Freeday, Reaping 14, 552 CY (50 AN)
Aerik Sellsword, Burdwulf the Greatly Challenged, Falrest Chisoud, Hilda Giblets, Jarq’wei Loindeen, Tuggin’ “Tuggs” Nemo, and Utne Jarlson and their hired mercenaries and laborers prepare to disembark, having rested from the previous day’s excavations. (“Rest” being a relative term — several of the mercenaries partied with the locals that evening, as did Burdwulf and Tuggs, who each managed to spend an extravagant 500 sp on wine, women, and song.) As they leave, they are accompanied by Stefan, a local Burnthorpe youth who decided to leave this simple community for a life of adventure on the road.
They take their horses and carts and ride east, through isolated valleys and rugged mountains. In the middle of the following day, Starday, Reaping 15, they encounter a single, old merchant with a rickety cart and swayback donkey. A stooped old man, leaning on a cane, he has a long white beard and threadbare robes. He greets the travelers, and as they inquire, he indicates he has wares — he opens his cart to reveal a well-stocked store. Of interest, he has a few specialty items:
1) A rifled wheellock arquebus for 4,200sp — noteworthy as the rifling makes it more accurate at long distances, and the enclosed clockwork mechanism prevents dirt and water from damaging the firing mechanism. He also carries shot and powder for sale.
2) A bag of holding for 250sp.
3) A bag containing three magic beans for 50sp. The beans are magic; the old man says one of the beans leads to the mythical Castle Gargantua, but he does not know what the other two will do.
In addition to these items, he is willing to tell fortunes for 10sp, a simple prediction of success or failure on the next major task. For 100sp, he’ll tell fortunes using the Die of Fortune — an arcane artifact that can yield fortune or misfortune on those who consult it, much in the same fashion as the deck of many things. For 1,000sp, he’s willing to sell the Die of Fortune itself.
The group takes all of these offers. Hilda Giblets attempts to haggle on the price of the arquebus, but the old man does not budge. He purchases it and gives his old rifle to Utne. Tuggs purchases the bag of holding. Utne has his fortune read — neither terribly auspicious nor inauspicious — and purchases the bag of magic beans and the Die of Fortune. It looks like a child’s top with numbers along the rim, from 0-49, but is cold and wreathed in strange, purple flames. Once they have resupplied, they take their leave of the old man.
The rest of the journey across rugged mountains is uneventful, with the travelers passing through a mountain valley and arriving at Trastow on the morning of Godsday, Reaping 17. They inquire about the town’s traditions and holy books, trying to determine if the Emerald Tome of the Devourer is kept within the town itself. Strangely, when asked about the old merchant, no one in Trastow has seen him; although he came from this direction, he appears not to have passed through the town. Burdwulf finds himself at the local public house, and finds that it is run by his uncle, Bjornwulf Granitebuster, who is there with his wife, Nurabryn, and their daughter, Garnetwulf. They give greeting, and Bjornwulf expresses surprise that he’s here, as last he heard Burdwulf was on a ship to the Sorrowfell Plains. He also notes he heard about cousin Amberwulf, that’s she’s traveling with some human holy folk from the Church of Pelor-Who-Is-Paladine.
He inquires about what Burdwulf is doing here, and Burdwulf explains his search for this eldritch tome. Bjornwulf says that the mountain that looms over Trastow, called Mount Deathfrost, is not often referenced by the locals. In the five years he’s been here, he’s learned that a few generations ago, several holy men gave their lives to vanquish a great evil on the mountain. No one speaks of it, particularly since most of the people who lived in those days are dead. The only one from those days still living is an old woman who lives on the mountain, someone by the name of Ezaya Dinclastir. Burdwulf thanks him for the information, and after reporting this to the others, Utne decides to purchase a bottle of Bjornwulf’s finest liquor — he finds an old bottle of whiskey that should do nicely — to ply the old woman’s tongue.
Armed with this information, the group begins the trek up the mountain path. Tuggs rides about fifteen minutes to a half-hour ahead to scout. It takes roughly eight hours to reach the treeline, where Tuggs dismounts because he first smells, then sees, a shoddy hut made of wood and animal hides. Everything is covered in blood and offal, and it takes him a moment to realize it’s actually just a poor attempt at animal dressing and taxidermy rather than a murder scene. Several scraps of animal skin are labeled with names, written in blood — prominently attached to a tree is a skin with the name “Marybelle Walker” scrawled on it. This sits above a wooden plaque with the name half-carved into it; several failed carving attempts lie discarded near the tree, and a set of gnarled tools sit near it. Tuggs can see into the tent, where an old, hairless woman in animal skins lies sleeping. Not wanting to disturb her, he watches and waits; after a few minutes, she awakens, grabs some tools and her stone axe, and walks off into the woods.
