At least sixty miles of desolate hills and abandoned fields lie beyond the 3rd wall at the base of Dragonspire Fortress. Every year the hardpressed Luchuirp try to reoccupy these lands, reopen abandoned mines and till the fallow fields. The Sheaim garrison sends out regular parties of skirmishers, light horsemen and goblin mercenaries to destroy any new roads, farms, mines or farmsteads they find.
With the Sheaim army in Skadistad on the west side of the pass are several powerful Mages and Ritualists. These send out packs of conjured or undead beings to insure the Luchuirp get no use out of their lands below the Dragonspines. The Sheaim captain at the 3rd wall gate calls it ‘Dead Mans Land’, “good luck getting through there alive. Once those gates close this becomes a one-way trip for you, outlanders. If the pyre zombies don’t get ya, our lancers probably will”.
The ox-cart and all non-essential equipment is sold to lighten the load and hopefully make the run to Ithralia in 3-4 days. Mavriy will wear only her steel breastplate. Her squire Goran will carry the remaining pieces of plate armor. The rune-heroes set out at a run through the foothills leading down to the upland moors. Abandoned farmland, broken walls and burned hamlets dot the desolate landscape. Here in the open country vision reaches far, so the party adopts a more sedate pace as they scurry between shadowed swales and isolated thickets of mountain cedar. A cold cheerless night is passed within one of the many hidden box canyons where trickles a thin cold stream of mountain water.
At midday a group of goblins bearing spears are sighted crossing a bald hilltop. The goblins soon catch sight of the party and flee north toward an area of jagged boulders jutting forth from the earth. Mesmer sends a written message of parley scrawled in common via his owl familiar. Goran assists Mavriy in donning additional armor. Leelo, Finch and Grenl head around the east side of a long escarpment to search out any ambush. Mesmer, Krag, Mavriy, Erki, Thothra and Goran head north around the west side of the hill. A pack of jackals appear in the distance, alert to the possibility of new carrion.
The flanking team passes two huge shaped stones pulled aside years ago to expose a shallow tomb (later investigation reveals only the desecrated bones of gnomes). Grenl shrieks a warning. She’s spotted a half-dozen well-hidden goblin archers. Finch encourages Grenl to negotiate, but the goblins reply with a volley of arrows, piercing Finch in the arm and shoulder. The trio flee to nearby boulders before the goblins can loose another volley, where they reply with spells and arrows of their own. Several goblins fall, one by Leelo’s arrows and another driven mad by Finch’s magic.
The rest of the party makes it to the northwest side of the hill and begins crossing east, led by Mesmer the over-brave wizard. Mesmer is unable to spot the spear-goblins even with his owl-familiar’s sharp eyes. Lacking any direction from Mavriy or Krag, the ex-bandit archers hesitate until Erki takes them in hand. Mesmer nearly steps on a goblin hiding among the rocks, who stabs him in the foot. Other goblins appear and charge forward, thinking Mesmer is alone. They are soon pierced by arrows from the archers led by Erki. When Krag and Mavriy appear, the goblins panic and run screaming. Only two escape, the rest shot by arrows or burned by magical fire.
Leelo, Finch and Grenl outflank the goblin archers and climb the rocks. Grenl flings necromantic power across the hilltop. A goblin instantly collapses into a tangle of blackened bones and rotting flesh. Only one goblin escapes to the east. The jackals slink up and begin devouring dead goblins, but keep their distance from those not yet crippled or mortally wounded.
A tremor in the rocks indicates the arrival of four Sheaim lancers riding armored warhorses. Mavriy is slow to reach the cover of the rocks and obviously spotted, probably Krag as well. The lancers keep their distance as they trot across the hilltop. Not seeing anyone in the open, the horsemen decline to approach the rocks. For an hour they circle the hill watching for any attempt to escape across open ground, then ride off in search of easier quarry. To be caught in the open by a group of these lancers could spell disaster.
After a short rest the rune-heroes cross a high ridge of hills. Beyond the last ridge spreads a godforsaken landscape of abandoned farms and destroyed homesteads illuminated by the tragic light of orange rays slanting beneath darkening clouds. A thread of silver water meanders across the land far to the north. Barely visible above the mist-shrouded horizon is a tall mountaintop city set afire by the westering sun. A cold mist of rain begins to fall.
