4.1. In the Bleak Midwinter

4.1. In the Bleak Midwinter

Your year of study at the College of Torm’s Shining Blade is nearly at an end. You’ve done well enough in all your classes and testings; and you’ve become something of a favorite in among those of Amber House, thanks in no small part to rescuing their four-day passes.

(However, not everyone was fortunate enough to make it to the final step of the program. For example, Vadrey stopped showing not long after the events surrounding Spring Festival. Most students assumed she’d found the college too taxing and had left on her own.)

Your final examination will be, as for all others graduating the college, a simple but unsupervised mission, somewhere in the greater Impiltur region.

Eventually, you are called in for an appointment with Major Thormond, commandant of the College itself. After seating your group, he gives you your mission.

“Hello, members of Amber House. Your names have come across my desk in the past. You’re good with initiative and teamwork, if I recall correctly–though perhaps a bit rough on the edges still. Well, no matter; that’s why you enrolled in our college.

“Torm’s Order of the Shining Blade prides itself on spreading education and schooling to the far corners of Faerûn. Conversely, we also enjoy inviting scholars from distant lands to travel and host symposiums here, where their knowledge will be taken seriously and recorded.

“One such invitee hails from the nearby village of Coventry: a man by the name of Jakob. From what we’ve learned, there is a local ‘genius loci’ that has protected his town for the past hundred years. We’d like to hear about it. Now I’m also aware that he has not left his hometown in any of his 65 years of life. So instead of simply sending a scribe or two to his home, we’d like to invite him to personally share his experiences with us in Lyrabar.

“Your transportation will be provided for: you’ll be given a team of horses and a carriage seating four. You’ll also have a Sending Stone for any emergency communication. As for personal equipment, you’ll each have a Requisition Note to use in outfitting yourself.

“Let my associates know if you have any questions or need additional information before you set out. I look forward to meeting this man and hearing of his tales in the flesh.”

From the Files: Coventry
The town of Coventry sits on the nearer end of the Moaning Gorge, where the Earthfast and Earthspur Mountain ranges meet. As such, the village is host to a constant supply of wayfarers. The several hundred residents who called Coventry home might hunt and even farm during the summer, but most will spend their time bartering with travelers for food and clothing. Come winter, such necessities would be worth their weight in gold.

Trivia: The town gained its name from a convent of reclusive monks who lived on the nearby “Snowblind Peak.” However, an avalanche a century ago buried the monastery and all who lived there.

Mission: Proceed to Coventry, at the entrance to the Moaning Gorge, at the joining of the Earthfast and Earthspur Mountains. Locate and escort Jakob back to Lyrabar. Dispatch any local threats as deemed necessary.

Character Level: 4
Equipment: Standard rules for a Requisition Note: 3,200 gp worth of gear (as per “Sane Magical Prices” list), including up to 1/3 value in consumables.
Special: Carriage, team of horses, Sending Stone.

In The Bleak Midwinter

Session Date: December 16th, 2019

A. The Town Lay Hushed

i) I Wonder as I Wander

The party left for Coventry, set to arrive on what would be the eve before Winter Solstice. As their carriage climbed the road towards the mountain pass, however, a blustery storm began blowing down from the nearby Snowblind Peak. The visibility and temperature both dropped dramatically, and within an hour, the adventurers were bundling themselves against the cold. Such a fast onset seemed unusual, but the party was not yet worried.

Their concerns soon mounted, however, as they approached the outskirts of the village. Snow drifts began piling higher and higher, until their horses struggled to pull the carriage. There was far too much snow on the ground for what should have fallen in such a short time.

Pausing to look behind them, Shudder (the half-elf aberrant sorceress) caught a brief glimpse through the snowy winds wailing about them. The landscape that greeted her was nothing like the Impiltur of gently rolling fields and distant glimmer of ocean she expected. Instead, glaciers and crag tops sharpened to knife edges stretched for miles south of them.

Winged creatures, too, dipped from the frigid clouds above. Their thorny carapaces and barbed tails were wholly unfamiliar to Shudder. Luckily, the storm closed in again around them, concealing them, and she quickly relayed her findings to the unsettled party.

The group finally made it to Coventry proper, but it was no more welcoming than the blizzard. What looked like tenday’s worth of snow blanketed each house, spilling over rooftops, hiding doorways, and obstructing lanes. There were no passersby, no lights in any of the windows, and no signs of life whatsoever.

