The Clutch of Verthandi

Into the Scarred Hills

The Scarlet Crusade learns the secrets (and dangers) of Dragonhelm, the Scarred Hills, and Drohun Blackbarrow.

After a lengthy journey filled with the infuriating circumlocution of Raleria’s justifiably estranged father, the party returns to Boyne to investigate the mysteries of Dragonhelm in the Hall of Heroes. When they arrive, they are introduced to a green-haired gnome druid named Tigwin, a resident of Oakwatch and admirer of the Crusaders since their liberation of Ardyn. Tigwin was sent to Boyne by Elder Milni to research Dragonhelm as well; apparently the less benevolent residents of the Feywood have become increasingly active in the Master of the Forest’s absence, and the Elders believe that the fell powers of the dreaded dwarf city may be responsible for these fey predations. Over the course of his studies of Drohun Blackbarrow’s original journal, however, Tigwin began to suffer disturbing hallucinations and restless nights, an infamous side effect of delving too deep into Blackbarrow’s writing. When the heroes meet him, Tigwin is extremely sleep-deprived and deathly afraid to be out of bright light.

When Tigwin shares his findings with the Crusaders, however, they are surprised to hear him mention a mysterious lens made of adamantine. Raleria produces the lens and shows it to Tigwin, who excitedly opens Blackbarrow’s journal and shows it to the party’s spellcasters. The passage details the Doom as some kind of sentient and malevolent creature of pure shadow, something that may have once been a dwarf itself (or at least posing as one), and that the only weapon the dwarves had that could fight it was this mystic lens, which could channel the light of another dwarven artifact known as Daedal’s Sun and use it against the Doom. Tigwin’s excitement becomes manic, and he presses the group to leave for Oakwatch immediately. Fearing for the gnome’s sanity, the party convinces Tigwin to spend a night resting to recover his strength before they all leave. Reluctantly, Tigwin agrees.

That night, Raleria and Eoleo, the two party members who read Blackbarrow’s journal, are visited by a hideously disturbing image of Blackbarrow himself, now an eyeless, ragged corpse of a dwarf begging not to be left alone in the dark. The apparition merely frightens Raleria, but Eoleo is subjected to a freak accident in his waking fear, leading the party to believe that they, too, have been afflicted by whatever evil haunts Tigwin and the accursed journal. Furthermore, when the sun rises, the party discovers that Tigwin has stolen the journal and the lens, fleeing into the Scarred Hills in search of an enigmatic wisdom known locally as Ophemet the Seer. The party inquires after the gnome and the seer, but no one has seen Tigwin or believes that Ophemet actually exists. The only lead they find is a grumpy ferryman who could possibly smuggle them into the hills without alerting the wardens of these broken lands: House Harlow, the corrupt noble house who occupied Ardyn and sent catspaws after Eoleo in Wintervale. Tired, disgruntled, and directionless, the party stocks up on food before venturing into the hazardous wilderness of the Scarred Hills.

A simple enchantment is all it takes to get the Scarlet Crusaders across the river, but from there the heroes are rapidly subjected to the hills’ brutal heat (a problem magnified by a heat wave) and ferocious wildlife, namely a pack of bloodthirsty manticores. The party fends off the winged beasts and locates some hunting trails, but with so many restless nights Eoleo and Raleria are unable to replenish their energy for spellcasting, forcing the party to make camp until they can all get a good night’s sleep. On top of this, Niamh is not accustomed to the eldritch terrain of the accursed hills, and she loses Tigwin’s already fragile trail. Disheartened and lost, the party settles into a small natural alcove to recover and regain their bearings. The strong-willed spellcasters are ultimately able to fight off the evil that plagues their sleep, resting easy and recovering their magical energy, but just as fortune seems to be smiling on the heroes again, Raleria and Rognar are suddenly stricken with a staggering illness.

With progress proving difficult and their food supplies running low, Niamh investigates the surrounding hillside to search of any sign of Tigwin while Eoleo tends to his comrades. Niamh cannot locate the druid’s trail, but she does find a lone human, badly wounded and exhausted. The party identifies the man as a Scarred Hills outrider, an elite Harlow cavalry soldier specially trained to repel the monsters of the hills and keep them away from highways and settlements. The outrider’s training was insufficient, however, when his platoon was attacked by an unusually large and organized pride of scab cats⎯the iconic predators of the greater hills regions⎯which killed his companions and horses and left him in his compromised state. In return for food, shelter, and healing, the outrider tells the party what he knows about the landscape and its dangers, including firegut, the disease present in all flora and fauna native to the hills that has afflicted Rognar and Raleria. Desperate to make up for lost ground, Eoleo summons a horse and sends the rider on his way the following morning before treating his friends’ illness. It is shortly after this that the party realizes that House Harlow probably has eyes out for Eoleo and his companions, so they quickly track down their ungrateful guest and magically compel him to seek his fallen companions in the dangerous wilderness.

