“Varnhold was established by a group of mercenaries led by a guy called Maegar Varn and his band of merry men—the Varnling Host,” Bert Askew lectured us like the pedagogue he was when Lev rescued him to straw boss our operation. He swished his pointer like a rapier. “What are you guys’s name?” he added sarcastically.
“Awesome McJunior Sauce?” Kelm shrugged comically.
Bert continued like he hadn’t heard. “There were three other groups besides ours that were sent out by the Swordlords of Restov to settle the wildlands known as the Green Belt. The group to our east is led by Maegar Varn, the 3rd son of Androth Varn, a baron of Issian descent. Since he doesn't stand to inherit his father’s title or holdings, founding a colony in the Stolen Lands is his best chance to make his fortune. He has no particular loyalty to Brevoy but nothing to gain from openly rebelling. It seems unlikely that the lapse of communication was intentional.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” I said.
“I do not,” Cane replied.
We had been asked to investigate the matter by the great Aldori swordswoman Jimandi Aldori. I’ve seen her plead many times at judicial duelings and she’s never lost a case nor killed a client.
As we made ready to depart you showed me the jade ring you bought at the market, a token of Erastil in anticipation of the coming spring, you said. There were antlers delicately scribed around its torus. I'm glad that you are embracing the old ways, as did your Father. May you find the happiness and fulfillment that he did. He would be proud at how the seed he planted has grown.
Before leaving we were petitioned by all sorts of folks with business in the east. Eddris Harbrill, a local businessman, offered 3000 gold pieces to find a mother-of-pearl broach. If we happened upon his brother Tomen along the way, he said we could rescue him, as well.
We were also asked to find:
Since Piea had not yet returned from her honeymoon with Arven we decided to leave without her. Rumor had it that she has already slain the boy in a fit of passion best left to the poets to describe. We asked Bert to send her after.
We followed the road north out of town, the browns and grays of winter limned with verdant shroud, countryside vibrant with Erastil’s blessing, “aborning with the optimistic shoots of spring.” That first night we camped at Bokken’s hut, eating rabbit stew and gossiping with the old man who often forgot what he was talking about in mid-sentence, staring at the moon with open mouth until he would abruptly begin speaking again, also in mid-sentence, as often as not on a differing subject.
The next morning we started east onto uncharted prairie, eventually turning south until we reached the cascade of the Shrike River, swollen with spring melt. That evening we argued over where to travel next. Lev wanting to visit the Issian forts to our north, Kelm wanting to go straight to the mystery at Varnhold. Since our time is limited we decided to investigate Varnhold.
|Watchtower at Varnhold Pass|
I could make out about fifty buildings in the distance but nothing stirred except the wind and a large flock of crows. On a hill overlooking town a triangular fort stood with a tower at one corner. Being cautious, we spent a cold night watching and were rewarded by seeing campfires at the fort but none elsewhere. Truly, the town was dead.
We broke camp the next morning, still lacking Piea.
“Who needs a girl on a diplomatic mission?” Lev reasoned.
Carefully we approached the town, seeing few structures on our side of the river. We approached a ramshackle farmhouse, recently constructed and poorly built. Behind it sprawled a mud-filled enclosure and a covered shed. An unholy admixture of death and offal polluted the air.
Cane and Sizzles entered the farmhouse first, finding nothing but filth, making them wonder which side of the fence the pigs were living on. In the pigpen they discovered half-eaten corpses littering the pen. From out front we heard the roar, then squeal, of a huge feral hog but by the time we’d hurried to the back of the building Cane and Sizzles stood waiting, covered in blood.
We found nothing in the nearby houses, abandoned about three weeks before—one house even had an an uneaten dinner left in haste, moldy and picked over by wild things. Nothing else.
On the right was a tannery, filled with hides stretched on racks, in various stages of curing. There we found three stretched horsehides, strangely incomplete above the withers. “. . . like they came off a centaur!” Lev suddenly ejaculated. “There’s a tribe living east of here called the Nomen.”
“The townies probably had this coming to them,” Kelm mused softly.
Lastly there was a large two-story building partially overhanging the river bank. A wagon sat on the loading dock with a pair of barrels and another on the dock itself. A sign above the door was a painting of a barrel and a smiling dwarf—Cheerful Delver Stout, it read. In the office the books showed the last transaction had occured over three weeks before, confirming our guesses. We rested a moment, tapping a barrel of the beer and drinking thirstily. An earthy dark beer, quite tasteful. . . . Under a loose floorboard we found a locked box. Lev quickly jimmied it open, revealing 115 gold pieces and the recipe for the beer, worth about 50 more. No one felt too badly about taking the receipts for our own. If the centaurs have the villagers they will never need these things. If we do find them we'll offer restitution.
