WORK IN PROGRESS:
The moon hung high over Orlane, and cast barely a light over the small, quiet village behind the clouds that gathered around it. Stars flickered here and there, but such a cloudy night left much of the town veiled in night. The few that were out carried with them lanterns, while the occasional house burned candles and lamps that floated in the inky darkness of the evening. Many members of the party felt uneasy in the darkness of the small town. Moira and Trisoll had both grown up in the almost non-stop buzz of urban life in Greyhawk, and the Twins knew the darkness here and there from adolescent adventures but had always been comforted by a pair of loving parents through such ominous hours. It was Lyssa though, who knew this kind of darkness far too well. That darkness that concealed the sight but seemed to silence as well, taking away the joy or pain from a village and leaving it mute. Much of her youth in Bayerton had been blanketed in this foreboding darkness, and yet even in womanhood, nights like these still felt unsettling.
Vetnik, though accustomed to harsh isolated environments, had still grown up in a kingdom full of family and servants. With a brave face and alert senses, he had separated himself from the rest of the pack and journeyed north into town. Across a small bridge stood yet another inn, much more humble in presence. Outside, a slender old woman stood lighting the last of her lanterns. Above her hung the sign for the Inn of the Slumbering Serpent: a red dragon whose tired, content head rested on its paws. The old woman blew out her wick and turned to see the ironclad barbarian, his coal black armor and thick blonde beard hiding a gentle countenance. She pulled her thin lips taught together as she smiled, her rosy cheeks rising up to her gentle old eyes. Vetnik smiled back and gentled nudged his steed forward and continued closer towards the inn.
”Hello, traveler! You can lash your horse up to the posts here if you wish.” the old woman beckoned as Vetnik neared the inn. From atop his horse, Vetnik took a quick look at the nearby structures. Closest to the inn stood a sturdy farmhouse, whitewashed with candles visibly burning in the windows. Further north stood a less than impressive sight, a well-built farmhouse with boarded doors and windows with a barn in similar neglect. Returning his eyes to the old woman, Vetnik began to dismount and lead his horse closer to the inn on foot.
”Evening, milady,” Vetnik greeted as he slid off his helmet and bowed his head.
”It’s quite late, good sir knight. Come inside, and unwind. My name is Belba. My husband and I own this inn.”
”Many thanks for the hospitality, good woman. How long have you and your husband been in business?”
”We aren’t the oldest in town, but we pride ourselves on being the best,” Belba replied with genuine enthusiasm. ”Would you care for your drink outside or in?” Belba continued, admiring the coordinating armor of adorning himself and his horse, ”We’re more than happy to accommodate someone of your station. Your raiment shows you to be a man of good deeds and honor!”
Vetnik smiled and nodded, overcome by the old woman’s warmth. He continued to lead his horse closer and bound the reigns at the post. Together, Belba gently led the cavalier into the inn.
Inside, Vetnik was met with quite the contrast from his brief visit to Orlane’s other lodge, the Golden Grain Inn. Three fireplaces roared and warmed the cozy common area, and while the volume of patrons was meager for the evening, their discussion was lively and apparently quite humorous (if not a little blue.) A bar stood off to the side, and above it across a wall of empty casks hung a sign of prices more reasonable for tourists and locals alike. The air of the space left Vetnik feeling at ease for the first time since arriving in Orlane (even the paranoid tension at Nowell Graven’s place made for uneasy hospitality at times.) ”A fine lodge you and your husband keep. How many other guests are here?”
”A few this evening,” Belba informed as she tidied up, ”not a full house, only a few.”
”How many beds?”
”Oh, well, there are a pair of rooms available now. One double and another can fit three. And if you’re willing to share a room, stranger, well I’m sure we could offer you a discounted rate.”
Vetnik continued to study the room. Both men sat with their mugs of ale and continued to alternate between hushed debates about “road women” and boisterous laughter. Behind the bar in a nearby kitchen, Vetnik could hear the sounds of routine: dishes being dunked in water, silverware and cups clanging together. ”You said you’ve been here long?”
”Longer than the Golden Grain Inn?”
Belba cheerful disposition relaxed at the sound of the aforementioned inn, but she remained upbeat. ”No, but what we lack in age we make up for in service!”
Vetnik nodded and smiled at her once more, relieved to find someone so welcoming. ”You seem quite… genuine.”
”So nice of you to say,” Belba replied, her smile still wholly fixed across her face. ”Now, can I get you that drink, Sir Knight?”
”Some water’ll do.”
Belba slipped behind the bar as Vetnik perched his heavy armored frame upon a barstool and set his helmet onto the seat beside him. Belba retrieved a metal pitcher of cool river water and poured the knight a cup and gently rested it in front of him. “I’m not from around here, obviously. I do always like to here tales of the town,” Vetnik said before taking a sip.
“I don’t like to gossip, but business has been down,” Belba divulged, her smile now more relaxed as she spoke, -“not everyone is as welcoming as they once were. I don’t like to speak ill, but it isn’t the same. Can I get you something to eat?”_
“No,” Vetnik replied as he pushed his cup forward for a refill, ”but do tell me, who has been unkind?”
“Oh, well, not to us personally, but… Oralne is not as welcoming as it once was.”
“Did you notice… do you feel like this happened along with something?”
“Oh no no, it was a slow decline.”
From the kitchen, an older man emerged with a cup of wine in hand. His entrance seemed to divert the pleasant innkeeper’s attention from Vetnik. Belba waved the man over and was visibly eager to introduce him to Vetnik. ”Good knight, this is my husband Ollwin!” Ollwin was a slender and aged man, moreso than his kindly wife. The one youthful black and his beard had nearly entirely greyed. As he approached Vetnik, the deep brown orbs that sat recessed underneath thin, tired lids and bushy pepper-colored brows beamed with excitement.
As he inspected and admired Vetnik’s char-black armor, he began: ”Oh my, a knight in our fair inn! How good to have you, sir! It’s been quite awhile since one stepped foot in Orlane, let alone our humble lodge, and of such stature. May I interest you in the last of our house special?”
”No, your wife has been most kind to keep my cup full though.” Vetnik declined politely.
Belba smiled back at her husband, who continued to be in a quiet, boyish awe of Vetnik. She patted Ollwin on the shoulder and continued to watch the men’s exchange.
”Do you have a name, good sir knight?” Ollwin asked.
”Tret,” Vetnik replied, recalling his alias advised to him by the Black brothers.
”Tret! Your armor is so unique, what order do you answer to?” Ollwin continued to pry.
Vetnik took another sip of water and smiled. Without hesitation or hint of dishonesty, he responded, ”The Order of the Wolf.”
Ollwin smiled back and extended his hands forward, unable to contain his admiration any further. ”I welcome you, sir knight! If you like any food or drink, let me extend a discount worthy of your station!” Belba kissed her preoccupied husband on the cheek and nodded at Vetnik to excuse herself as she tended to the other patrons of the bar. Ollwin continued, ”I must finish cleaning in the back, but if there’s anything you need for the night—“
Vetnik sipped the last of his water and set his cup aside. Standing, with his helmet under hand, he stood at the bar for one final pleasantry. ”Much appreciated. Good eve to you sir, and your sweet wife as well. I must be on my way though.”
”No room for the night then?” Ollwin asked.
”Not now, but many thanks.”
Belba returned from the tables of the common area to see Vetnik off, sharing in her husband’s disappointed expression. ”Well, if you need one Sir Tret, I’ll leave the bell out. Just ring it at any time and I will be down to greet you!”
Vetnik tipped his head at their servitude and placed his helmet back on, which seemed to only incite more wonder in the kindly innkeepers. Vetnik shot them a parting smile and made his way back to his steed.
In the East of Orlane, the rest of the party from Greyhawk gathered together off the path, in front of a small but polished cottage, per Grum’s enthusiastic beckoning. Whomever continued to live there made sure to keep up appearances, as the exterior maintained a fresh coat of white wash and the gardens surrounding seemed to be fruitful. Through the thick linen of one window’s curtains, the party could see the faint glow of a lantern burning. Grum waited eagerly for their next move, while Thom, Trisoll, and Moira reasoned whether or not to pay the house a visit. Lyssa, in her usual way, stayed back and aloof.
”They might make for good allies,” Thom reasoned to the group, ”if they are elves. I imagine a Naga would have a helluva time trying to charm them, not to mention they’d probably be older and might have seen more.”
”Then let me make the first move,” Moira interjected. The group collectively shot a look of dubiety towards the paladin. She leaned in closer to the twins, and began to reason, ”Would you rather I do it, or an ill-tempered mage?” The twins and Trisoll shrugged and conceded, while her remark elicited a noticeable eye roll from Lyssa. ”Listen, my armor marks my station as a paladin clear as day. Any one who knows of paladins knows the company they’re permitted to keep. Let me talk to them, Cortox knows the people of this town are nervous enough as it is!” The party shrugged in agreement and together, under the cover of night, followed Moira up towards the quiet little cottage. Lyssa, however, stayed back with the mounts and cart. Her interest in mingling with small town strangers had dried up, and so she stayed with the horses and immersed herself in the small, bound-leather book as if reading at night for her was no chore. The book itself was the only one in her possession, and it stood to reason that despite the lack of light, she had already read the volume cover to cover countless times over.
