Reign of Winter

Night of the Demon
A tale of terror as told by the people who witnessed it

Kresnev, Mikhail, and Pietra sat in the corner of the Stag quietly drinking their ale. Business was slow today as many decided to stay home and lay low after the events from the preceding night.

“Poor Nadia”, said Pietra. “After all she’s been through, and now to be set upon by monsters.”

Kresnev snarled through his grizzled beard, long and thick from his 50 odd years in the cold of Irresen. “More like demons. You saw them as well as I when they first came to town. They speak some strange tongue as demons do and the fey-looking one didn’t seem to even speak at all, just gestured with his hands. No doubt casting some kind of unholy incantation.”

“At least he and the woman looked human”, said Mikhail. “The other two didnt even bother to hide their appearance with a glamour. The red one looked just like a devil and the…the tusked one…” Mikhail swallowed hard, suddenly gripped by fear all over again.

Nadia had fallen on hard times. She had always been somewhat of a leader in the community, bravely testing the wilds of Irresen for game and other resources. When Pietra’s daughter of 8 months had become ill with some of the other children one season, it was Nadia that had been amongst a small crew on a 4 day journey to another village for medicines, despite a raging blizzard. Tragedy had recently come to Nadia though when the White Witch of the Pale Tower sent for Nadia’s child. It was presumed that the child had been caught publicly criticizing the White Witch who has many eyes and sees many things. One might have expected her to mourn and hide away in her home, but instead she took off 2 days later with a local hunting party. Each of us grieves in our own way. When she returned she brought more than just fresh game with her. Four unusual strangers, clearly foreigners, were in her party. She claimed they were her cousins, but not even Thom Scheely, the local halfwit, would have bought that load.

“I seen what happened”, continued Mikhail. “The witch’s men came to Nadia’s looking for the strangers. They were pounding on her door. It woke me from my nap beside the hearth. After what I saw I might never sleep again! Out of nowhere this beast comes screaming out from Nadia’s threshold and takes one the men’s head off with his bare hands before any of them can even react. Next thing I know, a piercing light comes pouring out of the open doorway and windows to Nadia’s house displaying a silhouette of one of hell’s own knights!”

Kresnev clenched his teeth and shook his closed fist, the other still holding his flagon. “The strangers must have opened some kind of portal to a demon realm. How could a man have torn apart 6 men-at-arms with his bare hands? You saw the bodies. Missing heads and one with his forequarter ripped clean off at the chest, through his armor! A blood bath!”

In truth Mikhail had not actually seen most of the battle. At the sight of the bright light and horrible roar, he had pissed himself and dropped to his knees beneath the window, praying for salvation, but he wasn’t about to mention this to his comrades. “It was a beast for sure, with horrible tusks like the green skinned stranger, only it walked on all fours and lapped up the spilled blood when it was over.”

“How dreadful”, said Pietra, her stomach growing increasingly nauseated by the account. “And now Nadia has disappeared as well.”

“Probably burned alive by now judging by the frozen over piece of charcoal lying in town square this morning”, said Kresnev. “Killed ‘em with hellfire even as they ran for their very lives. It’s obscene!”

The three finished their drinks and got up to leave. As they tightened their furs against the cold outside, they silently hoped that the tumult had passed. Irresen was hard enough without these kinds of affairs. Little did they know that the legend would only grow, for Nesteruk the Marked, the Indestructible Rageblade, primal avatar of fury, and slaughterer of the wicked, had come to the snowy north and the witches of Irresen would know his great anger.

The Winter Without End, The Promise Made in Blood
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

The snow grew as deep as our chests before we came to the source of the unnatural cold. A vortex of snow and ice rose into the sky from the valley floor. Nearby we found a cave dwelling containing a painting of Whitethrone, capital of Irresen. As we approached the vortex, a figure in black armor exited the swirling cloud of ice before collapsing at out feet. He explained it all: the winter, the fey, the Irresenian invasion. Then he set us on a quest on which everything may rely.

