May 27, 1482
The party awakes in the morning and chats with Henwen a bit more. Drianna receives a sending from Maedove letting them know that Wump arrived in Exridge. Drianna responds by having “The Dove” offer the young man a job.
The heroes then depart for the area Henwen indicated on their map in search of the wild elves. After much travel through the thickening woods, they find themselves ambushed. Drianna and Gareth are waylaid by pits and snares. Several archers and a mage fire from cover, and an earth elemental tosses stones while a treant animates several trees to attack as well.
In a stunning display of diplomacy and persuasion (back to back natural 20s!) the party manages to halt the attack and engage the wild elves in conversation. They speak with their leader, the elvish woman Yellis. Yellis introduces her compatriots Zarn and the sorceress Thilvara, and their allies Gnarlroot the treant and Vesley the earth elemental.
The party is led to a grove where the elves are staying, and they hear their story from Yellis and Zarn (with suspicious interjections from a still-unconvinced Thilvara):
“We wild elves have lived here for thousands of years. About 35 years ago, humans arrived and built a few homes in the old druid circle. We had always stayed away but were respectful of the druids, who left to join some great war two hundred years ago but never returned. But these new villagers were friendly enough, and kept to themselves. We would see them sometimes in the forest, and as long as they left us alone we got along well enough. We would meet with their leaders once a year to keep the peace between us. Things were good.
About a year ago, something happened. They didn’t come to the yearly meeting. We thought they may have trouble, so we left them to their business. But something had happened – some new people came to town, and there were deaths. None of our business, you understand. Then the forest began to change, to grow quiet, and we heard about the disease.
This was about six months ago – January. We sent a representative to them, to offer our help with their sickness. Their new leader, called Dyson, turned us away – said it was dangerous there, and showed us a body – a human woman, diseased, her guts fallen out and head rotted away. Said there was a sickness within her. We were afraid, so they said they would meet with us outside the town.
They came to parley, we met with them – the man Dyson, his swordswoman, and some others. It was an ambush. Why? We do not know, but it must be an aspect of the disease – to make them want to kill. Our people were murdered. We are the last.
We must not allow this sickness to spread, so we took an oath. For the good of this land, we must quarantine them. None can be allowed to leave and spread this infection. We set traps, drove them back, killed them when they tried to leave or we could get a good shot into the village.
In March Ser Petyr came. He found us, wanted to talk. We told him about their disease, about the ambush. He asked about what happened. He asked, with so many dying from sickness, where were they being buried? We showed him some we had killed in the forest, but as for town … we don’t know – we’ve seen no pyres. (Thilvara: “Maybe they eat their dead.”)
Ser Petyr thanked us, and headed back to the village. Said no disease could harm him, he was protected by Pelor. We never saw him alive again, but his ghost haunts these woods. (Thilvara: “Maybe he got sick anyway. Maybe they killed and ate him too.”)
Understand, it is a hard thing, but these villagers must die to protect the rest of the world. They are sick. Ones who do not appear to be sick may still spread the disease. We will carry on until we or they are dead."
The party listened carefully and began to piece together what they think really happened. They explained that the “disease” may actually be part of the cult they are hunting, and came to an agreement with the elves to hold off on any attacks on the village for one week. The heroes said they would return to the town tomorrow and confront the real enemy.
The party bids farewell to the elves and thanks them for their hospitality. The elves offer them several gifts in a gesture of hope for a resolution and wish the heroes luck.
Several plans are discussed as the group heads back to Ossington.
When the PCs arrive, Ossington looks like a ghost town. Everyone has locked their windows and doors and appear to be hunkering down, as if they are expecting trouble.
The only person visible in town is Tully, sitting on the steps to the tower sharpening her sword.
“Welcome back,” she says. “I’ll get right to it with you – we haven’t been able to 100% keep track of you, so I’m not certain what you think you’ve discovered or who you’ve talked to. But we’ve obviously underestimated you, and someone would like to talk to you about maybe taking up positions within our organization.”
She gestures to the top of the tower, where the Sparrow appears, and proceeds to make a short speech:
“The man you know as Dyson is in fact a great leader. He is Belak, a revolutionary fighting against the literal extermination of his people. Fighting to free a group that has been systematically persecuted for more than a thousand years. Fighting for innocent people, including every man woman and child that lives in this town, to live without fear of being hunted down and murdered for no reason other than cruel, prejudiced tradition.
And if his methods seem extreme to you, please know that it is only after his own great personal suffering – outcast from society, hunted for no crime other than being born – only after years of this did he conclude that there were no other options. Neither Church nor Crown will bend. Extreme measures must be taken in order to right this evil. Set aside your personal qualms about the means and join us to reach the justified end."
While curious about these statements, the party has already decided that these are the bad guys, so spells are cast and combat begins.
Tully runs into the tower, saying “So that’s it then? No reason, just blood?”
The party assaults the tower, finding Tully joined by many monks – monks obviously of the Tiso clan, wearing the robes and weapons of those that killed Razar-De’s family. An extended combat takes place as their enemies are driven back to the second floor of the tower and fought there.