”If we do find them to be worthwhile allies, then I say we drop our pretense. Better to start off on the right foot” Moira suggested as they entered the front yard.
”We could,” Thom hesitated. ”Or perhaps, we keep our names and we feel it out, let them know of our true mission and see how it unfolds.”
”It’s just that… if we hope to strengthen alliances within Orlane, I feel we should be as open and transparent as we can be.” Moira responded, whispering as they neared the cottage porch.
”Paladin, your nobility is refreshing. But with all do respect, my family and I have been at these sort of intrigues for quite awhile now and there’s a time and place for honesty!” Thom continued to debate.
”Hey,” Trisoll spoke up in his usually relaxed manner, ”how about we do what makes us feel comfortable?”
Grum interjected, wary of such a plan of action (or lack thereof), ”Yeah, and if you tell the truth then we have to tell the truth!”
”I just don’t understand the value in lying to people we want to befriend!” Moira continued, trying to reason the virtue in deception. ”How would they even know if we’re from Greyhawk?”
Thom turned around as the party stepped together onto the front porch, and with a hushed and unusually firm tone, he explained, ”Here’s why: if they know anything about us personally, they know how to hurt us personally. That’s how Kr’zzt came for our families, I don’t ever want to have to experience that same kind of torment!”
The rest of the party shuddered at the very mention of the wicked Drow’s name. Moira looked into Thom’s eyes, which even in the dark of night, glistened with a hint of tearful intensity. She bowed her head and conceded to the half-elf, and with their squabble put to rest, Moira moved to the front of the group and gently knocked on the simple wooden door. After a few moments, a set of thin fingers jerked the curtain away from the door’s glass insert. From behind it, a pair of thin, almond-shape eyes surveyed Moira and the others behind her before a voice called out. “What do you want?”
Moira smiled and replied in a soft, gentle voice, ”Hello! My companions and don’t mean to disturb, but do you have a moment to talk?” She titled the holy medallion dangling around her neck closer towards the glass insert, as if to show off her rank.
”I see your sigil, but I’m unfamiliar with it,” the man’s voice barked from behind the door.
”Yes, it’s the symbol of Cortox. The one true god!”
The man from behind the door audibly scoffed, but continued to entertain her, ”Hmph. Will you vouch for the men in your company then, paladin?”
Slowly, the door creaked open. As it did, Moira and the others could see a traces of a dimly-lit parlor, humbly decorated and brightened with low-burning candles. From behind the door, a small man of slender build and modest dress appeared. In the glow of the candlelit room, they could make out the long extended point of his ears with sandy hair tucked behind them. He was most certainly elf, a full-blooded one at that! Thom and Trisoll bowed as the elf stepped onto the porch. He waved away their formal greeting and quickly lead the party inside. In the candlelit parlor, another full-blooded elf sat quietly in a corner of the room, book in hand and glasses fixed to the bridge of his nose. His hair was blonde, but considerably ashier and thinner than the other elf, which gave him a more mature appearance. The walls of the home were lined with shelves of books, journals, and elven ceramics and bronzes. On a low wooden table, a simple wooden platter rested with an assortment of fruits and elven treats, while a pair of cups filled with hot tea steamed in the candlelight.
”Brother,” the younger elf began, ”this is a paladin of the Cortoxian faith, and her companions.”
The bespectacled elf looked over Moira and her party and, pursing his lips, lowered his eyes back down into his book.
”He is Llywillan, my brother. I am Dorian. You must excuse us, but it’s not often we receive visitors, especially ones from outside of Orlane.”
”I am,” Moira began, forcing herself to abide by their shared intrigue, ”I am Mary. These are my escorts, Tom Blade, Grun, and Mark.”
Llywillan gently lowered his book and rested it on the arm of his chair, making sure to keep the book separated at his stopping point. ”You have our audience, paladin. What is it you want at this hour?”
Moira steeled herself, and with upbeat resolve, she answered, ”We have made some discoveries about your village.”
”Oh? What might those be?”
”What do you know of the Golden Grain Inn?”
Llywillan paused, his mouth slightly open and struggling to mine a response. He leaned in closer, and with an earnest tone, asked, ”A better question, milady, is what do you know of that inn?”
”They’re a bunch of cunts, that’s for sure,” Thom chimed in jokingly. ”Food’s so bad it’ll put you down!”
Worry crossed the younger elf’s face while the elder stayed suspended in suspicion. ”Not what we were expecting. Did you stay?” Dorian asked.
Thom continued, doing his best to remain pleasant amidst the increasing severity of the parlor. ”Heh, well no. I fear if we had we might not have awoken!”
”What else about the Golden Grain Inn did you find inhospitable?” Llywillan asked intently.
”The list of offenses could go on, good sirs,” Thom continued. ”Tell us though, have either of you heard of travelers visiting the inn and not returning?”
The wariness of the Orlanian elves had fully shifted into curiosity. Dorian took a seat while his brother relaxed in his, taking off his glasses and resting them upon a nearby table. He smirked in disbelief as he stood, approaching Thom and the others. ”We’ve heard quite a bit. Tell us though, what else did you find there?”
_”Signs that whoever was running the place might be up to no good? The patrons there were, well, they weren’t terribly interested in being courteous. We found odd things, secret doors, poisoned traps, a maze of tunnels, and some wretched stew!”
Llywillan and Dorian were silent for a moment, taking in the bizarre string of information. Thom and his company stood together, unsure of what mood to make of things. After a few moments of awkward stares and silence, Llywillan’s lips began to relax. ”Heh,” he began with a throaty chuckle, ”hahahaha!” Thom and the others returned the laugh, though still unsure of what to make of the brothers. Llywillan stood and sauntered towards the party, a slight smile forming across his face. ”And tell me, halfblood. How did you and your friends manage to make it through the inn so easily?”
”We have our ways, and our ways are our business,” Grum spoke up, offended by the very term “halfblood.” ”Arrows pointed at people’s heads seem to make them more compliant.”
Llywillan laughed off the young half-elf’s aggressive tone, patting him on the shoulder before moving towards a bookshelf. Perusing a series of self-made journals, he pulled one out and began to thumb through it as he continued to address the party. “We’re pretty sure a cult here in Orlane, working to control the minds of the villagers, including two clerics at the temple of Merikka just north of here.” He sets the journal down, face open to a series of dates and notes scribbled in elven across the pages. ”My apologies to you and your companion, we should have been quicker to trust our own,” Llywillan said, approaching the party once more.
“Understandable,” Thom replied, accepting the apology on both he and his still-perturbed brother. ”There’s quite a bit of madness going on here, we honestly didn’t expect this much hospitality.”
”You’re brothers, yes? Dorian and I are brothers too, we’ve been here a short while doing what we can to find out whatever’s been going on here in Orlane. By ourselves, we’re quite stealthy, but we aren’t the warriors we once were. It’s good to have you lot here.”
”My companions and I will do what we can while we’re here. That said, is anywhere in Orlane safe?”
Llywillan reached down at the table towards the platter of edibles. Taking up an apple for himself, he tossed a pynade at the scowling Grum. Grum looked it over reluctantly at first, but shrugged his disposition away as he dined on the tasty snack. Dorian stood and held the tray out before the rest of the party, who graciously picked on the freshly made honey cakes and pynades as well. ”The Inn of the Slumbering Serpent, if you’d believe it,” Llywillan answered, swallowing a piece of chewed apple. ”That place is clean, and run by good people. They’ll take care of you.”
”It’s quite refreshing to meet fullbloods who don’t look down upon us with such disdain,” Grum exclaimed with sweets still full in his mouth.
_”Oh, have you been to Celene then?” Lllywillan joked, he and his brother chuckling at the very idea. Grum paused and furrowing his brow once more.
Thom quickly began to change the subject, their visit to Enstad still a dour spot in the group’s collective memory. ”Do you know of a man named Gelnar?”
”Why yes, but he’s not been seen for quite some time!” Dorian responded. ”We’ve feared the worst.”
”Rest easy, he is the man who sent for us,” Thom revealed. The elven brothers sighed in mutual relief. ”Corellon’s favor is surely upon that one!” Llywillan cheered. ”Is he well?”
”As well as a man who had his journey can be. Fret not, though. He is safe!” Thom replied. ”And once we find the Naga that has somehow cast a stranglehold of your fair village, rest assured Orlane will be safe once more!”
”Naga?!” the elven brothers questioned, doing their best to stifle their excitement.
”Yes, well, perhaps,” Thom began to explain. ”We found a statue in one of the tunnels beneath the Golden Grain Inn.”
”It’s so much clearer now,” Llywillan murmured to himself.
