After three days of travel, the party had arrived at the outskirts of Lairwood. A garrison town standing at the (current) edge of the forest, it had recently grown to twice its original size with the addition of a sprawling city of tents and caravans outside its western gate.
Upon reading the scroll their guide had given them and learning that two additional scrolls were needed, the party looked up to see the young messenger already making his way through the dense crowds. Unable to catch up, Artificer Razi briefly considered using one of his thunderstones to clear a path—but that notion was quickly discarded when he realized the crowds were mainly composed of well-armed adventurers and a scattering of frazzled-looking guards.
Instead, the group tailed their former guide through the impromptu village and into Lairwood proper. Passing though the city gates without incident, they noted that many of the "permanent" buildings in Lairwood were built on stilts with wheels or rollers at the bottom—apparently intended to be mobile. The group's artificer deduced that magic must be involved in their construction, and resolved to study it further.
Soon after, their pursuit was interrupted by a disturbance in the market square as a cry of "Thief!" rang out from a nearby fruit stand and a diminutive figure rushed past, overturning a barrel of apples into the street in front of them. Zakariya and Treize spurred their horses over the fallen produce and maneuvered through the crowd to give chase as the culprit quickly vanished behind a stack of crates in a blur of movement. Upon catching up, the pair found no trace of their quarry—only a strange, hooded figure who appeared to be picking something up off the ground. Suspicious, but unwilling to accost the individual without further proof, they rejoined the rest of their band and eventually caught up with the young messenger just outside the Gilded Tree Inn—a grand, three story wooden structure somehow poised on stilts and rollers, like many of the buildings in Lairwood.
The boy, who introduced himself as Gil, apologized profusely and explained that he had thought he was supposed to deliver the other two scrolls himself. Seeming oddly relieved to discover this was not the case, he handed the scrolls over to the party and provided them with directions, informing the group that "The Brambles" was the name of the stream that flowed past the city's western gate. These scrolls appeared similar to the official missives the party had received previously. Each bore a red wax seal with the crest of House Dalemark, and were tied with a ribbon bearing the name of their intended recipient—in this case "Dixn," and "Carrion." Gil explained that Dixn was a scout who lived in a hut to the south of town and kept watch on the southern woods, while Carrion was a mercenary of some sort who was often seen wandering the town and patronizing (or being thrown out of) it's various taverns. Both seemed to have a less than savory reputation, at least in the young messenger's opinion, but were employed by House Dalemark in some capacity and one of them was likely the "agent" the group was supposed to meet with.
Turning their attention to a nearby notice board, they found a flyer written in Common, Undercommon, and Celestial warning people not to enter the south forest. The notice also bore a rather—unique—illustration, and a post-script appearing to attribute the artwork to an individual by the name of Carrion.
With the day now drawing towards evening, the party left the city and were informed by the guards that the gates would be closing for the night at sundown. Following the stream to the south, they came upon a strange hut with an abnormally large cloud leopard curled in front of it.
They tentatively addressed the creature, thinking that it might be the scout in animal form, only for it to get up and walk away dismissively. Checking the hut itself brought them face to face with Carrion, a spectacularly foul-mouthed (and very drunk) tiefling.
After some initial misunderstanding regarding currency and constabulary, Carrion took the scroll that had been addressed to him and directed the group around back. There they found the mysterious Dixn, apparently in the midst of some kind of meditation.
Though the mask and emblems she wore were intriguing, the party was unable to discern much about her—even her race. Nor did she volunteer much, the terse scout proved just as antisocial as her companion, though less vocal and profanity-laden about it. After a brief exchange consisting largely of single-word responses, she advised the party to visit the registration office and then simply walked off—leaving them to their own devices.
Once they had clarified that they should return in the morning, the group headed back to town—arriving shortly before the gates were closed for the night. Proceeding to the registration office (a large tent just inside the gates) they spoke with a pair of gnome clerks who registered their team and explained the rules of the Dalemark Gambit:
- Each group must register in advance, and is assigned an area of the woods to explore. Tokens are provided to each registered member verifying their status, with the official documentation being held at the registration office in Lairwood.