When the rest of the caravan arrives, Tuggs informs them of the proceedings. They briefly discuss going to find her, but Tuggs can’t find her trail, so they wait. Within a half-hour or so, she returns with firewood and returns to work. The travelers approach and she greets them, indicating she is Ezaya Dinclastir, and extending a hand stained with unidentifiable animal remains. Utne accepts it and surreptitiously wipes it off when she’s not paying attention. She is relatively genial, if somewhat grim, although she turns down the whiskey when offered. Her demeanor turns cold when they ask about her carving work and the mountain. She indicates that when she was a girl, evil lived on the mountain. It was destroyed, but had taken thousands of lives, all piled in mass graves with no markers, some of whom she faintly remembers — names, faces. She has taken on the task of giving them names again, making markers for each one. But there are thousands of names, and she is old and will never finish. When asked why she doesn’t take the book, she indicates that everything on that mountain is cursed.
Utne and the others convince her that they wish to travel atop the mountain to help her with gathering names, and she agrees to accompany them. She gathers some supplies and they set off.
It takes another eight hours to ascend the mountain. Quickly passing the treeline, the group slowly notices that all life disappears, even beyond that which would be expected beyond the treeline. The only signs that life has ever been here are the dead trees that flank the lone path up the mountain. A bitter wind cuts through the group as they ascend the winding path. As they approach the summit, the horses refuse to continue; Aerik and Jarq’wei stay with the carts while the rest traverse the mountain.
As they reach the summit, the wind stops and all is eerily quiet. The group finds themselves standing before a graveyard. Only a single tree — twisted and ancient, with a single worn, dangling rope, probably once a noose — stands at the edge of the cemetery. Several gravestones have been added, all carved in Ezaya’s hand. At the far end of the graves lies a small cabin made of stone — Burdwulf notices that it appears as though it were once made of wood and then turned to stone. As they approach, this awful, atonal, keening wail rises above the silence. They ask Ezaya about it, but she seems to be somewhat unaware of it. When they arrive at the cabin, she carefully opens the door by partially lifting it, as it appears to be off the hinges. Everybody slowly files into the main room. Underneath the sagging roof, the walls are scrawled in an obscure cipher. As they enter, they are greeted by harpsichord music emanating from somewhere deeper in the cabin. To the left is a door further into the cabin. Next to it, further in the room is a desk bearing a thick, leather-bound book. Three chairs in the room face the main door, and across the room is a large mirror; it reflects everyone in the party except for Burdwulf, Hilda, and Tuggs, none of whom appear in the mirror. In the far lefthand corner is a glassless window looking deeper into the cabin. A stuffed and mounted moose head sits above the mantle of a fireplace. An ornate waterclock, shaped rather like a cathedral, sits against the wall closest to the door; it appears to keep good time, although not accurate time as it’s several hours off. Finally, a padlocked trap door sits in the middle of the room.
Ezaya immediately gets to work recording more names, pricking her finger and placing a bloody thumbprint next to a name once it is recorded. The rest of the group decides to start examining the cabin. The room beyond the door is a pantry with empty shelves. There is a door to the left, and beyond the room, a short hallway with doors to the left, right, and straight ahead. While the mercenaries stand guard, the others examine the rooms. To the left, they find a room with belongings, as if someone stayed here. The bed is in disarray, and most of the belongings have been left behind. A comfortable bedroll sits upon it, and slippers sit at the foot. A footlocker bears a sheathed short sword atop it. Searching the footlocker finds quill, ink, and a journal belonging to one Norquist Orve, a mountaineer and embittered tax dissident from Vor Taluum. It appears to be his mountaineering journal, covering various climbs he has undertaken; the last entry reads, “The trees on this mountain seem almost agonized.” The pack in the corner has what appears to be adventuring gear, as well as climbing gear. The footlocker contains a purse with a handful of silver coins and copper coins within. The group takes a few of the items, notably the coinage, and proceeds to leave this room and investigate further down the hall. The next door on the left, at the end of the hall, leads to a sitting room. When they open the door, they see a harpsichord to the right — it immediately stops playing music, although according to others in the group, the music only stops for those observing the harpsichord — and a large painting to the right. The painting is done in a crisp, medieval style and depicts some manner of altar with a large grey skeleton statue looming over it. An open doorway behind the skeleton leads into blackness. Of note, the picture displays the old woman, Ezaya Dinclastir, centrally located in the painting, sipping from a goblet as a light shines down on her from above. Falrest and Utne are depicting flanking her, each holding a handful of small, glass spheres, each filled with a clear liquid. Everyone else in the group — Burdwulf, Hilda, and Tuggs, as well as the sergeants, mercenaries, laborers, linkboys, and the physician, but notably not Aerik or Jarq’wei —also appears in the painting, interacting or in some manner of reverie. Pyring the painting from against the wall reveals that two runes are written on the back, each in the same script as the scrawled writing in the cabin.
