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The Styrdahl Terrorby Rodger Burns
Rockhome dwarves aren't dumb. When they build something, particularly something that's meant to last a long time and be used by a lot of people, they try to make it as useful and efficient as possible. Their mines, their cities, and their fortresses all work this way, and for the most part the roads that allow travellers and outlander merchants to reach their cities work this way too.
So why, then, does the highway running north from Stahl towards Fort Denwarf and Ethengar ignore the perfectly good Styrdahl river valley and instead run itself a good eight miles to the west through some honest-to-god mountains? It's not like the Styrdahl has a bunch of navigation hazards, Fort Denwarf was specifically built across the narrowest point in the entire valley and over fifteen hundred years the dwarves could've easily built around any cliff faces or broken ground in any case. No, there has to be something else there - something that doesn't show up on a map. Something like the Styrdahl Terror.
Actually, "The Styrdahl Terror" moniker is somewhat misleading - the only people who ever call it that are Darokinian merchants looking to put a scare into the new sweats on their first caravan runs into Rockhome. Dwarves are more likely to call it "The Styrdahl Mystery" or "The Styrdahl Annoyance" or "That Place Along The River You Really Don't Want To Go". The centre of the whole mess seems to be a series of half-flooded caves and heat vents along the eastern edge of the Styrdahl, about twelve miles upriver from Fort Denwarf, that just seems to be a haven for monsters, bad luck and other trouble. Single travellers and small groups can sometimes pass through without incident, but larger parties are almost always attacked to at least some extent. A good-sized caravan is almost guaranteed to take heavy losses if it tries to take passage up the river. The one time that the dwarves sent an army division in, it found itself under frequent attack by unintelligent monsters, lone scouts and small patrols vanished without a trace, and the main body withdrew after several months without any clue as to why the Styrdahl caves were so dangerous. Since then, merchants have been strongly advised to "just use the bleedin' road, already."
The secret behind the Styrdahl Terror is a clan of a dozen kopru that dwell in the depths of the river caverns. These creatures were banished to the Rockhome mountains almost a thousand years ago by a magical accident, and they've been trapped ever since; the caves near the Styrdahl River have enough volcanic activity to keep them minimally comfortable, but it's far from an ideal place to live. The meddling that led to this incident also granted the kopru unnaturally long lifespans; as a result, they are very old, very uncomfortable, and very wicked and dangerous.
The leader of the Styrdahl kopru is Kzathikach, a 10th-level wokan; he has a habit for toying with seemingly helpless targets (often arranging to charm a victim, divest the individual of all weapons, armour and magical tools, then release the hapless unfortunate from the charm to confront Kzathikach directly) and for odd and unusual variations on his usable spells. Examples of these include a protection from evil that renders the caster immune to all cause wounds spells, but doesn't block out enchanted creatures; a web spell that takes the form of red-black slimy strands, and only works on targets wearing metal armour but forces trapped targets to make a save vs. spells when first entangled or have one item carried or worn turned to rust, as per the attack of a rust monster; and a lightning bolt that shoots out several interwoven beams of multicoloured energy, and does damage of 1d12+2d10+2d8+3d4 rather than the usual 10d6. Kzathikach may be negotiated with, but is arrogant, unpleasant and openly contemptuous of all non-kopru; he is almost guaranteed to betray any arrangement at the first opportunity, for the sheer pleasure of the deed.
Zsakzitka, an 8th-level shaman, is Kzathikach's main potential rival for power. She knows that the more powerful wokani is too unstable and reckless to be challenged openly, and as long as the situation appears stable she will not rock the boat; but the arrival of anything that could upset the steady pace of life within the Styrdahl caves could force her hand, encouraging her to dispose of Kzathikach before the wokani could do anything stupid or counterproductive. Zsakzitka favours spells that disorient enemies or hurt them indirectly, as well as dispel magic to remove water breathing and other enhancement spells that enemies may be relying on to challenge the kopru (she is careful not to carelessly dispel charm effects on the kopru's slaves, however). She will keep pacts and truces as long as it is in her long-term interest to do so, but will often look for ways to get out of her end of a bargain or twist the letter of an agreement to better serve her needs. Zsakzitka's patron is a powerful but detached Immortal of Entropy, and could be someone as (relatively) benign as Nyx or Talitha or alternately as dangerous a foe as Thanatos or Hel, depending on the needs of the campaign.
