“What has passed is gone. Only a fool looks behind him on the road he must travel, except in nostalgic remembrance. Only a weak man regrets acts he can not recall and allows them to paralyze his judgement. Only an idiot neglects the lessons won through hard experience…” – Ambrose
And so it was that our brave band found themselves sprawled in pain and confusion at the edge of ancient Crowley Wood. Racked by aching heads and festering insect bites, thoughts clouded with horrific, half-formed memories of terror and struggle within its boundaries, the heroes gathered themselves to return to Riverside. The green and growing sapling a few yards away was proof that they had satisfied their oath to the tree spirit Entwhistle. The new, shallow grave which held their friend Leviticus was proof of the price of that promise.
But let it not be said that the stalwart adventurers were overburdened with sorrow for the loss of that wanderer. With nary a word or gesture they departed, accompanied by Manfred’s fey lieutenant Dalryn and steady tracker Pelt. Another traveler joined them, one Onus. This chronicle can not say from where came the man’s grim disposition and evident disdain for our heroes, but he bore the signet ring which marked his service to Count Ector, and that proved enough to maintain the acquaintance.
Returning to Riverside and the warm and relieved welcome of the villagers the heroes found a much changed place. Gone was the sleepy hamlet and the lassitude that had marked it in the past. The three roads leading into the village were guarded by militiamen with arrows nocked, and the pleasant meadows and pastures which surrounded it had been bisected by a menacing ditch, sharpened wooden stakes pointing outwards. The sound of hammers and the shouts of working men filled the air as wooden watchtowers rose.
But warm fires and cool ale still could be had at the Weary Wench, and there our brave band retired seeking rest. Instead, they found an agitated Goot, and a communiqué from their patron:
My loyal scouts, and dear friends,
This missive finds me journeying back to Vindolanda by the central road. I regret that the urgent affairs of the past month do not grant me the time to thank you properly for your recent efforts. The reports you have filed offer more information than I have had in a year…nay, longer. Your courage and tenacity in the Wounded Land of Tristram speaks highly of you all. Know that I am honored by your service, and heartened to see that true Yrken remain to stand forth against the darkness to the north. You have my thanks, and the thanks of my people.
I regret that I must attend to some very weighty matters shortly, and can not spend more time expressing my gratitude. For there is another task I request of you. It is, if anything, more dangerous than your first, and more critical for the security and safety of my people. You have all shown yourselves to be true Yrken, so I know that the oaths you took those weeks ago will be honored, and I may reveal this to you without fear of unfortunate rumors developing.
Our beautiful land of Galava is hard-pressed. I need not tell you how much was lost in the last Eldren War. Very few of the armsmen I sent north returned, and those that did can not defend these borders. The weakness of Galavan arms is apparently well known to those who would seek advantage…the Sea Lords raid the coast incessantly of late, and the Duke…for all that Erekose has done before to wound my people, he has now crossed a line that can never be forgiven. The names of the fallen Defenders are much on my mind, and given the recent events few offer to take their place. Unless things change for the better soon, I must consider the Troos border indefensible…this is not acceptable. The options before me are quite limited…I can not move arms from the coastal garrisons, or further encourage the Sea Lords. I fear that the other northern lords are in much the same straits as I, and little help will be offered from that quarter. I have received an offer of aid from the Order of the True Ambrose, but I am loath to rely on zealots, however noble, to defend what Galavans should defend…yet, I will have no choice if you are not successful.
The Lord Protector has authorized me to send you covertly to Vagnicae. There you shall ascertain the condition of the Citadel, and seek to extract the Treasury of House Bainne. In his wisdom, the Protector has granted me all rights to that in payment for the depradations of the Duke’s House against mine. All that needs be done is to recover it safely to Vindolanda. With these funds, I will be able to train and equip new soldiers to defend the Troos border…indeed, perhaps enough to curb the Duke once and for all time.
