Chapter15: Land of the Giants: The Vale

Ambyrmont 22nd 1014

The following morning the shadowy giant servants returned to lay a morning meal and bowls of steaming water for washing. After breakfast had been consumed and preparations for the day ahead made the Guardians returned and showed them to a door that opened onto a ramp leading down into the vale.

“I hope you are all rested, fed and ready to continue?” Finola asked, “You may wish to head straight for the tower, or you may divert to the forest where the horsemen have a camp.”

The ramp leads to a track that runs through the shoulder height grass due east towards the tower of the giants.

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The Journey on the Sea of Grass

Almost straight away the companions decided to leave the track and head off into the grass. Jedon stayed behind to study the land to see what it could tell him. The others headed towards a clearing in which stood a ruined watermill by a dry stream bed.
As they studied this there was a cry and Zan was dragged off into the dense grass.

Badger Sett

After the battle with the badgers, there was no sign of Zan. Chang and several of the others explored the dire-badgers' sett but found nothing but bones, not human, fortunately. Thanduil sensed that some magic had been used there recently, possibly related to the teleport spell. Jedon found some feathers and mentioned that he had had a conversation with some small rodents and they had mentioned: "The Master of Crows" who was the reason why there were no birds, other than Thanduil's familiar Sky-Fury in the vale.

Trusting that Zan would find his way to the tower on his own as they had no way of tracking the bard the rest of the companions continued along the track.

Troll Bridge

They crossed an old stone bridge over a dried-up stream and saw signs of troll occupation but decided not to delve deeper into the cave that lay beneath the span of the bridge.

Blighted Copse

Further along, they came to a copse of blighted trees. At the centre was a huge tree, it's heart burnt out from a lightning strike. Glinting in the sun they spotted Zan's flute hanging from a spider's web. Thanduil managed to retrieve the flute but triggered a trap in doing so. Jedon identified it as the work of ettercaps and Mixnan managed to disarm the trap as well as find a trapdoor in the floor of the burnt-out tree trunk.

Spiders Supplies

Leaving Aleanor on guard they descended into the shaft that lay beneath the trapdoor. Chang burnt away more webs and nearly destroyed the rope from which he was hanging. He dropped into a chamber from which other doors of wood and web lead off in several directions including another trapdoor in the floor. One door led to a chamber littered with bones and with clay urns stuck into holes in the walls. One of these contained coins but cautious now the companions shut the door and moved on.

Another chamber contained several large cocoons hanging from the ceiling. One contained the remains of a creature similar to the guardians at the gatehouse. Another was trapped and contained the remains of a man who carried a disturbing message on a square of parchment.

“ So I, Hurvild, am the last of our party, at least the last that is still of sound body and mind. I will return to the gatehouse and apologise to the gatekeepers that our mission failed The First and Master Kesryk will have to find the giants by other means. We were not able to reach the tower or find the horse-men. Caron, we lost at the mill, we sorely needed his healing skills later when Nolan was taken and I was wounded by the troll under the bridge. Vester was the last. He was studying the sarsen, hoping to find some clue as to where his familiar and the other birds had vanished. I only turned my back for a moment and he was gone. He shouted something about druidic magic gone wrong, the grass gateway. I write this note in case I fail to make it back to the gate-house and someone else tries to find the giants. Beware your lost friends and wish not for their return. Don’t leave anyone alone, no one is safe. Dated this 9th day of Thaumont 985.”

A hurried check revealed that Aleanor had vanished!

Vowing to keep each other in sight at all times they quickly opened the remaining cocoons finding nothing more than dead and desiccated dire-badger corpses. A final room was filled with sentient roots that seemed to reach out towards Victor and Thanduil and so the door was swiftly slammed shut.

Slug City

Mixnan was lowered on a rope down the shaft that led to the next level where he spotted a giant slug and quickly climbed back up the rope so that a plan could be made to combat the creature.

Chang discovered that he had received a gift from the King of the Mushroom men - he could now use the fungal tendrils in the ground to 'see' into the chambers nearby.

They decided to collect the partially decomposed badger carcasses and toss them down the shaft and hoped that this would be enough to satiate the slug. It worked and the slug slipped into a corner to digest his meal while Mixnan climbed back down. To everyone's surprise Hurvild, the supposed corpse in the cocoon came back to life. It appeared that he had just been asleep for thirty years!

