The door opens without need for Kyler's fresh blood. Instead of peering out forty feet above the ground below Valorn Tower, it opens onto a large room. The door opens on a chamber familiar to Beatrice. The dark painting adorns the wall opposite the door.
The heroes step through the doorway into a large living area. The ceiling is some twenty feet overhead and has the rustic look of a cabin. The hearth-and its eye-catching painting-stands between to exits leading into another chamber. There is a plaque beneath the painting. Opposite the hearth are two other open doorways. Overhead, a bannister on a second-story balcony shows a long row of doors.
The room around them is dominated with numerous couches and chairs. These are not richly appointed, but they are also not simple peasant fare.
A young woman rises as the heroes enter, hurrying towards them. She has a swarthy complexion and dresses in traveler's clothes. Beatrice recognizes her immediately.
Behind her, on the couches, three young girls, the oldest possibly eight, stare after her.
The heroes ask her name. She says her name is Ivy.
Kyler greets Ivy, introducing himself by name. Ivy does not seem surprised by his name, but she also does not pay it any additional attention. She is focused on the heroes' arrival and the fact that, now, they can help her.
At first the heroes begin to ask Ivy questions, but Beatrice suggests that they might learn more if they let the young woman speak on her own. Ivy proves willing to speak a good deal, and she is equally willing to answer questions as they are posed--after she gains the heroes' assurance that they will indeed help her.
As Ivy speaks, the heroes see that the door behind them is still visible, but only faintly. It would be easily overlooked by anyone who didn't realize it was there.
Ivy relates the following:
As the heroes get acquainted with Ivy and learn a little about where they are and the fate that befell her father and the First Rank Merchant Caravan, a middle-aged woman dressed in comfortable but plain clothing enters the room.
This is Mother Rieta, who runs Wintersgreen House with her husband, Master Gunther.
Mother Rieta looks to Ivy, showing no concern about the large group of strangers who have appeared inside her home, and simply asks, "Are these the ones you've been waiting for?"
Ivy nods, and Mother Rieta seems a bit relieved.
The heroes are free to ask Mother Rieta some questions as well, which they do:
While the heroes speak with Mother Rieta, Kyler makes his way to the entrance of Wintersgreen House. There, he gazes about the town, spying the bell tower of the old Temple of the Eternal Order to the north, near the tree line, and the rest of the one- and two-story structures laid about him.
He conjures a raven and scries upon the area, getting the lay of the land. He finds the Forest of Shadows stretching off to the north and south, and the King's Way cutting east-to-west through the heart of town and into the distance in both directions. To the south rises the ridge of a low mountain range.
Ivy is anxious to move along her father's trail as quickly as possible. Duncan Anders is trapped in the clutches of monsters who have been taking prisoners along the King's Way for months.
The heroes, though, are wary of rushing ahead. There is much they do not know, and they have not recovered from their battles against the faceless men and the infernal crab beast in Valorn Tower.
They assuage Ivy with guarantees of leaving as quickly as possible in the morning. She can see the condition they are in, and she relents with understanding that she cannot hope to see her father rescued if she is traveling with people who are already in such bedraggled condition.
Half of the heroes hurry on to the Trout Rampant to secure rooms. Kyler moves more slowly through town, though, guided by his friends as he continues to scout along the King's Way, hoping to find the site where the First Rank Merchant Caravan was attacked. Gwendolyn, Alliama, and Anson walk with him.
Sebastian, recognizing Fal Galen from his journeys in the past, takes his leave momentarily, saying that he has business in this town that must be resolved, but that he will return to them as soon as possible.
Kyler does, at length, find the attack site. It lies much as the beast-men left it, though it has clearly been picked over thoroughly by travelers who did not think to clear the road, or even bury the bodies. After several days, even in the early chill of impending autumn, it is a gruesome scene.
