This plot is set during the Silmar-Empire war of 1346, the heroes are survivors of a mercenary Imperial sapper squad at the battle of Sagranz-Anckmar, two small villages close to the mountainous forests known as Gahruzel and Köeninginwald.
The Empire has suffered a series of devastating losses, and is on the verge of defeat. The Imperial battlemages have nearly one and all been slaughtered by a seemingly indestructible regiment of hexenjaegers (witch hunters) led by Dieter Sagranz, an elderly warrior whose fanatic fervor is unsurpassed. It is even said that "all flee before him as he enters the battlefield, and that no magic can affect him".
This has caused quite some fear among the eunuch slave regiments, for if even the mighty battlemages fall, who can hope to prevail against such an enemy?
The PCs start in the improvisatory tavern known as The Strutting Whore, a cutthroat place where the loose men and women among the camp followers practice their arts openly, and the reek of urine is strong. Still it is crowded, brimming with weary men betting on pit fights, discussing loudly and drinking heavily under the dirty canvas roof.
Sitting by the crates that pass as a bar, the veterans are shoved aside by a perfumed youngster without uniform. Not only that, but he helps himself of the drink of the closest PC, downing it all quickly, before spitting half of it out (at a PC), cursing them with his upper class accent for the low quality of their drink.
Whatever the outcome of this event, this man is Prince Hakeem, the fifty-fourth son of the Emperor, sent to the front to prove himself in battle. He has no combat experience, save for practice duels in the royal courtyard, and believes himself to be superior to any of the men in his army. Young and not so wise in the ways of leadership, he has come to show his men who he is and who is in charge. Of course, the PCs does not know this, for his bodyguards (in polished armor) stand back at his command.
The PCs can handle this whichever way they want. There are some possible outcomes:
Good handling: The Prince is impressed by these soldiers, quickly honoring them as "the stuff our army really needs". The prancing young prince then lays a hand on his favored PCs shoulder, field promoting him to captain (he was a private before that), and bestowing upon him and his men a mission of honor. Upon completion of this mission he promises women, drink and an audience with his royal self. He also says that the glory of their families will rise and fall with the valor of the PCs.
Mediocre handling: The Prince prances about, chastising soldiers for ridiculous defects (like dented armor or dirty cloaks (everyone has dented armor and dirty cloaks... its a war and these men fight every day)). He then points to the PCs and says that "these men in particular deserve my scorn, for their drink of choice was poor indeed". He then bestows the suicide mission upon them. "In the end", he finishes, "it is with your families that the real weight of success, or failure, will be felt".
Poor handling: The Prince (or his guards if the Prince was knocked out) angrily screams who he is, and that he is an heir to the throne (number 54 in line to be exact, but he doesn't mention that). He then accusingly points at the PCs and orders them to the whip, whereupon they "will get one chance to re-establish themselves as loyal men to the cause". This will result in three lashes of the whip and the suicide run. After the whipping he will wheeze a few words to the standers by: "...and do not even consider mutiny, or failure, for I promise you this: For each day that goes by without glorious news, one member of each your families will die. I will be kind and start with the elderly, but if you are not quick enough, all of your children will be orphans. Linger even longer and these too will be no more"
Of course, it is important that the PCs understand that they have options. Alternatives. My PCs decided to complete his mission (they handled the situation poorly and were whipped, and then the Prince pissed down their torn backs), yet they swore revenge. First they completed the mission, then they killed the courier carrying the letters ordering the slaughter of their family, finally they killed the prince by dripping poison in his mouth as he slept among his concubines in the war-tent.
The Journey through enemy lines
The party will have to break through enemy lines at night, stumbling through the woods, where they can see enemy bonfires and hear the enemy talk.
Through the coniferous forest they march, the moist, mossy ground treacherous and deadly. Perhaps they stumble into a cold stream in darkness, or perhaps it is a river they stumble into.
- Describe the moisture of the moss.
- Describe the song of the night birds.
- Describe the distant thunder of a waterfall.
- Describe the chill fall wind blowing through the trees.
- Describe natural scents and weather as if they were there themselves.
They will likely encounter a small patrol, one of the soldiers pissing and farting in the dark. High probability of combat, only possibly evaded by subterfuge or good acting.