He joined the others in climbing down the rope to take on the slug, just wearing a loincloth and a mithril vest. He kept asking for his backpack which had gone missing in the time he had been imprisoned.

With the slug dozing the companions checked the other doors leading from the chamber. Thanduil was attacked by a tall plant-like creature which was identified as a moonflower behind the western door. On opening the southern door they were attacked by a giant praying mantis while the moonflowers opened the western door and blinded some of the party with a flash of bright light. The slug also started to come around so they were being attacked from all sides. The mantis was swiftly despatched while the slug was killed by a combination of Jedon's blades and Thanduil's quick thinking. He conjured a pile of salt and flung it at the wounded slug. The moonflowers proved to be a tougher foe and it took many blows and spells along with Hurvild's strange concoctions, to kill one of them after Hurvild had found his backpack in the mantis' lair.

Repelled by fire, Victor's holy flames and Hurvild's bombs, the last two moonflowers retreated back into their chamber where they started to put roots down. Thanduil scattered salt and water on them in the hope that this would prevent them from healing themselves. After wedging the door shut the companions turned their attention to the trapdoor in the floor.

Continuing down Hurvild glimpsed a man in a black feathered cloak who vanished leaving behind a strange combination of ettercap and construct that appeared to be able to shoot webs from its fingers. The alchemist prevented the creature from attacking his companions on the level above using some more of his prepared concoctions.

Meanwhile up above the rest of the party had been fighting off the remaining two moonflowers that had forced the door open and attacked. Some treasures had been discovered in the belly of one of the moonflowers - an iron ring, a wand, some enchanted arrows, a blue glass ring and an assortment of gems.

In the lowest chamber, Hurvild had found the rest of his gear scattered around and when the others followed him down and searched the chamber finding an amber wand, an arcane scroll, a divine scroll, some large black feathers and a pouch of coins.

What they were unable to find however was any sign of Zan or Aleanor. Nor were there any further exits from this chamber. Unless there was an exit hidden in one of the other chambers higher up, this was a dead-end and they would need to continue the search above ground once they had rested.

Ambyrmont 23nd 1014

The Troll Cave

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After emerging from the blasted oak they headed back towards the west and the Gatehouse. Thanduil's familiar Sky-Fury returned with news of the Master of Crows, he was a strange bird-man called Abatu. The weather started to worsen with heavy drizzle and dark clouds. They reached the troll cave but could find no sign of Zan or Aleanor so headed back east. After a short distance, Jedon saw signs in the grass of the same sigil that Aleanor bore on her palm, drawn in the mud by a group of harvest mice. While pondering this they were attacked by the Master of Crows, a pair of trolls and one of Hurvild's corrupted companions, Caron the cleric.

After the battle, they discovered that the Master of Crows had vanished taking Hurvild with him. The spellcasters amongst the party determined that the strange creature had used a spell similar to Travel via Plants. Jedon found that a group of mice had produced a sigil similar to that found on Aleanor's palm in the mud between the grass stems. Following the trail left by the mice and with Sky Fury, Thanduil's familiar, providing guidance from above they managed to find their way through the Sea of Grass and arrived at a large man-made burial mound set amidst more normal grasslands.

Searching the mound for an entrance all they found was a belt of great age and magical power. From the magical knowledge of the spellcasters in the party, they determined that it once belonged to Vainamoinen a human bard of great renown who may have been buried in the mound.

Ambyrmont 24th 1014

The Centaurs

After a night of rest, the companions awoke to see a group of the horse-men, centaurs, approaching. Led by one named Featherlock they were escorted across the grasslands to a forest of secret ways and trapped paths. Once through the forest, they entered the farmlands around Chiron's Forge, the village of the centaurs. The companions soon gained the trust of the centaurs who seemed to be planning a feast after the council meeting where the companions' mission would be discussed.

The centaurs are led by Rufus Firetail who has been recently elected leader of the Council. The true power may, however, reside in the body of the Seer, a strange female centaur who wears a headdress of blue silk and gold coins that covers her face.