While this is taking place, the constant song the Sparrow is playing begins to take on a darker, more gutteral tone. No one can see what he’s doing on the roof, but suddenly a small earthquake cracks the tower, then fire begins to rain down on the area outside. Shortly after, a great screech is heard from the roof, then a sound as of the movement of great wings, then finally silence from above. Tully and the monks are cornered and slain.
Several items that Dyson/Belak had been studying are recovered from the second floor, and the party moves up past a magically-sealed door to the third floor.
It is here that much is finally revealed to the heroes. All one large room, the third floor is part library, part twisted laboratory. They find several tables with rotten fruit on cloths, and a large jar in which one of the worm-like parasites is preserved in fluid. Elsewhere they find two human torsos, each cut open and also preserved in large tanks of fluid. There are also several pots of foul-smelling soil. The walls themselves are covered with a glowing fungus, that has been shaped to form long, rambling sentences:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that could never be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen. In the black grove with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth. The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear. There shall be a fire in your chest that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you. All will shed their skins. All will crawl in the grass. None shall stand over others. Equality and justice for those outcast, equality and justice for the expellers. All the same. All the same. All the same.*
Moving on to the roof, they find a large magic circle, cracked by the earthquake and rendered useless. It also appears that the Sparrow had been burning papers, but they party manages to rescue several entries in a journal apparently belonging to Belak.
The group leaves the tower as villagers emerge from their homes, several of which are burning. The party helps put out the fires, then speaks with Fen the Elder. Now that their captors are dead or fled, he can tell the party the villagers side of the story:
Back in the 50’s, some of the Snake clan – refugees you understand – came across abandoned ruins of an ancient village within the standing stones. A small group settled in the area. Over the next 30 years, word traveled and the village grew as persecuted Snakes arrive seeking a peaceful life. Things were good.
Then, on July 6 of last year, this wizard Dyson arrived with Tully, that bard, a dozen monks and a four bushels of fruit. They distributed the fruit to all the townspeople. It was amazing, most everyone was amazed how delicious they were and how healthful they made us feel.
Three days later Dyson called a meeting with the village elders. And they killed all but Murdows and Henwen. Don’t know what happened to her, but Henwen went off her nut and the Sparrow took her as his lover, which only seemed to drive her deeper into madness. Poor thing. They left Murdows alive to “run” the town (under Tully and the monks’ watch) and handle the deliveries from the south.
That went on for a while, then in September, they killed Tymon. He was talking about going to the elves for help, and we don’t know how but he just … his body fell apart and his head just … melted. They spoke some words, and the worm thing just fell out of him while … poor Tymon became some whip-headed zombie. Tully just laughed and … they killed him. Said the jokes on us, you know, the fruit was like a poison that we ate, and they could kill any of us at any time.
Dyson lived here for a while, leaving a few times over the winter, we don’t know how or for where. We were all afraid, starving. It was a hard winter.
But January was when things got worse. Some people tried to leave, maybe make it to the elves. We never saw them again, but they said old Maggie helped them, so they did her in the same as Tymon. Then the elves did come, but Dyson scared them off. That was the last we saw of them until they started killing us. End of the month Dyson left again, and left Tully in charge of dealing with the elves.
In March Dyson came back. But then that knight arrived, and we thought, oh maybe we’re saved now, right? Well I guess one of us, Kivo, must have said the wrong thing to him – while the knight was gone, they killed Kivo and then a bunch of them set off to “deal with” the knight. Never saw him again neither … until his ghost showed up. Dyson left again for a while, and the Sparrow too – said he was leaving to play for a big show in the capital. But Tully and the monks stayed.
Then just a week before you showed up, they all came back, waiting for someone. Then one of your cultists – a fearsome creature like half dragon but walking and speaking like a woman – shows up. Went into the tower, and again, never saw her/it again.
Three days later you all arrived."
When asked about the deliveries, Fen says everything went right into the tower – “Into the tower. We don’t know more than that. There’s no basement to the tower, unless Dyson and his people dug them in the past year without us knowing. They were always messing about on the roof of the tower, but it’s not like a dragon flew down and took the things away or anything. Just into the tower and never seen again.”
The party surmises that the magic circle on top of the tower was being used to transport both the pillaged treasure and the bodies, but with no means to repair it can not tell exactly where it went.
The heroes agree to keep this settlement a secret for now, allaying the villagers concerns that, as Snakes, they’ll all be hunted down and killed if their secret is revealed.
Drianna sets to work investigating and salvaging what she can from the journal, and is able to discover the following entries:
What and where is this “sunless citadel”? Who exactly is this Belak, and who is the woman mentioned as running the cult? Who is Gulthias, and what does he have to do with a tree? What do these fruit do normally – and what when infected with these parasites? And is the whole Cult of the Dragon a money-making scheme with some other secret purpose? With so much new information to sift through and digest, the party gathers to discuss their next move.
* (My apologies to Jeff VanderMeer, this just fit so well! Go read Annihilation!)