In which the denizens of the Shadowfell are made to pay for their crimes, a reluctant hero joins the party, and an ancient mystery is uncovered.
Roster (Party Level 10th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger
Aerello - Tiefling Warlock
The party arrives back where they left Shortham's caravan to find a scene of devastation. The wagons have moved on, but they were clearly attacked. Two of them stand smashed and smouldering, and in the centre of the site, in the remains of what was the camp fire, several bodies have been bound cruelly onto pikes jammed into the earth.
Investigating the scene of the attack, the party discovers small eruptions like exploded earth all around the camp site, and it appears that the attackers emerged from these locations. Gingerly checking the bodies, they're horrified to find the corpses of the Sisters of the Ashen Cloth, their faces horribly mutilated, their bodies lashed together with razor-wire reminiscent of weapons used by the shadar-kai, a race native to the Shadowfell. Rellanic runes on the pikes deliver this grim warning: "Let this death mark the cleansing of the Ashen taint from the earth."
In the midst of this carnage, the group contemplates its next move. They know that the Sisters were pilgrims, visiting sites of mystery and intrigue around the Plain, and that the Caravan was due to stop, at their behest, close to the Winding Stone, being a site of standing stones from which evils are said to emerge whenever the stone plinth at its heart pauses in its ceaseless turning. They also know that the elven race was all-but obliterated by a series of deadly plagues hundreds of years ago, plagues which, legend reputes, were delivered to the elven princes by on a fabulous tapestry called the Ashen Cloth.
With all appearances suggesting that the Sisters were killed purely out of racial hatred, the party resolves to follow the attackers into the wilderness (including Jonas, although he seems to have a moment of intense despair upon seeing the murders), and they spend the better part of the day tracking their targets to the south-east. In time, a needle of camp-fire smoke appears on the horizon, and with little cover, the adventurers have few options but to approach in the open.
They come upon a camp of tents with a sputtering fire at the centre. One shadar-kai is on guard; another digs at a nearby patch of earth, filtering the soil through his fingers before giving up and moving to another spot. As he spotes the approaching party, he grabs his weapon and barks a gutteral order in goblin. At his command, other members of the camp emerge: another shadar-kai, and several goblins as well.
Finial orders them to drop their weapons and be judged for the crime of murder, but the scarred and tattooed man facing him simply laughs in his face, making no effort to hide his part in the crime. "There is no justice to be had in this wasteland," he chuckles, an answer which causes the paladin to simply shrug, ready his weapon, and attempt to prove him wrong.
As the parties engage, two large forms pick themselves up from the ground near the fire: shadow mastiffs, massive canines native to the Shadowfell. Jonas creeps into the camp, and in the first tent he finds a trussed-up tiefling, a member of the caravan who the group hasn't had much to do with until now and who seems to have been kidnapped by the shadar-kai. The rogue wastes no time with pleasantries or introductions, and unties the potential ally as quickly as he can, since outside he can hear the low growls of one of the dogs sniffing around near the tent flap.
Meanwhile the other mastiff launches itself like a clawed, furry meteor at Finial, raking his face. He shoves the dog aside and unleashes holy vengeance on the nearest shadar-kai, who grins openly at the prospect of the ensuing pain, but remains unfortunately disappointed as the paladin's attack rolls ineffectively off him.
Nearby, the leader of the enemy band swings his mace in a complex pattern, the whisper of his voice carrying to all: "Can you feel it? Night is falling..." and almost at once a preternatural dusk seems to settle over the battlefield. At the same time two pillars of utter darkness punch down from the heavens, painting a starry nightscape over the landscape beyond, and tracking across the ground as if seeking light and life to snuff out.
Meanwhile Jonas leaves the reluctant tiefling behind and dodges into the second tent, dispatching the goblin cowering within, while Elumai is forced to activate her Shield spell to avoid the effect of a beam of black, soul-quenching power from the nearest shadar-kai. She retaliates by killing two of the goblin servitors with a devastating Thunderwave, as nearby Finial is savaged by the giant dog that still grapples him.
The pillars of night begin to slowly move across the battlefield, but it seems that even those who call the power of the Shadowfell are not immune to its dangers, as the leader of the shadar-kai is forced to dive out of the way. Finial isn't so lucky and the darkness rolls over him, causing thick shadows to descend over his vision; the dark is as deep and complete as any he has experienced, and he is struck blind, giving the nearby shadar-kai ample opportunity to step in and smash the paladin with his mace before he's able to shake off the effect.
