While in Waterdeep, Pel received a letter from an old instructor at the White Lotus Academy. Professor Ibok was Pel’s mentor, and knew him well. For this reason, Pel was alarmed to read that he’d been summoned to give a guest lecture on the care and identification of butterflies, which had been one of his weakest skills during his time as a gardener. He knew something was amiss, and recruited Melthos to accompany him and find out what was the matter. They were eventually joined on the road into Luruar by Immeral, Beef, and Gord.
They were seeking a place on the road to rest for the night, and came across horse tracks going down a small side path. When they followed this path, they were met by a barricade and, when they refused to turn back, a bandit ambush. While Kombat Advantage won the day, some bandits escaped and all cried out that they fought and died in the name of Skarn Felstorm.
The adventurers proceeded on the path, and at the top of a ridge noticed that the path diverged. One direction led down into a thick swamp with a stone ziggurat protruding from the top. The other led towards the village, beyond which was a rocky crag with a glimmer of something shiny on it. Because it was getting late, the party continued on to the village, expecting to be greeted as heroes and offered some ale and a good night’s rest in return for vanquishing the bandits.
On seeing a group of heavily-armed strangers, parents protectively held their children. A woman carrying a torch rode out on horseback to meet the characters and appeared surprised when she does not recognize their faces.
“You’re not the patrol. Neither are you snaketongue cultists. Your arrival is either foretelling or fortuitous. Some of our friends and neighbors have been kidnapped by cultists, and the bandits who are paid to keep us safe are nowhere to be found. What brings such well-armed travelers to Elkridge this night?”
Taken aback and worrying that they had killed the de facto town guard, the adventurers greeted the woman warmly but discreetly. She introduced herself as Vlayn, the villager healer. They agreed to help retrieve the missing villagers, and Vlayn led the party to a cluster of homes where the abduction took place.
“The snaketongues headed toward Nettleblight Swamp, but their lizards are slowed by carrying the kidnapped victims. If you have the skill, please track them now. Time is against us. My daughter, Kylar, already pursues the cultists on foot. She is brave and strong, but she is but one young woman and they are many.”
The party could tell that Vlayn was concerned about the villagers but very afraid of what might happen to her daughter. She wouldn’t come with the characters, explaining that she must tend to villagers who were injured in the attack.
They venture into the Nettleblight Swamp, easily following the trail of the kidnappers. The party can see the snaketongue stronghold from the edge of the forest, at least the parts illuminated by torches or sunrods, and the shape of the promontory can be picked out as a dark silhouette against the moon and stars.
They catch up quickly. It is dark, but the first figure in the column carries an ignited sunrod for the others to follow. The cultists were stalled at the river, where they needed time to reorganize their balky lizards.
At the river, the swamp transitions into a vast marshland about 2 miles across. A towering promontory of rock dominates its center. At this range, you can just see a broad set of carved stairs that leads from the base up to a roughly hewn opening. Snakelike creatures enter and exit through this fissure, and many more stand guard outside. Snaketongue warriors on giant lizards glide over the marsh as they make wide patrols.
The convoy of cultists and their human prisoners was crossing the river and moving toward the outcropping. They dispatch the enemies with some effort, taking care not to harm the villagers or the lizard mounts, since Gord is hoping to adopt one eventually. After the fight, it is late in the evening and they want only to return to the village. They begin to take some time to caucus with the kidnapped villagers, but a mounted snaketongue warrior emerges from the marsh reeds about 50 yards away. He draws a bow and launches a single arrow high into the sky. A sunrod lashed to its head makes it easy to follow as it arcs down toward you. Moments later, a cone of missiles fills the sky, all converging on the party.
The characters realize that the villagers cannot survive these arrows. Fortunately, a young woman arrives and offers to guide the villagers to safety. She thinks they can make it back faster and more safely if they split up, points the party in another direction, and disappears with the villagers into the swamp.
As the heroes explore swamp on their way back, they learn how to safely negotiate the explosive pollen brambles. They then notice a glimmer in the distance, and approach it to find that it is the ghost of a man. He nods expressionlessly to the heroes, then turns to walk away, revealing a uniquely curved dagger buried in his back. He strides through the swamp, frequently disappearing in the dense growth only to reappear in the distance. He always stays ahead of the party. Eventually the ghost guides them to safety at the edge of the swamp and disappears. It’s only then that they notice the same young woman waiting for them.
