Zirkan leads the group to his village of wooden cabins nestled in a valley. Wisps of smoke rise from the lodgepole buildings and curl into the air.
The group is introduced to the clan-leader, Stenkast. Stenkast receives his report from Zirkan. The group overhear Zirkan incredulous description of “dragon” attacks and an occupying force of “dragonmen” in the Fortress of the People. The reaction on the face of Stenkast does not reflect Zirkan’s attitude; the dwarven leader seems agitated and possibly apprehensive. Stenkast dismisses Zirkan and dispatches one of his entourage to fetch “the magus.”
Stenkast finally turns his gaze upon the group of hill dwarves, eyeing them carefully, and asks in an unfriendly tone: “What clan are ye?” Although he speaks dwarven, Stenkast has a thick accent that is unfamiliar to the group.
The group informs him they are of the Stonefist clan.
Stenkast strokes one of his beard braids, thinking. “Stonefist you say? Can ye prove it?”
The group provides several heirloom trinkets adorned with the crest of the Stonefist clan.
" Truly, you be one of our people. The Neidar and Stonefist clans were the first mountain dwarves to settle in the hills and mountains surrounding Thorbardin. When the gates of Thorbardin were sealed after the Cataclysm , we were locked away from our homeland and many families were separated. Oldfather Stonefist vowed to reunite with his family and led his clan north in search of Thorin the old kingdom of the Calnar. It is said that the Cataclysm turned mountains into ocean. When Oldfather observed ocean where before had been mountains, he died. His axe was returned to us in the hopes that it would one day find its way back to the mountain hall of its ancestors. Seeing as you are Stonefist, you are welcome to the axe."
Just then, the messenger who was dispatched earlier returns along with a human clad in red robes – a wizard. The wizard introduces himself as Grim, a liaison from the nearby Tower of High Sorcery bearing news regarding the encroaching forces of the red dragonarmy in this region for the Neidar clan. The wizard gives a slight bow to the party and continues to listen in on the conversation.
The sight of the red-robed wizard reminds Stenkast of more pressing issues and he asks, “So what is it that you want from us?”
The group explains that they are escorting refugees from the Abanasinia peninsula to the south.
Stenkast nods, " I assumed you’d be wanting to pass through our lands, but there’s nothing to the south. Besides, that rabble of humans would not survive climbing through the icy mountains this close to winter. I suppose you could seek help with Thorbardin, but I doubt it. They refused us, their own kin, three hundred years ago. Heh. But if you really want to try and seek help with them, tales say that Skullcap Mountain has the key to get in."
The group agrees that Thorbardin would be the best option for securing the safety of the human refugees but has concerns about temporarily securing them while they search Skullcap for the key to Thorbardin.
Stenkast understands the implied request for support and says, “We have a good amount of food, but as we’re about settled in for the winter, we’ll need what we have, especially if that army comes marching out of the Fortress of the People. You may be able to secure some extra blankets and old clothing from my people in addition to the game your hunters will secure today, but these meager offerings are hardly enough to provide for so many.”
Stenkast continues, " There are a couple options, though. To the west of here there’s a massive beehive that’s positively dripping with the most delicious honey – good for what ails ya and makes a fine mead. Other than that, southeast of here about fifteen miles as the crow flies, there’s a nice valley with lots of game and fish. Reorx‘s blessing is upon that valley still, though the gods be gone for a long time. You’re welcome to stay there as long as you want. Maybe if that red wyrm and its lizard warriors chase us out of here, we’ll come join ya. Other than that, there are some steam caverns along the southeast route that may provide temporary shelter if you can stand the heat… and the gully dwarf infestation." Stenkast chuckles and spits at the mention of the Aghar.
Yelfis, intrigued at the mention of Reorx, displays his holy symbol. Stenkast notices the gesture, but does not seem to recognize or care about the importance of the symbol. Yelfis explains that the gods have returned. As proof, Yelfis cuts into his hand and presents it boldly. The dwarf mutters a prayer and the dripping blood fades as the wound closes.
Stenkast and several of his warriors start in excitement. “Healing magic!” Stenkast exclaims. “You, magus, is there truth in his words?”
Grim who is also taken aback by the use of divine magic, nods to the clan leader.
