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A Tale of Nightmares Part 13 - The Snow Stalker

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Dirty Secrets and Nightmares is a Dungeons and Dragons (DnD 5e) game set in a Ravenloft Domain of Dread, New Solamnia. Play takes place every Friday night at Dragons Keep Roleplay Club in Chislehurst, South East London. The Dungeon Master is Sam.

Five people previously unknown to each other have found themselves strangely transported to a land none of them are familiar with, and have banded together to investigate what has brought them here - and survive. According to the locals, it is usually a peaceful place. This is not the party's experience, as strange happenings surround them, and monsters stir.

The party consists of:

· Sir Gerigold - A Male Half-Elven Oath of Redemption Paladin of the Morninglord (played by Paul)

· Hazard Darkstar - A Male Human Rune Knight Fighter (played by Alexander)

· Greynen Falstaer - A Male Half-Elven Warlock of the Archfey, Pact of the Tome (played by Mark)

· Morgaen Nightbreeze - A Female Half-Elven Bard of the College of Spirits (played by Imogen)

· Ragnar son of Bjorn - A Male Human Tempest Cleric of Thor (played by Alex)

The party are travelling into the Snowy Mountains, searching for another group of adventurers called the Red Drakes – recently joined by Greynen’s sister Olaria, but now overdue. Although it is summer, the weather has suddenly turned unseasonably cold…

The cold snap continued as they climbed higher into the mountains, the temperatures dropping further. The slopes were gentle enough at first, but Nim Graygos had warned them that one reason the Frostfall Pass was so little used, with nearly everyone preferring to wait out the cold snaps and go by river, was its impassibility to horses. Mules might just about get through, but even they were likely to fall at difficult bits, and riding horses hadn’t a chance – so they had left the horses with him, at the jetty on the river. Without the Bag of Holding, they would not have been able to carry enough wood for even one night and would have been dependent on finding it along the way – so they were grateful for Torvain’s gift, which allowed them to head into the mountains confident that they had enough rations and wood for at least three nights’ camping to search for the Red Drakes.

The party had taken an hour or so to cut the wood, but they delayed no longer – Greynen was anxious to get searching for the Red Drakes and his sister, and his impatience gave a restless energy to the rest of the party. He had told them all about his dream of two nights ago – his patron giving a particular warning for the next few days. She had not done before they faced the creature in the Valkyr Mausoleum, the possessed priest in the crypts beneath the church in Tenbrim, or even the Mindshard that had possessed three of them before its defeat, so this warning put them all a little on edge.

The trail very quickly became steep, with some rocky scrambles and narrow ledges along steep cliffs or the gorges of rushing streams to negotiate. Gradually, they climbed higher, the icy river dwindling to a narrow streak of reflected sunlight behind them, and the forest also falling away (Ragnar excitedly pointing out where he thought he could see the haze over the Mindshard’s crater), until the trail took them deeper into the mountains and all they could see behind them were rocky slopes with occasional glimpses of distant forested hills. As they got even higher, they reached the snowline – there were still pine trees around, and thorny bushes, but there were first patches and then a carpet of snow underfoot. Some of the party had never travelled under such conditions before, but Ragnar strode along happily making the pace when they marched and harassing Greynen into resting instead of pacing up and down whenever they took a quick breather after a more punishing stretch of the trail.

Edging carefully in the lead along a two-foot wide stretch of path, Sir Gerigold was the first to catch sight of the Upper Frostfall – a great cataract fed by glaciers much higher in the mountains, which might be dry in the winter when everything was frozen but gushed clear, cold water each summer. The unseasonable chill had settled quickly, giving rise to the phenomenon the Frostfalls were named after – the water was gushing out from under a shelf of ice, carrying chunks of ice plunging over the cliff to bob along the river.

“That is actually beautiful,” he murmured, taking it in, before Ragnar and Hazard behind him started complaining and telling him to keep moving, dammit!

Once the narrow ledge widened and joined a wider shelf of rock bending round to the cliff, they all stopped and took in the valley. The trail to the pass went through this valley, a bowl-shaped area surrounded by steep cliffs but with a few shallower slopes – the one they had entered on, and another across the valley where the trail continued. The sides of the bowl dipped to the right, curving down to where the river burst over the edge of the valley and fell in the next step of the Frostfall cataracts. It looked as if the whole area might at one time have been a lake, until the water spilled over and then wore away more and more of an exit for itself, so that now the valley made a step between the two waterfalls, with one much smaller fall as an intermediate step about a third of the way from the upper cataract. There were trees and bushes scattered around closer to the river itself, where there was presumably soil rather than rock under the snow.

It was very, very beautiful – but the party were unable to spend much time appreciating this. On the far side of the river, a group of figures were clinging to the cliffs or squatting on small ledges – white-furred figures, each larger than the average man and bulkier, although not taller, even than Hazard or Sir Gerigold. They appeared to be some form of ape – and although they had not encountered them before, the party did not like the way the creatures appeared to be watching them.

Morgaen’s eyes turned up in her head momentarily as she felt in her pouch for the candle she used in seances, and used it as a focus to open her senses to the spirit world.

“They’re mountain apes,” she said, after a moment. “They are natural here… they are great climbers and know the land well. They’re normal animals, nothing… sinister about them, or anything like that –”

“Good – let’s keep going,” Greynen said, and took a step towards the river.

Morgaen caught his arm.

“- but they do eat meat,” she continued, “and by ‘eat meat’ I mean that several of the local ghosts have, er, significant first-hand experience with them.”

The party eyed the creatures warily again.

The mountain apes eyed them back, with clear interest.

“We should try to think of some way to scare them off peacefully,” Sir Gerigold said, ill at ease. “I should not like to visit violence on creatures that are just following their instincts, if possible.”