On the trip back to Elkridge, the party talks to the girl who helped them escape. She is Kylar, daughter of Vlayn. She admits to patrolling the region frequently with her father before he died. When asked about the uniquely curved dagger she carries, she becomes quiet, but Melthos recognizes it as the blade they saw in the ghost’s back. When pressed, she says that it was the dagger she found in her father’s back when she discovered his body. She kept the weapon to use against his assassin. The heroes sense that Kylar knows more about the dagger than she is revealing. She refuses to say more, explaining only that her father’s murder and her quest for vengeance are too personal and painful to discuss with strangers.
When the adventurers return to Elkridge, Vlayn and the villagers welcome the heroes and the rescued captives. The party, however, notices a few stoic villagers who do not appear impressed. They sense a mixture of fear and scorn from these peasants. As these villagers will not speak to the heroes, Vlayn explains their behavior.
“The bodies of several bandits were found on the road. Nobody is blaming you for defending yourselves, but people fear what will befall Elkridge if we offer you shelter. I don’t share their fears.”
When the characters ask why Vlayn doesn’t fear the bandits, she answers directly.
“Because Skarn is my daughter and Kylar’s older sister.”
Vlayn offers to explain everything but only after she tends the rescued villagers. She tells them to come see her at her cottage in the morning, and points them toward the local inn, The Pale Wolf. While taking in drink and food, the heroes also take in a substantial amount of local gossip:
✦ Arlen Felstorm, a retired human warlord, protected Elkridge up until his death. He crafted the bronze symbol of Kord atop a nearby mountain and married Vlayn, producing two daughters. The sisters, Kylar and Skarn, were inseparable.
✦ Growing up, Skarn fell in with a group of scoundrels. When Felstorm saved a merchant from bandits, he found Skarn among the outlaws. The unforgiving warlord exiled his daughter.
✦ Arlen Felstorm fought tirelessly to secure the autonomy of Elkridge from any ruler. When he was found stabbed and drowned at the edge of the swamp, Skarn returned to take his place, albeit by force of arms and as a formidable bandit queen.
✦ Skarn is fiercely protective of her younger sister, Kylar, who looks up to and idolizes her older sibling. Skarn is a tough character, more like her father in disposition than her mother Vlayn. Kylar has run wild ever since her father died, but she hasn’t yet joined with the bandits.
They get bunks at the inn and sleep through the night, taking watch just in case.
Inside her cottage the next morning, Vlayn is revealed to be a primal healer with a storehouse of dried plants, herbs, and roots. Vlayn has mastered several rituals and alchemical processes, all of which she is willing to perform for the party’s benefit or share with them.
Vlayn offers to house the characters for as long as they need to stay in Elkridge. She explains that while the snaketongue cultists have long occupied Nettleblight Swamp, they only began abducting villagers after her husband was killed. The snaketongue cultists have grown in number as villagers have disappeared.
With the exception of Kylar prowling the old border, nothing has been done to stop the abductions. Without Arlen Felstorm to lead it, the village militia disbanded. No one remaining in the village commands enough respect to assume command. With Skarn’s return as a bandit queen in command of a small army, there seemed no need for the militia. But Skarn turned out to be as much a curse as a blessing. She forced the artisan community to make armor and weapons for her followers and took possession of the Stormbolt Highlands, where she pressed villagers into constructing a wooden fortress.
The bandits that follow Skarn offer some protection to Elkridge from the snaketongue cultists, but her guards are lax and too few to attack the snaketongue temple. At the same time, the bandits themselves prey on the villagers, although their demands and “liberties” are less atrocious than those of the swamp raiders.
The heroes sense that while Vlayn is not lying, she excluded parts of the story regarding Skarn, probably those things they heard at the tavern the night before.
Suddenly, they hear a ruckus outside. Hoof beats echo between cottages as mounted ruffians pound on doors.
“We know they’re here! Tell us where the strangers are and spare yourselves a beating you won’t forget!”
To be continued.