Stenkast smiles, “You would truly be of great use to our people and, as family, you are always welcome. I invite you to spend the winter here, but I cannot provide for you and the humans.”
The group appreciates the offer and the information. They agree to relocate the humans the next day and inquire about the location of Skullcap.
“It’s about thirty miles southeast of here. Fifteen miles past the valley I mentioned earlier. Middle of the Plain of Dergoth – "
The group looks around, confused.
“The Battle Plain?” Stenkast asks.
Again, the group looks confused.
Stenkast raises his eyebrows and explains, “That damned black robe blasted himself and the very mountains around to dust, taking thousands of dwarves and other folk along with him. The molten rubble landed on his lair. Looks like a skull. A fitting tomb for the fiend, if you ask me.”
Stenkast shrugs, “Seeing as ye are Stonefist and intent on finding Thorbardin, I must insist that you take Oldfather’s axe with ye.” Stenkast turns and leads the dwarves to a cabin designated as the armory.
The meager armory contains several dozen weapons of various type, but they are well kept and arranged orderly in the fashion of dwarven custom. As the group huddles into the room, Stenkast leads them to the far end. Donegin, looking down the row of swords of axes and swords, focuses on a battleaxe. His vision goes blurry and tunnel-like upon seeing the battleaxe and he distinctly hears a drawn-out whisper in his head: “Home.” Donegin looks around, but no one else appears to have experienced the effect.
Stenkast reaches the far end and finds the Oldfather’s axe. To Donegin’s surprise, it is the same battleaxe that called to him!
Stenkast presents the battleaxe to the group and Donegin boldly accepts it. Donegin checks the balance of the battleaxe and admires its craftsmanship. He also inspects it for magical qualities and is surprised by the overwhelming brilliance of its aura. Donegin consults with his family about her experience a moment earlier. His brother and sisters did not experience anything like he describes and they all take turn inspecting the weapon. They decided to seek assistance from Grim.
Grim inspects the weapons and is able to determine that it holds several magical properties, but he could not specify exactly what they were with out further magical identification .
Donegin straps the weapon at his side and the group thanks Stenkast for his hospitality in holding the heirloom for so long.
As they leave the armory cabin, the Stonefist siblings discuss their lack of arcane magical prowess and several instances in the immediate past where a wizard would have been handy. They decide to invite Grim along for their quest to Skullcap.
Grim receives the idea warmly. Seeing as his mission to report the advances of the red dragonarmy to the Neidar Clan is complete, he is otherwise disengaged.
The group, including Grim, returns to the refugee encampment and relays its information at a leadership council meeting that evening.
The leadership council agrees that it should be seeking a temporary settlement where they can prepare for the winter months. More than half of the refugees lack food and proper clothing at the current moment, despite the efforts of hunters and aid from the Neidar Clan. The council urges the heroes to keep this in mind as they begin their trek southeast.
The Neidar Clan watches over the refugee camp that evening. The night is peaceful and sleep is uninterrupted. Donegin has a strikingly vivid dream of a storyteller who spins yarns to her by a hearth. He cannot remember the stories and does not recognize the face of the storyteller, but he realizes that the face is familiar and that the stories were important. The storyteller was an older dwarf and at his side was the battleaxe of the Oldfather.
The next morning, Donegin shares his dream with the group. No one else had dreams like this, but they are beginning to share concerns over the effects from the magical weapon on their brother.
The day is spent traveling southeast and out of the Neidar Clan territory. A trio of owlbears ambushed the front of the refugee line, but the group dispatched the beasts in under a minute and no refugees were harmed. The beasts are thrown onto make-shift carts by the human caravan and are harvested for meat and clothing that evening like the dire bears from the day before last.
The evening is uneventful and the refugee caravan continues traveling southeast through a narrow pass. The presence of steam caverns along the eastern wall of mountains is obvious from vents of steam and the occasional smell of sulfur on a warm breeze.
The group decides not to actively investigate the caverns. Instead, they press on to the end of the valley of steam caverns. As they reach the end of the valley, they observe a massive arch. Almaia can make out some engraved runes along the top of the opening.
The group decides to have the humans camp for the night outside the cavern while they investigate. They charge Gilthanas with setting a watch capable of defending the encampment from monsters in the area.
