After hearing the ruckus outside, Gord devises a plan to intimidate the bandits. Beef peeks outside so freaking stealthily that even his own allies don’t see it, and tells Gord what he sees: five bandits surrounded by villagers they’ve taken temporarily hostage to ensure their own safety. At Gord’s request, Beef gives him a solid deadleg to activate his teleport ability. Gord appears amidst the bandits, bangs his longspear on the ground, and is surrounded by a cascade of lightning. What an entrance.
“You all seem to be trying really hard to piss me off, so give me one good reason we shouldn’t just kill you right now.”
Taken aback, one bandit tries to recover his composure and stutters, “You have been summoned by Skarn Felstorm to her fortress. Declining this invitation is not an option.” The ruffian leans forward and fidgets with his weapon, “I… I hope you don’t decline.”
The rest of the party emerges from Vlayn’s cottage, and agrees to go with them if they release the villagers they’ve commandeered. The do, and the party proceeds toward the fortress. On the way, other bandits join the escort, prowling out of the forest or approaching on horseback from their circuit as a mounted outrider. Having not seen the impressive display in the village, they attempt to goad the adventurers into a fight. The party keeps their cool, trading verbal barbs and trash talking all the way back to the bandit fortress.
The forest opens onto a rocky plateau overlooking the region, revealing a recently built wooden fortress. There are barracks, smithies, stables, a great hall, even a mine. Guards, both mounted and on foot, patrol the perimeter. The camp is enclosed by a wall of sharpened wooden pickets. Most of the surrounding trees have been cut down to build the fortress, but enough remain to hide the structure from a distance. A stairway carved out of the mountain winds up the steep slope to the sculpture of a bronze fist that rests atop a peak. Men, women, and children are at work in the camp.
Melthos recognizes the fist as a symbol of Kord, god of athletics, storms, and courage. He and the rest of the party deduce that this was the statue commissioned and finances by Arlen Felstorm when he was leader of the village. It’s strange that the exiled and estranged daughter would build her base of operations so close to a symbol of her father’s god.
Every structure in the fortress is occupied with human bandits. The heroes are escorted to the great hall, surrounded by a crowd. It is warmed with two enormous hearths and adorned with ill-gotten furs and tapestries. Four long rows of harvest tables and benches span the room from front to back. Across the front of the hall is a wide platform. A wooden throne sits atop the platform, and a stunning, full-bodied woman clad in scale armor reclines confidently on the throne. She is attended by two exotic cats, five brawny men, and twenty rough brigands. The men stand resolute in their contempt, while the woman is piqued by your entrance. The woman is Skarn Felstorm, a human blade of Kord. The two exotic cats are fey panthers, and the five brawny men are human ambushers.
“I am Skarn Felstorm, and you have become quite the thorn in my side. My men advised against bringing you to my home. One even suggested slaughtering you outright. I consider such behavior unworthy of Kord. Besides, after hearing how you dispatched my men at the roadblock, I had to see the thorn for myself. Now that we stand face to face, I ask—why shouldn’t I pluck this thorn and cast it aside? Why should I spare your lives? What can I or my people gain by extending you mercy?”
Skarn has been looking forward to meeting the party. She is gregarious, hearty, arrogant, flirtatious, even sensual. She has no patience for flowery words and she sees right through flattery (although she does enjoy it). The bandits in the hall laugh at all her jokes and jeer whenever she sneers at the strangers.
She is not, however, blind to the opportunity the adventurers represent. Skarn didn’t become queen of the bandits by being beautiful. She is also ambitious and wily. She knows only too well how dangerous the snaketongue cultists are becoming and that they must be crushed somehow. Despite her exile, she feels great pain over the murder of her father. Regardless of how well the heroes comport themselves, Skarn must appease the bandits under her command. Eventually, she makes the following speech.
