The Strangled Vale

"The air is so thin that each breath I take, while deep, fails to fill my lungs. I am left feeling thin - as if I am stretched out over the frame of a larger man. Such thoughts are cast aside when I am finally given the chance to stare out at the vale before me. Clouds fill the region, held captive by the natural wall of mountains that encircle the valley. They rarely disperse and instead seem to churn and shift. There is rarely direct sunlight. It barely filters through the cloud cover at the best of times, casting little more than a dull, hazy light on the valley."
- journal entry from the Pieskovitch expedition

THE STRANGLED VALE

Arthur Rackham, Fearsome Forest

Roughly twelve miles west-to-east and twice as long north-to-south, the Strangled Vale lies somewhere close to fifty miles north as the crow flies from the city from Hollowston. The trek there involves a climb up a steep, craggy trail through which no large wagons could possibly fit. As such, few make the trip on horseback or foot save for desperate merchants, adventurers, and those seeking escape from either civilization or the law. The region is infamous for both the strange folk who choose to dwell there and for the unnatural weather that seems to plague it.

Those who dwell in the vale proper know that nature has no hand in the troubling climate of the region.


The Vale

There are eight major focal points within the Vale.

1. The township of Brokenford
2. Pioneer Cemetery
3. Pine Hill
4. The ruins of Oln
5. Wet Gulch
6. Half Moon Lake
7. The Lonely Spire
8. Fish Lake


Brokenford & Pioneer Cemetery

The Green River runs down from the northern mountains, cutting through the center of the vale and splitting the region in half. Dead center of the Vale and nestled on either side of this river lies Brokenford, to which the Pioneer Cemetery is tethered. No more than one-hundred and fifty people reside in the entirety of the Vale, and only seventy can be found in Brokenford - the rest living in isolation throughout the area. It is a sleepy place, with quiet folk who mind their own business but keep close tabs on the coming and goings of the area. Considering the number of people who came to the Vale to escape others, there is good reason to be wary of outsiders,lest they turn out to be bounty hunters or lawmen. Such folk might find their stay unpleasant to say the least.


Pine Hill


An area densely-covered by its namesake. In an already-gloomy region, the foliage here is oppressive. The land is rocky and devoid of grass, though the wet soil is rich with moss and fungi that prefer the darkness. Fallen trees and massive boulders make the hill a treacherous place full of hiding places - ideal for smuggler caches and spots to lie in ambush. Many of the oldest pines here are covered with a brilliant crimson moss.


The ruins of Oln

A henge of petrified oaken pillars rest in a muddy gulch at the lowest point within the Strangled Vale. And the end of that gulch, two slabs of the same glossy, invincible wood form a pair of doors that seem fused into a sheer rockface, worn smooth by rainfall and time. The wood is older than the pines that make up the Vale, and only the finest tools of dwarven make can even hope to notch them. Locals speak little of the ruins, and fewer still of the things that howl with terrible fury during the seasonal solstices and equinoxes.


Wet Gulch

Groundwater swells up and, seemingly at random, fills and drains a small gulch nestled up against the mountainous walls of the Vale. Odd mushrooms that glow in the dark grow in the mud once the gulch has drained, and animals give the area a wide berth. Only birds linger here, and even then, rarely for long.


Half Moon Lake

The waters here run deep, feeding off the Green River when the spring melt causes it to run strong. During the dry season this lake recedes far enough to see a stone altar from an older era, sunken beneath the clear waters. It is at this lake that a small coven of druids convene on stormy nights, and here that they reside over all local holidays and ceremonies for the local population.


The Lonely Spire


When a thunderstorm inevitably threatens the area, few locals bother to take precautions against levinbolts. There is only a single place that thunder strikes in the entire valley and it is the blackened tower of rock that sits upon a grassy hill. Chunks of glass can be dug up from the hillside, and many who live in Brokenford wear amulets made of the stuff to ward off misfortune.


Fish Lake

A placid body of water, filled with trout that seem to favor the plump insects of the Vale. Is supplies a great amount of food for Brokenford, and the locals treat the lake with reverence for its bounty. A small island sits in the center, shaded by ancient pine trees.

Arthur Rackham, Misled and Lonely Traveller

The Curse

In an older era, the elves of Oln-Naroth suffered greatly as they warred against the men of the east. Desperate, some fled deeper into the wilderness. From mountain-peaks they screamed curses to the wind-lords and offered blood sacrifices to the wood-spirits who once served them willingly. This act was a betrayal of sorts, and though the spirits of nature obeyed the commands and wreaked havoc upon the invading humans, it forever poisoned them against the elves. No more was the land's bounty blessed with joy. No more was the weather of the elf-lands fair and gentle. No more were the wild animals given to peaceful demeanor.

