The captives and slaves began to proceed south from Pax Tharkas once the massive red dragons began their aerial battle. The heroes along with Gilthanas, Laurana, and Eben cover the retreat. Eventually, the fortress and sounds of epic-draconic struggle wanes as they move further along the main road through the Tharkadan Mountains.
That afternoon on the trail the roughly 800 refugees continue to seek familiar faces. Families are reunited and friends congratulate each other on their change in fortune. The mass of mostly human refugees continue their trek until evening. As the light of day begins to fade, the group halts and begins setting a temporary camp. The lights and smells of campfires dot the areas alongside the main path and the murmur of voices fills the air.
The refugees collect into five factions, each with its own leader.
The townspeople account for approximately 180 town dwellers from the towns of Solace, Gateway, New Ports, a handful of towns in northern and western Abanasinia, and the farmers that worked the fields nearby those towns.
A well known town elder from Gateway, Brooke Stonemason steps up to lead the group of townspeople. As a representative of the townspeople who have long resented the perceived meddling of the Seekers from Haven, Brooke Stonemason views these events as a chance to free themselves of Seeker meddling. However, she and her people maintain their historic mistrust of the Plainsfolk.
The Seeker faction is approximately 250 people from the Lordcity of Haven, who found it natural to put their trust back into the hands of a Seeker. Unfortunately, the Highseeker and figurehead for the Seeker religion no longer places faith in the religion – Elistan believes he has discovered truth in the religions of the old gods. The refugees from Haven turn instead to the former Deputy Highseeker, Locar, as a leader. Locar declares himself the new Highseeker and rumors of his disdain for Elistan’s “conversion” quickly spread through the camp. Despite Locar’s aspiration, many members of the Seeker faction seem more closely aligned with the Townspeople. However, some of the more fanatical seekers among this faction nurse a healthy hatred for the “pagan” Plainsfolk.
The small faction of 34 people who share Elistan belief in the power of the old gods are considered the “believers.” Considering Elistan’s reassessment of faith occurred less than 48 hours beforehand and his unfamiliarity with the religion of the old gods, his collection of 34 followers in an afternoon is a testament to Elistan’s reputation as a leader and his diplomatic and persuasive capabilities. Despite being actively shunned by the Seekers, the believer continue their attempts at forming a good relationship with them considering their current predicament. Sestun the gully dwarf appears to have survived the mayhem of collapsing rock in Pax Tharkas and is now following Elistan.
The largest faction of approximately 300 humans are Plainsfolk and some forest dwellers from the western regions of Abanasinia. The Plainsfolk share an old attitude of mistrust for people who live in large towns and cities. Considering their culture, this group comprises the majority of able-bodied warriors, hunters, and outdoorsmen. A tribal elder from the former Que-Teh village named Briar appears to be leading the large group.
The final group numbering approximately 50 men and women of various races are a ragtag bunch who call themselves “free folk.” These people are traveling merchants, sailors, and sellswords who do not feel at home in the other factions due to their wayward lifestyles. Despite their limited number, they represent a great deal of fighting experience. The heroes are surprised to note that Eben Shatterstone rises as the leader of this faction.
As the camp settles and the faction leader are determined, the heroes begin receiving invitations to a leadership council. The heroes meet the three faction leaders they do not already know and the meeting begins.
Presuming the role of leadership, Elistan calls the meeting to order and presents the issue of how the council will determine its decision – via consensus or majority. Each of the five factions, a representative from the heroes, and a representative of the Qualinesti receive a vote. As prince to the Qualinesti nation, Gilthanas assumes the mantle of representative for his nation. The leadership agrees that a majority vote is preferable over a consensus and the meeting continues.
The heroes begin to discuss camp defenses, but Elistan points respectfully points out that they have a greater responsibility for determining a destination instead of encouraging encampment only a few miles from the fortress of their former captors. The meeting turns to the issue of destination.
Briar and Locar insist that they mobilize and retake their rightful places in the northlands. Although Briar’s motivation seems to be a responsibility for his lands and people, Locars’ motivation appears to focus on a consolidation of his new political title.
