Tee, Athao, Rael, Arturia and myself set out to the Northwest of our camp, aiming to reach the marked ruins of Melia within a day’s travel or so. The forest was primeval and thick, and would have proved slow going if not for Athao’s mastery of travel in overgrowth. We made good time for the first morning, but in the early afternoon we noticed that the sounds of the woodland animals had faded away entirely. Indeed, the woods grew unnaturally quiet.
Athao started testing the dirt and the vegetation for signs of humanoids. Finding none were nearby, as he had throughout our trip, we pushed ahead slightly. Tee and Athao were the first to hear in the distance a faint buzzing, and Athao soon realized it sounded similar to the buzzing on the pile of gnoll corpses we had found at the Temple of Sehanine Moonbow.
I volunteered myself as the vanguard to check out what was making the noise, as I had my trusty steed and figured I could outrun most things to lead them back to the group. Everyone else concealed themselves in the underbrush and stayed some feet behind, but approached the source of the noise in tandem with my scouting effort.
I came to an area with vines on the trees which reminded me of the Shriekvine tendrils. Just ahead, I saw a huge tree with clear signs of disease and blight upon it. And then, at the edge of my vision through the undergrowth, I saw the source of the noise – surely enough, a pile of dead bloated with flies. I wheeled Mara, my steed, about – I wanted to tell the others what I had found. But no sooner did I turn than the forest itself laid siege to our party!
The green vines in the canopy proved worthy of note after all – they were each the arms of some shambling plant creature! Similarly, the nearby bushes came to some semblance of life and lept at myself and Athao, who had snuck too close to make some passing remark. And as if that was not dire enough, the large tree uprooted itself and lumbered towards us, shaking the earth as it walked.
Athao was immediately entangled by one of the vine-shamblers, but Tee lept through the woods at a speed truly marvelous to me, landing at Athao’s side to assist him. Arturia set off some magical fire and then took on her infamous ursine form, charing into danger headlong to save Athao and myself from our indiscretion. Rael provided support from afar, discharging bolt after bolt from his heavy crossbow into this fiendish foliage. And I laid into the horde of shrubberies, cleaving them apart with my trusty greatsword (and some help from Mara’s stout hooves).
We were on fairly even footing with the greenery for some seconds, when it became plain that the blighted oak would be upon us imminently. While Arturia, Athao, and Tee helped each other break free from vines and fight off the shamblers, I goaded Mara to dash towards the looming danger. We ran straight at it, and I tried to cure the tree of disease, calling upon Tyr’s power to restore it to its best health. Sadly, this proved ineffective, and I was forced to smite the tree from this world with two mighty blows, lest its blows fall upon my entangled companions.
We dispatched the rest of the peculiar plants, and then made sure to immolate the pile of corpses in case the decay had played into whatever was blighting the land. In studying the tree, I recalled a tale from the south of a tree with a similar animus – one which had gained its blight because a Vampyr had been staked into its trunk, and his blood seeped into the roots through the earth. While none of the assailants bore the stench of undeath, it is worth considering that perhaps vampirism is one of the dangers of this land, or perhaps this tree stemmed from a seed from the one in the legend.
After dispatching the blight, we carried on Northwest after a short respite for recovery. Thanks again to Athao, we made Melia with an hour left til dusk. However, it became immediately apparent that we had a situation very different from the one we had planned for – the ruins of Melia were already occupied.
Melia lies on the “south” side of the river which bisects Norundra. I caveat “south” because the river actually runs north-south for this small portion of land, which puts Melia on the East side of this river segment. Melia appears to have been a town with a keep of some note in its time, but like all High Elven architecture we’ve yet encountered, it lies in disrepair after some countless years of abandonment.
Melia’s main town has been reclaimed by the primal forests, with no houses or huts remaining – but the Keep is still largely intact, although it’s certainly seen better days. There is a large hole in the keep’s southern-facing wall, and the portcullis seems to be stuck open and perhaps inoperable.
Across the river about 600 yards lies a clearing of destroyed forest, used for lumber. An industrious contingent of Hobgoblins has taken residence there – Athao estimated there to be 300 of them within 5 miles, with an unknown number presumably on patrols not within his detection radius. A party member with great knowledge of Hobgoblins related that they are tyrannically dedicated to order and the concept of “The Legion”. Further, they operate in large groups with regimented tactics, such as shield walls defending pikemen or archers.
Camp Hob, as I’ll call it for now, had a number of wooden rafts moored in the river on the West bank. They were employed cutting down trees and seemingly sending them downstream – perhaps they were supplying some Orcish construction effort, or perhaps there is a larger outpost of Hobgoblins downstream from Camp Hob. But of particular note to us, one of those rafts was moored on the East bank – and Athao managed to intuit that about 25 humanoids were in the ruins of Melia, between us and our goal.
