Although safely back from the trials of Ghar's Farrow, the boys have still not found Sreth. That night they recounted their adventure as the main attraction at The Copper Branch, the only inn in Dhath, and even then only drinking one mug of ale each before off to their sleep in the shed at the General Store.
Turning off the main road as it turned westwards to the Moonstone River, they made good time, and encountered nothing of note, except for a small grove of trees that stood alone in the grassland, perfectly still despite the freshening breeze. As a prime example of Fey Witchery, they gave it a wide berth, and when they looked back from a safe distance, it was gone.
The grasses, and low thorny shrubs had reclaimed the ruins, but after a few minutes of searching the tumbled blocks, they found an earthen tunnel, big enough for a man to walk upright.
Although trying to be quiet, a human voice called out from further along, asking them to identify themselves. As most monsters in this setting can't (or don't) speak, and attacking other people is frowned upon, even in the wilds, they replied, although on their guard.
A man, although tall, thin and slightly rat-like, waited for them, and led them, with a lantern, a few tens of metres into a chamber at the end of the tunnel, with passages on either side leading into the darkness. He claimed he and his group were herbalists, seeking uncommon herbs and berries from these lands, and a series of glass retorts and brass chambers set on the packed earth bench supported his claim. He spoke of the surroundings and his luck in finding certain herbs in a continuous monologue, setting the boys at ease. He made them a drink of chat, the common tea-like herbal drink of the lands, as he talked, and passed each of them a clay cup containing the fragrant brew.
It was Sarialin, the apprentice mage, who, passing a herbalism skill check, detected in his mug the distinctive smell of Graveweed, a noxious herb that induces sleep with a light dose and certain death in more concentrated forms. Shouting to the others, he flung the mug at the Stranger, jumping up from his seat...
The others hadn't drunk their brews yet, and they rapidly formed an armed huddle. The Stranger seemed apprehensive too, holding a twisted staff that glowed with a pale green light. He shouted at them to "Leave now, before the others return, and they will not be as merciful as I"...
The boys remained standing with their weapons drawn, but Imaghan shouted a question about the boy they were seeking.
The Stranger, appearing even more nervous, shouted back that they had seen no others in their time here, and that they had better flee for their lives. Now they could hear noises of advancing feet from each of the tunnels, so they staged a dignified but fast retreat until out of the tunnel, then a panicked run until beyond the ruins.
A quick assessment - a mysterious tunnel, the Stranger, obviously a herbalist and mage, and a potential poisoner, but then again, why urge them to escape, and who are the others? Still, trusting that he had no reason to lie about a single boy, and unsure of who these people are, and how powerful, they vowed not to speak of this to anyone else, and returned to Dhath, each pondering the events of the day. Two days wasted, and still the boy not found, as well!
[GMs appraisal - great! No combat, a tense stand-off resolved, a mystery found but not solved, and some quick thinking getting them the news about the boy they sought. The players have the idea that drawing weapons and attacking unknown forces is not the recipe for a long life, and at 1st level, they are still small and squishy.
The Keep inhabitants are a power group, operating secretly, and may relocate, or may not, given this intrusion. The party is lucky, however, that I rolled most of the group away from the lair when they arrived]