Working into the night, the heroes ensure that the creatures employed by the Slave Lord all retreated after his defeat.
The heroes move through the rooms adjoined to the dead Slave Lord's lair. They find a series of metal cages in an otherwise large room. In these cages are thirteen bedraggled and exhausted humans. There are eight men and five women, nine from Darkon and four from Borca. The four Borcans were taken from a caravan that was waylaid in Nova Vaasa; they were blindfolded and brought north many miles to Darkshelf, before they were marched inland to the temple outside Highport.
None of the prisoners knows where they would have been taken next. They saw only aspis drones and orcs. Most feared that they were going to be fed to the orcs. At least one prisoner actually was fed to the orcs in the last week, cementing that fear and ensuring that none of them attempted to escape.
The prisoners are:
When Alliama awakes the next morning, the itching, irritated claw wounds she received from the ghouls have blossomed into a full-blown infection. The irritation makes everything more difficult, particularly combat.
While filth fever is a deadly disease, two things help Alliama keep persepctive. First is the looming specter of lycanthropy. Second, though, is the surety that Dechan, given proper time, can certainly remove the disease from her if the wererats' curse does not strike her down.
Dechan prays for food, receiving enough of a bounty to feed all of the released slaves. The heroes also find enough supplies to make their way safely east to the Nocturnal Sea, and Darkshelf, as the winter draws nearer.
Rufus says good-bye.
Before he leaves, Rufus warns the heroes that it may take longer to get to Darkshelf than it took them to get all the way to Highport from the Enclave. On the route south, Rufus was guided by his avenger's sixth sense. Now, though, he has no better idea of which path to take than anyone else.
He does not want to lead the heroes astray on their way home. He also declines to take any of the prisoners with him. He admits, freely enough, that if he should sense the presence of a Slave Lord operation while he had others in his care, he would like leave them without realizing what he was doing. Days, even weeks later, he might recall that he left defenseless men and women in the wilderness of Arak on the fringe of what looks to be a fierce winter, but it would assuredly be too late to do anything about it. When he senses slavers, he goes on the hunt--better to leave him out of any journey north.
With Rufus gone, and no choice but to deal with the coming full moon while protecting the freed slaves from their own friends, the heroes orchestrate the best plan they can.
Dechan suggests melting down or hammering silver coins to line the cages in the old slave pens, but the heroes move on to other, hopefully more secure ideas.
David suggests the two rooms flanking the steps leading into the earth. The door to one of these rooms can be opened with effort. The other is stuck shut, but one of the infected heroes could be lowered to the floor. David, who can render himself weightless, could watch from above while the disease either manifested or did not.
Dechan prays for healing this morning, but he limits his arcane spells. He is already preparing for the possibility that the curse of lycanthropy could corrupt him, render him evil, and turn him against his friends. The fewer spells he has committed to memory in that case, the better.
Alliama shapes some silver coins into a rudimentary biteguard and sleeps with that in place, hoping that it will not only slow her if she transmogrifies but elicit a cry that will alert her friends. Dechan wears a necklace of silver coins.
Stanislaus Luviac (one of the Borcan men the heroes freed) and Fidanka Shorley (another of the Borcans), ask when the party is leaving. David explains that two friends must be quarantined. The heroes don't want to leave them here, especially when there is no way to know, yet, whether they have even been infected. The two men are concerned by the explanation, to which Dechan explains, bluntly that the issue is lycanthropy. Stanislaus and Fidanka leave, offering to pray for both of the possibly infected priests.
Dechan and Alliama go to sleep that night concerned about the full moon. Tomorrow night, if they were infected during their journey into Rappan Athuk, they will transmogrify for the first time into wererats. According to the lore, the process will destroy their morality, leaving them as sinister creatures of the night.
As he sleeps, Dechan finds himself in the library of Androlov Manor. On his left sits Bartholomew. On his right sits a pale-skinned man in a gray robe. The man has silver hair streaked with black strands. Both men at the table have eyes of a uniform, intense blue the color Dechan has seen many times since first opening the trunk in the streets before beginning his first adventure.
Bartholomew says to Dechan that he is right to be concerned. The curse of lycanthropy infects both Dechan and his friend Alliama. But his choices have brought him to a position where he has a route through the problem. With the amulet Bartholomew gave Dechan, Dechan can control the curse. Moreover, he could control the curse in others. Just as the amulet allows Dechan to command the undead, it will also allow him to command wererats. Alliama will be relieved, Bartholomew, posits, because surrendering to Dechan on the nights of the full moon will be far preferable to losing herself completely to the curse of lycanthropy.