He was called Black Midnight and was the outrider for the great witch queen Baba Yaga, the herald of her centennial return to Golarian. It seems that the legends of Irresen are true. Baba Yaga truly does return every 100 years and replace the ruling witch of Irresen with one of Baba Yaga’s own daughters before taking the current ruling daughter away to places unknown. One can only guess what happens to her sons. No legends that Fenn has ever heard or read have spoken of any sons.

This time something was wrong with the transfer of power. The current witch queen was reluctant to relinquish her power and was making moves against Baba Yaga herself. The queen had opened up portals in an attempt to expand the borders of Irresen and thus expand her power. She was not yet powerful enough to face her mother, but if she could cast Golarian into an eternal winter her power would grow to perhaps rival even the legendary Baba Yaga. Our portal was but one of many scattered throughout Golarian and closing but one would not stop the expansion of frozen wastes into our homes for long. However, unspeakable beasts were ravaging Taldor as they spilled through the portal and the winter was killing the crops and starving the people. If we could reach the Pale Tower, we could close the portal. The only problem, we would have to go through the portal to close it, so there wouldn’t be any coming back.

Black Midnight asked us to take 2 magic keys that would allow us to use Baba Yaga’s magical hut in Whitethrone to find her wherever she was as she was the only means on Golarian of stopping all that her daughter had put in motion. We tried to heal him but his life was fading before us. His glamour began to disperse revealing an old man in a black robe, not the armored behemoth we had initially perceived. He again asked us to swear to this task: take the keys and find Baba Yaga. Knowing that this was the disturbance that my master, Arana Snakeroot, had sent me to investigate, I agreed to fulfill his wish. My companions also solemnly vowed to take on this task, for if not us, then who?

With our oath sworn, Black Midnight did the unexpected. He sealed the oath in a sacrificial blood rite by slitting his own throat with a dagger and spilling his lifeblood on the keys. A wave of both power and importance washed over me. We have not discussed it, but I believe my colleagues experienced it as well. I believe it changed us. Fenn seems even smarter and more confident in his magery as if he had unlocked some secret knowledge within himself. Nesteruk seems to have become more contemplative and insightful, the rage in him more focused and measured. Selene too has been different but in a way I cannot describe. Her vigor for rooting out evil has been stoked, yet I wonder if her zeal is true or simply a mask she hides behind, a story she tells herself to give her purpose. I sense something off about her in a way that perhaps only someone such as ourselves, who have been forever marked by powerful forces at birth, can feel in each other.

As for me, it was as if the spilling of blood called out to aspects of my own blood. I feel as if my magic flows more freely and with more potency. I have learned to channel the hauntlings further into unnatural silence and have even begun to commmand them more fully even as an extension of my own hands rather than using them solely to mitigate luck or produce parlor tricks. My connection with Magdh and the fey seems to have been enhanced most of all. Whereas my quick witted nature and love for dramatic flare had previously been the only signs of the Black fey bloodline within me, I now find that I am becoming increasingly more fey in appearance. My white hair has become nearly platinum and Fenn informs me that my blue eyes have become so vibrant as to almost look like sapphires.

I wrapped the bloodied keys in a piece of Black Midnight’s own robes and placed them in my pack. Then we honored him in the best way we knew how for one who had dedicated his life and death to the service of the winter witches. We placed him in a nearby pit and entombed him there within a block of ice made by my own magic. Selene said some beautiful words about sacrifice before kneeling and touching her shield to the icy grave, a sign of respect. Even Nesteruk wept silent tears at this lonely wake, no doubt moved by such a noble and selfless act, though we all pretended not to see. As the moment passed, I looked to Fenn and we exchanged meaning without words as we had done so many times in the Deep Green in our younger days not so long ago. Could we take on this task, this burden? We had known so little other than misery and heart break in our short lives, all of us. Now we group of outcasts were being asked to save Golarian and perhaps worlds beyond if the tales of Baba Yaga were true. Fenn met my gaze with a shrug and smiles finally broke our grim visages. With new dedication and purpose greater than our individual broken lives, we set off through the portal and into the icy wastes of Irresen.