”Truth be told, it’s why my brother and I were so anxious to meet with you,” Thom continued. ”We knew if anyone would have a chance in a village besieged by some wicked charm, it’d be a coupla elves!”
”You were right to do so!” Llywillan exclaimed. ”Dare I say, boy, you and your friends may have indeed delivered us the missing piece of this entire puzzle!”
Suddenly, a hearty knock rumbled the front door. Together, the party and their hosts seized up, unsure of who could be paying them such a forceful visit!
”Did anyone else come with you?!” Dorian nervously whispered.
”Yes, but that’s not her knock,” Moira replied, just as anxiously. Llywillan quickly stood and drew the longsword from behind his chair. He rushed to the door with the blade balanced behind his back and peered through the curtain.
”It’s… it’s a knight,” Llywillan reported back, ”a rather large one from what I can make out. In blackened armor, trimmed with pelt—“
”Vetnik!” Moira proclaimed as she stood. ”He’s our companion, he’s one of us!” Trisoll and the twins glanced at each other with a mischievous glint in their eyes as Moira approached the door. Llywillan backed away and made way for the lady.
”You best be sure of it!” he ordered, his blade still hanging from his hand. Moira quickly opened the door and, sure enough, Vetnik stood waiting. Their eyes met, and Vetnik smirked. ”May I?”
Moira rushed the cavalier in, wherein he towered over the elven hosts in his black barbarian armor. He warmly extending his gauntleted hand towards the suspicious Llywillan, who reluctantly lowered his blade and rested it against a nearby mantel. ”Vetnik Talthraudii, Earl of Granrud. Your hospitality is appreciated.”
”Llywillan,” he replied, shaking his hand, ”you’re quite an imposing sight.” Vetnik smiled and snickered back, while Llywillan took up his blade and returned it to its sheath behind his seat.
”It’s getting late,” Thom began to speak up once more. ”We ought to be on our way. Thank you though, for everything. We’ll do what we can to keep you posted.”
”Aye, and we shall return the courtesy,” Llywillan nodded from his seat, saluting him with his bitten apple.
Dorian rose from his seat and approached the party, raising his palms up as he closed in. ”Let me offer you this, before you go.” The party looked at Dorian and his brother curiously. Llywillan nodded his head silently and bit once more into his apple. The party turned back to face Dorian, who stood by waiting for their blessing. Thom prudently nodded his back head at Dorian, giving him the go-ahead for whatever it was the elf wished to bestow upon them. Dorian smiled back and closed his eyes. Softly, he began to speak in his native elven tongue. The party waited patiently, with some (like Trisoll) closing their eyes to take in the quiet ritual. Embers of golden light began to materialized around the elf’s open hands, floating together to form glowing rings of elven symbols. The candles danced and flickered as he chanted, and suddenly the party could feel the air surrounding them warm up, while a garden of herbaceous notes (basil, cinnamon, violets, and juniper) filled and flavored their palates. An elven sigil flashed beneath their feet, much to their awe, and quickly disappeared along with the glowing symbols and strong, pleasing scent. ”There,” Dorian said in common, opening his eyes and smiling back at the party. Many of the members recognized the incantation to be a protection ritual. They nodded and bowed graciously at the elven brothers, and Dorian showed them out.
The group walked briskly back to the beaten path, where Lyssa waited in the cart, her book still open and her attention elsewhere. ”Come along,” Moira spoke, ”we must be off.” Lyssa clasped her book shut, rolling her eyes as she did so. She climbed out of the cart and, along with the rest of the group, took to her mount and continued onward. This time, Thom (whose night vision was only matched by his brother’s) and Vetnik (who had already ridden the same path) led the way. Together, they came upon path leading up to a house set further back from the road than any other structure. The clouds moved across the sky and, for a moment, the moon brightened the shadowy town. Beyond a pair of towering elms, the large structure seemed to glisten as moonlight glided over it: freshly whitewashed walls almost glowed, while wooden shingles — each one stained in rich-looking golden color — and thick wooden columns carved with leaflike latticework only added to the opulence. The windows glowed an amber hue, and signaled to the party that whomever occupied this home was still awake. Curious, Grum leapt off his horse and darted up the path, much to the surprise (and in some instances, chagrin) of the party.
As Grum dashed down the pathway, he could hear something heavy fall behind him. He skidded to a halt and looked around. Laying in the center of the road was one of his own blades, which had fallen out of a loose holster in mid-dash. Grum kneeled down to pick it up and as he stood back up, he could see a small figure carrying a lantern, standing on the wide front porch of the house. It was a young girl. Together, Grum and the child’s eyes stayed locked for a moment. ”Shit!” Grum muttered to himself angrily.
”AAAAAIIIIEEEEE!” the young girl cried out with a wretchedly-sharp pitch.
”Shit, shit, shit!” Grum quickly fastened his blade back into his holster, looked around, and with nowhere but the road and the trees to go, leaped into the shadows provided by the great elms nearest to him. He maintained perfect stillness and listened as men burst out of the front door. One man shushed the child and carted her away, while the others continued running down the path towards the road. He counted three men, their ringmail, swords, and shields clanging with every hurried footstep. Grum lowered his hood and relaxed himself against the trunk of the elm, steeling his body into complete motionlessness. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see one of his hunters: a young man, barely into manhood, brandishing a broadsword. His lean body outfitted with a uniform and armor he’d not yet grown into. A second man approached, outfitted similar armor though much older and thicker than the young lad, with thin grey-taupe hair and a heavy, weathered brow. Just inches away from Grum, he barked at the lad, ”tell yer father the girl must’ve been seein’ things. Get her to bed!”
”Yessir!” the young man responded before jogging back towards the house. The older man looked around once more, pointing his broadsword into the seemingly-empty shadows beneath the elm trees. Satisfied that nothing was there, he sheathed his blade and stomped back up to the house, unbuckling his chest plate as he walked. Grum slowly peeked back from behind the tree trunk and, with a the lawn clear, bolted back to the road.
Without missing a beat, Grum leaped back atop his horse in mid-trot, and continued on with the rest of the party as if nothing happened. The others, meanwhile, seemed to be in quiet discussion regarding their presence in Orlane:
“I don’t like an evil priest,” Trisoll declared. “The worship of Merikka isn’t something I find particularly useful for my day-to-day life, but she’s a respectable goddess with a good-natured dogma. Shame for it to be perverted the way it has been here in Orlane. So long as I can restore to honor to her and her faithful, I feel like I’m in the right place.”
“Likewise,” Moira agreed.
Vetnik flexed and slapped his bicep in solidarity. The eagerness between the three of them seemed to only annoy the visibly exasperated Lyssa, who yawned in lieu of a biting retort. Riding past the Golden Grain Inn, the party collectively tensed up, tightening their hands around the reigns of their horses. Outside, local officers had surrounded the inn. Lanterns moved throughout the windows (some of which remained broken thanks to earlier altercations.) A pair of constables and what appeared to be a robed cleric were overheard from the front porch, discussing what manner of magic was used to bar the front door shut. The party did their best to keep their eyes forward, but from their periphery they could see the constables stare down the party as they passed.
”It’s only a matter of time before they come for us,” Thom whispered to his companions.
As the party approached the small wooden bridge overlooking the thin but deep stream cutting through town, Vetnik called out to the front of the party,”Grum, can you find us another path to the inn? Something less… visible?”
”I’ll do what I can.” He motioned to the rest of the party to follow him off the beaten path, through the grassy field the lined the river. In the distance, Grum spotted an old mill house, with its water wheel still churning through the water. Behind the house were two small, rocky banks that met at the closest distance, damming up the great lake in the center of town. While the rocky gap was only a small jump away, the leap seemed to make much of the party nervous. That is, except Vetnik, who charged ahead and with leaped across with grace and swiftness. Vetnik waited, still seated upon his horse, while Trisoll and the twins followed. Together, they carefully leading their horses across the craggy gap with little disturbance. Moira was next, and she was quite nervous. Fearing her bulky armor might hamper her attempt, she moved at a much more cautious pace than the men before her. As Moira guided her equally nervous horse across, she noticed its hooves begin to stumble. The horse struggled to gain its footing, and in doing so, knocked Moira off the bank as it reached steady land. Moira crashed against the rocks and slid down into the river. She panicked, realizing the armor adorning her body only hindered her ability to stay afloat. As she struggled to stay above water, she could feel the river seep underneath her armor and begin to pull her down. Vetnik jumped down off his horse while the others rushed to the edge of the bank, reaching out for the sinking paladin as she splashed around, gasping for air. The current of the river coupled with the churning mill and weight of her garb looked as if it was to prove to be Moira’s undoing. She thrashed around under the water, and did what she could to quickly remove the armor adorning her body, but panic quickly began to take over. Sinking deeper and deeper, she reached down and did her best to begin unbuckling her greaves when, all of a sudden, she could feel a pressure rise in her gut. Some unseen force from within began to pull her upwards. Underwater, her body relaxed and she moaned at the familiar feeling. It was a force she’d felt only hours ago, back at the Golden Grain Inn. To the shock of the rest of the party, Moira slowly began to float upwards out of the river. At the opposite bank, the saw Lyssa standing beside her horse, her eyes aglow, guiding the paladin back up to shore. Moira snapped out of her watery daze and reached out to the rocky bank. Trisoll and Vetnik extended their arms and helped guide her back onto dry land while Lyssa quietly escorted her and her horse across with ease.