The other man speaks. He says that his name is Gilwyr. He thanks Dechan, and he says that Bartholomew is correct. Dechan and Alliama are both infected with lycanthropy. And Dechan's choices have empowered the amulet. His choices have empowered both aspects of the amulet. For the first time, Gilwyr is able to contact Dechan in this way because of Dechan's heroic choices. Previously, he would have been present in the room, but Dechan would have seen only Bartholomew at the table.
Gilwyr says that the amulet is powerful enough to provide one person shelter from the curse of lycanthropy. Whoever wears the amulet tomorrow night will retain their intrinsic self. The disease, unable to gain purchase on the first night of the full moon, will be eradicated from the wearer's body. Unfortunately, Gilwyr cannot protect two people. Only the person who wears the amulet can be protected. The other must face the peril of becoming a wererat.
Bartholomew counters that he can offer protection for both.
Gilwyr falls silent at that.
Dechan gives the medallion to Alliama.
He explains the story of Gilwyr, revealing the history of the medallion, and Darius Androlov's experience with the Will of the Father. Dechan says that Alliama should wear THE medallion, and as the moon rises she should call out to Gilwyr. He says that the spirit of Gilwyr visited him in a dream, and Gilwyr said that the medallion could save one or both of them.
At first Alliama tries to beg off. She points out that she is a druid, not a priest of Delios. But Dechan reminds her that her father, Darius, wasn't a follower of the Morninglord when he saved Dechan's mother using the power of Gilwyr. After a brief discussion, in which Dechan continues to hold back some key elements of the conversation in his dream, Alliama relents and dons the medallion.
Dechan watches, relieved that his friend will be all right, but fairly certain that he has sealed his own fate.
In the darkness of her cell, Alliama speaks the name "Gilwyr."
In the morning, neither of the heroes has transmogrified. Moreover, the Bartholomew Medallion is not in the cell with Alliama. It is with Decahn. The name "Gilwyr" is less obscured on the medallion than it had been before.
Dechan's selfless act empowered Gilwyr, enabling the Will of the Father to heal them both of the affliction.
There are supplies, a half-dozen horses, and a pair of wagons with horses to carry the heroes and the released prisoners out of the temple.
Winter has come early this year, and in mid-November it is bitterly cold. The heroes must raid the ruined temple for a stockpile of blankets to keep themselves and their new charges warm on the journey. They gather up wood from the temple, and bed sheets and canvas, in case snow comes. The wagons are insulated with hay and straw and then layered with blankets.
After weathering the second night of the full moon, the heroes feel ready to set out for safer reaches.
The nearest settlement is Darkshelf.
Two days outside of Highport, as the sun sets behind the heroes, Alliama hears her name on the wind.
Ahead, down a steep hillside where night has already fallen, something waits for her in the darkness.
When she enters the darkness, she senses a presence. She sees nothing even vaguely humanoid. There is a rustling of underbrush. The sheltered earth is loamy, despite the cold. The susurrus of the winter wind. The scent of decaying leaves where no plants had grown for decades upon decades.
"Thank you," the wind whispers.
Then something touches her hand. A tiny weight forms on her palm.
The presence departs.
Alliama returns to the others. In the light above, she sees that what she holds is a holly berry. She places it in a small pouch that she wears around her neck, storing it behind her holy symbol.
She urges her friends to bring the wagon around into the natural cul-de-sac she just explored. They agree, recognizing a message from Sylvanus when they see one. The heroes and their charges camp there that night, and any threats that might have found them in the open pass them by.
The heroes make camp some fifteen miles east of the loamy campsite.
Carrie, on third watch, discovers a patch of wildflowers near camp.
Alliama investigates. She takes a root mass in a damp cloth, stored in an interior pocket.
The countryside of former Arak has dormant saplings and grass from before the weather turned cold. Before leaving, Alliama bids farewell to the flowers.
The land nearer Darkshelf is a bit more rocky than that which the heroes have traversed so far.
Abruptly, late in the afternoon, Big dashes off towards the southern ridge without a word of warning. As he draws near to the ridge, the heroes see the shape of another panther rise into view. Big races to the other cat, who greets him, and then both vanish beneath the far side of the ridge.
Alliama struggles briefly with letting her dear friend run off.
Gwendolyn mentions that her mother, Jemily Walker, could turn into a cat. Alliama agrees, saying that the cat with Big right now could be a druid. But if this is a panther, what is she doing in such a barren wasteland?
