The party moved southwards into Skell. Tensions in the small state were high. Though the undead were east in Orlana and, judging by reports, moving into Daymar’Duan, Lord Merios had sent most of his men to guard the passes in the Blue Hills to prevent incursions into his lands. Skellian villages were militarizing, building and repairing palisades and calling their burghers into militia service. Food prices were rising and most travellers were swinging westwards into Cadria to avoid Skell altogether. Sleet, rain and cold made the journey even more miserable.
The heroes progressed onwards until they reached, the Golden Passage, the most important trade route in Tantas. Gold, furs, and myrrh flowed out of Nyashightgaro while Ravennan metal wares, timber, and weapons flowed in. Cadria had militarized most of the Passage, a low-lying coastal plain just north of the Bay of Batal. It exacted tolls from resentful Ravennan merchants from a series of palisaded forts overlooking the road.
On the second day, near evening, the party came upon the burned-out remnants of a Ravennan caravan within sight of a Cadrian post. Upon further investigation the party discovered two dozen corpses, mostly Ravennans felled by lance and sword but also a single Cadrian killed by an arrow. The caravan appeared to have been carrying mostly cavalry-oriented weapons like shortbows, sabres, and spears. Since the fort was within sight, the party assumed that Cadria had attacked it, but it seemed to make little sense. They assumed that the death of the guardsmen had prompted it, but the black-fletched arrow in his chest did not seem a typical Ravennan weapon since that country usually favored crossbows.
The party approached the fort to investigate. It was more than just a military post as with most of the other posts in the Passage; it doubled as a commercial stop for Ravennans, housing two inns plus other travel-oriented businesses like a wheelwright, a cartwright, and a farrier. An internal palisade wall separated the military and civilian sections. It was packed with Ravennan caravans. On their way in, they passed a burial detail led by a young lieutenant; Roondar tried to question him, but received little response other than being told to speak to the Captain.
The Captain, it turned out, was just inside, in the middle of an argument with a richly dressed Ravennan merchant. The party was able to overhear the argument as they approached; the Ravennan accused Cadria of having slaughtered innocent traders carrying weapons to Nyashightgaro to trade to the Bataari tribesmen, to be used to fend of the Pit’s demi-humans. The Cadrian captain replied that the caravan was carrying weapons to El’Atol for illicit purposes and having started the fight by killing one of his own guardsmen. Roondar, the diplomat of the party, attempted to explain the reasons to doubt this theory to the captain. The captain, however, sneeringly replied that a Ravennan could use a bow like anyone else and it could have easily have been burned in the aftermath. Torash sensed that the captain may not be opposed to the idea of war between Cadria and Ravenna; after all, the nations have a long history of armed conflict over the Passage and Ravenna’s defensive pact with El’Atol had heightened tensions. The merchant stormed off to the Dancing Man tavern.
The party retired to the fort’s other inn, Elsa’s Regret. There, they worked the common room, trying to gather information. They found the Ravennan patrons reluctant to talk lest they ignite tensions; after all, they were de-facto prisoners in a Cadrian fort, and a spark could turn it into a massacre. They had, however, heard the gossip about the attack and doubted Cadria’s story. It seemed war may be on the horizon. Glithas approached the bartender and inquired about whether the town had a place to purchase arrows, thinking to track down the black-fetched arrow that had killed the Cadrian guardsmen. He learned the only fletcher was in the fort.
Glithas and Bjorin went to the fort to ask to buy arrows from the fletcher, and Glithas talked his way in. He found the fletcher with bags of feathers, some of them perhaps black, and casually bought several quivers full while asking the fletcher if they could be dyed black. The fletcher said they could and mentioned someone had bought some black arrows recently, but when Glithas tried to get more information about who had bought them the fletcher said he couldn’t remember.
Meanwhile, Roondar and the rest of the party went to the Dancing Man, where Roondar chatted up the Ravennan merchant with great success. There, he learned more about the delicate political situation. While Ravenna had signed a pact with El’Atol, the pact was defensive; it would not be activated if Ravenna attacked Cadria. In that sense, Cadria would be the winner if it baited Ravenna into attacking. The merchant, who turned out to be of House Vitor and the first cousin of one of Ravenna’s Princes, said he doubted Ravenna would declare war but he would bring a report of this to his cousin. Roondar also attempted to get more information out of the lieutenant leading the burial detail but found little more other than the lieutenant’s apparent displeasure at his captain.
