In this adventure, a group of heroes delves into the depths of a forest to find the lair of a witch during the winter. The adventurers may come across this scenario when visiting a town or small city during wintertime. A great way to get them involved is to have Argana kidnap an acquaintance of the PCs among other victims. Ultimately, the promise of gold and recognition is often the best incentive. The person in charge of the town offers a considerable amount of gold (500 gp) if a close relative was also taken.
This is the story of Argana Farenski. She was born into money in the kingdom’s capital. She never lacked for anything and had access to the best education in her youth. Argana became a scribe, then a scholar, and then a mage in her early thirties. By then, she realized that the thing that motivated her the most was the study and research of the arcane arts. She envied the elves for their long lifespans. They could, and often did, take their sweet time when it came to arcane studies. They had decades or even centuries to study and master even the most diminutive details about their magical arts.
In a moment of sudden resolve and determination, Argana left her family’s estate and became an adventurer. Increasing her lifespan became an absolute priority for her. She believed magic was the answer but the secret of immortality is a well-guarded treasure no one is willing to part with.
Argana traveled the world far and wide. She consulted and studied with experts in the arcane field. Humans, elves, dwarves, and even some fey creatures in the forests and the seas shared their secrets with her but even after all this, she felt farther from her goal than ever. Far away from home, Argana exhausted her savings and needed resources to continue her search. She met a group of fellow adventurers who welcomed her magical abilities. Together they took on contracts and bounties and became renowned in the region. They became somewhat wealthy but money was only a means to a larger end for Argana. Deep inside, she only wanted to further her investigation.
At one time, Argana and her fellow adventurers ventured deep underground to help a dwarf town get rid of a vicious necromancer and his undead horde. They were successful and the dwarf clan rewarded them with numerous golden figurines that were worth a small fortune each. But Argana collected the most precious treasure of all when she saw the necromancer’s spellbook. The dark, leather-bound, parchment-paged book included not only the necromancer’s spells but also instruction to perform arcane rituals that she had never seen before.
The rituals in the book opened a new world of study to her. These were the lost or forbidden arcane subjects that no one had shared; erased from history out of fear or superstition. The necromancer’s writing style and shorthand were difficult to translate to usable terms, however. Each mage codifies spells differently. It would take a fair amount of research; trial and error to decipher the ins and outs of the rituals and then focus on the immortality conundrum. But she felt it was worth the try.
Argana left the group of adventurers and retired to the privacy of the forest to start researching. It took her a few months to understand what she had to do to have access to the power of these rituals. Most of them functioned with one kind of fuel: sentient lives. Argana tried to find a way to replace that wicked ingredient for months but it was useless. Lives had to be sacrificed for her to gain insight into the greatest secrets of the arcane. In a moment of irony, she understood that the necromancer probably undertook the same quest she had. She would have to become the villain to obtain her reward. She told herself that it would be only for a while and that she would respect the lives of all those she used to further her investigation. She convinced herself that she tried to. But in the end, the very nature of her experiments and failed rituals corrupted her soul and blackened her moral compass. She cried while casting the obscure ritual and felt something within her break when the eyes of the sacrifices glowed and then went blank. She worked alone and, thus, had to carry the dead bodies outside to dispose of them. After the tenth victim, Argana carried herself with calculated precision to do what she must. Never thinking, never feeling.
Argana lives alone in a forest shack, it is one day from the closest town at the forest’s edge. Despite the short distance between Argana’s shack and the closest village, the wizard has never shown them her true form. She uses magic to change her appearance to that of a crone when she has dealt with the townsfolk.
Under her clever disguise, Argana visits the towns close to the forest twice a month. She pushes a small cart where she stores freshly made thistle pies. She uses a local plant known as the ruby-red thistle to prepare them. The pies are sweet and flowery and the locals love them.
Argana often includes an extra ingredient on some of the pies. It is a delicate and flavorless potion that causes the person who eats it to feel a sudden curiosity for the old woman. It is a watered-down charm potion that causes the people to become infatuated with her for a few hours. This is enough time for Argana to lure them back to her shack in the woods and put them in the cells under her home. She has lured one or two people a month to her home for the past year and a half.
Some people have pointed out that people often go missing when the old lady comes to visit. It is hard to believe because the crone looks frail and small but the fact remains true. The locals do not know that she is guilty of this but she is the prime suspect. Because of this, some locals now believe that the old woman in the forest is a witch of sorts. This is inaccurate, she is a wizard. But the superstitions of the illiterate populace have taken hold and the tales of the witch in the woods have spread.
Local authorities are inclined to spend some of the town’s savings to fund an expedition to the crone’s home in the forest. The local assembly has decided that no more local lives can be spared for this effort. Calling on the crown to send reinforcements may take weeks, so a group of strong-looking foreign adventurers is the perfect choice for this but the bounty is open to everyone. 500 gold pieces ready for the taking.