The Council and the Feast

After being welcomed warmly by the centaurs of Chiron's Forge the companions were ushered into a large roundhouse where they were questioned by the Herdmaster and the Seer. Thanduil led the responses and some surprising information was revealed. It appears that what the companions took to be gnomes were in fact gremlins, mysterious creatures with the power to cause mechanical and magical devices to go wrong.

Disappointingly the council did not come to a decision regarding allowing the companions to enter the Howe or the Tower. Instead, they wanted to discuss it further and sleep on it. In the meantime, the companions were invited to a feast held in their honour. Plenty of food and drink relaxed most of the company though Jedon found it distasteful and returned to the guesthouse they had been provided with. The others partied hard and Chang won a handful of bottles as a reward for acrobatically leaping over a firepit. Mixnan was given some magical gloves by an admirer for achieving the same feat, though less gracefully.

After the party, everyone slept soundly in the guesthouse and work refreshed the next day.

Ambyrmont 25th 1014

The Council's Decision

After resting the companions were taken back to a packed moot hall where Firetail and the Seer proclaimed that they had come to an agreement. They would be allowed to enter the Howe and the Tower but only if they could find a way in!

Bonemane the Seer pronounced the following, "We can only grant permission, I cannot tell you the way into the Fortress. That is for you to discover as I do not know the ways past the wards that guard and bind the entrances. I have had some visions and read cryptic runes, ‘to seek the highest you must descend’, ‘what is dry was once wet”, “take the road to the starless sea’. As to the Howe, I heard the voice of a bard singing the following verses.

‘The mirrors of your soul will say that there is nothing here. Your tongue will also say nay as will the sharpest ear. Your fingers will pass right through my skin, there’s nothing here to feel. But find me now to stand within for woe and weal.’"

The seer gives Dohrum a coin, “Take this coin, you have the Farsight, the Eye that sees beyond the horizon. If you hold it in your fist, concentrate on it and say my name I will hear you, wherever you are and I will answer a question if I can.”
To the others, she gave advice and reassurance.
She bows before Thanduil, “We centaurs are not great thinkers and such riddles and enigmas leave us flummoxed and cold. We are, yes even I, creatures of passion and action. If you wish I can ask Featherlock and his troop to take you by the swiftest paths back to the Howe or to the border of our land nearest the Tower, dependant on how you read the bones of the riddling vision.”

She gently rests a delicate hand on Victor’s shoulder. “You are troubled. The choice is hard and both ways could lead to both good and evil, woe and weal as the riddle suggests.”

She moves to Chang, “I sense great strength of body and spirit in you. The power of ki is fuelled by your love of powerful spirits, of both sorts!” She laughs and moves on.

She turns back to Dohrum, “A friend, no matter how distant, is still a friend and will help in need. If they don’t then they are no sort of friend. Grasp the coin and I will respond if I can.”

Mixnan is next, “Trust yourself, follow your heart, it is strong and true.”

Finally, she comes to Jedon, "I sense mistrust and darkness in you. Unsure you are that your friends should be rescued at all, no it is a mistrust of one of your captured friends. Don't let the darkness and mistrust grow ranger, it tempts you with power, but is a corrupting power, one that drew Abatu into its arms. Don't join him there."

After a brief discussion, the companions decided to travel to the Howe rather than directly to the Tower.

Battle at the Howe

Arriving with an escort of centaurs led by Featherlock at the Howe the companions searched for an entrance. Thanduil discovered a way in but it was hidden and protected by a powerful illusion. More searching of the mound revealed several bronze figurines in the form of gnomes, each damaged and each different in design.

As these were being studied a group of Abatu's constructs started to ride up, ogre torsos grafted onto the bodies of large horses. One seemed much smaller and scrawny possibly a spellcaster, an opinion that was soon confirmed by the delivery of fireballs and other spells as the largest of the cent-orcs rode up and attacked.

As Featherlock and his troupe held back the enemy Thanduil placed the three figurines on a stone plinth above the door and mimicked what he through the missing fourth statuette should have looked like and this caused the doorway to clear and the companions rushed in while the door remained open.

