The companions are provided a small vessel and safe passage across the lake, their ship representing a small island of calmness cutting through an otherwise stormy environment. Nearing the opposite shore, where the mouth of the River Path empties into Lake Encarthen, the group is excited to see the Shadow Swift, fully repaired and upgraded.
In chatting with the crew, they have had success in recruiting new members and stand ready to sail at full complement. Further, the companions learn that both the Bloody Vengeance and Kraken’s Spite survived the negative energy storm – the Vengeance has rowed upriver in case the companions had traveled ahead, and the barbarian ship is patrolling the lake in search of clues of their whereabouts. The Vengeance may also have an ulterior motive, that being to investigate rumours of imprisoned orcs being tortured in the dungeons beneath Everstand.
The officers of the Shadow Swift also bring the group up-to-speed on the present political situation. The region is teetering on the brink of war, with elven armies approaching from the east and west. The confluence of the River Path is populated by a large band of barbarians that expect to battle the elves within the week. J-Todd also reports on his research relating to the ark. He advises it is one of three relics that has allowed Everstand to hold back the Belkzen horde. The ark exudes an aura that empowers the Everstand army, thereby equalizing the playing field with the orcs.
With the Shadow Swift unable to make the trek upriver, the companions disembark and head into the barbarian camp to discuss transportation alternatives. There is a lot of talk in camp about the impending war with the elves. The barbarians are being pushed hard to get resources out of the region – the River Path represents a silk road of sorts, allowing the Shoanti tribes to move relics from the Belkzen area down to Lake Encarthen for trade.
The companions learn that there are two main roads that lead upriver to Everstand – an ancient river road that follows the curves of the River Path, and a supply highway that represents a more direct route but travels through the fabled Fangwood Forest. Alternatively, the companions could hire a river craft, though it will cost a pretty penny given the political climate.
With little time to spare, the companions decide to traverse the supply highway. The route takes the companions out of the river basin and into more rugged territory. Whereas winter weather had dominated their travels through the Lake Encarthen region, the local environs are in more of a fall season. The trail makes for easy hiking and the group soon nears the fringe of the Fangwood Forest several hours later.
Exiting the southern portion of the woodlands, the companions see what looks to be the remnants of a refugee train. The group strikes up a conversation with the roaming band in hopes of garnering information about some of the rumours heard regarding the state of affairs in Everstand. The refugees are not forthcoming , but through skillful diplomacy, the companions learn that:
- if you have the ear of Gauntwood, Everstand is a great city; if not, it is a tough place to live due to social injustice/prejudice
- the city is slowly losing touch with its traditions and ideals
- the city’s crypts used to be a respectful place where the dead could rest in peace; they have been gutted, however, to make room for dungeons
- at first, orcs were the enemies, but now the crypts hold many from the local populace
- the wife of Gauntwood is head interrogator, and rumoured to be some sort of sorcerer interested in performing experiments on her victims
- diversity used to be accepted and many gods worshiped; over time, Gorum our lord of iron has ascended to power – known as a sentient set of armour, the god of war is worshiped through acts of valour on the battlefield
The companions thank the refugees for the information and wish them luck on their journey. Continuing on, the trail leads directly into the forest, the threshold marked by a post and lintel. Egg-shaped, spherical cairns illustrated with simple faces dot the landscape. Lando advises that the cairns represent offerings, tokens of good-will to the guardian of the Fangwood, an ancient dragon. Many heroes from prior ages have hunted the great wyrm with no success. As such, it is rumoured the creature relies on deception and illusion to hide itself. That said, it makes it’s presence known every 100 years or so, pillaging the countryside. The local orc tribes take advantage of the creature’s movements, often coordinating efforts with the dragon to ransack the cities in the region.
In ages past, the Fangwood was an impenetrable forest; however, the ambition of man has resulted in a new highway that has gained critical mass, given that it decreases travel time materially, and thereby creating safety in numbers. With that background, the companions leave an offering and plunge into the forest paying special attention to stick to the trail.
Giant trees and an eerie mist soon encircle the companions as they travel deeper into the forest. The preternatural silence is interrupted by the flight of an arrow, the shaft striking true into the back of Magus Mike. Lando quickly casts an invisibility sphere on the group, as they pick up their wounded companion and haul ass. Once a desirable distance is attained, the magus is attended to and the arrow examined. There is no denying it is of elven origin.
Continuing on, the dense forest gives way to thick copses, and finally intermittent stands of trees. With the city of Everstand visible in the distance atop a low rise of hills, the forest trail meets with the trader track following the meandering Path River. The trail opens into several clearings, one of which features an altercation between a single elf and a group of several Shoanti. The drab grey elf, who has the appearance of a scholarly fellow complete with an open backpack full of scrolls, is being pushed from one barbarian to the next.