The road sloped steeply downward toward a wide and shallow crossing called Sellen Ford. It was muddy with the recent rains to the south. The opposite bank rose with a gentler slope into town. It was about four feet deep but just to the east it eddied into a deeper pool. Predictably, just as Cane, Sizzles, and I were crossing, the water churned violently. With sudden roar a river troll—known as chuul—rose from the depths, grasping Cane and pulling him under the turgid water.
Startled, I retreated to the bank to Kelm’s rancorous scorn. (You’re too young for me to repeat what he said to me, but I deserved it.)
The lobster-like chuul has a thick armored shell with a pair of tiny fish eyes above a mouth of writhing tentacles. Sizzles struggled to keep Cane’s head above water but the creature soon had paralyzed the ranger, dragging him to the deepest part of the river.
I shot it feebly with the longbow. By Erastil, Kelm was right, I should have tried to pull Cane away when he was first grabbed. I watched in despair as bubbles of his breath emerged from the roiling water.
“I blame Piea,” said Kelm.
“I blame Piea, too,” Lev agreed. “And I blame Arven.”
“I blame Arven, too.”
A sudden blast from a misjudged spell left Lev blinded and stumbling. In his place Vlad moved down the bank casting shield other on Cane, taking half his damage. Spurred by Kelm’s ridicule I reentered the water only to sink like a stone. It was a sad day for poor old uncle Marquand, rivaling that of the hero of Cordobles Cinderlandia, the song Trinia Sabor sang so sweetly at her one-woman show.
Cane continued to struggle beneath the waters as Kelm peppered the chuul from the safety of the shore. I tried to get behind the creature as its tentacles lashed me cruelly, then held me tightly, pulling me under the water. As I lay paralyzed in its grasp I realized with horror that I had just made my second serious mistake of the fight. How many chances do I get?
It was later, after they’d pulled me coughing and retching out of the water, that I learned how Lev’s spell had bloodied the chuul, and burned him while Kelm continued his barrage. I remember seeing the bubbles of boiling water from below, feeling hope rising with them—after all, I’ve been dead before. Then the chuul tightened its grip. As the blackness closed in, I wondered if Ileosa still waits in the afterworld for her lover's return. . . .
I woke with Vlad fishing me from the water. “When he bobs this way get a stick!” Kelm shouted from the bank.
As I lay gasping beside Cane he told me that as he lost consciousness he was dreaming of returning in his next life as a barbarian, when he spied an underwater tunnel behind the monster’s lair.
After a short rest he slipped back in the water to find the cave, which led to the south but too far for him to follow. “I think it leads to the stockade,” he gasped.
Soon after he led Sizzles into the water again to reconnoiter the other side of the river. The first thing they noticed was a trap hidden cannily across the roadway. “Yo! Watch yourselves, it ain’t very welcoming,” he called across to us as we followed. Ahead, the roadway passed around a commons, an island of green in the roadway. There were farmhouses along the river's bank to the north. A large building appeared to be a two story inn. The rest were mostly shops and houses, a giant barn, and—glory to the gods!—a temple of Erastil.
The small home contained a loom and large reels of thread. On the floor were scattered dozens of wooden children’s toys. There were beds for the parents and four little ones. In the shadows a half starved kitty cat watched us distrustfully but Cane coaxed it out. “Aw, who’s a cute little kitty?” Cane cut a small piece of cheese, petting it on the neck and shoulders as it ate. "Tell me what happened", he asked it gently.
“My feeders left me in the red sun time when they heard the new bird song," he repeated to us after listening to its mewling. "I was busy eating a bit of fish and did not follow them out. My feeders did not come back and I am now very hungry.”
“We have plenty of chuul,” Cane told it.
We were pretty sure that “red sun time” meant early evening and “new bird song” was some sort of music.
“I avoid the new two-feets,” it finished.
We moved to a large, low building. There was harness for horse and a blacksmith’s anvil. Many horses and other animals had been left behind to starve. Large black crows picked at their remains.