“Thank you Lyssa,” Moira said, struggling to catch her breath while also hesitant to acknowledge the kindness shown. ”I appreciate the help.”
“Fine. Come along,” Lyssa responded in her usually guileless way, ”Let’s just keep moving. I’m tired.”
Vetnik helped the soaking-wet paladin back up to her feet. “Of course,” she responded carefully, returning to her horse.
In the mill, stuff is scattered. A family lives in another wing of the building. Lyssa and Moira continue along and Vetnik speeds ahead to prepare their rooms. He comes and rings the bell and is greeted by Olin. “It’s the knight, dear.”
Belba comes down.
“Yes, a bunch of my companions seek beds for the night.”
“Oh dear, I only have room for 5.”
“No worries, I’ll stay awake and let you all rest.”
Belba scampers upstairs and prepares the rooms with new linens and things. Vetnik ties the horse to the post.
”Well, as long as no one here tries to kill me I’ll be fine.” Lys.
They see Vetnik sitting alone in the common area. Belba comes down to greet the party. “Hello! Your rooms are ready.”
“You are a vision” at Moira. “And so impressive.”
“Stop, thank you!” the dripping wet Moira bashful.
The twins separate into their room. The girls and Trisoll together. “Tris, turn around.” she orders as Moira undresses. Her body is a perfect 10. Trisoll inches but keeps his honor. Lyssa glares at him and he blushes. “Pathetic.” she mutters.
“You’re fine now. I’m going to turn in now. Again Lyssa, I genuinely thank you. Good night.” she lays down. Trisoll looks to the both of them and sighs with relief. “Goodnight.” Lyssa stays up, reading spells.
Thom refreshes on his spells and works to identify his loot: a shield and a trio of vials. Grum works out, doing push ups and crunches before taking a watch.
Vetnik stays in the common room. Lyssa, unable to sleep, she enters the common. Vetnik offers her some tea. “would you care to have some tea.”
Lyssa silently sits and receives the tea. “Are you going for a stroll.”
“No, I… I couldn’t sleep.”
“What troubles you?”
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“I’m misunderstood is more like it. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
“Do you always have trouble sleeping?”
“I think we’ll be ok as long as you keep your temper under control.”
“Sometimes your actions can be much for certain situations.”
“Certain actions call for certain severity.”
“I came from a cold hard land, where my father commanded me to earn his love and respect.”
“What do you think is going on at the other inn?”
“I don’t know.”
Thom comes down to see Vetnik and Lyssa having a civil discussion. He lets it be, greets them politely. Thom pats Vetnik and tags him out. Thom is silently scribing in his journal. Lyssa quietly leaves and heads out of the inn. Lyssa walks back through the path across the empty bridge towards the GGI. Cutting across the bridge, she saunters past the secondary building and nears the GGI and sees the front door barred and enters. Inside, a night watch is startled and orders her out.
Lyssa finally returned to the Golden Grain Inn and found the crowd that gathered outside had retired for the evening (but made sure to bar the front door shut with a piece of red fabric nailed to the frame, meant to dissuade intruders or squatters from entering.) A parchment from the mayor’s office denouncing the inn as a habitable place for the time being hung from a nail above it. Lyssa creeped up the stairs and waved away the red ribbon with a flick of her wrist and a flash of her red eyes as she approached. As the ribbon tore itself from the frame, the door unlocked itself and slowly swung open. Inside she could see the faint halo of light from a lantern in the common area. She continued to creep down the foyer and closer towards the light in the commons, wherein she saw an unexpected sight. Reclined on the very same blood-stained bench, where only hours ago a man had been slain, a constable was seated. Instead of fleeing at the sight of the slacking constable, Lyssa stood and waited for a moment, watching him as he tried to adjust and recline against the rigid wooden table. Suddenly, the door slammed itself shut! The constable awoke in an instant, darting his head around the poorly lit common area in search of the disturbance. Standing at the edge of the darkness before him, his eyes focused on freckled waif. ”Wha… what… you can’t be in here! Can’t you read?”
“I suppose not,” Lyssa dryly replied. The constable shot up off from his post and quickly began to approach. Lyssa stretched out her open hand and gazed into his rheum-crusted eyes, and as he neared, began to intone a spell of charm. Her confidence quickly waned as the man continued his approach and unsheathed his short sword. Her enchanted words failed to enchant, and before she could finish, he swung his blade at her. Lyssa was quick on her feet though and swiftly stepped aside. ”That wasn’t terribly bright of you,” she scolded and as the constable readied himself for another swing, she did her best to grab him by the neck. The constable hastily jerked back away from her and in response, swung his blade low with a heavy slash. ”AHHHHH!” Lyssa screamed out as she fell back against the wooden floor, clenching her hip with her hands. On the ground she could feel the flesh around her hip sting and tear with every spasm. Lyssa could feel beneath her palms the loosely torn flesh and fat of her upper thigh under her thin linen skirt. Blood colored his blade and as she lifted her hands from her hip, she could see the white of her skirt was now fully colored in the same hue. An unfamiliar sense of panic shot through the young mage with an intensity never felt before. She looked up from her hacked thigh to see the constable quickly approaching, his blade ready for another swing. Her eyes seethed with magical energy and, before he could bring his blade back down, fire began to gather in the bloody palm of her hand. She wailed as she sent forth a stream of flame from her hand. The torrent of fire engulfed the constable and set his tunic ablaze; despite the fires, he was determined and took a second swing but the pain of immolation was too much to bear. As the fires continued to cling to the fabric of his uniform, Lyssa maintained her furious pose. She extinguished her flames, and in their place, summoned a sphere of choking black smog that enveloped and invaded every hole in his head.
Back at the Inn of the Slumbering Serpent, Grum awoke alone in his room. Garments of armor and thin armor laid strewn about the floor around his bed (a stark contrast to the well-maintained order of his brother’s side of the room.) He sat up, messied back his thin, dark hair, and massaged the sleep from his eyes all in an attempt to wake. It was the first bed he’d slept in in weeks, and the simple cotton-and-down mattress felt like the luxe in comparison to the swamps, caves, and dungeons he’d spent a month in. Slowly meandered about the room in search of clothing. He slipped a simple tunic over his thin, sinewy torso and over that slung his quiver of arrows over his shoulder. He struggled to slip his boots on and after a moment of struggle, tossed them aside and descended back down into the common area in bare feet. The creaking wood of the steps underneath his feet broke Thom of his concentration momentarily. Thom sat alone in the common area scribing and scribbling in his journal in the dim glow of still-burning fireplaces and lanterns. A tea set sat in front of him untouched, as he had spent his watch wrapped up recounting the details of his day in Orlane. Grum yawned as he reached the bottom of the steps and saw his brother with his face and pen buried in the pages of his journal. ”Brother,” Grum spoke up, patting his brother on the shoulder, ”time to get some rest.” He looked down and snuck a peak at his brother’s latest entry: the trio of Ghouls that haunted the tunnels beneath the Golden Grain Inn, and the glowing radius of light that Moira summoned to turn them. Grum slid the quiver off his shoulder and plopped it onto the table beside Thom’s set up. Thom hurriedly bound his journal closed and gathered his writing tools back into his sack. _”You sure you’ll be alright, brother?” Thom asked, gathering the last of his things. Grum cocked his tired head and lifted his quiver of arrows as a wordless acknowledgement. ”Heh. See you in the morning then.” Grum silently tilted his head goodnight and maintained his voicelessness as he began to take out his bastard flint and an arrow from his quiver. ”By the way, Lyssa is went for a walk or something, I’m not entirely sure. If she doesn’t return by shift’s end, we’ll have to adjust the watch.” Grum shrugged as Thom made his exit, unbothered by the mage’s absence or possible shift in duties, and continued to concentrate on sharpening the edges of his broadheads in silence.
