For a moment the cleric considers listening to the cold, hollow voice that echoes like a voice from a half-remembered nightmare in his mind. However, with a mental slap he shakes free of the deadly idea, and with a growl he shoves the vial away and stalks to his room.
31/4/1472 – 3/5/1472 (Weather brightening. Cool, misty nights, but warm days with light westerly breezes).
Over the next four days the group begin to learn all they can about Darius Valde, his activities and his contacts. Using the rogues of the Rookery, and their own talents, they are able to discover a huge amount of information. They learn that Darius plans to buyout a number of local businesses soon and to move overseas to his estates on the southern coast of central Lower Malgoroth, on the Daviènne Riviera. He has recently outbid a merchant who works for the Harraken'Khelidite church on a batch of cheap Tornysh, Maldican Red and aelwyn Sybbon, rare poisons that are worth a fortune. This was the crime that has earned him his death note. Fruther searching unearths the fact that Darius has also employed an insider at the up and coming arena battles, a human named Gastul Khordaine, who he is paying to subtly poison or cripple certain monsters to allow fighters to win battles that they have poor odds in – and on whom Darius intends to bet.
Darius' home is a fortress of spellwards, warforged guards, traps and well planned killing zones. A frontal assault would be costly and would almost certainly allow the money lender time to escape.
One of the most interesting tidbits of information concerns Darius childhood friend and former captain of the Valdean Guard, Istan Druun. Istan left the Valde estate suddenly some four months ago, and further probing reveals that for a few months before then the relationship between the two men had soured considerably. Istan it seems moved to a small town to the southwest of Irin named Aramayne, and has kept a low profile since.
After some discussion, it is decided that questioning Gastul may alert Darius to their activities. It is therefore decided that the group will leave after dark for Aramayne, there to question Istan and hopefully gain some kind of advantage with this difficult assassination.
20:30 – 21:00 - The group wend their way through the crowded streets of Irin, Emmiven on the back of Diabolus. Despite the official opening of the fayre being over a moon away, a carnival atmosphere dominates, the streets being filled with performers, hawkers, chanting priests, and criminals about their business. Couples play games of chance and skill for small prizes, whilst a multitude of different foods are sold from small booths or from the trays of wandering vendors. A juggler turns balls of pinkish flame into doves to the ecstatic applaud of the crowd, whilst a trio if Lorehavian minstrels play a complex tune on their dawnwood acoustic guitars.
By the gates stand several brightly coloured caravans, covered in charms and trinkets. By these sing and dance foreigners with ruddy skin, dark hair and eyes. The women wear long tasseled dresses, small anklet bearing silvery bells, and their long hair is held in place by colourful silk scarves. They twirl and dance to the tune of the small banjo like instruments and tambourines the swarthy menfolk play.
“Velonai.” Spits Schnecke with a growl, “No good gypsy scum.”
He storms ahead without making any eye contact with the Upper Malgorothian travellers.
21:01 – 21:10 – The group pass the gates and head out into the normally empty fields that surround the city – its killing ground in the event of a battle. As it is now, an army would have ample room to hide, for a sea of tents, wagons and stalls reach away, the night air filled with the smell of wood smoke from the hundreds of camp fires that burn in the night. To the east the group can see the wooden palisades that will stand either side of the proving grounds – an area where jousts and knightly tourneys will be held for the noble warriors.
Beyond the hubub of the camp lies the solemn black wall of the Argent Woods, the vast forests that surround the southern and western sides of Irin. It is within this place, a place that saw terrible things during the aelwyn wars, that Aramayne lies.
The sky is dark, for Lunum is little more than a thin sliver of golden that hangs low and huge in the misty air, and Aelnaerys is remote; a slightly larger than the rest star of pale lilac. A million stars twinkle and gleam above, a mantle of celestial sparkles cast against the shadowy black, whilst Chillosta, the Light of the Evening, burns with a steady silver light to the southeast. Here and there, steady mobile points of light mark the passing of high-altitude sky ships whilst the flashing lights of the occasional meteor flicker like scratches against the mantled heavens. With the music drifting from the camp, and the air still slightly warm from the long sunny day, it is hard for the group to imagine anything terrible happening this night...
