As it is written: “At Winter Solstice within the Year of the Scarlet Witch wise men shall gather to stand between Darkness and Light.”
20 Nightal, 1491 DR, Winter Solstice
The High Forest is a remnant of the days of old, when all of Faerûn was covered in green. In that time, Fey ruled the world. What lies within this deep forest is somewhat of a mystery, and few travel there to explore its depths. Here lies the majestic Star Mounts —providing the headwaters of the Unicorn Run and the Heartblood River.
This is the place where several monks journey to answer a divine call. Something has called to them in whispers, summoning them in the ancient and sacred forest. Summoning them to a gathering. Calling them stand between Darkness and Light.
Shénshèng Cibie, a follower of Selûne and a monk of the order of the Sun Soul, trudged along the trade route known as The Long Road that runs between Dragonspear Castle in the South all the way North to Mirabar. The ground crunched under his feet with each step. The forest was dark but the moon was high and bright, and the star guided him ever nearer towards his destination.
At one point he stopped, seeing a flash of light ahead on the road. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a large white stag. The stag was large for its kind. It’s antlers reached about 5 feet above its head and likely stood about four feet tall at the shoulder.
Legends of the high Forest say that the sighting of a white stag brings luck because it is a symbol of the Lady of the High Forest, the goddess Mielikki.
The monk paid little attention to the stag. He continued walking along the Long Road, glancing momentarily to watch the stag bound into the darkness of the dense forest.
As he walked, he slowly came to realize that he was nearing his destination. He stepped off the main path and started to walk through the forest. The grass and leaves were crispy under his feet. Snow had not yet fallen this year as it was unseasonably warm. He looked up at the trees which were tall as a tower, thinking idly of the legends of the treants said to occupy the High Forest. He walked in and out of moonlit glades. The peace of the evening was soul soothing. The forest’s smell was fresh and organic. And still th star called, now so close that he felt he might be able to reach out and touch it.
Before long he reached a small hillock with a cave opening. The cave’s entrance is covered with brush and branches, but a small flickering light could be seen within. Walking closer, he peered inside to see four shadowy figures: one just inside the cave and three others further inside in front of the first.
The monk didn’t think twice. He stepped into the cave, and summoned up his inner lifeforce – his ki – to manifest itself in a Sun Shield. With simply a thought, his body became wreathed in a brioght, luminous aura. The entire cave was suddenly lit with a bright light that caught the four beings standing in it off guard.
Ahead of him stood a human dressed in brown robes holding a long walking stick and a flickering torch. And on the other side of the cave were three Bugbears, armed and wearing black leather armor.
This cave, he noticed, was half filled with two large pools of water. A narrow waterfall about eight feet up in the eastern wall feeds the pools. Low flowstone walls serve as dams holding the water in. A wide exit stands to the south, while two smaller passages lead west. The sound of the waterfall echoes through the cavern, making it difficult to hear.
Bugbears are cousins to Goblins. These three were large and very muscular, each standing about seven feet tall. All three of them seemed to be preparing to ambush the man in brown robes. With the bright light filling the cave, their plan was ruined. Squinting against the sudden daylight, one of them shouted aloud in Common: “Kill them!”
Two of the bugbears were armed with cruel looking spiked clubs and the third had a long, blood-stained javelin. All three lunged forward striking out at the man in brown robes in unison. As they growled and lunged forward, they revealed that their teeth were jagged and misshaped, filed purposely to appear like a shark’s maw.
The brown robed man moved with fluid grace, using practiced movements to avoid the morning-stars and then to lightly bat away the javelin with little effort. He then dropped his torch and staff to the damp floor, and in one elegant movement, he delivered a series of four punches to the bugbears on the right and then the left. Both bugbears moaned in pain, stumbling backwards from their attacker.
Shénshèng stepped forward, striking the middle bugbear with a powerful jab. The sound of crunching bone echoed through the cave as the bugbear’;s nose crumbled and the creature slumped lifeless to the ground.
Tayming, the man in brown, picked up his staff and whirled it around ina display of martial prowess. “Drop your weapons and leave this place,” he said with an edge in his voice. “And I will allow you to live.”
The bugbear on the left glanced questioning at the one on the right. This one spoke in Goblin. “We Cragmaw. Hunt the one horn horse. Not worth dying for hunt.” The two dropped their weapons, neither daring to look down at the still warm corpse of their leader.
