Rhaan 24, 1027 YK
Six adventurers — two agents of Dragonmarked Houses, two entrepreneurs, a priest, and a wanderer — enter the depths of the Shadow Marches in search of a missing company of House Tharashk mercenaries. Their first destination is the village of Blackroot, where an agent of Tharashk previously searching for the mercenaries, Doria Veledaar, was last known to have been.
Doria and her family are missing when they arrive, but they find some mostly-concealed signs of a struggle in their family home. The party finds a strange religious icon in the house and uses it to help find a trail, which leads to a cave just outside of town. The cave is guarded by orcs from Blackroot, but they push through and uncover a Cult of the Dragon Below, led by the village reeve, Toraash’Dorrm. They slay most of the cultists and kill Toraash, who was attempting to harvest souls and trap them in the many Khyber shards of the cave — once a tradition in Blackroot’s cult. They free Doria, who then points them to the hamlet of Carbuncle to the north.
Rhaan 24, 1027 YK
In the lingering heat of early autumn, six adventurers journey through the Shadow Marches. Their cloaks and armour are covered in mud, their clothes are soaked with sweat, and hungry insects buzz about them. Their destination is the village of Blackroot, a small settlement in the marshes controlled by two orc families: the Dorrm and the Veledaar clans.
They have come to Blackroot to seek out Doria Veledaar, a contact of Laxus Secundus, one of the six travelers. Laxus, an agent of House Tharashk, is investigating a platoon of Tharashk mercenaries that has gone missing in the wilds of the Marches, and Doria is believed by his Dragonmarked House to have some information on the missing forces. Peril Edenhall, a Dragonmarked Sentinel Marshal of House Deneith, accompanies him, also looking for information about the missing mercenaries.
With Laxus and Peril are the goblin entrepeneur and con artist Galorax, and the artificer (as well as Galorax’s two goblin retainers). The two are attempting to spread their business of production and sale of “black powder,” a volatile compound discovered by Samson that is widely-mocked by his peers and kept suppressed by House Cannith in the Five Nations, forcing them to seek business in the wilderness. The agents and entrepeneurs are also joined by Duine, a warforged companion to Peril with unusual psionic powers, as well as a traveling priest of Olladra named Reardon MacGilabin.
Blackroot, surrounded by dense darkwood trees, sits on a rocky rise standing above the swampy ground. The uncommon stability of its foundation allows the villagers to build directly on the ground, instead of on the stilts that prop up villages elsewhere in the Marches. The six pass orcs, humans, and half-orcs working in orchards or moving along the main street, all looking surly.
Not long after their arrival, they are met by a lean, muscular orc. He identifies himself as Toraash’Dorrm, Blackroot’s reeve, who informs them that there is nothing in Blackroot for them and insists that they move on.
Laxus tells Toraash that they have come looking for Doria Veledaar, and he begrudgingly points them to her family’s cottage, but notes that the Veledaars recently left Blackroot. When questioned about this, Toraash simply shrugs, and tells them that he thinks Doria convinced them to move out to a city somewhere. As the party goes to investigate the cottage, Toraash asks that they move on by the next morning before leaving.
The cottage seems mostly bare and unremarkable, and is obviously devoid of any inhabitants. It is not alone; several other houses in the village also appear to be standing empty. There are no signs of forced entry in the Veledaar household, but after some searching, signs of a struggle begin to come to the fore; several pieces of furniture appear to have been recently broken and quickly put back together, and a few drops of dried blood are discovered here and there.
Laxus manages to locate the broken tip of what appears to be a dagger blade made of volcanic glass, trampled into the dirt floor of the cottage. Not long after, Peril discovers a necklace with a snapped leather cord, formed of shards of volcanic glass set around what appears to be a mummified eye. Reardon inspects the necklace, and concludes that it is a profane holy symbol of one of the Cults of the Dragon Below, in which membership is somewhat common out in the far reaches of the Shadow Marches. These cults worship the dark powers lurking and trapped within Khyber.
Duine takes the pendant and concentrates his mental energies, eventually visualizing a flow of fouled arcane energy in the area tied to the pendant. He follows it, leading the party to a weathered path leading out of Blackroot. Passing through dense foliage and twisted bloodvines, they see a sloping hill, topped with a clearing around the mouth of a cave. Two villagers stand watch by the mouth of the cave, appearing to be heavyset orc woodcutters, bearing axes.
The six are mostly fairly cautious in their approach, except for Laxus, who quickly causes a stir among some other orcs hidden among the foliage. A small battle breaks out, which the party struggles to keep quiet. Duine attempts to walk directly into the cave, but has a hard time negotiating social matters, and is quickly attacked and significantly damaged by the guards. He rolls down, unconscious, to the bottom of the hill where the rest of the party is hidden.
