Refreshed and ready to face the dangers they know await them at the Keep on the Shadowfell, Aeric, Artemis, Carff, Likot, and Skitlezzz gather their gear and meet to discuss their situation one last time before departing. Arjuhn has also rejoined them only a day after his sudden disappearance from the Kobold Lair. He explains his absence to the group:
“I had returned to investigate tales of a creature supposedly more evil than Carff: Rubenstein! However, I admit my actions were rash and I found very little, ahem… usable information here in Winterhaven. As such, I am prepared to rejoin you in your quest to rid evil from the Keep on the Shadowfell!”
In need of healing powers for their upcoming battles, the ‘Stoppers readily agree to re-accept the Paladin into their ranks.
The Keep is a full day’s journey north from Winterhaven. Marching for hours at a time, the ‘Stoppers take only brief rests in order to arrive ahead of nightfall and its dangers. The morning journey is pleasant enough, and finds our heroes walking along maintained roads in the valley where Winterhaven sits. After a few hours’ walk, however, the farms and even the trees begin to grow sparse as the group leaves the fertile valley. Now leaving the outskirts of the Winterdhavian farmland, the steady, cold fall wind bites at the adventurers’ faces as they crunch along the gravel and dirt of the crumbling and overgrown road. Few, if any, now travel this long-forgotten trail. Merchants avoid the perilous journey over the Stonemarch mountain range and locals’ tales are rife with superstitions regarding the Keep, which once served as the westernmost outpost of the Nerath Empire for the entire Nentir Vale. Once a bustling hub of activity, the lands surrounding the Keep hide ruins of a former civilization.
Ahead, the narrow track widens into a clearing at the top of the hill. Upon the group’s arrival the wind suddenly falls silent. Birds and animals make no noise, if even present here at all, and it feels as if time itself has slowed. Great piles of shattered stone blocks and scorched timbers dominate the clearing, sprawling out from its center to the edge of the woods. No plants grow among the ruins or within the clearing. The ground is bare dirt, and although forest has begun to reclaim the path leading here, it has not yet intruded into these ruins.
The Keep on the Shadowfell looms before the adventuring company in the red-purple glow of fading dusk light.
Picking at the rubble inside the keep’s outer walls, the adventurers feel unnaturally cold, despite the complete dearth of wind. Rubbing his arms to keep warm, Aeric notices some of the rubble has been cleared aside. His breath condenses in the cold air as he speaks: “There’s an entrance here. I think this will take us underneath the Keep.”
Carff inches up the dark staircase leading down into the Keep’s interior. Now night, little can be seen in the pale moonlight, but torchlight flickers against the walls below. The rogue drops to a low crouch and exhibits his expertise in stealth, deftly avoiding debris scattered on the stairs. Closer inspection reveals the debris to be small bones, perhaps belonging to local game or even goblins. Whatever the origin, their intention is clear: the fragile bones crunch when stepped on, acting as a crude warning system for dungeon-dwellers.
At the bottom of the stairs, Carff surveys a mostly empty antechamber room with four slender pillars arranged symmetrically in a square. The walls and stonework are impressive and sturdy, the mark of skilled stonecrafters, perhaps dwarves. The original builders are long gone, however, and the stench of unwashed bodies fills the stagnant air. The occasional chitter can also be heard, though its origin is not clear. Carff sneaks back up the stairs to inform the others, then leads the group down into the room.
Inching forward with an abundance of caution, the ‘Stoppers array themselves in defensive positions, just in case an enemy were to leap from the shadows. Carff moves ahead to scout the hallway ahead, his quiet footfalls making very little noise. Without warning the silence is broken and Carff disappears into the floor, a huge cloud of dust billowing up from a deep pit! A stone colored cloth flutters down after the tumbling elf and he lands with an “oof!”.
Trying to peer down through the dust, the others first hear a rush of chittering squeaks. “Rats!” Carff yells through the cloud, his frantic kicks and stabs audible from above. With barely time to register the implications, a crossbow bolt flies through the air and -fwick! pierces Skitlezzz’s hide armor and enters his chest. A goblin sharpshooter cackles from the hallway across the room, satisfied with his shot, even as two others take aim behind him.
While the melee fighters engage the goblin threat, Aeric gets busy hurling spells at the swarm of rats viciously biting and gnawing at Carff. Explosions pop down below and bright colors light up the ceiling as the wizard catches all creatures below, including an unlucky elf, in a series of arcane blasts and bursts. Carff finally manages to climb out of the pit just before Aeric incinerates the remaining rats. The foul stench of burning rat and goblin flesh permeates the room as wisps of black smoke float up from the sizzling pit floor.