“Might also be an idea not to cross the river one at a time,” Greynen added, consideringly.

The river was a known obstacle – at some times of year the water level was low enough just to walk across, but at others you had to wade. The party had planned for Hazard or Sir Gerigold to wade across first, and tie a rope to help the others wade across more safely, then to make camp in the first convenient place to dry off and rest. But wading across the river one at a time and then trying to find a campsite while wet, cold and with half a dozen of these creatures trying to work out if one of them was dinner was distinctly less appealing, especially when the first one of them across might become an isolated target.

After a quick discussion, they located a couple of trees on either side of the river. Greynen climbed one of them, and again used his mage hand to carry the grappling hook, and the end of the silk rope attached to it, over the river, hooking it securely on the other tree and then tying the rope tightly to the tree he was in. Now the rope was running at about head-height across the river. Ragnar and Morgaen could both use a spell to summon the fey’s silvery mists for a moment and transport themselves across the river, so Morgaen would hang back to untie the rope and cross after the rest of them. Ragnar held himself ready to step through the mists over the river and support the first of his friends to cross, should the apes attack faster than expected. The other three, rather than wading, were going to try jumping from one floating block of ice to another, hanging on to belts that they could loop around the rope to help their balance on the precarious ice.

Morgaen cast her usual spell to bolster her allies’ strength before a fight, and also called on the local spirits to aid Sir Gerigold – the first to attempt the crossing. Sir Gerigold additionally called on the Morninglord to support himself, Hazard and Greynen in this endeavour and in any fight to come, took the ends of his belt in both hands, and made a running jump out to an ice floe bobbing past at that moment. Quickly he pushed off to the next, and the next, with his weight becoming increasingly unstable. As he landed on the third floe, one more leap from the bank, his foot slipped just a little – just too much. Throwing his weight the other way to compensate, he stabilised himself momentarily – then fell the other way, sprawling into the freezing water with an almighty splash. He reappeared after only a moment, spluttering in the waist-high water, and looked around for the bank.

The apes had seen the attempt to cross – they had, as one, leapt down from the cliffs and were moving in, fast, aiming for the riverbank.

Greynen had a moment’s inspiration. The Lady of Dreams had gifted him with an illusion spell some time ago – he had not found an occasion for it outside of practice yet. Now, from the other side of the river, he cast the spell – and a bush in the apes’ path appeared to burst into flames. The two in the lead checked, recoiling slightly. Greynen silently thanked Cyone for her foresight and hoped that the apes did not notice that the fire had neither sound nor scent…

The paladin was still in the river, turning pale with the cold, having had to spin and block another ice floe from smashing into his back. This also held it nicely still for a few seconds, so Hazard chose exactly that moment to cross, leaping easily from one floe to another and finally pushing off the one Sir Gerigold was holding, landing cleanly on the far bank and scornfully calling “Come on, keep up, fool!” to the bedraggled knight.

Then he froze.

From the bushes, only about twenty feet away from where he stood, came an owlbear.

They could all see it – and for a moment, only the apes were making any noise, gibbering at the sight of the illusionary flames. The owlbear did not seem to have seen them – it was wandering, tilting its head, sniffing the air. It seemed to be trying to make sense of what was going on.

Sir Gerigold had reached the bank. He climbed out of the water as quietly as possible, trying to stop his teeth from chattering, drew his maul, and stood ready in case the creature saw them and came at them. But it had not yet done anything to them, so he made no move to initiate the attack.

With the owlbear as well as the fire, five of the apes turned and, chattering and hooting to each other, made for the cliffs again at speed. Greynen punched the air in delight. But one of the creatures appeared to have figured out the ruse – it had peered closely at the flames, chattered angrily at its retreating comrades, then gave the party a look which was more intelligent, and resentful, than they would have expected from an animal. Shifting position, it threw a stone – which landed with a thump between the owlbear and the party. The huge creature spun towards the noise, with a hoot of challenge – then its head came up and its focus seemed to change. It started lumbering towards Hazard and Sir Gerigold, heavy going in the deep snow, but starting to quickly pick up speed. They took a few steps from the riverbank and braced themselves for its onslaught.

Silver mists glimmered just in front of them, and Ragnar appeared, leaping from the mists and charging straight for the owlbear with a yell of challenge.


Thor’s cleric whacked the warhammer squarely between the beast’s eyes.

Or where its eyes should have been – this close, he could see that all the creature had were two gaping holes.

Thinking quickly, realising that the creature’s clumsiness was because it could not see but only hear and scent its prey, he leapt back out of range, avoiding the random swing of the angrily screeching owlbear’s claws and shouting his discovery to the others.

The creature was in spell-range for Greynen and he cast the green-glow spell again, lighting the creature up to make it a more obvious target in the lengthening shadows of the evening, before seizing the rope and running agilely over the ice floes that were temporarily lined up in the river. Hazard and Sir Gerigold were already charging through the snow to attack the blinded and highlighted owlbear, Hazard swelling to giant-size and outpacing the paladin. Hazard’s first stroke missed, as the creature blindly reacted to threat and whirled in an unexpected direction – but he made a mighty backswing and wounded it grievously. Once Greynen was safely across, Morgaen rapidly untied the end of the rope, gathered the silver mists around her to step to a good vantage point, and joined the fight, putting a crossbow bolt into the owlbear. Sir Gerigold then charged in, managing to place his first strike right where Ragnar had done, between the creature’s empty eyesockets.

It shuddered all over – and collapsed in the snow. The final mountain ape, seeing this, fled after the others.

The party looked at the dead owlbear.

“Well,” Sir Gerigold said, sounding almost disappointed. “I always heard these things were severely dangerous. We only hit it once each.”

“This one is blind,” Hazard pointed out, “and we had a useful spell to help us.” He nodded to Greynen.

