Stranger in a Strange Land
The paladin Talys has spent a month at sea journeying from her crusader homeland to the Queendom of the Owls. She arrives in the port city of Vinyamar, at the mouth of the Silverblood River, to announce her quest for the fugitive Disciple of Gormadis. The elvish magistrates provide her with a passport and point her after her predecessor, Ser Kelran, but otherwise leave her to her own devices. She chooses to walk to the first village Kelran visited, a place called Sage’s Sorrow a few days journey south of the city.
She walks along the ancient Lyrian sea road that runs along the coast in rigid straight lines. The landscape here is much wilder and more sparsely populated than her homeland, forcing her to spend a few nights camped in the wilderness. As she travels, she passes by several ruins, some of them disturbing recent—isolated houses that look as if they’d been burned down within just the past few weeks. She encounters few other travelers on her journey, though she does see a few sails on the horizon to her west.
On the fifth day, she finally arrives at Sage’s Sorrow. It is a fishing village that clings to the side of a rocky peninsula that curves out to sea. It’s most prominent feature is a tall tower of elvish make, which stands on its highest point. A squat stone building that looks as if it was once part of a larger structure sits nearby. Most of the buildings in the village are in fact made from stone, unusually for a village of this size, all of it the same off-white color.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Lose
In the village, Talys breakfasts on kippers provided by a fishmonger who warns her that a sickness has landed on the place, a plague of the mind. It strikes people at night, leaving them mindless and catatonic. The lady has sent for healers, but they’ve done no good. Talys goes to the lady’s tower, where she meets the very pregnant Lady Emmelin.
The lady explains that the “sickness” is the work of a monster that appears out of thin air and which only she has seen. She’s warded her bedroom but can’t ward the town, which may have to evacuate. The first victim was her husband, then her parents and others in her household, and people in town. She tells Talys to speak with Quentin the Librarian, who was the last to speak with Kelran.
Talys asks the chamberlain whether the lady’s husband had any enemies and is told that there are none living—he was a scourge on the local bandits and smugglers that afflicted the area a few years ago, but hung all of them. The chamberlain also admits that he doubts whether the lady saw anything.
Sleuthing by the Book
Visiting the library, Talys discovers that it contains only a single bookshelf, with a half-a-dozen books and a few scrolls that survived the destruction of the monastery by orcs during the Hungry Days that followed the fall of the Lyrian Empire a thousand years ago. The only other patron at the moment is a half-elf woman seated at a table, taking idle notes from a leather bound tome.
Quentin the library caretaker welcomes Talys. He tells her that Kelran visited two years ago, looking for information on the last few days of the library. He reviewed a particular scroll and then set off into the wilderness, never to return to the village. Examining the document, Talys finds it to be a cryptic account of the discovery of a strange plinth in the old quarry. Whatever was discovered had the monks of Boccob concerned and led them to “cleanse” the area. Talys asks after the location of the quarry, learning that it is in the hills a few miles northeast of Sage’s Sorrow.
It being lunchtime, Talys tracks down the village’s lone tavern, the Unicorn and Hydra, wooden building down near the docks. While dining on vegetable stew and bitter beer, she chats with the tavernkeep, a wood elf woman. The tavernkeeper is concerned that the village might be evacuated if the mind sickness isn’t cured soon.
She explains that there are several theories about the origin of the illness, but she thinks it has to do with the death of the White Hart, the nature spirit that watched over the area. The great white stag was killed several years ago by poachers, and while the poachers were hung, without the Hart’s protection the tavernkeep believes that the old poisons from the Lyrian days are again afflicting the land.
She tells Talys that the quarry is one such gash upon the landscape and has developed a poison pool at its center that keeps the local wildlife away. When the paladin expresses an interest in visiting the quarry, she warns her to be careful, as owlbears, orc raiders, or worse could be prowling in the hills.
Talys sets out for the quarry, quickly finding an abandoned Lyrian road to the site. A rectangular ravine cut into the hills, the quarry does indeed have a blue-green pool in its center, from which rises a lone dead tree, while a few sickly shrubs cling to the nearby rocks.
