Ep. 5 – A Sinister Cult

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Valere moves silently through the rubble of Cragmaw castle to get a look at what the party will face up ahead. In a barracks on the eastern wall stand two hobgoblins, warming themselves over a brazier, a barred door stands to the south while a curtained corridor leads north. Another door lead to the same short corridor which in turn leads to the chambers of King Grol, who is arguing with a pair of robe-clad figures over what to do with a prisoner. Leaning against the table next to one of the robed men is a quarterstaff made of glass. It seems that the infamous Glasstaff has finally been found.

The tiefling reports back to the group and they decide that dealing with the hobgoblins first might be their best approach. They take up hiding spots in one of the ruined rooms, concealing themselves behind the thick black curtains being used for doors. Valare to the north, Atticus and Fargrim to the west, and Tomi and Granite to the south. Chad weaves an illusion around himself, changing his appearance to that of the fat goblin chef. He hurriedly opens the door to the barracks and calls out to the hobgoblins that there are intruders in the castle.

The hobgoblins are fooled by the disguise but their militant nature proves troublesome, as one of them moves to follow Chad the goblin while the other holds his ground. The lured hobgoblin steps into the ruined room and throws back the curtain hiding Tomi and Granite and the ruse is up. The fighter and barbarian swing wildly but become tangled in the curtain, missing but tearing the obstacle from it’s railings. The second hobgoblin turns tail and makes for Grol’s room, no doubt to warn him. Valere is adamant not to let Glasstaff escape them this time and moves towards Grol’s room as well, hoping to block off any retreat.

Back in the rubble Atticus and Fargrim have emerged from their hiding place and helped surround the lone hobgoblin who falls quickly. Chad, standing in the doorway to the barracks, is surprised when the two robed figures appear from the back door. One of them is Glasstaff who fires a volley of magic missiles at him, blasting the bard back through the door. Tomi tosses his spear in retaliation but his cry of, “Duck!” serves to warn Chad and Glasstaff both. The spear clatters off the walls of the barracks.

In the northern corridor Valere comes face to face with King Grol who drives his mace into her stomach, knocking the wind from her. A surge of anger manifests itself as a burst of fire that flies from the tieflings hand and sends the huge bugbear reeling back. The smell of burnt fur fills the castle as King Grol tries to pat out the flames. Valere uses the distraction to retreat back to the rest of the party.

Glasstaff’s lackey is the next to fall as an arrow sprouts from his chest, cutting his charge short. King Grol and his pet wolf rush into the room soon after and join the melee while Glasstaff tries to magically paralyze Granite. The barbarian shakes it off with a growl as behind him Fargrim exchanges blows with King Grol. Calling on the power of Moradin to guide his strikes, Fargrim rains blow after blow on the bugbear. One such attack catches him in the jaw, dislocating it with a loud crack, and the follow up strike buries the dwarf’s warhammer deep in King Grol’s skull.

As the wolf and Glasstaff continue to fight, King Grol’s body convulses and Atticus tells Fargrim that it doesn’t look natural. The cleric wastes to time bashing the body a bit more, not wanting this foe to raise from the dead. But what actually happens is something entirely different. Slithering out of the bloody mass that was the bugbear’s head comes a sluglike creature, a foot long and with tiny skittering legs clustered near it’s head. It’s segmented eyes turn on Fargrim and it leaps toward onto him. Moving quickly over his body it seems to be trying to find a gap in the armour, a soft bit of flesh. Fargrim quickly comes to the conclusion that this is some kind of mind-controlling bug and that he does not want to become it’s next host. Calling on Moradin once more he summons a column of fire on himself, gritting his teeth against the searing pain and hoping that it will be enough. When the fire vanishes he falls to his knees, his beard badly singed, but the brain-bug lies before him a charred husk.

