When questioned, Volkov provides over a year of meticulous notes about mission histories, things that have gone wrong, and the compartmentalization of information. The party agrees that, assuming the information isn’t invented, it shines a fairly damning (if entirely circumstantial) light on Lieutenant Stein. Volkov even mentions that Mengst and Stein are so inherently paranoid that they use Warders to pass mission orders between them instead of couriers.
When Alton asks about Donus and Fern, Volkov says that Fern felt she could convince Xander that it was all a misunderstanding and that Stein is suspect, but something obviously went wrong. Volkov had ordered his men to flee the area and knows no further details of the altercation except that it ended in Donus and Fern’s death.
When Gronk questions why Stein would’ve sent the party to kill Volkov, Moriel notices that Shar’we has left the room and a strange smell is permeating the room. Everyone attempts to evacuate before the explosive detonates, but Lars, Steen, Kirk, and Bink are killed in the explosion. Moriel and Volkov pursue Shar’we out into the woods, where Volkov uses Alton’s Mickleson rifle to kill the fleeing traitor at range. The elves refuse to let the party back into Sidarth’minwe, but send out wardens to help heal the multitude of small wounds and provide refreshments for the party while they wait for an audience with Etari’sul – whom Volkov has been learning a great deal of facts about the Ringwielders with during their self-imposed isolation.
Two-thousand years previously, Etari’sul went on an expsedition to the WayGate with Leitus and discovered a great deal of information about Kishara in the artifacts. He also says that some artifacts that are believed to be Ari Stonehand’s belongings were discovered, and he believes they were taken by the dwarves and are held in the vaults of Karak’Ven or Karak’ap’Karak.
Very little is known about the nature of the Ringwielders except that they wield spectacular powers beyond the ken of even the most powerful wizards of Khevoran. Most believe they are priests channeling the power of their goddess Kishara directly through the rings they wear. The truth of the matter is that it is the rings themselves which contain the power. Cyan Marinetta, for example, is not the name of the woman bearing the Ring of Water, it is the name of an immensely powerful sorceress enthralled by Kishara at the dawn of time, her spirit and power bound to the artifact. These individual spirits are so powerful that they tend to completely decimate the personality of the ring-bearer, essentially granting the spirit a form of parasitic reincarnation. When the bearer is killed or grows too old for the spirit’s power to sustain them, the ring is transferred to a new host and the cycle begins again. For this reason, the Ringwielders usually appear in public shrouded or masked in order to preserve continuity with the populace if and when they take new hosts.
Unbeknownst to just about everyone, Ari Stonehand is a little different. Stonehand was a geomancer of incredible power in his day, but unlike his peers was very grounded (no pun intended) and even-keeled. He was not seduced, but defeated and enslaved by Kishara and Tahl’Mearis. As such, his hosts are chosen differently than those of his peers (who tend to choose strong, attractive, weak-willed sods as hosts). Hosts for the Ring of Earth tend to come from the Stranglers – the Kisharan priesthood – and usually involve a lifetime of grooming a fanatically loyal and incredibly strong-willed psychopathic killing machine who can dominate the spirit of Stonehand and manipulate his power. This selection process, combined with the goddess’ ability to destroy the rings and their imbued spirits essentially at will, has kept Ari Stonehand prisoner for millennia.
The party departs for Everwatch to warn Mengst of the traitor in his midst and to determine their next steps for retaking High-Guard. As they are crossing the foothills of the Massaan, they see in the distance one of the great peaks of the North/South range of the Massaan collapse along with a massive accompanying earthquake. None except perhaps Gronk understand the significance. When they arrive at Everwatch, they find the garrison in a heightened state of alert. They find Smoot, Cedric, and Goblin in their cups in the command tent. They relay that Stein near-fatally stabbed Mengst with a poisoned dagger and took the Ring of Spirit. In his escape, he also killed Company Wizard Deke Winter and Anabelle Cirrus, the latter sends Gronk into a vengeance fury. They discover that Stein was the personal assassin of Duke Stephen before joining up with Mengst. All of the Warders who were in camp left in pursuit.
In their absence, the goblins in the forest have been whipped into battle lines, and are threatening a full-scale invasion of Hillcrest. The next morning, Volkov (who is the ranking Society officer still on his feet) convenes a war council and instructs the party to circle around the battle lines, find whatever it is that’s organizing and driving the horde, and eliminate it. That evening, the party observes from a distance waves of goblins crashing into the lines of the Northlands Army, and as they set off to sneak behind their lines, they see a great winged form in the distance, emitting a terrible shriek. Vladimir asks the obvious question.
“Ees dat a dragon?”