The rest of the heroes are well ahead of Kyler and his guides. They soon find themselves in the heart of Fal Galen, a town of some one thousand souls, predominantly human. The houses are one and two-story structures, with slate rooves and flower baskets hanging outside front windows.
Shops stand with open doors and travelers make their way along the King's Way, which cuts through the center of town.
As the heroes move about, they begin to realize that they are being observed from the shadows. Figures crouch in the shadows of chimneys, peer from behind crates in alleyways, hang upside down beneath parked carts.
David manages to confront one that is positioned in the shadows under a parked cart. When the creature resists, he strikes it once, a telling blow that stops its fey heart instantly.
The creature has flesh the color of charcoal and aquiline, elfin features. A closer look reveals dark, gossamer wings and a distended belly that ends in a pair of udder-like protuberances.
With the death of one of the fey creatures, the remainder take flight. The heroes continue on after some time to the Trout Rampant.
The sign over the door shows a comic trout rearing up, fins extended like the hooves of a warhorse. Inside, six patrons sit around a taproom lit by a number of small oil lamps. The place smells of smoke and cooking meat and the barkeeper is extremely old but hums a tune as he works.
Entertainment takes the form of games of bones. The walls are decorated with the mounted heads of lions and bears.
Moreover, the heroes quickly learn that the place is known for a drink called the Happiness Trail. They pay for rooms and order food and drinks, but as they get situated, someone mentions the fey spy that was killed in the streets.
The patrons all react in concern, and the barkeeper is little different. He says he hates to ask the heroes to leave, but if they drew the wrath of the fey creatures who have been skulking about town for the last couple weeks, then the Trout Rampant could face serious danger if they were to sleep here.
The heroes understand completely, and they determine just as quickly that they will not be able to stay anywhere in town tonight. Any inn--or even Wintersgreen House, if they were to ask to sleep in the stable--would face similar repercussions.
The heroes meet up with Kyler and the others, and then they travel a short distance into the Forest of Shadows. There, they post watches and spend an unusually cool autumn night sleeping under the boughs.
Still concerned by fey reprisals, Bea, Anson, and Big stay with Dechan at the campsite as he prepares his spells and prayers for the journey ahead.
Gwendolyn, David, Alliama, Kyler, and Carrie go into town. They hope to get the lay of the land, meet with Ivy, and purchase any supplies they might need.
When their walk takes them to Wintersgreen House, they realize that three men have been loitering, waiting for them.
Three broad-shouldered warriors with the dark hair and the blocky physique of the Heartlands swagger towards them. They are clad in clothes that appear old but well-preserved. Each has a pair of longswords sheathed on his hips.
One stands slightly in front of the others. The one behind him on his left holds a wide stance, feet spread apart, his head at a sharp angle as if puzzling something, almost comically.
The man in front throws three steel discs down in front of Alliama. He sneers.
"Vengeance comes for your blood at long last, Androlov. Come. Find us at the cemetery at sundown if you dare. If you try to run, though, know that we will kill every priest in the temple the moment you leave Fal Galen."
The man with the cocked head smiles at this, though he says nothing. It is a cold, ruthless expression.
Ignoring the heroes, and any response they might make, the men turn their backs and stride away.
Knowing that the killers have prisoners at the temple on the north side of town, the heroes do not provoke or challenge the men who just confronted them.
A witness to the exchange is an elderly man named Yon Davellin, the Chief Undertaker of Fal Galen. He approaches the heroes, pale as a sheet. When they ask him to speak, he recalls the day, some thirty-five years ago, that he put those three men in the ground. They wore the same clothes. They also bore the marks of the blademaster who'd slain them. That man had taken quite some time to recover, as Davellin understands it. He doesn't recall whatever happened to him.
When the heroes ask Davellin about the temple, and its priests, they learn a bit more. Before the Hour of Ascension, Fal Galen was home to a Temple of the Eternal Order. Those priests were run out of town long ago, though. Recently, a group of anchorites out of Nevuchar Springs have come to Fal Galen, adherents to the sect of Teodorus Reines. They have done much for Fal Galen, and the town would be hurt to lose them.