“What even is it?” Ragnar asked, inspecting the creature with great interest.

“You mean Midgard doesn’t have owlbears?”

Leaving this discussion in progress, Morgaen examined the dead owlbear. Worryingly, its eyes appeared to have been entirely gouged out – rather neatly, too. That suggested that there was something up here which was able to subdue an owlbear without killing it, and whatever that was, might be bad news. She and Greynen scouted around and found that besides the tracks of the mountain apes everywhere, and a few owlbear tracks, there was another set of tracks – something neither of them had seen before. They were very strange and did not appear to have the usual pads of an animal, but whatever it was, it was a large quadruped.

Ragnar, meanwhile, had been dissuaded by Sir Gerigold from either trying to drag the owlbear’s body with them – leaving a blood trail for any local carnivores to follow – or trying to fit it in the Bag of Holding – since gaunt as it was for an owlbear, it was still probably over the bag’s five-hundred-pound weight limit. Ragnar pleaded that he really needed this owlbear as a trophy. He was persuaded to settle for the head – which he promptly hacked off and, before either Sir Gerigold or Hazard could stop him, popped it into the Bag of Holding.

The head had still been oozing blood, which could now be presumed to be all over everything in the Bag of Holding. Morgaen, when she and Greynen got back, was not amused – her best performance outfit was in the Bag of Holding. Ragnar apologised and promised to sort it all out, setting off towards the riverbank. It turned out his idea of sorting it all out was to open the Bag of Holding and hold it underwater for a bit, which he thought would clean everything nicely. This resulted in absolutely everything in the Bag of Holding being both bloodstained and soaked through – including the firewood they had gathered that morning.

Nobody was pleased with Ragnar.

Once the excess water had been drained from the Bag of Holding, Ragnar suggested that perhaps they could find the owlbear’s cave. Once they had finished telling him what they thought of him for his continued obsession with the owlbear, the others realised that this was not a bad idea, since the owlbear’s cave might be large enough for all of them, and some protection against the cold. They tracked it back along the trail – leaving its headless body behind them – and eventually found a cleft in the rock.

The cave had many bones strewn around it, and it stank. Ragnar was volunteered by the others to clean it out while they chopped some of the wet firewood outside, to reveal the drier inside that might still burn. Sir Gerigold, still suffering from the effects of his involuntary dip in the icy river, stripped off and wrapped himself up in his bedroll as soon as there was a moderately clean area of floor, then sat huddled there with only his head showing, telling everyone else how to make the camp.

Morgaen spent some time carefully investigating the back and sides of the cave, telling them about a party she had heard of – mostly dwarves, one halfling and a wizard who might or might not have been human – who had found a convenient shallow cave while travelling through a mountain pass, and in the night a secret door had opened and a band of goblins had got the drop on them. However, after a thorough investigation she concluded that either there were no goblins in the Snowy Mountains, or those there were had more sense than to have a secret door coming out in an owlbear lair.

It was a bitterly cold night, even once they had got the fire going. They did manage to sleep, huddled up against each other in their bedrolls, but whoever was on watch had a hard time of it. In the distance, they could occasionally hear a cacophony of loud screeches. It sounded as though the mountain apes were arguing over who got which bits of meat from the owlbear’s corpse. Fortunately, with such a large, fresh supply of meat close at hand, they did not come anywhere near the party again.

The following day was bright, and crisp – and cold – but with ominous-looking clouds gathering, several miles away. The party set off, hoping to leave the weather behind them, but the wind veered round and a couple of hours after they had started out, the weather began to catch up with them – on an exposed ridge. They had just spotted the narrow rocky ledge which would lead them off the ridge when the wind picked up, and the first flurries of snow began to hit them. Pausing only to tie themselves together with Hazard’s rope, they headed along the ridge as fast as they could – then, more slowly but still as fast as could be managed without falling, they struck out along the narrow ledge. In only a few minutes, the wind was howling and driving the snow at them thickly enough that those at the back of the line could no longer see Sir Gerigold at the front.

Off the ledge, the ground widened out in what should have been a narrow valley before the final ascent to Frostfall Pass. But the party could not see the sides of the valley – the wind was driving the snow directly into it, and the whole area was obscured.

Ahead of him, Sir Gerigold caught sight of something – possibly a tree – hopefully part of a clump of trees they could shelter in? He struck out for it, calling back to the others.

As the wind dropped for a moment, they caught sight of their goal.

Something was hanging from the tree, something dark and man-sized, swaying in the air as it hung from a rope.

The snow came back again, obscuring their vision. They pressed forwards, until Sir Gerigold stopped. The others gathered round to look – Ragnar gasping and casting a spell of healing as soon as he saw what it was clearly.

But the figure wrapped in a red cloak, blood dripping to the ground and being immediately lost in the snow gathering beneath it, still made no move.

Sir Gerigold and Hazard grabbed the figure and pulled downwards, Greynen reaching to cut the rope with his dagger – but it wasn’t necessary. As they pulled, the rope suddenly started unravelling – the two men lost their grip and the bundle fell to the ground, the red cloak falling aside to reveal a skinned, legless deer carcass.

As it hit the ground, the party heard a click.

Morgaen felt something move beneath her and dodged out of the way just in time – but the others were not so lucky. Bear traps had sprung up through the snow and clamped shut on their legs with a loud clanging noise, sending their own blood running down into the snow and fastening them in place. As they reeled, cried out or swore – a roar echoed around them. Something large, mean, and predatory had heard the trap go off.

In the driving snow, they could not even tell which direction the sound had come from.