The heroes move slowly, preoccupied with Big's new acquaintance. Through the empathic link, Alliama can sense that the panther is not in pain; quite the contrary. As the heroes fixate on the ridge to their south, they spot a bird in that direction. David suggests that, since Arak is awakening bits at a time, this could be the northern edge of the other panther's range.
The heroes arrive in Darkshelf.
The four Borcans make their farewells and express their thanks. They will take a ship south to Nova Vaasa and report to their trading coster. David pays for their journey out of the money the heroes won from the slavers.
Before the heroes leave they learn of one more oddity, part of Arak's strange awakening. An apple tree grew out of the earth in September but now is sleeping. Alliama approaches the slumbering tree, finding it to be perfectly mundane, aside from its miraculous arrival. She lets it sleep, but she blesses it before leaving town the next day.
The remaining nine prisoners make their way back to the Enclave with the heroes.
The heroes reach the port of New Ghelspad. A couple of the freed prisoners end their journey, but the rest continue on to the Enclave.
The heroes at last come home to the Enclave.
The remaining prisoners take their leave with the best thanks they can muster.
David grants each Darkonese prisoner ten gold crowns.
Alliama plants her Araki perrennial wildflower in a sunny window of Androlov Manor.
The heroes take time to winter at home, and hone their skills.
Alliama is trained once again by the ghaele eladrin, Gail, who lurks in Calemaria's home. Gail is still unable to let her presence in the mortal realm become known, and the routes back to the Feywild continue to be blocked. She delights in the opportunity to train Keradre Androlov's daughter, helping the cause indirectly.
Dechan trains with Labonita and Moss, though Moss brings in a small group of experienced priests to help facilitate Dechan's training. As Dechan achieves the fourth circle of prayers, he becomes the equal of some of the most senior priests of the Enclave. Few have access to the fifth circle or higher.
Labonita tells Dechan and Alliama of a visit from Aedoin while the heroes were gone. Aedoin is very busy in the House of Sages, and she is actively concerned about the Slave Lords' reach. What strikes a personal chord, though, is that Aedoin brought a letter for Dechan regarding his family in the south. Aedoin said that she left the letter with Bartholomew, trusting that the old man would deliver it to Dechan upon his return from Highport. This sparks no concern in Labonita, but Dechan knows enough of Bartholomew's nature to fear what might have happened to that letter.
During this period, a retiring justifier named Heran seeks out Sebastian. At the culmination of Sebastian's training, Heran bestows upon his chosen heir the powerful Longsword of Ezra.
With his training complete, Dechan turns toward identification of the magic items that the heroes brought back with them from the temple outside of Highport. He broadens his net beyond just these items, however. Having further honed his skills, Dechan believes that he might find something new by study of some of the items the heroes found on their other adventures, as well. His companions turn over the items that he believes could yield more information, and he begins a period of divination locked away in the Manor's uper floor.
While Dechan studies the magic items, other heroes attempt to crack the codes in Brother Kerin's ledgers and journals. Somewhere in those books is the key to finding the lair to the remaining Slave Lords. If they can decipher the monk's code, then they believe they will locate not just another Slave Lord base of operations, but rather the lair of the Slave Lords themselves.
By the end of the period of divination, Dechan has learned a fair amount about each item he has researched. The study of Brother Kerin's ledgers, though, will prove fruitless throughout the long winter to come.
Gail asks Dechan to come back to the forest. There is fresh snow falling, and it has not been above freezing for at least two weeks.
Gail says that she did not say something to Dechan before, because she was trying to show restraint. But, this can't hurt. And, the longer she is here, the harder it becomes to stay quiet. Gail, as a ghaele eladrin, is a creature of eternal chaos. Staying still and taking no action is antithetical to who--and what--she is.
When Dechan does not tell Gail to stop, she tells him of a stranger in the Feywild who was very interested in Dechan.
When Dechan asks for more information about the stranger, all Gail can provide is that the stranger was traveling with some agents of the Nightstar family. He's likely a friend if the Nightstars took him in, because they are cousins to the Feyliege.
The stranger told Gail that he was concerned that he would not be able to communicate with Dechan before the war among the fey grew too consuming. He said that he had left a message for Dechan in a secret location, which he had marked with a fey rune. There, "in a place of death," the stranger hoped Dechan would find a means to preserve life across the mortal realm and beyond. Gail explains that last bit sounded like exaggeration, which is commonplace among the fey, but the man was no fey. The man insisted that Dechan might be able to preserve all life, everywhere with what lay beyond the rune.
Gail draws the rune that the stranger showed her. She admits that the likelihood of finding something marked with that one rune, somewhere in the Lands of Mist, does not seem very great. But, if the stranger did leave Dechan something valuable, then Gail figures that Dechan should know about it. And, anyway, it's not like he wouldn't investigate something marked by a fey rune, anyway. It's not like she is making a big impact on Dechan's actions with this information...