Food became scarce. Storms raged for weeks on end. Wolves prowled the darkened forest. And the spirits of nature scorned the elves who had betrayed and enslaved them. In fear, the elves fled into the deepest recesses of the land. They pried open the mountains and sought shelter from the curses they themselves had wrought, confining what little remained of their civilization to a harsh and lonely existence beneath the rock.

Nature has not forgotten. It has withdrawn its rage and no longer destroys  wildly with volatile and capricious power. Instead, it waits. It holds its anger and lets it simmer within the Strangled Vale. There, dark clouds slumber and thunderbolts send a warning deep underground to remind the elves that this wrath is eternal. There, wild animals watch with overly keen eyes: the birds spy upon the entrances to the elven kingdom and wolf-packs patrol the valleys searching for a sign of their return.

There are some who know hints and glimmers of this story, but only the tight-lipped druids of the Vale know the true extent of the situation, and they speak to few.

The worst aspect of the Vale's troubles is that the curse still lingers. It no longer harries all who live within the Vale, but those who offend the nature spirits are sure to feel that deep-seated dread settle into their bones.


What Offends Nature?

Those who enter the Vale must not violate any of the following principles. Should one of these tenets be broken, the afflicted will suffer a an appropriate curse.

Table 1.1 - the tenets

1. Fail to make an offering of burnt pine on one of the solstices or equinoxes.

2. Fail to sanctify a slain wild animal before consuming it. A small prayer before eating is enough to satisfy the nature spirits of the Vale.

3. Fell a tree marked with the holy red moss of the region.

4. Desecrate a body of water with a corpse - human or animal. Fish skeletons may be returned to the water without issue, however.

5. Intentionally topple a stone cairn.

6. Wear a mask upon one's face into the forest of Pine Hill.

All locals who call the Vale home will know these tenets, and any visitors who the locals judge to be of good character - and neither bounty hunters nor lawmen - will be informed of these laws as well. Those who break a tenet are subjected to the wrath of nature.

Table 1.2 - the curses
All conditions herein last for a full year from the day the tenet was broken.

1. Immediately upon breaking this tenet, the afflicted will find that they cannot stand the close presence of fire. Their eyes are exceptionally sensitive to open flames, and even the heat of a held torch is unbearable to their naked flesh. Standing within thirty feet of any source of fire is enough to cause minor burns.

2.  1d6 days after breaking this tenet, knobbly growths will begin to break through the afflicted's scalp painfully. Within 2d6 days, a pair of small, sensitive antlers will protrude from the skull. At the end of the afflicted's year-long curse, the antlers will fall out and leave behind a pair of odd scars.

3. 1d6 days after breaking this tenet, the afflicted's tongue will dry out and slowly dessicate until it appears to be made of cracked bark. The afflicted can taste neither food nor drink, and will feel as though they are always somewhat thirsty. It is said that the afflicted is immune to poison while their tongue is in such a state.

4. 1d6 days after breaking this tenet, the afflicted will go temporarily blind while shimmering scales grow over their eyes. These will fall out after one day, at which time the afflicted will appear to have glassy, round fish eyes. The afflicted will have an odd, enlarged view of the world, though will lose much of their depth perception and ability to spot minute details until very close to an object.

5. Immediately upon breaking this tenet, the afflicted will find that they cannot wear fur or leather - their flesh will itch and burn if any such products are placed upon their body. After one hour it will begin to blister and boil, causing damage.

6. Immediately upon breaking this tenet, the afflicted will find that they cannot sleep through rainstorms, and that the sound of thunder strikes mortal fear into their heart. They may not gain the effects of a night's rest in such conditions.

Arthur Rackham, Surrounded by Giant Toads

The Ruins of Oln

"Long of limb and sharp of teeth, strange pale monstrosities crawled out of the cracks within the cave. They shied away from our torches for a time, but we soon found ourselves surrounded as we tried to navigate back towards the entrance. They harassed us with sling and shortbow, holding us at bay until we ran out of torches and oil for the lanterns. Then, they assaulted us head-on in the darkness, unafraid of our wizard's light. Dagin fell to the cracked teeth of one monster, and old Glenby suffered a venomed bolt in his leg as we fled. He sleeps now, but I fear he will not survive the night. I can hear wolves howling on the hill nearby, and we are down to only the four of us, now."
- journal entry from the Pieskovitch expedition

Oln-Naroth has fallen into disrepair. When the elves fled to their mountain hollow, they brought with them much of their wild splendor. Hoards of gold and silver, ancient weapons enchanted with primordial magics. Strange artifacts from when the elves were a young race, and the spoils of war that they took from their fallen foes. All of these were dragged down into the ground with them, and jealously the descendants of old Oln-Narot guard them still.