Peering down into the quarry, Talys sees a glint of steel coming from the side of the tree. She climbs into the ravine and draws near the pool, recognizing the item as a longsword driven two-thirds of the way into the dead tree. After testing the water’s depth with her maul shaft, she wade out to the tree itself. Up close, her suspicions are confirmed: the sword bears the trumpet archon sigil of the missing Sir Kelran.
Talys reaches out to grasp the sword hilt, which causes it thrum in her hand and the blade to glow a faint silver-blue. She feels a sudden sense of impending danger and attempts to pull the sword free. The blade is wedged more tightly into the hardwood than she had expected, however, and before she can pry it free, the water surges around her. She feels sharp, clawed hands lashing at her legs.
Before she can draw her sword, two small, wood arms jut out of the water, driving their pointed fingers deep into a gap in her armor. The water clouds with red as as she sinks below it, Talys’ blearily notices that the shrubs near the pool seem to have disappeared.
Talys finds herself lying on the quarry floor, a few dozen paces from the pool. Judging from the angle of the sun, she has been out for several hours. She is greeted by the half-elf woman from the library, who is perched on a nearby rock, cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. The half-elf, Kialee, explains that Talys had been ambushed by twigblights, corrupted plant creatures. Thankfully, Kialee had been shadowing the paladin and was able to intervene. The twigblights are now toast.
feeling her strength return, Talys tries again to pull the sword from the tree, finally succeeding. It no longer glows with danger, but holding it the paladin suddenly feels as if she can project her voice for hundreds of feet. Talys also feels a strange sense of repulsion from the weapon, as if it was something filthy she shouldn’t be handling. Despite this discomfort, she holds onto it, wondering why Kelran would have left it here.
Kialee suspects Kelran walked into the same ambush that nearly overcame Talys. Using a bit of magic, the half-elf reveals that the tree is growing out of an ancient warding symbol of Boccob. Whatever was found here has since been taken away, likely back to the monastery. Kialee is convinced that Quentin is responsible for setting up both paladins.
The half-elf was after the library caretaker for a different reason—she is a sacred avenger of Calistria and is carrying out vengeance against him brought by a petitioner. But she sensed that Quentin was more dangerous than he appeared and sought to partner with the paladin. She encourages Talys to avenge the ambush and the betrayal of Kelran. Talys agrees to at least investigate Quentin and the two begin trekking back to Sage’s Sorrow.
On the way, Talys pesters Kialee with questions about the Queendom, which providing her own infodumps on life in the Crusaderdom across the sea. Kialee explains the history of the Queendom, how the negligence and mendacity of the Lyrian Empire poisoned the land and led to the collapse of the Hungry Years, and how the Elves emerged from the shrunken forest to set things to rights.
“Now the Elves are on top and the humans are on the bottom, to keep them from fucking things up,” Kialee says. She is skeptical that the Crusaderdom can avert ecological disaster for too long, given human tendencies.
Talys insists that her people have a more equitable arrangement with the elves of the Stagdom and describes in mind-numbing detail the intricate trade arrangements between the two realms and the dwarves. Kialee explains that the Queendom maintains trade relations with the Dwarves of the Silver Deeps, but the two groups don’t get along—though she admits the Dwarves make good beer.
Talys also asks about the goddess Calistria. Kialee explains that she is the goddess of lust, trickery, and revenge. The half-elf has dedicated herself to Calistria’s vengeful aspect. She will visit temples to see what bounties have been posted by people seeking recompense for wrongs, and then she carries them out, returning to the temple for a reward.
Kialee pushes Talys to explain how she was selected to go searching for the fugitive—it was the result of a divine vision to send the novice paladin in place of one more experienced to pick up where Kelran left off. Talys also admits that she has a personal stake in the matter—the cultist she is chasing murdered her mentor within the church and this drove her to abandon scholarly pursuits for a life of the sword. Kialee is pleased that their motives are, at root, the same, though she warns Talys that vengeance always carries a price.
A Little B & E
They return to the village well after nightfall. Euna, the silver moon, hangs half-full in the sky, offering the only light. There is a strange breeze off the water, which swirls around them both, unlatching every buckle and untying every knot. Kialee identifies it as a rogue zephyr, blowing in from the feywild to undo simple locks and clasps. It might give them easier an easier time entering the library.