I am sure my words seem cavalier, pray do not think so. I am well aware that I ask you to go through deadly danger to the very place that Eldren landed those years ago. In that time, no scout has ever come within sight of the city, and only your comrade Seanee has ever returned. For such risk, I offer you much beyond the rewards of service. For such bravery, your names will be written among the ranks of Yrken heroes should you succeed.
And now I must conclude, for time is pressing. I have sent one of my craftiest commanders, Taggart, with galleys and sufficient men to bring you safely to the vicinity of Vagnicae. He should arrive in Riverside within a week. His orders have been made clear, and he will discuss them with you at length when he arrives. Upon your success, you shall use the boats to bring the Treasury contents to Vindolanda, where I can promise you my friends, you will be heralded in my court, and in the streets.
Finally, the Protector has asked me to convey his admiration for your exploits, and to give you the benefit of his wisdom. He forcefully re-iterates the penalty for stirring that hive of vileness, Caer Eldren, but congratulates you on the audacity shown in retaking the Tower of Malvagel. Should you be successful in gaining alliance against the fiends with the tree creature you mention, he states that the Tower and all found in it shall be yours in reward, but he gives the following guidance : “To those who would look in the Third’s Orb and seek to find wisdom, beware…you will certainly find what you seek.” I can not claim to know what he means by this, but perhaps, you shall. The Orb is yours until further notice…
May Ambrose’s light bless you and keep you…may the Star of the Morning always guide you in your travels. I am, respectfully and thankfully, your Count.
The grim tone of the letter drew little commentary from the brave band…it seemed that the success of their first mission had drawn them significant attention, and an invitation to seek danger again. Vagnicae! The capital of wounded Tristram province, the seat of House Bainne. A city of soaring towers with a bustling harbor, home to the people that had so long ago driven the Loor to the north and caused so much turmoil. A city that none had seen since the 2nd Eldren War, a place of ruin and fear. When the Eldren came, they had entirely destroyed the city and left the mighty Citadel in flames…the refugees of that great slaughter had told that tale, and scouts had confirmed it. Did the Eldren still hold the place? None knew…and it seemed our heroes were to find out. But they would not go unaided. Besides grim Onus, the towering warrior Kergen, a hulking female fighter named Hildy, and a dour minstrel called Barrett would join the brave band. Kergen and Hildy looked to be experienced slayers, well equipped. Barrett promised much knowledge of Vagnicae, which was his home on that fateful day when the Eldren landed in Yrkenland, as Ambrose foretold so long ago.
The days passed while the heroes waited for Taggart and his ships to arrive, and precious they were…equipment lost in Crowley Wood was replaced, wounds tended, and replenishment found in the simple pleasures of warm food and a safe place to sleep. The harrowing venture to Crowley Wood was put behind them, and acquaintances with friends renewed…the sad Ambrosian Mir seemed to have found a calling in caring for the villagers, and showed in his demeanor the healing he had found there in that short time. The child rescued from Durum was the subject of much discussion amongst the village women, and when the tale of the loss of Leviticus was spread, was named Levi in honor of the man and the miraculous healing he had performed on the child. Dour Yosh welcomed the brave band in his usual manner, but no less friendly…it seemed he too had found a home in Riverside, and the time he spent with Defender Berne set the tongues of the village gossips flapping. It would have been all too easy for our brave band to settle into the peace of the pastoral village, but such was not their fate, as this chronicle can attest.
For in the waning days of Tarak’s month, Ector’s promised aid arrived in the form of a river galley and modest riverboat, commanded by Taggart. Under his imperious gaze, the horses and other gear of the heroes was efficiently loaded. As the ships pulled away into the mighty Troos, the peace of Riverside and the horrors of Crowley Wood were left behind. This chronicle can not state what the stalwart adventurers felt as the village receded into the distance. Much time indeed would pass before they returned to the home they had found there.