As the group approaches the archway, Almaia and Grim set to deciphering the dwarven runes. The engraving reads, “Enter ye hereby the lands of Thorbardin. Follow the road that lies beyond into the Justice of the Nine Thanes below.”
The group is mystified by the possibility that they discovered the path to Thorbardin so easily. They enter the massive entry and proceed into the mountain.
The air quickly becomes warm, muggy, and eventually uncomfortable. Donegin focuses her power on each of them and the oppressive weight of the hot and humid elements are suddenly endurable .
The corridor leads to a massive cavern containing an underground town carved out of the very rock. It appears to be a small city, but the only noise in the cavern appears to be a steady hiss of steam. The group has never witnessed an intentional underground installation and the stone city amazes them.
The corridor leads to a wide gate which is obviously the work of master builders. In front of the gate is a strange sight: a single gully dwarf standing guard in the middle of the gate. His helmet is falling over his eyes, and he is having considerable difficulty keeping his oversized halberd from falling to the ground.
As the group approaches, the gully dwarf calls out: “Halt! Answer me before I let you pass! Are you supposed to come into this kingdom?”
The group looks at each other, shrugs, and replies “Yes!”
The gully dwarf nods and asks, “Are you here to see the great secret treasure of the Aghar?”
Again, the groups shrugs and replies, “Yes!”
The gully dwarf nods, pushed the gate open, and beckons for the group to follow. He leads them down a wide corridor through the small city which is nothing more than a series of empty chambers – the city has not been occupied for some time.
At the far end, the corridor becomes lined with large columns and a large set of double doors is quickly opened by their escort. At the far end of the massive room, a semicircle of thrones sits on a raised dais. On one of the throne sits another gully dwarf. The dwarf has matted curly black hair and is wearing stained robes and a crown – both are three sizes too large for him. Their guard escort whispers, " Don’t be afraid. It’s just His Magnificence, the Highphulph."
The group enters the throne room. The crowned gully dwarf sits up straight, puffs out his chest, and in a squeaky voice says, “Welcome! We are the Phulph clan. Have you come to see the great treasure?”
Again, the group shrugs and replies, “Yes!”
The gully dwarf looks excited, hops off his throne, and scurries to the left-side of the room – his gait is a mixture of forward momentum, tripping over his robes, and adjusting his crown from falling over his eyes.
The left-side of the room leads to a small temple. In the center of the room is a great monolithic slab of black stone. Before the stone is a circular dais of white stone. Glowing gold letters are carved around the edge of the dais.
Almaia and Grim inspect the old dwarven lettering which reads, “Let him stand and ask, he who would receive knowledge.”
Yelfis steps up to the dais and asks a question about the gods returning. Suddenly, a deep rumbling voice fills the chamber, “What has this to do with the dwarves of Thorbardin?”
The Highphulph screeches at the voice and finds a corner to hide in. Almaia and Mora comfort the frighten gully dwarf who had apparently never discovered how to activate the device.
Yelfis answers the voice’s question, but perhaps it was rhetorical. He rephrases the question and asks again.
“What has this to do with the dwarves of Thorbardin?” the voice repeats.
Yelfis runs his hand over his head in frustration and repeats his question, but adds: “In Reorx’s name, I command you to answer.”
“What has this to do with the dwarves of Thorbardin?” the voice repeats in the same tone.
Yelfis throws his hands up and walks away from the dais grumbling.
Donegin takes a turn at the dais and asks, “Why did this axe say ‘home’ to me?”
The voice responds, “Oldfather Stonefist, having failed to discover a means to re-enter his ancestral homelands in the mountains, died. His soul remains in the axe so that he may fulfill his vow to reunite the Stonefist clan to its rightful place in the mountain kingdom of Thorbardin.”
Realizing that the device only answers questions related to dwarves from Thorbardin. Donegin asks, “How do we get the key to Thorbardin?”
" Following the Cataclysm, the hill dwarves and men from the regions around Xak Tsaroth fled southward, seeking refuge in the kingdom of the mountain dwarves. This kingdom, known as Thorbardin, could not support the hundreds of thousands of refugees, so it closed the gates against them. Disorganized and without leadership, the refugees proved no match against the organized and motivated forces of Thorbardin.
