Fhezik breathed a sigh of relief when Oakburn came into sight. It was mid-morning. The village still stood and, from what he could tell, the town’s folk were none-the-wiser to the imminent threat of the gnolls out on the plains. With all haste, the party made their way into the Dogrobber Alehouse. Fhezik almost jumped in surprise when he saw Sterling, his feet kicked up on a table, throwing back a tankard of ale. Somehow the ranger had beaten them back to Oakburn even though he had doubled-back earlier that morning to evacuate the halflings at Oddgar’s farm. Across the room, Reeve Cenbald Berg caught Fhezik’s attention. He was sitting by the hearth with his wife, Lyra, and was beckoning them all over to sit at a long table near the fire.
The party took a seat, but the Reeve preferred to remain standing at its head. “Well, did you find anything out here,” he demanded. “Or was all just a bunch of hogwash, like I said?” Alkolis and Beric took turns trying to explain the events of the last two days when the Reeve stopped them short and incredulously questioned their account. “There have been no sightings of hyenas or gnolls in these parts for hundreds of years”, he recounted. “Not since the great Gnoll Wars has any gnoll been seen on the plains”, he reassured them. Feeling the room growing thick with the reeve’s skepticism, Fhezik fumbled in his shirt pocket and produced the amulet he had taken from the gnoll caster.
“Do ye recognize this symbol, sir? It was around the neck of a gnoll gifted in the Arts. A summoner of the dead”, he added for emphasis.
Lyra’s eyes widened and she recoiled in disgust. “Put that away, dwarf, and never brandish it here again! Its presence is foul and of the Abyss. It has no place on this plane.”
Embarrassed over her reaction, Fhezik quickly tucked it back into his shirt pocket and apologized for the offense. He tried to press Lyra for more information, but she would say no more about it. Instead she turned her gaze onto Beric. “Might this have something to do with those experiments you have been helping the wizard, Strythar, with? What has he been working on so secretly these past few months? Speak truly,” she demanded. Beric squirmed under her commanding stare and became visibly nervous. Eventually, he relented under her interrogation and conceded that the dagger they had recovered was thought to be an artifact of Bhaal taken from Baldur’s Gate. Lyra suddenly seemed to grow taller as she drew herself up, an angry fire now flickering behind her eyes. In a controlled tone, she cautioned Beric that it was in his best interest to leave these matters alone. When she pressed as to the whereabouts of the dagger, Beric repeatedly denied that he had possession of the knife and surmised that the wizard must have it locked away somewhere. Staring intently at Beric she made it a point to let him know that she would be visiting the wizard soon and would be looking into the matter personally.
A long silence hung in the air as Fhezik suddenly realized how quiet the room had gotten while everyone was listening to Lyra admonish her son. The reeve cleared his throat to reclaim everyone’s attention and reached into his pocket to produce a formal looking document bearing the wax seal of Graf Horst Bucholtz. Walking around the table behind his son, he clasped him on the shoulder and handed it to Alkolis. “This summons arrived here early yesterday morning. The graf requires your immediate return to Ebenau. It does not specify why. Do mind your manners while in court, won’t you?”
Softening the tone, Lyra addressed each of the brothers in turn and hugged them as they made ready to leave. Taking his face in her hands, she looked Beric in his eyes and tasked him to have a care for the safety of his younger brother. She hugged him one last time and retired upstairs.
“You lads take a moment and get yer fill before hitting the trail again,” shouted One-Armed Jeb as he laid out bowls of stew for everyone. The party heartily wolfed down their portion with Gerki asking for seconds, as usual. Over lunch they discussed the road they would take to Ebenau and agreed to meet on the edge of town in an hour once their affairs were in order.
Fhezik walked briskly through Oakburn’s streets wondering if it would be the last time he would see it so serene. He flashed an unassuming smile at Rita as he passed the stables before turning right and heading toward the Chapel of Yam. He stopped on the front steps and stared at his handiwork. Yam’s handiwork, he corrected himself. Could it really be Yam’s will that all his hard work would simply be washed away by the coming tide of gnolls? He clenched his jaw. No. The gnolls would break around Yam’s Temple like waves crashing on the rocks.
He flung open the doors and headed straight for the altar where a pitcher of salt water he had collected from the sea earlier last week was always waiting. Grasping Yam’s Shell to his chest, he took a moment to mentally prepare himself then rolled up his sleeves. He placed a linen towel over his left arm and poured some of the sea water into a wooden bowl that he had carved from a piece of driftwood. Stooping over the table, he cupped some of the water from the bowl into his right hand. Then, whispering a prayer to Yam for his town’s protection, he brushed the water over his head, letting it run down his neck. He focused on the cool trickles as they made their way under his chain shirt and insinuated themselves along the curves of his body, just as Yam’s presence flows through him, permeating every part of his being. He focused on the smell of the sea, allowing it to clear his head and sharpen his focus. He did this four times, once for each day of the tempest that had first brought him to Yam.
Drying himself, he tidied up the altar and then left the temple, securing the doors behind him. He would be back, he told himself. And the temple would be here when he returned.