Brooke Stonemason suggests that the group head east and seek refuge on the sea. Eben interjects with information from his group that the seas are patrolled by corsairs loyal to Verminaard. He also remarks with snide that they do not possess enough funds to buy passage for so many and even if they did it would attract too much attention.
Brooke Stonemason appears significantly chastised by Eben and insists that Eben share the destination the free folk would prefer. Eben confesses that he is not sure that the free folk should stay with such a large group. He seems to prefer the idea of scattering the refugees and fending for himself than risking detection.
Yelfis interject and points out that Eben had already failed at surviving in these mountains in a small group of 20 – his very survival came at the hands of the heroes – and that his best interest would most likely be in a group of several hundred. Eben nods respectfully at the point, but his eyes burn momentarily at Yelfis.
Gilthanas is quick to interrupt the awkward moment with a disclaimer about traveling west. He reminds the council that his people are currently preparing to evacuate their homeland and that one of their reasons for supporting the rebellion at Pax Tharkas was to delay the Red Dragonarmies advance long enough for them to complete a fleet of ships capable of carrying the entire population of his nation. An addition of 800 more people could put his entire nation at risk of being overrun by the horde. The entire council agrees that the west and east are the least likely options.
Elistan suggests that the refugees move south through the mountains. Although the mountains contain the infamous ruins of Skullcap, they also hide the entrance to the mountain dwarf kingdom of Thorbardin. The dwarves may prove to be allies and protectors if the group can warn them of the invading dragonarmies.
The idea of seeking a kingdom that has been sealed away from the world for over 300 years does not seem to appeal to the council leaders. However, the idea of seeking dwarves provides the heroes with a note of insight. Although the mountain dwarves sealed themselves into their mountain kingdom, some mountain dwarves lived on the surface mountains and hills surrounding the underground city were cut off from the kingdom. These mountain dwarves came to be known as Neidar or hill dwarves. Most of the heroes are hill dwarves belonging to the Stonefist clan and they believe that the mountains to the south likely contain at least one settlement of hill dwarves who may provide food and shelter for the coming winter or at least provide further information regarding Thorbardin or some other haven for the refugees.
The council breaks at this point. The heroes believe that the best direction would likely be south. Gilthanas and Elistan seem to agree, which leaves them one vote short of a majority. Brooke Stonemason seems resigned to a southern path since her plans for traveling east were viciously denied by Eben and traveling north is a suicide sentence for her people who lack any martial experience. Despite this potential majority vote, the group realizes that it only represents a quarter of the 800 refugees. Almaia and Mora decide to attempt some diplomatic intervention for the remaining three votes.
They first attempt to persuade Locar. After the conversation, Locar seems to recognize that the heroes present no threat to his consolidation of power and he decreases the disdain of his tone toward them. However, his selfish motivations prevent him from agreeing to any option besides retaking the north lands.
The conversation Almaia and Mora have with Briar goes much better than with Locar. Briar seems aware of the destruction and severe danger that now inhabits his home lands to the north. Despite his responsibility for reclaiming the lands of his ancestors, he recognizes the need to protect his people and acquiesces to the logic of seeking refuge to the south “at least for the winter season.”
The conversation with Eben is brief. He seems to know what Almaia and Mora are attempting and he prevents a full conversation by reassuring them that he will travel south with the refugees.
When the council reconvenes for its vote, the decision is to move south with Locar as the only dissenting vote.
As dawn approaches the following morning, the camp is awakened by ferocious roars. Apparently, a group of hunters had harvested some deer and goats overnight and attracted the interests of a 12 foot, 2,000 pound dire bear. The group can see the bear tearing through refugees on the other side of the camp. They grab their equipment and advance on the bear, but not before it tears through 5 refugees.
The bear seems to ignore the crossbow bolts it receives from Almaia as Mora, Donegin, and Yelfis charge into battle. Mora engages the dire bear first, delivering a series of fantastic blows. Her massive attack attracts the attention of the beast who proceeds to slash at Mora with his cart-sized claws. One of the claws digs into Mora’s side and the dwarven monk struggles to free herself from its grasp. The distraction is enough for the remaining refugees to clear the area surrounding the melee.
