After their dealings with the dryad, they returned to the village, having wrapped the bodies of the fallen Reachmen in some old blankets to take back for a proper funeral.
Earl Ragnar was most pleased with their performance these past few days. He went over their situation with them one more time and said with regret that he has great respect for the Returners, he could not spare many men with the looming threat of winter. He promised to send a small envoy south to Nikeah help out with security at the camps and to deliver a message to Jarl Albrook regarding his failed responsibility to the northern communities.
He was proud of the steps his son had taken while in their company. He encouraged the group to take Bjorn as a guide through the Reaches to investigate the two keeps in search of the bandits and missing people. This would be his first winter not in a camp to the south and thus an important experience for him, should he ever hope to be the leader of the tribe.
Bjorn, though young, has traveled through the Reaches before and knows the two keeps well enough to get the Returners there. His impetuous nature and unfaltering bravery almost got him killed on the hunt, so the group felt it would be best keep their eyes on him. His uncle Fenrar stressed that if the boy didn’t return to Kattegat, neither should the party.
Paryl bid the Returners good luck on theirr journey west. He said it was with great fortune and the will of Desna that you all met and could help these people (and creatures!) in need. He couldn’t have consecrated the tree and dryad without the assistance. He claimed he would research the runes/altar at his first convenience.
The party left Kattegat as the funeral pyres burned for the dead Reachmen. There was little time to waste as it wass already afternoon and Bjorn hoped to get the group past the area where the hobgoblins were defeated, and to a waystation for the night.
The waystation was a hunter’s cabin used by many a Reachman and considered a respected sanctuary. It was on the way to this cabin when winter finally came; as promised by the people of Kattegat. The world went white as the snow fell harder and harder, and the temperature dropped as they rode. With the decreased visibility, Bjorn struggled a bit to navigate the path there. All footprints where covered and it was difficult to see obelisks or other trail marking devices. Redden spoke up and offered his assistance. Bjorn explained what he was looking for and with the extra help found the path, and not a moment too soon. Already, the cold was affecting the party and could soon affect their horses.
Just as the group was about to lose all faith in Bjorn’s guidance, by late afternoon the faint outline of the cabin could be seen between the opening of trees. The snow was falling in a full blizzard now, making sight a bit difficult. The wind blowing through the valley and trees is loud and harsh, a night with shelter seemed most promising.
As they approached the door they noticed a body on the porch. The roof above kept most of the snow off of it, but it would seem that a trap had been sprung as this man attempted to get into the cabin. The group investigated further and set off a poorly concealed net trap from above. Bjorn was furious and was sure that it could only be hobgoblins that would violate the sanctity of the waystation. They marched around the cabin looking for signs of people and found little to show that anyone was around. Eventually, after a lengthy check around the cabin, Christian spotted a man attempting to hide in a tree. Christian and Bjorn pointed their blades and shields at him, demanding he come out. “I’m not a hobgoblin!” he explained, and upon exiting from the tree he and Bjorn recognized each other.
They found a place to hide and huddle up their horses for the night and then settled in to the cabin for shelter from the storm. The place was a mess, with Anatole stating that the hobgoblins must have spent the night before their botched attack on Kattegat. Bjorn was once again furious and began cleaning and rearranging the place so that it could be used again by his people. He couldn’t believe the disrespect shown. They found a book of “unremarkable” poems (as it was defaced to say) about the reaches. Anatole’s keen intellect made some sense out of a cryptic poem referring to a Stone Sinister, assuming it to be the Hand they would visit tomorrow. The group ate and drank by the fire talking and getting to know each other before heading to bed. The storm kept away all predators that night, allowing them a peaceful rest.
During the night, Redden dreamed of a collosal white stag with birds flying around its antlers. Not a fully devoted follower of Erastil in the same way his friend Gwyn was, Redden couldn’t completely understand the significance of the imagery of his dream. The birdman of Kattegat had told him to look for the signs as he got closer to his promised companion.
The next morning they set off for “The Hand” after a bowl of Northern Reaches oatmeal prepared by Bjorn, who had also taken the liberty to cut more wood for the next occupants. Redden attempted to call to the birds in the sky along the way, but didn’t make any progress. The birds were free and felt no compulsion to meet this strange man calling to them.
Once again, it was by afternoon that they had reached their next destination. “The Stone Sinister” as it was referred to in the book of poems, was made of pale stone and stood 100 feet tall at its highest point. Birds circled above its reaching fingers. Redden had a flash of the white stag from his dream. Could this be the place? A pair of doors were visible: one at the base, and the other by the thumb 40 feet up. A sign at the base stated that this was a historical preservation site and closed for the season by order of King Steven Deschain. The door was locked and just as Redden decided he should pick the lock, a loud shriek was heard from above.
Where the thumb met the hand stood a monstrous amalgam of an owl and a bear that had clawed its way to the spot in hopes of eating some birds and eggs. It stood tall with white feathers, broad shoulders, and long sharp claws. Later perusal of the monster manual would reveal that these “owlbears” were apex predators that eat just about anything they find. A falcon attempted to fight back the owl as the party fired arrows and bolts at the beast trying to get its attention. The beast took one strong swat at the bird and grabbed and crushed it with its claws before digging the other set of claws into the stone and sliding down about halfway before dropping next to the party. The party attacked it with all they had, Christian even took an arm off. Loquar’s pair of summoned celestial eagles finished the job, almost poetically. Unfortunately for the falcon, the party was too late to stabilize the bird. It was dead. Shock befell them all, as Redden was sure he had lost a companion before they had even met.
