Roster (Party Level 5th)
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (off-stage)
Jonas - Human Ranger (off-stage)
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock/Ranger (special guest)
Listening at the door, Elumai hears the sound of booted feet marching past, and the company decides that more caution might be advisable as they advance further into the Hold. Being one of the more light-footed members of the party, she creeps from the rec. room into the corridor outside.
It's a long, curved gallery constructed of sand-coloured slabs of rock, one side of which is open to a great underground chasm. The air is think in her lungs and carries the smell of burning. Across the gap, two straight-sided towers built into the side of the canyon are ablaze, flames and smoke billowing from open windows and doors (as she watches, a duergar, aflame, leaps from an open window and plunges, screaming, into the yawning black below). Blasted stone buttresses are all that remain of bridges which might once have spanned the gap between the two sides of the fortress.
Noise from further down the corridor gets her attention, and a patrol of 4 gnolls strolls nonchalantly past, far too engrossed in their own unintelligible conversation to pay much attention to the crouched eladrin. They rap on a wooden double-door further down the way, and pass through out of sight.
The party joins her but as they contemplate their next move, they're distracted by the sounds of nearby combat. Cautiously investigating they find none other than... Corrash! Standing victoriously over a dead gnoll, he wrenches a spear from the place where its eyeball used to be, and greets the party.
The reunion (and introductions) are necessarily curt, but Corrash reveals that after leaving Saruun Khel on short notice to chase rumours of a captive dragon which held some interest to him, he was run down and kidnapped by the duergar. For days, he has been painfully interrogated on a single subject... Berend!
The dwarf is understandably taken aback as his old dragonborn companion recites some of the stranger questions he was asked: how does he braid his beard? what of his family? what are his sanitary habits? As to why the duergar might be interested in such things, Corrash has no insight to offer.
At news of a human captive being held in the dungeons below, the party descends a thin, claustrophobic spiral stair to the scene of Corrash's recent escape. The room is squat and square, the floor covered in the accumulated gore of years of unspeakable cruelty, but only one of the cells is occupied: a human, propped up in one corner, his eyes sewn shut and his fingers and limbs twisted in evidence of excruciating torture.
The man barely clings to life, but Xavier relinquishes his only potion of healing to bring him to his senses. He introduces himself as Entil-Poroy, part of the Kingsblade caravan that Xavier happened upon (and which caused the dragonborn to travel to Saruun Khel). He describes the invasion of the fortress by the gnolls, and the murder of his jailers. Matorna-Reevash, his captain, has been taken elsewhere, to a place he calls "The Well", and he demands that Xavier find and rescue her. This is a task which the Warlord has already committed to, but he reaffirms his promise to the broken prisoner, and before much else can be said, Entil-Poroy begs a last favour from him... that he be given an honorable death. With a heavy heart, Xavier grants him his final wish.
"Please, afford this old warrior... a noble end..."
-- Entil-Poroy to Xavier in the dungeons of the Horned Hold.
Apart from the earlier patrols, the halls of the Horned Hold remain strangely quiet. Through the double doors seen previously, the party spies on a meeting hall, re-arranged into what looks like a make-shift prison camp for the duergar. Over a hundred of the grey-skinned dwarves lie around the place, some dead, most of the rest looking emaciated, hollow-eyed, and dazed, their hair and beards stringy and lifeless, brittle beard quills scattered over the floor.
Overseeing them are the gnolls spotted from earlier, and demonic creatures such as the party has never seen: tall pillars of slime with single, bulbous eyes, oozing about the place, and glassy-fleshed humanoids oozing ichor from glistening cracks in their skin. As they watch, one of the dwarves struggles to his feet and shambles towards them, only to be kicked back into the center of the room by one of the gnolls in command.
To the north, the gallery ends at what looks like an excavation, meticulously carved from the face of the rock over what must have been a period of years. In the center of the mine, rising from the rubble, are two bronze minotaur statues. Between them they hold aloft a large triangular portal of some kind, suspended 25-feet or so above the ground and with runes inscribed along the length of its frame. Ropes and ladders have been strung up to the bottom edge of the portal by parties unknown, and clambering up, the party is able to translate the runes along one edge: "In Kvorn's name, demonstrate your quality!" (Kvorn is already known to them as Emperor of the old minotaur city). Speculation follows on how the portal might be activated, but no headway is made in that respect for now.
At the opposite end of the corridor, a stone landing permits entry through another door. Inside, the party spies what look like four cisterns dug into the floor; one is filled with water, another with duergar bodies, while the other two remain out of sight. Guarding the room is another clutch of gnolls and demons (muscular red-furred humanoids identified as Evistro's by the experts in the group), and a harpy, lurking in the shadows of the roof but spotted by the keen eyes of the adventurers.
In dire need of intelligence, the company resolves to attack, and the fight turns into a bitter struggle for survival around the water-filled pit. The harpy proves deadly, beguiling her enemies into throwing themselves into the pool where they are much less effective, and the claws of the demons and hatchets of the gnolls lay Xavier low while bringing Berend to within an inch of his life. Thankfully, a timely intercession by Azurami with one of their few potions of healing brings the Warlord to his senses long enough for him to leap to Berend's aid and turn the tide of the battle in their favour... but in the meantime, more than one of his friends worriedly notices that the dwarf appears to be having muttered conversations with people who simply aren't there.
Thus victorious, they stop for a better look around the room. In the far cistern, a single duergar looks up at them suspiciously, battered and with a wooden splint on one leg. As soon as he spots Berend, however, his eyes widen, and he forces himself to his feet. Raising one crooked finger as if in accusation, he breathes a single word at the dwarven warrior...