The temple stands on the north side of town. The cemetery is next to it, stretching towards the Forest of Shadows, as would be appropriate for its origins as a fane of the Eternal Order. The Dead were often seen as a barrier against night terrors in those days.
The heroes thank Yon Davellin. They go to Wintersgreen House to speak with Ivy. Ivy has no interest in these warriors or their vengeance. Her only interest is in reaching her father as quickly as possible. He's already been gone for days, and anything could have happened to him by now.
During the conversation, Gunther overhears Alliama talk about "Dad," and the three men he killed before wandering out of Fal Galen as a young man. When Gunther asks for her name, and learns he has been meeting the Heirs to the Missed Legacy, he is stunned.
He has also heard Bea mention the lingering wounds she suffered from the other-planar creature that attacked the heroes in Valorn Tower. He confides that the founder of Wintersgreen House, Wrett Asept, arranged for a secret third story to be build beneath the eaves. In that chamber is enough room for friends to rest, recover, and even seek healing, as supplies persist.
Gunther returns a short time later with a vial. Beatrice drinks the contents and finds all of her injuries healed.
The heroes set out soon after, having gathered Dechan and the others, for the temple. Ivy accompanies them, though under minor protest. She understands that the heroes will leave Fal Galen as soon as the priests are safe, but she cannot ignore her concerns that making the priests "safe" might go far beyond a battle at the temple.
By means of Kyler's scrying raven, the heroes swoop down through the bell tower and into the sanctuary. Looking through the bird's eyes, they find that the three warriors are indeed here. They apparently planned to spend the day eating and whoring on holy ground.
There is no sign of the anchorites, but there are two closed doors off the sides of the santuary that the bird cannot get past. One can be accessed from outside, while the other cannot.
David and Kyler enter through the bell tower, using their unique powers and skills to do so without a sound to alert neither the men inside the temple, nor the women who accompany them.
Anson, Bea, and Carrie maneuver around the side of the temple to enter through the secondary entrance. They find the door unlocked; it leads to a vestibule that doubles as a storage room.
Alliama, Dechan, Gwendolyn, Big, and Ivy wait outside for the battle to begin. They will rush in to confront the blademasters head on, after their friends have taken up positions that assure them the greatest chance of victory.
The surprise attack tips the scales heavily in favor of the heroes. Two of the blademasters, including the apparent leader, drop within moments, after Anson puts the women entertaining them into an enchanted sleep.
The third warrior stands long enough to ensure that the heroes gain a vantage upon the risk that awaited them if they had faced the men on a fair field of battle. He fights with a blade in each hand, the way skilled blademasters do, and he calls out the names of Barovian angels to focus power and precision into his blows.
Odder still, the one who had stood with such a curious posture, lurches abruptly to his feet as the battle draws to a close, striking with his blades as if he had never fallen. When the heroes defeat him a second time, they deliver killing blows designed to ensure that he does not rise again.
There is only one door left to explore. The heroes wake the sleeping women and send them into town, encouraging them to bring the law.
The anchorites have been bound and left in a side chamber, under the watchful eye of several dark fey like the one David killed earlier.
When the door opens, the heroes at first see only a wall of impenetrable darkness. From this thrust the shafts of longspears, stabbing at the heroes from the darkened room.
The heroes fight back quickly and resourcefully.
The last of the insectile fey is slain as it attempts to flee. The heroes quickly free the anchorites, and then they leave before the authorities can arrive. They know that they need to get on the road, and onto Duncan Anders' trail, as quickly as possible.
They trust the anchorites to deal with the fallen warriors; they don't even take the time to move the bodies from where they fell.
The anchorites are too stunned by the last few hours' events to react beyond gratitude for being freed.