First Taste of Witchcraft

We continued after a rest at the hunting lodge. The horses, freshly purchased mind you, were forced to stay behind. A poor excuse for a rope bridge was own only means to advance. Cross we did. The path led to a clearing in the trees where I bravely put down two treants while my companions struggled to find their weapons. Bear traps lie ahead filling us with confidence that we were on the correct path. Naturally, we made the half-orc carry them.

The path continued to an area with boulders and female child running between them. The child was afraid of something. We tried to call out and help her, but it was no use. We eventually saw a strange hut with chicken legs for supports. The child was inside. Fear gripped the party, but I stayed calm per the usual. What we thought was a child was actually a magically enhanced doll of some sort. It attacked us. I stayed out of the fray allowing my companions a shot at glory. Post-battle we burned the hut learning it has a connection to the unnatural cold.

When we were ready to continue, I noticed a possibly dangerous glyph presumably left by the witches, but I allowed Nobel to inform the party. Later, we finally caught up with the giant weasel which had been harassing us and the local villagers. Again, I bravely put it down. Before us now lied a great valley. As we venture forth, the wind dies down revealing two angry elementals. I took further glory as my magical abilities destroyed our foes. As poor as the whole situation seems, we have no choice but to continue forward into the cold.

Horror at the Hunting Lodge
An excerpt from the Journal of Nobel Black

Near the end of our second day in the frigid woods, with our resources once again nearly spent from our trek, we came upon a rather well built lodge in a clearing in the woods near a large gorge. A quick walk around the perimeter revealed 3 horses in the nearby stable and a crossbow trap hidden in the yard. Believing we had finally found the bandits hideout, we made our way inside cautiously as we expected to find the remaining bandit that had previously eluded us. Instead we found 10 armed men, some in full armor, expecting us. Though they had numbers, several of them appeared so ill as to be barely standing. Selene gave them the option of surrender, but as these things go, of course no one accepted the offer. Within 30 seconds we had the main floor cleared of everything but corpses. We then began our search for the “boss” to which one of the men had shouted a warning.

Upstairs Nesteruk found a small chamber into which he went, great axe thrashing wildly in every direction, to destroy skeletons of ice, his lust for battle not yet satiated. How he finds it wise to wield swords the size of polearms in bedrooms and narrow halls I may never know. Nonetheless, I was not about to lose my head to an indiscriminate axe blow so I ventured downstairs to prepare some sustenance for my colleagues from what could be scavenged in the kitchen. After all, it had been 2 days since we had anything but trail rations and the matter upstairs appeared to be well in hand. That’s when things got…weird.

Before my eyes, the meat I was preparing to fix into sandwiches began to twitch as if animated by some unknown force. Normally these kinds of occurrences would not bother me as I am used to my hauntlings causing strange occurrences, but this did not feel like my normal bad luck. I moved back toward the great room to spy my companions and was stopped dead in my tracks. Terror gripped me as I watched the corpses of the recently slain once again rise to their feet. A few were missing all or part of a limb and one had been nearly cleaved in two by mighty Nesteruk. They were coming for us just the same, and I had foolishly let myself be cut off from my companions. I didn’t dare shout a warning lest I draw too much attention to myself and quickly shut the kitchen door.

