The Orphans of Cathorna

Session 14, 19 Dec 13

CIAN
As the tree fell, they rose in a black cloud from its branches, uttering no sound as they took to the air. You dropped the axe and ran, seeing their glittering eyes turn to you, seeing talons outstretched as they swooped, their wings a rushing wind. The crows claw at you, peck for your eyes, beaks scraping bloody gouges across your scalp. You beat at them, trying to protect your face, you run for the shelter of your family’s hut, only to discover it is a burnt-out shell strewn with charred corpses. With nowhere to hide you grab a scorched and stained blanket, wrap it around your head and shoulders. You feel them grab at you, pulling at the blanket, clinging to you, the weight of them growing. You fall to the ground, unable to move, unable to breathe for the weight, the smell, the violent, struggling mass atop you. At the last you call for your nan, seeing dead grey moonlight as they tear through the blanket and
You wake up. You’re home. It’s cold; your blankets are twisted tight around you. Silhouetted against the door is a lone figure, a man you think, heavily wrapped in furs. You smell smoke, see the faintest glow of an ember on the extinguished torch in the figure’s hand.
He shakes his head. As he turns away, you hear him utter the words “Our time,” before his footsteps recede into the night.

ALTRAAM
Everyone enjoys Devon’s parables. And this morning’s was no different. The incident with Elesse beforehand left you unsettled; her talk of choices and blood and souls frightened you a little, but hearing Devon speaking confidently on the benefits of unity against the dangers of outsiders reassured you. Beckett was there, but he had left his ears at home as Devon says; he spent the whole time looking and smiling at Ella from the moment she walked in with her family. Mason Cooper didn’t notice straight away, but he caught on quickly. And you couldn’t help thinking Beckett did it on purpose, waiting until Cooper was looking before smiling and mouthing something to Ella across the chapel. At one point you’re sure he winked at her father; the scowl on his face made it clear it was not well-received.
You listen as always to people’s inane gossip as they file out. You hear snatches of unflattering talk about Cillien, about the haughty Deanna, master of the Healing House, about Stenner, their stern uncompromising militia captain, no friend to the Cathornans who occasionally deal with him. You also notice people watching Beckett and Ella’s ill-disguised flirting, and see the smiles and nods that just last week would have been frowns and unflattering gossip. You realise that was exactly what Devon intended.
You’re gathering the wooden toys set out to distract children as Devon talks with you. Most of it is the minutiae of the day. Not all of it is trivial.
“Elesse’s words troubled you, Altraam,” He is reassembling an often-broken model of one of Seela’s boats as he speaks. He shrugs. “She may be right. We may be heading down some dark path. But that is so of all our actions. When you see two strangers fighting outside the inn, do you intervene? Whose side do you take? The weaker? The stronger? Do you know who is the right and who is the wrong? They are closed books to you; who do you aid, and who do you restrain? You’re forced to guess and there is as much chance you help evil as good. But when you see a Cathornan struggling with a stranger, what do you do? Myself? I would stand with the basest among us before I would stand with a king I did not know. And so it is with Beckett and the Cilliener; the least part of his happiness comes before anything I might think to do for a stranger from Outside. Elesse is a servant of powers greater than all Cathorna. The sweep of her gaze sees far beyond our walls. And I fear that she would sacrifice us all for some greater good we Men cannot conceive. I’ll not have that Altraam. I’ll not see a single Cathornan sacrificed for another’s protection.” He shrugs. “Perhaps that is the choice she wants you to make.”

