The apparition gestured toward Caliban with a skull-capped rod and dreadful, black claws erupted out of the earth at the avenger’s feet, pinning him in their deadly grasp. Enraged by Kalarel’s mocking taunt and by the attack against his friend, Harold rushed forward, picked up the large barrel holding the (badly hidden) guard drake, and heaved it at the specter floating high above the adventurers’ heads. Combat around the site came to a halt as every eye watched the barrel carve a graceful arc through the air. The barrel and squealing drake passed through the apparition and then crashed down on the rocky ground at the edge of the burial site. After a moment of stunned silence, wooden staves flew in every direction as the furious dragon-like beast freed itself from the battered remains of the barrel. It was clearly not amused at being used as a projectile.
* * * * *
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!
Upon returning to Winterhaven and sharing the news of their victory at the kobold lair, the heroes were treated like rock stars. Lord Padraig said that a feast in their honor would be held that night. After getting cleaned up at Wrafton’s Inn, the adventurers still had some time to kill before the feast, so they made their way to Valthrun’s Tower. They told the old sage about the battle against Irontooth and the kobolds. When they mentioned Kalarel, Orcus, and a rift, Valthrun’s expression grew troubled. He said he needed to do a bit of research in his library, but asked the heroes to return later that night, after the feast.
The feast in their honor was a rollicking, joyful affair and a good time was had by all. By all, that is, except for a sullen dwarf who looked as if he were drinking to drown some sorrow rather than to celebrate a great victory. Sure enough, the drunken dwarf— who introduced himself as Douven Staul— was despairing over the fact that some gnomes had ousted him from a dragon burial site where he had been searching for the fallen beast’s treasure hoard. The dwarf said he’d found the dragon’s bones, but they evaporated into thin air when exposed to sunlight. The gnomes had been helping with the dig and seemed friendly enough, but they suddenly became extremely unpleasant and drove Douven away just as he started to uncover something right about where the dragon’s heart would’ve been.
Having heard of their success against the kobolds, the dwarf offered the adventurers a job. He wanted them to help him reclaim the dragon burial site from the dastardly gnomes and the human rabble they had working for them. The heroes told Douven that they’d consider his offer and get back to him with their answer.
After the feast wound down, the adventurers went to talk to Valthrun again. The old sage’s expression was still troubled as he told them that the rift the fanatical kobold mentioned could only be the one located below Shadowfell Keep. The keep, constructed during the time of the ancient Nerathi Empire, was built to guard a rift to the Shadowfell that lay in an underground cavern in the mountains north of Winterhaven. The rift had been magically sealed, Valthrun said, but then years later, some mysterious tragedy had struck the keep’s garrison and the fortress had been allowed to fall into ruin. Local legend said the ruined keep was haunted. The adventurers felt as if a chill wind blew through the room when Valthrun told them his research indicated the rift was thought to be connected to a vile sanctuary of Orcus in the Shadowfell. The old sage surmised that this ‘Kalarel’ must be a death priest of Orcus who was attempting to collapse the seal and open the rift.
Knowing that the bones of a shadow dragon will dissolve when exposed to sunlight, the heroes shared Douven Staul’s story with Valthrun. The old sage was alarmed to hear that the dragon’s heart had apparently been discovered at the burial site. The shadow dragon heart, he said, could be used as a powerful component in a ritual… just the kind of magical ritual that was designed to open a rift to a sanctuary of Orcus in the Shadowfell. Valthrun grew silent as he collected his thoughts, then he told the adventurers that he was certain all of their discoveries so far had been orchestrated by the Raven Queen. The old sage said he was sure the Raven Queen, no friend of Orcus’, wanted the party to stop Kalarel’s attempt to open the shadow rift.
Before turning in for the night, the heroes found Douven and told him they’d gladly accept his job offer. The hard-drinking dwarf thanked them and said he’d lead them to the site in the morning.
Despite waking late the next morning, the adventurers were tired and on edge. Talking it over, they discovered that they’d all had disturbing dreams during the night. Looking around, they noticed that the inn’s other patrons also appeared haggard and careworn, as if everyone in town had experienced a restless night’s sleep. The party feared that the collective nightmares were a sign the seal on the rift below Shadowfell Keep was beginning to fail.
Finding Douven to be terribly hung-over, the heroes rustled up a small cart for the dwarf to ride in and then they all set out for the dragon burial site.
The Dragon Burial Site
The fight at the burial site was a confused affair with vicious guard drakes darting around, dastardly gnomes turning invisible at inopportune times, clueless human rabble the heroes were reluctant to kill, and— to top it all off— an appearance by a malevolent, ghostly apparition.
When the hovering apparition became recognizable as a death priest of Orcus, Caliban cried out a challenge: “If you’re Kalarel, know that we’re coming for you!”
(The avenger gets credit for some inspiring trash-talk, but if I were the DM, I would’ve given him +2 to his next attack roll if he just would’ve added, “… and hell’s comin’ with us! You hear?”)
The specter, floating a good fifteen feet above the heroes’ heads, sneered, “Of course I’m Kalarel, and you pathetic fools will soon join my army of undead!” Right back atcha, Caliban.
When the apparition came down to nearly ground level so that it could pound on Caliban with its mace-like rod, the rest of the party was finally able to close with it and get in some telling blows. Harold even used Goring Charge on it, which resulted in the unusual sight of a spectral apparition floating five feet off the ground being knocked prone by a charging minotaur.
After the specter had finally taken enough punishment and disappeared, the last surviving gnome reappeared and attempted to flee with a box. Tar and Harold, in a heartstopping chase up and out of the dig site, only just managed to catch the gnome and slay it before it could escape. Opening the box, they found a pulsing, black, foul-smelling, amorphous lump. Hello, shadow dragon heart.