With Tomi finishing off Grol’s wolf and the combined attacks of Chad, Valere and Granite finishing Glasstaff the party lets out a collective groan when Glasstaff’s body begins to convulse as well. The brain-bug emerges and flings itself onto Granite, whose hide and fur armour provides him little protection from the creatures attacks. As the brain-bug crawls under his vest and around onto Granite’s back Fargrim grabs his arm and spins him around. Drawing one of his throwing axes Fargrim watches for a half-second, estimating where the bug will scuttle to, and swings. The flat of his axe catches the creature squarely and a cold splat of innards erupts on Granite’s back.

The fight is over and the two brain-bugs are dealt with. Valere searches Glasstaff, taking his namesake and finding the Shale relic tucked into a belt-pouch. The relic is in fact a golden sword hilt with a slot for the blade and tang. Tomi and Chad stay behind to investigate the barred door while the others head to Grol’s room to look around. Inside the barred door Tomi and Chad find themselves face-to-face with an owlbear, a monstrous beast of feathers, fur, and claws. It lashes out at Chad and deals him a nasty swipe before trying to snap it’s beak down on one of Tomi’s legs. The two adventurers exchange a look and decide to flee. While Tomi presents his shield as a distraction Chad dashes back out of the room, preparing the bar. Tomi follows quickly after him and the two slam the heavy wooden door back into place. The bar is dropped and the owlbear can be heard scratching away on the other side.

King Grol’s room looks comfortable enough and the party decides to take a quick rest. Granite contemplates sleeping in the bugbear’s bed but after pulling back the top blanket he finds that it is full of bugbear fur and changes his mind. Atticus shrugs and jumps in instead, but in his haste he hears a muffled smash, something is poking through the straw mattress. Investigating further he finds a leather sack with a smattering of silver and electrum coins along with three glass vials of some swirling red liquid. Two of the vials, however, had been smashed. Atticus dips his finger in the spill and has a taste test. The liquid tingles on his tongue and carries the faint taste of raspberries. The mattress stash also holds a map of Morden Isle, with all the usual places marked and with some additional locations that seem to have been added later in a different hand.

A muffled sound comes from a small door on the northern wall of the room and the party opens it to find a half-dwarf man, bound and gagged. By his dark blue tabard, emblazoned with a shining eye, Fargrim recognises him as a member of the Order of the Open Eye. Known for their interest in ancient lore and sharing knowledge with the peoples of the Thousand Isles they are typically a good intentioned organisation.
After being untied the half-dwarf introduces himself as Varden Kohl and Chad’s ears prick up at the name. Looking closer he realizes that he has seen the man before, in one of Shale’s taverns. Unsure as to whether he has had a dalliance with Varden on some drunken eve, Chad moves to the back of the group. Varden tells the party that he had travelled to Shale and the nearby ruins of Thundertree as part of an ongoing reasearch project into the nature of the Starfall and the Gods Exodus. It is his belief that one of the meteors that fell during the Starfall had landed where the town of Thundertree was eventually built. He had hired a group of dwarven guides to lead him to the ruined town but on their arrival they had been ambushed by robed cultists. He expresses uncertainty about whether the dwarves survived.

With an interesting lead on the cultists whereabouts and questions as to the nature of the brain-bugs the party agrees that the ruins of Thundertree deserve a visit. However, after a few days in the wilderness and a hard fought battle to take Cragmaw castle they decide it would be wise to return to Shale for rest and resupply.

The trip back through the forest is uneventful and once back in Shale Valere takes Glasstaff’s weapon to Haytham as proof of his demise, while the others return the Relic to the Priory. Haytham happily shares the location of the promised stash and also promotes the tiefling to Agent of the Grey Mask. From now on she will be able to requisition some supplies and find shelter and information from associated guild members.

In the priory the Shale Relic is placed back on its plinth and the healers move quickly to mend the wounded, including Old Len. After regaining his wits the old halfling thanks the heroes deeply and offers to let them stay at his estate for as long as they need.