They plot in vain for a day when the spirits of nature withdraw far enough for them to slip free, and escape the Strangled Vale. They wish death upon the trespassers who live in the woods of their ancestors, and they mutter curses in the dark for the ancestors of the ancient race of eastern men who were the source of their self-inflicted misfortune.

The tunnels and caves wind madly downwards, shaped by magic to mold the earth and rock to the will of the user. Some of the structures seem to be carved from stone in a malfeasant spell long-forgotten by the current generation of twisted elf-creatures and their short-lived descendants. Without the bounty of nature, the creatures are no longer the proud people they once were. Now, they are called Narothi in a tongue of elvish similar to one spoken on the surface - it has degraded somewhat, over the years. The Narothi suffer to live only for a scant number of years - barely half as long as any human. They breed quick in the darkness, replenishing their ranks as they prepare for a future war that will likely never come.

A caste system of sort has emerged, the various bloodlines degrading along with the bodies of the Narothi. There are four distinct breeds within the ruins of Oln.

Narothi spellbenders
Tall and spindly, with elongated heads eyes that bulge outwards. These Narothi still practice a form of ritual magic passed down by their ancestors. They can conjure slithering creatures from the deepest pits of their darkened mountainhome; monstrosities like giant eels that writhe and slither across the ground, smearing slime and biting with double-jawed strength at any they come across. They also know how to evoke a sort of acid-like liquid, hurling it at foes that would conjure fire. It burns flesh and douses flames, ruining metal lanterns and melting away pots that might hold oil.

Eel-Riders
Wielding flint spears and bone crossbows, these Narothi know how to manipulate the eel-things bound by their wizards. The eel-riders are stouter and more durable than the rest of their brethren, oftentimes as strong as any orc. They form riding packs of six. On particularly large mounts, two riders may sit: one to direct the massive beast and the other to fire at foes. Many of the eels are the size of a legless horse, though some can stretch to twenty feet if they are sufficiently fed.

Skulkers
Armed with slings, bows, sharpened daggers and pots of vicious toxins, these scouts are short and flexible. They patrol the caves to seek out the Narothi's foes: trolls, goblins, dwarves, and the rare adventurer who trespasses into the mountain holdings of the Narothi in search of treasure and adventure.

Dredges
Small and weak, these pathetic whelps rarely leave the darkened holdings of Oln-under-the-ground. They provide for the more violent subspecies, and perform menial labor. On occasion, this can include serving as living shields in a large-scale assault.




Arthur Rackham, She Went Along

Twenty Treasures Within the Ruins

There are artifacts still hidden within the ruins of Oln. Some are better left down there.

1. The Wolf Skin of Ang Lamyen

A beautiful silver pelt of a dire-wolf fashioned into a cloak. The wearer is endowed with rejuvenating powers, able to shrug off flesh-wounds with only a night's rest. The long limbs of the beast's pelt have toggles so that one might tie them about the neck, and the sharp black claws give off a faint magical aura.

2. Gerik's Thorn

A spear of petrified wood. When a foe receives a mortal wound and would normally perish, they instead suffer a magical stasis instead. They appear asleep will neither age nor awaken until pricked again by the Thorn. The spear bears a short inscription in elvish writing that details its history - how it was used by a warden to capture and contain threats to an ancient kingdom.

3. The Bronze Buckler of Oln

A small, simple shield made of beaten bronze and inscribed with faint elvish runes on the interior. It provides the wearer with deft agility, and prevents them being flanked. It hums as the wielder swings it in battle to deflect blows and arrows, and in daylight it gleams brightly, giving off a golden glow when raised aloft.

4. The Hand of the Destroyer

A solid metal arrow, complete with rigid iron fletching. It is exceptionally heavy, but may be fired from a bow without issue. If it hits a living creature, they will be critically injured and, depending on their size, pinned by the heavy bolt to wall or ground. The arrow will never break, but it leaves the wielder with a heavy sense of responsibility when stored in a quiver.

5. Orb of Elven Wisdom

A glass ball roughly a foot in diameter atop a golden three-pronged stand. When used to channel divination magic, the results gleaned from such a spell cannot be false, and the range and precision of such spells are enhanced.When stared into for an extended period of time, the user will see glimpses of their forgotten memories.

6. Cloak of Wintersbane

A finely-woven cloak of silver thread, with reinforced mithril weave. It captures body heat and preserves it. So long as the wearer is warm-blooded, the cloak will quickly dry itself when wet and keep the wearer warm regardless of the temperature. In a snowstorm, the wearer will be nearly invisible and they will never be fatally swallowed by an avalanche.