Ragnar gathered the silvery mists around himself again and reappeared out of the bear trap, next to Greynen. He readied a cantrip in his mind, prepared to unleash it as soon as he saw anything coming out of the snow. Morgaen had quickly loosened and ducked out of the rope around her waist, assessed how badly the others appeared hurt, cast a healing spell on Greynen and reached for her thieves’ tools, teasing out a critical spring and releasing Sir Gerigold from the trap. The paladin immediately went to help the others, trying to pry open the trap around Hazard’s leg – Hazard invoked his runic powers and grew to ogre-size again, but even with this the trap around his leg held firm.

The roar was getting incredibly close – and a thudding noise could now be heard as well, something impacting the ground. Staring about them, Morgaen, Sir Gerigold and Hazard could see nothing – but on the other side of the tree, Greynen and Ragnar were horrified at what they saw emerging from the snow.

The creature was about ten feet tall – and most of that was its long, long legs, with a small body balanced on top and a cluster of large, bulging eyes glaring balefully as it bore down on its prey. Rusting metal plates and bolts were everywhere over its body, with jagged sewing patterns showing elsewhere, dividing patterns of differently coloured fur. An impossibility – a strange, put-together creature.

Ragnar unleashed his prepared spell – but it had no effect. The creature came on, fast, reaching out first one leg then another to stab at the trapped warlock three times in quick succession. He managed to duck away – once. Long, pointed legs stabbed into him twice, and he collapsed to the floor. Turning in horror at what he heard, Sir Gerigold could now just see a shape through the driving snow, attacking Greynen – he called out a magical rebuke against such violence, and felt some damage reflect back on the creature. Flinching in surprise, it dashed out of sight back into the snowstorm.

Greynen rolled over on the ground with a gasp, and tried to get to his feet – he wasn’t quite out yet – but a vicious blast of wind drove a freezing drift of snow over them again, and as it cleared Ragnar could see that the weather had finished the creature’s job. The warlock was unconscious, now.

As he looked around to call to the others, the snow cleared in front of him for just a moment – and he saw the path they were heading for. A narrow, switchback path, clinging to a cliff face, going up and up. Critically, it looked very narrow – and from what he had seen of the creature and how it was built, it would not be able to follow them up there.

The only problem would be Hazard’s current size.

The cleric filled his lungs.

“Over there! The path!” he yelled, as loud as he could to be heard over the wind. “It’s too narrow for the creature – we need to get over there! Hazard, lose some weight!” He knelt briefly, invoking healing magic. Greynen’s eyes opened again – but he was still badly hurt. The cleric scrambled up again and looked around for the next attack.

Hazard was still struggling to get out of the trap – without success. Morgaen was crouched next to him, working on the trap’s mechanism with her thieves’ tools again. Sir Gerigold rushed over to Ragnar and Greynen, and added his healing magic to Ragnar’s.

Some colour was coming back into Greynen’s face – he struggled to a sitting position and started trying to pry the trap open, looking to see if he could get at the mechanism with his dagger. But it didn’t look as if that would work. He yelled to Morgaen, letting her know that he had the mechanism exposed.

Hazard, free of the trap, followed Ragnar’s advice and returned to his usual size. He said something about best to keep up, and dashed off into the snow, in the direction of the switchback path. Morgaen checked in surprise for a moment – then realised, too late to tell him his error, that he thought Ragnar and the others had already gone for the path. Over here, it was just too far away in the blinding snow – Hazard had seen nothing of the attack on Greynen, hadn’t heard him yell for her just now. She picked up her tools and bolted back to the others, getting this trap loose from Greynen’s leg much faster with his help. Sir Gerigold pulled the warlock to his feet, giving him further healing magic as he did so.

“Ready to run?” he asked. “All of you, follow me!” And he vanished into the snow.

As the three of them turned to follow, a shape loomed out of the mists again - behind them. A long leg darted out and ran Morgaen through. She screamed – then went limp, dropping in a heap to the ground as the creature withdrew its leg.

Ragnar and Greynen desperately flung themselves behind the tree – and the creature wheeled as a voice echoed out in the snow. Sir Gerigold had paused when he heard the scream and was yelling the bard’s name. The creature dashed towards the sound of his voice, finding the paladin on his way back, and striking out viciously at him. He reeled, injured – and this time it did not disappear, but started to circle menacingly, cutting him off from the tree and his friends.

Hazard had reached the path – but realised after climbing only a few feet that he was alone. Nobody was in front of him – and nobody was following him. Then, behind him, he thought he heard someone screaming, and someone else yelling. Swearing, he turned and dashed back into the snow, yelling for the others.

Greynen had rushed over to Morgaen, casting a cantrip which stopped her from bleeding out. He tried to haul her up over his shoulder, failed, and dragged her a few feet instead, until Ragnar caught up to them, invoked healing magic and then shook Morgaen’s shoulders, telling her to come on, wake up!

Hazard had caught sight of the large, unnatural shape in the mist, menacingly circling an injured Sir Gerigold. He kicked the snow around him, found a suitably sized rock and sent it hurtling through the air. The creature dodged – and he felt its strange, baleful eyes fasten on him, as well.

Morgaen had managed to get to her feet and start staggering through the snow after the others, despite the gravity of her injuries, making for the path. When she saw the creature, ahead and to one side, she found more strength – as the snow flurried and she caught sight of clear space ahead of her, she called the silver mists, instantly reappeared thirty feet further towards the path, and sprinted, trying to make the path.

“Get to the path, we’ll hold it!” Sir Gerigold yelled to Ragnar and Greynen, and swung his maul at the creature as they dashed away. He hit it squarely – but although it clearly felt the impact, it was a big, hulking brute, and the metal plates embedded in it gave it some measure of protection. On the second blow, Sir Gerigold invoked divine power. Silver fire trailed in an arc as the maul swung down – and this time, the creature recoiled backwards slightly, blood spilling in the snow. But this only seemed to make the creature angrier. Sir Gerigold hurriedly invoked his god’s protection – one attack hit him squarely, leaving him badly injured, but the second and third time the legs lashed out, they were deflected by a shimmering light which flared around the paladin. Clearly confused, the creature backed up – Sir Gerigold pulled himself together and swung the maul wildly at the creature as it retreated into the snow but missed. Hazard ran over and grabbed the paladin’s shoulder as he seemed about to pursue it.

