The fleeing heroes’ feet struck the dry, hard-packed earth in a rapid staccato beat as they worked to distance themselves from the Sacred Stone monastery. Quaf darted overhead, reporting both on what lay ahead, and what pursued from behind. Before long, the shambling mass of recently rescued slaves came into view.
The two groups collided with multiplied urgency. Many of the High Forest monks and their friends did what they could to assist the slower-moving townsfolk. It quickly became clear that they would not be able to outrun their pursuers. Someone mentioned that the Feathergale Society seemed to be enemies of the Sacred Stone monks, and quoting the old “enemy of my enemy” adage, suggested seeking their aid.
“On it.” Quaf replied without hesitation. Beating his wings hard, he lept into the air and quickly shrank to a speck on the horizon.
Now less one defender, the group quickly took stock of their surroundings and laid their plans. Sun called on his inner powers, obscuring the group’s passage, while Crith directed them in using the landscape to their advantage. Tamael saw to the wounded, while Gora and Gurdis prepared to defend them.
Hidden from view in the folds of the landscape, they heard the evil monks pass close enough to hear their breathing. Remarkably, the group remained silent and concealed, and the monks moved away. After a seemingly endless wait, they concluded that they were finally safe to rest – even if only briefly.
Rest, however, was yet to be had.
The ground trembled, sending dust into the air and everyone scrambling for footing. Suddenly the ground exploded, and two enormous insects burst through the crust of the earth, immediately rending with claws and sending corrosive spittle flying.
In the center of the confusion, an earthen-armor-clad warrior astride a bullette burst free of the earth, landing atop three of the former slaves. The rider proceeded to methodically skewer each of the fallen townsfolk with a long, wicked spear.
Furiously they fought against their burrowing foes. Crith attempted to knock the rider from his mount, but the man seemed to be able to root himself and become unmovable.
In the end, the creatures were defeated, but at a cost. Several of the freed slaves now lay dead – victims of a horrible and painful end.
A few hours later, the party managed to patch up the most severe of their wounds and regain some of their strength. Quaf returned with a pair of Feathergale Knights riding giant vultures. The townsfolk were anxious and apprehensive, but were reassured that the knights were on their side. When asked if they would bring the people to safety, they grinned and agreed perhaps a bit too readily.
They then made their way to the river, giving the monastery a wide berth. After deliberating on whether or not they could cross the river, they decided to make camp, then head north to the Stone Bridge in the morning.
At the end of his watch, Crith was surprised to find a suit of armor standing just out of arm’s reach, staring at him. The armor followed them as they began travelling to Beliard.
Along the way, they encountered a group of dwarven miners, who were returning from a pilgrimage to the Stone Bridge. They told the humans and their friends how Moradin himself had appeared on that bridge to rally the dwarves of the Ironstar clan against a horde of orcs. And how the founder of Besilmer – the ancient dwarven empire that previously spanned this region – King Torhild Flametongue died while battling a hill giant atop the Stone Bridge. They said that it is rumored that King Flametongue is buried beneath the Halls of the Hunting Axe, though despite numerous attempts to find his tomb, none have ever found it.
Gora’s eyes glitter, and she mouths the word ‘treasure’ excitedly to Gurdis, who sniffs his armpits and shrugs in response.
The Stone Bridge is a massive archway of smooth, fused granite – two miles long and four hundred feet high – spanning the Dessarin River. At only six paces wide, with no railings, all but Quaf (who dove and flew circles around the narrow bridge) crossed warily. Though all stopped to admire the breathtaking view of the valley.
Evening fell as they arrived in the village of Beliard, a pleasant-looking place an abundance of trees. They put up for the night at an inn named “The Watchful Knight.” Upon reading the sign, they all looked back at the mysterious suit of armor that had been following Crith all day.
The inn was full of rough-looking (though friendly enough) mercenaries and cattle drivers, and smelled strongly of leather and sweat. Gora interrogated the barkeep, and learned that the man she was looking for, Quanderil, was known to operate a keelboat on the river. She and her companions also heard more rumors of buried treasure in the old dwarven ruins of the Halls of the Hunting Axe, though they were warned to avoid the place – there’ve been reports of strange creatures, and many treasure-hungry adventurers have quested there and never returned.
The next day, despite the warnings, the group decided to investigate these ominous dwarven ruins. They were roughly along the way to Summit Hall, and the group was confident they could handle any creepy creatures and ancient curses they might encounter.
Arriving at the ruins, they were less than impressed. Piles of broken stones divided by gaps that were once roads or gardens sprawled around what was once a great structure. Though the evidence of its former glory was reduced to the tooth-like foundations of its sturdiest walls. At the center they found the remnants of a large building. Shards of stained glass still hung desperately to the crumbling walls. A massive dome once topped the structure, but had since collapsed.
The building had four entrances – one on each face – leading to a narrow, winding staircase down into the earth. At the bottom of each set of stairs, they found a nearly identical set of machinery. A large stone flywheel connected to a series of gears leading off into the wall and floor, where the rest of the mechanism was concealed. On the ceiling of each of these rooms was a different symbol. They recognized the symbol used by the earth cultists at the sacred stone monastery, and deduced that the others were symbols of the other elements.
Seeing the mechanism, Gora pushed forward. “Finally! I was born to solve puzzles like this.” After some investigation and experimentation, she and the group discovered the same elemental symbols carved into the flywheel, and how to make the wheel turn. They thought to align the symbol on the wheel to match the one on the ceiling, but the wheel would spring back to its original position as soon as someone let go.
The group split, someone going to each room, and simultaneously aligned the symbols in each room. As they did, a distant grinding and clicking could be heard. Each group still needed to prevent the wheels from springing back, though. Someone noticed a hole in the wheel itself, and wedged a climbing piton into it to lock the wheel in place. Spreading the news, the others did likewise.
Confident that they had solved the mechanical riddle, they set off to explore the grounds and were drawn to a cavernous structure built into a bluff.
Two alcoves flanked the entrance, each with a life-sized dwarven statue of an honor guard wearing full regalia. The statues must have once been impressive works of art, but had been badly weathered and vandalized over the years, and were now just barely recognizable for what they were.
The opening leads back to a hallway extending sixty feet back into the darkness, where it then turned into a staircase. There was a landing every twenty feet. At each landing was a stone brazier. As they went to light the brazier, all of the braziers burst to life, washing the room in a cool light from heatless, blue flame.
At the end of the staircase, the room opened into a great hall filled with massive, square columns reaching all the way to the thirty-foot-high ceiling. Each column had an alcove carved into one half of each face. The alcoves contained tombs carved into stone effigies of the interred dead. Many of these tombs were broken open, exposing the bones of the dead within. The broken shards of the tombs littered the floor, crunching underfoot as the party began exploring the ancient tomb.