Here, they meet allies of the Children of Winter, the so-called Still Heart shadar-kai who are native to this plane. The Chaos Gear is in their fortress and kept by their leader, the Winter Queen, and seem very much unwilling to allow them inside. The party infiltrates the fortress and makes their way to the keep where the Winter Queen awaits.
Notes: Getting into the fortress was no easy task, but the party was very coordinated in doing so. Of particular note was the much-vaunted “double kick” on the part of Zil’dejin and Stahlstrauss to get inside a barricaded door.
Sar, Sypheros 10, 998 YK (Day 84).
The other monks, after being assured the battle is over, enter the seal chamber. Garmeth, with the aid of the others, is able to more clearly identify the gauntlet now attached to Marlamin’s arm, which is called the Touch of Corruption, and is a powerful daelkyr artifact commonly associated with Dyrrn the Corruptor, believed to be the most powerful of his kind. He is rumored to be sealed here in the Eldeen Reaches, and Druar believes that the seal in the Echohand Cave might be the one that’s keeping him in.
Druar begins a ritual to stabilize the seal long enough for the Gatekeeper druids to come and reseal it themselves, but Marlamin has a strong compulsion to stop him from doing so. He threatens and yells at Druar until the githzerai monk stops the ritual. Druar is already injured, and does not want to risk death for this. Garmeth accuses him of cowardice, but he remains resolute in his desire to avoid stabilizing the seal, claiming it is the “Gatekeepers’ job, anyway.” Before leaving, he offers Garmeth a reward for his efforts: a multicolored, patchwork cloak he allegedly recovered from their last visit to the Shitorai monastery. Garmeth asks if there is anything left there; Cobb informs him that it is little more than a ruin. They part ways with surprisingly casual phrases. The monks are heading northeast to Greenheart, and offer to take Tam’elanath with them to return him to life. The group allows this, and Zan-kyri returns with them as well, claiming that he has had enough adventuring for now.
The remaining five leave Echohand Cave to the southwest, now back on track for the Twofold Glade.
Far, Sypheros 16, 998 YK (Day 90).
The Eclipse Collective at last arrives at the Twofold Glade, which has the unusual property of appearing completely dead in an almost perfect circle amid the otherwise-verdant Towering Wood. The trees are leafless and barren, while the grass is sparse and all but depleted of life, even more than is to be expected in the month of Sypheros (mid-autumn). The clearing also contains a secluded monastery of the Blood of Vol, built in characteristic red stone, which once housed the small extremist sect Marlamin set out to investigate. There are only two buildings in the monastery, surrounded by a low wall. The party chooses to investigate the larger of these buildings first.
They knock on the door, and hear voices within, but nobody responds. Eventually, they open the door to discover men dressed in animal furs and brandishing swords, ready for combat and screaming about “protecting the passageway.” A fight breaks out. Garmeth tries to ask one of them what they want, to which he responds that they wish to “bring this broken world to ruin.” The battle with the Children of Winter is quite brief, as only two guards, a witch and a doomspeaker (like a priest) of their sect are there to guard the old monastery, which has apparently been converted into the Children of Winter headquarters for the time being. The Collective searches the monastery after the battle, uncovering an old magical belt and some food supplies being used by the Children of Winter, as well as the stripped-bare kitchen building, but it is not until Zil’dejin displaces a carpet in the entry hall of the main monastery building that they find an unlocked trapdoor, with a tunnel leading down into the earth.
The follow the tunnel, pausing briefly at a wooden door carved with images of skulls. Once they pass this door, they feel colder, and the tunnel seems darker, though it is certainly the same structure as it was before. At the end, they find another set of stairs and a trapdoor nearly identical to the first. Marlamin, Zil’dejin and Stahlstrauss smash through the wood, and the group finds themselves in the ruins of a monastery much like the one they just left, but completely in shambles. The sky is very dark and overcast, and a howling wind whips by. The monastery is empty.
They investigate for a while, and discover that the ground is like ash, and the trees are a deep gray and entirely dead, with no sign of the lush Towering Wood for miles. Elyas recalls the hallmarks of this place indicate only one thing: they have crossed into Dolurrh, the Plane of the Dead, also known as the Shadowfell. It is much like a mirror world to Eberron where death and decay are dominant, and mortals spending too much time lingering will waste away with the apathetic spirits in this place. Despite being a mirror, though, there are some differences, such as a paved road leading into the dead wood. Garmeth decides to leave the party for a while to see if there is any other course of action, but the other four decide that there is probably not, and they take to the road.