Donegin prepares her attack as Almaia provides another pair of crossbow shots and Yelfis casts Enlarge Person. As Mora struggles, the bear suddenly throws her at the attacking Donegin. The two dwarves collide and land in a heap 15 feet from the massive animal. An enlarged Yelfis begins attacking the dire bear dealing more damage to creature. However, the bear seems unstoppable and it begins to slaughter Yelfis. As Almaia arrives to the melee, Mora and Donegin regain their feet. Donegin casts Sound Burst behind the bear while Mora approaches to re-enter melee. Despite the Sound Burst behind the bear, it is intent on destroying the enlarged Yelfis. The dire bear attacks the cleric again knocking him unconscious, scooping him up, and throwing him a Donegin. Donegin dodges the enlarged Yelfis missile and begin to treat his serious injuries. Mora and Almaia continue their attack on the dire bear. The great beast throws Mora again with a swipe of its claw and it begins to groan weekly under the next few hits from Almaia. Suddenly, Donegin returns from treating her brother with a healing spell. The bold dwarf brandishes its morningstar as the great bear stands on its hind legs and reaches its full height of 12 feet. Donegin seize the opportunity to bludgeon the beast just above its belly. The crunch of shattered bones sounds the death toll of the primitive creature and his arms fall limply at its side. The dire bear teeters on its back legs for a moment before collapsing like a falling tree. The refugees give out a cheer and quickly set to harvesting the dire bear before the camp begins its trek south.
The large group of refugees spends the morning moving south through the narrow part of the valley along a dwarven road. Old monuments and standing stones dot the landscape. Many of the stones have snow-filled runes engraved on them. The standing stones vary in size – some are just a foot or two tall, some are ten foot monolithic cylinders.
The old Dwarven runes are blessings invoking the protection of Astarin and Reorx on all who travel the Road of Kith-Kanan.
Eventually, the way south branches to the southeast and southwest. The main road appears to continue southeast, but a pass is clearly visible in the previously impenetrable wall of mountain to the southwest.
The heroes begin discussing which path might be easier to travel or provide sustenance and shelter. Despite these geographic and natural concerns, Mora decides to see if she can discern any other information about which path offers a greater change of survival.
Mora discovers a set of fresh tracks leading along the southwest passage. The tracks are no more than 3 to 4 hours old and appear to be dwarven! Mora also discovers evidence of a recent campfire 300 feet from the trail.
The refugees spend the rest of the day following the tracks through mountain trails which bring them to a wide vale rimmed by ice-capped peaks. The north side of the vale are the Redstone Bluffs, the tawny sandstone barely visible through the wind-driven snows. Beyond those mountains lie the forests of the Qualinesti.
A towering peak, possibly an ancient volcano, rises from the floor of this isolated valley like a lone tree on a prairie. The vale is somewhat protected from the wind and cold that refugees have suffered through during the days travel; the aspens and firs grow in abundance here, and the water in the streams is still ice free.
The group follows the tracks until dusk and the refugees begin to set camp. The refugees are desperate for food and warmth having received neither during the days travel. The camp that evening is a series of bonfires and the smell of roasted dire bear meat mixes with the smoke of burning greenwood. The night is uneventful with the exception of occasional cold winds and constant popping of sap from the camp fires.
The heroes are attempting to roust the camp early and regain the trail of the dwarf they followed yesterday when Donegin spots something in the predawn light of the morning sky. As the object gets closer, it reveals the massive wingspan of a red dragon. Refugees begin screaming as the dragon flies straight for the smoking columns of the camps dwindling bonfires. The heroes recognize the red dragon as Ember, Verminaard’s personal mount. The ancient dragon having presumably won the battle with the addled Flamestrike proceeds to strafe the encampment with its fiery breath. Five refugees are transformed into blackened and shrunken forms by the molten forces of the dragon’s breath; their limbs final movements curl inward twisting them into hideous pugilists. Having wreaked enough havoc, Ember flies westward and quickly disappears behind a mountain.