Taggart drove his command down the Troos with great haste, stopping only briefly at night. The last days of Tarak faded and the first of Ambras’ began. A landscape of suffering could be seen on both sides of the Troos. The oppressive weight of the Wounded Land to the north was much remarked on by the crew. Our heroes interest did not lay there, but in the devastation seen on the south bank where the smoking, abandoned villages and the pleas of refugees begging for passage showed evidence of Duke Erekose’s continuing depradations. Tenax could be seen on many eves, a strange light in his eyes as he viewed an abandoned farm or the smoking ruin of a fishing village.
Of the brave band, there were few that had not been touched in some way by the tragedy of Tristram. The Eldren had slain their families, destroyed their lands and brought unspeakable evil to their once peaceful home. In the darkest days when Yrken turned against Yrken, and the Duke of Tristram went the way of the renegade, their suffering had only been amplified. As the rolling plains of the Wounded Land slipped by, the uncertain mood of the travelers was evident in the tense silence of the passengers as the riverboat slipped down the mighty Troos.
The Troos soon stretched to its greatest width, more than a mile in places, as the ships continued their journey and the sights on the banks were lost to all but those with the keenest eyes. When the great delta of the Troos came into view, the ruins of a mighty bridge could be seen…rumored to have been built under the direction of Tarak himself, the impossible span now crumbled, thrown down by the Yrken themselves in the darkest days of the 2nd Eldren war. The abandoned town of Whitebridge lay on the northern bank, decayed and neglected, it’s few remaining structures leaning drunkenly. The ships pulled expertly to a crumbling quay, and our heroes entered the Wounded Land for the second time.
Dismayed at the prospect of the long march to Vagnicae, the brave band protested to Taggart. The soldier would not be moved, explaining the danger of encountering a Sea Lord raider in such small ships, but swore that he would maintain station for two weeks before declaring them lost. Our heroes had little choice but to accept his offer, and they were indeed well equipped, having purchased horses and a cart with the abundant funds their Count had rewarded them with. Riding at a measured pace, Vagnicae should be little more than four days travel each way along the great road. Once the conduit for so much, the weathered flagstones now hosted only weeds, but promised speedy travel.
So it was that the brave band set out to Vagnicae, where on the road they would meet a charming man…and find, indeed, that both the journey and the destination are of equal import.
Slouching Towards Vagnicae
Again finding themselves in the Wounded Land, our brave band comported themselves and set out immediately. Time was short if they were to return in two weeks. Though the journey was but four days each way by the abandoned highway, the six remaining seemed a short time indeed to penetrate such a place as the ruins of Vagnicae. Did the Eldren still occupy the place? Does the Citadel even still stand? None knew what horrors may await them, for that smoking pile of stone that was once the jewel of Yrkenland was a place few ventured, and none had returned from since the evil days of the 2nd Eldren War, when the jewel of Yrken might fell into darkness at the hands of the eldritch demons. Oddly enough, the land seemed healthier, the plants less stunted, the air subtly less foul this far from Caer Eldren. Nature herself it seemed resisted the darkness emanating from that place, and well.
With a brief prayer of thanks to Ellienne at the sight of green and growing things, the heroes continued up the road. Barrett and Hildy’s cheerful traveling music failed to inspire all (indeed, it took near a threat of violence to convince Barrett to cease his urgent strumming). Usually cheerful and energetic, the son of Caw seemed grim and lost in thought…pulling his horse off the road at a certain abandoned cottage, stopping to review landmarks against an old parchment. When questioned a curt comment was the most any could expect, and the heroes were unable to determine the source of his angst. Some remarked on whether this was related to the loss of his previous comrades, but noble Seanee said nothing in reply.
It was only when a seemingly odd man approached them that Caw’s son tore himself from his melancholy. A simple hunter approached straight along the road in plain sight, a largish stag across his shoulders. Our heroes were well-armed and experienced…though sometimes stupefying in conversation, they were deadly in battle…one man was deemed no threat, and a parley ensued.