The constable collapsed to the ground, swatting at the relentless smoke in vain. Lyssa struggled to hold on as the blood continued to rush out of her leg and felt it pool beneath her thighs. With tear-blurred vision and shaky hands, she managed to tear a piece of her blood stained skirt off and fashion it into a binding tourniquet. Her hands a mix of blood and sweat, they trembled as they rummaged through her side pocket. Buried at the bottom, she felt the coolness of a small metal flask. As quick as she could, she pulled it out, uncorked the cap, and downed the healing elixir inside as fast as she could. She voraciously chugged at the flask, drawing every last drop of potion out that she could. She could feel the surging blood in her leg slow and the meat and flesh of her thigh quickly begin to rethread with every gulp. Drawing the final drop, Lyssa saw that her leg had healed, and while the effects of blood loss still left her shaky, she could finally stand again. She tossed the flask aside and rolled over onto her knees, drawing a dagger from her holster as she rose. With a heavy limp, Lyssa shambled over to the choking constable. As he stayed curled up on all fours like a whimpering dog, Lyssa moved in and began to mount him. The thick black smoke parted as she pressed the entirety of her weight onto him. Her hair cascading down her face and down onto his, she plunged her dagger deep into the back of his neck. Lyssa stayed heavy on his back and held the dagger firmly in place as his body jerked with every death rattle. As his body stilled she jerked the dagger out and rolled off of him. As she withdrew her blade, the body turned over and revealed a face marred by smoke and fire. Beside him, she sat with chattering teeth as her heart raced and did its best to return the blood back to her shivering body. She searched his corpse casually, finding nothing of value but a crossbow fixed to his side, a bolt at the ready. Lyssa straddled his body once more and dragged the crossbow up from the ground and high above her head. Her shivering intensified as she held the crossbow in her hands and, until her teeth could grit no more, she brought the butt of the handle crashing down into his skull. Crack! His head wobbled and the sound of cartilage snapping apart broke the intense silence of the space. She lifted the crossbow again, her blood pumping rapidly, and forced it back down against his face. Crack! Blood erupted from his now broken nose, and his lip began to split across his front teeth. Crack! His nose was now swollen beyond form as blood pooled under the skin. Crack! Every hit of the crossbow fell harder and came quicker. Crack! Crack! Crack! Every blow devastated his face into new mangled expressions. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! The constable’s face was now a shattered and unrecognizable mess of meat, blood, and bone. Lyssa struggled as she began to stand, using the bloodied crossbow as a sort of makeshift cane. Like a ghost released of its residential prison, she limped silently away from the battered and burned watchman and made her out of the inn.
Evening black slowly gave way to the gradient cool blue as dawn began approach. Lyssa continued down the path towards the bridge, stumbling back to the Inn of the Slumbering Serpent. She trekked across yards of unkempt grass and trodden paths with the bloodied crossbow dangling at her side, past darkened windows of farmhouses full of families savoring the last of their sleep before sunrise. At the Slumbering Serpent, Moira rose from her sleep, unable to rest thanks in part to the snoring cleric sprawled out on the bed beside hers. She sighed, her chance at rest deafened by the his boisterous snore, and resigned herself to watch the sunrise. She searched the floor below for her cherished volume, a holy book penned in honor of Cortox. She stood, clad in her evening wear, and looked around slowly-brightening room. While Trisoll continued in his heavy, undisturbed sleep, Moira stumbled across her volume nested in the bulk of her armor. Holy book in hand, she turned to return to her bed when she noticed a peculiar sight: a third bed left empty, except for the shape of a small book. She approached it and gently grazed it with her fingertips. The touch was noticeably thin and taught, like leather. She too could feel unmistakable magical energies surrounding it. Lyssa’s spell book, no doubt, but where was Lyssa she wondered — and where had she gone without her book? Moira quietly slipped on her leather boots and, with her own Cortoxian volume in hand, made her way quietly out of the room. Trisoll remained as he was: on his back, his limbs spread out, with his own holy book cracked open across his belly. Moira creeped down the hall and down the stairs to the common area, where Grum continued to sit in near-silence, with only the sound of his arrow head scraping across his flint filling the room. ”Grum?” Moira called out as she descended the stairs. With sleepy eyes, he paused and nodded back at her for a brief moment and continued to sharpen his arrows. As she approached his table, Moira looked around the room but found him to be the only person present. ”I can it take it from here,” Moira said, softly excusing the half-elf. Grum sighed a breath of relief and quickly packed his arrows and flint back into their places in the quiver. He patted her on the shoulder and headed back up the stairs quietly (and seemed quite unbothered by her unarmored form, a reaction she had honestly not quite expected considering the usual leers her shapely form drew from males in the past.) Moira sat down in Grum’s place and cracked open her volume to a ribbon-marked page. Pouring herself a cup of hot water for tea, she savored the early morning ritual. The calm of it was something she dearly missed.
The crowing and cawing of livestock sounded the sun’s return. In the east, the cobalt sky hemorrhaged shades of violet and red as the sun cut through the horizon. Lyssa remained unfazed and continued her desperate march back to the inn. Once across the bridge, she could see a row of horses and an empty cart fastened to the posts outside, underneath the motionless, wooden sign of the Slumbering Serpent. Inside, Moira continued to absorb her scripture with quiet reflection, sipping on warm milky black tea as the sun began to brighten the morning sky outside. All of a sudden, Moira noticed the locks of the inn’s front door slowly come undone from the outside. With a quick turn of the knob, the front door swung open but showed no signs of a visitor. Moira set her book and cup of tea aside and cautiously made her way towards the front door. She could hear the shambling of boots approach closer. Slowly, Lyssa stepped into view, a pathetic sight that immediately disarmed Moira. She stood in the doorway, her body shivering and still cold to the touch. Moira quickly sorted the gory details of her companion as she rushed her inside towards the common area. ”By Cortox, what happened?” Moira asked, guiding Lyssa into the inn. The splatter of deep red stains decorated Lyssa’s face and body, while Moira noticed the mage’s skirt torn to bloodied rags (and around her thigh, a bloodied bandage made of the same linen.) Moira slowly unwrapped the filthy bandage to see traces of a gash, halfway healed but open enough to invite infection. She sighed, thankful dawn had returned to her her blessings of healing, and gently laid her hands over the gaping wound. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. As she exhaled, she could feel Cortox’s blessing surge through her like a cool current of energy pouring out from her chest into the palms of her hands. Moira lifted her hands to reveal the thigh healed, leaving only a long scare matted with dried blood. Moira continued to scan Lyssa when she noticed something large hanging from her limp hand. ”Go, rest. We’ll deal with this later,” Moira urged, as she slowly took the crossbow from Lyssa’s hand and held it in her own. ”Take my bed if necessary, I’ll be up to see you in a short while,” Moira offered as she gently escorted the dazed mage towards the stairs. She watched as Lyssa limped wordlessly upstairs and disappeared. Moira sighed and, as she looked over the crossbow, became more and more mortified as she saw the thick coating of blood drying on the weapon’s butt. She rushed back to her place at the table, and quickly took up a cloth napkin and wrapped the end of the crossbow in it. She set it aside and sighed once more, pondering over what role it had in Lyssa’s outing. Moira sat down and did what she could to calm herself, pouring another spot of tea to sip on as she immersed herself in sacred text as much as she could.
Moira kept her head buried in her book as the streets of Orlane filled with the light of morning. Outside, the commotion of farm hands and livestock began to emerge and fill the air with daily life, while inside, the rustling of metal tins and pans stirred in the kitchen. Moira, paying little mind, kept herself preoccupied, meditating over the same chapter. ”Morning, dear!” a gentle woman’s voice called out from behind the bar. Moira snapped out of her meditation and quickly glanced around the room. Behind the bar, she could see Belba the innkeeper turning down the lanterns. She emerged from behind the bar with a smile and began to make her way towards the window, when suddenly she spotted the still open front door. ”Dear girl, did you have company?” she asked in passing as she shut it.
”Um…” Moira began to mutter as she struggled to form an appropriate and coherent response, ”No, my apologies, I must’ve forgotten to shut it.” Belba shrugged off the excuse and continued her morning chores humming a spritely tune. A sinking feeling came over Moira as she realized she still had beside her the bloody weapon carried in by Lyssa. She quickly closed her book and, clutching the crossbow close to her, rushed back towards the stairs. Belba quickly smiled back and continued on, drawing open the curtains and letting the sun pour into the inn. As she marched up the stairs, she was startled by the presence of another! ”Whoa, easy there, paladin! In rush a to get back to bed?” Moira looked up and saw Trisoll, dressed in his blue and green robes with his rough sack and staff, and his own holy book under his arm. ”No worries, I was going to let everyone sleep an extra hour!”
”How sweet of you. We should be on our way though.” Moira urged before quickly making her way back to her shared room. Trisoll shrugged of her peculiar exit and continued on downstairs to greet the kindly innkeeper. She waited at the door outside and bowed her head, praying to herself and Cortox that the mage was safe asleep in her bed. Lyssa was indeed still in her room, but sleep had not yet come to her. Her glazed eyes stared at the wooden panels and planks of the ceiling, fixated on the intricate knots that decorated them. The blood of the hours prior had still left its stain on her skin, but most of it seemed to flake off onto the white bedding beneath her body. Knock, knock! Moira tapped at the door, waiting anxiously for a response. Knock, knock, knock! Lyssa continued stare blankly at the ceiling until finally, a last round of knocks snapped her back to reality. Moira waited by the door, hearing the sounds of movement behind it. After a minute, the door knob turned slowly and opened, with Lyssa peering out from behind it. Lyssa stood for a moment, and the two lingered on opposites sides of the door in joined silence. Moira was first to speak: ”Are you alright?”