The party resolved to try to break into the fort tomorrow when Glithas went to pick up his dyed arrows, and Torash retired for the night. Singing a Norhelmian tune to himself, he flung his armor into a corner, and his jaunty movements saved his life; as he made his throw, the dagger of an assailant landed a blow, glancing only as his shoulder moved out of the way. Torash whirled to find a red-masked man in the room and a fierce struggle ensued. Torash managed to get a hold of his warhammer and beat back his assailant, aided by the man’s short sword becoming stuck in a bed post on a wide swing. When the assassin ran, Torash gave chase, shouting for help.
As Torash had been fighting for his life, a stableboy delivered a letter in a blank envelope to Roondar, who opened it and read the note inside. Instantly, the letter detonated in a explosion, washing the room in flame. Glithas managed to flatten himself on the ground and escape harm, but Roondar and a distracted Bjorin and Yunaan were caught in the blast and flung like ragdogs along with the rest of the furniture. Screams of the other patrons were quickly extinguished and flame burst into the inn’s kitchen and anteroom. Torash, on the stairs at that moment, staggered against the wall.
With the inn now burning fiercely, Torash began to summon water to try to get into the common room, abandoning his chase. Glithas tried to help a wounded Ravennan out while Roondar carved a path with summoned cold to the kitchen, but Bjorin proved the greatest firefighter of the group by extinguishing all the flames in the inn with a single spell. While Yunaan, Torash, and Glithas gathered in the anteroom and healed the wounded Ravennan, Bjorin and Roondar went out through the kitchen sidedoor to find the fort in anarchy. Screaming people ran about while Ravennans either tried to flee or get their wagons together. Horses had broken open the doors of the Dancing Man’s stable and were galloping about the streets, trampling several. Green gas was billowing out of Elsa’s Regret and patrons staggered out, vomiting violently. Meanwhile, the Cadrians seemed curiously absent.
Bjorin and Luthiana focused on trying to get the horses under control with both druidic magic and canine herding skill, moving them back to the barn. Roondar, left near the kitchen, heard a noise and whirled about and found himself facing another assassin who demanded to know where the crystals were as he attacked the gnome, beginning a long duel of blades versus psionics. Yunaan, doing a poor job of watching the front of the inn, found himself with a dagger buried in his back yet a third assailant. Two arrows hit the ground near Bjorin’s feet. It was becoming obvious the party was under a concerted attack.
While Torash and Glithas, unaware of Yunaan’s plight, healed another Ravennan survivor, Yunaan tried to fend off his attacker with axe and shield. Bjorin was charged by a trio of assassins but summoned vines to entangle them to give himself breathing room. The room was short-lived as two more rogues plus a grey-clad, masked woman emerged, demanding to know where the crystals were before attacking. Bjorin summoned a fierce sleet storm in the middle of the fort to slow their approach.
Roondar had little luck with his opponent, chipping at his health until a poor swing by the assailant resulted in his dagger embedding itself in a wagon. The man instead reached into his belt and plucked out a vial, which he threw at the gnome. It shattered on impact, igniting as the liquid it contained made contact with air. Roondar ignored the fire, instead finishing off the wounded man a massive energy blast.
Yunaan felled his attacker as Glithas and Torash joined him, and Glithas added magical fire to the barbarian’s axe. They discovered something unsettling; whe the rogues died, they seemed to emit a white gas. Finally, they turned towards Bjorin, who had been holding off his six attackers with only Luthiana’s aid. Unfortunately, the sleet storm largely fizzled as the assassins seemed to force their way through it with relative ease. Those who were entangled resorted to throwing darts at the druid, chipping away at his health but doing less damage than they would have in close quarters. Bjorin fell back as Torash summoned a spiritual hammer to help and Yunaan charged forward. He tried to summon animal aid but the spell fizzled as he lost concentration. Instead, he summoned more vines to help lock down the fast-moving rogues and hold them down for Yunaan and Luthiana to engage.
A new group of assassins emerged from the east and Torash prepared for them by calling an aura of slashing blades around himself, but the rogues countered with a volley of fiery vials that exploded onto the cleric, as they ran on past towards Glithas who beat a hasty retreat. Torash countered with an aura of intense cold that sapped their strength and speed, freezing their skin while simultaneously helping Torash absorb the fire damage. The rogues, however, ran on past, rapidly encircling the next closest target: Roondar, just emerged from the side street where he had defeated his last opponent.
The fight continues, with Roondar surrounded and the swirling, chaotic darkness of the fort undoubtedly holding more surprises…