Galorax, who is separated from the party by having gone a different direction into the foliage when Laxus attacked some of the orcs, also approaches the cave, bringing with him one of two small sample kegs of Samson’s black powder. He offers to strike a deal with the orcs, and after demonstrating the powder’s explosive potential, he is brought inside to meet with a priest, who briefly explains to him that the “Harvest” is about to begin, and the black powder could be useful. He passes through a tunnel covered with lines of red light resembling an unknown language. After coming out the other side, he is made to wait in a small chamber with a badly-defaced shrine containing three statues.
Meanwhile, the others rouse Duine back to consciousness. Some sneak up around the mouth of the cave, where they find some boulders that they push down, killing one of the orc guards. The others strike at the remaining guard, making quick work of him before moving inside themselves. They follow through the tunnel, where Reardon stops briefly to investigate the strange light-writing. He discovers that the glyphs are an endless scrawl of names, each capturing not just the identity, but also the spiritual essence of an individual creature.
They carry forward and meet Galorax. Reardon discovers that the statues in the shrine are dedicated to Arawai, Boldrei, and worst of all, Olladra. The defaced statue fills him with rage, and he vows revenge against the orcs of Blackroot for what they have done.
All together again, the party hides while Galorax stands in the open, awaiting the return of the priest who led him here. The cultist shows up, and the party decides to ambush him. After defeating him, they discover some dark glyphs etched into the ground, which appear to be whispering in complement to faint, ominous chanting from further into the cave. The glyphs are clearly dangerous, but the eye pendants (of which the party has two — one from the Veledaar cottage and one from the recently-defeated cultist priest) enable them to pass by. By tossing the pendants back and forth, they pass through unharmed.
In the next chamber, they discover that the walls have been painted with crude pictures of eyes and dark sacrifices. A massive, living eye is embedded in the wall directly across from where they enter, bearing two pupils and constantly scanning over a foul creature and the congregation it leads, composed of of orc cultists. The creature has two long tentacles emerging from its shoulders, and hollow sockets for eyes, filled with writhing cilia. Its skin is marked the same way the entrance tunnel had been.
The villagers’ clothes have been stripped, and they all bear additional eyes in their flesh, clearly inhuman and embedded in seemingly random locations in their bodies. They moan and chant, each waving a glittering blade chipped from volcanic glass, but there is no sign of Doria anywhere.
Using the black powder sample, the party launches another ambush, grievously injuring many of the villagers. The party makes relatively quick work of them, and struggles for only a short time with the alien creature — an aberration called a dolgaunt — before the room is cleared. They then search the chamber and discover a hidden passage beneath a loose stone, with a ladder leading downward. They go through.
The six follow through some more winding, dark passages, and soon find the floors and walls gleaming as they become increasingly slick and soft, resembling more flesh than stone. Soon, the floor begins to ripple like muscle, and across another large chamber they find a handful of dolgrims, aberrations related to dolgaunts resembling goblins with four arms and two mouths. They raise crossbows as the party charges, quickly realizing the danger of this room as mouths open up to snap at them as they move. The entire party manages to make it across, though narrowly among the mouths and crossbow bolts, and they slay the three dolgrims before proceeding inwards.
“Outlanders!” Toraash cries as they enter the next cavern chamber. He is wearing what appears to be a coat composed of raw muscle and peppers with dozens of blinking eyes. A couple of other cultists are also present, their glass knives drawn. Toraash offers the party a chance to live if they lay down their weapons and allow themselves to be shown the “blessing of Belashyrra,” and to be taught to “see with new eyes.”
Naturally, they refuse, and a battle breaks out. Combat is quick and violent, with the exception of Galorax’s contribution, who mainly hides in an alcove and tries a number of incredibly difficult shots to incapacitate Toraash (and does not succeed). They slay Toraash and the last of his cultists, and Duine strips him of his Coat of Eyes, which has ripped itself free from where it bonded with his flesh and crawled a few feet away. Duine folds up the horrid item and neatly packs it into his bag.
They pass into the final chamber, which is lined with narrow alcoves: coffins lined with pulsing Khyber shards. Some of the shards hold terrified villagers sealed behind panes of crystal. They find the one containing Doria and break it, freeing her. They question her for a time, and learn that the Harvest was as the party suspected: a dark ritual sacrifice to some entity of Khyber named “Belashyrra, the Lord of Eyes.”
When questioned about the missing army, she indicates that her investigation revealed they did in fact pass through Blackroot, and went north to another village. She creates them a crude map, before helping the party free the others and get clear of the caverns.