It is autumn in Eqtis, and as the temperature drops in the southern continent, the roaming tribes of Central Kallmenshrike gather to prepare for the hard winter. As food and fresh water become more difficult to obtain, the tribes turn to raids on bordering regions to survive the dark months.
Almost two months ago, the council of Baltis commissioned five Mithral Guardians to attend the tribal mete and to offer gifts—sacrifices the tribes could offer to the gods and the land to ensure success in coming battles. The five initiates failed to return on schedule, and as concern grew, a raven familiar belonging to Initiate Karasu Arashi arrived, exhausted and battered, to deliver a short message before it breathed its last, “help.”
And so, early that morning, Adept Chan-Ming Tumat barrelled unceremoniously into the cramped initiate bunks, and thumped awake the first initiates he spotted in the room. Soon, Daa Smith, Gaunt Lawson, Lucifer Sanchez, Müjin, and Leokas Gellantra were following, blurry-eyed, as Chan-Ming wheeled the corners of the Mithral Guard headquarters, barking orders as he walked.
Perhaps moved by the urgency of their business or perhaps thrown by Chan-Ming’s brusque manner, the five initiates asked no questions, and set off at once on horseback for the northern borders of Kallmenshrike, formulating a plan as they traveled. At the border they talked their way into accompanying the first mercenary expedition they encountered, a group of lumberjacks who claimed to know the woods well.
But a few days into the woods, Leokas became certain they were becoming lost and led the party into the woods. Leokas became less certain as they traveled, and by nightfall was sure he too was lost. The party attempted to retrace their steps but someone, or something, had covered their tracks behind them—they were being followed. The party did their best to calm the now panicked and angry lumberjacks, and made camp. Familiar with stories of monsters in Kallmenshrike who would ignore, or even protect, travelers if given offerings of gold or food, each party member left a gold piece on a nearby stump. What could it hurt?
In the middle of the night, a stone giant poked its way into the camp, glanced around, and when shown the gold by a terrified Leokas—then on watch—smiled, took the gold, and before leaving, pointed out a colony of dire bats roosting just above where the guardians had camped. The giant surveyed the party again, and must have thought them pretty sad, because he reached up and smashed a few of the bats himself before wandering back into the dark. The guardians dispatched the remaining bats and rested until morning, when—with some trial and error—they found their way back to a road. Staying with the lumberjacks another day, they then followed their directions to a nearby tribal camp.
On finding the camp of the Fireback goblin tribe, the guardians were challenged by a group of angry hobgoblins determined to refuse them entrance, but were able to talk their way into the camp. Once inside, they met Father Fireback, a hulking hobgoblin covered with battlescars. Father Fireback was clearly distrustful, but admitted he had met the group of lost guardians. After careful negotiation, he said he had at first welcomed the guardians as guests, but when they pestered him to give detailed information on the tribe’s other campsites, and the locations of the tribal mete and other tribes’ regular hunting grounds, Father Fireback grew suspicious. He eventually determined, through angry questioning, that his guests had been instructed to ask all they could about tribal movements, and based on the kinds of questions, he believed those questions were meant to gather information neighbouring countries could use to predict where the Kallmenshrike tribes would launch their winter raids. Fireback was at an impasse; he felt obligated by tribal tradition to protect his guests, but he wanted them gone before they could discover anything that might damage his tribe, or his neighbours. Father Fireback had, he said, sent the other party home, with an escort to keep them safe. He was reluctant to say anything about it because he had also sent home the gifts they brought, and in doing so, he worried he might have angered the gods.
In attempting to alleviate this anger, Father Fireback had sent as escorts young teenage goblins, who would not be returning to the tribe for some time anyway, as it was time for them to be sent out as vildechaya, wild children who would live in packs with children from other tribes, learning to hunt and survive in the wild, before returning as adults to the tribes to be married or otherwise settled into tribal life. This way, the escorts could not bring the anger of the gods or the giants back to the tribe. He had no idea they had failed to see their charges to the border.
So Father Fireback sent one of his best trackers north with the party in the morning, to help find their friends. It wasn’t long before they found the remains of a battle, the corpses of two Mithral Guardians—partly eaten by animals—and tracks of a large group who had dragged the rest into the woods. The Fireback escort ran back to his camp to report what had happened, and Leokas led the party into the woods to save anyone who might be still alive.
Along the trail, Leokas and Daa spotted pieces of troll meat, and eventually came to a rocky pit where another Mithral Guardian had been tossed in and eaten by a troll. Pressing on, they found a troll arm, and after Leokas stopped to examine the arm and determine it was only recently severed, they continued, believing they were close to catching up to whatever had happened. Unfortunately, the first thing they encountered was the now one-armed troll, but feeling they were too close to turn back, the five charged the troll and—after a short brutal fight—put it down, and burned its remains. Lucifer tried to keep the spine as a souvenir, but observed the spine regrowing muscle and, afraid of having a new troll to deal with, threw the spine into the fire.
Soon afterward, the guardians caught up with a pack of vildechaya, who were brutalizing and torturing Initiates Corgi Coggi and Karasu Arashi, believing them to be enemies, better off dead. After netting a few of the vildechaya and chasing off the leaders, Daa and Müjin convinced the rest to release Corgi and Karasu in exchange for their own netted companions, but not before extracting from them the vital information on tribal movements that had caused so much trouble in the first place. Pleased with a job well done, Leokas, Corgi, Daa, Lucifer, Müjin, Karasu and Gaunt made a hasty retreat for the border, and home.