In the last weeks of December, Dechan considers the best way to put his new skills to use, preparing for the adventures that are soon to come. With winter raging around the Enclave, he sets to spell research and penning a scroll. He writes one scroll, of the Deepen Shadows dweomer that he learned without realizing it. He makes a gift of this scroll to Beatrice, knowing that it will aid her in her stealthy activities--such as when she infiltrated the inner sanctum of the Withershadow Combine.
Further, he and Carrie spend time researching spells, sharing and comparing notes, and adding dweomers to their respective spellbooks. The winter leading into 765 is an expensive, but educational time for both wizards.
The heroes have accepted an invitation to attend an outdoor wedding for the retired crypt ranger Elyin Ursage and his new bride, Kailah Winmede. The two have chosen to live out their years in Kailah's home village of Elderwood, which lies on the southern end of the cluster of villages supported by the Enclave.
Elderwood has never been a particularly important location. Its citizens are farmers, lumberjacks, and crafters. It was founded less than fifty years ago by adventurous colonists.
An elected mayor makes the major decisions for the town, delegating a few tasks to subordinates. This is unusual for Darkon, but Baron Clarahd does not mind so long as the taxes continue to reach Nevuchar Springs.
Elderwoods citizens don't care about politics as long as the roads are maintained and goods are reasonably priced. They want only to live peacefully, away from civilization
The opportunity to honor a crypt ranger is too much for the heroes to pass by. They bundle up, for the winter snows have left the barony in a chilling embrace even as the first day of spring draws near, and they ride out for the village.
Several days later, the heroes are almost to Elderwood. The sound of a flautist lilts among the branches. Bea and Alliama both recognize the tune that they heard played on strings when they were children.
The heroes briefly ocnsider moving on, leaving the music behind, but in the end they know that they cannot. They must investigate.
David, though, speaks a warning to the others before they leave the path.
The unseen flautist leads the heroes deeper into the Forest of Shadows, away from the road to Elderwood. After a time, it is Dechan who sees something. He spots a cave mouth marked by the very rune that Gail showed him.
The music fades away as the heroes prepare themselves to enter the cave.
The cave is revealed to be a tunnel of some sort, and the air only grows colder as the heroes near the far end. What awaits is another realm, a plateau surrounded by churning gray clouds and buried beneath thick snow and ice.
Through the swirling snow, the heroes make out several shapes. In the distance looms a horned statue, no less than a hundred feet tall. At it feet stands an old mausoleum with crumbling walls. Near the edge of the plateau is the base of a broken tower.
The cold is numbing. Staying here too long without reaching the cover of the mausoleum would be deadly.
Dechan goes to the crypt. David makes his way to the broken tower. The others try to keep both in sight as they both seek to find cover from the biting wind and provide cover for David if some danger arises.
Danger does arise, from several locations.
During the battle that follows, the human skeleton in the crypt rises as a bat-winged horror, springing to life in instants in an effort to destroy the heroes.
A mishapen giant clambers over the side of the plateau, attacking David at the broken tower.
Worse, as the battle rages, a dark presence seems to become aware of the heroes. Sebastian sees the hundred--foot statue turn, and step towards him, menacingly. The force of its presence is enough to nearly drive Sebastian back, over the cliff's edge.
When the battle is over, though, with the giant cast from the side of the plateau and the winged beast once against a pile of bones, the statue stands where it did originally, apparently unmoved.
The heroes do not tarry long on the plateau. They take the valuables from the crypt, but they avoid what remains in the broken tower.
The treasures include:
Also in the crypt is an item of strange magic. It is a key of pure silver, some six inches in length. It is cool to the touch. It changes from time to time when the viewer is not looking. Sometimes it has four teeth, and sometimes six. Sometimes the teeth are square and other times triangular, like jagged teeth. Sometimes it has a knob end and other times a loop. Sometimes it has tracery or artistic engravings; others it is smooth. It is a different key for all viewers, at all times.
Dechan takes the silver key.
David's two handfuls from the broken tower chest total about eighteen crowns. The other heroes do not want a share of these, believing them to be cursed.
The heroes awaken on the cold ground, shivering. It is evening, and cold. It is as if they had stopped in the very spot they recall hearing the flautist, and then made an impromptu camp in the road to Elderwood.
It appears that the journey to the frozen plateau was nothing but a shared dream.
The sort of dream that left the heroes with their pouches full of ancient coins and assorted other treasures, including a silver key.