Valere returns to the group and leads them down to the third pier from the north. A short ways out is a fishmonger’s stall, the back door is open. Peering inside the others a surprised to see her reach up and pull on a large salmon hanging from a rack. With a click one of the rafters lowers to reveal a compartment in the ceiling. From the stash the party gets a pouch of gold pieces as well as two interesting magical items (as determined by Atticus’ Detect Magic). A fine silver circlet of elven make with curled rams horns engraved down the sides which Granite takes and places upon his head. He is suddenly overcome with the thought that headbutting something might be a good idea. The other object, a brass box, is opened to reveal a roughly beaten iron coin sitting in a bed of red velvet. Atticus takes the coin from the box and notices that it is warm in his hand. One side depicts a flame while the other shows an elaborate key. The elf puts the coin back in the box and places the box in his backpack.

With their business attended to the party decides it’s time to sleep. While heading through town towards Old Len’s house, Chad’s eye is caught by a young lady outside his usual tavern. He bids the others a good night and strolls over.

At Old Len’s the heroes make themselves comfortable and get ready for bed, laying down soft blankets and pillows on the floor. Valere’s distrust and self-preservation instincts kick in a little and she decides to find a bend up in the rafters to make her bed. Away from the group. It proves fortunate however as when she wakes in the middle of the night to strange noises she has the perfect vantage point from which to see the front door swing open. In steps a half dozen robed figures. Creeping across the rafters and trying not to make a sound the tiefling arrives above them just as they pull wicked curved scimitars from beneath the folds of their robes.

When they move towards the sleeping adventurers Valare drops on top of the stragglers with a high-pitched yell. One cultist lies dead at her feet but the others move quickly as the other heroes begin to wake. Without his armour to protect him Tomi finds himself in a vulnerable position and barely manages to reach his shield in time to interpose it between the falling blade and his vital organs. Close by Granite rolls out from under a cultist’s swing and blinded by fury doesn’t bother to pick up his axe. His fists crash into his attacker’s face and the cultist falls roughly to the floor. Waking quickly from his meditation Atticus joins Valere near the door, his longsword in hand, and the two exchange blows with a couple of cultists. In one corner Fargrim lets out a loud snore, undisturbed by the scuffle. Desperately deflecting blows with his shield and still under his sheets Tomi is relieved when Granite barrels into the side of the cultist standing over him. A tearing noise is heard as the barbarian and his target fly through the thin screen of a wall and land in Old Len’s pristine zen garden. Small stones fly about as the smaller man tries to break free. Inside, Valere and Atticus finish off their opponents with a flourish and move to Granite’s aid. But the barbarian proves strong enough to pin the man to the ground and with a few angry swings of his hands the cultist stops moving.

In a second storey bedroom, halfway across Shale, Chad is sitting in bed, illuminated by the flickering light of the candles scattered around the room. He turns his head to watch the window slowly open and a robed figure vault quietly into the room. A moment later the would-be assassin realises that his quarry is awake and frantically draws his sword. At the same time Chad grabs for his rapier and tries to leap to his feet. Tangled bedsheets slow him down however and he is forced to kick them off. As the cultist moves forward he is caught by the flying fabric and also stumbles. This time a pair of thick candles are knocked over and the sheet quicky catches fire. After taking a quick swipe at the man, Chad pulls a slowly-waking woman from the bed and tells her to run downstairs. He follows her out of the room, but not before picking up his lute.

At the bottom of the stairs he slings his lute over one shoulder and turns, stark naked, to face the attacker. When he appears at the top of the flight his feet are still tangled in burning bedsheets and luck decides to further favour the bard this day. The cultist assassin trips once more and flies headfirst down the stairs. Stunned, prone, and unarmed, Chad offers no mercy and as the man tries to lift his head a sharp blade is thrust into the center of his back.

Stamping out the fire that the man had brought with him Chad returns to the bedroom to retrieve the rest of his belongings. At the front doorway, with the neighbours come out to investigate he turns to the young woman and tells her in a rather loud and conspicuous voice, “It’s too dangerous for me to stay with you. Tell no one what happened here.” Then, with a deep bow he is off to find more secure lodgings with people who can watch his back.

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