Some of the next few minutes I have recorded here as told to me by my brave companions. As I stood barricaded in the kitchen battling zombies hand-to-hand, the others had finished the skeletons and hearing the commotion came bounding down the stairs. Nesteruk and Selene waded into the melee while Fenn laid down a rain of missles from the stairs. The battle was going in our favor when a cleric or Norgborger appeard from nowhere and stabbed Fenn with a poisoned shortsword. Within a few seconds, Fenn was down. Taking heavy damage from the horde, Nesteruk and Selene fell back to the stairway to aid my fallen friend. Selene, shield in hand, proudly held the horde back from the stairwell as best she could. Though she could do little to push back against the zombies that pulled at her, she held strong and used her last efforts to selflessly heal Nesteruk so that he could continue the fight. Her god would have been proud at her sacrifice and I can honestly say that were it not for her we would have all perished. As Selene collapsed from her wounds, the reinvigorated Nesteruk was able to fell the sinister cleric. With the spell broken, the corpses collapsed to the floor.

I rushed to rejoin my allies and Nesteruk and I were able to stop the bleeding before moving them into some beds to recuperate. Inside the root cellar we discovered the captive Lady Argentia, who turned out to be the ungrateful, self-entitled shrew we have come to expect from modern nobility. In the cleric’s chamber I freed another prisoner, a faerie. Without word it simply flew away. I wish I had had a chance to speak with it. I have only been gone from the Deep Green for a short while but the sinister winter fey we have encountered have left me longing for the company of the fey of my home. Thankfully, Megdh saw fit to answer my prayers.

We rested for 2 full days before returning to Hendrel with Lady Argentia. We resupplied and set out again for the lodge in order to continue into the woods in search of the source of the unnatural cold. We rested one more night at the lodge as it was dusk by the time we returned from Hendrel. At dawn the next day, I meditated on the front porch on Megdh, the Deep Green, and my foolish error that had almost ended in the death of my friend Fenn and beautiful, innocent Selene. In my contemplation, I heard a voice in my head say, “Stick to the path I have shown you.” When I opened my eyes, an arctic hare sat before me. We stared at each other for several minutes. The hare was unafraid and gazed unblinking as if it could see into my very soul. Eventually I said, “So, are you coming with me along the path?” I could feel its happiness at that remark.

The Adventure Begins
An excerpt from the personal journal of Nobel Black

After a very short journey from forests edge, Fenn and I came upon a small hamlet called Heldren. It didn’t take long for Fenn to draw a few distrusting eyes as the townsfolk, few if any of which would ever have seen a tiefling before, caught a glimpse of us, but it seemed like most had other things on their minds with the weather in the region being unseasonably cold. That is in fact what Fenn and I had come to investigate after my mentor, Arana Snakeroot, indicated there seemed to be some trouble developing in the witch lands of the north.

Fenn insisted we go to the local inn, the Silver Stoat, to gather information which I did reluctantly as Fenn knows I get nervous in crowds. Once inside I quickly acquired us a pitcher of house ale by insighting a small altercation between to 2 tables using my hauntlings to throw a flagon of ale from one to the other. With the crowd distracted, I was able to abscond with the freshly bought pitcher and met Fenn at a side table. Fenn had found a seat with a half-orc bruiser the size of a house named Nesteruk the Marked (apparently named for a birthmark on his back), probably because he was the only other patron more conspicuous than Fenn. Nothing makes you feel more comfortable than sharing mutual discomfort. The two were already speaking when I sat down so I opened with “Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A human, a tiefling, and a half-orc walk into a bar and two of them were ugly!” Neither seemed all that amused so I used the hauntlings to make my own laughter.

It seemed that Nesteruk was also looking to make a name for himself and Fenn and I definitely needed some extra muscle as neither of us was particularly good at “sword negotiations” and it sounded as if there were some strange creatures about with the new climate. He agreed to travel with us for plunder and the glory of battle. Honestly, he seems to have some aggression issues which we may have to deal with at some point, but he appeared to be a worthwhile companion for the time being. Additionally, he had lived off then land for more years than either me or Fenn, and would be essential if things got rough out there.

