The Kingmaker

"Enter the Stolen Lands, a wilderness claimed by nobles, bandits, and beasts alike. Into this territory the fractious country of Brevoy sends its emissaries, tasking them with subduing the lawless folk and deadly creatures that have made it a realm of savagery and shame. Beyond the last rugged frontier stretches the home of voracious monsters, capricious fey, wily natives, and bandits who bow to the rule of a merciless lord none dare defy. Can the PCs survive the Stolen Lands, bring their dangers to heel, and lay the foundations of a new kingdom? Or will they just be one more fateful band, lost forever to the ravenous wilds?"

The Stolen Lands, a wild lawless place awaiting the hand of strong justice. A politically ambiguous place where many parties vie for control. Into this cauldron of woe walk five heroes-in-the-making to create their own nation. Patriots—but to what cause?

Kingmaker is a Pathfinder Adventure Path role playing game published by Paizo Publishing under the terms of the Open Game License. It provides a rich backdrop for a group of pioneers as they attempt to bring civilization to a wild, untrammeled land. This website is not published, endorsed, or specifically approved by Paizo Publishing.

This blog represents the letters of one of these characters, Marquand, a bitter, righteous man—an Inquisitor defending his faith in the deity Erastil against all the enemies of civilization.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Letter 16—It Meant Goodbye to Me When You Said Hello to Him

Dear Pino,
Ah, Tuskland, I’m always amazed at the sturdy pride of our little town. The streets are clean and most of the citizens are in bed by midnight. They worship the gods of their choice unless it involves bloodletting, soul-slaving, or the undead. Most of all they respect Erastil’s bounty.

Then again, there are the disaffected few, the ones who were disappointed that we’d returned emptyhanded from the quests we’d been given. We let them talk with Sizzles first, that usually settled their hash. Only the Stumble Inn’s chef seemed bemused at the fuss, offering us another quest, this time to find him a roc’s egg for a giant omelet he’s planning for Founding Day.

We'd also left the construction material we'd found behind. Lev was unconcerned, “Que sara sara,” he sang briefly before catching himself. “What will be will be.”

The night of the first full moon after we'd returned we met at the Stumble Inn, a strange brooding in the air. Kelm looked a whiter shade of pale, declaring loudly that there was an “omen a-portending” and running off to his tower. I felt a headache, a migraine less painful than disorienting. There was a bright white flash and then it was morning and I was lying on the floor. Most of us escaped with only bruises and scrapes (except for a cook who had fallen into a tub of boiling lard), but Lev was affected in a different way.

“I’m finally free to me myself!” he exalted, springing to his feet. He gave a speech explaining how things had suddenly changed for the better. We were all at a loss of what to say when a stranger emerged from the back, a man as ugly as a turn down a blind alley. Powerfully built, carrying a bow, he strode forward confidently. One eye was covered with a patch and his skin shone the gray-green of the half-orc. “I’m Trask of the Hundred Arrows,” he said in a voice like sandpaper on a rough board.

Lev seemed offended. “How can you shoot accurately with only one eye?” he scoffed.

“The arrow knows the way!” Trask replied smugly as he bellied up to the bar despite the early hour. He was a “zen archer,” he said, meaning that he is one with his weapon—Erastil’s weapon.

Piea had disappeared as soon as we reached town and we never saw her again. Adventuring with us lost its charm when she met Arven. Rumor has it that she’s also taken up with a pretty minstrel boy passing through town and, with Arven slung over her broad shoulder, head poking out of his sack curiously, has left town with him for parts unknown. Don’t be hurt that she didn’t stop to wish you goodbye, Pino. Many will pass through your life like the scent of lilacs on a balmy day. Wish her the best of luck, dear girl, and say a prayer for her men, too.

Kelm refused to leave his tower. “I’ve got to think about things,” he said as he shut the door. A lock clicked in place. Then another. And a third.

“We’ve lost two people here,” Lev groused, deciding to approach the ugly bowman we’d met earlier. “How good are you with that thing?” he asked pointing at the bow.

The man surveyed him carefully, noting his youth, the wisp of beard on his face, the scars earned in battle. “I’m the fastest you’ve seen but I’m not as good as those who come before,” he replied modestly.

“Show me.”

Before Lev could take a breath five arrows pinned a serving boy to the wall by his clothing, without giving him a single scratch. “I spent my youth in a cloister in Magnimar,” Trask rasped by way of explanation, “and I’m looking for work.”