First downing a Potion of Heroism and then shifting into her bear form, Rock-in-Water (the tabaxi Moon druid) stuck her nose into the wind. What she smelled did not encourage her; the scents of human life were faint, and underlying a noticeable tinge of blood them was an alien, acrid stench she could not place. It certainly resembled nothing she had encountered in Faerûn.

A cold wind howls down the street at them.

Their first order of business was finding shelter for their horses; the temperature had dropped so low that being out in the wind for more than an hour was a real danger. They cleared the snow from the front of the first stable they could find and unbarred the doors.

The stiff, frozen bodies of two horses awaited in a corner of the stable. It seemed all of their internal organs had been removed, though there were no obvious breaks in their skin. The corpses were stiff and smelled stale, suggesting to Rock that they had died at least a few days prior.

Gorodash volunteered to stay with their own horses, both to calm and protect them from any unforseen dangers. Rock, Shudder, and Asura (the human Life cleric) walked to the adjacent house for answers.

The front door was not securely latched, and the party was able to enter easily. As with the stable, the smells of human habitation were long gone, and only a cold, dark interior awaited them. Snow piled in the fireplace.

“We should get a fire going,” Asura suggested.

“That would immediately point out where we are to whatever haunts this town,” growled the bear. (Thanks to a Tongues scroll Asura had purchased, she could communicate when in animal form.)

“Hmm, good point,” noted Asura. His gaze fell on a shrine immediately adjacent to the door. At the center was a piece of art titled “Father Nicholas Reconstitutes the Three Butchered Youths.” There were small mountain lilies laid in front of it, but their dry and brittle forms crumbled in Asura’s fingers.

Rock’s bear nose led her towards the empty double bed. There were smears of blood, soaked into the wooden floor boards. Something had been murdered here and then dragged out of the cabin–the tenants, most likely. Like the corpses of the horses, these stains smelled at least several days old.

The infant’s crib, on the other hand, seemed free of any sign of violence, though it too lacked its occupant. Near the crib, on a bookshelf, Shudder noticed an interesting children’s story in a bound cloth cover. Its cover read:

“This must be the local entity that Jakob was going to teach us about,” Shudder noted, after reading the book to her friends. “The one that protects this town.”

“If so,” grumbled the bear, “he’s not doing a very good job of it.”

ii) See, Amid the Winter’s Snow

The group would find no more answers in this abandoned house. They bundled themselves up tightly and stepped back out into the swirling snow. Flying particulate snow prevented even darkvision from seeing more than thirty feet.

Fortunately for them, Rock’s bear nose could scent much further. Carried toward them on fierce wintry gusts came the unmistakable scent of sulfur. Forewarned, the others could barely make out two dim fields of light, just beyond the gusts of snow.

The source of the light turned out to be two glowing, hellish hounds. Apparently immune to the blizzard’s biting cold, they ambled from house to house, sniffing each doorway for signs of prey. Luckily for the adventurers, the wind was blowing from east-to-west through the village, keeping them downwind of the beasts.

“Quick, Asura, the Potion of Growth,” Rock commanded. Reaching into Shudder’s Handy Haversack, Asura fed the potion to Rock, who doubled in all dimensions.

Then, taking advantage of the element of surprise, she tore into the nearest Hell Hound. Sparks flew with each resounding blow, as if the hound were a roaring campfire that was stirred by each impact.

Growling in pain, the hell hound responded with a roar of hellfire from its hungry maw. Rock and Asura both dodged the full force of the blast, but their clothes and fur were left singed just the same.

Shudder landed her own attack on the second Hell Hound, reaching into its mind and convincing it that bursting vines had rooted it in place. Strong but not especially clever, the monster wrenched itself against the imaginary constraints, only injuring itself in the process.

Asura smashed the skull of the first hound with his mace, then dodged a second fiery blast from the other monster before attacking it as well. Combined with Shudder’s psychic attacks and Rock’s raw force, the heroes were able to down both creatures in short order. The bodies crumbled to whitening ash, like flames that had spent their ire.

iii) Home

The three continued their search. Still her in bear form, Rock was able to detect some more recent human activity–fresh blood, as little as twenty-four hours old. The smells were coming from a two-storied cottage just up the street.

All of the doors on the first floor had been locked and barred, but Asura’s eyes noted the bedroom window’s shutters on the second-story were wide open. Curtains fluttered wildly in the gale.

A cut-away of the cabin, in better times. The open window leads to the bedroom on the second floor.