ERFIREN
The tumbling, roaring chaos of the water is behind you. A little food and a rough blanket restored some life to your feeble limbs, some clarity to your clouded eyes. You look out, knowing that the things you see are distant, too distant to be YOUR memories, yet you know it is you that experienced these things.
Four faces peer at you. Hoods, hats, travel cloaks mask their identities; you feel no threat, only a wide-eyed wonder at the attention they lavish upon you.
“You are certain?” says a voice. It grumbles with encroaching age, but there is quiet strength behind the words.
“Without a doubt.” The second voice is young, strong, resolute. “I feel the weight of the ages behind him.”
“And the tragedy before him.” A third voice, soft and comforting. “We place a burden on his shoulders by our actions.”
“Not his shoulders.” The second voice again. “The one who follows him shall bear the burden of which you speak.”
“He must not know.” The first voice. “All of this, all that has brought him here, it must be kept from him. Or his own knowledge, his own quest to discover his past will be his undoing. And ours.” You feel a cool breeze spring from nowhere, then feel a soft hand upon your eyes. You hear a gentle whispering: the second voice again. The words are there, you feel them wash through you, but they are gone as quickly, and they take the memories of the past with them, leaving you new and empty and innocent of horror.
The second voice speaks. “I will prepare the boat. The village is not far; their loggers will be near the rapids at sundown. Help me with the sail…” You hear a name, but it slips away like silk between smooth fingers.
Two of the faces vanish. You hear the first voice again. “He will need warmer clothes. Give him to me, I shall fetch a blanket from…”
“No.”
A fourth voice speaks. You turn instinctively to the speaker; his voice is like honey stirred through fresh cream, smooth, sweet and irresistible. “I would have a moment with the child.”
“Alone? But what…”
“A moment.”
A moment passes, then sky above where two faces had been.
“You will remember this moment, little one.” The voice is soothing, relaxing. “It does not suit me that you blunder unprepared into your future. Remember the night that has passed. Remember the things that went before. Know what they mean, when the time comes for you to know. And remember ME; for I shall guide your eye, and show you secrets others would keep from you. Trust in me. Trust in yourself. Remember. Now sleep.”
You drift, feel a gentle rocking, hear voices, the quiet slap of waves on timber. A familiar voice close, then a hand on your face, a gentle touch, suddenly firmer, suddenly painful.
Your eyes snap open. Vflynn’s face is mere inches away. She grins, lets go of your ear, then kisses you on the cheek, rolls away and stands to look down on you reprovingly. She shrugs, smiles. “It’ll never happen.”
You ask her what has happened, how you came to be in her bed. “You were drunk,” she tells you. “Came stumbling in last night. I think you thought this was your house. You started wittering on about your…density? and pawing at me. I was tempted to see how far you’d get before you lost your way, but then you called me Leah, so I kneed you in the fork and dropped you on my bed.” She grins, shuffles a pan atop her stove. “Eggs?”

The quiet of the day
Altraam speaks to Beckett. He tells him there have been whispers at Defiance Hill about THE DEAD RISING FROM THE EARTH! EVIL THINGS COMING FROM BELOW! Altraam suggests to Beckett that telling people of such things serves nobody. Beckett denies doing it. Altraam does not pursue the issue, simply telling him not to do it again.
It’s a fresh cold morning. The wind is down, the snow is light on the ground and everyone is feeling good. Autumn’s furs are cured and on people’s backs and beds. The shops are full of winter produce and people are setting out with travel sacks, tents and backpacks on their own personal missions. The on-duty militia are training in charges, crashing into the wooden shields and falling laughing in heaps as Dorrigan bellows reprovingly for them to take it more seriously. Neeshka bounces into the circle around the fire you’ve built and says “So. Second Skirmish. We’re free of duty for the next week: let’s do Stuff!”
Discussion ensues. A vague inclination to investigate the world north of the river hardens to a determination to see what is in store beyond the range of hills northeast of the Misty Fens, at the confluence of the Firen and Bethe rivers. The rumoured mines and towers and tunnels of the Milden Hills are put on the itinerary too. Cian speaks to his family, looking for hints and tips about these places, but is simply told they are too far west to be familiar to the O’C clan. Talk with Dellin over rats and possums barbecued above the forge coals is more fruitful; he informs Cian that dwarves did indeed mine the Hills, at the western end. He speaks of gold and perhaps other metals coming up from short-lived workings there, later reworked by Men and perhaps orcs, confirming words spoken by Skavik during caravan some time ago. Dellin adds that he doubts any dwarves would have remained in such a small place, so far from their brothers.
Altraam takes advantage of preparation time to give an oration…
“We are the voice of those gone before us; without us their legacy is lost. It is a simple idea and one I think we should all support, but like most things in life there are challenges.
For the closer we are to loss, the harder it is to accept. Grief can silence the strongest of us while anger with no outlet can become a blinding rage. For some self-pity and resentment will lead to despair and a loss of hope.
The solution lies within us all: in how we support each other. The words of friends and family will ease the pain; they will allow fond memories to return and in time a person can find peace.
If was like this for me when my friendship caused a woman to be tortured and thrown to her death. For too long the pain of that silenced me, but time and the support of friends has given me the strength to overcome my grief.
Now I wish to share what she did for me: for us all. Her name was Sala…”
Afterwards, he speaks to Dornas, tell him not to give up hope and claiming he may be able to find the children lost at Fourth Cathorna. He tells Dornas he will return to speak with him of his children.
Turning to matters commercial, Altraam manages to sell his caravan tobacco stash for a solid twenty percent profit.

