was able to resist much of the damage the ogres did. Vrahl also just seemed to shrug off some of the big hits and opened up the ogres with his greatsword. The haunting music came from three harpies, who also fell to the party’s blades and spells.
“I don’t think they were expecting a party of our calibre!” said Hal, smugly. He had escaped without a scratch, Mila noted sourly. Everyone else had taken at least one bone rattling thump from an ogre club, and Vrahl – as usual – had borne the brunt of it. But the creatures were all dead and they would not waylay any more travellers.
They spent a cold but uneventful night at the base of the mountain, and started the climb first thing. It wasn’t particularly difficult, there were no sheer rock faces to climb, much to Hal’s relief, but it was arduous. They had already done a lot of climbing, and Mount Illefarn was really just the highest part of the surrounding smaller mountains and hills, rather than a single huge mountain sticking out of the surrounding area. Within a few hours they found what they were looking for.
Along a path with walls to either side, there were giant runes etched in the rock. Hall used his comprehend languages ritual to touch the wall and understand the runes. They were mantras extolling the virtues of knowledge, magic, intelligence, meditation, and understanding. The bell was huge, made of brass, and had a huge bell ringer by its side. The inscription on the bell was in common and read:
“What doubles when you share it, is unseen but gives power, and is useless unless practiced?”
“Knowledge?” suggested Hal. “Or information?”
The party debated this for a while, but were cut short by the ravens cawing in alarm.
“Incoming!” yelled Mila. “Dragon looking creatures! Not any I recognise.”
“Wyverns!” said Vrahl. “I know these beasts. Look out for their poisonous stinger in the tail.”
The party were well prepared when the wyverns swooped in, and the wyverns were killed without loss to the party. A highlight was a move Saria and Vrahl had practiced, which was Saria running towards Vrahl, who made a stirrup with his hands to launch Saria into the air towards the flying creatures. It was perfectly executed, with Saria landing on the wyvern's back, stabbing with both her blades. The beast crashed to the ground and Saria landed successfully.
After the battle Vrahl took the bell ringer and wielded it like a club. He nodded to Hal and struck the bell, while Hal said “KNOWLEDGE” in a loud, clear voice.
A section of the wall, hidden by an illusion, disappeared and revealed a large cavern. There were dragon cultist bodies here, along with the bodies of giant owls – the guardians of this place the party guessed. There were more giant runes etched on the wall. The runes were halfway up the wall, and the party had to step back and look upwards to see them properly.
Hal’s comprehend languages ritual revealed that unlike the runes outside, these runes were different, each one representing a concept such as war, sacred, life. A further detect magic ritual revealed them all to be magical in nature.
“These runes do something,” said Hal.
“Maybe we should touch them,” guessed Mila. “But which one?”
“One of these runes looks familiar,” said Saria. She took off her pack and rummaged around, bringing out a large shell. The shell had a giant rune etched on it. “It’s the rune for friend,” she said, pointing at the rune on the shell, then pointing at the same rune on the wall.
Vrahl lifted Saria up so she could touch this rune – which meant friend. She felt an electric shock, although not painful, as she did so, and a section of the wall slid noisily across revealing a broad and high passageway. The party entered and followed the passage which led to a huge cavern entrance, large enough for even the largest giant to enter without trouble. The cavern was equally massive, with 50-foot tall ceilings. Although the ceiling had collapsed in a few places, littering the floor with debris and large rocks, the place seemed safe and relatively intact. Four huge braziers made of copper decorated the room, the bowls dented and tarnished but still usable. At the northern end of the chamber was a long stone slab, 15-feet high. Tattered cloth still decorated the top of the slab. The walls looked like they were once covered in painted decorations, but they were too faded and worn to reveal what they once depicted.
The braziers were empty, holding only burnt residue, but the sides had an engraving of figures bowing before a pair of folded hands.
“This is the symbol of Annam, the god that giants revere for knowledge… and some other things, I forget,” said Hal, pointing. “This is an important place.” But everyone was looking at the gleam of gold on top of the huge altar. Huge plates, apparently made out of gold, were etched with runes and images.
“Lift me up, Vrahal,” said Hal, unable to see because of the height of the altar. Vrahl did so.
“Yes, see, each plate represents a different area related to Annam – knowledge, magic, fertility, philosophy!” Hal was getting excited. “This is an important historical find!”
“Those plates are huge!” said Saria. “How are we going to carry them? They are too broad to fit in our packs.”
“We could flatten them out and fold them,” suggest Mila. “Gold is soft. Then they would fit into our packs, maybe take one each. Actually…” she looked at Hal “..maybe Vrahl would have to take two.”
“FLATTEN THEM OUT!!?” Hal’s face was going purple. “Did you not hear me about how important this find is? You can’t just flatten them out!”
“We just want the value of the gold, no?”
Saria was pretty sure Mila was deliberately winding up the halfling. It was working.
Any further debate was interrupted by a huge shadow that fell across them as a massive giant entered the room.
“I AM IMPERATOR UTHOR! WHY ARE YOU SMALL FOLK HERE IN THE ALL-FATHER’S SACRED TEMPLE?! SPEAK!” His voice held the threat of violence, and reminded Hal of the crack of lightning and the rumble of thunder.
The others were momentarily taken aback, but Saria was used to giants, even angry ones.
“I am Saria and these are my companions, Mila of Barovia, Vrahl the Stone Shaper of the goliath Sword Coast tribe, and Hal of… of.. some library.” Saria spoke clearly and projected her voice up so the giant could hear. “We are not tomb robbers, we came to see what the Dragon Cultists were after, and retrieve it if we could so they could not have it.”
“AND HOW DID YOU NOW WHICH RUNE TO TOUCH?”
“I am friend to Serissa, Princess of the Moonshae Isles Storm Giants. She gave me this shell..” Saria produced the shell, “as a gift. I have been able to talk to her through it, although it has been silent these past few weeks.”
“I AM SERISSA’s UNCLE,” Uthor’s tone was less commanding and held less of the storm in it now. “NOW LISTEN TO ME, FRIEND OF SERISSA, FOR I HAVE IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR YOU.”
Uthor informed them that the cultural rules that governed the hierarchy of giants known as The Ordning was broken, and that giants were essentially at war with each other. All of the creatures of the earth, air, and sea were probably going to be caught in the fracas in some way or another.
“THE AGE OF DRAGONS IS OVER, AND THE AGE OF GIANTS HAS STARTED. WARN YOUR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES TO STEER CLEAR OF LOCATIONS WHERE GIANTS LIVE, OR EVEN WHERE GIANTS WERE RUMOURED TO HAVE LIVED IN THE PAST, BECAUSE THEY MAY TRY TO RECLAIM IT.”
Uthor took the plates with obvious reverence, and with a rumbled farewell, left the party.
“NOW can we go to fucking Goldenfields!?” said Mila.