Only a few miles ahead are remnants of a walled homestead shrouded in the wild remains of an apple orchard. The party makes haste to reach this sanctuary. An hour later in the depths of the tangled wood, Leelo spots a pair of crooked forms shuffling through the darkness. A wild melee ensues with the animated remains of gnomes and humans. The hideous corpses are an indiscriminate mix of settlers, soldiers and bandits of various races and ages. Rotting hands reach from the loose soil of a mass grave to grasp at Mavriy’s ankles. Mesmer tangles a number of the zombies in magical webs. Krag turns a few back, causing them to wander aimlessly. The rune-heroes desperately try to make order out of chaos and fight forward to the stone wall just ahead.
Flickering flames and foul smoke announce the arrival of a trio of pyre zombies, set loose upon the land by Sheaim necromancers. Finch breaks free first and rushes forward with zombies close behind. Unable to reach the crumbling wall, Finch takes refuge in a nearby well by means of a log and rope someone placed across the top. Moans and flickering light come from above. Burning ash ignites the rotten rope. Finch braces himself cross-wise in the narrow space. His muscles begin to tremble with strain. Below lies not water, but a fetid ooze.
The screams of Goran sound through the dark woods. Leelo calls to him, but her voice is drowned out by the hollow moans of approaching pyre-zombies. The ex-slave from Cafes is not heard from again. Unfortunately Goran was carrying some of Mavriy’s plate armor pieces. Leelo sees scores of shadowy forms moving up through the woods behind.
Leelo breaks out of the melee, leading an unlikely trio of archers single file behind her: Erki the gnome, Thothra the Amurite, and finally Grenl, goblin of the defunct Durbuluk tribe. This tactic from the Alfar Woods proves extremely effective. Two pyre zombies are pierced by magic from Mesmer and a continuous fusillade of arrows from Leelo’s group. One explodes, setting off the second in a chain reaction. A great fireball rises skyward, illuminating the woods and nearby wall. Mavrey had staggered clear and so avoids incineration. A dark opening is clearly visible in the wall ahead.
Meanwhile Krag selflessly charges into a pack of zombies crowding around a crumbling well. Weak cries sound from within. Krag smites several zombies then disappears beneath a mass of bodies. Finch makes a last desperate effort and somehow reaches the top of the well. The exhausted warlock tumbles over the side. Mavriy smashes the pyre zombie at the well, causing it to explode. No others are in the area so a chain-reaction is avoided. A burned and bloodied half-orc emerges from beneath the pile of body parts.
Everyone staggers into the courtyard around a small farmhouse. All are accounted for except Goran. By some miracle the house is still standing. Even The 2nd story is partially intact, though most of the roof and walls are burned away. Krag begins to chant his death song, then realizes he’s not dying, and switches to a prayer of healing for the rune-heroes.
Leelo spots a pulsating blob of shimmering colors lurking within the structure. She lures it out into the yard. The pulsating tar-like goo shimmers with a rainbow sheen of poisonous green, purple, pink and blue. This is a small fragment of the huge tar-demons seen at Dragonspire Fortress. Krag stumbles away in terror, his phobia of black puddings rising, but manages to complete his chant and revitalize the worn-out party. The tar-demon fragment is slow and easily destroyed at range by spells and arrows from Leelo, Mesmer, Finch and the henchmen. The demon-blob proves resistant to mundane weapons, but not invulnerable.
On the second floor a small group of starved and shivering gnomes are found hiding beneath a tarp under a corner of surviving roof: two children, a young man and an elderly matron. Erki discovers they are the survivors of an ill-fated and ill-advised group of settlers from Luchuirp lands farther north, beyond the Quicksilver river. Finch attempts to chivvy the terrified gnomes over to where they will be eaten first should undead find the stairs. Erki stands in the way with readied axe and short sword.
Mesmer averts an ugly scene by announcing he learned a spell of magical alarm over the summer in Galveholm. In less than two hours the work is done: anything entering the courtyard or the windows and doors of the ruined house will trigger a silent alarm indicating to Mesmer which area is threatened. Orchards and fields beyond the crumbled courtyard wall are soon blanketed in a swirling shroud of cold mist blown down from the high moors. The resulting dead silence does nothing to calm the nerves of those who lie shivering within.