Lapiria

Into the Earth

After a night of rest, the group was prepared to face whatever lay below the mill.

The opening sat atop a square shaft about 5’ wide. There were holes where the iron rungs of a permanent ladder had probably once been mounted, but they were empty.

Tekla lowered Alera into the shaft on a rope. After a dozen feet or so, the remains of the ladder started to appear. It was clearly very old, and rust and time had done a large amount of damage. In total, the shaft was about 25 feet deep. At the bottom, it met a low, narrow passageway that ran off to the south. Ominously, the passageway was crawling with leafy vines – the sort of vegetation that would never grow naturally so far from the sunlight.

Once Alera was certain the area was safe, the party made its descent. The tunnel led them a few hundred feet to the remains of a door. It had been smashed apart by something heading north. As the group approached, they noticed murder holes hidden in the walls, but could detect no one behind them.

Beyond the doors lay what the historians in the group realized was an old underground fort of the type widely used by the forces of the Fire Lord. The entire place was overrun with vines and plants of all description, but at first it appeared to be deserted. The ranger detected traces in the dust that implied that someone had recently been moving about. More footprints came out of some of the rooms than went in.

As the party investigated the area that had once been the jails, they found a new and disturbing looking plant. A vine, thick as a man’s wrist and covered in wicked thorns. Four of them had broken into the fortress through the wall at the back of the jail, and had creeped into the cells.

Three of the cells were occupied by corpses tangled in the vines. In the fourth was an unconscious but living man. The vine was wrapped around his ankles and wrists, pinning him against a wall.

The party left the trapped man for the moment, and made certain the rest of the fort was secure. They found no living or undead threats, but they did find an ominous and disturbing tunnel that had been burrowed directly into what was probably the commander’s quarters. It lead off to the south, and seemed the most likely route by which the invasive force had arrived.

Confident that they were as safe as could be reasonably expected, the party returned to the prisoner. He remained unconscious, so Tekla attempted to sever the vine with a knife. The vine jerked and nearly impaled Tekla’s armored hand, and the prisoner cried out in agony as the thorns dug into his flesh. Switching to her sword, Tekla used all her considerable power to sever the vines in a single stroke. The prisoner sagged away from the wall as the vines’ strength fled, revealing some manner of purplish plant growing in a crevice in the wall, with burrowing tendrils embedded in the man’s back.

Acting quickly, the party cut the man free, and Lucien applied the salve that they had received from Jeriko. His healing magic was next and before long, the stranger had regained some of his wits.

The man told them that he was called Traveler, and that he and his companions had been following a friend of his who’d fled their home with an old religious icon. They were taken and split up. Their friend seemed to not be himself, and told Traveler that there was “something special” planned for him. Traveler said that he believed that the old icon had some sort of hidden power that had overwhelmed his friend’s mind. The unfortunate man was now determined to summon what appeared to be a dangerous Fae god.

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Tracks in the Forest

Bright and early the morning after they reached the shelter of Woodhold, the capital of Valtheia, the Hand set about learning all they could about the circumstances leading up to the attacks and infection. The learned that the first attacks by creatures from Mannhom had occured about five weeks previously, near Mirken’s Mill, a lumber camp to the southwest.

Lucien conferred with his fellow biomancer and doctor at the Temple of the Holy Triumverate. They worked out a plan to isolate any wounded who were injured by the infected. While he was on this errand, Alera talked to some of the city’s hedge witches, midwives and herbalists. An old midwife told Alera that if anyone would know a way to heal the sick before the parasitic plants killed them, it would be Jariko the hermit.

Armed with a description of where to find Jariko, the party decided to visit the old hermit to find out if he knew anything about the invasive vine, or a way to stop it. Once that task was done, they planned to visit the logging camps to see what, if anything, remained of the province’s frontiersmen.

The midwife’s directions called for them to follow an abandoned logging track a few miles into the First-Wood, then to leave the path and follow a stream against the current until the hermit’s hill could be found. The directions seemed to be good, but Miria the ranger discovered that the track was not as abandoned as they had been lead to believe. A group of six human-sized creatures in heavy boots had been walking along it not long before, from the direction of the abandoned logging camp at its terminus. Furthermore, they were headed upstream toward the hermit!

Thus alerted, the party proceeded cautiously toward their rendezvous. They lost the booted tracks at the base of the hermit’s hill, however, and found nothing of immediate concern at Jariko’s cave home. The hermit himself was friendly enough, and willing to answer their questions. Unfortunately, he had never encountered the parasitic vine, and had no idea how one might go about killing in it a living host. His manner was strange, and his voice was rough and halting from disuse. More than one of the Hand got the impression that he was hiding something, but they never discerned what it might be, or caught him in a lie.

Because of their aroused suspicions, the companions asked if they could look around the area, and see a vegetable garden that Jariko had mentioned he kept on the other side of the hill. The hermit agreed, but said he would stay behind and go back to his meditations, which the party had interrupted. There wasn’t much to look at around the hermit’s cave – just some chickens and a nanny goat for milk. When the party rounded the hill and found the garden, it was another story. Despite the fact that it was only early spring, the hermit had summer and fall plants ready for harvest.