At one time they pass an encampment, where they have a chance to steal armor from men slumbering in a tent.
Somewhere along the path lies the carcass of a half-giant, it's body pierced by a half dozen horseman's lances. Fallen men lies around him, some beaten to pulp, their horses killed and faces full of terror and disbelief.
Once through enemy lines
They exit Gahruzel forest close to a village in which the Grey Hammer Mercenary Company has made camp alongside the third Silmarian Cavalry Regiment. This is Sagranz, the birthplace of Dieter Sagranz, which lies at the foot of the mountain on which Holzberg monastery resides. The PCs will notice that the mountain has been covered in a thin sheet of snow. Winter has come to the highlands.
The village is bustling with activity, soldiers streaming through the streets. Oddly enough the torches lining the way up to the monastery have not been lit, nor will be while the PCs are watching. Should the PCs somehow ask, they will not be told anything. In the end the answer might come from a little girl: "The master cries in darkness... No one goes up there anymore!" (She refers to the fact that the Grand Master cries in his sleep, his despairing screams echoing over the small village)
Mysterious, whispering pilgrims come watch the glory of the hexenjaegers as they purge unbelievers from the holy land. These will be stopped from entering the monastery, and will make quite a fuzz about it, before they make their way through the village towards the front, occasionally praising the Grand Master (and silently cursing the villagers and regiments encamped in the village).
In the fields children play, but when ravens wheel in the sky above the monastery their mothers call them inside.
The Holzberg monastery lies atop a small mountain, two defensive walls surrounding it (where necessary). The first is five-six meters of height, the second nearly eight meters. In the heart of it all is the keep, the monastery itself. Oddly, no one patrols the battlements and only ravens can be seen as they cartwheel in the sky. (These are shape-shifting hexenjaegers, previously mage-slayers now tainted by the darkness in the bowels of the mountain). Luckily, the ravens do not always patrol the skies, and regularly they fly through open windows, disappearing from sight for hours at end.
Slain hexenjaegers will be found in the outer fortifications, and they seem less than a fortnight gone, the wintry chill having preserved them more than usual.
Solemn hexenjaegers patrol the inner fortifications, perhaps accompanied by a Mage Sniffer or two (see below).
Inside the Monastery everything seems cold, lifeless and light-less. They will go alone, in darkness, for long periods of time, before they eventually start encountering Hexenjaegers, silent except for periodic outbursts of mantra chanting, clad in white with white hoods, chain-mail showing beneath.
The hexenjaegers will let no one but other hexenjaegers inside, and once not so long ago they refused Armigar of Sehring, another Grand Master, entrance into the Monastery. The Grand Master and his retinue turned around and left in a fury. A week later they were found dead, all of them, hacked to pieces by savage animals in the Gahruzel forest. (This was of course the work of possessed hexenjaegers from the monastery)
Their mission is to kill Dieter Sagranz, but they should be made to understand that something is very wrong in the monastery. If they kill Sagranz they will have accomplished their mission, but the death spirit will find someone new to possess among the remaining, and he will use these to bring death upon everyone. And where can a death spirit find more victims, than in war? War is justified, and no one questions anything when murder is committed for the sake of the fatherland.
In the necromancer cult library, the doors closed to all by the hexenjaegers, they will find books concerning Ada'ar, including a ritual to put the spirit to sleep. Another book will describe how to summon Ada'ar in the main chapel, but that would be risky business and the PCs should be told so (higher risk, higher reward). The summoning ritual includes the ritual sacrifice of a living being, and involves the PCs on their knees in a ritual circle as they chant for the spirit to appear (within a pentagram drawn with the blood of the sacrificed)
The sleep inducing ritual can be performed anywhere upon the mountain, as long the PCs can hold hand and chant uninterrupted (at least two persons must chant). The downside is that they must chant for 24 hours, and during that time the spirit will become more and more agitated, and send its minions to find them, and kill them.
The Darkness beneath the Monastery
The Cult of Necromancers that inhabited the monastery prior to the hexenjaegers (some of them still captive in the dungeons below) worshiped an entity called Ada'ar - the Hunger of Winter, also known as "The Father of the Frozen Dead", that they believed lived deep down below the monastery. In the years that have passed since the passing of the cult, Ada'ar's needs, have not been fulfilled, with only the broken sobbing of a few prisoners to keep him company in the dreadful loneliness of his imprisonment. For Ada'ar is an elder spirit, a spirit of death, imprisoned there long ago by his rival and brother, Long Man Death. The Necromancers were his disciples, and they erected their edifice here, close to their lost master. They searched, but no matter how long they sought him, they could not find him anywhere.