At last, the Scarlet Crusaders are well-rested, well-fed, magically mounted and warded against the elements, and still undetected by House Harlow. Unfortunately they still have no heading, with Tigwin’s trail now five days cold and only a crude map as a resource. Thinking that the outriders must have some sort of communications base in the area, the adventurers ride southwest, following the trails Niamh found the day before. They do discover a Harlow outpost, but Niamh discerns from afar that it has been abandoned by the outriders and is now crawling with scab cats, most likely the pride that attacked the outrider’s platoon. The Crusaders play it safe and continue west, bypassing the ruined tower. This does not keep them completely safe, for another pride of the beasts chases them across the sandy terrain, but with their strength restored the group makes short work of the animals an continues on its way.

The party comes across a herd of aurochs grazing in a relatively hospitable tract of land, so Eoleo uses the opportunity to magically inquire about Tigwin, Ophemet, and the surrounding area. The cattle had not seen the druid and did not know anything about Ophemet, but they did tell the party that the pride of scab cats residing in the abandoned outpost is led by a Pack Lord, a scab cat lycanthrope unique to the Scarred Hills. This explains why the scab cats are so plentiful and organized, and gives the heroes all the more reason to avoid the outpost: not only are the cats numerous and dangerous, but their lycanthrope leader is intelligent and can only be wounded by silver weapons. The aurochs also warn the party about the nearby territory of a “landshark,” a massive burrowing predator that eats anything and everything it crosses. Still without a lead, the party continues west, concluding that at least that would bring them closer to Dragonhelm. Along the way they come across a small oasis inhabited by violent spriggans. Eoleo and Raleria easily coerce the nasty fey into cooperating with a potent display of fire magic, and from these wretched monsters they actually get a heading: the spriggans point them northwest, where they claim the party will find Ophemet the Seer.

Along the way, however, the Crusaders spot in the distance none other than their fugitive, riding atop his vermin companion, a large bee named Beeswald. The party tears after the gnome, who tries to throw them off with his druidic magic, but the Crusaders ultimately apprehend him and reclaim the cursed book and the lens. Tigwin looks even more exhausted and desperate than he did the night he disappeared, so the party decides that everyone must rest for the night, believing that if Eoleo and Raleria could shake the book’s curse, then the unlucky gnome might be able to as well given proper support. As befits their luck, however, a massive thunderhead breaks the heat wave, and locks the party in their makeshift shelter for the following day as well. In another haphazard escape attempt, Tigwin transforms into a cat and tries to flee into the darkness, but before the heroes can reach him the fell spirit of the book claims the poor gnome’s life. They find Tigwin’s body a short distance away from their shelter, a look of fright forever frozen to his face.

Depressed by the loss of their misguided ally, the Crusaders decide to wait out the rest of the storm before continuing their search for Ophemet. Unexpectedly, though, the seer finds them first: a large gynosphinx infiltrates their camp and asks to examine their tome. The party warns Ophemet about the book’s curse, but the brazen sphinx takes it anyway and magically discerns its history and condition. She tests the heroes with riddles before telling them the history of Drohun Blackbarrow and his accursed journal: the historian was one of the few dwarves to survive the coming of the Doom, which gradually drove him mad with grief and fear (he never spent a night without candlelight after the fall of Dragonhelm). His madness was so complete that it severed his sentience from his body: his spirit was bound to the journal, bestowing his fatal fear upon anyone who read it, while his body remained animated as a revenant, an undead monstrosity doomed to scour the Scarred Hills forever in search of a way to fight the Doom. According to the sphinx, the only way to remove the curse from the book⎯and to permanently put Blackbarrow’s body to rest⎯is to give Blackbarrow a proper dwarven burial in broad daylight, relieving his fear of the shadows and the grief that fuels his enraged body.

In exchange for a riddle from Eoleo, Ophemet provides the party with the proper dwarven burial rites, and agrees to learn what she can about the lens. She takes it back to her cave in the northern hills to research, while the Crusaders try to lift the curse from Blackbarrow’s journal by putting his revenant to rest.



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