A quick examination reassured the party that here were no parasitic vines in evidence, but something was definitely out of the ordinary. The party went back to the cave to ask Jariko about his unusual garden, and found him gone. The looked about for signs of a struggle, and found none. They took a moment to open his footlocker, but found only worn clothing, a few coins, and a miniature portrait of an Elven woman.

Miria was able to find evidence of his passage quickly. They followed him down the side of the hill and through the woods to a small pond in a brook that fed the stream they’d followed to find Jariko. The hermit was huddled by the water on his hands and knees, with his head down on his arms. He was shaking, and making low moans of pain. With his hair falling forward, the party could see that his ears were pointed – a half elf.

The party asked what was wrong, but didn’t get a coherent response. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you. They spared me, because of my mother, but they left something behind.” The words were obviously causing Jariko great pain to utter.

“Who are they? What do they want?”

“The Lords of the F-f-f-...”

Alera shouted for the hermit to stop harming himself, that they would find another way to get the information, but it was too late. With a final scream and a burst of blood from the hermit’s mouth, a tree began sprouting from Jariko’s body. Within minutes, the tree had grown to more than 20 feet tall – an ash tree.

The party had never seen anything like this. Theories were exchanged, ranging from evil magic to cursed water to “maybe that’s just what happens to elves when they die.”

In the end, there was nothing more that could be done for old Jariko, so the party turned to their only other lead, the booted footprints. There was some disagreement among the party members about which direction to go. Should they follow the footprints and find out where the owners went, or should they track them back to their origin?

In the end, the fact that they were unlikely to catch up on unfamiliar ground convinced the party to try to find out where the passing feet had come from. They appeared to be coming from the old abandoned logging camp at the end of the old track, but there’d been no reason to go there for years. They followed the tracks back, but they skirted the old sawmill. There was the remains of a human being there, but it had been reduced to a simple skeleton, and a viny, purple flowered plant was growing with its rib cage. When Alera attempted to take a cutting, the plant attacked, leaving thorns and wriggling tendrils embedded in her leather gauntlet. The party settled for making a sketch of the flowers rather than risking having a member of the party become infested.

The tracks led them back to Mirken’s Mill, the first location to be attacked. They approached cautiously, and it’s a good thing they did. The ground around the mill, which should have been clear-cut long ago, was dotted with trees that ranged from 8 to 12 feet high. Two giant ash trees, each at least 100 feet, had grown so quickly in front that the ground was buckled and rent from the force of it. Among the trees were nine human forms, at least six of whom were infested with the parasite – it had grown so advanced that shoots, limbs, and vines had burst from the victims’ bodies.

The Hand knew that there was no sense talking to the infested – they would attack until destroyed. They made a plan to assault the creatures from long range, hoping to bunch them together for a devastating attack from Amalia.

The battle began well enough, but everyone knows that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The party had missed a presence on the other side of the mill’s waterwheel. A woman, who appeared to be an old lady, advanced along with the shambling plant-horrors. She was much more fleet of foot than they, in fact, and began to assault the party with devastating bursts of sound which threw them about and damaged them heavily. Her disguise was soon hanging off her, cut to ribbons by Tekla and Alera, and beneath it she looked like an old crone of gnarled wood.

The three normal looking people turned out to be anything but. The parasite had left their countenances alone, but caused great changes within. They began to spit corrosive gobs of a sap like substance at the party.

The battle was hard fought. The shrieking woman teleported into the middle of the group and sent them all reeling with an even more horrible shriek. Lucien went down under the devastating blows of the infected. Amalia risked life and limb to close with the creatures and engulf them in a fire shroud. Tekla and Alera worked together to take the foes down as quickly as possible. In the end, the infected creatures were not a match for the Hand, but they took a heavy toll on the group’s magical and personal resources.

Before securing a camp, the party examined the saw mill, trying to determine why it would be so heavily guarded. They found that the saw’s drive shafts and gears had been damaged. A hidden trap door had lain under the floor of the mill’s stone section (which had been built from the remains of a ruined tower), and it had been forced open with such violence that the mill’s gears were misaligned and cracked by the impact.

As the group settled for the night, it occurred to Miria that this assignment was not unlike being trapped in a child’s story.

Stories.

That wooden crone had figured in her father’s stories. It had been a part of the Faerie courts, and been called a Hag!

With this bit of knowledge, both Amalia and Lucien were quick to realize that Jariko had probably been saying “Lords of the Forest,” one of the many names for the nobility of the Fae.

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The Journey Begins
The Hand makes a disturbing discovery

DM’s note: This was our first session playing 4e. We have one player that’s mostly comfortable with the rules, one who has played before but is a relative newcomer to gaming in general, and the rest of us are RPG vets but 4e newbies. The session went slowly, but I feel it worked out well.