Unable to accept the bullying, Romica charges into the barbarian’s midst and, holding eye contact with the largest of the Shoanti, unleashes a ferocious roar. The barbarian’s are surprised by the action and question the newcomer – on the eve of war, why would someone intervene in an altercation between an elf and barbarian tribe. The elf replies that he is on a diplomatic mission and that it is of extreme important that he make it to Everstand Keep, and that he has no ties to ongoing hostilities in the region. That proves sufficient for the companions as they move to engage the barbarians, allowing the elf time to escape. The Shoanti, intimidated by the martial prowess of Romica and disappointed that their prey has left, leave the clearing hastily.
The companions complete the remainder of the short journey to Everstand, which resides strategically on a hilltop at the confluence of two powerful rivers. With the setting sun creating a romantic halo behind the city, the group notes a certain drab looking elf boarding a familiar looking vessel – the Bloody Vengeance – moored at the town’s trade piers. Given the gates have likely closed for the evening, the companions decide it an opportune time to catch up with their friends aboard the Vengeance. Drinks are had, camaraderie renewed, and information shared. Further, the companions get an opportunity to chat with the intrepid scholar. The elf is upfront in terms of his mission – he is the last of a decimated band of Pathfinders destined for Everstand. He has received a prophecy that the great city will fall within three days. As an acolyte of the God of Knowledge, he has been tasked with saving as much of the city’s archives as he can. With that in mind, he is happy to share any knowledge that he may have in recompense for security. The companions are quick to accept the offer. The elven scholar advises that:
- Everstand is split into four quadrants representing hope, discipline, vigilance, and charity
- the city used to have checks and balances in place to remain in equilibrium, not just in terms of political structure, but also geography
- the city was designed to represent the four ideals, both on top and beneath the city i.e. the city’s crypts represent a mirror to what resides on top
- the work performed in the crypts, to retrofit it as a dungeon, has upset the balance
- the balance out of order, civil strife has increased and resistance has formed, which in turn has been met with tyrannical rule and prejudice
- hope and charity have been pressured as a result, vigilance and discipline have gained in power, exerting more control over the population
- the balance is so far out of order that the city will fall in short order unless someone intervenes
- the elf has received a prophetic vision, a divine mission to follow in the footsteps of a storied pathfinder couple that traveled to the region to pursue this ancient knowledge and save it for future generations
- the couple has not been heard of for some time
- the elf has a writ of clearance that allows for access to the archives – he just needs to get it to Gauntwood
The companions thank the elf for the information and advise that they will do what they can to assist him and get the writ to Gauntwood. Unsure of how to gain entry to the city, the group next meets with the captain’s of the Vengeance and Kraken’s Spite, both of whom are aboard the Vengeance. They advise they have made preparations to enter the city through cloak and dagger methods – one group plans to gain entry by disguise under cover of diplomacy. Another group will create a diversion to allow the first group time to make their way into the crypts and rescue their orc brethren. Each party will be able to communicate with the other via magical devices.
No better plan in store, and the gates of Everstand shut for the night, the companions decide to reconnoiter in Squiretown, built just outside of the city’s walls. The established village has several taverns, with one such providing a warm light that calls to the group. Entering the humble abode, named The Cupped Hands, the group makes small talk with the tavern’s owner, Vin Vasquez, who is happy to have new business. As a long time resident, he provides a local’s take on the history of Everstand. The ruler-ship has always been passed down from father to son over many generations. In times past, desperate times, this ruler-ship was provided additional rights, incremental powers, and slowly transitioned from a militarily-oriented democratic state into more of a dictatorship. This has never been an issue, given the fiduciary responsibility instilled in the ruling family; however, the most recent reagent, Gauntwood, has used this power to clamp down on diversity and “radical” elements. The populace has seemingly fallen under a spell, allowing for these abuses of power in the name of order. The result has been a noticeable loss of balance and stability, with those that do not conform to the new order threatened with imprisonment, or worse.
The political climate well understood, the companions decide to bed down for the night. No sooner is sleep achieved then a vision granted to Freight, one that is shared with the other companions. The dream centers on a large table with two figures – Besamara, and a sentient suit of armor – engaged in a game of chess. The two gods move their various pieces around the board, not caring about the outcome of the game, of the battle being waged. It soon becomes clear that the pieces correspond with real armies, and that the gods are attempting to foment war, but for different reasons: Gorum, Our Lord in Iron, is a god of war whom benefits from the worship of battle, but Besamara’s motives are not quite as clear, although piracy indirectly benefits from the chaos created by war.
At this, the visage of Besmara turns to the companions. “While I do not lust after it as does Gorum, understand that I deem it necessary. There are two elven armies that, if they are able to unite, will cut off the barbarian’s supply train and with it, the war. If the elves are unable to, however, the barbarians will live to fight on. This I command. Invading orcs are even now making their way to Everstand. You are to assist them in overtaking the walls of Everstand. It does not matter the means, even if every man, woman and child must die on an orc sword, that army must pass through these walls. And thereafter ensure that the elves are unable to unite under one banner. This war is to be bloody and long. Make it so.” Disgusted, but individually compelled, the companions spend the remainder of the night in a fitful state of slumber.