“You are a very good bowman,” Lev cooed, inviting him to our table.

There were some dirty looks from some of our neighbors but Trask seemed unconcerned. “It’s okay, I’ve lived with this my entire life,” he said. “People are racists.”

Well, that got Lev worked up so he gave a speech before suddenly breaking into song, “about the Blackjack Davy,” and soon had the crowd holding hands and singing along with him.

“Guantanamera . . . Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira G-u-a-n-t-a-n-a-m-e-r-a”

People soon lost interest in Trask anyway, finding it far more entertaining to gossip about the change that's occurred in Lev since the full moon. To many, his coming out was shocking. “Yes,” Lev stated humbly, “I’m a Bard! I always was at heart.”

The gossips claim Lev changed as the result of jealousy over the attention Skot Skevins gets from the ladies, especially his lady, Ilse, who has often been observed in the company of Skevins while Lev is out adventuring with us. Still others attribute the “Curse of Gyronna.” Whose to say? At least Gyronna’s eyeball is safely locked in the mage's tower with Kelm.

Curious that the bowman might be a devotee of Erastil I ask him about his belief. “Let me tell you something about the gods,” he answered lightly. “They’re just here to make your life miserable.”

Don’t be alarmed at this answer, Pino. Many scorn the gods even as they bend to their will.

Lev surprised us further by revealing that he is also an accomplished tattoo artist, offering all of us magical tattoos. You can imagine my amazement as he’s given no hint of this talent before. It's like learning that your cat can read!

We filled Trask in on the shenanigans we’d uncovered in Varnhold. I wanted to talk about all the loose ends we’d left dangling but Lev was having none of it. We argued about the eventual border of Tuskland on the east and whether or not we wanted to incorporate Varnhold. I think it is an accursed place that no one will want to inhabit, the others see it as a resource, or at the very least a border town.

“It seems like we’re spending a long time on the destination when we could be on the journey,” Trask grumbled with some justification.

So once again we headed for the Tors of the Levenies, this time with a taciturn monk instead of a voluble fighter and self-absorbed oracle. Along the way we asked about a large black bird that has been terrorizing the countryside. We were told that it nested atop a place called Talon Peak—not because of the bird living there but because of the jagged ruins atop it, like a claw extended.
Talon Peak

“We’ll try and do it sneakylike and if we can’t we’ll do it sneakylike we’ll do it violentlike,” Lev said as we observed the roc’s aerie.

“In other words, we’re probably going to get violent,” Cane replied, “because we’re not very sneaky.”

“I know not what you speak of,” Trask objected. “I am very quiet.”

“I hope so, because I hate your voice,” Cane growled in reply.

Trask eyed him evenly. “Why don’t you come over and do something, buttercup?” he asked quietly.

Cane just laughed.

We observed the nest for a full day while awaiting the roc’s return. Its tower was an ancient thing of elven design seemingly here as long as the mountains. Trask volunteered to go up first but Lev reasoned that since he was the best archer he should stay below and watch for the roc’s return. Lev then asked Cane to try but he failed to scale its steep side. I did a little spelunking as a lad so I was the next up. Finding a rope in my backpack I tied Lev’s hook to it.

Meanwhile, my colleagues continued their stealthy ways by arguing over whether or not Trask could jump all the way to the top. He bounced past me several times before I was finally safely above him and soon I was at the alone.

I found that the nest had four eggs, each one weighing nearly 200 pounds. Laying our bag of holding on its side I was just able to muscle in two of the eggs where there were held weightless in extra-dimensional space. I wanted to crawl in after them when I heard a shout from below and realized that the roc was returning, honing in on me like Little Billee on a corndog. Hurriedly, I tossed the bag over the side, flinging myself after, hitting bottom with a painful thud. “Nice of you to join the fray,” Cane laughed softly at the sound of my groans.

Paizo Publishing
The boys peppered the roc as it squawked above us, retreating behind the crumbled tower wall but, before I could join them the roc descended upon me with vengeance in its eye, biting and grasping with its talons, carrying me aloft to drop on the rocks below. Suddenly, with a thump, I was back with my colleagues on the ground thanks to Lev’s new spell, dimensional hop. The only drawback was that my ears were assaulted with Lev’s singing, “To inspire courage,” he trilled.

I immediately cast searing light at the roc as it beat its wings furiously to escape overhead. Soon it was gyring high into the sky.