Then came Fistandantilus.
Fistandantilus was a black robe wizard during the age that preceded the Cataclysm, the mysterious “arcane advisor” of the Kingpriest. Magic at that time was despised as an “impure” profession. Wizards great and small became outcasts. Yet Fistandantilus foresaw a time when wizards would again be important. He knew not when, but he swore, when the time came, he would be there.
He could foresee the terrible fate awaiting the Kingpriest of Istar, whose hubris would bring civilization to its knees. He abandoned his “master,” using his magic to escape the Cataclysm, and traveled forward into the future, seeking a particular relic of great power among the nations of dwarves in the Kharolis Mountains. Fistandantilus organized the hill dwarves and poverty-stricken human tribes in the region into a disciplined and motivated army, and he launched an assault on the kingdom of the mountain dwarves, hoping to draw their attention away from his real objective. While the armies struggled against one another, he searched and eventually found his prize. Soon he began the rituals necessary to unlock its power; he started weaving a spell of vast scope and complexity.
Yet before he could complete the spell, something happened — some twist of fate unknown to history — unleashing a great blast of magical energy which destroyed the
armies and apparently Fistandantilus himself.
His magical fortress was blasted by the furious magical maelstrom until only the shattered and glazed form of a giant skull remained — Skullcap. Deep beneath Skullcap, legend has it, the spiritual remains of Fistandantilus still lurk, along with the key to finding the path to the gates of Thorbardin."
The group is amazed at the wealth of information the device divulged. They ask it more questions, but the chamber is silent. Grim believes that the device is likely limited to the number of responses it can give per day.
The group resigns themselves to spending the night with the gully dwarves. Considering the bare stone quality of what they have seen throughout the small city, the group supposes that these gully dwarves are cleaner than most. Unfortunately, the absence of filth in the city is a result of its hoarding in the gully dwarf section of the city.
Following a gully dwarf feast of monstrous spider leg and foot-beard stew, the group attempts to rest for the remainder of the evening.
The following morning, the group returns to the small temple room along with the Highpulph. They ask two more questions about the location of Thorbardin, but the voice simply repeats its message about Fistandantilus and Skullcap. The responses seem to be related to specific entries, like a journal, where relevant entries are triggered by certain questions.
The group refrains from spending more time in the city so they can catch up to the refugees before they continue heading southeast. As they leave, the Highphulph squeals there praise for showing him how to use the device. He offers them membership in his clan and agrees to let all humans move into the city.
The group thanks the Highphulph but doubts the leadership council would agree to live so close to gully dwarfs – especially in such a muggy environment that offers no reasonable method for providing sustenance.
As the group head for the throne room doors, the Highphulph asks them if he can start asking the stone some questions. The group tells him it is okay and the king scrambles toward the temple, tripping on his robes while attempting to wave goodbye. In the distance the group hears the squeaky voice of the Highphulph, “Why do I poop?”
As the heroes make their way toward the exit of the cavern, a large boulder flies through the air striking Grim in the chest. The group looks around and spots a stone giant lying in wait. The battle is intense, but the dwarves and their human companion quickly overrun the giant. A search of its body reveals a small pouch of 10 semi-precious stones.
Donegin notices that the stones are glowing and asks to see them. Almaia hands the bag over. Donegin cast a spell to detect magic, but nothing happens. The stones continue to glow in the same fashion. As Donegin stares at the stones, she can tell that they are magical, but empty somehow. He asks the group if they’ll take a look at the stones.
The group is puzzled at his interest in the stones. A quick discussion reveals that only Donegin can see the stones glow. The rest of the group only sees run-of-the-mill semi-precious stones. Yelfis and Grim cast detect magic on the stones and now they too can see the tell-tale glow of a magical item. The three of them study the stones for a half hour.
They determine that the stones work like a spell book for divine spells. Each stone is capable of containing the information necessary for one spell of any level. Yelfis who can cast any first level divine spell finds the stones pointless as they do not provide the ability to cast more spells per day. However, Donegin does not have a divine-entity providing him the complete array of divine spells for each level he can cast. Instead, Donegin has to commit each spell to memory. Each stone offers Donegin the opportunity to record one spell and he can increase his repertoire.