Talys defers to the half-elf’s experience in that department, and the sacred avenger leads them around to the back of the ruin, where they enter through a narrow rear door into an office space with desk and chair, but no paper. They find a trapdoor hidden under the desk. Before descending into the pitch blackness below, Talys puts on an eye patch—an old sailor’s trick she learned for keeping one’s nightvision. Kialee then snaps her fingers to cause a small flame no brighter than a candle to glow from her thumb.
Looking around, they find themselves in a dank basement full of crates and boxes, most of them thick with cobwebs. They spy a well-trod pathway through the dust, leading to a hidden cave entrance behind some boxes.
Delving the Deeps
They venture into the dark tunnel, which is cold and damp, the air heavy with moisture. Rounding a corner, they come across a stretch of tunnel illuminated by a small hole in the wall through which an eerie silver-green glow is emitting. Talys creeps over to the wall and peers into the chamber beyond. She can see a great crack in the cavern floor, out of which the green glow is emerging. Floating in the center of the chasm is an obelisk of some sort of slick dark stone that seems to be greedily drinking in the glow. The murmur of someone chanting in a strange tongue can be heard from the rear of the cavern, but the paladin cannot see the speaker.
Talys and Kialee agree to approach cautiously. The half-elf spots a trip wire at the entrance to the chamber and Talys invites her to deal with it. Kialee gives the human a quizzical shrug and then steps over it. The paladin follows suit and they both enter.
They are welcomed by Quentin, who stands on a ledge overlooking the green glow. He is impressed that Talys survived the ambush and is surprised as well to see Kialee involved. But he assures them they can do nothing to foil his plans. he has already dispatched his “darlings” to attack the keep. Once they drain the souls of the “elf bitch” and her servants, it will summon forth a harbinger of Gormadis that will destroy the entire town.
Talys asks why he is telling them this. Quentin says that he wants them to know why he is doing this, why he is seeking revenge. He explains that the criminals that the Emmelin’s family executed were people close to him and he has no other means of striking back against the witch and her bodyguards. He tells the paladin that if she acts quickly, she might save the elven lady, but if she stays to confront him she will doom them all and herself. Talys can’t tell if the old caretaker is bluffing and decides not to take the chance.
She turns to go. Kialee refuses to follow, insisting her mission is to deal with Quentin. Talys asks her to keep the cultist busy and pledges to return. Then, stepping over the trip wire, she dashes through the cavern and then up and out of the library.
Tower of Terror
Outside, the bells are ringing in the lady’s tower and strange lights can be seen crackling around it. Talys runs up the hill towards the keep, using the Sword of Kelran to bellow out a warning, urging the lady’s guards to go to the library and avoid the the lady’s chamber, which she says is a trap. The paladin spies a shape climbing up the side of the tower towards the lady’s room. Talys shouts out to Lady Emmelin to seal the window, and the shutters swiftly close. Finally, the paladin calls for the keep gates to open. A frightened servant lets her in and she reiterates that they need to send guards to the caverns beneath the library.
Talys hurries up the tower stairs, passing the wounded chamberlain, finally arriving outside the lady’s quarters. Two wood elf guards lie dead in the hall, surrounded by a half a dozen twigblights. Talys shouts through the closed chamber door, asking after Lady Emmelin. The elven noble shouts back that she is a bit busy and warns that the door may be hard to open. The paladin manages to force it open, shoving aside the body of another guard.
Nightmares Made Flesh
Inside, Lady Emmelin stands by the bed, one hand cradling her swollen belly while the other casts spells to ward off the two twigblights in the room. More disturbing, however, are the two creatures circling around her like floating sharks. The monsters are hairless, with pallid, slimy skin that clings to their skeletal avian frames. Vaguely avian in shape, they have wide beaks full of teeth under red glowing eyes. Their skeletal bodies are hairless, with the skin stretched taut across it. They seem to swim through the air with four webbed flippers and a broad, flat tail.
One of the creatures dives past Lady Emmelin and lightly brushes her with one flipper, which causes the high elf to wince. A translucent strand of some sort of energy seems to peel off the woman and trail after the creature until it is absorbed.