With daylight dimming and fatigue at a high after our strenuous travel, we decided to make camp before trying to sneak into Melia Keep. Arturia asked a bird about where the Hobgoblins tended to patrol, and he revealed with some coaxing that there was an area north of Melia where patrols did not reach. We made a plan to loop around the ruins and push North until we lost daylight, where we would make camp.
Tee volunteered to gather some more information about patrols and numbers of enemies while the rest of us traveled far out of sight of Melia to avoid any chance of tipping the Hobgoblin horde off. He vanished from sight mere feet from us as soon as the plan was hatched – his ability to conceal himself in shadows proving truly impressive.
Sans Tee, the four of us did as we said and traveled north for an hour, finding some great tree canopy cover to shelter ourselves. It was fortuitous that our shelter was well-made, too, as Norundra’s weather turned hostile – dropping the temperature to something frigid and greeting us with 30 mile-an-hour winds as the night grew darker. Unfortunately Tee was unable to find our camp, as we had ourselves concealed a little too well – but Athao did track him down and helped him to find it. Whereupon he immediately made what he called a “princess camp”, a ritual I understand not at all. But to each their own!
I wish I could report the night uneventful, but during the end of the first watch, Arturia was attempting to speak with Mara and grew bewildered by Mara’s noncompliance with her ritual. Mara whinnied a bit and shook her head out in the darkness, but since she could not speak with Arturia, she chimed her voice into my head instead. “My lord!” the horse intoned, “I think I see something just over there!”
We all awakened a bit and looked around, but none of us saw anything. I instructed Mara to awaken me if she saw whatever it was again, but since Athao saw no humanoids and I no undead, fiends, or celestials, we returned to just our standard watch.
Second watch was Athao and myself. This was when the wind reached 30 miles per hour. I noticed something strange though – there were no clouds in the sky, and this wind just felt “off” to me. I walked some paces out of camp, to see if the wind affected just us or if it was truly a weather phenomenon. Unfortunately for me, the Ettercap had been waiting for just such a time.
It struck me without any warning or provocation – a poisonous barb piercing my plate and numbing first my chest then my whole body. No sooner had I shouted out in pain than a razor-thin wire made of some organic material was pulled tight to my throat! I struggled, trying to avoid strangulation…
Athao’s reflexes were fast as ever, fortunately. Within six seconds he had fired three arrows into the beast, dropping it dead before I could even draw my weapon. I breathed a gasp of shock, as I purged the poison from my body with Tyr’s guidance. We dragged its corpse back to the fire to examine the thing, and it was then the determination was made that it was an Ettercap. Though not known to me, it was explained that Ettercaps often cultivate lairs of large spiders and share many spider-like qualities. They also either cause or thrive in areas of forest with supernatural qualities – this was a little unclear to me, perhaps someone else could elaborate. In either case, it seems plausible that the forest Northeast of Melia is inhabited by magically-infused spider creatures, and perhaps that is the reason Hobgoblin patrols did not lance out in that direction.
There was no more excitement that night, and we finalized our plan to infiltrate Melia Keep. Rael debated what armor to wear for the excursion given our dependence on sneaking to stay safe. Tee and Arturia expressed a strong desire not to infiltrate the keep at all out of (totally reasonable) fear for their lives. I felt a burning need to press on, as I ever do, and failed to keep it in check – ultimately Athao, Rael and myself were all on board to infiltrate. We planned to use Athao’s newly developed ability to cast Rope Trick to animate a rope 40 feet up the northern keep wall, and then stealthily dispatch each set of guards that Tee had scouted the previous day.
It’s a well-known fact of military campaigning that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Surely enough, we had failed to account for the noise that ensorcelling a rope entails. While we reached the northern wall without detection, as soon as Athao’s spell was cast, one of the pair of overwatching guards looked down at us and readied his crossbow – all nine hells were about to break loose.
Rael was fast on his feet and quick on his trigger – he discharged a bolt into the hobguardian posthaste. Athao followed it up shortly with an arrow to the helm, and the first hobgoblin was down. Tee scaled the rope first, I just behind him, as the wind howled around us. Arturia tried to scale the rope, but as she had warned us would happen, her climbing arms failed her when she went to make the ascent. Athao and Rael clambered up quickly, and Arturia resolved her vertical challenge by shapeshifting into a wooden bear and simply scaling the stone wall, in terrifying bear-like fashion.
We had some combination of luck both good and foul this day. The buffeting winds protected us from the multitudes of crossbow bolts unleashed by the Hobgoblins, but those same winds shielded our foe from Athao and Rael’s bolts. Arturia and I charged across the ramparts and engaged multitudes of Hobgoblins on the battlements, while Tee, Rael, and Athao held the backline against a shield wall approaching from the courtyard below.
Note for future adventurers: approach from the south wall. The geography of approaching from the North is inhospitable to any sort of maneuvering.
