The Party arrived at the keep, surveying the scene: castle walls with large runes inset in the stone. Vall surmised they were runes to keep something out of the castle, and Guidance used his breadth of knowledge to recognize them as runes from religious iconography of the Old Gods.
The floating carriage flew around the castle. Cori checked the ground for any tracks; she discerned that there was a trail the goblins regularly used on their journey here, and that the last tracks were heading to the White Wood. Likely the goblins they attacked last time.
Speaking of goblins, the goblin boss they captured had little info to tell them, only that there was a creature with beady glowing red eyes that would snatch their offerings from a window in the door. He was bound and left in the carriage.
So Vall went up and knocked on the door. The sliding slot opened up and there were the beady red eyes, with nothing but black behind them. Vall said hello and asked to speak to the master of the house. The voice replied, “Where is your offering?” Vall asked, “What would you like?” and the voice replied, “I would like an offering.”
So Vall gave him a small pouch of coins, slinging them over the window. They were snatched immediately, and then there was a pause and the sound of two voices bickering. The bickering ended and the door opened, and inside were two elves clad in red robes: Iren and Shosa, cultists.
Iren beckoned them inside (Vall tested the entrance to ensure they would not be stuck inside forever). In the castle they discovered it was night, despite it being mid-morning outside. It was also about 20 degrees colder. They saw various red-robed elves wandering through the courtyard, along with a lot of undead—zombies, ghouls, and ghasts, who all appeared to be in league with the cultists.
Iren and Shosa led them into a mess hall that had been somewhat converted into a meeting room. He explained the situation: they were Tovenites, cultists who worshiped Sir Toven as a god. Toven was a paladin from Iro who worshiped Midya, the Mother. He somehow crossed the Spine with his squire, Ascalan (a half-elf fighter), thousands of years ago. Toven had many adventures in Phynsia before descending into the Darkwood, which is what the White Wood was before Toven arrived. The Darkwood was a naturally mysterious and evil place, and as Toven traveled through it he became increasingly corrupted by it. (Surprisingly, like Sam in LotR, Ascalan was not corrupted by it, perhaps because she was not as connected to her deity like Toven was.) At one point he saw a nightmare (a big evil flame horse) and pursued it, as he wanted to tame it and ride it. However this only pulled him deeper into the forest, causing him to become even more corrupted.
One day he caught the nightmare and climbed on its back. He then rode out of the Darkwood, but as he did, the darkness of the wood itself somehow was sucked into his body, and he took it with him. Thus, the White Wood was born.
Toven was clear-headed enough to be aware that this darkness was corrupting him, so he built a castle in the middle of nowhere, and had a friend of his named Ovemaw (who Iren describes as “the green man”) inscribe runes on the outside that would prevent him from ever leaving the castle. Meanwhile, the darkness corrupted him to the point where he ended up killing Ascalan. This murder broke his sacred oath to Midya, and he became a fallen paladin at that point. However, the corruption also took over his body, which ended up transforming him into a powerful Death Knight.
Currently, Toven resides in the keep inside the castle, which he does not leave. The cultists started showing up about a thousand years ago. The undead, Iren explains, are from Toven’s old elf guard, who were all turned undead once Toven became a death knight. The cultists and the undead have a stable relationship, and the cultists basically take care of the keep. Ascalan’s ghost wanders the halls as well.
Iren wants the begin trading with other people in the Steppe so that they do not need to rely on Edwin’s continual offerings, while Shosa vehemently distrusts all other creatures besides the cultists, including Edwin. They continually bicker about this pressing issue.
(I don’t remember how this happened, but) at some point, the party learns that in the dungeons of the keep is a woman, Kyrina, who was once the guardian of the Wending Tree, before Edwin Alcaster took it over. Edwin bound Kyrina and offered her to the cultists, who reluctantly accepted. Kyrina can conjure magical weapons at will due to a strange pact she has with “Uredon the Destroyer,” and so the cultists bound her hands together and put a gag in her mouth just to be safe, and chained her in one of the dungeon cells. “The dungeon has a bodak in it,” Iren says. Vall and Cori had kind of heard of bodaks before.
(Oh, also, Shosa cast Comprehend Languages on Cori and Guidance so that they could understand everyone.)
As they talk, the party discovers a couple of things:
1. The cultists are evil and seek the release of Toven so that he may rule the world. They believe a “great battle” is about to occur between Toven and Atren, one of the Titans.
2. Edwin is attempting to gain favor with Toven so that he may gain info on the whereabouts of Atren; Edwin believes Toven knows where due to his connection with Ovemaw.
3. [side note: I literally stopped writing this part last night at this number 3. I have no idea what I was going to write. Let this be a lesson: never finish writing in the middle of a list.]
[also, my brain is fuzzy on the next part, sorry guys]
The party is allowed to roam the keep as they wish, and are even given a room to rest in, should they need it. However, the party is interested in Kyrina, and Vall is interested in finding Ascalan to see if he can speak to her. So they find a cultist who can distract the bodak in the dungeon and allow our heroes access to Kyrina. As they head to the dungeon, Vall whispers Ascalan’s name in the hopes of making her appear, to no avail. The cultist successfully distracts the bodak, giving them five minutes to talk. Kyrina is gagged, but she can speak telepathically. She was the protector of the Wending Tree and desperately wishes to be freed so she can kill Edwin. The party decides to ask Iren if they can take her.
As they start heading back, Ascalan is seen in the dungeon hallway. Vall decides to talk to her while Cori and Guidance head up to ask Iren for Kyrina.
Vall finds out that trying to get Toven to atone for his sins and “shake off” the darkness that has enveloped him is not an easy task: first, Ascalan must be “killed” to dissolve her bond with Toven; second, Toven must return to the White Wood and let the darkness retake it; and third, Toven must pray for forgiveness to the Mother. Vall kind of gets the idea that that’s not a doable task right now.
Meanwhile, Iren is surprisingly gracious about letting Kyrina go. All he asks is that she remains bound and gagged until she leaves the keep, and that she never returns again. Some of the nicest evil cultists you’ll meet!
After distracting the bodak again, the party releases Kyrina, who lets them know that she doesn’t have a piece of the Wending Tree. The only pieces she knows of are from an old shield that broke into three pieces: the piece Edwin has, the piece the hobgoblin warlord has, and a third piece in the hands of the dragonborn in the Glass City. Disappointed in their futile search, the party leaves the keep and boards their hover carriage back to the White Wood, with a request from Iren: kill Edwin Alcaster.
Along the way they come across four hobgoblins taking more offerings to the keep. Our Heroes make short work of them, despite the goblin boss (who was still in the carriage) freeing himself from his bonds and nearly grappling Kyrina. Vall rotated the carriage while Cori and Kyrina took pot shots, and Guidance ended up flaying the goblin boss alive with a particularly nasty Inflict Wounds spell.
After the hobgoblins were taken care of, our heroes grabbed the loot in offering sack and drove it back to the keep, giving it to Iren, who thanked them with special weapons: a magical rapier for Vall, a Dagger of Returning for Cori, and the “throw ’em scrotum,” a sling attachment for Guidance’s whip.
Goodies dropped off, the party returned to its journey back to the White Wood, to ake the wooden medallion from the hobgoblin warlord. (Maybe.)