Ivy is eager to get on the road. She reiterates that the ambush took place a few hours west of town, an easy trip along the well-maintained King's Way.
Darkon has established an extensive network of cobblestone highways. Although these roads were poorly maintained during the Darkonese Civil War of the Shrouded Years, Azalin Rex now makes their repair a priority. Travel is relatively comfortable along major routes, and professional coachmen carry passengers and mail on regular schedules.
To the north and south of the road stretches the Forest of Shadows. These are predominantly deciduous, with ash, beech, and oak most widespread. As the forest pulls back from the occasional farmer's field, willow and crab apple trees also make appearances. The fields themselves represent the legendary Darkonese crops--golden fields waving with varieties of wheat, rye, and barley.
Farther south, a forested ridge on the near horizon describes a barrier between the baronies of Martira Bay and Rivalis. Once, a road would have cut south through that barrier, and word has it that the Iron Crown has begun work again on that road, though the points south--places like Kirablis and Old Lane and Mossrock Point--are no longer as they once were.
The ambush of the First Rank Merchant Caravan took place about six miles west of Fal Galen, which is about an hour and a half west of town by horse.
A single wagon remains from the First Rank Merchant Caravan. The rest were returned safely to Fal Galen, but this one suffered a broken wheel and some fire damage.
The goods scattered about the field could not have all come from this single wagon. Clothing, spoiled food, and craft goods all lie in states of ruin and disrepair from one side of the road to the other. No one who has passed by has seen fit to tidy the scene up, though it is safe to say that any valuables are long since gone.
Dark stains in the grass show where merchant guards, and more than one merchant, were cut down by the attacking "beast men."
All of this matches what Kyler found when he scouted the idea the day before. What is different, though, is the fact that the scene before the heroes is not abandoned. It is already being explored.
Six enormous boars stand about. Each is some ten feet long, easily seven feet tall at the shoulder, and must weigh two thousand pounds.
Ivy is clearly impatient with the delay. "These things are grazing," she points out. "They could be here all day. They could be eating human remains for all we know."
Before Ivy can take any sort of action, though, Dechan comes up with a quick plan. He creates a wide, tall illusion of a wall of cracking fire. The boars take notice, and when the male flees, the sows flee with him.
Ivy is mollified, and Dechan takes the opportunity to counsel her on patience, and trusting the heroes. She nods, but she seems too frustrated by the many delays she has experienced to relax at all.
The heroes search the ambush site, turning up nothing of value but easily spotting the tracks of the "beast men" and their many human prisoners. The heroes set out following the creatures, watchful for the location where the creatures left the King's Way and entered the Forest of Shadows, either to the north or the south.
About two miles west of the ambush site lies a sheep pasture. Because the heroes are careful to follow the tracks of their quarry, the trip from the ambush site is about forty-five minutes.
The tracks continue along the King's Way. The "beast men" not only raided a caravan on the King's Way, but they then traveled almost an hour due west along that same road in open defiance of Azalin Rex. The first time the tracks diverge from the road is when they move into the pasture.
The southern ridge has crept closer as they traveled west from Fal Galen. Now it lies just a few miles south of the road, rising towards the clouds in a burst of late summer colors.
Ahead, several acres of fenced-in pasture staves off the Forest of Shadows. Not far off, a ranch house stands with broken windows and scorched walls. The door, recently broken, appears to have been repaired.
Nearby stands a small storage building, which appears to have been spared any damage. On the far side of the house stands a small cemetery of some two-score graves denoted by cross-shaped markers.
The fence, too, has been damaged, and of the sheep who once grazed here, only a handful remain.
An old man, gray-haired and bearded, works tirelessly at the broken fence, a bucket of supplies and a heap of wood and rope at his side.
He looks up as the heroes draw near and waves to them, inviting them onto his property.
He introduces himself as Garlock. The heroes are excited to meet the man. They had realized some time ago that the road west might well take them to the fields of the monk brothers who nursed Owen Androlov back to health ater his run-in with the three Deathangels whom the heroes just put in the grave a second time.