Neutral evil human (age 44)
Argana is a middle-aged woman with graying hair, slim figure, and several battle scars from her adventuring days. The most prominent one is a deep scar in her torso that goes from her collarbone, up her neck and around to the middle of her back. Half the scar is visible when she wears a dress. She got this scar battling a green dragon a few years ago in her adventuring days.
Personality Trait. “There’s little worth in establishing friendships that shall wither with time.”
Ideal. “My ongoing research shall grant me immortality, after that, I can lead a quiet life of research.”
Bond. “I shall return to my family when I have achieved my goals.”
Flaw. “I am overconfident and trust that my plans are flawless.”
The Witch’s Shack
The following descriptions of areas 1 through 13 correspond to the forest shack map and the underground complex beneath it. Both the shack and the dungeon were built by Argana and her undead servants.
Terrain. The snowy fields outside of the shack are so thick that they are considered difficult terrain. The flooring in the shack and dungeon are in good condition but signs of disrepair are present as well.
Doors. All doors are made from oak and feature simple locks. All of them are unlocked unless specified otherwise.
Light. The shack rooms are well lit from the hearths. Sconces on the walls and braziers in the dungeon provide bright light where available. Other areas are in complete darkness.
Smells and Sounds. The smells of the food on the stove and scented candles dominate the shack. Underground, there is a pungent, sanguine smell of burnt hair, blood, and cinnamon. It comes from area 13 and becomes stronger when approaching the area.
1. Shack’s Surroundings
Several inches of snow cover the frozen grass and soil below. The wooden shack in the forest is in the center of a clearing. The narrow path that leads to the house was cleared recently. A successful DC 12 Intelligence (Investigation) check reveals several skeleton footprints on the path. Argana has some of her skeleton thralls clear the path every few days so that the snow layer is not too thick whenever she chooses to visit the towns.
The wooden building features a single entrance, two window panes, and two fireplaces on opposite sides of the shack. There is nothing that can be associated with what the locals refer to as a witch. Thick gray curtains impede vision through the windows.
Secret Entrance. There is a wooden trapdoor under 10 inches of snow southeast of the shack (see the “T” marked on the map). It leads down to area 10. The only way to find it is if an adventurer specifically looks for things under the snow with a pole or a shovel. Otherwise, there are no tracks that lead to it or a way to determine that it is there. Argana has not used it in months.
2. Living Room
The room looks lived-in and recently used. It contains a wooden table with fresh food on it, a small bookcase, a hearth with an attached stove, and a fine rug of exquisite craftsmanship. There is a painted portrait on the north wall, beside the stove, that portrays an adult woman carrying a heavy spellbook. The woman in the painting has a large scar on the shoulder. The bookcase contains literary classics of local folklore.
Six thistle pies are baking on the heat of the stove. They are almost done. Should a character have a bite of any of the pastries, they are subject to a magical effect similar to the charm person (DC 14) spell centered on Argana. The effect lasts for 2d6 hours.
Secret Door. There is a wooden trapdoor under the rug (see the “T” marked on the map). It leads down to area 4.
Treasure. The rug is worth 125 gold pieces.
There are two beds, a wardrobe, and a hearth in the bedroom. One of the beds (north) is well made and appears to be unused. The wardrobe contains only female clothing. There is a metal safe box under the used bed where Argana keeps spare change and money to avoid opening her secret vault too often. It is guarded by four shadows that she created and bent to her will. The undead do their best to protect the box.
Treasure. The iron safebox is unlocked and contains 160 gp, 400 sp, and two diamonds worth 100 gp each.
4. Basement Landing
The trapdoor ladder leads down to a small chamber with a single wooden door. It leads to a 20 by 15 feet chamber that contains two wooden tables. There is food served on one of them and several iron weapons on the other. There are other doors in the room. There are three ghouls in this room, they attack the first adventurer to emerge from the ladder.
Argana uses this room to dissect and inspect the insides of some of her experiment subjects. There is a steel table near the south wall where she performs her medical studies on (often) dead bodies. If an adventurer spends 20 minutes reviewing the written material on the desk by the northwest corner, it reveals that someone has dissected many people from the local villages. She has strict records of her medical proceeding and pages full of arcane ramblings of what her supposed breakthroughs are.
A successful DC 15 Intelligence (Arcana) reveals that her findings are either flat out wrong, or there is an important piece of information missing.
Treasure. There is a wooden chest under the metal table. It contains the valuables that some of Argana’s victims carried. There are 35 gp, 84 sp, and a single golden locket with the portrait of a young girl inside.
6. Wine Cabinet
The room contains two rows of wine barrels. Some of the barrels are already empty and others have gone sour from improper care.
Treasure. Two of the wine barrels are in drinkable condition. They have a market value of 20 gp each.
7. Secret Vault
The room contains two wooden chests reinforced with iron bands. The chests are unlocked. Argana’s remaining savings from her adventurer phase as well as some of the treasure collected from kidnapped townsfolk is here.