Meanwhile, outside the cave, a third monk had arrived. His name was Zhang and he followed the Way of the Open Fist. He assessed the situation unfolding in the cave, and then peered into the night sky to determine that indeed this was the spot that he had been drawn to by the compelling force. The star was in the sky almost directly above him. He nodded to himself, and sat down to begin building a campfire. He had no need for warmth, food, or drink but he enjoyed the comfort of a good fire and the taste of spicy beef. And he assumed that the other two monks might want to join him once the finished with the bugbears.
Shénshèng and Tayming both knew what the bugbears meant by saying they were “Cragmaw.” Two years ago, the Cragmaw tribe of goblins established a hideout from which it can easily harass and plunder traffic moving along the Triboar Trail and the Long Road with the assistance of the Cult of the Dragon. The Cragrnaw tribe is so named because each member of the tribe sharpens its teeth so they appear fierce and jagged. Since that time, the Cragmaw tribe as grown in size and strength, led by Dragonlord Nezznar, the Black Spider. The Cragmaw have protected the trade routes effectively, charging a yearly fee to maintain safe travels through the wilds.
It was common knowledge that with the Cult of the Dragon rising to power in Faerûn in the last two years, the Cragmaw have made trade routes safer than ever for merchants and travelers. The Cragmaw tribe united marauding bands and rival goblinholds scattered throughout the area of the Triboar Trail and the Neverwinter Wood under one tribe. One chieftain is grudgingly recognized by all others as supreme: King Grol of Cragrnaw Castle. His position was granted by The Black Spider.Grol and his tribe work from Cragmaw Castle within the southern reaches of Neverwinter Woods.
Cragmaw Castle is not a goblin construction, nor is that the structure’s original name. Raised by a talented wizard-noble of old Phalorm, an ancient realm that once controlled much of the North until its fall in 615 DR, the stronghold consists of seven overlapping towers; however, its upper levels have long since collapsed to heaps of crumbling masonry. Only the ground floor is still sound enough to be habitable.
Zhang was interested in this piece of information, so he stepped to the cave’s entrance as the two bugbears attempted to leave. “What do you know of this one horn horse? How often is it seen in this area?” Zhang already knew that the High Forest was an old Fey forest that contained ancient creatures like faeries, korred, satyr, and treants. He also knew that unicorns frequented the High Forest and that the river that runs through High Forest is called Unicorn’s Run. “Come sit by the fire,” said Zhang. “We will talk.”
The Unicorn Run was a river that started somewhere in the High Forest near the Star Mounts and joined the river Delimbiyr near Secomber. Bards and sages passed down the tale that the headwaters of the Unicorn Run were, in truth, the Font of Life, and a cradle of fecundity. And it was interesting that the star and power had drawn them so close to an ancient sit of such power.
The bugbears were shaken by Zhang’s question and invitation. The bugbear who seemed to now be in the lead blurted out again in Goblin: “We hunt one horn horse when we camp close to the Elf Forest!” The other bugbear forgot himself, smiling blissfully for a moment. “One horn horse taste good,” he mused.
All three monks stood silent for a moment. These creatures had just admitted to hunting and eating unicorns – animals considered sacred for most goodly races in Faerûn.
The lead Bugbear grabbed his companion by the arm, and pulled him away from Zhang. They fled quickly through the woods, heading West. Zhang leaped into the air, landing on a tree branch as elegantly as any other forest animal. The monk jumped effortlessly from branch to branch, chasing the bugbears through the woods. In time, he outpaced them and jumped to the ground in front of them. The two bugbears stopped, cowering in front of the odd human.
Wordless with action, the monk Zhang, punched the two bugbears in the face. Bone crunched and blood splattered, the two dying as their noses were shoved suddenly into their cranial cavity. Dead before they even started to fall, Zhang jumped into the air kicking them both to the ground. Within moments, he had covered their bodies with leaves and moss.
Zhang turned and started walking back to the cave. He mused that the Gathering had started on this Winter Solstice as foretold by magi ages ago. He would speak with his two fellow monks, and prepare for the coming of the others. As a sage, he had anticipated this event for years. He could feel the crackling energy flowing through him in sheer excitement. The Time of the Catalyst was beginning …. tonight!