“Hear me bandits! I care little for wild boasts or claims of bravery. Every member of this clanhold has proven themselves in deed; every member is the extension of one beating heart, and that heart’s blood has been spilled. We must have satisfaction for that injury . . . not with apologetic words, but with the spilling of their blood! Our fellows died in battle against these strangers, and died well. Before these outsiders can stand among us, they must pass the judgment of combat. You know of what I speak. Ready the pit!”
With a cheer, the men and women in the great hall begin pulling up floor boards and quickly reveal an ingeniously concealed gladiatorial arena, 35 feet square and sunk 10 feet into the ground beneath the hall. The five human ambushers who share the podium with Skarn do not prepare the arena but ready themselves for battle.
Four training posts fixed with sharp blades and spiked flails are spaced in the arena. Four turnstiles are brought out of storage and socketed into the floor around the arena. When manually operated, they cause the training posts to spin. Setting up the arena takes about half an hour. During that time to part engages in more trash talk and some ale and snacks with the bandits. Beef almost steps over the line, however, when he jokingly asks if the five men are the clan’s best warriors. “Our best warrior is no man,” Skarn retorts.
Through focus fire tactics and moving the bandits into the dangerous spinning posts, the adventurers defeat Skarn’s champions. When their leader is bloodied, the remaining bandits call to one knee and surrender their weapons. The heroes are inducted into the Stormbolt Highland Clan as honored members. Defeated bandits relinquish their gear to the characters as spoils. While Pel is excited about the possibility of having a dagger, a quick assessment of the cultural protocol makes the characters suspect that gear must be returned if the defeated foe can pay the price.
The party is cheered by their new friends, and given a tour of the fortress with access to the armory and storerooms. There they discover some fancis as well as a meal kit. The kit includes a bowl, a carved wooden spoon, and chopsticks, and it unlike anything the party has seen before. They also get an opportunity to speak to Skarn, and she explains that she is set upon avenging the death of her father, whom she believes was murdered by the cultists. She has been unable to do so because her forces have been at least partially dedicated to protecting the village. Throughout the fortress, the heroes notice villagers working as servants, probably against their will, and being treated a bit roughly and rudely by the bandits.
Just before the evening’s feast in celebration of the new alliance, Vlayn appears on an exhausted horse, an untreated cut bleeding on her forehead. She rides unopposed into the great hall and angrily addresses Skarn.
“Kylar has been abducted by the cultists! If you ever planned to do something with your bandit army, now is the time. You want to be a leader? Put your pride aside and let these heroes guide your men through Nettleblight Swamp! Lay the ghost of your father to rest, Skarn. End these cultists and save your sister before it’s too late!”
Vlayn relates a tale in which she and Kylar were attacked in her cottage by two snaketongue assassins with uniquely curved daggers. They grabbed Kylar and ran into the forest. Skarn appears resolute as she marches onto the promenade of her fortress. Every man, woman, and child stops to listen. She declares the heroes trusted allies, states that she plans to commune with Kord atop the Stormbolt Highland mountain, and rallies the bandits to arm themselves against the snaketongue temple, because they will be riding out in force on her return. The fortress roars in anticipation of battle. Skarn heads for the stairway that twists up the mountain.
As she is leaving, Pel calls after her and asks to come along. She nods her assent and continues the long trek up the steep cliff of the mountain. She leads them to an open-air shrine where a giant symbol of Kord has been cast in bronze. Skarn kneels before the statue and speaks:
“Kord, I kneel before you at the temple of my father, humble but also enraged that the land he protected is despoiled by followers of Zehir. I ask you to cross blades with the snake god and favor my men as we ride into battle against his zealots. To that end, I pledge the glory of our brave deeds to your fearless courage and offer this hero, Pel, as a vessel that may bring your vast might to bear. Let my silence be filled with his words.”
