Ranza (Changeling 4)
Jonesomon (Specialist 5)
Gnarl (Wood Gnome 5)
Hobbs (Hedgefey 4)
Gnarl (Wood Gnome 5)
Hobbs (Hedgefey 4)
Thrax (Fighter 3)
After once more weighing options on how best to proceed, the party opted to continue on with the original plan. They would advance up the east side of the valley and (hopefully) get to Fortress Iacarta with minimal delay and trouble. Gathering up their gear, they moved out and followed the trail back into the forest. By early afternoon, they could see looming over the trail ahead a bare spur of rocky hillside. Getting closer, Jonesomon and Thrax started to hear faint and sporadic moans emanating from the direction of the spur. Nervous about walking below the face of the hill, they filed back into the trees and climbed up the flank of the hill. Once there, they could see the top of the spur was flat and rocky with just patches of rough grass and stunted shrubs, about a quarter mile across, . And in the centre they could see a rectangular slab of white rock. The moaning continued to rise and fall, but when they stepped out of the woods and onto the bare ground, the moaning stopped and instead a brisk wind picked up, blowing down off the mountains. Approaching the stone, they could see it was covered in writing. Specifically, it was almost completely covered in names, in a wide range of languages, styles and hand writing. Reading a few of the names out loud brought back the moaning, momentarily and faint. While Ranza wrote down a few of the most recent names (to ask Mikan about these people, or others they may meet later on), Thrax used his whip to rappel up the stone. The top was flat (and name free), and from there he could finally see the rest of the valley and Fortress Iacarta clinging to a mountain face at the northern end of the valley. Climbing back down, Thrax decided on a whim to carve his name into the rock. Gnarl followed, and both felt a surge of inner strength from potential damnation [permanent +2 save vs any curse]. But they also felt a deep icy dagger plunged in the depths of their souls, giving warning the gift was likely not without some eventual cost.
By this time, everyone felt a need to get away from the stone and the bleak plateau. They climbed back down to the trail and continued north towards the head of the valley and the Fortress. The rest of the afternoon passed without incident, at least until the sun started to dip low behind the hills and dusk began to fall. Keeping their eyes open for a campsite for the night, they spied a small glade ahead. Hobbs, scouting ahead called the column to a halt; he could see something in the clearing. He and Jonesomon crept forward for a closer work, and spied four human figures. They were dressed in crude furs and rough cloth, and were clustered around something hanging from a tree branch. One moved aside, and they could now see there were two naked human bodies hanging head down from the branch. Both had had their throats cut and were now bleeding out on the ground; and one of the standing men held a bloody knife in his hand. Outraged, Hobbs mounted Hoppy and loped into the clearing, sword raised high. The four men turned to face the threat, and each suddenly transformed into a wolf headed humanoid and charged forward. The rest of the party arrived in the clearing, and Gnarl cast entagle to trap one of the wolf skinchangers. Thrax and Ranza ran up to join Hobbs, weapons drawn. Jonesomon followed once he was satisfied there was no one coming up behind them. A short tough fight followed, by the end of which three skinchangers were dead, leaving just the entangled one to deal with. He was in some sort of berserk rage, but when questioned revealed they were sacrificing the hanging men to the Earth Mother, letting their blood feed the earth. Questioned further, the party learned the men were somehow 'created' by the power of the Earth Mother, but no details of the process were forthcoming. Done with questions, they finished off this last skin changer and then burned the bodies. They likewise cut down the two hanging bodies and burned them separately. From each of the skin changers Gnarl recovered from around their neck a wolf's tooth on a leather thong. In a pile nearby, the party found the gear stripped from the hanging men; general travelling gear, light armor and weapons. There as also a leather satchel with a bit of silver coinage and a gem studded belt buckle.
Though it was late, no one wanted to sleep in this clearing which now seemed more haunted than the wind swept tor. They pushed on a short distance and found a perfect camping spot just on the edge of the trees. As they were setting up camp, they also discovered signs that someone had stayed here before, and fairly recently. A search deeper into the woods recovered a body, badly mangled and partly eaten, with it's head missing. Nearby was a backpack with some typical travel gear, as well as a spell book and 5 jars of bring colored pigment. Though this discovery was somewhat troubling, the party decided to take a chance and stay here for the night after all. They learned the error of their ways when, shortly after everyone else was asleep, Ranza on watch was surprised by a sudden assault from the darkness by a pack of wolves, lead by a huge dire wolf. She backed away and prepared to defend herself, screaming at the party who slowly started to stir awake. She was further shocked when the large dire wolf opened his mouth and spat three magic missiles at her! Badly wounded from this and several wolf bites, the changeling stumbled back beyond the fire to guzzle potions of healing while the rest of the party started to enter the fray. While Gnarl and Jonesomon fought off the smaller wolves who attacked them, Hobbs and Thrax tried to even the odds by focusing on the dire wolf. Hobbs tried to have Hoppy catch the wolf with his sticky tongue and pull the animal into the fire. This was unsuccessful, so Thrax used a gust of wind from his new sword to blow the flames towards the dire wolf and his companions, setting both of them alight for a short time. The dire wolf then called up a mirror image to make it more difficult to target, but in the end the combined power of the party slew the dire wolf and four of the others, the one remaining wounded animal running off into the darkness.
With their blood now up, the party decided to pursue. Gnarl had no trouble following the trail left by the wounded wolf, and after some hours cornered it in a sheltered spot under the trees. He cast speak with animals to question the creature. Asking first about the wolves den (and any treasure therein), he was disappointed to receive a negative answer. He learned little more about the strange dire wolf, just that the others followed him as he was the alpha male. Asked about the wolf skinchangers, the wounded animal denied any connection. In fact, the men who became skinchangers would capture wolves to then fight in their rituals by which they became skinchangers. These rituals took place in a nearby cave, the Pit of the Skinchangers.
Finished questioning, Gnarl released the wolf with an admonishment to not hunt men again. The party then set up their second camp of the night, heading down over the hill a little way in case the Pit was truly that close by. The rest of the night passed without incident, and all slept well except Thrax and Gnarl. Thrax had been kept awake half the night by dreams of being chained to the white pillar on the hill while being bathed in wine by headless nymphs. Gnarl meanwhile dreamed he too was chained to the rock, but in his case was being devoured by golden hawks. Neither felt rested at all, and in fact Gnarl was unable to think clearly enough to bring fresh magic into his mind.
Gem studded belt buckle [200sp]
1 Gem [25sp]
5 jars of pigment [5x15sp]
Spell Book: 1/Spider Climb 1/Magic Missile 1/Mirror Image 2/Continual Light 3/Dispel Magic
4 Wolf Skinchangers
4 Wolf Skinchangers
1 Enchanted Dire Wolf