North. A crossing. A cave. A glutan!
It is deep winter, and the prospect of crossing the river unaided worries everyone. Deciding to take advantage of one of Cathorna’s rare winter caravans, SS wait for the departure of a butcher, a disappointed glazier (Anika Helesto, the recently rescued glassblower, is providing all the village’s glass needs) and a jeweller who trades with the many who cannot afford Sulkana’s wares. Together with the traders’ four guards, they roll out an hour before dawn, walking alongside the sturdy drafthorses.
A stranger is seen in the creek at the bridge across the little Tarel stream from the Kine. Some short distance down the creek, he seems to be digging in the bank, perhaps shovelling mud into a receptacle, perhaps looking for frogs or grubs or molluscs frozen in the river mud. He sees the wagon and gathers his chattels, then heads southwest, quickly disappearing from view. Soon after, a fox is spotted moving with the party. Some small effort of stealth and shadowing seems to suggest the fox is following them; it is summarily dealt with where the forest nears the road, using Cian’s proposed broken-wagon subterfuge. The soldiers play along with the deception, but seem little invested in anything but keeping warm and keeping up.
The party sees the stubble of the first crop grown in the cleared ground on the western margins of the Kine. None of the locals are in evidence; the ground is empty and barren. There is evidence of a fire at the ford, but it is days, if not weeks old. Everyone prepares for the crossing, nervously eyeing the ice floes tilting and rolling in the steady current. Prior to crossing, Cian leads a party to gather wood and kindling for a fire upon crossing back.
Gear is checked, clothes are secured and the shallows are braved, a rope joining everyone as Second Skirmish head into the Firen. The cold bites deep and hard, Altraam calls on the strength of the Gorilla to resist its numbing effects. The soldiers help the wagons, putting shoulders to cartwheels where the sand clutches at them. Erfiren falls behind; he feels his strength failing, and succumbs to the river’s clutches despite two valiant rerolls. He gains the far bank only at the end of a rope hauled by a shivering Neeshka, and revives only after an hour or more at the edge of a fire hastily built at the campsite on the far side.
Dry but still chill, a smoke-rank Second Skirmish set off for the southwest corner of the <fill> Hills. Different in character to the Milden Hills, their western flank is a tumbledown maze of boulders, some larger than a house. Hollows and clefts between them are overgrown with vines and grasses, winter-withered and dead. The south-facing prow of the range is steeper, more solid, a challenge even to a good climber. Dark forest crouches at its base.
The western flank is scaled, more a matter of picking a path across the boulders than climbing. Occasional slips on sandy stone are the only impediment; four skirmishers reach the crest in watery afternoon sun and see the top of the <?> Hills for the first time.
The range is a broad shield, rising gently from the flanks and southern cliffs to the centre. Sparse dry grass covers it; there are no trees. Looking east they see a mound some hundred metres across, rising to perhaps five or so in the centre. There are vague trails through the feeble grass, perhaps animal tracks. A cursory inspection of the first mound shows nothing untoward; with the early sunset encroaching the decision is taken to leave further searches until the next day.
Investigating the safer-seeming western side reveals a good-sized cave. Sandy-floored and dry, it offers protection from the wind. Scorched stones, scratches and sooty marks on the walls show where others have used it for shelter in the past. A waist-high tunnel draws Cian’s curiosity; he clambers down a gentle dip to discover a large ball of golden fur sleeping at the end, the rotting hindquarters of what might be a wolf in front of it. Deciding not to disturb what looks suspiciously like glutan fur, he retreats, then decides to set fire to some dry vegetation in front of it. The glutan fur seems little troubled by this affront, and goes on sleeping. Second Skirmish retire in good order to look for a less glutan-occupied cave.

Kelp wolf…?
The southern slope offers a smaller but less glutan-ridden alternative. A boulder blocks the entrance to the metres-wide space; everyone ducks inside for a look. Therein they discover two bodies. One, seemingly draped across the boulder, has a knife in its back, the other, lying on a rotting blanket, appears to have had its skull smashed in. Hypotheses abound as to their fate, but there is consensus with Cian’s proposal that they fought each other and died in the little cave. Two Cathorna short swords are taken from their bodies by Altraam.
A quiet night is disturbed pre-dawn by a strange snuffling, dragging sound outside. The keener-nosed smell wet fur, like a dog recently out of the river. Fearing glutan, everyone is woken, the fire is built up and weapons are drawn. Neeshka is troubled to notice sand falling from above, doubly troubled to note that Erfiren’s foot appears to be entangled in a thin, withered vine growing from the back of the cave. The vine is quickly cut and burnt; another tendril reaching down from above is cauterised, and all other vegetation in the cave is dispatched. Erfiren briefly handles the vine, and feels a faint itchy burning sensation across his palm as a result. Nothing intrudes, nothing disturbs the boulder, but nobody gets any more sleep.
Outside the cave, wolf tracks with drag marks behind them are found in the morning. SS follows them to the edge of a strange hundred-metre wide pond. The water is cold, still and clear, with no ice. Trees grow on islands therein; five islands are visible, one tree per island, but one island has two trees. Erfiren drinks the water, and immediately feels ‘good’, the weak-tired sensation induced by the river crossing vanishing immediately. The itching sensation across his palm fades. Tests reveal the water radiates Life Support magic. Erfiren takes a skin of water.

