Returning to the Keep, the adventurers descend into the depths of the keep’s lower layers, realize they have been subtly teleported to a location unknown, yet continue on cautiously. They enter a circular room with a checkerboard pattern on the floor, a door on either side and a small pillar with gears, clockwork and a single button. Despite their best efforts, they find no traps in the room, nor means of opening the door, except press the button – slamming both doors and setting off a timer. Resetting the timer to delay whatever end faces them, they continue to experiment around the room trying to divine its secrets to no avail, and eventually let the timer run down… which opens both doors. The next room, identical to the first, seems to run by a similar methodology, but when the button on the pillar is pressed the dark tiles slam together from floor and ceiling, badly damaging several of the party. They discover the secret to this room is the far doors are, in fact, unlocked.
Three more identical circular rooms later, the party has faced scorpions, logic puzzles, reversing gravity and flying sharks, and Dante has sworn vengeance on the cursed designers of the dungeon. Eventually, the adventurers descend further stairs and face a pair of goblin guards asking for a password – supplying the password they stole from Ninaran’s equipment, the room transforms into a spacious and luxuriously decorated foyer, where a young tiefling woman arranges for them to have an orientation tour at the Orcus Foundation, much to their surprise and continual suspicion. After asking heated questions to unclear answers and inspecting the surroundings, and the cleric leaving a nasty surprise in the ladies room, the leader of the cult of Orcus arrives to give the adventurers a tour – a gentle, kind-looking old man in black robes, with a limp, named Kalarel.
Agreeing considering the circumstances to give the harmless and sincere-sounding gentleman a chance to explain, he proceeds to explain that the world they take for granted is not as it seems. “Bad gods with good PR” dominate the perception of the cult of Orcus, and to all evidence they can find this god is fighting to save the souls of the dead from being harvested and enslaved by the Raven Queen – the bloodthirsty Okai being an example. Exploring the compound, they see creatures of all races working peacefully with purpose and cooperation, free to come and go as they please, voluntarily spreading the word of Orcus to sympathetic souls throughout the world, an interconnected network of hidden cells with highly advanced scrying technology and a noble purpose. Kalarel continues to explain that since the Raven Queen took over the domain of Death, not a single soul has passed on to their rightful afterlife, except for those that Orcus has saved. He describes speaking with their victims, Ninaran, a kobold Wyrmpriest, and relays their postmortem forgiveness (and enquires about his hand, in the priest’s case). He shows them the remnants of the vast human empire, although collapsed, continue to spread bigotry, hatred and oppressive law with such thoroughness that the adventurers themselves take for granted that different species should remain separate and distinct – yet under Orcus, “good” and “bad” races mingle freely and without prejudice, orc and goblin and human and tiefling and kobold and giant spider and gelatinous cube living and working in harmony.
Kalarel goes on, explaining how the adventurers themselves fall victim to this unconscious bigotry, how even when Ninaran told them how to find kobold death cultists (a term they are trying to reclaim, with a more positive spin) they ambushed the picnic set for them with alarming readiness, slaughtering them to the last priest – and yet when they meet death cultists in their own lair, because it was decorated in polished wood and stone and the leader of the death cultist is a human male, they agree to sit and listen to the same pitch they would have heard had they taken just a moment to converse with the kobold Orcus followers. Shamed, they try to blame poor wording on Ninaran’s behalf, or Okai’s enthusiasm – to which Kalarel replies that he knows of Okai, and explains that he knows why she does what she does. The sixth son of a sixth son of a sixth son, Okai’s soul was touched by Asmodeus, demon god of lies and deceit, torturing her mind with constant visions of horror and death, twisting her into a heartless murdering ghoul. Kalarel speaks softly and with pity as visions of her past life flash before her eyes, saying he knows she is not fully responsible for her actions, and telling her she still has the power to change. What’s more, should she accept the truth of Orcus, her ultimate reward (no living sacrifice necessary, Orcus forbid) when she does die at her due time is to be released of the taint on her soul, truly freed by death, unlike the twisted rebirth the Raven Queen forced upon her.