“We should probably kill it so it doesn’t attack one of our cities,” Trask stated drily, suddenly devoid of his growly voice and sounding remarkably like Kelm. “By the way, everybody knows about the owlbear that attacked some podunk village in the south,” he taunted us like a schoolyard bully. “Everybody’s laughing about it up in Restov. Was he that big, really?”

“Go see for yourself,” I protested. “We mounted it in Tuskland!”

“Everybody thinks that thing is stuffed,” he replied, aiming his bow at the giant creature above us, so far awya that it looked no larger than a rook. Lev directed his song toward him in support as Trask released his arrows. We endured his smug self-high-five as the roc quickly spiraled back to earth, crashing bitterly nearby. Even a roc loves its children, Pino.

We climbed back up to the nest to retrieve the last two eggs and search for things left by its victims. Meanwhile, Lev and Trask hiked over to the dying bird. “We need to take him back,” Trask insisted, “because he’s the People’s Roc!”

As in Varnhold I got the feeling that we were being observed.

“It could be the fey,” Trask shrugged. “It could be the centaurs, it could be ‘the area,’ or you could be crazy.” He jumped casually off the side of the tower intending to feather fall below. I could hear the sound of the air whistling through the fletching of his arrows, receding until a distant bang was heard.

“Ouch!” echoed satisfyingly to our ears.

We camped near the tower that night, seeing a mountain goat and a shooting star. “I will go and meditate on this,” Trask said, taking his leave. Spring is well along, even in the mountains, although it was still good to have a campfire’s warmth. We retired for the evening while our zen monk watched over us from afar. Lev and Vlad, who are like brothers—even two halves of the same mind—shared a bunk by an old oak tree. Cane has his Sizzles to spoon with, her fur so warm he doffs his clothing before grooming her. I settled into a nook near the fire where I write you this letter while waiting for sleep to come.

It’s a hard life but I do it without complaint because I believe in the vision your father shared with me when he first told me about his dream of settling the Stolen Lands. At first, of course, I was incredulous, but later, as I reflected on my life as a functionary in a corrupt system, settling disputes amicable between rapacious lords while hanging their servants for the same crimes, I began to envy him, daring to think that Erastil might find a use for me as well.

The next day we returned to Varnhold but finding that nothing had changed except the yards were now overgrown and the stink of the dead had resided. We then skirted the mountains to the south before ending in a valley where a stream rushed down from the mountains. The way was littered with boulders and other signs of ancient glaciation. As we passed one formation we heard a strange, buzzing voice calling out, “You . . . you’ll help me, yes?”

“Who are you, yes?” Lev asked as we peered into the shadow of an outcropping.

Paizo Publishing
A dark shape moved hesitatingly forward. “Help me, yes?” It said, this time in Aklo. “I have . . . problems . . . stay back, you probably wouldn’t like the looks of me. Step back and we can talk.”

Leading our horses away from the creature we waited for the creature to slowly emerge from the shadow—one, two, four, eight spindly legs with an immense spider’s body and the head of a human.

“Is she pretty?” Cane asked, struggling to see.

“You do know that spiders eat their mates?”

“My name is Zzamas,” she said quietly. “Near here is a point where the boundary between the ethereal plane and the material plane is thin. I have become trapped here by a group of xill who seek to capture me. If you will help me I will give you a fancy chest.”

Zzamas is what is known as a “phase spider,” which means she moves from the ethereal plane to ours, usually to hunt. Phase spiders hate the xill the way little Billee hates soap and water. As you’ve learned from school, the xill are not only evil, but righteous about it, which is far worse.

“You help me, yessss?” she asked again, waving two legs rhythmically like a conductor.

“We seek a tower,” Trask interrupted, using his new city accent.

“The ghost stone,” she continued faintly, voice nearly overwhelmed by rushing water. “There is a monolith near here where the xill are encamped.”

“Um-hmm-hmm-hmm!” Lev hummed like a tuning fork with anticipation.

“There are six of them.”

“And you’re going to help us fight them?”


“I think we can trust her,” Lev cautioned as we readied to horses to ride, “but be ready just in case.”

Zzamas led us back out of the valley and around the mountains to the east. “The xill and phase spiders are long-time enemies,” she lisped breathlessly the few times we could coax the horses near enough to hear her speak. “It’s territorial. You wouldn't understand. Ghost stone. You wouldn’t understand. You know nothing.”