A throne
It is early morning. The party heads eastwards, coming to the crook of the cliff where it turns from east-west to north-south. Neeshka and Cian make the relatively easy climb to the top.
The southern margin of the Hills extends beyond the bluff like the prow of a ship. Overlooking the plains to the south, they spy a throne on the headland of the hills some few hundred metres east. They cross the exposed hilltop for a closer look.
It is stone, rough-hewn, chisel marks evident in the granite. Carved for a tall figure, its back is high in the manner of a master’s chair. There are no markings on it. Feeling a little tired from the climb, Cian divests himself of duffel bag and weapon and sits in the throne.
The air around him changes. He sees smoke rising from Silver Hill, he sees trees filling the kine. He hears the clash of steel. Troubled by a notable lack of chaos, he takes the eye patch off. Looking behind him, he sees five figures. One of them comes forward and says “That chair is not for you.” He steps out of it, realises he is in bright sunlight. The trees are denser, and reach from the hills to the river. He looks around. Neeshka is gone
Altraam and Erfiren are surprised by a wide-eyed Neeshka descending the cliff at speed. “Cian is gone!” she announces breathlessly, mentioning a great stone throne. Concerned by the loss of their meat shield, they climb up, Altraam wrenching his left wrist on the way.
There is no sign of Cian. Reasoning that if sitting in the chair made him vanish, perhaps sitting in it again will make him reappear, Erfiren sits in the chair. He too sees five figures; tall, clean-shaven, muscular and strong, dressed in the manner of Edain nobility preparing for battle. They speak:
“The Boy!” says one.
“The progenitor!” says the next.
“The Heir!” says a third.
“THE FOOL!” cries the fourth.
The fifth reaches for him, and he leaps away. When he sits again, he is grabbed and a voice says “This task is not for you, boy!” and hurls him roughly from the chair.
Altraam sits. He too looks back and sees the five figures, but they simply regard him impassively. One of them says “Your friend lies yonder,” and they all point at the easternmost mound.
They head over, finding no tracks on the way. Erfiren tries and fails to detect magic, forcing them to resort to the mark 1 eyeball to search.
The latter approach is fruitful; they find a hatch hidden by an illusion. Erfiren detects magic on the magic illusion, and confirms that it is magic. He then analyses the magic illusion, determining that it is an illusion. Fumbling about through the insubstantial image, they find a padlock, unlatched. It is removed and the hatch thrown open to reveal stairs leading downward to the south.

