Meric always knew where to find Bishop at sunset. She had set up a small shrine to Aroden in the castle, where she could be found praying in accordance with the practices of orthodox Aroden worship. Though her god was dead, her devotion was alive and well. Meric didn’t see the point of it, though he thought it certainly spoke well of the girl’s loyalty. He waited silently for her prayers to be completed.
“Am I needed your Grace?”
“I’m headed into town shortly, and the last time I left the castle without your knowledge, there were injuries. I thought I’d spare the staff the terror this time and invite you along in advance.” Meric’s tone was good humored.
“Apologies again your Grace, I was…overzealous in my duties.”
“I can live with a certain amount of zeal in the service of my protection. Shall we head out?”
“Of course your grace. May I ask if the artifact has been dealt with?”
“Hidden in a lead box, which is itself inside a portable hole, which is hidden behind several feet of stone. If that is insufficient to protect it from Abrogail’s spies, then they can have the damn thing.”
Meric altered his appearance to one that would not be recognizable. Bishop gave him a confused look.
“We’re meeting with Lily, and it is best if no one knows that she acts as a spy for me.”
Bishop nodded, and they headed out. Several minutes later they arrived at Lily Teskerton’s home. She invited both them in with no questions asked.
“Your Grace, fancy meeting you here.”
“What do you have for me today Lily?”
“Not much. Your Paladin friend broke up the initial meetings of what was likely to become Stag’s End’s first thieves’ guild. They’ll reorganize, but it will take some time.”
“Any news from abroad then?”
Lily paused for a moment before replying.
“I have heard a few rumors that Varnhold has gone dark. Trade caravans to Restov seemed to have stopped about a week ago. One man claimed that he passed through the town a few days ago, only to find it completely deserted.”
Meric’s brow furrowed.
“Deserted. The man seemed quite spooked. So I take it this wasn’t your doing then?”
Meric gave Lily a brief glare before continuing.
“Anything else I should know?”
“Yeah, pick a different appearance next time before coming to see me. You look too much like an ex-boyfriend of mine. And you might want to make sure your alias isn’t wearing the Duke’s sigil on his finger. Kind of tips your hand.” Lily gave Meric a grin.
Meric looked down and noticed that his grandfather’s ring had not been suppressed by his spell. Suppressing items with a magical charge typically required a bit of extra effort, particularly where the enchantment was as potent as the one contained in that ring. Meric suppressed a curse as he modified the spell to give the ring the appearance of a cloudy gemstone.
“Charming as always Lily. I’ll be in touch.”
Meric and Bishop exited the house and began the slow walk back to the castle. Meric liked to take odd routes through the city to familiarize himself with every alley and shop in Stag’s End. He stopped at a low-ceilinged tavern and bought a skin of wine and a meat pie from a tubby halfling.
“Will we be investigating Varnhold personally your Grace?”
“Possibly. I’d like to know a bit more before we jump in the middle of this situation.”
Meric could hear his bodyguard praying quietly under her breathe
“I thought your next prayer wasn’t until just before you went to sleep.”
“A prayer for those who are missing from Varnhold.”
“A prayer to Aroden?”
Meric had always avoided potentially offending Bishop’s beliefs before, but decided to ask the question this time.
“And what will a dead god do for the people of Varnhold?”
Bishop looked at Meric with penetrating eyes. She always stood just a tad too close to other people. As if she was making a conscious effort to inform them that they had no personal space as far as she was concerned.
“The rightful king of Cheliax should not be so quick to dismiss He that raised our nation into an empire.”
Meric decided not to press the girl further.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” Dante spoke as contritely as possible.
“It would be worth very little if we had both been consumed in hellfire.” Amalie shot back.
Dante thought it best to remain silent
“Just promise me you won’t try something like that again.”
Again, Dante thought it best to remain silent. Amalie sighed.
“At least promise me that you’ll have a better plan next time. Or even just something that resembles a plan.”