“Maybe there’s an egg?” Loquar asked rhetorically and before Redden could properly react to these words, another shriek could be heard from above. The ranger set back to picking the lock and entering the giant hand in front of them, determined to climb up and investigate the thumb.
On the first floor they found nothing in the dark but an artist’s rendition of King Grieg chiseled from obsidian, and a maintenance closet; though they could swear they were being watched. Their Returner badges proved quite useful in illuminating the near pitch black of the rooms. There were no windows in the hand, just the occasional crack.
They climbed to the second floor and found a sleeping area, common area, and kitchen for the maintenance workers. Nothing had been touched or used for some time, and yet in the kitchen they found the table covered in desserts and a big, delicious looking cake. This was suspicious to say the least and with some prodding and some eye rubbing they determined it to be an illusion set to cover up the threat of an ochre jelly coming out from under the table. These slimy monsters come from the underground and find their way into the strangest of places due to their ability to slip through cracks much smaller than their size.
Christian and Redden steadied themselves to fight. Christian said to avoid blades as they would cause the slime to split, and thus dropped his scimitar. Redden smashed with his hammer, and while Christian’s advice to not use blades on such creatures was sound, the dual nature of his own weapons caused the slime to split into two with each hit.
The others mostly looked on, the confined space and limitation of bludgeoning weapons made it difficult for them to combat. Loquar saw to it to fire eldritch blasts of green light from his hands in assistance while the others assisted in whatever way they could to bolster their allies. Christian was caught once by the slamming tendrils of the slime, it’s acid burned his flesh but not his equipment. He cursed at the misfortune and braced himself to fight on. His luck went from bad to worse as something had caused his sword to float in the air and swing around in circles in the common room. “Not today,” Loquar lamented. “Sorry guys, this might be me. I wouldn’t worry about the sword though.” The party was confused by these words but had no choice but to fight on.
The slime was gradually weakened and split with subsequent attacks. Lance and Anatole saw the sword float by them and out of the room. Having reached the second floor, Bjorn failed to grab the sword as it flew into the sleeping room. He was then surprised as the bearskin rug got up and looked poised to attack and even roared. Anatole could hear laughter from behind the bear skin. Bjorn shouted out and struck at “the bear” with his axe, eventually knocking it to the ground as the others finished off the jelly. Anatole made his way into the sleeping room with Bjorn and managed to take back Christian’s scimitar from whatever was holding it. He heard a “Hey!” and then felt a faint touch as something flew past him. He saw, in his mind’s eye, an image of a pig man holding a sword above a rabbit. Christian and Anatole felt and saw similar images, though without the sword. Whatever they were facing had escaped down to the first floor and likely outside.
The dangers gone, this allowed the party to explore the rest of the hand, finding a pantry on the second floor with some dried good and cheap wine. The third floor had barrels marked “sealant” and had locked doors at both ends of a long hall. One was the exit towards the thumb and the other lead to the foreman’s office.
Redden picked another lock, heading out to the thumb where he saw that it was hollowed out and contained a nest. A female peregrine falcon looked sullen as all her eggs had been crushed and her mate was gone. Her entire family was taken by the owlbear. Redden drank a disgusting potion given to him by The Birdman of Kattegat, and wasn’t sure what to expect when all of a sudden he could understand what the bird was saying. To his friends, he was chirping and squawking back and forth with this bird, but to him he was bonding. He felt deep inside himself a connection to this bird, much like he had heard from Gwyn, clerics of Erastil, and the Birdman. It all made sense to him now. He and this beautiful, dark feathered falcon would be inseparable. He named her “Blackfeather.”
Having been a little confused by Redden’s situation, Anatole and Christian went to the office. Anatole picked the lock and Christian investigated a desk inside. A work journal went over the importance of sealing the cracks so slime wouldn’t get in. The foreman also noted that the feywood nearby looked like it was getting bigger this year. In a drawer, Christian found a spyglass and a stone tile. From examination he could see that it was like a puzzle piece. From observing how Bjorn’s hair moved from a strange wind, Christian found a place to put the tile and opened a secret door. It lead to another ladder, this time up the middle finger.
At the finger tip was a roost of birds that flew off as he entered. He looked out the various openings, and used the spy glass to try to find the keeps. He called up Bjorn for further assistance. Bjorn found both keeps easily enough as both had smoke rising from fires. Someone was at both locations. He said that the closer keep was “Horseshoe Keep” and upon focused inspection was damaged and had about 6 tents outside but could not get an exact reading of how many people where there. The other keep, a taller one, had its roof barely standing above some trees in the distance. Nothing beyond the fire could show people where there. Bjorn went on to say there was a history of men fighting between the two keeps before and Horseshoe Keep wasn’t in as good of condition as Clover Keep. He also said the he preferred Clover Keep as a child as it had interesting secret passages much like the one in the hand. Bjorn found a silver pendant amongst the various shiny objects in the roost while Christian did a more thorough search of the Reaches along with Redden. They saw the tell-tale bended trees of a fey wood just behind the hand. In the fading light they saw small bodies fighting a giant in the planes at the center of the Reaches. The Sabre Mountains were to the north, the assumed destination of the other Returner group. To the south was Nikeah, which was barely visible in the distance.
The group left the hand and were immediately confronted by a goat that said “BAAAAD!” before hopping off toward the fey wood. This solidified a plan to camp away from this area. They found a secluded area, protected from wind and sight. They set up their camp and sat down at the fire, ready for a much needed talk. Loquar might finally have to open up about his powers, and pressure was once again put on Christian to speak of his own past. Perhaps their new ally, Anatole, would have something interesting to say as well.