The camp mobilizes quickly after the dragon attack and the group quickly locates the encampment and trail of the dwarf they followed on the previous day.
The tracks of the dwarf lead south through a pass and with an hour of travel the group spots a lone dwarf standing in the middle of the road. The dwarf does not appear to be traveling as the tracks would suggest, but rather, standing guard. The dwarf raises a hand to stop the advancing mob. The heroes stop the group several hundred feet from the dwarf.
The dwarf signals in the dwarven tongue for no more than four representative to come forward. The heroes comply but insist the lone dwarf meet them half way. The dwarf complies and gives a whistle. A dozen dwarves appear from behind rocks, bushes, and seemingly the ground on either side of the narrow pass, but they remain in their location. The heroes recognize the gesture as a typical show of force tactic that hill dwarves use to ensure peaceful negotiations with uninvited trespassers in their territory.
As the heroes and lone dwarf meet, the dwarf begins the conversation by demanding to know where they think they are going. The group replies that they are heading south as part of their flight from Pax Tharkas. The lone dwarf warrior responds incredulously, “Bah! Why would any one need to flee the fortress of the people? Were you prisoners?”
The heroes explain that they were not prisoners, but liberators of the human slaves that now travel with them. Again the dwarf scoffs, “The fortress of the people does not keep slaves! What trickery is this?”
The heroes explain that the dragon armies have invaded Abanasinia and their dragonmen occupy all of the major cities while their dragons wreak terror and destruction against any remaining civilized settlements. The dwarf guffaws, “Ha! You had me going and believing you for a moment! But I must say you overplayed your story with that fairy tale of dragons.”
The heroes insist that their account is true and they were attacked by a dragon no less than two hours earlier and not more than three miles from their current location. The heroes mention that they were following the trail of a lone dwarf traveler and that perhaps he may be able to confirm their story.
The dwarf eyes them with a mixed expression that conveys his desire to believe fellow dwarves, but his disbelief in their story. The lone dwarf yells back to his group, “Alright you stoneheads, anyone seen any dragons?” The dwarf dragged out the emphasis of each syllable in his last word to convey an acknowledgement of the ridiculous nature to his question. To his surprise, one of his dwarves begins to briskly head down the valley wall to the main path. The dwarf appears road wary and is covered in cold weather clothes and equipment typical of a scout patrolling a cold mountain range like the one they just left. The lone dwarf steps back to confer with his scout, nodding his head and furrowing his brow at the report. He sends the dwarf back to his former position and rejoins the heroes in conversation, his tone a little more serious.
“Well, my man reports that he witnessed a great winged beast this morning attacking your camp. While I’m not inclined to believe his or your account that it was a true dragon and not a Wyvern, I must acknowledge the apparent truth in your words. What is it you want from the Neidar?”
The heroes alight at the mention of the name of their race. They quickly explain that they too are Neidar.
“It is true that some of our people refer to themselves as Neidar.” He raises his chin pridefully, “But they are not of the Neidar Clan.” He emphasized the word ‘clan’ to convey its meaning. Although most hill dwarf clans claim heritage to the Neidar clan, it appears that the heroes have come across the first settlement of hill dwarves who were locked out of the underground mountain city of Thorbardin over 300 years ago.
The heroes acknowledge the clarification and introduce themselves as members of the Stonefist clan.
The lone dwarf pauses and considers before responding, “I am called Zirkan.” Again he pauses in consideration, “I believe I have heard of the Stonefist clan before.” His last words hang in the air long enough to create an awkward tension before he continues. “Eight. You four plus four others may travel into our village. The remainder of your… contingent remains outside the village but under the protection of my people.”
The heroes express their gratitude but emphasize their absence of adequate food supplies. The hunger needs for their group are high and it is only a matter of hours before they will become restless.
Zirkan nods in understanding. “You four into our village and four of your best hunters may hunt with my scout contingent for the day. Anything my hunters or yours harvest from these woods is yours to keep.”
The heroes thank Zirkan and return to the refugee group to report the outcome of the meeting with the leadership council.