Carff dusts himself off at the bottom of the steep incline that creates the western edge of the crater, an earthen wall created by the dig site at the ancient dragon hoard. The group is gathering after a quick and decisive victory over the former occupiers, led by an evil gnome named Agrid.
Surveying the area for treasure, the rustling of a sac-like blanket catches the ‘Stoppers’ attention. Artemis peels back the cover to reveal a human prisoner, bound and gagged! The man gives a muffled cry through the rag stuffed in his mouth, seemingly pleading for his release.
Deciding that he presents little threat, the group unties him and learns his story: He is Douven Stahl, a middle-aged treasure-seeker who traveled to Winterhaven a few weeks prior to begin searching for the dragon hoard over which they now stand. Ambushed by Agrid and his henchmen a week ago, Douven has been a prisoner for many days before the adventurers finally unbind him. He is tired and haggard looking, and he pleads for the ‘Stoppers to escort him back to town. He renounces treasure hunting on the spot, claiming “It’s just too dangerous. And I’m too old for this anyway.”. He tells the adventurers they are welcome to keep anything they find here as a reward.
An amulet of health, once Douven’s and more recently Agrid’s until the heroes take it, and an ancient, valuable mirror are the prizes of the day. The amulet, a locket that magically bolsters the defensive skills of the wearer, contains a artfully drawn picture of a human woman. “Oh!” Douven jumps up at the sight of the picture, “That’s a picture of my wife. She gave me the amulet a long time ago to protect me on these trips, but I won’t need it any more. Please, keep it.” He hands the amulet back to Skitlezzz after removing the drawing. . “Hey, there’s a note here.” Aeric holds a piece of parchment taken from the pouch containing the mirror. He reads it for a few seconds to himself before informing the group, “I think Kalarel sent Agrid here to retrieve this mirror. Apparently it belonged to one of the Nerath wizards who set the seal in the Keep on the Shadowfell long ago.”. Artemis counsels, “Could be important. Let’s keep it.”
The group waves goodbye to Douven shortly after they arrive in Winterhaven, he off to the Inn to recover lost strength. They continue on to the tower, where the scholar and mage Valthrun resides.
Valthrun confirms what the group has already sensed: there is a growing evil emanating from the Keep on the Shadowfell. In recent days the fell influence has begun to put the villagers at unease, causing suspicion and fear. Valthrun, primarily a scholar, has been unable to determine the root cause of Winterhaven’s troubles, but he pleads with the ‘Stoppers, the only adventuring company for miles around and the first to have visited Winterhaven in many months, to seek out the evil and subdue it for the good of the Winterdhavian people.
Valthrun senses the uncertainty in the group’s discussion regarding charity work and offers to try and convince Lord Padraig to offer a 250gp reward to anyone who can save the town. Palms sufficiently lined, the ‘Stoppers agree to tackle the Keep and remove the evil growing there.
While rejuvenating at the inn with a hot meal, Eilian the Old, the oldest human resident of Winterhaven at 73, approaches the group. “Did you fellows hear about old Bobrick’s farm?”, he asks. Likot turns to answer, “No? What about it?”. “Well,” the old man replies, “Bob was in here yesterday looking scared as a ghost! He was going on and on about how there’s strange noises comin’ from his barn the past few nights. I told him he’s just getting caught up in all this nonsense, but I believed him when he said it. I think something might be going on, you boys might want to check it out.” He notices Artemis’s displeasure at the male-specific reference to the group’s members, but is wary of the tiefling, a race he has only heard stories of before now. He diverts his glance downward and politely mutters “Ma’am…”, then shuffles back to his place at the bar.
Carff speaks up, “Well there’s no money involved, but you never know what kind of stuff you’ll find on a job.” Likot stands up from the table, “These people are farmers, not merchants. The reward will be minimal, but these people need our help. Let’s go.” Skitlezzz agrees with a Nordic-sounding cheer and Artemis nods in assent. Aeric breathes a resigned sigh and closes his spellbook, “I suppose we should, then. To the farm!”
Walking up the sparse hillside north of Winterhaven, the afternoon sun illuminates a lone farm nestled along the foothill’s ridge line. An acre of plant husks from the already harvested crops lies dormant, but adjacent to the farmhouse an outdoor pasture holds around a dozen grazing livestock. A small red barn stands 20 yards down the ridge from the house. The farmhouse looks more recent than many of the other farmhouses nearer to Winterhaven, but it is shoddy and was likely built by its current occupant: a poor farmer living with his wife and their 4 children. Quality lumber is rare on the south Cairngorm slopes and farmers here must make do with whatever materials are available.
A middle-aged man sits on the farmhouse porch in a rocking chair, conversing with a woman his age in a white smock standing in the doorway. Recognizing the varied weapons and armor carried by the ‘Stoppers as the mark of an adventuring group, the farmer calls out to them as the near the porch: “Hullo there! Welcome to the Poolcrest stead! The name’s Bobrick Poolcrest. You can call me Bob.”
“So… Eilian mentioned you had a problem?” Artemis gets straight to the point, guessing that this farmer won’t provide the most thrilling conversation. “Welp,” he replies, chewing a long piece of straw, “I gots a problem with ma BARN, see?” Carff cocks an eyebrow at the strange enunciation. Bob continues, “Up ‘bout round, oh… seven past midsun, I and the missus hear strange noises acomin’ from ma BARN. Nah normally we’d chalk it up to varmints, rodents and the like, or mayb’ the odd gob’ or kob’, but lately it just don’t sound natral, is all. Why just t’other day I says to Anna I says…”
“Fine, fine, we’ll check it out, just… wait for us inside.” Artemis, doing little to hide her exasperation, ushers Bob inside before he can foul the air any more with his “drivel”. An initial inspection of the barn reveals little, save inexplicably hard, cold ground in patches under the dirt floor. Carff and Aeric agree to hide in the rafters to ambush whatever creatures are disturbing the farmstead.
Sunset now an hour past, the ground in the barn rumbles and churns. Dessicated hands suddenly thrust up through the earth! Zombies crawl out through the dirt and mud, half rotting and only barely held together by dark magic. Two specters slowly fade into view amidst the wandering corpses, phasing in and out of sight as they float aimlessly around the zombies.
Surprised at the sight of undead but ready for battle nonetheless, the ‘Stoppers bash the Zombie Rotters one by one, their frail frames crumbling into mushy piles with a sighing moan. The specters dart around the heroes, their touch chilling to the bone. One of the specters disappears from inside the barn… only to reappear suddenly outside, between Artemis and Likot! Unfurling its incorporeal body, it unleashes an icy blast in all directions, causing the heroes to shiver uncontrollably, if only for a few moments. Ultimately the specters’ tenuous existence proves their undoing, however, and the adventurers lay these spirits to their final rest in short order.
The ‘Stoppers are once again victorious! “I feel… stronger, somehow.” Aeric muses aloud.