21:15 – The group reach the edge of the Argent Wood. The night mist has risen fully here, and stretches in milky bands between the heavy trunks of the ancient trees. A strong resinous aroma hangs on the air, and the eerie calls of night birds and animals echo from the darkness beyond. The tiny lamps of fireflies float like lost souls amongst the branches and here and there glow the muted lights of foxfire in the black, rotted grounds litter.
Casting one last look back towards the glowing mass of Irin and its attendant camps, the group move into the darkness.
21:16 – 21:37 – The group move easily through the forest, with Jaegar navigating by the stars and moons. The forests are filled with remnants of the last war, for whilst the aelwyn never succeeded in attacking irin, they came close...very, very close.
Areas of ground scorched by fires still stand mostly bare, and there are many times where bone fragments, rusted chunks of armour or a broken or discarded weapon are seen. Often the air seems to thrum with movement, though no one is there, and no natural breeze stirs the branches. Suddenly, the prospect of trouble does not seem so unlikely, and all shiver in the gloom, and Grigori finds himself unconsciously touching the vial, the contact with the cold metal seeming to remove some of the fear of the darkness and the shades of the forest.
21:38 – 21:40 - “FOOLISH TRAVELLERS! WHAT BRINGS YOU INTO THESE HALLOWED FORESTS AFTER THE DARKNESS HAS RISEN! FALL TO YOUR KNEES AND PRAY, FOR YOUR DOOM IS UPON YOU!”
The voice is deeply powerful, deafeningly loud and booms from all around the party. Everyone goes to grab their weapons, and it is at this point that the barbarian finds his beloved dundorin thundering blade is missing.
“HAHAHAHAHAH! FOOL! I HAVE YOUR WEAPON, AND WILL SHOW YOU HOW IT IS USED UNLESS YOU LEAVE ME TRIBUTE IN MAGIC AND THEN LEAVE THIS PLACE!”
At once, ahead, the Ulnyrr's prized weapon appears, floating and glowing as if wielded by an invisible hand. The air shimmers with power, and suddenly the trees all around the group are covered in pale ghostly flames – a casting recognised by some as faerie fire. Several members of the party begin to look around desperately, working desperately to pin point their attacker. Grigori however gives a slow smile and addresses their unseen foe.
“I'm not falling for this. Whoever you are show yourself, for I am calling you out!”
Many look at the priest as if he is mad. The voice responds at once.
“You can't do that... I mean... YOU CAN'T DO THAT MORTAL! SHIVER IN FEAR AND LEAVE ME TASTY TREATS AND ITEMS OF POWER, OR YOU SHALL BE TURNED INSIDE OUT AND WORN AS A HAT BY ME....A POWERFUL WOOD SPIRIT...OR SOMETHING....SERIOUSLY....”
The entire party go from concerned to annoyed. Seren calls up a sheet of flame and sends it streaking into the gloom, accompanied by a loudly declared and very colourful list of mutilations and infernal torments she will visit on the prankster. For a moment all is silent. Then Schnecke's axe drops to the floor, and a curious creature appears just beyond where is floated.
“I knew it! Faerie Dragon!” yells Grigori, a look of victory on his face.
It is about the size of a house cat, and is a small dracani. Bright pink with large butterfly like wings, it has small antennae where horns would be on a more usual dracani, and its face is very expressive. Its prehensile tail is wagging and it seems to be floating without needing to beat its wings, bobbing up and down as it thinks out loud.
“Well I'll be. He might look like a complete dufus, but actually, he's pretty sharp. Well, for a mortal anyway.”
The party don't know whether to be amused or horrified by this bizarre entity.
“What is your name spirit?” asks Grigori.
“Spirit? Wanker more like!” Adds Emmiven.
The faerie creature changes to a deep indigo, and flutters up to the warlord, sitting on Diabolus' head, between his ears. It points a tiny claw at Emmiven angrily as it declares its name to be GrigoriEmmivenHorseArse. It then points out that Emmiven's personal hygiene is outshone a thousandfold by his mounts, before turning invisible and reappearing sat on Seren's shoulders.