Of the other kopru within the Styrdahl caverns, three are wokani (5th-8th level of ability), two are shamans (5th-7th level) and five are normal kopru. All are crafty, skilled, and dangerous though perhaps a bit overconfident when facing a group of adventurers that they expect to easily charm and enslave. They usually work and socialise together in groups of 3-4, but sometimes can be found alone (when seeking privacy from the pressure-cooker environment they dwell in together; this withdrawal from society can easily last a decade or longer before the affected kopru seeks the company of its fellows once more). DMs seeking a more memorable fight may want to give individual kopru access to Thief skills, odd General Skills usable in combat situations or levels of Weapon Mastery in the bola, whip or net.
Though the kopru clan is at the heart of the Styrdahl Terror, they aren't by any means the only monsters living within the river caves. Many other types of creatures dwell in the caves' upper levels, providing a layer of protection for the kopru and sometimes acting as charmed agents to allow the kopru to wreak havoc indirectly. Some of the monsters found in the Styrdahl caves include:
- Three swarms of freshwater termites, each with 15-20 individual members, that the kopru have herded into underwater caves whose entrances are covered by metal portcullises that can be dropped remotely. The kopru often release these termites to deal with boats trying to travel upriver or downriver; even if the party fights and defeats the termite swarms, their lairs may still pose a hazard if the party tries to explore them as the kopru will be able to drop the portcullis across the entrance, trapping adventurers inside.
- A family of five minotaurs, whose extensive maze-lair sits above the main land entrance into the Styrdahl river caverns. The kopru sometimes use this entrance to bring prisoners into and out of their lair, charming one or more minotaurs to serve as guides and then releasing the hapless monsters; the minotaurs fear and resent the kopru, but believe the more powerful monsters to be unbeatable and will not directly act against kopru interests.
- Several packs of cave toads, which roam the upper reaches of the caverns and may attack adventuring parties. They have learned to avoid the kopru, and may be warned off by the deliberate beat of metal on stone for 4-6 seconds, which the kopru use as a signal (this must be louder and more regular than simple footsteps from armour-clad adventurers, though, the recognition trigger cannot be activated by simple accident).
- A pair of manticores that have recently begun lurking in an inaccessible alcove well above the riverline; they know of the kopru but maintain a respectful distance, and value the ability to scavenge prey and treasure from victims of the kopru attacks. If adventurers intrude they may fight but will more likely retreat, hoping to return after the adventurers have been defeated by other monsters in the cave complex.
- Four cave bears, formerly the pets and guards of a frost giant clan in the eastern mountains that was defeated by the Rockhome military. The bears have been half-tamed by kopru charm magic and regular feeding but remain difficult to control - if they spot a dwarf they will attack on sight, fighting at Morale 11.
- At least six groups of skeletons and zombies that have been animated from human, dwarven and goblinoid corpses by the kopru. They are kept mostly as cannon fodder to use in the event of another incursion by the dwarven army and as a tripwire to slow down parties of invading adventurers. If destroyed they will not be immediately replaced - the kopru spellcasters prefer to keep their high-level spell slots filled with more immediately useful spells.
- A family of eight colddrakes that maintain an uneasy truce with the kopru. They sometimes act in concert with kopru attacks, preferring to use their thieving skills willingly rather than being charmed into the deed (and the kopru in return maintain the ability to charm other enemies into submission, rather than having to control the colddrakes) but are careful not to reveal all their secrets to the kopru. If they see a chance, they may appear in humanoid form and try to present themselves to adventurers as enslaved dwarves from Rockhome, then escape to Stahl or another dwarven city to vanish in the population. If they are successful, whichever city they end up in will no doubt have a new and capable Thieves' Guild before too long...
- Several rock living statues manufactured by the kopru and kept safe within the lower caves. The kopru appreciate these as much for their ability to provide instant warmth through the magma maintained inside them as for their combat abilities, and will not casually order them into combat against a prepared foe.
- A fire salamander that survives in the very depths of the cavern complex, fearing to move too far from the heat vents that play below the surface. It was brought here by a kopru attempt to recreate the magical accident that brought them here so long ago, and has proven to be a severe annoyance (it's difficult for the kopru to charm, and even when enslaved it radiates damaging levels of heat) - the kopru would likely appreciate any group reckless enough to kill it for them.
- Radas son of Bombin (D7, AL N), an adventurer and sometimes outlaw who was sentenced by a Rockhome magistrate to explore the Styrdahl caverns some five years ago as an alternative to incarceration. When he never returned, the magistrate simply assumed that the Styrdahl Terror was still there and forgot the matter - but Radas has survived since then, alternating between charmed slave of the kopru and escaped refugee. If found by adventurers he will be frantic to return to civilisation and tell his story, in the hopes that a Rockhome army detachment will be able to come back to the caverns knowing the exact nature of their enemy and so wipe out the kopru once and for all.