“Leave it!” he yelled in the half-elf’s ear. “What does your oath say about going after things that are running away? Come on!”

Sir Gerigold snarled something about his oath not saying anything about things which keep running away and then attacking again – then remembered that there were other people out here to be attacked. He turned and ran after the others again.

The wind had picked up again, and if they had not known where to go they might never have found the path. A freezing gust of wind, snow and hail was bearing down on them, smashing into them hard. Just as he arrived at the foot of the path, Ragnar tripped over something – he nearly fell, but saved himself with an outflung hand, and then realised that what he had fallen over was Morgaen. There was a trickle of blood on the bard’s head, and a hailstone the size of a sword’s pommel next to her. It had only taken moments for her to be nearly completely covered by the snow.

Greynen checked her pulse – it didn’t feel good. He poured one of their Potions of Healing down her throat. Without waiting for it to take effect, Hazard picked her up in a fireman’s carry, and headed up the path, closely followed by Ragnar and Greynen. Sir Gerigold did a rapid head count, made sure they did indeed have everyone, and brought up the rear.

Two turns up, temporarily sheltered from the wind as the path wound up through a narrow cleft of rock, they paused for a moment – Morgaen had recovered her senses and was insisting that she could walk herself, now, if Hazard put her down. Amidst the howling of the wind, they could hear the howling of the creature, below, roaring its frustration at their escape.

The cliff path was at an angle which was sheltered from the worst of the storm, and although it was comparatively narrow, it was not dangerously so. Despite the steepness of the slope, the party experienced it at first as a respite – but as the path wound on, and on, with no sign of anywhere to stop and rest properly and drifts of wind-blown snow piling up, they did begin to tire. It took nearly an hour to climb all the way – but, fortunately, in that time the storm moved on, the winds around them dying down. The weather was clear when they reached the top, and the narrow path opened out into a relatively flat shelf of land between the shoulder of two mountains. It was surrounded by rocks and entirely blanketed with deep snow. They had reached Frostfall Pass.

The party crouched behind an outcrop of rocks near the top of the path, staying low as they looked carefully out at the exposed space.

About halfway over the pass, near a low shelf of rocks which would have sheltered it from some winds, they could see a dark tent. Its door was flapping open in the breeze. Nearby was a dark shape, partially covered with snow.

Sir Gerigold put a heavy hand on Greynen’s shoulder as the warlock was about to rush out, and pointed out that they had just walked into one trap. The party moved out along the edges of the path, trying to keep close to the rocky edges to be less obvious. As they did so, they caught sight of tracks in the snow – strange tracks, large circles which had clearly widened out from something smaller. They were now too indistinct to be sure – but they were not unlike the tracks that Greynen and Morgaen had found at the Frostfall itself. Potentially the tracks of the creature they had faced below.

As they got closer to the tent, Morgaen went ahead of the others, as stealthily as she could, keeping in the shadows of the rocky shelf and sneaking up to the tent, clear of the door. This took her past the body – it was a human male, wearing leather armour and a hood, lying face down in the snow as if he had been thrown there. He was very pale, and there was no blood on the snow. When she checked, he had no pulse, and his skin was icy cold. He had clearly been dead for some time, possibly several days.

Carefully, Morgaen peered round into the tent. Four people could have fitted with some ease, and clearly had; there were four bedrolls which seemed to have at one point been laid out neatly, and a fifth rolled up near the door, with five bags. Everything in the tent had been tossed around, and there were tears in the side of the tent – but nothing too big to be fixed by a mending cantrip. Not enough to suggest desperate struggle. There was still no blood to be seen.

She gestured to the others that it seemed to be safe, and went back to the body, turning it over.

When she saw his face, she gasped. The man’s eyes and teeth were missing – neatly gouged out somehow, in the same way that the owlbear’s eyes had been missing. Checking the man’s pockets, she found a few silver coins, and a letter from Nim Graygos – a copy of his contract with the Red Drakes. So this must be Logus, their thief. But he hadn’t died from having his eyes and teeth removed; from the signs, which Morgaen remembered from her childhood in the foothills of the mountains, he had frozen to death. He must have been left here after whatever had attacked him had taken his eyes and teeth – somehow too weak to be able to get up and make it back into the tent, where he might have survived. Looking closer at the gaps where his teeth should have been, she caught a weird scent coming from his mouth, and recoiled. Poison.

The Red Drakes had chosen their campsite well, whatever had then happened – the party could see all around, for some distance. Morgaen pointed out that the tracks in the snow indicated that there might either be two of the strange creatures, or that it had some longer, slower way to get from place to place around these mountains – especially since it seemed to have been down at the Frostfalls before, but it could not have passed along some of the ledges that they had. However, they were only about one minute from the edge of the pass, where rocky escarpments offered the promise of escape from the creature if they kept a good lookout and saw it coming soon enough. The tent offered the first shelter they had come across in some time. They stopped for a rest.

As they shifted the Red Drakes’ belongings around, making room for those not on watch to sit, two things rolled out from one of the bedrolls; a vial containing a murky, brownish-looking potion, and a large, heavy maul with dwarvish designs on it. It was a wickedly efficient-looking weapon, and Sir Gerigold picked it up with a murmur of appreciation for the craftwork of such a weapon.

As his hand closed around the weapon’s handle, he felt not only its supreme balance, so hard to achieve in such a large and heavy weapon, but also the unmistakeable tingle of magic – and he heard a voice.

Oh, thank the gods, I thought I might be out here forever? Who’re you? Where’s Bruga?