7. Eulogy for the Dead

A set of pan pipes that issue forth a haunting melody. It puts to rest angry spirits and spectres, and cancels out the shriek of banshees, the howl of geists, and other such haunting creatures of the night. When used for purpose other than such purifying tasks, most mortals who hear the tune will be moved to tears as the pipes draw forth the repressed sadness and tragedies of their life.

8. The Changeling's Circlet

Purest silver twisted into a fine headpiece. This circlet prevents the wearer from being detected by fey creatures, and ensures safe passage through enchanted forests. Further, the wearer may choose to extend these benefits to up to twelve other people or creatures of their choice. It instills a sense of calm, steely determination in those who wear it.

9. Heron's Ring

A simple gold band that allows the user to better understand their opponent in a battle of wits or skill. After facing a foe in a game, duel, test, wager, or competition, the wearer of this ring is far more likely to succeed against that foe - even if the next battle is not of the same nature. Facing an opponent in a drinking contest will provide bonuses against that same foe in a jousting match, for example.

10. Kingsguard Blade

A set of fifteen weapons, all different styles of swords. Each weapon is magical, and allows the wielder to more easily disarm an opponent. The blades all bear beautiful ruby hilts, and the blades are inscribed with beautiful details - most of them wide-bladed enough to show a depiction of an elven king and his entourage of swordsmen. The only weapon in the set lacking such a mural is a rapier that appears bloodstained and worn from years of use.

11. Band of Eleven Senses

The wearer of this small opal ring can detect ghosts and other spirits in a one-hundred foot radius without fail. It whispers in a soft voice to the wearer, telling them secrets of life and death, teasing them with hints of the afterlife and promising to reveal more once they pass over. The spirit of the ring will grow upset if the wearer refuses to heed its advice and warnings.

12. Dead Grasp

An amputated hand that has been mummified and enshrined in a small box of sanctified oak. There is a latch on the front, though otherwise the box is plain and nondescript. While carrying the hand with them the owner will never lose, misplace, or forget any object in their possession. Furthermore, they will always know when something has been taken from them - stolen or otherwise.

13. Hann'els Greatsword

A massive two-handed blade of fine ivory and steel. When swung the sword hums faintly, and blood refuses to cling to its razor-sharp blade. When the wielder slays a foe with this sword, they are granted a brief rush of speed - doubling their movement and jump distance for that round. The blade instills in its wielder an exaggerated sense of pride, and oftentimes seems to whisper in a faint voice to further satisfy the wielder's hubris.

14. The Accursed Horn of the Behemoth

This blackened war-horn summons forth a dreadful note when sounded. Once blown, the horn will knit some of the user's wounds, but in exchange the next challenge the user attempts will be exceptionally difficult. If the horn is sounded a second time before the sun has set once, it will heal more wounds than before but every task the following day will be made more difficult. A third sounding will bring even a mortally-wounded person back from the brink of death, but they will suffer this penalty for a full year.

15. Bracelets of Momentum

When the bearer of these copper bracelets misses a foe with an attack, their next strike against that target gains a substantial bonus to hit. The pair of plain, twisted metal seem to guide the wearer's hands when they wield any weapon, as if the ornaments themselves can feed previous owner's skill to the wielder.

16. The Golden Boatswain

A paddle intended for a single person to use in a small watercraft. Any such vehicle piloted with this oar will find that it ignores the flow of rivers and can float up waterfalls and rapids against the laws of nature. It is made of plain oak, but various cracks and weaknesses in the wood have been filled with molten gold - beaten into place and giving the oar a unique glimmer of expert craftsmanship.

17. Goblinbane

A shortsword of simple iron. Once this weapon spills the blood of a goblin, hobgoblin, or bugbear, it is empowered. All attacks against the same brood will deal critical blows. It fills the wielder with a lust for bloodshed and destruction, and will remind the wielder of the travesties that goblinkind has visited upon the world since their inception in the blood war.

18. The Pactblade

A dagger of simple iron. When this weapon sheds the blood of two parties forging an oath, that pact is magically forged and the parties will find themselves unable to break the tenets of their oath without magical aid. The dagger itself seems to encourage such pacts, constantly nudging the wielder towards oaths and advising them on how to manipulate the wording to better suit them.

19. The Riddle of Song

A flute that sounds a puzzling melody. So long as the song hangs in the air, any who hear the tune will find every action twice as difficult. It distracts the listeners, tugging at their minds and inserting insidious thoughts and worries. Oftentimes this comes in the form of plucking at insecurities, and can sometimes entirely unravel someone who is already on the brink of a mental collapse.

20. Boots of the Strangled Vale

A pair of simple leather boots with blood-stained laces. The wearer of these treads will find they do not exhaust after a day's hard march, they are impervious to attacks that would trip or knock them prone, and dancing will never tire them so long as they wear the boots.

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