Confronted with the man’s story…a simple hunter, bringing his kill back to his family, apparently a group of disaffected squatters in the abandoned fields of Tristram…the intrepid adventurers recalled the horrors of their last such encounter. But this man was hale and hearty, and simply did not give any credence to the recalled horrors of the Cultists in Durum. Indeed, when Seanee called on the powers Ambrose granted to scan the man’s thoughts, he proved to be unafraid, almost to the point of disdain, and seeking only a dinner of rich, rare meat. When dour Draos attempted to convince the man of his view, the hunter’s nimble argument instead convinced Draos of his friendship, and the best interests of all.
Perhaps neglecting the lessons won through hard experience, the brave band agreed after much deliberation to accompany the wanderer back to his home…they never reached that place, but did indeed meet his family. To Seanee’s horror, the man transformed into a creature he had met before…a lethal ogre mage, smiling at the success of his nefarious scheme. The ogre race was an ancient enemy of the Yrken, long thought extinct, a foul creation of the Eldren according to the Truths. But here before them was not one, but emerging from behind arcane screens came two, five, ten…twenty ogre warriors, well-armed and laughing. With his warriors surrounding the brave band, the mage presented his demands.
First, he declared Seanee a criminal who had ambushed and slain many members of his family…second, he declared that to satisfy that claim, our heroes must relinquish their horses to feed his starving people. Finally, he warned the intrepid Yrken that there was a price for “escaping the pain of the world”, and this price was witnessed in “the awakening of things long sleeping”. “Are your senses so dead? Can you not feel it?” he taunted them.
Angry denials were exchanged and it was soon clear to one hero that negotiation must fail. Heart and mind in unity, the aggressive war wizard Archimedes sent massive detonations of fire to left and right of the road, decimating the ogres where they’d concentrated. With froth on his lips Kergen waved his massive battle blade and engaged three of the fiends in hopeless, heroic battle as Seanee and Tenax charged the mage, Onus and Barrett played a martial tune which inspired all to further efforts. Hildy, with a keening dirge fit to break glass, GREW nearly six feet in height and hundreds of pounds of weight…her once clumsy, massive spear now nimbly lanced into the ogre warriors to their great dismay, her gothic helmet shining in the dimming light. Draos, no longer so convinced by the mage, set to with his own methods as grim Nivek sent arrow after arrow hissing towards the mage, drawing and releasing with stunning speed, if not accuracy.
The ogre mage unleashed his arcane might with blasts of freezing cold and other devious means, and his warriors wielded their ten-foot long spears with lethal effect, but nothing could withstand such an assault. In mere minutes eight of the ogres were down and the mage, harried by Seanee, Tenax, and Nivek, cursed them most foully and dissolved into a cloud of gas. Dismayed, the ogre warriors not in the melee also sough retreat…some did not…as an ogre charged the defenseless Onus and Barrett, Archimedes heroically threw himself in front of the fiend’s spear…taking a grievous wound, he nonetheless bought the time needed for Tenax to carve the ogre near in half with a vicious attack up…err, from the rear. By the time the last ogre fell, Seanee and Archimedes were down, Hildy, Nivek, and Kergen bled from many wounds…but the brave band was victorious.
As the sun sets in the Wounded Land, crude bandages are applied and prayers for the health of Seanee and his healing powers abound. Archimedes’ breath rattles weakly as the horrid wound from the ogre’s spear oozes blood slowly…the ogre’s vicious thrust had missed it’s spot by a hair’s breadth, and the point had glanced off his sternum and buried itself under his chin, its’ barbed blade emerging from the socket of his now ruined left eye. All wondered if he would live through the night. A great victory had been won, but the cost had also been great…in addition to our heroes’ scars, many horses were injured, the mules slain.
And in the faint rays of the setting sun, the path the ogres took in their retreat is clear, and standing from the side of a rocky ridge a tower can be seen…a ruin that brings a flash of a memory…or a nightmare…from Crowley Wood…a tower impossibly tall and thin. A tower that could only have been built in the days of Ambrose. There seemed much to decide with the coming morn. This chronicle can not, at this time, state whether our heroes looked ahead, or behind, on the road they must travel.