The party, despite their best arguments and piercing questions, find their answers returned with a patient, grandfatherly care and rational explanation. The two villagers who were "kidnapped’ by zombies were in fact converts, two tieflings who, having faced a lifetime of oppression, ostracism and suspicion from their human neighbors, wished to leave the town and join the followers of Orcus. The people of Winterhaven wouldn’t accept this, and conspired to murder the tieflings before they could escape, forcing Kalarel to send his agent Ninaran undead reinforcements (being soulless dead, not ripping anyone from their proper afterlife) and provide enough cover to let the two flee – one of which is the secretary who greeted them at the foyer, the other seen playing with a human boy in the sanctum. Seeing the party, who had brutally slaughtered her fellow Orcus followers, she sacrificed her own life to help the two tiefling girls escape. Sir Keegan, who everyone agrees is an unpleasant ghost of an unpleasant man, is revealed to have his own motivations for the murder of his family and teammates and simply blamed the rift for the darkness inside himself. Instead of a wave of undead covering the world in shadow, Kalarel explains that opening the rift would simply poke a hole in the fisherman’s net that the Raven Queen was using to capture souls – giving an escape for those who died to travel to their rightful afterlife.
Throughout his explanation, Ferron continues to ask sharp questions, and Shashakti and Dante excuse themselves to use the restroom and check the veracity of the bustling sanctum of cooperating and enthusiastic Orcus followers, yet can find no evidence of illusion or manipulation. They see living, breathing creatures, feel a strong sense of Orcus but without fear or doom, and sense the overlapping fields of the crystal scrying spheres, but no sign of magic spells or concealed truth. Ultimately, the party falls sway to Kalarel’s calm and convincing arguments, and when presented further visions of the village of Winterhaven’s hidden dark side, worship of the jealous god of secrets and manipulation, Vecna, and scenes of sacrifices, oppression, hatred and pain by the supposed innocent villagers, the party agrees that the town needs to be cleansed of evil.
Honorary followers of Orcus, the party is equipped with advanced weaponry and armor, given soft, comfortable black robes of the death cult, and shown the back door to the lair, depositing them near the town of Winterhaven. There they are faced with a concerned and curious mayor and several guards on high alert, the air still filled with dread for them and only growing worse, yet the adventurers return unscarred and unhurt, refusing to say what happened in the keep at shadowfell, saying simply that they took care of it, yet the dark cloud of dread remains. Still, they let them into the town gates, and the party decide to try and confirm the visions they were given by looking for the hidden altar to Vecna inside the temple walls. After hours of searching, they find a slightly discolored patch of stone behind the main altar, and explode it with their new enhanced weaponry. The cleric Shashakti quickly and brilliantly distracts and redirects the incoming city militia to stand guard, and exploring the hidden area inside the temple walls the party finds an area that once held unknown objects, all evidence wiped clean sometime in the past, magically erased of all magic or religious traces. Their suspicions neither confirmed nor denied, the party leaves the hidden chamber to find the city guard, Lord Padraig the mayor, and Valthrun the Prescient the local wizard waiting for them with confusion and frustration.
They confront the party, asking why the aura of dread only grows stronger, why they muck about spending hours in their temple when they should be shutting down the rift that threatens to doom them all. Dante, growing frustrated with their concerns and questions magically intimidates the mayor into fleeing, but the wizard Valthrun, although woefully outmatched, prepares for combat. Shashakti leads the way in attempting to (relatively) diplomatically resolve the situation by simply walking away, but Dante couldn’t resist giving the tense, armed and high-strung wizard a final shoulder check on his way past, resulting in a prepared spell being launched and Dante losing control of his bowels – a low level prank spell, but the most dangerous thing a low level wizard of Valthrun’s power could muster.