A kindly follower of Delios, Garlock's smile is open and inviting. Though old, he remains in prime physical and mental health.
Garlock greets them warmly. He offers his home as a place to rest and a warm meal for all.
Ivy is set against any further delays. She does not want to stop for a meal, and she certainly does not want to sleep in the old shepherd's pasture or home. Garlock listens, both as Ivy speaks and as Dechan assuages her. The monk watches Ivy closely.
When the heroes reveal that they know of Garlock and his brother, he responds, "I am honored you've heard of me. I knew your father, Alliama, yes. Briefly, when he was in need, my brother Kaolus and I were able to show him the mercy of Delios. He took what little we could offer and turned it into something far greater."
When asked about the beast-men and their prisoners, Garlock has a fair amount to say. A group of humanoid creatures emerged from the mountains three days ago. They were heavily armed, and clearly looking for trouble, but they ignored the brothers at first.
When the creatures returned later in the day, though, they were reeking of alcohol. They took the time to break down a portion of the fence and also do some damage to the house.
The brothers quickly saw that the creatures now had prisoners in tow. They could do nothing to stop them, so Kaolus went with them while Garlock remained behind and prayed for assistance.
The heroes are astounded that a man of Kaolus' age willingly joined the prisoners and their beast-man captors. Garlock explains calmly that Kaolus knew that the men and women in the hands of those creatures would need support, spiritual and physical. The brothers are old men, but they had been blessed with good health and endurance. Kaolus felt suited to the task.
Likewise, Garlock was not simply standing by as his brother walked into danger. He had repairs to make, and he was praying. Garlock trusted in the Morninglord to send help, and he did. He says, "I will gladly accompany you along the trail that the creatures left. If they entered the mountains, I have some skill in traveling them, as well."
When asked about the nature of the creatures, Garlock admits that he is not familiar with their race, but they were led by a priest or shaman of some sort. He witnessed that one call upon divine magic, and he saw the holy symbol that it used. It was made of iron, and it was in the shape of a clenched fist.
While dinner is prepared and plans for the journey into the mountain are laid, Beatrice walks among the small cemetery on the edge of the grounds.
The plots are small, each delineated by a cross-shaped marker engraved with initials. She sees, "R.C.," for instance, among many others.
One grave stands nearer the property-line fence than any other. A grape vine has grown along the fence and curls over the cross marker, as well. This marker bears the initials "D.M."
After dinner, Garlock asks David to come with him to the undamaged storage building next to the ranch house. When he opens the door, the scent of incense wafts out.
The interior is a clean, tidy shrine. The floor is adorned with prayer mats, and an altar stands at the far end. The altar is similar to those erected in honor of Delios, but the iconography is slightly different. There are also meditative foci stationed about the room that harken to an older faith, a precursor to the faith of the Morninglord.
Garlock says, "This is our shrine to St. Mark, whom I believe is your namesake."
He goes on to explain that he and his brother Kaolus are of the "Order of St. Mark." Formerly, they followed the Path of Melchizedek, but in recent years they have devoted themselves to the teachings of resilience and self-sacrifice embodied in the life and works of David Mark.
He takes David to one side of the altar where a small stand rests. He picks up a circle of woven grape vines. He explains, "This grape vine grew on the fence next to David Mark's grave. David gave up his immortal existence in the Land of the Dead, but this is a sign that no one is ever truly gone."
Garlock places the circlet on David's brow. "Your namesake will watch over you while you wear this."
Just by touching the circlet, David senses its significance and capabilities. He dons it, and before the heroes leave for the mountains, he has given the grappler's mask to Anson.
Before they leave the shrine, Garlock asks David what he knows about this woman, Ivy. He does not express his concerns more explicitly, but he asks whether David has considered whether there might be a reason she and her father have chosen to live as caravan guards.