After their interview with Karas Quinion, the members of the Hand went to the Imperial archives to learn all they could before leaving. Alera wanted to know what sorts of magic or devices could be used to compel or alter behavior. Unfortunately for her, the archivist informed her that the Mage Lords were a paranoid group, and that mind-control magics were among their most prolific. While they were there, biomancer Lucien checked the region’s tax records and history. There were no irregularities there that pointed toward a brewing rebellion.

The trip was uneventful, but miserable due to the early fall rains. Large areas of the Imperial highways have fallen into disrepair over the past decade, and the churned up mud tired the horses and their riders.

As the party neared Valtheia, the road ran along the edge of the [[First-Wood]]. Eventually they came to an area where the road was within an easy stone’s throw of the first trees – the forest had been expanded faster than the woodmen of Valtheia can cut it back. Lucien wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity to restock some of his more rare healing herbs straight from the source. Miria, the party’s ranger, led the group into the trees looking for a particular difficult to find shrub whose leaves can be steeped into a powerful pain-killer.

As the party was crossing the bed of a dried-up stream, they heard the sounds of someone approaching from the north. They moved into the lee of a nearby boulder and waited to see what was coming. They sound was revealed as a pair of large gray wolves, which crested the top of the streambed and came straight toward the party, moving to attack.

As the party arrayed themselves to deal with this unusually aggressive brace of wolves, their hiding place revealed itself to be another source of danger! Strange humanoids, seeming made of masses of vines, slithered out from under the stone and attacked the party, quickly snaring them in vines that began to constrict painfully.

To add insult to injury, three ragged looking orc-warriors were following the wolves, and move to support them and the plant creatures.

The battle was difficult, but eventually the party carried the day, thanks in large part to the cunning sword-work of Alera and the party’s warrior, Tecla. The young Servant, Amalia had a chance to prove herself as well.

During the fight, the party noticed that the wolves and orcs continued to fight until death – far past the point that even soldiers and trained war animals would push themselves if they had a chance. One of the vine creatures was able to flee when it became badly wounded, disappearing under the boulder where it had been hiding. The rock weighed many tons, so the party had no chance of following the horror.

An iron stomach and dogged determination on Alera’s part uncovered a disgusting infestation in the innards of one of the wolves, which had been disemboweled during the battle. Thready white fibers were traced to thicker, rootlike tendrils. Suspecting some sort of parasite might have been affecting its brains, Lucien cracked open the beast’s skull. They found there a mass of the fibers, now clearly vegetable in nature.

After confirming that the orcs were similarly infested, the party began travelling toward the city. They found several more handfuls of bodies (mostly human) by the side of road, also infested. When they arrived at the city, they found a small crowd of corpses outside the locked gate, clearly killed by defenders on the walls. They, too, were infected with the parasitic plants.

The Hand met with the lord of Valtheia and his militia captain, Crandal. They learned that the first attacks had begun about a month previously, but had quickly escalated. So far, none of the infected had appeared inside the city.

The party is awaiting a map showing the location of the First-wood logging camps. Their remote location and low level of daily traffic makes them a likely place for the attacks to have started.

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Trouble in Valtheia
The Hand receives its assignment

The Hand

The Hand has been on leave and in mourning for several months. Your previously assigned wizard, Rennick, was slain in a skirmish with giant scorpions on the edge of the Great Wastes. Jackson Wolfkiller, the party’s Keeper, has been taking it particularly hard.

Rennick was a corpulent wizard with a quick wit, but too great a fondness for beer and women. He was friendly, but loud. Make up your own minds how much of the official mourning applied to your characters personally.

Word has come that you will be assigned a new wizard (Maya’s charater) and return to the field. The new wizard is said to be young and mostly inexperienced, but very powerful for her age.

The Assignment

The party is called to the offices of Karas Quinion, the Minister of the Western Empire. The office is as spare and unadorned as the man himself.

The province of Valtheia appears to be under assault. At first blush, there seems to be a group of raiders from Mannhom striking over the border against the people of the province. However, certain… inconsistencies in the behavior of the “raiders” leads me to believe otherwise.

It is my belief that these creatures are being used by someone or something else. In fact, I believe it is more likely the latter. Exposure to a powerful artifact of the Mage Lords can frequently lead to erratic and dangerous behavior, as you know.

The local militia has been able to contain the threat and turn back these rabid-seeming Animal-men. Your task will be to find out what is behind it. If it is an artifact, bring it back to me so it can be studied by the Citadel of the Servants. If I am wrong and this is being orchestrated by some group of individual, eliminate him.

Report to Lord Valtheia and his captain, Cranden. I have been told you can expect logistical support, but the region is not rich in either arms or magic, so be reasonable.

After this speech, the Minister turns back to his work. It is clear the party has been dismissed.

One of the Minister’s aids is on-hand to answer specific questions. He also furnishes you with a sketchy map showing which of the Imperial highways lead to Valtheia.

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