Return of the Red Hand
The world has never been a safe place. Humanity populates a dark, menacing world—islands of order and reason exist in a land otherwise overrun by dark cults, vile monsters, and things that go bump in the night.
As deadly as the world is on a normal day, something has begun to stir on the Southern fringes of the civilized Elsir Vale. Formerly the site of an attack by an army known as the Red Hand, the Vale and the Greater South Shore area has known several years of peace since brave adventurers stormed into the teeth of the approaching Red Hand and sent them scurrying back into the darkness.
But the peace in the South Shore—and specifically, the town of Stoughton, heart of the former conflict with the Red Hand—has been shattered. The vague shadow of unease the locals have been experiencing lately has crystallized in the form of an attack on the town itself. Now Stoughton finds itself once more in need of brave heroes willing to come to the aid of their citizens.
The Elsir Vale Region of the South Shore
The Vale of the South Shore is a thinly populated frontier that stretches almost 250 miles east to west and averages about 70 miles north to south. Several small mountain ranges and dense forests form the vale’s borders. Even though Stoughton and the Vale are in the South Shore Region, neither is near the shore which is far to the south. The scattered human towns and villages of the Vale area grew up along the Dawn Way, an important east-west trade road linking the heavily settled lands that lie northwest across the Endless Plains with the exotic kingdoms and goods of the coastal lands lying to the southeast. Much of the Dawn Way was built by an ancient dwarf-kingdom that spanned the Wyrmsmoke and Giantshield Mountains more than a thousand years ago. While the dwarves are long gone, their roads, bridges, and cisterns remain in use to this day. After the dwarf-realm passed, the presence of various monsters and raiders kept traffic along the Dawn Way light for many years; few caravans dared the long and dangerous trek. Few humans lived in Elsir Vale during those years— only scattered settlements of druidic folk who left behind little more than grassy barrows and stone circles on the hilltops.
About five hundred years ago, the nearby city of Rhest came to control the vale and a large swath of land north of the Gianrshields as well. Soldiers from Rhest secured the roads all the way to Dennovar and beyond, creating a safe passage for trade. More and more traders traveled the Dawn Way, and the kingdom of Rhestilor grew wealthy on the tariffs exacted from the passing merchants. Under the kingdom’s shield, the towns along the Dawn Way—Stoughton, Tatar, Terrelton, and the rest— grew up from tiny hamlets or lonely soldiers’ posts to flourishing human settlements.
The kingdom of Rhestilor eventually collapsed tinder civil strife, monstrous incursions, and magical blights. Almost two hundred years ago, the city of Rhest was burned by a savage horde out of the Wyrmsmoke Mountains. Although the warriors of Rhestilor killed many of the goblins and their kind, the city was abandoned and the already weakened kingdom broken. The locks and canals surrounding Rhest fell into disrepair, and the Blackfens swallowed the ruined city.
In the years since the kingdom’s fall, the towns of Elsie Vale have come to look after themselves. Most of the local lords, such as Jarrnaath of Stoughton, still hold titles derived from the old kingdom of Rhestilor. While everybody knows that the kings of Rhestilor are long dead, no new realm has arisen in the vale.
The Red Hand of Doom
For centuries following the collapse of Rhestilor, the dry and dusty Wyrmsmoke Mountains were home to dozens of goblinoid tribes. Although travelers were forced to skirt the goblin-infested hills by a generous margin, in general the Wyrmsmoke tribes, depleted by the battles surrounding the collapse of Rhestilor, posed no significant threat to the nearby human towns and settlements other than the occasional bloody raid.
Yet deep within the mountains lay hidden something that would spell doom – an ancient temple dedicated to Tiamat, the Queen of Evil Dragons.
Built hundreds of years ago to serve as the hidden redoubt of a despicable cult of dragon worshippers, the temple was eventually cleansed by a band of heroes from the human city of Rhest. For several centuries the complex lay empty. Then, eighty years ago, the young half-dragon hobgoblin warrior Azarr Kul discovered the abandoned temple and was awed by the teachings of Tiamat he read on the walls therein. He abandoned Maglubiyet, the traditional deity of his people, and dedicated himself to leading the rest of his nation to Tiamat’s worship.
Over the next twenty years, Azarr Kul grew into a powerful warlord and a mighty priest of Tiamat. Early in his rise to power he struck up an alliance with his sire, the blue dragon Tyrgarun. Aided by this powerful ally, Azarr Kul converted his entire tribe into fanatical worshipers of Tiamat. He renamed the tribes that had fallen under his wing the Kulkor Zhul and began to lay his plans for conquest of Elsir Vale.
Dedicating themselves to the Queen of Evil Dragons with the fanaticism of the recently converted, the members of the Kulkor Zhul grew strong, stronger than any Wyrmsmoke tribe before them. Adopting the standard of the Red Hand, an ancient symbol of Tiamat’s cult, Azarr Kul created an elite caste of warpriests, monks, and dragon-favored champions to lead the Kulkor Zhul.