“I understand that I screwed up Amalie. It’s just not in my nature to back down from a fight.”
This time it was Amalie who remained silent. Before Dante could speak again, Meric and the others entered the council room. Once everyone was seated, the Duke spoke.
“Over the past few days, we have received a number of reports that Varnhold, our neighboring barony to the east, has gone silent. Today, we received a message from Restov.” Meric pulled a letter from his pocket and began to read from it.
Greetings from Restov and congratulations on your triumphs. I hope that we are entering a time in which these lands will be called stolen only in history texts! Yet it would seem that for all your victories, your fellow colonists to the east have met with trouble. The settlers of Varnhold are not responding to messengers—and indeed, some envoys have gone missing as well. You may have noticed this on your own, but as the political climate here in Restov grows more turbulent, we find ourselves increasingly limited in the amount of aid we can send. Certainly, we cannot send troops south to Varnhold to investigate without our overly watchful lords to the north misinterpreting the act. And so it falls to you, I fear, to investigate the Varnhold mystery. For if something dire has befallen the colony, you must realize that your own could be next!
Trusting in your discretion and expedience,
Jamandi Aldori—Swordlord of Restov
“Needless to say, this situation is delicate.” Meric continued. “I’m not eager to appear to be taking orders from Restov. However, their assessment of their situation in Brevoy is correct. They cannot send troops south to Varnhold without provoking Issa. And they are right about our situation as well. Our lands now border Varnhold’s. If Varnhold came under attack, we are in danger as well. We can’t afford to sit back and hope for the best. We go in.”
“Should we raise an army in case it was an attack?” Dante feared the worst with this situation.
“It could send a bad message if we march an army to a neighboring state, even if it is only to help. The eight of us go. We assess the situation, and if an army is required, we will return to Stormvale and raise one.” Meric replied.
Asta asked the only other question.
“When are we leaving?”
“In the morning. Make whatever preparations you must tonight. We ride straight through to Varnhold tomorrow.”
The group dispersed to their individual quarters to prepare. Dante spent some time walking the Castle’s ramparts, while reflecting on the past few weeks. His ability to sense evil had caused him fits ever since he was chosen by Kord to walk the path of a paladin. But Rumjal was different. He wasn’t a being who had committed acts of evil, which had tainted his aura. He was evil. His entire body was made of it. With his sense, Dante could see that there was no Rumjal, only a manifestation of malice and cruelty, which wore a disarming smile. His very existence was an affront to all that was good.
And yet he was hardly unique in the outer planes. An infinite number of devils and demons lay just on the outside of reality, waiting for an opportunity to enter the material plane and wreak havoc. Would he hurl himself suicidaly at them all? How long could the hordes of the abyss, and the tyrants of the nine hells be kept at bay? It was like attempting to hold back an ocean.
Dante looked out on Stag’s End one last time before heading inside.
The silence of Varnhold was deafening. The city wasn’t as large as Stag’s End, but clearly housed thousands of settlers. Yet Asta had seen not a single person since they had arrived. She had prepared herself for the worst, but the worst involved thousands of civilians lying dead in the streets.
Instead, the party encountered a ghost town. There was simply no trace of the people who resided here. No signs of violence or invasion. The homes and shops appeared to be unlooted. The entire situation sent chills down her spine.
“Should we search door to door?” Siv asked the party as a whole.
“Not yet. If there were any survivors holed up somewhere, the fort is the most likely place. Let’s check it as a group before we begin searching the buildings.” Meric replied
Asta’s hope of finding survivors within vanished rapidly, as she saw the gate hanging wide open. Dante stopped suddenly in his tracks.
“There’s evil on the other side of the wall.” The Paladin declared as he drew his weapon. The others followed suit. Dante, Skyyd and Barry took point as they entered.
Inside were a half dozen orcs. They attacked the group immediately. What followed could hardly be classified as a fight. The marshal prowess of the group alone was enough to overpower their foes in seconds, without any magic being needed. A search of the rest of the fort yielded no further clues.