Instead of bursting through a door, possibly alerting enemies to their presence, Asura and Shudder decided to climb up the rather-sizable back of Rock’s bear form. They slipped into what appeared to be a children’s bedroom. Like the previous residence, there were no occupants, but also no signs of violence.

In this image, Shudder is actually standing in the bedroom on the second floor.

As it turned out, their attempts to be stealthy would matter little. Descending the stairs from the bedroom and rounding into the kitchen, Asura surprised a Barbed Devil. The monster had human torso on the kitchen table, and it picked it apart with its bare hands.

In a revolting process, the devil was both eating and wearing its victim–rubbing pieces it didn’t digest over the thorns on its chest and back. The final effect was not unlike a red festival sweater…but one construed from blood and gristle.

“Ah, fresh food!” the fiend giggled, advancing with outstretched talons. “You should not have come here.”

The devil reached for Asura, to press his soft flesh against the barbs on its own body, but the human was able to sidestep. However, the fiend was maddeningly resistant to attacks, and both Asura’s spells and Shudder’s mental effects slid off their target.

Hearing the commotion from within, Rock burst through the front door (still in her bear form) and rushed to the kitchen. She was just in time to see the devil place both hands on Asura’s mail and cook him in his own armor.

Though he had downed a Potion of Greater Healing earlier, Asura was still wounded from the encounter with the hell hounds. He crumpled to the floor.

Rock knew she would have to act fast to save Asura’s life. Her hairy features began to soften into a soft membrane, her eyes bulged from her skull, and her tongue grew to an immense length. In but a moment, she had shifted to a Giant Toad–a Toad that immediately grappled and swallowed the vexing devil.

The unconventional strategy proved successful; while grappled, blinded, and restrained inside her stomach, the fiend was unable to attack or cast spells effectively. Meanwhile, its carapace had no special resistance to stomach acid, and it began to slowly dissolve.

Shudder poured another potion down Asura’s nose, and he jolted awake with a sputtering and coughing. Then, together, they kept Rock-in-Water standing while she had digested the monster. Unsure what pouring a healing potion directly down her throat might do, they instead applied a full can of Restorative Ointment.

Sensing that its attacks were ineffectual, the fiend panicked inside Rock’s belly. It thrashed wildly, and dim flashes of light signaled frantic bursts of flame. However, with her ability to turn magical potential directly into healing, Rock was able hold down the difficult meal.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the movement ceased. Rock-in-Water regurgitated the form on the floor; its once-rigid carapace was now soft and spongy, and its thorns drooping. The devil was dead.

iv) All Through the Night

While the party encountered no more dangers awaiting them in the house, their findings were no less bleak. In the pantry, Asura found the remainder of the family–three additional members, by his guess–chopped into bits and awaiting consumption. They were not completely frozen through, leading him to believe the massacre of the house had occurred within the past twenty-four hours. (The hardened ground outside meant he was unable to give them a proper burial, and he spoke what little words he could over their corpses.)

Rock discovered a section of the living room wall defaced with a macabre graffiti. Underneath a large eye painted in blood were the ominous words “He sees you when you’re sleeping.” No other explanation was given. (Using snow, she and the others were able to scrub it mostly from the wall.)

The final horror came when the party searched the main bedroom, where an old man had been crucified to the ceiling. Nearby on the desk, they found his letter:

“Well, that’s it for our mission already,” Asura muttered. “Guy we were sent to fetch is dead.” However, when he reached for the Sending Stone they’d been given to communicate directly with the Order, it only buzzed and hummed strangely.

Putting their heads together, the party connected the strange landscape they’d seen with the fact that (according to Jakob’s letter) a full tenday had passed since the day they’d approached the village. It appeared that, in some strange way, they’d become disconnected from the regular flow of time and space; and this might explain the Stone’s inability to work.

The three then took stock of what consumables they’d already spent; the list came to a scroll of Tongues, three Greater Healing potions, a potion of Heroism, a potion of Growth, a holy water (that missed), and an entire can of healing ointment.

While their effects had been (no doubt) beneficial, they were going to run out of consumables much too quickly at this rate.

As they rested and hid, Shudder contemplated another house shrine, also next to the door. Honoring the now-familiar patron spirit, it bore the title “Father Solstice Gives Good Gifts to Good Children.” She was left to wonder what had happened to the guardian spirit of the village, if he indeed still existed, and if he indeed was still good.

The only other event that interrupted their rest was a thunderous impact on one end of the roof above them, then a series of heavy footfalls across its top. After the house had again returned to a pregnant silence, the three finally let out uneasy breaths they hadn’t realized they’d been holding.