Talys charges into the room, ignoring the attacks from the twigblights in order to strike at one of the creatures. The elven lady supports her with blasts of magic. The two creatures turn their attention to the paladin and swoop down to attack her. Every touch from their flippers sends a searing pain through her head and leaves her thoughts more and more muddled. Yet she presses through the mental fog and cuts down one of the creatures with Kelran’s sword. Its skin rapidly evaporates, leaving only chalky white bones.
Lady Emmelin’s magic destroys one of the twigblights, while Talys severely wounds the other thought-draining creature, which swiftly vanishes. The paladin cuts down the last twigblight and checks on the lady, who slumps down onto the bed. After ascertaining that the high elf is all right, Talys runs back down the stairs, pausing to assist the wounded chamberlain before continuing to run back down to the library.
Sacrifices Must Be Made
She catches up with a trio of wood elf guards just outside the building and leads them down through the hidden basement and into the cavern. Talys is concerned not to hear any sound of fighting from the ritual chamber and calls out to Kialee, with no response.
Rushing into the cavern (taking care to avoid the trip wire), Talys finds that the battered half-elf is being held bound and gagged by Quentin, who has her perched on the lip of the ledge overlooking the glowing chasm. The cultist has a knife to her throat and calls out to the paladin. “If I can’t offer Gormadis one elf’s soul, I’ll have to make due with another’s!”
Talys charges forward but realizes she won’t be able to reach the cultist in time to save Kialee. So instead, she winds up her arm and hurls the Sword of Kelran at Quentin, catching him in the shoulder. He staggers backwards, giving Kialee a chance to take an impressive standing leap that lands her near the paladin.
As the elvish guards rush forward, the furious cultist hurls a bolt of energy that tears into Talys. The last thing she sees before darkness takes her is Quentin hurling himself into the glowing chasm.
The Thing in the Obelisk
Talys comes to moments later, as Kialee imbues her with healing energy. The half-elf insists that the paladin still owes her one, but is thankful for the rescue. They don’t have long to catch up, however, as the green glow emerging from the chasm flares up and then dims, leaving the strange obelisk floating over it. Cracks splinter up the side of the glossy black stone, bleeding harsher green light. Talys scrambles to her feet and draws her maul, while Kialee backs up and the elvish guards close in.
The obelisk explodes into shards that scatter across the room, while the green energy inside swirls into a vaguely humanoid shape. A twelve-foot-tall abomination with four arms and a head that splits down the middle into a gaping maw manifests, its clawed feet gripping either side of the cavern. It slashes at Kialee with its claws while leaning down to bite a chunk out of Talys. The half-elf lets loose a string of barbed insults, the words visibly warping through the air to strike the monster and disorient it.
With this opening, Talys hammers at it with her maul, while the elvish guards join in with sword and bow. Yet despite the paladin’s fury, the creature is slow to fall. After she misses a swing with her enormous hammer, the eldritch horror strikes, trying to slam her and Kialee against the cavern wall. But it overbalances and the stresses of its immense weight cause the stone sides of the chasm to crumble, and the monster slips down into the bottomless darkness.
As it topples, the abomination’s four arms lash out, grasping for anything to hold onto. Talys and Kialee dodge the claws, but the creature manages to pull two of the elvish guards over the edge. The half-elf avenger swiftly grabs hold of one, while Talys tries to grab the other but fumbles with her maul. Instead, the third elf guard pushes past her to save his companion.
Lady Emmelin’s guards thoroughly search the library, finding a secret stash of forbidden lore that appears to date back to the last days of the monastery when the desperate monks turned to worshiping the Great Old Ones out of desperation. The elves also find correspondence between Quentin and a cultist in Great Fork named “RL,” which comes as a particular surprise given that Quentin had posed as an illiterate for 60 years. Talys comes across an unfinished letter to RL, warning that a new paladin had come round to investigate, but promising that “she will be easier to deal with than the last one.” The letters are all marked with a strange symbol neither Talys nor the elves recognize.
With the destruction of the abomination, the victims of the thought eaters are slowly emerging from their catatonia, while the fog in Talys’ own mind also slowly clears over the next few days. She now has her next clue, this mysterious “RL” in Great Fork.