Everyone was on edge during the return trip to Ebenau. Under normal conditions Fhezik would have delighted to spend the night under the stars on the plains outside of Oakburn. But, given the circumstances, he was relieved when Sterling brought them to a secluded collection of standing rocks that could afford them some protection during the night. Keeping their fire low, they managed to pass the night without attracting the attention of any wandering bands of gnolls.
It was getting late in the afternoon when the black banners of Ebenau Keep came into view. Everyone paused for a moment to consider the implications. A black banner usually signified that someone important had recently died. However, considering the events of the past few days everyone decided to be cautious, just in case. The streets of Ebenau were quiet with few people moving about the usually busy thoroughfares. Fhezik’s initial suspicions were proven correct when they reached the doors to the keep and were met by two armed guard bearing black armbands. Graf Horst Bucholtz had died suddenly, the guards informed them, and his brother Nico was inside consolidating his power among the other nobles. Fhezik had never met the graf personally, but he had the reputation for being a fair and wise ruler.
Initially, the guards were adamant that they not be allowed to enter, but Alkolis used his considerable charm to cajole their way inside. The grand audience chamber was filled with the local nobles, there to pay homage to the Graf Horst, of course; but, more importantly, to sort out the details of the succession and the futures of their claims. The bickering ceased Alkolis, who was given deference due to his noble heritage, was introduced along with the rest of the party. Approaching Graf Nico, Alkolis introduced himself and began to make their report as per the directive of the late Graf Horst. Even though Sterling and Gerki, both agents of the former graf, supported his claims Nico sneered and challenged both their claims authenticity and motives for making them. Out of frustration, Alkolis bid Fhezik showed the amulet to the graf who readily dismissed it as a mere trinket. Fhezik was getting the impression that the graf was willfully dismissing their claims and would continue to do so despite all evidence. Fortunately, a member of another delegation spoke up, as he recognized the symbol that Fhezik held. The symbol he said was that of Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of Gnolls. At length he described the horrors that Yeenoghu had unleashed on the civilizations of yesteryear. He explained that even the hyenas were hell spawns that they would mutate into fully grown gnolls once they had consumed a mortal’s flesh. Still, the new graf could not be convinced. In a fit of anger Alkolis lashed out at the stubborn graf telling him of the dire consequences of ignoring their warnings; but, the graf was not to be cowed. He dismissed the party, ignoring their pleas for aid.
Fhezik wondered how a man whose task was to keep his people safe could be so obtuse. Regardless, he would see to the protection of his own town. So he prepared to head back to Oakburn at first light.
As they emerged from the keep they realized that the sun had set while they had been inside wasting their breath pleading with the pompous new graf. For a moment they walked in silence, feeling aimless. Everything that they had witnessed, all the dangers they had shared, would bear no fruit. Without the graf’s intervention, the communities would not be prepared and each would eventually fall under the coming tide of slaughtering gnolls.
But such was not Yam’s will. For just when things seemed their bleakest, a friendly hand was offered to them. A shadowy figured emerged from a nearby alley and bid them to counsel with him. Though he was cloaked, Fhezik could tell the man carried himself with a proud, noble bearing. For his part, Fhezik did not feel threatened and took the stranger’s offer as an act of Yam’s divine intervention in their plight. Leading them down a narrow alley, he approached a heavy, iron-bound wooden door, opened it, spilling a blue light into the street, and motioned for them to enter.
Inside, the otherwise cold room had an eerie beauty. Radiant blue light spilled over the marble floors, illuminating an elegant red carpet that flowed across the simple rectangular room and ended at an altar at which stood a gnome propped on an ornate staff. Atop that staff was the source of the blue light, a luminous blue gem that chased the shadows away. The large gentlemen who had escorted them inside crossed the room and, pulling back his cowl, revealed him to be a half-orc, as he turned to face the party by the gnome’s side. Bright plate mail revealed him to be a paladin, but it was the symbol around his neck that intrigued Fhezik. A plate gauntlet grasping a sword by the blade was instantly recognizable to Fhezik and could only mean that these men were members of the Order of the Gauntlet. A collaborative organization that brought together members from various good factions with only one purpose, to confront and combat evil wherever and whenever it arose. Fhezik felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He knew these men were here to help.
The gnome did most of the talking. He introduced himself as Bertic the Wise, and his companion was Brother Maynard. They were the representatives of the Order here in Ebenau and they were gravely concerned. The sudden, recent upset in the political order had put them on edge; but, more pressingly, they recognized and understood the looming threat that the gnolls posed. Knowing that they were too few to attack the gnolls directly, they instead proposed a more subtle offensive. Northeast, in the edges of the Reaching Woods laid Fang Cave, an ancient holy site for the gnolls. Though they did not know if the gnolls had reclaimed the site yet, they were confident that the site still contained many holy relics that could empower the gnolls and bolster their ranks. The Order’s wishes were simple. Find Fang Cave, kill any gnolls that were found there, and return with the holy artifacts. At all costs, these items must be kept out of the hands of the gnolls. To this end, the Order wished to employ Fhezik and his companions.