Treasure. The chests contain 1400 gp, 2600 sp, 2980 cp, a +1 spear, a +1 studded leather armor, and a wand of cure wounds.
8. Booby-Trapped Chests
Argana built this room as a decoy vault to lure intruders into an early death. There is one stone chest in each of the 5-foot alcoves. The chests are empty but an intruder would have no way to know that. A character using thieves’ tools can bypass the lock on each chest automatically but doing so triggers a trap.
Poison Needle Traps. Attempting to manipulate the lock with tools triggers the trap. A fine needle emerges from a small orifice and injects a dose of poison to the target. They must make a successful DC 12 Constitution saving throw or take 21 (6d6) poison damage.
Secret Door. A passive Perception score of 16 or higher reveals the presence of a section of the wall that is made of a lighter material in the center of the south wall. A character using thieves’ tools can force this door open with a successful DC 16 Dexterity check. This secret passage leads to Argana’s arcane study (area 13) and provides the heroes with a possibility to surprise the mage.
9. Explosive Door Room
The short hallway turns south and leads to a 15 by 15 room with a single wooden door on the south wall and a 2-foot-wide opening by the southwest corner. The narrow passage is too small for a medium-sized creature to cross but a halfling or similar creature can still squeeze through at half speed.
The door to the south is locked. A character using thieves’ tools can bypass the lock automatically, however, doing so triggers the explosive runes (see below). A detect magic spell reveals the presence of an evocation aura on the door. A dispel magic spell deactivates the trap for 1d6 hours.
Explosive Runes Trap. Opening the door triggers the glyph of warding spell on the door. The explosive runes shine bright red for an instant and go off. Each creature within 10 feet of the door must make a successful DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, taking 14 (4d6) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Secret Door. A passive Perception score of 17 or higher reveals the presence of a section of the wall that is made of a lighter material in the west wall of the hallway north of the room. A character using thieves’ tools can force this door open with a successful DC 17 Dexterity check. It leads to area 7, Argana’s hidden vault.
10. Secret Exit
This is Argana’s secret exit. She has never used it in the past. The narrow passages that lead to this chamber can only be traversed by small creatures squeezing, or smaller. There is a travel bag hanging on the wall by the ladder. It contains rations for a few days, traveling gear, and a spare spellbook. The ladder leads up to the surface in area 1 (see the “T” marked on the map).
11. Crossbow Trap
The large hallway to the south is part of an elaborate trap. The first three tiles of the hallway are a pressure-sensitive plate that triggers the trap with 250 pounds of weight (average of two people).
When any adventurer reaches the end of the room, where the mounted crossbow is, the skeleton archers in area 13 shoot their mounted crossbows at them and alert Argana of the intruders.
Repeating Crossbow Trap. When the trap is triggered, the door by the south end of the hallway opens to reveal a mounted crossbow that shoots 30 bolts, three per round. Up to three creatures as far as 120 feet from the crossbow must make a successful DC 14 Dexterity saving throw or take 6 (1d10) piercing damage. They must repeat the save as long as they remain in the corridor, or until the 30 bolts have been shot. Dropping to the floor for the duration of the trap’s functioning prevents all damage after the first round because the bolts are shot at stomach height.
This room is divided in two by iron bars that lift when the lever in the hallway is moved to the “up” position. There are 1d4 peasant prisoners in the cell. They are happy to see the adventurers and eager to escape Argana’s lair.
13. Arcane Study
The largest chamber in the dungeon contains Argana’s main research room. A stone magic circle in the center of the room is the focus of all her rituals, as per the necromancer’s spellbook. It is stained with dried blood and other chemicals. A stone throne in an alcove by the west wall is also part of the ritual’s foci. When Argana performs a sacrifice to power her arcane ceremonies, she sits on the stone throne. The throne is inscribed with endless arcane runes and spells. Whoever sits on it when the sacrifice takes place is the beneficiary of the ritual. So far, Argana has advanced her goals but the precise requirements of the ritual still elude her.
If the adventurers attempt to reach this room from area 11, two skeletons operate the mounted heavy crossbows that shoot into the hallway to area 11. Argana (mage) is aware of the intruders and soon comes to use her spells against them. On the other hand, if the adventurers find the secret door in area 8, they barge into the study and surprise Argana. There are three more skeletons and one ghoul standing by the south wall. Argana commands them to attack with a single word.
If the battle turns against Argana, she uses gaseous form to retreat to area 10 and attempts to escape.
Treasure. There are three spell scrolls of fireball on the bookcase and an enormous collection of books and treatises on arcane subjects. Argana’s research documents might be a valuable addition to a wizard’s library. The thistle pie recipe can be found in a recipe book from a faraway kingdom.
The necromancer’s spellbook contains several advanced necromancy spells and the ritual grimoire that turned Argana to evil-doing. The specific content of the necromancer’s spellbook and the reach of this magic is beyond the scope of this resource and left to the DM’s discretion.