”We should be quick,” Lyssa replied softly. The ominous tone of her appeal sent shivers up Moira’s spine. Lyssa drifted out of the room, carrying her sack of belongings in one hand and holster of daggers in the other. Moira quickly slipped past and shut the door behind her, and leaning against it, exhaled a troublesome sigh. She raced to buckle herself into her armor and gathered her weapons together as quickly as she could, storing with them the mysterious crossbow.
Gathered together, with Moira keeping Lyssa close, the party packed their supplies into their cart and unfastened their mounts for the early morning ride to explore the rest of Orlane. Belba and Ollwin watched from the door and waved cheerful goodbyes (especially directed towards Vetnik, to which he responded with a courteous bow of his helmeted head.) After the kind couple returned inside, Thom looked around for any onlookers and, with the coast clear, placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Grum sighed, knowing what was coming, and Thom closed his eyes and began to recite a familiar spell. Thom was quick about it, and after a few swift mutterings, Grum’s form dissolved into nothingness. Thom patted his brother’s invisible shoulder and together, the party watched slight imprints begin to form in the dirt path. The party took to their mounts and, lead by Thom, they followed the unseeable half-elf north down the road. The ride itself was uneventful: villagers sparsely decorated the countryside and roads, beginning their early morning rituals like feeding their livestock and tending to their gardens. The party continued to follow until suddenly, they saw Grum’s footprints trail off of the road into the greenery beside it. They paused together for a moment, and waited to see if Grum would make his presence known to them. Moments later, the party could hear the scraping metal against dirt. They honed their sights towards an old elm tree just off the road, and in the distance could see chunks of dirt fly up and hit the trunk of the tree. Thom slid off of his horse and quietly approached. ”Grum?” he asked as he approached the tree.
”I think I found something!” Grum’s disembodied voice exclaimed. Thom quickened his pace and walked to the tree, to find a small hole between roots, appearing to dig itself! ”I saw something from the road. Looks like whatever is down here was put here on purpose, and was done so in quite a rush,” Grum continued.
Thom stepped away from the tree, back towards the party on the road, and called out to them, ”We could use some muscle down here!” Moira opened her mouth, but before she could volunteer her services, Vetnik climbed down off his armored mount and trudged towards the twins. Moira sighed and stayed with Lyssa, Trisoll and the horses while the rest of the boys continued at the foot of the elm tree. As Vetnik neared the hole, the three boys could see, buried in the shallow hole beneath the tree, a old box made of dark, lacquered wood. Vetnik kneeled down and grabbed at both exposed sides of the box and tugged with all his might, releasing it from its earthen keep. Vetnik set the small wooden box aside and stood back as Grum moved closer to it, the specks of earth falling from his invisible body revealing his presence as he moved. Thom and Vetnik listened as Grum searched for traps on the lock of the box. Grum paused, and moments later, Thom and Vetnik watched as a pair of super-fine pins were pulled from the lock and tossed aside. The lid of the box flung open in a flurry of dust, and revealed two bundles of velvet cloth.
”Anyone care for the honor?” Grum asked, stepping aside. Thom stepped forward, and as he unwrapped them, each bundle revealed a single dagger. Each weapon was identical in shape and condition, with only one noticeable difference: carved in the enamel handle of the blades were symbols of cryptic origin.
”I’ve seen runes like this before,” Vetnik remarked, ”but these look much cruder than them, much older. The only words close to them I can recall are ‘Lyn’ and ‘Slå’.”
”Which mean?” Thom asked.
”’Shock’ and ‘hit’,” Vetnik replied, bundling the daggers up and placing them back in the box. ”We take these back with us, to Greyhawk. Perhaps Master Lyks will know more.” The twins handed the box off to Vetnik and together the trio made their way back to their mounts waiting for them on the road.
”What’s going on?” Trisoll began to pry, ”what’d you find?”
”We aren’t entirely sure,” Thom answered, climbing back up on his horse. Trisoll shrugged, not wishing to pry further. Grum made his way back to the road and soon the party was back to following the subtle tracks left behind with every step.
They continued up the path and made their way east. The first structures spotted down the road were poorly maintained: a barn and separate farmhouse stood, with a vineyard in the distance. The exteriors of both buildings were weathered and unattended to. The porch and fences maintained the same unkempt conditions, while flocks of chickens — led by a large rooster — clucked and pecked unattended to around the house. In the yard, they spotted what appeared to be a family: two women watched on, one with a young infant in her arms, as older men and boys toiled moseyed about the yard, carrying supplies and bundles of feed about the property. The family said nothing as the party passed, to the party or between themselves (even the infant was remarkably docile.) The chilly lack of reception kept the party on the path as they made their way towards the next structure: a cottage. Grum had rushed ahead, impressed by the bountiful floral gardens that seemed to create a wall around the small house. Its structure in contrast to the neighboring farmhouse was well-kept. Surrounded by not only floral gardens but a grove of elm trees as well, Grum approached softly towards the peaceful-looking abode. Sneaking up to a nearby window, he peered in and saw a daintly-furnished parlor. Strewn about the furnishings were pieces of fine jewelry: medallions on gold chains, necklaces of pearl and other precious metals, and bracelets inlayed with rich minerals and gemstones. Cats roamed the space freely, of all manner of domestic breed. He continued to watch, and as the party closed in on the home, Grum saw an old woman slowly hobble into the room carrying a delicate, silver tea set on a matching tray between thin, shivering hands. Grum, though curious, sneaked back down the porch back to the party. ”There’s someone in there, an old woman!”
”You should be more mindful to announce yourself, brother,” Thom said as he stopped, slightly startled by the sound of Grum’s voice. The rest of the party gathered around the walkway leading up from the road and gathered around to listen.
”Yes, well, there’s an old woman up there in that cottage and it looks like her home is full of treasures!” Grum continued.
Thom raised his brow at the very idea. ”Treasures?”
”Perhaps we can press her for some more information,” Moira interrupted disapprovingly. Thom and Grum let out a mutual exhale as the paladin dismounted.
”Moira and I will go ahead,” Vetnik declared as he disembarked from his horse once more. ”I think we’d present the least amount of threat to the old woman.” Thom and Grum said nothing, and motioned up the path to the cottage, conceding to the pair of virtuous knights. Moira and Vetnik shared glances between each other and up the path, through the thick of blossoming flowers, and to the front door of the cottage. Upon the doorknob, they noticed a woman’s faced carved into the bronze, surrounded by stalks of wheat. Vetnik tapped on the front door with a light knock (though a light knock for him still seemed booming.) The pair waited, and could hear feet shuffle against the ground and the muffled sound of an old woman shooing away her pets. After a few moments more, the doorknob jiggled and slowly creaked open. Behind it stood the old woman Grum had seen: frail in figure, her manner of dress a humble contrast to the opulent jewels that adorned each of her knotted fingers. Heavy rings made of precious metals, encrusted with a variety of precious jewels including rubies, opals, and amethysts. Her face was round and wrinkled, with thinly-framed glasses that rested on an old, aquiline nose and ample cheeks. She finished opening the door and looked up to see the two knights standing before her. ”Oh my! Blessed Merikka, two knights,” she cried out, her eyes widening with marvel. ”To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit?”
”My… companion and I,” Moira began.
”We are on our way to the games, but stopped here in Orlane for some rest. We were on our way out but were so taken by your gardens, we wanted to pay the owner of them a visit!” Vetnik finished.
”Of course, of course. Come in,” the old woman said, enthusiastically inviting the pair in. ”Have some tea, or wine if you prefer!” Moira looked at Vetnik, thankful for his quick cover story, and the pair followed the woman into the house. Inside, cats continued to lounge about the parlor while the old woman shuffled back through the parlor to the kitchen. The silver tea set rested on reed mat laid across a thick, carved polished table. Vetnik and Moira marveled at the delicateness of everything, and did their best to enter the sitting area as discreetly as possible. On a mantel stood a stout wooden statue of a maiden, her outstretched arms holding a bundled scroll in one hand and sheaves of wheat in the other and draped with garlands of flowers from the old woman’s garden. Their host returned to the parlor with a pair of delicate ceramic cups and took her seat. She reached over to pour her guests some tea, but Vetnik quickly intervened, and took it upon himself to pour for himself, Moira, and their host. ”How very thoughtful. Please, drink up!” Vetnik and Moira smiled and obliged, standing for fear of ruining the fine upholstery of her sitting lounges.