Into the dark…
They bottom out some eight metres down on a long straight corridor, small stalactites and stalagmites scattered about. The floor is water-slick and slippery. The familiar black beetles with white markings appear out of the walls, scurry between dense spider webs filling the echoing space above them. After ten straight metres across the rough-cut stone floor, the find more stairs down, the ceiling receding as they descend. Webs hang in curtains above. An armoured orc skeleton is sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. Spiders the size of a fist hang from thick silk strands, unmoving.
A clanging noise echoes from ahead. From the space above, fragments of rusty armour clatter to the floor, draped in webs. They seem harmless, and are left. As they proceed, the same noise sounds behind; worried for their retreat path, they head back, to discover the orc skeleton now hangs from webs, and moves forward jerkily like a poorly-handled puppet. It slashes at them with a black scimitar as they approach; torches are brought forth and the webs holding it are burnt away, sending it crashing to the ground.
They press on, discovering the oversized spiders attaching silk to the pieces of armour that fell from above. There is more clanging, more armour falling from the roof. Deciding not to wait for more puppet warriors, they run through it at Neeshka’s suggestion, seeing several more pieces of armour as they charge.
The tunnel ends. They enter a chamber fifty metres across, dark and hemispherical. Erfiren sees a plinth in the middle. A figure appears beside it, familiar from his moments on the throne; he tells Erfiren “This is not your task!” and ushers him out of the chamber. Altraam and Neeshka see only a rock in the centre, and head in, only to discover it is a cave troll.
It rises, growls low and swings huge fists as it approaches, seemingly fixated on Erfiren. Battle is joined, Altraam intercepting the troll and sending Neeshka to look for Cian.
Cian wakes. He is in a small space, coffin-sized and stone-lined. He feels metal armour on his body, a swords clasped deathlike on his chest. He explores his surroundings as best he can, discovering there is a stone lid that moves with some effort. Cian does what Cian does best, and the lid shifts, falling free despite Neeshka standing on top of it calling for him.
The battle with the cave troll is brief and violent. The beast’s hide is thick, its blows powerful, but Altraam sends it crashing to the ground with a fast sweep. It does not rise again, succumbing to a flurry of stabs and slashes from longsword and trident. It shudders and collapses to a man-shaped pile of ash as they watch. Cian eyes the remains askance, wondering whether a true cave troll would have fallen so easily to only two assailants…
Cian looks different. He is bearded and hairier and slightly sallow as if time has passed. He wears plate armour, bears a longsword and a finely wrought Dunedain dagger that glowed blue while he was in the coffin. The usual frenzy of detecting and analysing follows:
A well-made Dunedain longsword (DC/levels)
A finely honed Dunedain dagger (DC/levels)
A simple three-pointed metal crown (usable by others)
Quality plate armour (ranged DCV)
A heavy gold medallion with a quartz crystal set in the middle (range)
All the while, the clanging noise from the corridor continues. In the doorway, a poorly-assembled suit of armour swings and clatters, suspended from a skein of silk.
As they prepare to leave, Erfiren scans the walls of the chamber. On the far wall, he finds a giant Kul face. It radiates clairsentience magic.
They head for the stairs, the suits of armour swinging away before them. The three-Pronged Candelabra Of Doom plays an important part in keeping the webs at bay. Runners return bits of armour to the chamber, where they will not be able to threaten the party. Cian bears the artifacts in which he awoke; as they proceed, he feels himself weaken, seeming to age before the party’s eyes. By the time the reach the stairs he is barely able to stand. Reasoning that the raiment form the tomb is the cause, they decide it must remain, and return it all to the stone sarcophagus set in the floor. The ashes that are all that remain of the ‘troll’ are gathered and placed in the sarcophagus.
As the lid is dropped back into place, a wind circles the chamber, stripping away the Kul face daubed on the wall. Beneath it, a door appears. It opens to an ossuary, with skulls and other bones stacked in dozens in niches on both sides. On the floor are two dead orcs, clutching almost half a pound of assorted gold ornaments, and several bones removed from the piles. The gold and disturbed bones are returned and Second Skirmish leave by a passage beyond the ossuary.
They reach the end and emerge behind a waterfall splashing down at the inside corner of the southern cliffs. The opening is small, the descent tricky, but everyone makes it safely to the small pool at the bottom.

Kelp wolf!
Relieved to have escaped the barrows, attention returns to the slightly less terrifying elements of the journey’s discoveries to date. Returning to the broad, still pond, an ambush is set for the ‘kelp wolf’. Hours of darkness pass uneventfully, but soon after midnight, it appears from the west. Erfiren puts an arrow through it; seemingly unharmed, its vines/fronds/tentacles grasp the nearby trees and it ascends into the canopy. Cian leads a retreat to the edge of the pond where the canopy is thinnest, but when something drips on Neeshka’s shoulder, everyone bolts, running in Cian-led circles until they emerge from the trees at the western side where they first approached the hills. There they discover it is yellow goo with black seeds in it, familiar from the corpse vine encountered in the mines of Thror’s Hills. It is hastily washed off, and everyone is checked for further contamination.

Roll twice on the random whore table
Satisfied that sufficient chaos has been wrought at the <insert name="true"> Hills, Second Skirmish head across to the Milden Hills, crossing the horns to the western flanks. They ascend the gentle slope southward, looking west to the next ridges and across the river to Cillien. Nothing disturbs their passage, and they come across the deeper southern range top to the fallen keep. They quickly find the tunnel to the south that Yeld said he used to escape the falling tower. It’s buried under soil; a brief interlude of digging with inadequate tools exposes it as the sun sets.
Come morning, snow has lightly blanketed the hills, but left the stones of the fallen keep exposed. The tunnel is exposed, its ice-rimed floor posing a challenge to passage. They reach the end, only to find it has been blocked by huge fallen stones. There is no passage through, so Second Skirmish retreat disappointed.
The next destination is the glaarg cave. Cautious exploration reveals recently used trails, humanoid tracks, signs of intelligent activity. Despite an even more cautious approach, the cave itself holds no threat. Instead there are two prostitutes, Iris (short ‘I’) and Lal, and the latter’s child Torren. Goo relations are established when Cian bribes them with food; they say they were travelling with their pimp Gord with the caravan when it came to the hills, but were left behind when Lal was injured. They hope to make their way north, but know they cannot travel alone and ill-equipped in winter, and so hope to wait out the season in the cave. Struck by their plight, and by Cathorna’s lack of cut-price whores, the party offers them refuge in the village, and passage back when they head home. Iris and Lal readily accept. Altraam takes the time to tell them of Cian “Hope of the Daen” O’Conchubhair; they are awestruck by the revelation, and bimbo-draped Conan fantasy poses become the session’s meme. Altraam also offers them his home when they return, assuring them it is not only safe, but also sexy.