Eventually, Azarr Kul and his dragon-worshipping zealots destroyed the last opposition to his supremacy over the Wyrmsmoke tribes, slaughtering the Black Knife Goblins and the tribes allied to them in a ferocious onslaught. The survivors accepted his sovereignty and were absorbed into his realm. Azarr Kul named his new kingdom Harg Kulkor, or “Land of the Dragon.” After a long season of rebuilding his strength, offering bribes to many of the intelligent monsters in the region, and cementing the power of his Red Hand warpriests over the disparate tribes he ruled, Azarr Kul finally turned his attention to the lands beyond the Wyrmsmoke Mountains. What he saw whetted his ambition for power; no city or state within hundreds of miles could field an army as strong as his. The High Wyrmlord dreamed of carving out a hobgoblin empire stretching from the Sunset Sea to the Golden Plains – and the first step was to crush the human towns in Elsir Vale.
The civilized folk of Elsir Vale, long used to avoiding the Wyrmsmoke mountains, were completely unaware of the host marching upon them. Kul’s generals sent well trained scouts ahead to silence any that might alert the Vale to their approach. But the Vale was not without its own skilled warriors. A band of adventurers who had travelled to Brindol from the City of Greyhawk in search of treasure was exploring ruins at the base of the Wyrmsmoke Mountains, Vraath Keep. These adventurers, who would in time come to be known as the Diamond League, were alerted to the presence of the army by nothing more than sheer chance of happenstance. However, this simple bit of luck would in the end prove the savior of the Vale and all its peoples.
Realizing they could not simply could not fight an army by themselves, the members of the Diamond League set about delaying the army in any way possible. To that end, they destroyed the ancient dwarven bridge at Skull Gorge. Upon succeeding, they immediately headed for the nearby town of Drellin’s Ferry, raising the alarm and giving the people what time they could to prepare. While the warnings of the Diamond League saved countless lives, and the destruction of the bridge slowed the advance of Azzar Kul’s host, no force in the Vale could stop it.
While a few brave souls and bands of scattered soldiers managed to slow the army at a river or mountain pass, the host moved forward, bringing with it an inevitable doom.
During this time, the Diamond League proved themselves valiant defenders of the people. They led raids on the Red Hand supply lines, garnered allies from neighboring elven and dwarven settlements, and ruined more than a few of Azarr Kul’s war plans.
As time went on though, it was evident that not even the Diamond League could stop the advancing army. It spread through the eastern plains of the vale, right to the gates of Brindol. Members of the farm communities surrounding Brindol fled inside its walls for protection.
The walled city was the first real obstacle the army had faced. They laid siege to the town and wore down its defenses relentlessly. Large amounts of the population of Brindol fell defending the towns walls, and countless more died of starvation and plague from the crowded conditions. It seemed that the folk of Brindol, and by extension, the Vale, were without hope.
Then, as if by a miracle, the army of Azzar Kul tore itself apart. For no reason the people of Brindol could immediately divine, the leaders of the army suddenly began fighting amongst themselves, vying for control of the host. The great army splintered, with large parts of its forces simply heading back to the Wyrmsmoke Mountains. In response, the forces that had rallied to the defense of the Vale quickly shifted to the offensive. Disjointed and surrounded, the goblinoid tribes were pursued, isolated, and crushed. The host of the Red Hand was no more.
Shortly thereafter, the Diamond League reappeared, prominently displaying the body of Azarr Kul. They had skirted around the main army and ventured all the way to the Fane of Tiamat in the heart of the Wyrmsmoke Mountains, and struck directly at Azzar Kul himself. With the charismatic leader of the Red Hand dead, the various factions and tribes that made up the Kulkor Zhul fought amongst themselves for supremacy and proved their own undoing.
Stories of these brave heroes and their unlikely deeds spread like wildfire, spurring the good people of the Vale to further action. The military forces, as meager as they were, went on the hunt and killed thousands of the remaining goblinoids, crippling their numbers for a generation. Hunting down the more powerful members of Azzar Kul’s host themselves, the Diamond League defeated Tyrgarun the blue dragon, their third dragon kill in as many months.
The threat was over, but the damage wreaked by the armies of the Red Hand were significant, and it would take a generation before life returned to normal. Even now, there are places in the Vale where the scars of war have not fully healed… outlying communities remain abandoned, dwarven outposts which once were manned by a few brave soldiers now lie in ruins, and the dangerous creatures that inhabit the Blackfens are bolder than they once were. Some whisper that while the Red Hand was defeated, the scales have tipped in favor of darkness.
And what of the Diamond League? They worked alongside their neighbors and friends, restoring what they could, until finally, there was nothing left for them to do in the Vale.
They were wealthy heroes, retired adventurers, middle aged now, some with families. Several of them settled down in the Vale and lived out their years in peace. Others would never settle down, and so they moved on in search of some new adventure in far off lands, never to return to their humble birthplace in Elsir Vale.
Forty years have passed since the fall of Azzar Kul, and in that time the Vale has enjoyed peace.
Gradually, the people spread back out into the shattered hamlets and farmsteads. Dwarven mining settlements in the foothills on the south end of the Vale expanded, and trade picked up.
Today, the war of the Red Hand is little more than a story told by old timers to frighten schoolchildren, a fading museum with an elderly caretaker, and a local holiday occasioned by picnics and revelry.
All is at peace. At least for now…