As we were sitting there, we were approached by a woman named Selene. She looked like a scrappy fighter but oddly seemed to be absent weaponry of any kind save for the shield she clung tightly to. She had seen me take the beer and was demanding that I pay the men who were now nursing their wounds after the melee. I explained to her that I was not stealing but rather rescuing the ale as it would have undoubtedly ended up wasted on the floor during the scuffle. “Besides, I don’t drink”, I said pointing to the only 2 glasses on the table sitting in front of my compatriots. Her moral compass seemed to be righted by this explanation and she too took a seat with us. She seemed oddly open for a complete stranger and shared with us that she was an orphan raised by holy men and women. She now journeyed to celebrate her faith in her goddess. We asked her to join our company when it dawned on me that having a charismatic and attractive woman may be useful since Fenn and Nesteruk were no lookers and I was not exactly the most silvertongued.

Around town we heard various stories of woe. A local farmer lost his crop to theft and freezing weather. A boy had fallen through the ice on a frozen creek and witnessed a talking white stag. The very day of our arrival a lone survivor had returned following the ambush of his caravan. We spoke with him and he indicated they had been assaulted by what looked like bandits aided by fey creatures. They sounded like winter sprites. What would they be doing here so far south? Was Taldor under attack? Was the rest of the Inner Sea experiencing the same troubles? Could we be misunderstanding the situation and the fey creatures were actually fleeing the north rather than invading? With these questions in my head, we set off on the trail of the abducted highborn lady that had been with the caravan when they were assailed.

Six miles south of Hendrel, we came upon the slaughterfield that was the caravan. A man had been frozen solid where he stood. His arm still clutched his sword and lay several feet from his body. The carriages had been overturned. While looking for survivors, Fenn and I stumbled upon 2 reainimated corpses of the caravan guard. Luckily, Selene and Nesteruk proved to be every bit as good as they looked and dispatched the 2 creatures handily with only minor injury. We gathered the remaining bodies and made a funeral pyre of the carriages to prevent further zombie attacks, before venturing into the woods to the south following the bandits icy trail.

The temperature steadily dropped as we ventured deeper and deeper into the woods. I have never been so happy for my magic despite its curses as when I first blocked out the winter chill with my power. I showed my worth by disarming a trap obviously meant to hinder anyone attempting to follow the trail, and Selene and Nesteruk continued to display their combat prowess on several occasions as it seemed like all manner of strange wintery beast had come hungry with the snow and ice. Our resources nearly exhausted by the days tribulations, we were assaulted by a group of sprites who knocked us unconscious. I wish I could say that was the first time it had happened to me, but I do hope it will be the last. Our company was happy to open our eyes once more to find ourselves having been largely unmolested by the sprites.

Unfortunately our trials did not end as we were attacked in the night by a witch crow. Though I could have aided my colleagues, I thought it would be best if they learned a lesson about preparation when they had to leave the warmth of the tent to swing wildly in the dark at crows. If any of us are to survive on our own in this savage world, we will need to be prepared for anything. Also, I was hungry.

We found the farmer frozen to death in a snowbank the following day and gave him a quick burial in the snow out of respect. Selene said a few words just as she had for the caravan corpses and we moved on solemnly. I think each of us was very afraid for what we may find around the next bank as the trail grew smaller and the snow grew deeper. It felt like death was creeping in all around us. And it just kept coming closer. We had a brief but wierdly sarcastic conversation with the white stag from the Heldren boy’s story. This proved to be pointless and I had to pull Nesteruk away from the beast as he seems intent on drawing blood from every creature we come across. Though fey are often capricious, I must say that the winter fey seem especially malign, even when not directly aggressive. This may prove only to further enrage Nesteruk in time. We bested some ice elementals easily before being ambushed by 3 bandits. Fenn and I were injured but were able to aim true and down 2 of them from afar while the last fled into the woods.

As our resources were once again taxed to the limit, I feared we may had taken on a task more than we were capable of handling. However, with icy death on all sides and almost certain death awaiting the highborn should be turn back, what little choice did we have but to press on.

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