- Bounties are paid for mapping the assigned region, eliminating dangers such as hostile creatures, and for any artifacts or relics recovered. All bounties are awarded at the discretion of designated officials, with petitioners presenting proper proof prior to procuring payment.
- New members can be added to a group after registration, so long as an existing member accompanies them to add their name to the official records.
- An official "group name" is not required, but can be added or changed at the registration office.
After completing the party’s registration and giving them tokens for each member, (including Dixn and Carrion) the clerks informed them that the mayor would be giving a speech in the morning—and that the Gilded Tree Inn keeps rooms set aside for employees of House Dalemark. Resolving to take advantage of this, the group headed to the inn for the night. Once there, Cade volunteered to help in the kitchens while the others ate and gathered information about the young noblewoman they had been sent to find.
The Gilded Tree Inn was bustling with activity that evening. The group spotted their young guide, Gil, sitting at a table near the bar drinking and conversing animatedly with a group of slightly older youths who also wore the garb of official House messengers. They also spotted the suspicious cloaked figure from the market sitting alone in a shadowed corner by the door, and a group of fur and bone clad goliaths drinking and celebrating loudly at a long table on the opposite side of the inn.
From various conversations, they learned that they were to be part of the second ‘wave’ of expeditions for this year, with groups being sent out roughly one month apart. The most notable of the previous month's teams was a group of knights from the northern lands who had apparently discovered an ancient library within the wood. Artificer Razi was intrigued by this news, but was unable to find any further information on the library’s location—only that the knights had entered the forest on the north side of "Tower Hill", the ruin-strewn butte that rose beyond Lairwood's eastern gate. He did learn that the remains of a great, ancient kingdom supposedly lay somewhere deep within the forest, though so far only scattered, isolated ruins (such as those crowning Tower Hill) had been found.
The party also learned that a swordswoman matching Lady Nyra’s description had been seen in the company of a mercenary group known as the Order of the Wolf. Led by a burly female half-orc, other members of note included a pair of halfling twins who had earned quite a reputation for sneakiness and troublemaking among the inn’s employees. According to the kitchen staff, the night before they set out the twins had stolen every spoon in the inn and placed them along the crossbeams in the rafters. They further learned that the Order of the Wolf had been assigned to the southern section of the woods, (the same as the party, and the same section that Dixn’s flyer had warned against entering) and had not been seen since. In fact, it seemed that no one had returned alive from the southern woods since the previous Gambit five years ago—which was why that section remained uncleared. Local wisdom held that being assigned to the southern wood was a death sentence, or worse. Even more foreboding were the tales of those whose corpses had returned—as mindless undead.
Wishing to know precisely where the Order of the Wolf had entered the forest, the party considered trying to obtain a map of their starting location from the records office—before learning that there was only one path into the southern wood. Apparently the valley in which Lairwood sits was once overgrown with razorvine, the remnants of which now form a formidable barrier stretching from the foot of Tower Hill to the South-East of town to the rolling downs to the South-West. The only passage though this “Thorn Wall” was a path cleared along either bank of the Brambles—the stream having apparently been named for the deadly vines that once grew so rampant around it.
Awaking at dawn, the party chose to skip the mayor’s opening speech in favor of getting an early start. They met up with Dixn and a surprisingly sober Carrion at the hut before following the stream to the edge of the woods. There they found the path, carved like a great, thorn-lined tunnel though the dense foliage, as well as a possible sign of their quarry—a palm sized mark in the shape of a wolf’s head carved into the trunk of a tree.
The razorvine tapered off and the trees grew less dense as the party ventured deeper into the woods, though the path remained just wide enough to ride their horses in single file along the bank. Perhaps ten minutes in, a trio of wolves emerged from the underbrush and attacked. After a brief but brutal battle, the party paused to inspect their injuries, and prepare for the path ahead…
Session XP: 150