The party just decides to close that door, and not tell the hirelings about it.
Across the hall, they find another bedroom, largely empty save for a candle and a pouch. The pouch contains some manner of purple powder; when Burdwulf sees it, he recognizes it as the legendary Purple Lotus powder, a drug with the potential to transform someone into a god or annihilate them in the space between seconds. It is supposed to fetch a good price on the black market in major cities, so they take it.
Finally, the door at the end of the hall appears to be the back door; footprints wander out from the back and head off to the left. The group decides to close the door and investigate those footprints later.
Back in the main room, Hilda plans on unlocking the trap door, but Ezaya gets in his way, saying they must take only names, that any attempt to explore this cursed mountain dooms them all. She says it is so late already, they must return back down the mountain. She idly wonders if they truly wish to take names as they say. They indicate that sixteen hours’ march means they will not all return back to her hut, but they will travel an hour or two back down the mountain. She agrees.
After traveling an hour or so down the mountain, the group regroups with Aerik and Jarq’wei and informs them of all that has transpired. They take watches and rest until the morning.
The next day, all awaken, although some of the mercenaries complain of bad dreams. Once they have readied themselves, they set out to return to the cabin at the summit, claiming to want to cleanse the evil atop that mountain, but Ezaya disagrees, saying they must return to the village below. Despite her protestations, they push past her and trek back to the cabin.
A sickly fog greets them as they return to the cabin, and the same keening sounds as they approach. They carefully enter the cabin through the main room and Hilda Giblets unlocks the trap door. The others investigate the book; the most recent names appear to be local, but the oldest names are ancient and of no known culture. An estimate suggests there are millions of names — as Utne points out, that is far more corpses than can be buried on the mountain, even in mass graves, unless the mountain is entirely composed of bones.
Once the trap door is opened, it is revealed there is no ladder, only handholds carved into the earth, descending into darkness. The tunnel is narrow enough that a lanter tied to a belt or pack risks breaking against the sides. By tying a rope to a lantern, they determine it is fifty feet deep before striking the floor. Using that as their illumination, the group prepares themselves and descends.
Forced two abreast, they find themselves in a passageway covered in twisted faces carved in the stonework, and themselves covered in ice. Everything down here seems unnaturally cold, even beyond being underground. The tunnel continues for sixty feet before terminating in a door with a carved, fanged gargoyle’s face. The lock is in the gargoyle’s mouth, with a broze key inserted into the lock. When tested, the door is locked. Burdwulf turns the key by inserting a dagger into the ring of the key as leverage, and the door opens without attempting to sever any limbs. It leads into a small chamber — twenty feet deep, thirty feet wide — with ten small tables, roughly the size and shape of nightstands, on the outer edges, pressed against the left and far walls. Each writing desk bears a single, skeletal left hand, marked with the same runes that have been found throughout the cabin. On the right wall is a large set of bronze double doors engraved with a large sigil — a circle with three lines running down from it.
They have seen this symbol before. It was circumscribing the mutilated boy’s corpse in the Bloodworth Estate, the one whose severed tongue and penis attempted to attack them.
The group decides this is far enough, and orders the hirelings to turn around. They relock the gargoyle door with the bronze key and take the key with them. They make their way up the earthen handholds and back into the cabin. One of the sergeants asks what they found; Hilda and Utne explain they feel it necessary to return with more supplies, and more importantly, research. Hilda relocks the padlock on the trap door, and the group moves the water clock — ruining it in the process, as it is apparently attached to pipes and mechanisms in the wall — to barricade the trap door. Tuggs hammers the pipe shut. Utne then takes the time to carefully transcribe the writing on the walls in the hopes of having it translated by a scholar for further study. Finally, as a form of apology to the old woman, everybody transcribes ten names from the book to bring her a list of an additional 370 names. They agree to leave everything else, save the key and the journal and money they took yesterday, as they are now quite convinced of the old woman’s assertion that the place is cursed.
Before they leave, they decide to follow the footprints; they find a frozen man, face twisted in abject horror, only in his nightclothes, half buried in the snow. It seems a reasonable assumption that this is Norquist Orve.