Session Date: December 30th, 2019

B. Black is the Colour

i) Still, Still, Still

Thanks to a recently-learned cantrip, Shudder was able to Message Gorodash and the others guarding the carriage and horses, who were just within range. She reassured them that they were still well, but hiding within a nearby house. Learning of their difficulties thus far, Grigori (the dwarven abjuration wizard) pushed through the snow to link up with them.

The group discussed the information in Jakob’s parting letter, including the implied lair of the new monster, and whether they should group the survivors that remained into a single location. In either case, the best option was to continue east along the road, investigating what buildings they chanced across.

Directly to their east lay the remains of a former chapel. Its shape and position indicated that it had been dedicated to Lathander, a well-known deity of the sun representing spring, rebirth, and youth. As all other Lathander churches, the altar was at the east end of the chapel, where the morning light could shine on it as the sun rose.

Now, however, it was a blackened husk. The elements had not yet scoured the heavy soot from the walls, yet the ashes were long cold. From these clues, the group guessed the conflagration had happened a tenday or so prior–perhaps it had even been the very first site attacked.

After confirming that the area was safe, Grigori cleared the snow from the flagstones, drawing a ritual circle to Detect Magic.

To his enhanced vision, two areas of the church began glowing with Evocation magic. First, the frozen baptismal, which they thawed enough to fill five new bottles of holy water. Second, an area under a false floor beneath the altar. Here, it would seem, the priest had hidden a small stash of (labeled) magical items:

  • Potion of Greater Healing
  • Dust of Sneezing and Choking
  • Oil of Slipperiness
  • Potion of Fire Breath
  • Scroll of Haste

As there were no witnesses present, the party sifted through the jumble for answers. First, Shudder noticed that the smoke touched little of the stone walls or floor, if at all. This implied the blaze had begun in or on the wooden roof timbers itself.

Studying the shattered glass windows of the chapel, Asura noted many names of official Lathander church saints. The one that caught his eye, however, was closest to the altar on the north side–a window devoted to “Father Nicholas,” who had never been canonized. In fact, it was a name unheard of outside Coventry, suggesting in what high regard the residents held him.

Even more peculiar was the fact that all the glass windows had been blown outwards by the heat of the blaze–save for this one. Its shards instead littered the floor of the church.

There were three frozen bodies under the wreckage of pews, but it was too difficult for Grigori to tell how they died: whether it was from the inferno, from smoke inhalation, from the subsequent cold…or from whatever devilish force had left their flesh in strips and tatters.

One more clue awaited them. The drifts outside had obscured most traces, except outside the window to Father Nicholas. Using her survival skills, Rock-in-Water dug beneath the snow to uncover massive tracks. Each footprint was larger than a human head, and they had melted the snow into ice through sheer weight.

Asura bent down. The hooves were cloven, meaning they had not been made by horses. Instead, they reminded him of sheep and goat tracks he’d seen in the mud around farms. However, the prints were not layered on top of each other, as a four-footed creature would have done. Instead, the placement of the footprints suggested a bipedal mammoth.

“Satyr?” mused Shudder.

“Minotaur?” proffered Grigori.

“Whatever it is,” Asura estimated with an involuntary shiver, “it’s at least fifteen feet tall.”

With that, Rock’s feline ears caught a faint snippet of conversation, barely distinguishable between the gusts. There were people still living in the tavern next door.

But with those voices, too, came the distant jingle of eerie bells.

ii) Carol of the Bells

The adjacent inn was half buried beneath snow drifts, and no light seeped through the fastened shutters. Yet, using Detect Thoughts, Shudder was able to confirm the presence of perhaps half a dozen adults cowering within. Asura knocked loudly on the front door, but it was not till he spoke, introducing himself and his friends, that someone inside responded.

“The Shining Blade?” faltered the young priest who opened the door, his hands shaking. “Then you’ve come a tenday late, and at an ill moment; it seems our village is all but doomed by these foul demons.”

Father Stefan, as he would name himself, introduced the party to the other survivors of the tavern–an older man, three women, and four children of various races and ages.

Having also gathered that the monsters targeted the young, the villagers had barricaded their children in the back storage room, where there were no windows and only one door. Yet it still only seemed a matter of time.

“I have fasted and prayed each and every hour to Lathander, to deliver us from this hell,” Father Stefan lamented, “but He has failed to answer. I saved those I could from the fire that consumed my chapel, but now I wonder if it was in vain. If He would not defend His own most holy house, then what chance do we have?”