Storm clouds form over the Stormbolt Highlands as Skarn kneels in prayer, fullblade in hand. Pel says some stuff. The storm clouds darken, rumble with thunder, and flash with lightning. A fork of blue light strikes the metal sculpture, and then another, followed by several more too quick to count, until the bronze fist becomes a glowing nexus of electricity. In the moments between bolts of lightning, the ghost of Arlen Felstorm appears where Skarn stands and the two seem to trade places. They invite Pel to touch the illuminated symbol.
When Pel touches it, the elemental storm coursed into him and fused with his own elemental powers. He felt his strength renewed and also, for the first time, was certain that Skarn had absolutely nothing to do with the death of her father. A torrential rain begins and blankets the entire region.
Pel and Skarn return to the fortress, where Skarn climbs atop a prepared horse and wordlessly leads her army out of the Stormbolt Highlands. Horses have also been prepared for the heroes, and they follow.
During the march toward Nettleblight Swamp, Skarn explains that she will use her bandit army to harry the snaketongue cultists, allowing the heroes to infiltrate the temple. She also authorizes the characters to command her bandits as they see fit to help them win the day.
When the bandit army arrives at Nettleblight Swamp, the heroes safely guide it through the quagmire, avoiding the explosive poison bramble hazard, which is easier since they have been drenched by the downpour. Soon the occultist temple looms in the distance, and it’s clear that the cultists are on full alert. An overwhelming force of snaketongue cultists stands ready to battle the army Skarn has marshaled. It is clear that the siege will be engaged and fought without surprise.
The adventurers use their wits to devise a strategy to weaken a portion of the snaketongue line, breaking through to the temple’s entrance. Some use their adept knowledge of history to recreate a classic line of attack, while others rally the bandit army with battle cries and combat humor. Immeral gets naked, but this tactic is met with only limited success.
Eventually, the heroes enter the ziggurat and proceed down a winding, serpentine tunnel. The tunnel opens into a cavernous dome where a giant snake skull hangs over the entrance. To the left and right, on opposing sides of the sloping walls, three levels of timbered catwalks have been built. Each level provides access to ten barracks mined out of the rock. A circular arena bordered by wooden pillars occupies the center of the floor, in which archery targets and training posts are spaced. A ring of Draconic runes ten feet across is inscribed in the middle of this arena. Against the furthest wall stands a massive, three story statue of a creature whose entire body is intertwined snakes, meticulously carved from the cavern wall.
Immeral speaks Draconic and reads the runes inscribed on the arena floor. “For the serpent we train, by his mercy we live, unto the snake we become.” Beef scans the room and determines that the floor within the Draconic runes is designed to retract via some remote mechanism. As they move into the room, the heroes hear Kylar’s voice calling out from within the statue. “Can anyone hear me? I’m trapped in the snake statue!”
They approach the statue and talk to Kylar. She explains that she was kidnapped and locked behind a stone gate which is activated by moving one of the statue’s many snake heads. Several of the more cautious members of the party get a sense that Kylar is lying about something, but proceed to attempt to release her anyway.
An examination of the statue reveals that five of the sculpted snake heads have closed mouths, while the hundreds of others are hissing or snarling. These five snake heads can be pulled out, turned, and pushed back into different positions. As soon as the party manipulates one of these heads, the stone gate trapping Kylar drops into the floor. At the same time, another stone gate rises up and seals the entrance to this chamber.
The sound of an enormous stone wheel can be heard overhead, rolling into an unseen socket within the wall. A thunderous boom shakes the cavern, followed by a gout of marsh water spewing from the alcove in which Kylar stands, and then from every snarling and hissing stone mouth that comprises the statue of the snake-creature.
Kylar flies into a rage. “It wasn’t supposed to be you! I set the trap for Skarn, to punish her for killing our father!” Pel attempts to reason with Kylar, explaining to her what she saw at the altar of Kord, but the young girl is too furious and too convinced of her own belief in her sister’s guilt. Her eyes glow yellow and reveal snake-like, vertical pupils. She attacks the party, as do the other denizens of the temple. It becomes clear that she is in control of the fight, and the party believes she has also been behind the kidnappings in the village.