At first, Fhezik found himself reluctant. To his mind, they should be preparing to defend the local communities from the coming attacks. Oakburn could not withstand an assault, not without aid. If they travelled to the Reaching Woods, they would be too far away to lend any type of realistic help should the gnolls attack. Bertic quieted his frustrations by explaining again that they were too few to stop a full-scale assault and that their best interventions would be to hurt the gnolls behind the scenes. Fhezik never considered himself much of a tactician so he placed his faith in Yam’s wisdom and adhered to Bertic’s advice.
Bertic unfurled a map onto a nearby table and bid Sterling to study it with him. For a few minutes they discussed and plotted a quick, but safe route to the general known location of Fang Cave. Meanwhile, Brother Maynard gave each person a small pouch containing fifty gold coins each as a measure of their good faith. With their course plotted and their plans made, everyone settled in to get some much needed rest. They would depart just before dawn.
Though they were already exhausted from a long day’s journey, they decided it was best to push on into the night. The route here had not been as easy as they had assumed it would be and Sterling was growing visibly aggravated by all of the obstacles that kept appearing on their path. Despite the hardship, they all agreed that it would be best to get this task accomplished as quickly as possible. For his part, Fhezik did not like the idea of delaying for even a single hour if it could be helped. Throughout their journey, his mind had repeatedly drifted back to the inhabitants of Oakburn. He feared for their safety and he would not be able to forgive himself if something happened to them while he was away.
An hour after sunset, the forest’s edge came into view. Never knowing who might be watching, everyone moved forward cautiously. Once safely under the canopy of the old trees, Sterling and Gerki slinked into the underbrush to search out the entrance to Fang Cave while the rest waited quietly in the dark. It was not long before they returned and, in hushed whispers, informed everyone that the entrance to the cave was not very far away, but that there were gnolls guarding its entrance that had to be dealt with first. Both Sterling and Gerki felt that the party had a good chance of sneaking up on and killing the sentries quickly without alerting anyone who might be lurking inside the cave.
Sneaking up to the cave’s entrance went about as well as they had come to expect. Between Tungdil’s grumbling, Deus Vult’s clanking armor, and Fhezik getting his beard caught in the underbrush they might as well have sent a herald ahead to trumpet their arrival. Fortunately for them, the gnolls had grown lax in their duties and were still caught relatively unaware when the party burst into the clearing. Both Tungdil and Deus Vult charged headlong at the gnolls on the far side of the camp neutralizing any threat that their longbows may have held. Having learned a hard lesson regarding the power of those longbows at their last encounter, Fhezik channeled Yam’s will and placed a fog cloud between his companions and the remaining gnolls. At the very least, its obscuring effects would make shooting at his friends and he very difficult, if not impossible.
The battle that ensued was quick and bloody. Gerki struck first, skewering the nearest gnoll before he even knew the halfling was there. With unparalleled skill, Sterling loosed an arrow through the obscuring cloud that found its mark in the heart of a gnoll. Tungdil flew into a blind rage and swung his ax with reckless abandon at the nearest gnoll. His wild swing hit home, hewing the gnoll in two from his right shoulder and exiting at his left thigh. Deus Vult wounded a gnoll that attempted to flee into the cave, only to have it felled moments later by another well-aimed shot from Sterling. Beric wove his magic and the hyenas fell unconscious. Fhezik had engaged the last gnoll, but his hammer could not find its mark. Despite this and seeing his companions fall in combat, the remaining gnoll fled for the cave’s entrance only to unceremoniously fall prone from Beric’s well-placed Grease spell. With the gnoll prostrate on the ground, Tungdil had no problem quickly dispatching him.
Everyone took a moment to catch their breath. For the most part, his companions had come through the melee relatively unharmed. More importantly, no one inside the cave seemed any-the-wiser that they were there.
The entrance to Fang Cave was framed by the ancient, gnarled roots of a mighty oak tree that had grown into the modest rise of a hillside. Fhezik could smell its damp, earthiness as he approached the entrance beneath the tree. Placing a hand on a clump of tangled roots, Fhezik squinted as he peered deep into the tunnel. His gut told him that something was down there even though his darkvision could not see it. Looking over his shoulder at the others, he steeled himself and stepped into the cave.
Revelations: Graf Horst Bucholtz is dead and his brother Nico has assumed the lordship. The Order of the Gauntlet is secretly operating in Ebenau and they are keeping an eye on both the new graf and the emerging gnoll threat.
Mysteries Solved: The symbol is that of Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of the Gnolls.
Mysteries: How did Graf Horst die? What is his brother’s, Nico, agenda? What is the Order of the Gauntlet doing in Ebenau? What will everyone find in Fang Cave? Is the Dagger of Bhaal in anyway tied in to these situations?
New Allies: Bertic the Wise and Brother Maynard of the Order of the Gauntlet.
Rewards: 185 xp; 50 gold (From the Order the Gauntlet); 1 point of Inspiration.