In the midst of battle, it became clear that Tee and Arturia had been closer to correct about the sense of this venture than the rest of us had: The Hobgoblin legion worked with terrible efficiency to protect each other and attack us, and they had with them a powerful Mage with magics only heard of in legend – balls of fire, breaths of freezing cold, and invisibility which persisted as he harried us with bolts of force. Athao landed two lucky shots on the Mage early on, but he exploded Rael twice and Tee once, bringing them each to the verge of death. Arturia peeled back to help the fallen, while I stood my ground to fend off a dozen or so soldiers who would otherwise have cut down my compatriots.
The Hobgoblin commander stood out above the others, and he barked orders in some language I could thankfully understand by the grace of this Helm. He had his legion surround me in a hallway underneath a parapet, as I misjudged its length and thought I could make it through without being trapped. I cleaved through several of the grunts to reach their leader, before praying to Tyr to grant me victory in this battle against evil.
My sword laid into him once and I called holy fire upon him, but I was unable to find purchase a second time to put him down. We each forced a stalemate for several seconds – my Shield of Faith repelling pike after pike, his plate and shield proving adequate enough to stay my blade. Rael shouted out to give me renewed inspiration in my assault, and soon thereafter I did manage to cut down the leader. But bleeding and surrounded by his now-enraged troops, I knew I had to regroup with my comrades rather than lose myself to the rage of combat. Leaning over the buttress, I grasped my amulet of Tyr and holy energy transported me from the wall to the ground below.
I know not what transpired while I attempted to reroup, but half a minute later I emerged from the central tower on the second floor, after hearing a second fiery explosion ring out. Only 3 archers remained in the fort, and clearly the Mage somewhere out of sight as well. I sprinted towards the archers only to see them pepper Arturia with enough arrows to force her out of her spirit bear form. I interposed myself between them and her to give her cover, and she smartly ducked away down into the hallway beneath us as soon as she could.
No sooner had she lept away than an immense blast of ice magic swept over me, robbing me of consciousness. I felt the light slipping away as I fought to soldier on – and some part of me even welcomed the darkness. Perhaps Tyr would let me to sleep this time, to be free of the pain of this mortal realm…
But no! I cannot sleep while those murderers, those fallen knights I once called comrades yet draw breath! My eyes fly open and I feel the familiar noise of a rage-induced scream as my lungs fill yet again. I stand and see clearly in front of me the Mage who may have killed my allies, the Mage who nearly robbed me of my Vengeance. My greatsword scrapes across the stony floor as I walk, then run, towards him. A look of confusion registers in his eyes, and I bring the sword to bear as best I can. He takes a hit but blinks away – but I recognize the spell as the same one I used just seconds ago. He can’t be far.
Athao, Tee, and Arturia catch up and we all give chase to the Mage. I can’t hit him for his shields, but Tee lands an amazing dart throw at 60 foot range, and Athao fires numerous magic arrows at the Mage as he starts to fly away. Ultimately the wizard’s arrogance is his undoing, as he cheekily waves at us from the air only to catch Athao’s arrow in his shoulder and perish.
The sounds of battle fading, we are left reeling at the sense of mortality and wondering how we all survived. Mara, the noblest steed you ever will meet, rushes in from the forest where she waited and informs us that a patrol of six hobgoblins is rapidly approaching. Tee, meanwhile, sees that the large camp across the river has reeled in one of their rafts and is sending a contingent to check on the commotion. Within 30 seconds, we gather up Athao’s magic arrows which missed targets and I swim quickly to the Mage to examine him for magic. We snatch up a token in the shape of a Swan and a potion, both of which radiate magic, and then we immediately run like hell to the south. Thanks again to Athao’s pathfinding, we are able to move quickly through the forest, and any pursuing Hobgoblins are unable to catch up. In quiet reflection and gratitude for the persistence of our lifeforces, the five of us trudge back to camp together.
-We fought some magically animated plants that were near a pile of corpses. They weren’t undead, fiends, or celestials, but the ground was desecrated by unholy power. Knowledge revealed that sometimes such plants are created when a vampire is staked into a tree.
-We scouted out Melia. There’s a very large fort there, but there’s a very large Hobgoblin army just across the river. The fort would be great if it were in our hands, but that seems unlikely with the current Evil Humanoid Army configuration.
-Melia’s keep has a hole in the south wall and a portcullis on the east wall that can’t close. Approach from either of those – don’t go over the North wall.
-We got jumped by an Ettercap in the middle of the night, in the forest North of Melia. Ettercaps often lair with large numbers of giant spiders and other Ettercaps. This may indicate there’s some dark/evil spider stuff in the forest there.
-We fought 25 Hobgoblins, including a wizard who had some serious spell loadouts, and a martial commander of some sort. They also had three wolves. We bearly escaped with our lives – repeating our mistake of attacking the fort head-on is inadvisable, assuming it staffs back up.