He stared around at the others – they did not seem to have heard it. The voice was distinctly female, and distinctly dwarvish.

“My name is Sir Gerigold,” he said. “May I ask who Bruga is?”

Oh, she’s my partner in crime – leader of the Red Drakes, have you heard of them? She uses me to hit things really hard.

Sir Gerigold realised where the voice was coming from.

“Bruga isn’t here right now, we don’t know where she is – er – if anything attacks us, may I use you to hit it really hard? I’m terribly sorry, do you have a name?”

My name’s Verna – and if you help me find Bruga, I guess I can help you in the meantime.

“What are you talking about?” Hazard demanded.

“I’m having a very nice conversation with this maul,” Sir Gerigold said. “Her name is Verna, and she talks.”

“Knock yourself out, then,” Hazard said, drily, thinking that it was just like the paladin to find something female to be polite to wherever they went. He wondered if asking to hit things with it counted as flirting with a sentient weapon.

“Does she know what happened here?” Morgaen demanded, pragmatically.

Verna did not know – the Red Drakes had been stuck in thick snow up in the pass for several days without incident, and then when whatever had happened, happened, the maul had been asleep. Sir Gerigold was surprised on hearing this, but Verna explained that she was, in fact, the spirit of a somewhat-erring dwarf, who had been sent to inhabit this weapon after her death by the dwarf god Moradin, to serve penance for her sins by aiding others in great deeds. So, her spirit did sometimes, sleep – and although she would have woken the instant Bruga grabbed her, something had clearly managed to attack and abduct the missing Red Drakes suddenly enough that there had been no chance for them even to grab their weapons. And it would have taken either great numbers or something big to drag Bruga and all her friends off; apart from what would have been the considerable difficulty of subduing her in the first place, the half-orc was, as Verna put it, a big lass.

Thinking of this, the maul remembered something – if they had not been able to grab any weapons or armour, there was something that should still be here. Under her instructions, Sir Gerigold checked Logus’ pack; finding a set of leather armour which also had the unmistakeable feel of magic about it. The thief had very recently acquired it and had not been using it until he had found someone able to check its abilities. The others looked at Morgaen, who suggested that with the possibility of another attack by the creature, they should rest up as soon as possible – she would focus on aiding their recovery and spend time identifying magic objects later.

However, one thing Verna asked about was not there – the crate that the party had been transporting for Nim Graygos, which should have been just outside the tent, was missing.

Morgaen, while casting the magic that aided how much they could heal during a short rest, thought about eyes. The big, bulging eyes on the creature which had attacked them – which might have originally come from an owlbear. The owlbear down at the Frostfall, which had had its eyes neatly and precisely gouged out, then been left to survive, wounded, as best it could – an abomination to what she had been taught of hunting by members of a druid circle. Logus – also having parts of his body taken neatly and precisely, then being abandoned as if the rest of him was of no interest. The patches of differently coloured fur, from different creatures, on the monster that had attacked them. Something up here, was carving things up and putting things together into abominations.

The disappearance of the remaining Red Drakes – including Greynen’s sister – looked increasingly ominous.

After they had rested and recovered their health from the fight below, Morgaen worked to identify the magical objects the Red Drakes had left behind. The leather armour Logus had found was a type of magical artefact called battle mage armour; it was far more defensive than usual, and would decrease the damage to the wearer caused by spells. It also stored energy and could unleash this energy on those surrounding the wearer. Greynen decided to put the armour on; it would not give him those benefits until he had properly attuned to it, but it would be easier to do this while wearing it.

Verna’s name as a magical weapon turned out to be Earthshatter – and besides the higher chance of hitting an enemy and greater damage likely for any magic weapon, she could also be used to create shockwaves in the ground, hitting everyone within twenty feet and potentially knocking them down.

The murky brown potion was a Potion of Animal Friendship – whoever drank it would be able to cast Animal Friendship at will, for an hour. Ragnar took charge of this, chuckling to himself, although the others cautioned him that if they ran into any more owlbears, it didn’t count as a beast but as a monster.

They cleared up the Red Drakes’ camp, packing as much as they could into the Bag of Holding. Between all their supplies that were in it already, there was not enough capacity to hold both the tent and Logus’ body. After a short consultation, they put Logus’ body close in under the rocky outcrop and covered it over with snow – the ground was too hard to dig. And they could always come back here. A tent would be potentially useful in surviving up here – a dead body, less so.

Morgaen cleared away the snow for a distance around the tent, and found more marks of the strange, stumpy tracks they had seen at the Frostfall; clearer under the snow than the partially-melted ones on the surface, and frozen hard in the ground. They were at least a day old, but they were trackable. The party followed the direction of the footprints, over the pass and down the other side of the mountain.

About half an hour after they started to descend on the other side of the pass, the paths diverged; although it was hard to tell if the narrower way was an actual path, or more of an animal trail. Checking carefully, there was some sign of the footprints they were tracking going down the narrower track. They followed – and after a few minutes, came to the entrance to a large cleft in the rock. The path wound inside.

Checking around, Sir Gerigold and Ragnar saw bear footprints; and there was a smell of wet fur in the air. They stood on guard, wondering if they had come the right way.

Morgaen was checking carefully over the tracks, clearing away snow. She found a few more of the strange footprints – and drag-marks. Some of them were possibly boot-prints, possibly not… but on one frozen clump of mud near the entrance to the cave, she came across what she was looking for.

“Look – that’s a scale imprint,” she said, pointing it out to the others. “Here, possibly claw-marks in with the drag-marks, but that’s definitely a scale imprint there. About where a dragonborn’s ankle might leave one if he was being dragged.” She stood up form her crouch. “What are the chances of more than one dragonborn being up here right now?”