With the slaying of his brother, Ada'ar's chains have weakened and his spirit probes through the mountain. The first to awake were his former disciples, now turned prisoners.
Ada'ar came to them in their despair, and he touched them, and they cried no more.
Ada'ar's Disciples, the Awakened:
'Saada the Black-Rook' was a necromancer who ran afoul of the hexenjaegers. Locked away deep in the monastery bowels with other unfortunate prisoners, Saada was experimented upon and tortured. During his anguished cries and death throes, he was "rescued" by by some 'undead force' from the ether (yes, even necromancers' prayers are sometimes answered, in this instance by Ada'ar, though Saada does not know that)). His broken, nearly lifeless body was partially transformed by his mysterious angel of undeath. Half of Saada's body became undead, while half of the necromancer remained alive. A grotesque mockery, half-living, half-undead, Saada managed to escape his bonds, and killed a hexenjaeger jailer/torturer, as he escaped even deeper beneath the monastery.
He currently is hiding, while the hexenjaegers search for him in the rank, damp dungeons below the monastery, dungeons older than the monastery itself.
Saada for his part is planning his revenge. This is happening as the PCs arrive. Just an extra side-story to entwine PCs
The Mage Sniffers
These are broken prisoners, not necromancers, but witches and warlocks, experimented upon and newly awakened by the power of Ada'ar. They run on all four, arms and legs, their knees bloody, their scrotum and breasts dangling. They snarl and they howl, and no longer do they communicate as humans.
These wretched beings can smell mages half an hour after the mage has cast a spell, and they will howl and snarl and run in the direction of the smell, and in their heels armed hexenjaegers follow.
The Shape Shifters
Dieter has turned some of his bodyguards into shape-shifters, hexenjaegers that can change into ravens and descend from the sky, surprising mages on the battlefield, quickly hacking them to pieces once they have turned into mail-clad warriors.
Dieter himself has been sleeping for over a month, ever since he was visited in his sleep by the ghost of Ada'ar. The villagers sometimes hear him cry at night, for he fights Ada'ar still, but his mortal coil has long since been possessed, yet his spirit linger still, unwilling to abandon his body to an unholy spirit like the Ada'ar. Thus it is that he cries and he sobs and cannot awaken. Yet he speaks in the minds of his men, but it is the voice of Ada'ar they hear, and one by one his men are converted. Changed into unholy things by the darkness from the bowels of the monastery hill.
Dieter Sagranz is the key for Ada'ar, for he commands the men in the monastery. While they have been tainted and now embrace what they earlier though an abomination (spirit magic), they would awaken and fight should they somehow lose Dieter or learn that he had been possessed. A visit from the hexenjaeger exorcists is the last thing Ada'ar wants, so he has imbued two guardians, Hans and Wilhelm (Hanzel and William) with powers of enhanced speed and strength. These guardians now watch Dieter's chamber door, day and night, and they feed him to keep him strong.
A group of newly arrived hexenjaegers have locked themselves in the garrison tower, and oddly enough no one has come looking for them. When they witnessed their brethren turn into ravens and fly they screamed of blasphemy and hid. To this day they have kept alive by eating the rations inside the garrison tower, but food is running out and all exits are guarded by those eerie hexenjaegers outside.
Additional Ideas (1)
Over the years the cult changed, their knowledge and familiarity with Ada'ar changing from a disciple's perspective, to the perspective of worshipers siphoning magic essence and power. When the day finally came that they had understanding of what had happened to their patron spirit, and the knowledge to free him, the elder council feared for their power and the change that freeing Ada'ar would bring.
Ada'ar himself was still bound, unable to do anything, and unable to feel anything. With the recent slaying of the Long Man his shackles were loosened, and the Father of the Frozen Dead once again could intervene in the lives of his followers. But some wards remain, and he is not free to wander the world.
The Elder Spirit is unaware of the necromancer elder council treachery.