The resulting chaos was extraordinarily swift and horrifyingly brutal. The monk snaps the man in half then clears the area, as Dante sends the row of candles behind them into a swirling inferno of arcane flame, completely incinerating the wizard and half a dozen guards in an eyeblink. The ranger and knight casually dispatch further militia, and Shashakti, who had the misfortune of being the closest to the front door as more town militia rush in in alarm and attack the first enemy they see, raises her left hand and in a sudden arc and a blinding flash of radiant light melts the faces of the four men around her in a single blow, their bodies melting like candle wax before a furnace. Charging into the streets at the crowds of gathered militia and armed, aggressive villagers, the party continues rapidly dispatching enemies in enormous gouts of flame and blurring fists. Sensing something is odd with even the women and children attacking, seemingly while fleeing at the same time, the monk dislodges the human skull from his fist and deliberately drops the enchanted weapon given to him by Kalarel, high priest of Orcus. Suddenly, the two men around him are unarmed.
His vision cleared, he sees that, aside from swiftly dwindling militia, most of the town is attempting to flee, not gathering to attack, and calls to his companions to do the same as him. Their new weapons discarded, the party still murders the remaining aggressive militia, seeing no chance of a peaceful resolution at this point in time, but manage to knock out two men and let the rest of the survivors flee. The air, untouched by fear or dread while armed with Orcus’s implements, suddenly fills with a mournful cloud of impending doom, signaling that the time they have lost means the rift’s opening has grown ever closer. Surrounded by piles of ash and headless corpses of what were evidently peaceful villagers, the party stops to consider what they have done, and what they must do now.
– The adventurers have a quest to investigate death cultists, worshipers of Orcus. They’re given a tip to go to the kobold lair, end up ambushing and slaughtering the lot. They return to town, get the info on the actual keep at shadowfell, spend a few days wiping out the first floor (that’s where you joined in). There they meet Sir Keegan, who tells them the story of a rift into the Shadowfell, an alternate world where the god Orcus lives – if opened, a wave of undead would pour out and engulf the world. They take a break, head to the town, defeat some zombies, find out the town wizard confirms the story – evil death god Orcus, rift, opening soon, stop the ritual to open the portal before it’s too late.
The next day they return to the keep, investigate the next floor down, work their way through a series of difficult trap rooms, then go deeper only to find a foyer, complete with receptionist and muzak. Kalarel, the name of the death cultist they’d heard before, turns out to be a kindly old man who invites them in and explains they’ve been suffering from a misunderstanding and bad PR. The Raven Queen (goddess of the realm of death) is actually collecting souls for herself, not letting any go to the afterlife – he uses the revenant as proof, since revenants are souls returned to the world by the raven queen. Orcus, on the other hand, is trying to release those souls and let them be free. He says they’re also against the oppressive laws and enforced prejudice of the world above, shows them a whole bunch of peaceful monsters and player creatures coexisting and working together in a positive way. They can’t find any sign he’s lying or they’re being deceived, and eventually they buy it. He then tells them that the town is in fact evil, worshiping Vecna god of secrets and betrayal, and they grab some death cult robes, arm themselves with sweet gear and head back towards the village.
They try to find proof, see if they can find the hidden Vecna altar behind the temple, but they spend hours and only find an empty room, magically wiped clean, neither proof for nor against. Meanwhile, the villagers have been under an oppressive cloud of gloom and dread that signals the opening of the rift (which the party doesn’t feel) and are getting pissed these heroes are wasting hours not doing anything useful. Tempers flare, the local wizard in frustration casts a harmless but embarrassing spell at the tiefling and all hell breaks loose. Lots of people die, piles of ashes, the monk wears a skull like a bracelet, the whole nine yards. Noticing something weird, the monk drops the enchanted weapon given to him by Kalarel and realizes most of the people he’s fighting are unarmed, and half are trying to flee. They stop, drop their new weapons, feel the full doom cloud of Orcus, realize they’ve been duped, and will head back into the dungeon to hopefully stop the ritual before it’s too late.