Inside the Howe

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The companions explored the inside of the Howe. The entrance chamber led to a solid stone door which took some effort to open. Beyond was a forked corridor, the western fork led to a trio of cells doors. The corridor was illuminated by strange floating orbs which as thee companions opened the first cell door attacked with bursts of lightning, fire and acid!
The first cell held Zan and Aleanor, the second contained unfinished or faulty constructs some of which looked like Zan, Aleanor and Hurvild. The third cell was empty.

The party returned to the fork and explored the eastern fork which appeared to end in a dead-end. Dohrum and Mixnan searched the walls and found what appeared to be doors in both the north and west walls. A lever in the west wall revealed a door opening into a well-furnished chamber. Thanduil was drawn towards a desk littered with books and scrolls and as he entered the torches in the wall sconces lit magically illuminating the chamber.

Meanwhile, Mixnan trod on a loose tile which caused a ticking-clicking sound to start which continued even after he had jumped off the tile - he could see that the depressed slab had been jammed by a small golden coin.

Inside the chamber, Chang pulled back a heavy velvet curtain that covered a large, ornate mirror. As the mirror was revealed a column of golden light formed before it. The light lasted for a few minutes before dying away again.

Thanduil studied the books on the shelves that had titles such as "A Mirror Maker's Handbook, by Horrobin of Serraine and “The Concise History Of The Nagpa Race, by Tenilrélian Nielorbriel." The former has a page turned down.

“Mirrors of Duplication are rare and dangerous devices. Those that have been created have faded with misuse and time and are now no longer able to fulfil their original function reliably. Most are just able to replicate non-living matter rather than the fearsome duplicate of the viewer. I have known the more powerful mages using the disruptive powers of gremlins to prevent the duplicate from attacking the viewer instead the duplicate, immune to mind-affecting magic and normal weapons becomes a powerful thrall of the viewer. Such reports are of course the ramblings of a deluded mind as gremlins like gnomes have been lost to the world since the Great War. A far easier method would be to water assassin vine roots with the distillate of doppelganger eyes and then have the vines entangle the creature to be duplicated. I cannot myself vouch for the effectiveness of this hideous act, but the only extant copy of the Ecology of the Doppelganger which was kept held in the great library of Matazumi on Serraine is said to contain the details of the process.”

Dohrum searched through the books on the desk, “Criminology For The Curious Elf, by Greheque” and "A Man's Collected History Of Sculpture, by Othare” were a couple of the interesting titles he found. Mixnansearched the wardrobe and found a few ancient, mouldy robes hang forlornly scenting the air with the stench of decay and age. Standing on the floor of the wardrobe is a trio of bottles. The labels are faded but from what you can decipher they appear to contain strong dwarven spirits. He pocketed the spirits for later.

Aleanor then accidentally opened a secret door by treading on a loose floor slab revealing a corridor and a wide flight of stairs. At the foot of the stairs, they opened the door at the foot of the stairs and headed east. The corridor ended with a door in the south wall. The doorframe is ornately carved with vines and hidden within the leaves are small grinning creatures, musical instruments and fruits. The remains of gilding and paint gleam in some of the crevices but the majority of the carving is plain. The stone door is engraved with dwarven runes but the words are in the giantish language.

“Welcome all to Vainamoinen’s feast-hall. Though I be dead, be merry! Eat! Sing! Be restored!”

The Feasthall of Vainamoinen

The Feasthall is a large square chamber, some forty feet on each side, dominated by a long banqueting table groaning under the weight of food displayed on ornate gold platters. Richly coloured tapestries cover the stone walls. A huge roaring fireplace in the south wall fills the chamber with warmth. The air is redolent with the scent of fragrant wood smoke, roast meat and sweet music. Everything is on a giant scale, table, chairs and fireplace are about twice the normal size. The ceiling is decorated with the sky at night and is supported by four undecorated pillars. The pillars are however entangled in sickly green vines growing from broken stone floor slabs.

Abatu was there along with the corpse of Hurvild and it appeared that he had surrendered. He gives up his staff to Chang while the others look at the creature with suspicion. He admitted to killing Hurvild and the alchemist's companions. He then went on to explain why he has done what he did.

