After some time to rest and recover, the party makes plans for departure from the environs of the Strazh. Their mission discharged after centuries of fidelity, the ancient guardians have begun to fade into the rewards of afterlife. With the advent of winter upon them, and with a sense of melancholy the season pervades, the group bids adieu to their allies, and heads north to the lowlands, specifically, the hamlet of Clear Lake, a village that was once the temporary home of Ferrin Goldstone himself. With snow and ice blanketing the highlands, they will have to march their way back to Foursquare in a roundabout fashion. The appearance of flights of Ice Wyverns far above them further convinces them this is the correct course of action. Why bother with great lizards and angry Orsts, after all, if you can avoid it? A jaunt down the mountain, in unseasonably clear weather, takes them to Clear Lake, where tragedy has struck. The city has been raided and pillaged, with nary a soul left in it…or so it seems.
The eerie quiet of the town is shattered when a young girl sprints into view, shouting a single word: “GOBLINS!” Once again, battle calls, and the heroes of BBK become the embodied spirit of vengeance, setting on the pursuing beasties. In short order, several Ogre-sized Orst appear, and the battle is joined.
It isn’t much of a battle. The troupe dispatches the creatures handily, plowing through them like sharp blades through wheat. The girl, a half-elf as it turns out, is rescued. Shaken from the loss of all she knows, she is welcomed to the party. This addition seems more fated than lucky. For the girl’s name is Aurina Gem’Aruel. Both Warren and Dimitriy immediately recognize her last name as “Goldstone” in the old-tongue. Could this be a long-lost relative of Ferrin himself? Certainly, his visage on a great statue erected in the village center speaks of this. So, too, does her resemblance to Xant, who also bears some features of said monument. Are they BOTH of the Goldstone line? The strange emanations from Ferrin’s blade in her presence attests to this, as well.
Yet, these answers must wait. After putting out fires created from their battle, and an overnight stay in what is left of Clear Lake, the party decides to delay their trek to Foursquare to track the perpetrators of the village slaughter. The next day, they are off to the mountains, following a trail similar to the one that brought them down. Led by Aurina, they come to two paths in the lower mountains, just as the weather begins to turn bad. The resourceful group takes shelter from the storm overnight, before headed back to the crossroads, where they choose the path that takes them to the canyon of the White Hand — a xenophobic lot of Orst not usually known as far-ranging pillagers. After a brief attempt at parley with a pair of goblin guards, they find themselves ambushed by the creatures.
It is a slaughter…
Shrugging off a massive explosion from a pair of arcane grenades, the party coldly slays their opponents. Between the magics of Warren, the unerring arrows of Bronwen and Aurina, and the cold steel of warriors Xant, Gromminique and Laurence, a host of goblinoids fall to the ground. Even when the greatest of threats emerged, huge creatures the size of hill giants, the party smites them.
Yet there are so many. Eventually, the battle turns. Orcish archers appear on the bluffs above, augmented by a massively muscled Orge. Arrows and boulders rain down on the party, and soon, Bronwen falls. Laurence scoops her up and makes a beeline for one of the lair entrances, only to run into reinforcements, among them, another grenade thrower, armed to the teeth. Thankfully, Warren’s spell holds the creature before it can do any harm. Laurence and the mage dispatch the vanguard, leaving little more than the brief dispatch of the creature.
Meanwhile, Aurina, Xant and Gromminique hold down the fort on the plane of battle. The Orge from above slides down a rope, shouting vulgarities at the young half-elf, then spewing hatred at the fallen prince of Chaar when he emerges at her side. A pitched battle between dwarf and giant ensues, as arrows yet fly from the cliffsides. The battle-harded Gromm take an unfortunate blow to the his left eye, losing sight, but never determination. A massive exchange between the Wielder of Necksplitter and the creature called “The Exalted” rocks the canyon, shouts of battle echoing along with clashing steel. Both combatants, scarred and trailing blood, barely standing, are locked in a struggle from which only one will emerge.