”My name is Vilma. Vilma Merridie. I’m a widow here in Orlane, y’know? Fifty years ago, my husband Alfons and I moved here to start a life together. Sadly, he passed on a good twenty-four years later,” she began, clutching and releasing a silver locket dangling from around her neck. ”They were my best years, of course! After that, I did what I could to keep the farm together, but I was getting much too old for such a lifestyle. Y’know, getting up with a cocks and tilling and harvesting, day in and day out. But, Merikka saw in me a dutiful servant and continues to make sure I’m well kept after. I have my health, my cats, this cottage, and my livelihood. I know Alfons is serving Merikka well and together they make sure I’m alright. I need them now more than ever in these uncertain times. Orlane isn’t the same as it was, even a decade ago! The old days, I tell you, families were more neighborly than they are now. Now, you don’t know who you can trust. I don’t mean to sound suspicious, but I’ve lived in Orlane quite a long time and have only seen stranger goings-on over the years. Old families have become weird and isolated, others have left town or disappeared altogether. Something strange is going on in Orlane. Even the soil isn’t the same, and yards are left teeming with weeds and livestock roam wildly. Times are always changing, I’m old enough to know that but… they’re not changing for the better. Even the people are changing! The carpenter and his wife barely leave their home anymore, and even the smith…oh, the smith! Now, there’s a lad whose had something go on in his life. I mean, don’t mistake me, I appreciate that he’s more even-tempered now, but it’s not natural. It doesn’t feel right. Did I mention the families down the way? Oh, filthy children just standing around and staring off into space while their parents toil in the fields without a word at all hours of the day and night. It’s all so very odd! Especially the family up the way, I’ve honestly never been too fond of them. I mean, the hog farmers used to be quite pleasant but not anymore they aren’t. That father is as cold as winter itself now! My, how they’ve let their gardens go, Merikka would be maddened by the sight! Then there’s that quiet little cottage by the mayor’s who never seem to come out. I’ve not seen anything go on there, but something strikes me as odd about whoever lives there now. I hope whatever they do, they keep to themselves and leave the mayor out of whatever… strange goings-ons are happening there. Oh, Mayor Ormond at least we have one good man left in this town. That is to say, the east side of town. I can’t say much for the western part of Orlane, I’m old and keep to myself, and don’t have much reason to visit, y’know? Oh, but just the other night I did see something peculiar. I thought there were men heading towards the temple, but thankfully I had my spectacles on! I saw them head towards the wall and all of a sudden, they started climbing the thing!” Vilma finally paused, taking a short sip of her tea.
Vetnik and Moira stood, suspended by her everlasting story. Moira opened up and asked hesitantly, ”Who did you see?”
Vilma strained as she gulped down a sip of now-lukewarm tea and slowly started up again. ”Strange men, covered in scales, with things like fins on their heads! They crossed just north of here and scaled the wall like it was nothing, I had honestly never seen anything quite like it. I was almost sure I was dreaming until one of the cats started pawing at my evening gown. Ugh, but anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the temple. I used to visit all the time. Merikka has kept me in her good graces and if not for my health, I’d still be attending service. These old bones don’t allow for much movement though, but thankfully I had a statue carved in her honor by the carpenter some time back. Y’know, back when I could have a nice afternoon tea with he and his wife. Not anymore though, Merikka only knows! It’s such a gorgeous temple too, my the workmanship that went into it! I wouldn’t want to go back anyway, not with the way things are run there now. Temple workers barely tend to the yards anymore, and the clerics who operate it are cold, cold people now. You’d wonder if they ever even picked up a copy of ‘A Most Worshipful Guide to Benign Merikka’ with the way they handle visitors now. Such a shame. I don’t know what it was, but they went on some pilgrimage for about a week or so last year and returned worse for the wear! As I was saying, I’m just happy I can have my own worship, here in the privacy of my own home. I have my altar, I make sure to make offerings when and where I can, and help out when and where I can, but despite everything going on in Orlane, I know she’s watching over me, and what with strapping visitors such as yourself, I know I’m as safe as I’ll ever be! Even if the peaches don’t have that same sweetness the way they used to back in the old days. Oh, but listen to me prattle on about nothing, what about you?”
Moira and Vetnik stayed silent for a moment, their teas barely touched, and together they digested what they could of the old woman’s “conversation”.
“Thank you for the tea, milady. We must actually be on our way,” Vetnik said politely, setting down his cup of tea. ”I’ll be back to visit.”
“Oh, of course, Sir…” Vilma struggled to recall her guests’ names.
”Tret, Order of the Wolf, and Lady Mary,” Vetnik elucidated
_ “Of course, Sir Tret and Lady Mary. Do come back anytime! I’m always around,”_ Vilma replied with a fanciful chuckle. Vetnik urged to the old woman to stayed seated, as he would see he and Moira out just fine. Vilma waved goodbye as she continued to sip on her tea, while her cats mulled about the sitting room, swinging their tails and yawning their day away.
As the pair headed down the front porch back towards the rest of the party, who stood beside their horses and waited, a separate voice buzzed from behind. ”That was quite a long time you both were in there!” Startled, Vetnik and Moira spun around to see… no one.
”Grum, er… Grun!” Moira called out, shaking off the surprise. ”What were you doing?”
”Making sure the old crone didn’t pull anything!” Grum joked as the three of them regrouped on the road.
”What’d you find out?” Thom asked.
Moira and Vetnik both struggled to sum up the lengthy one-sided discussion had inside the widow Merridie’s cottage. ”Well,” Moira began, ”it seems she doesn’t trust too many people on this side of town, the elves included. She made mention often of her allegiance to Merikka, but claims she won’t return to temple due in part to what’s been happening at the temple?”
”Such as,” Thom continued to probe.
”Unwelcoming priests and servants in Merikka’s keep. That, and…” Moira paused, looking to Vetnik who seem to share a similar look of disbelief.
”She claims she has seen lizard men stalk the temple at night.” Vetnik whispered.
Further down, a teenage boy watches from a porch and runs inside. Shortly, the boy returns with a larger man. Thom waves, but they don’t wave back.
The party continued north up the road and followed its curve towards the thick stone exterior of the Temple of Merikka. The granite wall surrounding the domed building stood a massive twenty-feet high, and showed no signs of weathering or any point of weakness. Its blocks held firmly in place over the ages, yet their smooth surface made them wonder how anyone (or anything) could hope to scale it. Connecting the wall were a pair of thick, wooden shutters. As the party rode through, they noticed each panel embellished with the relief of a beautiful maiden of simple dress, her thick ringlets of hair pulled back to reveal a tranquil expression. On one panel, she carried in her arms a basket of wheat; on the other, she held open a scroll. The continued down the broad path and entered into the courtyard beyond the wall. Something unsettled them as they passed through the courtyard. For a deity who so revered the health of fruitfulness of the garden, her own gardens were ill-tended to. Dry, brittle grass and clustered together in patches, while pissabed weeds overwrought the greenery and lined the path. A sole priest wandered through the courtyard, haphazardly uprooting weeds and tossing them aside, while the rest of the vegetation seemed to grow and die untouched.
“Excuse me, sir—“ Thom called out to the gardening monk.
“Go to the main temple!” he yelled back, seemingly annoyed by their very presence (a most unbecoming greeting of a typical priest of Merikka!)
Thom brushed the cold welcome off and together they moved closer towards the main entrance of the church. After dismounting, Thom unhinged his drum from off his back. With his tanto blades in hand, he began to lightly drum an impromptu rhythm in honor of their arrival to the benign goddess’ temple. The sight of the central sanctuary was one to behold: stepping into the large room, they felt the floor shift from paved dirt to sturdy ceramic tile in brilliant, earthy russet tones, intercut with random lapis-colored tiles that created a wondrous surface to kneel upon. Looking up, they marveled at the series of elm trunks that served as pillars to the great room, where bronzed latticework kept the logs in place. Long, faded tapestries depicting innocuous field landscapes and crops of varying ages lined the windowless room, while at the center a great statue stood. Resting on a low stone dias, a polished form emerged from rough jade: the image of Merikka, as she appeared on the wooden gates of the temple, stood flanked by torches that caused the milky greenness of the statue to almost glow. Her arms were extended — one hand carried the basket of wheat, while the other another hand carried a tapestry embroidered with the dates of harvests past. Her carved eyes stared blankly over the room, and her mouth bore neither a smile nor a scowl.
”Hello, strangers,” a soft voice called out to them from behind. The party turned and saw standing in a doorway a slender beauty, dressed in a chainmail bodice worn over a flowing white gown. With a shield strapped to her back and a mace hinged to a belt at her side, she looked curiously off in such warlike garb, especially in a temple devoted to such a benign goddess. ”Can I help you?” she asked.
”Praise Merikka!” Thom called out as he approached the mysterious maiden.
”Was that a song to Our Lady of the Calendar?” she asked blithely. As she approached Thom, the bard couldn’t help but to be transfixed by the rich medallion that rested upon her breasts. A golden snake’s head, with two glistening ruby eyes that almost glowed when light touched them.
”Yes! Yes, of course it was. I am but a humble bard though, milady,” Thom replied as he nudged Trisoll forward. ”Our resident cleric can engage you more expertly on our admiration for the goddess!”
Trisoll reluctantly stepped forward and gave an awkward bow. ”Yes, well… I’m actually a priest of Trithereon. I hope you don’t mind my being here.”
“No, of course not,” the armed priestess reassured them. ”Enjoy the center, but please know that non-members are not permitted to visit the rest of the grounds.”