The party focus fires all their attacks onto Kylar, forcing a quick surrender. She orders her priests to stand down. She listens to Pel’s description of Skarn’s communion with her father’s spirit at the temple, and seems confused. She explains that she became convinced of her sister’s guilt many months ago. Her sister had been exiled, she had much to gain from their father’s death, and indeed rose to great power after he was gone. She had originally joined the snaketongue cult to suss out the murderer, but had since gathered ample evidence that the killer was not among the temple residents, and was only made to look that way. This added to her sister’s guilt, in Kylar’s mind, because it would give her an advantage in the subtle contest between the two factions for control of the village. While she believes Pel, she is disappointed to be back at square one in finding her father’s killer, and feels like all her work up to this point has been a waste.
The party leads her out of the temple where she calls off her armies, as Kombat Advantage does the same with the bandit forces. Kylar and Skarn reunite and return to the village with the party to continue the investigation. After catching up, the girls decide that they are united in finding their father’s murderer and intent on killing him. Vlayn has since started to act shifty, and asks the party to find the murderer before her daughters do and promise that the person will get a trial.
The adventurers agree and head into the swamp, where they once again find help from the ghost of Arlen Felstorm. He leads them to his corpse, which is decomposing at another edge of the swamp. Near it, they find a sending stone, which appears to have been recently placed there. They decide to activate the stone and listen in silence, not wanting to alert whoever might have its counterpart, and hear background noise of clanking metal and multiple voices, the sound of people working.
They return to the village and investigate Kylar’s cottage, still suspicious of her motives and knowing that she has already lied to them multiple times. They found her diary, but nothing in it connected her to the murder or illuminated anything about the events of the past. They did learn that after joining the snake cult to discover her father’s murderer, she killed its previous leader, a powerful priestess. She then turned the full might of the cult to the task of luring Skarn into the temple and avenging her father’s death.
In Vlayn’s cottage, they find, among the expected, a chopstick identical to the ones they discovered in the store room at the bandit fortress. Because it was so unusual, they suspect a link. They listen to the sending stone once again and conclude that what they’re hearing must be a workshop or kitchen at the fortress. They decide to go investigate and see if they can locate the owner of the meal kit they found in the store room.
After searching the kitchen and experimenting with the sending stone they have, the party manages to find it’s partner wrapped in a cloth in one of the cabinets. With some study and research, they determine that both the fabric and the meal kit are from the Chult region, and decide to look for someone of that origin. They go out to the quarters where the impressed villagers live and, though it’s late, knock on doors until they locate a woman named Lila. She’s breathtakingly beautiful, and after only brief inquiry into her relationship to Arlen Felstorm, confesses to their love affair.
She tells the heroes that she met him when she came to the village as a young girl, and that they were close until his death, after which she was sent to work at the fortress. She said that she placed the sending stone near his body so that she could always be close to him, and that sometimes she would just listen to the sounds of the swamp and remember the times they had stolen moments there together. She tells them to keep the other sending stone and use it to help find Arlen’s murderer.
Concluding that Vlayn certainly knew of the affair, the adventurers return to the village and confront her. Matlock style, she breaks down and confesses tearfully, saying that after Skarn’s exile, the discovery of the infidelity had felt like the final fracture in an already fragile family. She believed her daughters would never forgive her, but consented to being escorted to Silverymoon and tried there.
Before they leave, Melthos gives Skarn and Kylar several inspirational words, advising them that they have to grow up and become responsible leaders of the village. He gives them the sending stones and tells them they’ll never have to be apart again. The bandit army gives each adventurer a horse, except for Gord, who finally gets his riding lizard.
As they embark back on their journey, the ghost of Arlen Felstorm appears once more. He approaches Vlayn, his wife and his murderer. She begins to cry. He pressed his forehead to hers and strokes her cheek, as they finally forgive one another. He steps back and vanishes, leaving a small magical figure of himself as a boon to the heroes to aid them in battle.