The heroes leave the horses at the pasture. They follow the tracks, and Garlock, towards the ridge to the south. Garlock does his best to help by means of his knowledge of survival in the mountains as well as his understanding of local lore.
The trip towards the ridge is some six miles through the Forest of Shadows, but the "beast-men" left a fairly clear trail. Six miles takes about four hours while tracking. From there, the heroes will be on the ridge, and the going will get much tougher.
The heroes climb the side of the ridge. Ash, beech and oak become juniper and fir. The temperature, high for October, corrects itself rapidly, delivering a chill.
They find themselves walking rough trails; sometimes no trails at all.
When the heroes stop for a break, Garlock gives a little mountain lore. "The top of this ridge is about two thousand feet up. Hopefully, we won't climb all that way.
"The man who taught me what I know about mountains brought me up here everyday for years. He taught me that this is the windward side of the ridge. We get more rain than the folks on the south side, and its cooler here. That's why Martira feels closer to Lamordia, and Rivalis feels closer to the rest of Darkon.
"It's not winter at the top yet, but it does come earlier, and it lasts longer when it arrives."
When the heroes ask who taught him mountaineering, Garlock says that it was his father, Simarren.
The heroes come up the scene of a battle some three days old. The drunken "beast men" got into a fight with one another. Three dead creatures lie on the ground here; they are the same as the creature that the heroes released from the prison of the Dymrak Dread. All three have been savaged by predators and lie scattered about the scene.
There is also a dead man here--equally savaged. He was a caravan guard that Ivy identifies as Dran. She did not care for him, but seeing him like this brings her no pleasure. She does not shed a tear, however.
Garlock invites Dechan to pray over the corpses, and the heroes ensure that Dran receives a burial, much to Ivy's consternation.
Examining the scene reveals the following: From here, the "beast-men" split off in two parties, each wending roughly in the same direction, each dragging along roughly half the prisoners.
Garlock recognizes this area of the ridge. He explains that one path leads steeper up the mountain, while the other winds about the body of the ridge as it climbs, taking a little longer.
After a brief discussion, they decide to take the steeper, more direct route. It is getting late, though, so they make little progress before they find a sheltered, defensible campsite, and they bed down till morning.
First, a solitary creature haunts the party. It disturbs the heroes' dreams, granting them dreams of an eerie house on an underground lake.
All sleeping heroes share the following dream:
You emerge from a cavern tunnel into a chamber with walls stretching at least two hundred feet towards the sky. There is no ceiling here, but the sunlight that filters to the cavern floor is weak, gutted.
An underground stream flows swiftly across the chamber. It is broad and seems to radiate cold.
An old, creaking bridge spans the stream, leading to the front porch of an old, two-story home that spans the divide between two stone platforms.
You cross the bridge. The boards creak ominously. Your way is lit by oil lamps hanging from tall, rusted iron hooks nailed into the sides of the bridge. As you walk, thick weeds stir; you see that each stalk ends in a staring, unblinking eye. Your passage is noted.
Lights burn in the windows. You are suddenly certain that you are being watched. You spot a figure in an upstairs room, but when you look closer there is no one there.
A heart beat begins to sound, filling not just the chamber under the earth but your very skull. Each pounding note of the heart resonated within you. You see a heart in darkness. For a moment the house is gone and there is only darkness and a pulsating, beating heart.
And then you awake, drenched in sweat, strangely sure that you are still being watched.
The heroes quickly spot the gargoyle-like creature lurking in the branches of a tree overlooking their camp. When it realizes that it has been spotted, it retreats into the night.
The night is not done with the heroes, though.
After the heroes have settled back for more sleep, and changed to second watch, another evil of the ridge finds them. A skeletal bat swoops into the party's camp and circles several times.
The heroes do not attack the undead thing, and it flies off after a couple circuits of their site. As it leaves, two other skeletal bats join it.