Trisoll chuckled, relieved by her pleasing demeanor. ”Of course! I’m Mark, my friends and I are actually traveling performers in the company of these knights on our way to The Games!”
”We had heard there was a beautiful temple to Merikka here!” Thom interjected.
The priestess’ expression of pleasant vacancy stayed as it was as she returned the introduction. ”Why indeed, it is magnificent. Will you not be staying long then?” she asked.
”Just long enough to get a good look at things,” Thom said with a charming smile.
”Very good then. My name is Misha,” the priestess revealed uncovering a thin stack of long pamphlets to the party, ”hopefully this will answer any more questions you might have.” The pamphlet itself bore the woodcut print of the goddess Merikka herself, bearing the hallmarks seen all over the church. The piece was titled A Most Worshipful Guide to Benign Merikka, Abridged. As Mark took the pamphlets into his hand, Thom shot his brother a subtle nod. Grum silently returned the nod and moved closer towards Mark and the priestess, Misha.
”Tell me, my lady, how long have you been in Merikka’s service?” Grum asked, positioning himself between the two. Meanwhile, Thom hovered around the group and began to recite a charm spell under his breath, his gaze fixed on the young priestess. As Misha began to answer, she could hear the half-elf muttering quietly. She turned and immediately recognized the speech to be arcane in nature.
”Heathens,” she cried out! Grum dropped his polite pretense in frustration.
”By Cortox,” Moira groaned. Misha panicked and did her best to flee. In return, Moira drew her longsword and swung, and hoped the weight of her blade would be enough to subdue her. Misha proved to be quicker and more determined, and as Moira’s blade slapped against her, Misha pivoted away at just the right moment and rushed towards the nearest exit with even greater urgency.
Thom lifted his hand and began to aim his finger at Misha. Concentrating his gaze, he began to chant in a low, hurried tone. Suddenly, a halo of bright white light surrounded the head of the priestess, its core beaming from the space between her eyes. ”Eeeee!” she cried out, her vision consumed in blinding whiteness. Misha staggered in place, crying out for release from the glare of Thom’s spell. ”My eyes! I… I cannot see!”
Grum drew his dagger, rushed past his brother, and whipped the frantic priestess against the back of the head with the butt of his blade. Misha staggered to the ground and with a echoless thud against the ceramic temple floor, she toppled to the ground.
_”Strip her, I see an amulet and ring. Take it off her. The chain mail too.” Moira ordered.
”Dim,” Thom said, dispelling the light masking her face with a word. He knelt down beside her body and began to bind and gag her unconscious body with available rope and rags. Vetnik made it his duty to tend to the captive priestess; he reached down and with the ease of lifting a small child, he pulled her up off the ground and slung her over his pelt-trimmed shoulder.
Together the party moved closer towards Misha’s route of attempted escape. The twins doubled-up on the door, performed their joint door ritual, and entered into a hall more extravagantly decorated than the sanctuary. The tawny tones found on the floor of the sanctuary gave way to cool, white marble tiles. Along the east wall, a series of alcoves lined the length of the hall. Windowless and lined in velvet, stone scrolls embellished with old prayers to Merikka frame the alcoves. On intricately carved marble pillars rested a series of statues of molded gold, each one more glistening than the last. A stalk of wheat, a potato, a cluster of oats, a corn stalk, a carrot, turnips, and a bunch of grapes all stayed still in the alcoves, their forms even more dazzling set against the voids of black velvet lining each recess.
_”These are clearly blessed items. Best to steer clear of them,” Mark cautioned.
“For now”, Thom said, muttering to himself as he passed.
As they neared the last alcove, which featured a gilded sack of beans, Grum noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Across from the alcove, he noticed a a thin, irregular slit down the marble wall that seemed to cut through the tiles. Grum approached it and pressed his body against it, and as he knocked he noticed a hollowness that could only mean one thing: secret door! He and Thom tapped and knocked against the wall and together they pushed their weight upon wall to reveal a panel, a hidden entrance into a separate room. The space was small, and bore little decoration: it’s walls and floor were a modest clay brick and on the floor laid a simple reed mat decorated with the design of the ever-present sheave of wheat. Upon the mat, large spots had formed and worn down the reeds in the darkened areas they occupied. This was a prayer mat no doubt, once used for meditation. The dust that collected on the surface of the mat indicated that its use had long since passed, however. In the southernmost area of the barren room stood a solitary wooden door — no doubt the more apparent entrance to the cell. Once again leading the charge, Thom tip-toed towards the door and pressed his pointed ear against it. No noise. His fingers traced the old brass knob and the plate around it. No traps. He jiggled the handle and found no tension. As he opened the door, before him stood a trio of men, their heads crudely stripped of hair. Their ceremonial tunics seemed to imply their station as monks, but looked old and frayed, the embroidered patterns of grains appeared to have aged without great care. Thom released the handle and let the door continue to sway open. The three monks stood together, and as Thom and the party came fully into vision, the monks silently scowled as they assumed more offensive poses. They clenched their linen-bound fists and widened their stances: these men were ready to fight!
From the back of the party, Lyssa still felt unsettled by the thought of another fight. She lifted her hand and with glowing red eyes, began to focus on the air between the monks. She began to channel the magical energy around her, doing what she could to change the air around the monks into bank of thick, obscuring fog. As she she focused, she could feel something was amiss. Without warning, sparks of scarlet energy began to charge around her arm. Within seconds, the sparks seemed to beam up her arm and surround her entire body. The sparks flashed more wildly and rapidly and seemed to envelop her. ”Uh… Lys?!” Trisoll glanced over, calling out to his companion with worry. In the flurry of red sparks, Trisoll watched as Lyssa’s body quickly shrunk down and began to change shape. ”By Nemound!” he cried out, drawing the attention of the rest of the party. The party glanced back and saw, standing on four legs in Lyssa’s place, a wild red fox! Moira, wracked with confusion, looked at the fox and back at the monks and wondered what manner of sorcery had befell the mage. In a hurried panic, she charged past Thom with her longsword drawn and slashed at the first monk in sight, cutting through his tunic sleeve. With first blood drawn, Thom quickly whipped out his longbow and fired off an arrow which caught the arm of a second monk. The third monk lunged at Thom in return and delivered a quick pair of punches to the bard, knocking him back for a moment. Trisoll watched as Lyssa’s fox form sparked once again with fiery red energy. As her form began to change shape once more, Trisoll reached out his hand towards the sparring monks and concentrated his energy on holding them in place. His attention was divided though and he only managed to bind a single monk, when out of the corner of his eye he watched Lyssa change shape from a fox into a large red kelpie hound! Rushing to defend his brother, Grum drew back a pair of arrows and fired them in tandem, piercing the attacking monk through the chest and laying him out cold. The second monk rushed towards Thom, who staggered back into position, and as he swung his bloody arm at the bard, Thom quickly shifted away and narrowly missed another blow.
Before Lyssa could bark, chaos energy consumed her shape again. In a flash, she changed from dog to cat! Trisoll watched as Lyssa, now in the shape of a tabby, fled the prayer cell. As she rushed towards the secret panel leading back into the white marble hall, Trisoll looked on helplessly, as her feline body burst into another flare of chaotic energy. As Lyssa entered the hall, she could feel her delicate cat paws quickly change shape again. Her body began to expand, and as she ran, she could feel her weight intensify with every step. The aura of chaos energy fizzled away as her body collided into the alcove-laced marble wall of the hall, reveal a new form: a hippopotamus! Lyssa struggled in her heavy new body to gain her footing, and as she stumbled through the hall, every step seemed to shake the golden statues on their pillars.
Back in the prayer cell, Grum drew a pair of arrows a second time, and aimed them at the frozen monk. ”That’ll break the hold!” Trisoll yelled from the back of the party. Grum quickly readjusted his aim and fired off his arrows at the other monk. The first arrow flew past the monk and fell to the ground, while the second pierced the monk’s thigh, dropping him in mid-charge. Thom quickly drew another arrow back and let it loose. While the monk wretched in pain, doing his best to pull Grum’s arrow from out of his thigh, Thom’s arrow zipped through and lodged itself into his upper arm. Blood burst forth as the arrow drove itself through his artery. The monk struggled to stay on his feet, but the arrows proved to be his undoing. The monk collapsed to the ground and Thom watched as the blood surrounding his arrow began to spurt less and less. Leaving the second monk to die, Thom approached the last monk who stayed frozen in his position. ”He can hear us, but he can’t answer us,” Trisoll informed.
”It’s your call, what do you want to do?” Thom allotted.
Trisoll looked back towards the secret panel and noticed that the noise in the hall had quieted. Turning back to Thom, he settled, ”We’ll tie him up!”
Back in the marble hall, Lyssa steadied herself against the frame of an alcove. Returned to her original human form, she was beside herself. Alone, quaking with fear, she cowered against the frame of the alcove as a golden stalk of wheat and its marble pillar lay toppled on the ground beside her. Had the chaos finely begun to consume her, the young mage pondered? Would she make it out of Orlane alive?