Cian smash glaargae! Then conduct rigorous experiments on glaargae!
Telling their new-found friends to remain in the cave, Second Skirmish head out, looking for trails. One is quickly identified, leading to the cliff face looking south. Careful stalking around the cliff face leads to a precarious lookout, on which an orc is perched. Close and careful inspection reveals it has been ‘glaargaed’, a heavy grey blanket covering its lifeless body. After lengthy discussions, the best plan of action is decided and quickly abandoned; instead they rope it and pull it out, sending it tumbling down the mountain, shattering the frozen glaargae coating it and sending bits cascading in all directions, but at least partially in the direction of some people who might be enemies yeah take that you stupid MFPs
Bits of glaargae are gathered and experimentation ensues. As feared, the frozen bits melt and reform a tiny glaargae that tries to escape the pot. It is promptly dispatched with fire. A goat is killed for bait, then a vole is killed and a fist-sized lump is placed nearby in the sun to test the glaargae’s meat-seeking tendencies. The plan is abandoned when it doesn’t melt, so they eat the goat.
More tests with a fist-sized lump in a simple maze show it seeks out heat, approaching torches and stopping a metre away. They kill it with fire when it tries to sink into the sand. It makes a horrible squealing, wheezing sound, smoking and steaming as it burns away. Explorations continue…

Nice cave. What’s that smell?
Heading to the eastern face of the Hills, another cave is discovered looking out east across the plains. It is a huge dark alcove, with five tall, straight trees growing across the face, the gaps between covered with roughly-nailed planks. An iron gate bars entry at the northern end. It is at best a palisade rather than a fort; the planks extend only a few metres, and are easily scaled to provide a view of the interior, where disturbed tables and chairs are scattered across the floor. There are two more iron gates at the back of the space.
Neeshka is pleased to play a unique part, picking the lock to the first gate. Inside, there are signs of orc habitation, furniture and household chattels carved of wood filling the space. Moving cautiously, the party discovers a glaargae at the entrance to the cages when they notice the ground beneath them glistening and sticking to their boots. The residue is cleaned away with fire. Investigating the smaller right hand cage reveals a picked-clean dwarf skeleton near the entrance, clutching a ring with a single key on it. The key fits the large cage adjacent, but not the small cage. Cian surmises the dwarf reached around and unlocked the larger cage. Nothing else is found within, so attention is turned to the larger cage.
It smells powerfully of glaarg. A dark figure seems to lie at the back; Altraam surmises it is the creature he encountered in the cage some time ago. Choosing discretion over getting eaten by the dangerous beast, wood is fetched and an enormous pyre is built. They ignite it and retreat with the prostitutes and child to the ford. The fire is large and spreading…
Until it vanishes at midnight. Come morning, there is a black scar on the hill, larger than the original cave. Cian or possibly Erfiren guesses the blaze was hidden from sight rather than extinguished.
Satisfied with their work, Second Skirmish cross the river by poorly-constructed raft, drifting several kilometres downstream with each crossing. They return to the wood pile at the ford and dry out.

That’s not a fire…
The return is safe and quick; on arrival they acknowledge praise for their efforts in starting an enormous fire visible from near Cathorna and report to Palanto. He is surprised to hear they went up the <who> hills, and indulges in a brief Who’s on First moment when he tells them the range is called ‘Witchmount’. He offers no insight into the nature of the magic pool, or the identity of the five figures, other than to say they are probably Cardolan, and are probably not kings. Neeshka mentions the six hundred year old coin she saw there. They also mention the glaarg(oid) encountered in the Milden Hills. Palanto thanks them for discovering this threat to Cathorna, and asks how they plan to deal with it.
Everyone seems to have surmised that Second Skirmish were responsible for the fire. Nobody seems particularly troubled, but all are curious as to exactly what they set fire to that with would burn so brightly in midwinter, and how they made it go out so suddenly.
Cian tells his family about his adventure, embellishing the tale a little to explain the beard. His les credulous father gets the truth out of him. He also learns of the glaargs.
Altraam asks Fina to ‘help’ Cian. She seems utterly clueless as to what Altraam wants, and leave with the impression he wants her to help him count things. She goes over and counts his rabbits, then tells him not to be afraid to ask her to count things.
Altraam talks to Yeld and says they screwed up and need his help more. Yeld says he will always be available to help should they need him.
Erfiren talks to Amrik about the barrows. Amrik offers no help whatsoever, and suggests maybe Palanto knows more?
Altraam talks to Dorrigan about getting the lost children back. Dorrigan tells him to talk to Palanto, but to talk to him if Palanto says no. Altraam says he has to wait until the solstice.