Sir Gerigold asked Verna if the Red Drakes might have stopped here for a short rest at some point, or even camped here – but the maul did not remember the cave.

They entered warily. Morgaen cast her spell for light on Ragnar’s shield again, so he and Sir Gerigold went first, braced for the onslaught of any denizen of the cave. The cave narrowed – then seemed to widen, round a corner. Large brown feathers were scattered around, and piles of chewed bones had been discarded at the side of the cave – some of them clearly humanoid, including skulls. The smell of wet fur grew stronger – but was joined by an odd smell of sulphur, as if there might be a hot spring somewhere nearby.

Stepping cautiously around the corner to where the cave widened again, Ragnar and Sir Gerigold stopped dead.

At the back of the cave, an apparently humanoid figure was lying prone – entirely covered beneath a tattered red cloak.

The others crowded behind them – but with the experience of the morning fresh in their minds, they did not rush forwards.

Morgaen checked the walls and ceiling for anything that might be a trap. The bright light from Ragnar’s shield did not reach all the way to the back wall or the top of the cave – she squinted in the way that seemed to help her change her focus, and her vision shifted to shades of black and white, making the details of the shaded areas clearer to her.

“Something’s not right,” she said abruptly. “This – I don’t think this is a real owlbear cave. Yes, there are claw marks and blood on the walls… it feels off, to me. Staged, somehow. I don’t know, maybe the marks aren’t quite the right height, and why would there be blood that far up the wall? They’d usually kill something outside and drag it in here to eat, and why they’d drag it all the way in here when they’ve got the antechamber outside…” She paused, and peered further forwards, to the back wall. “There’s a door in the back wall,” she said. “It’s hidden but look – you can just see the outline, right behind the body.”

Ragnar could not see it until he drew Ghost Eye, the magic dagger that gave him darkvision – Hazard had had no problems seeing in the dark since he had taken that crack on the head at the Valkyr Mausoleum and had his realisation of how to work his runes. The other two half-elves shared Morgaen’s natural darkvision. Once it was pointed out, they could see the door.

“Another trap, then,” Greynen said, and edging forward until he was right behind the others, he used his mage hand to carefully lift the tattered red cloak from the still form at the back of the cave.

“Verna, there’s a tiefling here,” Sir Gerigold said. “She’s got –“ he squinted and blinked, refocusing his eyes to normal vision “- red skin, with spell-sigil tattoos; she seems very bruised and cut about, and her hands are tied in front of her.” He listened for a moment. “It is the Red Drakes’ witch – she’s called Talia,” he told the others.

Morgaen cast a healing spell. As she saw the tiefling’s eyes open, she called out, “Talia? We’re here with Verna, we’ve come to help!”

The tiefling’s head moved a fraction, turning to look towards them – then she suddenly went still again.

“Don’t come any closer!” she called out, tense. “It’s a trap! It – where’d she put it, where’d she put it – it’s under my left rib! I can’t move, or I’ll – set it off. It’s some kind of – I’m not sure – some kind of bottle – she was saying it was fragile, if I moved at all it would break – a nice trap for anyone trying to break in!”

Morgaen and Sir Gerigold both crouched down and squinted.

Using darkvision, they could just see some kind of beaker, or vial, carefully balanced between the tiefling’s body and a stone. Yes – if she moved at all, it would go over. And the liquid inside – they couldn’t make out the colour, if it had any – was bubbling ominously.

Sir Gerigold approached, slowly, despite Talia’s protests.

“I can cast spells to help protect you,” he told the frightened tiefling carefully. “We can’t just leave you here – if we cast everything we have to protect you, and I pull you away from it as fast as possible –”

“I think we should talk about anything you know first. Such as where the others of your group might be, anything else you know about this woman you mention. Just in case his idea doesn’t work,” Hazard said bluntly. The paladin glared at him.

“Or we should get her off that thing and as far away from it as possible without anyone going close to her at all,” Morgaen said. She was smiling slightly, eyes rolled up under her lids, and in her hands she was holding a human skull. “Talia? There’s someone here who’s going to help. They’re dead – they died crossing Frostfall Pass in winter, you can probably imagine how desperate they must have been to try that – and that desperation they had to get away has an energy. In a moment, I’m going to send it to you, and you’re going to know how to use that energy to get away from the thing you desperately want to get away from. I’m going to do that in a moment. Just as soon as my friend here gets back behind me.”

She moved round a little – until she was as far as possible from Talia, while still being close enough to transmit the power of the story, and having space beside her for the tiefling to appear in. Sir Gerigold edged behind her. Then Morgaen sat down, the skull in her hands, and focused.

In the blink of an eye, the tiefling appeared sprawled on the ground on their side of the cave, half next to Morgaen and half on her. Even as she appeared, the vial tilted into the stone next to it – cracked – and exploded. A shockwave of force rippled the air, a deafening sound blasted out of the cave, but the shockwave dissipated too quickly to do more than blow their clothes and hair. Talia yelped and clung to Morgaen as the blast exploded – then hugged her in earnest as she realised she had survived.

“You saved my life!”

Morgaen said something about not mentioning it and extracted the skull from between them – the hug had crushed it uncomfortably into her ribs.

Sir Gerigold, crouching down next to Talia, told her that they really needed to know more – what had happened to her and her friends?

Talia wasn’t entirely sure. They had been camping – then she had woken up, somehow paralyzed, being dragged on a rope by a monster with metal plates and four unnaturally long legs. The crazy woman had been walking next to the creature, and when she occasionally rolled or was tossed from side to side, Talia had been able to see that Garlan and Bruga, and the new girl were being dragged by the creature as well. None of them seemed to be able to move.

“The new girl – Olaria?” Greynen asked urgently.

“Yes, how’d you know her name?”

“She’s my sister,” the warlock said, grimly.