“Six orcs couldn’t have done all of this.” Asta observed.
“Maybe there were more. Maybe the rest moved on already.” Dante commented.
“Without looting the city? And they would have no reason to remove all of the bodies. Besides, where is the blood from the battle? Where are the burning buildings? It seems more likely that these orcs moved in after whatever tragedy befell the city.” Meric added.
Asta could see Siv following the tracks of the orcs.
“I think Meric is right. I only see the tracks of these six.” Asta could see that Siv’s entire countenance had changed. She now seemed extremely angry. She would need to ask the druid about what had happened once there was a quiet moment.
“Let’s split up into pairs and search the buildings.” Meric suggested.
Asta, Em and Skyyd headed to the inn. The interior of the establishment showed no signs of distress. No overturned furniture, no signs of struggle at all. Asta wasn’t sure what was more disturbing: the fact that the people of this city had been taken, or that they never had a chance to fight back.
They headed upstairs and began searching rooms. Asta found nothing out of the ordinary in the first few.
“What’s this?” Em asked as she held up a book titled ‘ The Lusty Elven Maid ’
“That is…not relevant to the disappearances.” Asta stated awkwardly as she grabbed the book from Em’s hand. Her sister gave her a suspicious look.
“Let’s check the last few rooms.” Asta moved quickly out of the door as she spoke.
The largest room in the inn remained unsearched. Asta opened the doorand almost fell backwards when she saw an orc standing with its weapon drawn. After several seconds, it became apparent that the creature was not moving at all.
“Immobilized by some sort of magic.” Em guessed.Asta scanned the room and saw many books and notes scattered about. It would take some time to go through all of it.
“Em, go find the others and bring them back here. I’ll see what I can find.”
“Don’t strain my abilities or anything.” Her sister declared as she exited the room.
Asta rolled her eyes. Their relationship needed work.
Skyyd advanced on the orc and tapped on it with his paw. He looked to Asta waiting to follow her lead.
“Just watch him Skyyd. I don’t think he’s dangerous right now.” The tiger sat down and stared at his prey.
Asta poked through the desk of the room, looking for clues. Whoever was staying here had been doing some sort of archaeological research. She grabbed a book that was open on the desk, and began reading from the page that was currently exposed.
And so it was, high upon the Torres and well above the Vale’s Stairs, where rises from the high water a stony isle of dire report. Known as Vordakai’s Island to those that do live thereabout, some legend of its name doth come down through the locals. For they speak of a guardian that doth destroy all who would set foot upon its accursed shores. They did name no fewer than a twelvecount of their hero-knights who had left their bones upon its rocky shores over the years after having tested their mettle against its dread warden, ’til none would any longer go there for fear of its hidden terrors. And the name of this terror was given unto this Island.
“Vordakai?” Asta whispered to herself. The name meant nothing to her. She sensed she would be doing a great deal of reading for the rest of this expedition.
The Nomen Heights were not Siv’s preferred natural environment. The mountains were cold and largely lifeless. For days the party had scoured them for Vordakai’s island, which had been mentioned in book Asta found. “High above the Torres”, had implied it was positioned somewhere in the mountains to the south. But the area was vast, and the party’s efforts bore no fruit.
Aside from the location, the group didn’t really know what they were looking for. Their best guess had been that someone in Varnhold had unearthed something dangerous in an ancient tomb, and that the people had fallen victim to whatever had been unleashed. Yet with no further clues, there was little point in continuing to wander aimlessly through the mountains. They had headed north to the Dunsward. It was an area of largely flat plains, located within Varnhold’s borders. If they found no further clues or survivors from Varnhold, they would return home to Stormvale with no answers.
Siv had noticed a large number of Mammoth tracks ever since they had entered the Dunsward. She had never seen one before, and was excited by the prospect. Her first opportunity was not all she had hoped for.
“That’s an enormous carcus.” Ali observed. “What killed it? Are there any animals that prey on mammoths?”