Mysterious mists of mystery
Troubled by the idea that a square mile of the Greater Firen Valley might yet be untainted by glaargae, Second Skirmish head out again in the morning. Yeld joins the party, and they take the barge downriver, deciding to risk the horror of the Misty Fens and the Bottomless Vortex of Whirling Torment. Things take an ominous but not entirely unexpected turn as they enter the mist, the voice of Finduilas Breghaus calling for help echoing eerily through the mist. The voice of a child is heard next, but it too is duly ignored. A gradually building roar of water to the right is heeded however, and the barge is steered left. The unfamiliar waters and near-zero visibility prove treacherous, and they ground on a sandbar. Tall, dark skeletal shapes emerge from the chill water and reach quietly for them with clawed hands. Neeshka is pulled into the water by one, Yeld hurls a knife and drives the second away. Altraam leaps from the boat with trident and net, Erfiren tries to reach for it with an arrow, while Yeld and Cian pull on the rope to try to bring Neeshka back aboard. It proves strong, but not strong enough to either escape with its prize, nor survive a brutal trident-and-net assault; thick, dark blood oozes from its wounds as it slips beneath the water, dead. Altraam and Neeshka get back aboard, but the freezing water has soaked through their clothes, and they are shivering uncontrollably. Erfiren shares his magic pool drink; it makes them feel better, but seems to do little to restore them.
The journey resumes. Landfall is made at the ford, and a fire is quickly started to restore life to numbed limbs. While they wait to thaw out, Erfiren brings forth his newest spell, binding a crystal to his forehead and peering into the distance to spy the hill above the black scar. He sees a ‘rock’ sitting on the top of the burnt-out cave, but when two figures approach from the north, the rock moves, revealing itself to be a crouched figure. There is a brief exchange, and two of the figures move off. Warmth and vigour restored, the party moves off, taking the barge to a landing south of the Milden Hills. The barge is crudely hidden and the southern slope is scaled in time for night camp amongst the trees past the haunted keep.

Erfiren goes invisible and…
Erfiren’s navigational acumen leads the party to the back side of the ridge behind the burnt-out cave. The crest is bare of trees or other cover, a forty-metre wide dust-and-stone ridge before the sharp drop to the ledge before the cave. Erfiren goes invisible and shoots off on his own. Ten minutes pass, he does not return. Worried, Second Skirmish negotiate over who gets his stuff, then decide to ensure he really is dead, heading off at speed around the ridge to the path down to the cave.
It is scorched and bare. They enter, striding through inches-deep ash and char. Investigation of the larger caged tunnel reveals a grate at the back, where the glaargoid would have covered it. There is a shout, the voice recognisably Erfiren’s; pausing only long enough to light torches (several minutes, tragically), Second Skirmish charge in.
Erfiren is bound, blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back to a post. He hears a voice close by, male, indeterminate age, cultured and Cardolan accented. The stranger says “Second Skirmish again! WHY, do you continually thwart my plans?” He asks who started the fire. Erfiren equivocates. “I know the answer,” the stranger informs him. “So you lose nothing by telling me. Should you fail to answer however, you lose a finger.” Erfiren feels a sharp pressure against the little finger of his left hand. “Who started the fire?” the voice asks. He refuses to answer, feels the blade bite. “No more chances, boy. Who started the fire?” He tells his interrogator the question is pointless if he already knows, then feels dull, heavy pain as his finger is shorn away. Blood flows freely. He feels the blade pressed against the next finger of the same hand. Still he equivocates, and the threat is repeated. Before it is carried out, he hears voices calling his name. The stranger curses, barks something in a harsh, unfamiliar language, then says “Take his tongue.” Erfiren manages to shout when they try to open his mouth. The attempted surgery proves more difficult than expected, and his interrogators abandon the idea, shoving something hard and cold in his mouth and replacing the gag. Erfiren hears running footsteps receding…
Meanwhile, an orc delays Second Skirmish’s headlong charge, striking at them as they attempt to feel their way forward by inadequate torchlight. Altraam calls upon the light of Orome, and it flees in pain. Another orc looms in the dark; Cian hugs it death while Yeld and Altraam charge past and get to the gate. The first orc is through the gate, but it flees before it gets the lock on; they pursue, finding an room with orc weapons and equipment within. Morning stars are grabbed from the wall by Altraam and Yeld and used to smash through a trap door in the floor. Cian drops through blind, finding Erfiren tied to a post. Erfiren’s attempts to shrug off the gag have failed; Cian frees him and Erfiren spits out the softening, burning thing in his mouth. His hand throbs heavily, his tongue is seared as if by a hot coal, but he is able to press on.
A rough-carved tunnel leads south out of the room. Orcs fight to delay their headlong advance; Altraam knocks one down and presses on in pursuit. Erfiren and Neeshka arrow it then Yeld finishes it with a brutal morning star blow. They run on, find a 20’ long tunnel. The floor is grey, smooth and cold. A torch burns in the middle of it. The floor seems to be softening, glistening, moving around it. The prospect of crossing twenty feet of wakening glaargae proves too perilous, and the party turns around to seek another way. The exit is not found, so the party decides to head home.