Talia, looking at him, clearly saw the resemblance.

“What crazy woman?” Greynen demanded.

“She had this weird mask, with tubes coming out of it – she was talking, all the time, she sounded so strange – she was saying she had great plans for us. When she opened the door, there was some strange noise going on in there – animalistic screams and snarls – something inhuman. She untied us all from the creature and dragged the others through. Then she put that thing under me – I couldn’t move – she had this whole bandoleer of different glass vials with strangely coloured liquids in them, she went through them and picked just that one – she was laughing.” The tiefling was clearly in distress, breathing heavily, and looked unwell as well as cut about and bruised.

Morgaen caught an odd scent. She asked the tiefling to open her mouth for a moment and checked her throat. The same strange poison-smell that had come from Logus’ throat wafted out. Morgaen told her, and the others, that she was poisoned – and Sir Gerigold used his divine magic to cure the poison. But then Morgaen had to tell her how they had known – that Logus was dead. He had been paralyzed the same way the others had, but had not been taken – he had been left to die in the snow.

Talia was greatly distressed – she had been fond of Logus, a cheerful man who never robbed actual people, only tombs, before meeting up with the Red Drakes. Morgaen decided not, at this moment, to mention his missing eyes and teeth.

The party waited for a while outside the cave – round the corner, in the entrance, with someone watching carefully for anyone coming to investigate the blast. But it seemed as if either the walls might be thick enough to keep the noise out, or the inhuman noises Talia had described drowned it out – or as if whoever had set the trap was happily assuming that everyone who had triggered it was dead now.

Morgaen sorted through the bones in the owlbear cave, picked out a skull that appealed to her - the ghost attached to it, she explained, was a former explorer who was interested to travel with them - and fixed it over the scroll of her guitar. Greynen used the time to attune to the battle mage armour. Once he had done this, and Talia was a little more recovered, Morgaen went up and carefully inspected the door. It seemed as if it would move by being pushed and slid to one side. She reported this, and stepped to the side. Greynen tried to move it with his mage hand – it was clearly too heavy, so Sir Gerigold stepped up, the others ready behind him. But as he pushed the door aside, nothing attacked – the door opened up into a passageway.

Music echoed out – the sound of some kind of operatic performance, to Morgaen’s trained ear, but merely a loud singing to most of the others. Hazard stepped through, his nostrils flaring at a faint scent of blood in the air. Morgaen followed him in, checking the walls and ceilings carefully for any sign of more traps. The tunnel opened into a large area full of barrels and crates, piled high. Sir Gerigold went the opposite way to Hazard – coming across an area that looked uncomfortably like an abattoir. Several hooks were hanging from long chains attached to the ceiling. One held the leg of an elk; another held a tangle of intestines that could have been from anything. The rest were bare, but the bloodstains on the floor beneath them suggested that this was far from always being the case.

Morgaen found a gap in the wall near the supplies – a gap which opened up into another cave. Here, there were two steel gurneys – with chains on them in the correct places to restrain a humanoid. On a table nearby was surgical equipment, laid out neatly. The drain on the floor was covered in blood. She backed off, horrified.

Greynen pushed past her, going for a closer examination. The blood was not recent – but it was not old, either. It might have happened any time in the last few days. There was enough equipment around that there might easily have been several different procedures.

Sir Gerigold, working his way around following the sound of music, had come to a wooden door. It was bolted and barred – from this side. Crouching to look through the gap beneath it, he could see straw, a pile of hay – and a large, bulky creature with some uncomfortably owlbear-like feathers. Standing up and looking down the corridor to his left, he could see Morgaen come into view again – the whole area they had discovered was a ring-shaped passage around a wide column of rock, with caves coming off it. Morgaen went up to a second door. This one had a keyhole and a small hatch, about head-high – closed from the other side.

Morgaen crouched, and looked through the keyhole – the cave beyond was about fifty feet deep. To her left, a little distance inside, was something which looked like a metal cage – to her right, some kind of glass tube with water bubbling through it. The music was echoing out from behind this door – but she could make out nothing else from the narrow field of vision given by the keyhole. Straightening up, she whispered to Sir Gerigold and went back to find the others. Hazard and Ragnar had investigated the crates, found them full of various supplies with different maker’s marks, and were busy cutting slices from a round of some large, hard but extremely smelly cheese. She gestured urgently at them to put it away and come on! Greynen, still investigating the cave with the gurneys, looked up at her and put down the medical equipment he was holding. There was Talia, in the passage leading to the entrance, hanging back a little as they investigated the caves.

Suddenly, Morgaen heard a slight screeching noise. Whipping round, she saw Sir Gerigold had tried the door handle and leaned his weight on it – but the door had not opened. It was not only locked, but it was also clearly a little rusty. She gave the paladin an incredulous look and hoped the music was loud enough that anyone inside that cave had not heard him.

At that moment, Talia screamed.

Everyone’s heads spun towards her, as she hung for a moment on the leg that had pierced through her body, then dropped, limp, to the floor. The long-legged, metal-plated patchwork creature roared, its bulging eyes flitting from one to another of them as it picked its next target – and Morgaen remembered that they had never discussed if they were going to shut the door behind them or not…

This was Part 13 of 'Dirty Secrets & Nightmares', featuring Sam as Dungeon Master with a cast of Mark, Alex, Paul, Alexander and Imogen. Written by Imogen Solly.

Photographs sourced from Pexels unless otherwise stated. Many thanks to the artists for making these available. From the top, by: Jeremy Bishop, Rachel Claire, David Yu, David Yu, NastyaSensei, cottonbro, Maël BALLAND, Rodolfo Clix, Maria Orlova, John Banks, eberhard grossgasteiger, cottonbro, Tom Fisk, Lennart Wittstock, Oleg Magni, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pixabay, RODNAE Productions.

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