Now all of the goblins are killed or incapacitated, and the party is able to turn its full attention on the shadar-kai and their hounds. Jonas darts around the combat zone, doing massive damage with his gladius, while Finial issues forth waves of healing and divine power from near the centre of the fight. Aerello emerges from his tent to support the strangers who have rescued him, cursing his enemies with the power of his distant patron, and there is a moment of sweet irony as the leader of the shadar-kai is blinded by his own pillar of gloom.
From that point the fight quickly turns against the outsiders and is brought to a swift end, neither the shadar-kai nor their pets fighting to anything except the death. With all of their enemies dispatched, the group finds several sacks of goods stolen from the caravan, most of which are personal trinkets and possessions suggesting that many of the people under Shortham's protection are intending to make a new life for themselves in the city, as well as a few gold coins and all of Aerello's gear as well.
Intrigued by the small excavations being undertaken when they arrive, the party scans the surrounding countryside and finds, under small patches of earth on which the grass is subtly discoloured, a selection of marble-sized platinum baubles. Elumai identifies teleportation magic upon them -- perhaps a focus for ultra-long-distance teleportation spells? -- but can't draw a connection between these devices and the elves or shadar-kai. Finally it's Jonas who remembers tales told to him by his old mentor, legends of eladrin raiders from long ago, who were reputed to "explode like devils from the crust of the earth" and viciously attack trade caravans crossing the dangerous wastes of what was then a nascent King's Hand. Certainly this depiction marries with Aerello's recollection of the attack, albeit it was shadar-kai exploding from the earth instead.
Uncertain of the significance of these events, but content in the knowledge of at least one life saved, the party turns their attention to catching up with the caravan. They do so after three days' hard travel. It's much depleted and still stunned in the aftermath of the attack. The Very Unroyal Brigade is reduced to two now, their other members having been killed in what was, by all accounts, a valiant but fruitless defense of the Sisters, but they refuse help from Finial until he has seen to the civilians. Shortham favours one leg, but is otherwise fine; Olak Grentz is alive but has taken a severe beating, and is surprised but gratified at the return of the party, which is carrying goods which he desperately needs in order to re-balance the books.
Ranolph, a young squire who lost his eye while braving the defense, is overjoyed to receive back the money for his prospective commission into the Kingsblade, but morosely informs Jonas that he has no hope of being inducted into the upper ranks of the King's forces now he is disabled. The wily rogue nods in sympathy, offers the young lad a tidy sum, and promptly hires him for purposes of his own.
Ashenport, and what transpired there, isn't brought up by Shortham or anyone else in the caravan, and thus-strengthened by the return of the party, the caravan moves on. As the sun languishes overhead, the open gates of Emerandes, strong and welcoming beneath the glittering emerald spire, finally come into view.
Outside, a veritable town of tents and awnings is the first sight to greet the visitors. Traders ply their wares, and folks familiar with Shortham, of which there seem to be a lot, doff their caps or shake his hand and welcome him back to the city, while dirty children play happily amongst the wheels of the wagons as they roll towards the main gate.
Passing through the massive crystal curtain wall, Shortham is stopped by several members of the watchful Royal Arcana, but he vouches for the everyone under his charge and it seems his word is plenty good enough for the city guard. The broad main thoroughfare of the city is something of a relief as they step onto it, since the piercing and painful glare of the Spire is mitigated by cloth canopies referred to by the locals as "chutes", strung from tall poles sunk into the cobbled streets or attached to buildings overhead.
The company says its goodbyes to the caravan (Shortham barely has time for a word as he makes a multitude of delivery arrangements with several merchants who seem to have been waiting for him to arrive, and Olak is curt as he thanks the company for their assistance), and begins making plans. Their discussions are cut short, however, as the crowd before them swells and parts.
Five eladrin dressed in exquisite armour layered in complex patterns over long white robes stand there, swords and halberds at the ready. One of them, a young and handsome fey of noble disposition, steps forward, a look of utter distaste on his face as he addresses Elumai directly: "Elumai Niastai, on warrant of the Court of Stars and by direct order the Summer Queen, you are under arrest."
Elumai stops, recognition on her face, as the rest of the company ponder this new mystery...