“Trust. It’s a difficult thing isn’t it.” Abatu replied to Thanduil, “I have trusted you with my staff, my font of power. There are more of you than me. I could have attacked before you reached this room but I have realised that I could not win and my only option was to trust you. Now, will you trust me in return? I can’t make you trust me. Trust never comes through force or violence.”
He pulled himself up onto one of the giant chairs, pain etched onto his vulture-like face as he did so. “How many have died? Too many yet I would have spent every life of those in the valley to save my brother, my family, my clan. That is the nature of the curse that is upon me, that was upon all of my people. I got to decide who lived and died because I could, that is what power grants you, the right to decide”
He pauses for a moment.
“Your friends have won the battle outside the Howe, they have been wounded but none have been killed. The orentaurs were an early experiment of mine, I needed beasts of burden with a modicum of intelligence and my experiments led to them. It was not a successful marriage. They were jealous of the true centaurs and left me to fight them, orcs have a great love of horseflesh and man-flesh.”

Abatu made himself as comfortable as he could on the outsized chair and began. “There was once a mighty nation here, Varellya. A nation of elves, elves of the highest order. A nation of scholars, a nation of artists. Then the giants came and with the aid of the gnomes they built their tower. The Varellya welcomed them at first as the giants promised to work with the gnomes to make the weather more clement. For years the tower brought bounteous harvests and the land was full of wonders. Then something went wrong. The device of the gnomes summoned a creature, a powerful monster from the Sphere of Entropy and everything changed. My people started dying and the land became corrupted. Those of us that didn’t die became twisted and deformed, the distorted form you see before you is not what we were. We became eaters of carrion, we hungered for knowledge ever more desperately, it became a mania, an obsession. Many killed themselves by throwing themselves over the cliffs while others fought futile battles against the monsters hoping to die and perhaps gain redemption that way. Now many, many years have passed and there is only I and my bother left. Many years ago, he too despaired of his life and vowed to enter the tower and put an end to the corruption within thus hoping to bring peace and beauty back to the land.

He has not returned and in my despair, I have turned to darker and darker arts in my attempt to rescue him. I am not strong, I am not wise, I am not worthy of him but I must continue trying. It is to this end that I have endeavoured to create the ultimate hero who may be able to enter the tower. I have failed to create one and at such a cost. If my brother was to be rescued and seen what I have become and what I have done he will probably die in despair and disgust. Thus, I surrender to you, I see in you the heroes that I tried to create. Do what you will with me, but free my brother if you can.”

Abatu seems to recognise something in Thanduil and suggests that he might be one of the lost elves from the Vale. He also explains his experiments with the mirror and the regenerating feast as some of his attempts to create the heroes he needed to rescue his brother. He thought they may escape the guardians of the tower and gain entrance.

The Crypt of Vainamoinen

The door to the chamber is decorated with a pair of dragons in flight, attacking each other, one each biting the other’s tail. The doors swung open easily revealing a large stone chamber. Light comes from a dozen of glowing orbs, similar to those that attacked you outside Zan’s cell but these bob near the ceiling giving off a warm yellow light.

At the centre of the chamber lies a stone plinth on top of which lies the carved figure of a man. A long beard covers his chest and extends almost to his waist. At his feet is carved an unusual stringed instrument.

Over the tomb, a canopy of stone, carved in the semblance of a quartet of trees stands. Stone apples painted gold hang from the branches and amongst the leaves, the forms of songbirds can be glimpsed.

I WILL SPEAK WITH YOU” intoned a loud voice seemingly coming from everywhere at once, “BUT FIRST HE MUST LEAVE.”
A huge figure, a massively enlarged version of the one carved on the tomb forms insubstantially in the northern portion of the chamber. The figure draws a mighty battle axe from over his shoulder and points at Abatu. “HE IS NOT WELCOME HERE.
He places the head of the axe on the ground and leans on the haft, glowering.

HIM. THE OLD FELLOW.” He swings his axe around so it is pointing straight at Zan, “THOUGH THE UGLY ONE CAN GO AS WELL, I HAVE SAID ALL I WANT TO SAY TO HIM.”

Vainamoinen turns then to Thanduil, and rolls his eyes theatrically, “THAT WILL SUFFICE I SUPPOSE, BUT THE OTHER MUST GO.

Zan sketched a bow and with a shrug to Aleanor stepped out through the double doors and closed them behind him.

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