Back in the cave…
Laurence strides forward to the held grenade-mage. At the behest of Warren, he slits the creatures throat, dispelling the mystical paralysis that binds him. It proves to be a massive error. The creature topples forward, crushing ALL of his grenade cannisters. A tremendous explosion, WHOOSHES through the cavern, shaking the area. As Laurence leaps to safety both he and Warren are caught in the cave-in. Within seconds, two more members of the party are down for the count.
Enter Dimitriy Xant…
With enough deaths on his conscience already, the hardy Paladin races toward his friends, arriving just in time to use Warren’s healing staff to stabilize them. Heartbeats later, he has pulled Laurence from the rubble. As he stares at them, unconscious yet alive, he realizes the party is in dire straights. Though the efforts of Aurina and himself have driven the Orcs from the bluffs back down into their hiding places, there is yet the great giant known as “The Exalted.” And Gromm looks all the worse for wear.
It is then that the heroes’ newfound compatriot concocts a brilliant plan. Utilizing her last dose of inivisibility dust, Aurina steps within range of the Exalted’s cleaving strikes, tossing the magical spray onto Gromminique. The bloodied and battered dwarf literally disappears before everyone’s eyes, leaving the Exalted to howl in anger.
Quickly, the Prince takes advantage of his newfound stealth, and, not long after, he, Xant and Aurina stand over the dead body of the great creature. Bodies, blood and gore are everywhere. Three members of the troup have fallen. Yet, again, they have prevailed. But what of the White Hand? There are so many more in the caverns below.
The answer comes all too soon, as the sound of stone grinding against stone is heard. Hammered by inestimable losses, and without their great Exalted warrior, the creatures choose discretion, and lock their lair up tight. And though there may be yet survivors from Clear Lake within those hated bowels, the group is in no shape to pursue their chosen quest. They beat a hasty retreat back down the mountain, taking up residence against the oncoming cold in the same cave they slept in the night before.
Once safely hidden away, with the watch set, Blue Defender Warren, and former Silversword Xant congress with Gromminique, the three of them the last survivors of the original party that set forth for Bale Keep over 5 years ago. Having seen so much success and fame, they cannot help but contemplate their failures, and the trail of death behind them. Convinced that any survivors of Clear Lake are long since gone, they resolve to make the long trek back to Foursquare, their next destination, the outpost of Fifth Sent. According to the Strazh, they can find shelter and provisions there.
In the meantime, a long night of soul searching awaits them.
*For Dimitriy Xant, there are still memories of the lost, and of the friends nearly lost in the battle with the White Hand. He begins to wonder if his hero’s heart is yet the thing that has caused all this pain. And this charge laid upon him, restore the Goldstone reign, what can that mean? Is he truly Ferrin’s heir? What of Aurina? Is she, too, of Ferrin’s blood?
*For Warren Young, Doomsayer and (now) Firebringer, thoughts of Ten’lev yet intrude. Surely he is still out there, still purseing his arcane motives. Though the storm has long since swept by, he yet feels the calm is but a prelude to another, greater storm. The still youthful wizard, now burdened by experience and loss, vows he will do something about it, alone, if need be.
*For Gromminique Riptor, an uncharacteristic bout of soul-searching begins. Shaken by the last battle with the Exalted, and now fully aware he is without a home, he begins to realize those with whom he travels are his only family (“Except for maybe Warren, who continually makes horrible choices”). A sea change sweeps over his heart, filling it with a yearning to atone, to do good again. He vows to leave behind his old identity. That night, Gromminique exists no more. From his ashes, Phoenix-like, a new creature emerges. The Prince takes the name of his fallen enemy, and becomes….The Exalted.
*For Laurence, there is that moment when the former realizes that, when he heroically carried his fellow Blademaster away from battle, he was perhaps doing more than saving an ally. Maybe, just maybe, there was a spark of feeling for the Elven mistress of the bow. Could it be that she who is above reproach, she who would selflessly sacrifice herself for any of them, could it be that his ally and fellow Blademaster, Bronwen, is now the woman he loves? For now, such thoughts remain hidden.
And so, too, does the future of the party seem shrouded by doubt. There are so many miles to go before they reach home again. Once there, how long will it remain home, with a throne to reclaim, and an old enemy to track down?
The snow falls outside the warm cave all night, obscuring all tracks and traces of what has been…