21:40 – 21:55 – Realising that the tiny fey's display will have probably caught the attention of many of the forests less savoury spirits, the group bid it farewell and move to continue their journey to Aramayne. However, GrigoriEmmivenHorseArse it seems, wishes to accompany them, and floats along side them informing them all in a loud voice of how they need its help, and how they will die – horribly – if he is not allowed to accompany them.
Realising that it will probably get bored before they arrive at their destination, the group ignore the tiny spirit, and continue to march towards the town.
21:55 – Torches glint between the trees, muted by the fogs, and the faerie dragon (who has not got bored and left the group) immediately vanishes from sight and grows silent.
21:57 – 22:05 – The group move carefully towards the torches, and spy a well made, stockade settlement ahead, its main gate facing north, watched over by two archer towers. Realising that this must be Aramayne, they decide to cautiously approach so as not to alarm the guards...
“HELLO MORTALS! ANYONE IN THERE? LET US IN OR FACE OUR TERRIBLE WRATH AND POOR PERSONAL HYGIENE!”
A loud oath is heard from the left hand tower, and a scratchy, pubescent voice, discordant and cracking, is heard twittering in a panic from the other. The entire group glare at the tiny fey, who is stood, once more, on the horses head (and is now scarlet, and covered in tiny rutilant flames), and then turn to address whoever is in the towers.
A spotty adolescent face appears over the wall of the left hand tower, a longbow shakily held before them like a warding rune, whilst the bearded and calm face of an older man appears above the walls of the other.
“Invaders father!” screeches the former.
“Be calm boy.” answers the latter, before he addresses the party. “Who approaches Aramayne uninvited after dark? And who has brought that tiny trickster too close for comfort?”
About to yell again, the faerie dragon halts as if frozen at the last part, before looking embarrassed for a moment and turning invisible (and thankfully silent).
“We are travellers from Irin, who seek a bed for the night in friendly surroundings.” replies Emmiven in a smooth and impossibly polite manner (much to the utter shock of his companions who are used to the warlord being a borish oaf). “The sprite has followed us, and is not a member of our troupe, though I cannot guarantee that it will not follow us into your home”.
“'Tis a little late to be expecting entry you know”, answers the man, “And Irin is but an hours march to the north. Can ye not turn about and come back once the greater sun is high. It is frowned upon for me to allow strangers into the town after dark.”
“A sound policy” replies Emmiven smiling, “but trust me, we have business in your town, and would not consider it a sign of hospitality or good manners if we were made to tromp through the dangerous tangles of the forest after dark.”
Silence, apart from the whickering of Diabolus and the thin, rapid breaths of the frightened boy in the tower.
“It would sadden me to think that I was responsible for our little town being seen badly by you city folk.” replies the older man with a nod, “so I shall open the gate and trust in my instincts, which tell me to trust you.”
“father, I don't...”
“Silence Gillem, we're letting them in!”
22:06 – 22:10 - The gates of Aramayne creak open, and the group enter the town.
Aramayne was destroyed during the aelwyn wars, and the group realise that it has been rebuilt in the few years since. The ground is still black with the ashes of the original town, and a large wooden carving, depicting a Unified Order assault mage, stands in the middle of the towns square, carved with an inspirational passage about sacrifice and rebuilding.
Varracuda shudders when he sees it.
Beyond the gate wait the two guards. Gillem is a lanky boy, awkward in his own skin and clumsy as a drunken ox. He regards the party with fear, especially when he sees Seren, and hides his horror at her warped appearance badly. Dalus, the older man, is in his late forties. A bearded, slender man, he wears simple clothes and has the tanned complexion of one who has worked long and hard in the outdoors. Calloused hands speak of physical labour, and still livid scars speak of combat and the ministrations of field sawbones in the last few years.
“Welcome, I am Dalus, and this is my son Gillem. You will find rooms at the Wending Way inn, just over the far side of the town”.