They descend the mountain again, gathering the carts and horses and informing Aerik and Jarq’wei of all that has transpired. When they reach Ezaya’s hovel, they apologize, and indicate they believe her assertion that the place is cursed. They give her the list of 370 names so she will not have to climb the mountain for a while. She seems somewhat cross about the whole matter, but accepts their apology and her mood brightens a bit. They take their leave and camp an hour or so from Ezaya’s camp.
The next day, they make their way down the mountain just after midday. Arriving in Trastow again, the villagers seem mystified that they climbed the mountain and returned. The travelers make it sound as though they conquered whatever evil lies on that mountain, and that they found what they came to find — a tactic to ensure that any further travelers will be less likely to investigate the mountain and more likely to track them, which is something they can better control. The group sets out the next day, ostensibly to return to Burnthorpe and plan their next move.
As they leave Trastow and pass through the Valley of the Spine, however, disaster strikes. They hear the crack of a gunshot which triggers a rockslide, burying most of the caravan. Tuggs and his horse are the only ones that are not buried. He makes note of a sniper on the hill and takes cover. Hearing shouts from the rubble, he shouts that they are taking fire from a sniper in the hills and decides to see what can be done to neutralize the threat of the sniper. He rides through the valley before abandoning the horse to make the rest of the journey on foot, the better to take the sniper by stealth.
As he approaches, he sees the sniper scanning the valley through the sights of his rifle. The assassin appears to be a dark-skinned human wearing robes and a turban and carrying a pack of gear. Tuggs gets the drop on him, shooting him with a crossbow bolt in the shoulder, but it only appears to injure the sniper as he wheels around and fires another shot. Amid the blinding pain, Tuggs loses consciousness.
The others manage to pull themselves out of the rubble and clear it to uncover equipment. The horses did not survive, neither did eighteen of the soldiers and one of the sergeants. The wagons are wrecked. The four laborers, four linkboys, physician, two mercenaries, and one sergeant did survive; Aerik, Burdwulf, Hilda, Jarq’wei, Stefan, and Utne all pull themselves out of the rubble without incident. Falrest was found unconscious in the rockslide, but was revived through Utne’s prayers. Tuggs and his horse, Tugglife, are nowhere to be found, and calling for them reveals nothing. The group sets about salvaging what equipment they can and Utne turns the stones into a cairn for the dead. He says prayers over the fallen mercenaries. After salvaging what they can, and unable to follow Tuggs’ trail — Tuggs himself being their only skilled tracker — they camp and wait for the next morning.
Tuggs awakens, painfully, by firelight. He is hog-tied, and apparently being held by the assassin. He inquires as to what this is regards, and the assassin explains that they robbed and burned a house owned by very important people, and he is going to bring Tuggs to those people. Tuggs attempts to explain that there were terrible things happening in that house, and he is likely working for some manner of terrible death-cult, but before he can fully reveal it, the assassin interrupts him, explaining that he knows the sorts of terrible things powerful people do. For emphasis, he reveals the whip scars on his back, explaining that he was once owned by people like the Foxlowes. He cares very little; he is only in this for the money. He tells Tuggs to be quiet or else he will take his tongue.
They sit in silence for a while before Tuggs speaks again, and the assassin indicates he does not feel fully comfortable with a known thief. To ensure Tuggs doesn’t try anything, he draws his short sword and indicates he is going to take Tuggs’ hands. Tuggs, who has been quietly working at his bonds, frees himself and flees, quickly losing the assassin in the rugged terrain. He manages to pick his way back to his party’s camp within a half hour or so and alerts the others of the assassin. They form a posse and go looking for him. Hilda takes the lead, attempting to take the camp by stealth.
He manages to get the drop on the assassin as the man is cleaning up his camp. He fires his rifle and catches the assassin in the abdomen. The assassin spins around a fires a shot, but misses. Tuggs then hits him with a crossbow bolt and he falls, breathing shallowly. Tuggs then falls on him with a dagger, taking out his rage at being captured and nearly having his hands amputated, stabbing him repeatedly in the abdomen. The others comment that it might have been nice to question him, although the reaction is understandable.
Returning to camp, Tuggs explains that he was sent by the merchant family, or possibly families, that the group robbed in Vor Taluum, meaning they are likely not welcomed back there. In discussing these matters, the group decides to return to some of the villages near Vor Taluum in the hopes of setting a camp. Since the people don’t know to look for Stefan, he would be a good candidate to attempt to gather information in Vor Taluum. Additionally, Sergeant York indicates the travelers have treated the mercenaries well, and he is certain that the Blackhawks would be interested in taking revenge on any would-be assassin.
With that, they take watches and camp for the night.