Arjuhn, now recovered from a previous botched attempt to leap around the pit, charges down the hall at the remaining sharpshooters. His already imposing frame is made doubly so by his heavy plate armor, interlocking steel plates that make him incredibly difficult to hurt. His large shield, bearing an image of the dragon god Bahamut’s profile, hides nearly half of the paladin’s body as he holds it close and advances farther into the dungeon.
One of the sharpshooters takes aim at this newly approaching threat with a malicious grin. His heart sinks and the grin disappears from his face, however, when he notices the daunting defenses of the steadily advancing Arjuhn. The goblins wear only leather armor and have rarely seen anything beyond simple chainmail, so to the sharpshooters the plate mail seems almost magically impenetrable in its complexity and thoroughness.
Jaw still slack, the sharpshooter focuses on the symbol of Bahamut on the paladin’s shield only to see it suddenly shift to the right and back as Arjuhn reveals his readied battleaxe! Swinging across into the goblin’s left side, shielded only by ragged leather armor, the axe lands solidly between two of the poor creature’s ribs with a -thwack! He does a painful looking dance to dislodge the axe from his side then scampers away as quickly as he can, his hand covering the bleeding wound.
He runs toward a musky, half-rotting door near the back of the room with intent to escape, but stops suddenly in his tracks and seems to reconsider whatever lay beyond that door. With nowhere to run he turns and fights as best he can, but the ‘Stoppers easily emerge victorious.
The musty smell of the stone walls and rotting timbers returns to the heroes’ noses as they move beyond the initial chamber, exploring deeper into the dungeon. Distant footsteps and quiet moans punctuate the otherwise silent ruins. Rounding a corner Carff spots a long, narrow room with three doorways. Streaks of blood run across the floor in this room, and muffled voices can be heard beyond the far door. A wooden door to a small rations storage room and a double iron door flank either side of the cracked wooden doorway at the end of the narrow room.
Peeking through a crack in the far door, Carff sees a number of goblins working for a black leather clad hobgoblin, tending a fire pit with two hot branding pokers. Implements of torture fill this room (see picture), from the Iron Maiden near the entrance to a rack in the center of the room, and dozens of instruments are arrayed across two long wooden tables. Human size bones sit slumped in a cage near the corner of the room. “It’s a torture chamber!” Carff whispers back to the rest of the group.
The group steps back from the doorway, converses quietly in a huddle for a moment, then charges into the room with weapons drawn! The goblins are caught completely by surprise and the goblin nearest the door takes a savage beating before getting his weapon ready. The other goblins in the room rush to pick up their crossbows and the Hobgoblin Torturer yanks two red-hot pokers from the fire. Charging across the room at Carff, he feints with the pokers to shift the elf’s guard and bull rushes him into the Iron Maiden! The door swings partially shut onto its screaming victim and its long spikes stab painfully into his back and legs, his leather armor mitigating the damage but doing little to prevent the pain. With all his focus Carff manages to push the door away and separate himself from the standing coffin, only to be shoved violently back in by the hobgoblin momentarily interrupting his fight with Skitlezzz. This time the spikes slide easily into the tears in his armor and gravely wound the poor elf. Unable to open the doors on his own, he slumps to the floor when Skitlezzz finally opens the door after defeating the lead torturer.
Seeing his friend in such a dire state, Skitlezzz von Hefferwyfnyplen’s eyes turn red with rage. Casting a vicious glance at the last goblin sharpshooter taking pot shots from the corner cage, he picks up his greatsword and bounds across the room building a low growl. The goblin gets a frightened look when it realizes it has no way to reach the exit and rushes to close the door the cage… locking himself inside! His pleased grin is short-lived, though, as seeing the locked door blocking his path only infuriates the barbarian further. With a powerful kick he smashes the lock and slams the door open! It bangs against the wall of the cage with a loud clang accompanied by a terrified shriek from the goblin. The barbarian beats his chest and lets out a howl, backs up, paws the ground with his boots like a bull, and charges into the cage! The goblin, wide-eyed and screaming through all of this, his hands and arms covering all but one eye, finds himself hurtling through the air and yet looking at his own feet still on the ground. Severed completely in half, the dead goblin leaves a wide streak of blood on the wall following the arc of Skitlezzz’s dripping sword.
“Excellent!” Likot cheers from across the room. “Let’s see to Carff’s wounds and examine the contents of these prison cells back here.”
A goblin voice calls out from one of the recessed cells in the hallway behind the dwarf: “Hello…? Has you come to rescue Splug?!”