The heroes were about to question Father Stefan about the events of that night when Rock’s ears pricked again. The sounds of bells had grown much closer…and with it, the chortle of demonic giggling.

“Quick, into the back room!” Grigori ordered, pushing all the villagers together. The party then produced a series of scrolls and potions, quickly strengthening themselves for an attack they knew was coming.

  • Having confirmation that they were facing fiends, Asura cast Protection from Good and Evil on himself, then produced a Spiritual Weapon shaped as a warhammer.
  • Shudder cast Mirror Image on herself, then Prestidigitation on the opposite side of the house to mimic the sounds of children; with any luck, the fiends would be drawn there instead.
  • Grigori again cast Tongues (via scroll) on Rock-in-Water in preparation for a wild-shape, then held his other scrolls at the ready. He hadn’t learned Magic Missile as a spell, but he could certainly cast it.
  • Rock-in-Water drank a Potion of Heroism, then wild-shaped into a bear. Her role would be guarding the room of children and villagers.

Despite all their preparation, a sizable wrench was thrown into the works. A voice called out a chilling “Season’s greetings!” from the doorway, right before everything turned black. A magical darkness had flooded the house.

Two devilish voices chattered with each other, as nails upon the floorboard announced their entry.

“Ah, I hear children!” one of them said in anticipation, perhaps referring to Shudder’s spell. “I have such fun with those. They’re like tiny festive poppers, full of delicious sweets! We can pull open one together.”

“No, you fool!” hissed the other, with what might have even been fear. “You know you can’t touch the children! They’re for HIM.”

Feeling his way along the wall to the single doorway to their room, Asura planted his feet and readied his mace. He couldn’t see the fiends, but he would know from their sounds when they were nearby.

He was thankful for small favors. Were it not for bells that the monsters seemed to wear on their heads, he might not have been able to fight them at all.

A devilish voice called out, “Oh, look what we have here! Someone trying to play hero! This should be fun!” Asura felt himself suddenly float up into the air, as if snatched by an unseen hand. He quickly grabbed the door jam and pulled himself back to the earth.

“Oh, a feisty one!” agreed a second voice. “I’ll take care of that easily enough!” And with that, Asura’s mithral platemail exploded in heat.

Even from where Shudder stood, she could feel the waves rolling off of Asura, as he yelled in pain. It would take at least five minutes to doff his full plate (assuming they could even see the straps), and they did not have that time. She pulled a Potion of Greater Healing from her Handy Haversack and fed it into his mouth.

Asura could make an educated guess both to which creature had cast the spell, and where that creature stood. His spectral warhammer zoomed through the air and into the second monster’s chest, breaking its concentration. Magical in its origin, the heat about his armor evaporated instantly.

Grigori cursed in fury. Most of his damage-dealing abilities were on the scrolls he carried with him–the scrolls he could no longer see. Shudder felt similarly hampered, as her mental abilities required a visible target.

Grigori managed to catch the closest enemy with a lucky Ray of Frost, and Shudder unslung her crossbow (her first time using it in combat), but any future success would be up to pure chance.

The second fiend, the one being assaulted by an intangible weapon, eventually lost its cool. “When I get through with you,” he screeched, “I’ll deck the hall with your entrails!” Then he pushed past Asura towards the guarded villagers.

He was downed by a combined volley of: a slam from the spectral warhammer, a readied attack from a giant “bear,” an Arms of Hadar from Shudder, and (to top it off), a lucky crossbow bolt from Shudder.

With only one monster now to worry about, Asura directed his hammer to the other side of his foe. Hemmed in on both sides, the devil lost its concentration on the magical darkness, and sight returned to the party. The visage that greeted them was not a welcome one.

“Wish you’d just have stayed invisible,” Grigori muttered.

“This is inconceivable!” shouted the fiend, looking over those closest to him. “I’m a devil! You’re supposed to fear me!

None of the adventurers that were caught in its gaze batted an eye. Instead, they glanced once at each other, then beat the demon into a bloody pulp.

For now, the tavern was safe.

Asura noted one deeply unsettling detail about the corpses of the monsters. He remembered that even the monster itself had confirmed they were devils. He also remembered from his studies at the Order that when extraplanar beings received a mortal wound, they withdrew and reformed in the place that spawned them. The only place they could not do so was on their native planes.

Just like the hell hounds and the barbed devil before them, the corpses of these two monsters lay perfectly still. There was no evaporation, no melting, no blurring of the edges. They seemed truly and completely dead.

The implications were terrifying.