Our mounts were as disturbed as we were by the sight so we led them back to the greensward in the middle of town but even there we discovered a corpse polluting the well. Cane pulled it up although it disintegrated to his touch, unrecognizable except for two large pointy ears that I recognized. “A spriggan,” I said with wonder. “A type of gnome. He’s a long way from home.”
“I really hate fey,” Kelm grumbled. There followed an argument whether spriggan were truly fey or some human variant.
Just off the Commons a large inn sat complacently under the sign of a runaway horse with great green mane and fish’s tail—the Waterhorse, walls of sun-yellow, shutters red as sunset. NOMEN was scratched across the front door.
“The centaurs in the hills?” Lev speculated. Or could they just not like men?
“Seems like a nice town to raise a family,” Cane added, looking around. “Quiet.
“Lots of toys.
“And a kitty.”
Inside the inn we found a table in the corner of the common room covered with papers. We were astonished to see another spriggan hunched there unmoving. He was quite dead, the back of his head shattered, face frozen in eager anticipation, as if he hadn't noticed he was dead. A shimmering nimbus of amber enveloped him.
Through it Lev studied the creature intently, then what it had found. “He read a sepia snake sigil!” he said in a hushed voice. "Then somebody bashed his brains in."
“Ha!” Kelm laughed.
As you know, the sigil is an arcane mark embedded within a text that catches the unwary like a rat in a trap.
The book in his hand was Secrets of the Rashalka Mounds by Ernst Gavinport. On the table we found several others:
• Iobarian Prehistory
• The Centaur Skyles of Central Casmaron
• The Untold Heritage of the Taldan Armies of Exploration
• an incomplete ethnography of the indigenous Centaur tribes of the Iobarian steppes—ending on a chapter arguing that the Nomen centaurs are a branch of the Rashalka centaurs that broke away in the distant past
• a number of charcoal sketches of a heavy jade bracelet
• a letter from Maegar Varn to Maestro Pendrod dated two months ago that describes the discovery of a "jade bracelet" on the banks of a "river of local provenance" by a treasure hunter named Willas Gunderson; the letter goes on to request the assistance of Pendrod in the study and identification of the artifact
We then went upstairs, finding the unmolested room of Ervil Pendrod. There were mundane books of reference and an ancient book of geography by Carmyn e'Brothasa, chronicler of Taldor's Third Army of Exploration to the north. (I’ll expect you to know the history of this period when I return.) One page of the text was marked with the words, "Vordakai—perhaps a Nomen centaur god?"
There was also a master craftsman’s biviola under his bed worth 1600 gold.
Thorough as always, we stopped to empty the inn’s till of:
• 37 gold
• 52 silver
• 114 copper pieces
Pendrod’s collection of books is worth 900 gold but Kelm packed them away for his mage tower in Tuskland.
“What about our library?” Lev protested.
“A mage tower is cooler,” Kelm replied. They continued arguing as we came down the steps where Cane was rifling the pockets of the ensorcled spriggan. He found nothing, but the aura surrounding the creature sputtered and dissipated. The spriggan fell to the floor with a soggy thump, head bursting open like an overripe melon as it hit the floor.
“He will live on in his research,” Kelm nobly declaimed.
The chapel had been looted, but that didn't mean much since there is very little at a place devoted to Erastil to steal. Outside the vomit on the wall it much the same as always. In a spot only an acolyte may know, hidden deep within the altar, I found:
• 3 scrolls of cure serious wounds
• 3 scrolls of remove paralysis
• 1 scroll of restoration
• 1 scroll of break enchantment
• 1 scroll of breath of life
• 1 scroll of raise dead
Behind the building was a cemetery with fourteen wooden grave markers, the most recent a woman known as Andrisha the potter, five weeks gone.
We next came to a large barn where we stood outside listening to an odd noise, sounding like a hive at a distance or a plague of locusts or . . . thousands of black rats gorging themselves on barley and other grains. Sizzles poked his nose through the door only to be immediately overwhelmed by a black carpet with needlelike teeth.
“How do you fight a swarm of rats?” I wondered aloud.
“With a swarm of cats,” Cane said, unconcerned about Sizzles's frightened yips.
Lev cast a burst of cold centered on Sizzles, giving the great wolf—black with squirming rats—enough room to escape from the swarm to the river, where she drowned them even as they continued gnawing her flesh. Hastily, we burned down the barn.
As the pall of smoke settled over the town we then entered a gemcutter’s shop. Once again, it had been looted of anything valuable except for an empty box that Kelm said glowed magic. Either it had contained a magic object or it was the object. In this case a folding boat. I tied it to a packhorse.