“People.” Several members of the party observed simultaneously.
Siv began to look for the tracks of the hunters. She saw numerous horse tracks, but nothing else.
“Whoever they are, I don’t think they ever dismounted their horses.” Siv commented.
“Then how did they gut and skin the animal?” Asta replied.
The answer was not readily apparent. Meric urged the group onward, following the tracks of the hunting party. Siv had a constant sense that she was forgetting something. That something was off about the tracks. But she couldn’t identify a reason for her sense, so she remained silent.
Eventually the party came to a village. Tents and campfires dotted the landscape. Siv could now see her mistake. The hunters had not dismounted because they simply couldn’t. They had found a tribe of nomadic Centaurs. A war-band rode out towards the party and demanded the group identify themselves.
“I am Duke Meric Thorn of Stormvale. We come in goodwill. A human settlement to the east of here has fallen to some sort of disaster. We are trying to determine the cause. We are searching the surrounding lands for clues. Would you or any of your people know anything that could help us?”
“The humans encroached on our lands. Why should we care if they encroached on someone else’s and invited disaster on themselves? The Nomen Centaurs own the Dunsward. Be off Humans.”
‘Half-Elf. It makes no more sense to refer me as Human than, it would for me to refer to you as a human…or a horse.’ Siv thought but didn’t say to the centaur. She left the diplomacy to Meric. There was always the potential for an ugly misunderstanding in these first encounters with other races on Stormvale’s borders. But Siv never worried anymore. Meric handled these encounters better than anyone she had ever met. He would get them inside the village asking questions in just a few minutes.
“Varnhold is a mere 30 miles from this village. If something destroyed them, it can destroy you as well. As I said, we are only here to help. Allow me to speak with your leader. We will abide by all of your rules while we are here, and not cause you any disturbances.” Meric’s golden tongue continued to work for the party.The centaurs relented and escorted the party to their village. They were brought to a large tent, and warned to show only the upmost respect while in the presence of Mother Moon Aecora. The little Siv knew of centaurs told her that their leader’s role was likely more that of a war-priestess than a queen. One of the centaurs entered ahead of them, presumably to inform her that an audience was requested. After a few minutes they were granted entrance.
They were escorted by all eight of the centaur war-band that had met them as they approached the settlement. In front of them stood a female centaur dressed in armor. She had long red hair that flowed down each side of her head in two large braids. One of the other centaurs spoke.
“Now explain to Mother Moon why you have encroached upon our lands.”
Meric patiently explained the situation much as he had earlier. Mother Moon appeared impassive. He went on to expain that they were looking for an island named Vordakai.
Aecora grew solemn at the mention of this name. After a moment, she admitted that the name was not unknown to her. According to their traditions, ‘Vordakai’ was a “slumbering warlord from the time of the mother tribes.” Siv took this to mean that this Vordakai was an ancient, powerful figure from a point in the distant past.
She apologized for being unable to give the group more information, as their tribe had lost much of its history in the years since they had been dispersed by Taldor’s armies.
“There is a place you might go to learn more—although it is a place that I fear may be your doom if you travel there. To the west is Olah-Kakanket—the Valley of the Dead. The name ‘Vordakai’ is associated with a narrow trail that leads up into the mountains from its far end. I believe that the valley is a graveyard, and that this trail leads to Vordakai’s tomb. This place is forbidden to the Nomens, but our traditions also dictate that we must watch the valley for signs of disturbance or strange awakenings. One of our huntresses recently disappeared while investigating a disturbance near Olah-Kakanket. She has not been seen in days. We would be eternally grateful if you could bring us any news of her.”
Mother Moon Aecora signaled to one of the nearby centaurs.
“I will send a guide with you who will lead you to the trail. He will not follow you up the mountain.”
Meric thanked the War-Priestess for all of her aid. As they turned to exit the tent, Aecora spoke again.
“Our missing Huntress…she is my daughter. Please find her.”