Grim supposes that the stones were probably training aides for clerical apprentices before the cataclysm.
Donegin pockets nine of the Knowstones and lets Yelfis hold onto one to experiment with later.
The group exits the cavern and discovers that the refugees have already broken camp and begun to move southeast. The tail of the refugee line is still visible and the dwarves hustle to catch up.
Mora runs ahead and attempts to halt the group so they can seek refuge in the cavern. Unfortunately, the effort is like herding cats. Even the few she convinces to stop begin walking again after a few moments. Altering her tactic, Mora collects the leaders from each faction to conduct a mobile council meeting.
The rest of the group catches up in time to attend the council meeting. Mora presents the offer of refuge in the gully dwarf city, but the council turns it down four to one. The one vote in favor of the plan coming from Elistan.
The refugees make their way up the final mountain pass before the valley. As they ascend, the snow becomes deeper, the wind faster, and the sun draws closer to the horizon. The group encourages the refugees to move faster so they can descend before nightfall – they know a night at this elevation would mean many deaths. As they crest the top of the mountain pass, not far away, a lone figure is scurrying around,
his mouse-grey robes and hat flapping in the wind. He is hard at work putting the finishing touches on a large igloo; next to the igloo rests a gigantic pile of snowballs.
As the group gets closer, they recognize Fizban the Fabulous, the strange old man from the slave caravan; he appears well ready to guard the pass against an army of seven-year-olds.
“Hurry up! Get the people into the fort!” he calls with a hushed shout, trying not to disturb the snow and ice precariously balanced above the route. He picks up a snowball. “Come on, we’ll show ’em!”
The group looks around and for the supposed “them” and spots a battalion of Baaz draconians approaching the line of refugees from a trail approaching their flank.
The group begins encouraging the humans to enter the igloo. Despite its appearance, the igloo appears to fit all of the refugees.
The 200 draconians reach the main trail and are about 30 seconds from the end of the refugee line. About 50 refugees are still outside the igloo when one of the draconians takes to the air! The lizard body pops and contorts as it changes into the form of Ember!
Fizban motions toward the pile of snowballs and repeats, “Come on, we’ll show ’em!” The doddering old man suddenly turns and throws his snowball up the mountainside. The group follows suit and sends a dozen more snowballs up the hillside before the first one detonates.
A succession of a dozen thundering “boom’s” precedes the formation of a giant line in the snow collected on the peak of the mountain top. The line gives way to a gargantuan avalanche. The group, Fizban, and the remaining refugees make it into the igloo before the entryway is covered with a roiling tumult of hard-packed snow.
The igloo interior appears cavernous and the temperature is mildly pleasant despite its snowy appearance. The refugees spend the night in the igloo determined to begin digging out the next day.
The next morning, Donegin decides to inspect the knowstones again. He discovers that all of the stones now contain the details for her top nine spells. Likewise, Yelfis discovers that his stone contains his top spell. Donegin collects the tenth stone from Yelfis and discovers that he now knows how to detect undead – a spell he did not know before!
The group discovers that the igloo entrance is no longer blocked and Fizban appears to have left them early that morning. The group exits and discovers that the avalanche has filled-in the valley behind them. They begin herding the refugees out of the igloo and down the south-side of the peak into the vale. As the last refugee exits, the igloo collapses into a pile of snow.
A feeling of peace settles over the party as they descend into the vale. The wind isn’t as bitter, the snow not as deep; tracks of game animals are easily seen. The lake is ice-free, and the surface frequently disturbed by catfish and trout. A large, open area is an inviting campsite with plenty of fuel and shelter available in the nearby woods.
The refugees spontaneously begin making camp without any prompting from the group or their faction leaders. A lighter mood seems to overtake everyone. For the first time in days, laughter and song can be heard coming from around the camp.
The refugees spend the day constructing shelters and hunting food. That evening, the chill of the night is pushed back by a tremendous bonfire in the center of the camp. This night, at least, the people do not live in fear. The sounds of music, song, and laughter float over the crackle of the fire. Elistan stands with quiet majesty, " So that our children may never forget, we tell our story, the Canticle of our people. Let us retell it often."