Home, sans finger. An orb. A voice…
Erfiren goes to Elenril for healing. She numbs his mouth with purple spitter and binds his hand. He hallucinates enthusiastically under the effect of the anaesthetic, and she takes him home.
Altraam reasons that a seeing orb atop the Hills would be ‘accessible’ by the largest stone. Cian persuades Second Skirmish and three of First Heavy to enter into a plan to take the big orb to the ford by cart to test this theory. Alwyn Gedult declines to join, for which Cian bribes Budych not to empty her bucket for a week. Some fast and effective negotiations are undertaken by Cian and Altraam to secure the necessary food for the journey.
It works. Erfiren tunes in to an orb; he sees the road to the south. A little triangulation implies it is somewhere atop the Milden Hills, probably at some height, looking southwards. With some effort of will and magical acumen he manages to steer the view slightly, but it cuts out almost immediately. Now certain there is an orb in the Hills, everyone heads home.
On returning to Cathorna, Erfiren steers the orb back to the original view. As he does so, he hears a voice say “I see you there boy” in tones frighteningly familiar from a cold, chaotic night some years ago.
Before he can break away, he finds himself atop a tower at night, facing into a fresh wind with an old robed bearded man at his side. “Have a care, boy,” the old man says. “You may keep your… trinkets. But you are too useful to take such risks. I do not wish to warn you again.” He returns to the here and now, and sees the orb is reset to Defiance Hill.
Bereft of equipment since the events atop Witchmount, Cian goes to the dwarves to ask them to make him a new seax. Dellin agrees for a price of two silver. The blade is ready three days later when Cian returns, finding Breen Kelhaller (Durgan’s daughter) finishing the leather bindings on the weapon. There is a brief phrase in dwarven runes hammered into the thick edge of the blade. Cian stays long enough to share the tale of the mewlips before leaving with his new weapon.

MANBEARPIG!
The long-standing question of manbearpig island is the next to be considered. Deciding on a smaller, stealthier group, Erfiren, Altraam and Cian set off by boat, reaching the island amid gentle rain. Yeld comes along to act as boat anchor. Thick thorny acacia covers it, dense spider webs festooning the branches. Insect carcasses by the hundreds are entangled in the webs close to the water. Sleeves and cuffs are bound against the invasive sleep ticks, Cian’s delrean cloaks are donned and they head ashore.
Several clearings are found along the low tunnel-like paths wending around the domed island. Evidence of fires, camps, humanoid habitation are found. The ‘entrance’ at the northern tip is guarded by a weeks-dead goblin, its neck broken. At the peak of the island is a clearing with a sparse canopy of foliage. Crouching there offers concealment and a 360 degree view of the lake.
The final clearing appears to be a campsite of sorts. Rags and cloth flutter and dangle from the acacia ringing the metres-wide hollow, sheltered from wind and rain by the rise of the low peak to the south and acacia elsewhere. Thick acacia trunks, stripped of their branches, rise from the thin soil. Bones are scattered and piled about, as are ragged remains of various beasts. Fish, sheep, goblin and human remains are evident. Tufts of black and grey fur are everywhere, and the space smells of animal. There is no sign of life…
Brief discussion ensues. Erfiren reasons that the beast poses no threat, despite the human bones. It has clearly been killing (or at least eating) goblins, and thus acts as a surrogate guard to the western extend of Cathorna’s domain. Manbearpig is left to its own devices, and Second Skirmish return to their boat.

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