We saved the stockade for last. It sat on the high point above town surrounded by a palisade of sharpened sticks. The southern corners had twin watch platforms while the northern one was anchored by a thick timber blockhouse. A thin column of smoke could be seen drifting upwards. Evidently, they feared us not.
Cane carried a white flag as he and Sizzles approached the gatehouse, which formed a solid wall of sharpened stakes before him. We could see a number of helmets barely visible above the wall, but they were as unmoving as props on a stage. Cane quickly climbed the wall and opened the gates.
Along the courtyard fence were two storehouses, the blockhouse, and a stable. We also found a well and smoldering campfire.
We’re here to help,” Cane called sweetly. There was no reply.
The stable was empty, forge and anvil unused. Nearby was a toolshed and corral with nothing but sad, picked-over bones. A couple of mud and wood storehouses held overripe produce, roots and tubers, and tools.
We turned to the blockhouse. Cane went first, sauntering toward the door like he owned the place, only to disappear with a shriek down a trap much like the one he’d avoided earlier. We heard snuffling laughter from the other side of the door.
“Come out, we’re not here to hurt anyone,” Lev singsonged.
“Too late for that,” Cane muttered as he climbed out of the pit, spitting blood.
“Let’s talk,” Lev called again.
“We’re not talking to you,” came the nasal reply.
“You guys go away. We were here first.”
“Who are ‘we?’” Kelm wanted to know.
“Agai of the Culcheck tribe.” he paused. “You go away, okay? We were here first.” Another pause. “I’m going to count to three and then we’re going to fill you guys full of arrows and you’ll be so full of them your mama won’t know who you . . . won’t be able to tell you from . . . from an apple full of pins.”
A charming speech, I thought as Lev replied, “If you do that we’re going to burn the house down.”
“Your empty threats mean nothing.”
Lev popped a few fireballs—roman candle fingertips—like he does for the kids on PURK Independence Day, but they weren’t impressed.
“We’ve got a guy that can do that too!” Agai sneared.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not going to use it in your own house,” Lev rejoined.
“We will later when you guys are roasting on a spit—Mmm,” the Culcheck mocked in a low troll-like voice, “Man-flesh!”
Suddenly an arrow shot into our midst, thankfully missing us all. “I told no one to fire!”
“We are losing our patience,” Lev said.
“So am I. Four!” he began counting.
“Two-and-a-quarter . . .”
How had they avoided being eaten by that stupid chuul? I wondered as we readied ourselves. Nervous laughter came from inside.
Calling through the door, I commanded one to flee but we could hear as they restrained him.
Three chamber pots were dumped over the side onto us, Kelm getting the worst of the deal as Cane shot the finger off one of our tormenters. Sizzles scarfed it eagerly.
Shocked out of his torpor, Lev thumped the door with his darkwood morningstar. Cane added his shoulder to the barrier and their mocking laughter turned to screams as he and Sizzles broke through the door. They found a short hallway with another door barred at the end.
“If you let us in we may not kill you all,” Kelm, covered in spriggan shit, said testily.
“If you hurt one of us be assured that we will kill you all,” the normally mild Lev threatened after an arrow tore a hunk from his butt. I cast bane upon them.
One of then cried out, “We’re all going to die! Boo hoo hoo! We’re all going to die. Help!”
With a splintery grunt Cane, Sizzles, and Lev broke down the next door.
Once more it led to an empty room but Sizzles’s momentum carried her right to, and through, the door on the opposite side of the chamber. This one contained a well and barrels of water. From there was a hallway and flight of stairs leading to an empty guard room. Another held sacks of seeds, the floor spattered with bird droppings and feathers. One contained stacks of shining armor, while its twin held a bed, chest of drawers, and sparring dummy.
We came to a kitchen where Cane found a ladder leading up to the roof, sending Sizzles first. She yelped as we heard the meaty sound of two heavy crossbow bolts striking her deeply. Cane reported that she’d seen some giant fluffy-eared thing sticking its head around the corner. It reloaded and shot her again.
|Big spriggan--copyright Paizo|
A spriggan wacked Cane with his halberd and Cane returned the favor while I bound Sizzles's wounds. If a wolf could purr, she would have.
The rest of the battle was pretty rote although Kelm almost died. Vlad gave him succor as we retired to the Inn for the night hoping to welcome Piea in the morning.
Don't forget to say your prayers,