The dead trees of Dolurrh’s imitation of the Towering Wood eventually fall away to reveal a small stream, breaking the barren forest to reveal a set of high, roughly-hewn walls. It seems this may have been an area of plateaus once, or perhaps magic or something like it created these walls, but whatever the case, there is an enormous fortress here, toned a gray so deep it is nearly black. They approach the gate, and a sentry stationed above it asks them to identify themselves. He is a pale-skinned human with braided hair, myriad piercings, and strange tattoos, clad all in black. The party tells him why they have arrived in plain words.
The sentry responds that this place, called the Fortress of Still Hearts, is home to a powerful clan of shadar-kai (very close to humans – one of very few races that live in Dolurrh) that have control of the Chaos Gear, and they have no inclination to surrender the artifact. He also reveals that the Children of Winter are allied with the Still Heart shadar-kai, and that the ranks within the large fortress greatly outnumber the four members of the Eclipse Collective (who are shortly rejoined by Garmeth to make five, but this is hardly an impressive increase in numbers).
After some contemplation away from the gates, the group decides that they have no choice but to try and get into the fortress anyway. Zil’dejin, Stahlstrauss and Marlamin begin to scale the walls in an area that has little apparent activity. Garmeth moves around the fortress to find some kind of vulnerable area that would be easier to access, and Elyas goes with him while trying to recount any information he might know about the shadar-kai race that could be helpful, but neither of them have any success in their endeavor. From atop the walls, the three that climbed up initially throw down a rope, and the remaining two quickly climb to the top. Here, they can see the true scale of the Fortress of Still Hearts, with its many buildings and many occupants. There is a set of stairs leading down at a nearby point in the wall, providing access to it from the ground below, and the Collective descends it rapidly.
There are two buildings nearby, and numerous shadar-kai and Children of Winter patrols milling about. Zil’dejin and Stahlstrauss decide to infiltrate the nearest building, a large and mostly-featureless structure that is dimly illuminated with the same blue light typically found in the fortress. Marlamin looks around for any unused clothing in an effort to disguise himself, while Elyas and Garmeth break off from the party to eavesdrop on patrols and obtain information through stealth. Elyas discovers that the Chaos Gear is being kept in a place called the “Quiet Halls,” and the name “Winter Queen” comes up as well. Garmeth discovers nothing of use, and Marlamin finds nothing that can be used as a disguise. Meanwhile, Zil’dejin and Stahlstrauss make a mad dash for the door to the shadar-kai barracks, side-by-side. Almost simultaneously, Zil’dejin forces his body downwards to perform a sliding kick, while Stahlstrauss leaps into the newly-vacated space above Zil’dejin’s head, turning around in the air to kick the reinforced door from up high. Their feet collide with the door at the same instant, and it explodes into a hellish rain of splinters, both wood and metal. When they pick themselves up, they discover the interior is mostly vacated, save for one surprised-looking shadar-kai who looks to have been behind the door when they kicked it. He is covered with splinters from head to toe, and completely dead.
Inside the barracks, the party, without Marlamin, quickly gathers with plans to move before the inevitable investigation on the demolished door comes around. Outside, Marlamin approaches a shadar-kai patrol, completely undisguised, and tells them that he is one of the Children of Winter, and is looking for the Quiet Halls. He emphasizes the unpleasant nature of the Touch of Corruption on his right arm, and the shadar-kai believe him, directing him to the far northern end of the fortress. Meanwhile, back in the barracks, Garmeth sneaks through some tunnels connecting it to other buildings in the fortress, avoiding patrols, and locates a small, nearly-unused tunnel that most would not have seen, and manages to slip in undetected. He discovers it leads to the Quiet Halls, and is able to sneak the others inside. They meet up with Marlamin between two gateways, one leading back out into the Fortress of Still Hearts and the other leading into the keep-like building that holds the Quiet Halls. The doors leading inside are locked, apparently to be opened from within on special permission, but Zil’dejin and Stahlstrauss charge the door, and break it open. Inside, they find shadar-kai and Children of Winter waiting to “greet” them…