Dalus points across the main square to a long thatched building, from which echoes drimboley music and laughter. A woman in a nearby house yells at someone outside to keep the noise down, whilst a child cries within. Between the group and the inn are three townsfolk; two younger men, and one older man who's left arm is missing below the elbow. The two youngsters – well built and dressed in the same utilitarian clothing as Dalus and Gillem – seem angry, and are stalking over in the parties direction. The older man seems a little irritated, though it could be as easily due to the younger men's attitudes as anything the party have done.
“Oi!” yells one of the men, “What ye doin' leeting strangers in after dark Dalus? Have you gone stark raving mad?”
“Yeah!” Adds the second youngster.
Dalus gives the group an apologetic look and turns to face the men.
“Adalf, they are adventurer's from Irin who need our help in some noble endeavour, and they have tamed the prankster from the forest paths. I couldn't really turn them away for the spectres to feed on could I?”
Adalf doesn't seem convinced, along with his sidekick. He pushed past Dalus, and is about to start yelling at the party when a strong, even voice coming from the direction of the taverns bids him step aside. At first the group cannot see who has spoken, for the townsfolk with them block their view. However, the speaker obviously holds great authority in the town, for Adalf's bluster vanishes immediately, and he steps aside, shoving his sidekick brutally, allowing the newcomer to see the group, and to be seen by them.
He is a very well built man in his later thirties, dressed in a jerkin of armour underpadding and bearing a finely crafted broadsword in a shoulder mounted scabbard. His head is shaved, and he wears no beard. A faint scar – years old – curves around his head, but both of his eyes are clear and steady, each pale blue-green. As he moves towards the party they see him silently and swiftly appraising them; taking measure of their numbers, strengths and likely talents, the mark of a true warrior, and the group realise this is no mere woodsman, but a professional solider. The newcomer is flanked by two more townsfolk, who each carry a heavy oaken cudgel. However, he seems more annoyed at Adalf than anyone else, and demonstrates this by telling him to go home to his mother.
With the boy gone, the soldier turns to regard the group.
“I am Istan, guardian of Aramayne. Who do I have the honour of addressing?”
* * *
22:30 – 23:00 - The group sit in the smoky common room of the Wending Way, listening to the locals singing and laughing, and watching the priest engage in a game of dice with the locals (he returns afterwards a little angry, stating the locals cheated – utterly unaware that the fey dragon had cast an illusion onto the dice when he threw them, making them appear to have come up losing).
By way of an apology for the cold welcome, Istan has brought the group a round, supplemented by Emmiven who buys some strong sapwine shots and a small keg of Rivermead Gold. He smiles and a sense of camaraderie is conjured, unbidden between him and the group.
“So, what brings you to Aramayne?” he asks, taking a sip of his ale.
“You do.” answers Jaeger.
Istan's face drops and he subtly changes his position, ready, if necessary, to move quickly and take up arms.
“Be at peace,” continues the assassin, noting the shift, “if we wanted you dead, you would be feeding the crows right now. We come to you to seek aid in some business we have with your former master, Darius Valde.”
At mention of the moneylenders name, Istan goes pale. He seems about to speak, but has to compose himself.
Then, after a moment. “You are from the House of Killers I take it? I noticed the way you move and the slight staining on your fingers from using poisons. You seek to end Darius?”
Everyone tenses, understanding that this could horribly wrong.
“We do.” replies Jaeger, “And we need your help to do this.”
Tension mounts in the suddenly too hot tavern as Jaeger's words fade. Istan rubs a nervous hand over his head and face, and sits back on his stool, tears clearly beading his eyes. As he leans back, Jaeger notices he wears a necklace hung about with about twenty sets of spider fangs. He gives a broken laugh, and sitting forwards suddenly swipes up a sapwine shot and necks it. Gritting his teeth against the burn of the liquor, he meets Jaeger's gaze and replies.
“Darius, as far as I know is already dead my friend. That...thing...that wears his form is no longer the man I admired and fought besides since we were children. If you intend to end the monster that lurks in his skin, then I am only too happy to help you.”
A collective breath is released by the party, and Istan, trembling, begins to tell them a tale of a close friendship invaded by an unknown something, and the corrosion of a once great man into something less than, and yet somehow more than, his previous self.