The Heap held more in store for the adventurers. Having despatched the undead priest and his skeletal followers under the watchful eyes of the stained-glass portrait of St. Alban, they continued into the lower level of the structure. A narrow, winding passageway descended into the cold and damp of the keep’s old crypts.
A grisly sight greeted them as the corridor made its final curve: a body sprawled across the floor, its bronze mask lying to one side, and its remains painting the picture of its bloody demise. As the party rounded the corner and found itself in a grim ossuary, the protectors of the crypts— doubtless, the same creatures responsible for the death of the masked figure— shambled out from their positions in the far, dusky corners. The figure of a once-noble knight, his armor and talbard spattered with blood, slowly rose from its kneeling pose and moved forward, intoning in a hollow voice that the adventurers should not have come so far.
The party took position down the corridor through which they had come, forcing their foes into a single file. Decrepit as they were, they went down quickly before the onslaught. The spectal knight, however, fought with greater vigor, until Tezcat implored him to stop his assault, his duty done, and retire in peace. Amazingly, the spectre conceded defeat, and a wall slid open in the distant corridor.
Now free to explore their surroundings, the party found the final resting place of the knight, his withered body cast despondently across his empty marble tomb. The walls of the room were completely covered in his frantic scrawlings, with the phrase “the call of a darker dragon” barely visible amongst the grim graffiti. There were also in the writings intimations of a betrayal, the knight’s growing paranoia, and his final despair at some deed done.
The voice of the deceased knight rang out in the tomb, bequeathing his sword to his ‘brothers above’. Rumla took up the sword, pocketed the key that the knght wore around his neck, and lay the body to rest with a brief prayer to Bahamut.
This small kindness done, the adventurers turned their attention to a strange draconic skull embedded in the bone-paved walls of the ossuary. Its smoky grey horns proved moveable, but the only reaction was the clanking of machinery from somewhere behind the wall, followed by a deafening crash of metal on stone.
The rest of their exploration was straightforward. Having recovered both keys from the Heap’s restless guardians, the vault lay bare its store of treasure: a platinum statuette of Bahamut, platinum goblets, a collection of antique coins, and several walnut-sized gems. Shelves above the treasure chests held dusty volumes detailing the affairs of the occupants of the Heap, which turned out to be a holy cadre of knights known as the Order of the Eastern Wind. The annals of the knights ended abruptly some two hundred years prior, undoubtedly with the tragedy intimated by the writing on the wall in the barracks: “Gregor Has Gone Mad”.
The treasure from the Heap was delivered to a grateful Sister Thalia, who intended to use it to pay the tribute that the Hand demanded and keep the Temple of Pelor open to the people of Thornbare.
After completing a final exploration of the Heap, the party decided to deliver the dragon statuette to Barnabus, the former knight who passed himself off as a farmer in one of the fields outside of Thornbare. Upon approaching the farm, however, it was clear that some dire attack had taken place: most of the outbuildings lay in smouldering ruin, and Barnabus himself was battered and bloodied. He explained that the farm had come under attack by Altern, who threatened to kill him unless he provided them with food and supplies. Apparently they panicked when they saw the tattoo on his upper arm, however— the symbol of the now-defunct Order of the Eastern Wind.
Although moved by the gift of the dragon statuette, Barnabus seemed alarmed that the party had ignored his warning and plumbed the depths of the Heap. A heated exchange took place between Barnabus and Rumla, and even threatened to turn violent. His words and mood made it clear that Barnabus was done with the old ways, and he related the story of the loss of his faith and his comrades-at-arms in a battle against the Hand near the Brambles.
Back in the city, the party encountered the Beggar Prince, Eliathan, once more. He bragged of an important visitor coming to see him, someone calling himself the King of Fools, and boasted of the army that he had at his disposal, ready to rise up and do the King’s bidding.
During a brief visit to the “herbalist”, Invictus, the party garnered favor by making a gift of one of the platinum goblets from the Heap, in exchange for which Invictus provided some medicinal potions. He also intimated that he was in search of four special ingredients, and asked that the party keep an eye out for them: the Lock of Despair, the Bloody of Beauty, the Vestments of Innocence, and the Horn of Sacrifice.
Their merchant contact, Tarentel, was glad to see the party once more. He seemed pleased that the rebel leader Ambrün was out of the picture, and in the way of explanation shared the dire tale of Ambrün sending a delegation of women and children to parlay with the Hand during the seige of Thornbare. The incident ended in tragedy as the Hand used the delegation as a human shield in their final assault on the city.
Tarentel also related news of a caravan that was due to leave the city on the day of the next full moon, carrying a variety of goods, including a valuable cache of weapons, from Thornbare to the Khagan’s camp to the north.
Advised to get their gear repaired by the blacksmith Barton, the party arrived at the Ceaseless Hammer in time to overhear the not-so-subtle threats of the local leader of the Hand, a scarred white-furred gnoll named Ur’Qwin. Ur’Qwin demanded that Barton and his blacksmiths finish producing weapons for the Hand on schedule, on pain of something unfortunate happening to Barton’s brother in distant Tilian. Once the Hand entourage departed, Barton proved himself sympathetic to the party’s cause and agreed to tend to their armor and weapons.
After resting in Thornbare for some time, the day of the caravan’s departure finally dawned. The party observed the makeup of the caravan, which consisted of a single Hand patrol and two horse-drawn wagons. Riding out in advance on horses provided by Barnabus— and in fact, reluctantly accompanied by Barnabus himself— they kept out of sight and rode throughout the day to what Barnabus assured them was just past the halfway-mark on the road from Thorbare to Tilian. Circling back under cover of darkness, the party came upon the Hand encampment where the wagons stood still under the watchful eye of its armed guard.
The Hand patrol had set up decoy tents and campfires on the hillside above the main camp, but the adventurers, after a brief exploration, decided to focus their assault on the guards sitting by the wagons. Tezcat snuck up on the guards, a mysterious red potion ready to be thrown, while Qwee perched in the high limbs of the nearby trees and Po and Rumla waited amongst their obscuring trunks. Tezcat lobbed the potion into the guards’ midst, where it exploded in a great burst of fire. He made it back to the treeline and into the canopy with Qwee before the guards smothered their smouldering cloaks and moved toward the trees to investigate.
Disoriented by the sneak attack and at a great disadvantage against the arrows and sling bullets that rained down on them from the darkness of the trees above, the Hand guards fought their best but eventually fell before the party’s attack. The party did sustain injuries, however, and the fight nearly finished Barnabus, who bore the worst of the attacks by the Hand’s wolf companions.
At leisure to explore the camp at last, the party discovered the captured rebel leader Ambrün, bound and gagged, in one of the tents. They cut him free and sent him away on one of the horses. Sure that Thornbare was no longer safe for him, he decided to travel to Tilian to meet with the rebel forces there.
As they tallied up the spoils from their successful assault, the heroes made a suprising discovery. In addition to the expected weapons cache so recently completed by the blacksmith, and some other valuables, the caravan carried a sack of antique coins and several walnut-sized gems— the very treasure that was delivered to Sister Thalia from the Heap.
Before the group headed back to Barnabus’ farm with their recovered goods, they scattered Altern weapons about the camp site, and sent the slaves that accompanied the caravan back to Thornbare with a very specific tale to tell. If all goes according to plan, the Hand will find the weapons, the mutilated bodies of the guards, and the story of the frightened slaves sufficient evidence that the Altern were behind the attack— keeping attention away from the party for the time being.