The Crumbling Hallway
Although a large door, emblazoned with an M, stood to the north of the room where they had fought the bugbears, Arannis could tell that magical wards had been triggered which even his craft was insufficient to penetrate. Guessing that beyond that door lay Malareth, his minions, and the skull of Gubbio Hircus which Sister Sondal had asked them to find, the adventurers decided to seek another way. To the east was a door, and stepping through it into the hallway they could immediately tell that something was amiss.
Where once stout stone had formed the floor of the passageway, which twisted immediately to run northwards, now there were places where the stones had crumbled and fallen below. There seemed to be a cavern or crypt of some sort below them, although the light was too poor to see too far down. What they could see suggested that stone supports that once held up the floor had fallen away in the intervening years, making it a treacherous gap to cross.
With care and skill, however, and with more than a little bit of help from each other, the adventurers crossed the gap. Peering into the next room, they realized that there were enemies inside; what appeared to be a wizard and his lackeys. They had crossed in relative quiet, and had yet to be detected.
Their attack was furious and immediate, and the heroes managed to cut down the enemy mage before he could cast a single spell; the one time he did get a chance to cast anything, the fireball fizzled at his fingertips and sputtered out, so great was his shock and surprise.
The other fighters in the room, though dispirited by their lack of support, fought hard, and one of them appeared to be stronger than the others. He looked exactly like another fighter in the room, too, though he wielded a different set of weapons. He fought savagely and fiercely, but suddenly, as his partners began to fall, he seemed to turn…in front of Vamaniel’s eyes, he stabbed his own partner in the back, and as he did so scampered into a corner and…seemed to metamorphose before their eyes.
“Let me be!” He shrieked, shrinking and turning into a female with pallid skin and sunken, pale eyes. “If you but spare me I will tell you all you need to know!”
Vamaniel advanced threateningly, unwilling to grant the fiend her wish, and Arannis seemed willing to do the same. But Merri grabbed his hand and counseled that they interrogate the creature, which Staimos identified as a Doppelganger.
They learned that the creature’s name was Jixin, and that she was part of a team of Doppelgangers hired by the Iron Circle to infiltrate Harkenwold and learn its secrets by posing as various of its citizens. She said that each had operated independently under the orders of someone named Karis, so while she didn’t know who the others might be impersonating, she knew that there were five of them. She had been sent to keep an eye on Malareth and make sure he didn’t do anything that would interfere with the Iron Circle.
She also told the adventurers about the Iron Circle, that they had a force in the castle of nearly 300 troops, and that they had orders to subdue the region so that more troops could be sent later to garrison the place; furthermore, they worshipped Asmodeus, as evidenced by an altar in the corner of the room which had been defaced and covered with profane symbols. Jixin also indicated that her brethren could be told apart because when they bled, they bled green; she cut herself to prove it.
Feeling that they had gotten what they could from her, Vamaniel told her that she wasn’t going to be left alive to tell the others. Pleading for her life, she tried to bargain away a cowl that would grant doppelganger-like powers to the one who wore it. Staimos took it from her, said thanks, and then nodded at Vamaniel, who moved forward to kill her anyway.
Before Merri, Sister, or Torik could stop him, though, and before he could raise his axes to strike, Jixin shrieked and suddenly vanished; the howl that echoed in the room was deeply anguished, and Merri later surmised that this must be because the power a doppelganger of Jixin’s rank and experience would need to channel in order to achieve invisibility was tremendous and would cost her a great deal of pain, which is why she hadn’t used the power earlier. While some adventurers were cursing her escape and others were thankful that unneccessary blood had been shed, all were interested in the altar desecrated by Asmodean arts.
It was a shrine to Aruman, the shifter-god, whose lore Arannis and Sister both knew a little of. Aruman had been a wolf, long ago, and had come across the Green Man in the woods when the world was still young. Unwilling to allow another to trespass on his territory, Aruman attacked relentlessly, and the Green Man nearly laughed, until after many hours the Green Man was impressed with his tenacity. With a wave of his emerald arm, the Green Man bestowed the gift of sentience on the wolf, as well as the ability to appear in the form of a bipedal man. And so Aruman attained Godhead, and became the first werewolf.
Because Aruman’s attainment was in the ability to control his wolf nature; to rise above it and channel it at will without letting it overcome his rational nature, Aruman became specifically a God revered by werewolves and other werecreatures, especially those who sought to control their gifts and remain functioning members in society, despite the occasional bouts of moon-sickness which would impact them.
Having an altar of Aruman seemed strange to the party; they had assumed that deep within the Abbey of the Five Altars they would find a fifth altar, dedicated to all four of the gods the Abbey’s public sections praised: Moradin, Erathis, Sehanine, and Pelor. But to instead find Aruman…this was strange indeed! Aruman is a good god, but he is an often misunderstood god, and those who worship him often kept it quiet.