Toward late afternoon we came upon a stone gray monolith. The spire was fifteen feet high, its weathered  sides decorated with archaic elven runes. The xill were camped nearby, no doubt cheating at cards and waiting for Zzamas's return to grab her. "Watch out for their bite," she whispered, "it paralyzes."

We caught them daydreaming—Cane, Trask, and myself poring arrows into their position like hail. Then I pulled out my sword and charged. They fought back desperately, first Lev and then Vlad succumbing to their bites. But Zzamas’s bite proved much worse—instant, painful death.

Trask was the deciding factor, firing a constant rain of arrows over our remaining foes as first Cane, then Sizzles succumbed to rigid paralysis. I fought with desperation, but thanks to Zzamas and Trask, we finally overwhelmed our xillish foe.

After we’d made sure our paralyzed colleagues were still breathing, Zzamas gave us the chest she’d promised then turned to the ghost stone and disappeared without another word.

On the dead critters we found:
5 heavy shields
10 short swords
10 longbows
200 arrows
The chest was worth 5000 gold pieces and is the focus of some sort of spell that we can’t unlock. I tried, as Cane cringed expecting me to be brutally ensorcled but, fortunately, there was no trap.

As the shadows grew long I once again had the feeling that we were being watched and this time Trask told me that he had seen a raven lurking nearby. We discussed whether to return to town with the chest hoping Kelm could find a way to open it, finally deciding to leave this place behind before dark because the ghost stone beginning to glow and we didn't want to spend the night nearby.

The next day we traveled southeast, skirting the plains until we came to a wide valley. Posts tied with bones and skulls stood like sentinels every 50 or 60 feet—a warning from the Nomen. As the foothills grew into mountains so did our sense of foreboding. A mile past the bone totems the first of a vast number of badly weathered gravestones appeared. They bore ancient cyclopean runes.

“Dude,” Trask said, “This is messed up—cyclopean gravestones?”

The valley narrowed as the Levenese towered above us. At its very nape a fifteen foot wide stone staircase ascended as far as the eye could see. Trask took the point as we ascended upward, then down—one mile, two miles, three, four, five. Up ahead a dark shape moved. It’s dead single eye staring at us malevolently.

“Bleargh,” it cried.

Lev the Bard began singing:

No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry
Said said
Said I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Restov
Oba, ob-serving the hypocrites
As they would mingle with the good people we meet
Good friends we have had, oh good friends we've lost along the way
In this bright future you can't forget your past
So dry your tears I say

No cyclops, no cry
No cyclops, no cry

Oh my Little sister, don't shed no tears
No cyclops, no cry

Said, said, said I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Restov
And then Georgie would make the fire light
Log wood burnin' through the night
Then we would cook corn meal porridge
Of which I'll share with you

My feet is my only carriage
So I've got to push on through
But while I'm gone . . .

Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright
Everything's gonna be alright

No cyclops no cry, no cyclops no cry
No cyclops no cry, no cyclops no cry

Oh my Little darlin', don't shed no tears
No cyclops no cry
Little sister, don't shed no tears
No cyclops no cry
* Many, many, many apologies to the ghosts of Vincent Ford and Bob Marley.
“All right,” said Cane. “An undead cyclops.”

With a shout of poetry Lev staggered it briefly, but then it charged again as Trask spilled its intestines to the ground. Nothing could stop it until it simply stopped.

We garnered:
Masterwork batttleaxe
We trudged three more miles along the staircase until coming to a place where a jagged limestone cliff ended with a mighty waterfall rushing into a wide black pool. In the center of that pool stood a massive 100 foot plinth of weathered stone—the last lonely sentinel marking where the cliff’s edge once stood. Plumes of water vapor wafted into the sky, 600 feet across.

We decided to rest. Unfortunately, we were spotted by wyverns and attacked from the sky.

Lev started singing:

Wyvern, you won’t do your sister’s will
Wyvern, you won’t do your sister’s will
You went out and harried
But I love you still
**Double sorry, Little Richard

We teamed up to kill them and later Trask showed us how to take out the poison vein. No matter what they say, wyverns are good eatin'.

Which reminds me, be sure to brush your teeth,
Uncle Marquand

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Letter Fifteen—Nomen's an Island

In the morning our prayers were answered when Piea rode in with the morning sun. Her sleek skin was well-fed and well-oiled. The life of a married woman seems to be agreeing with her.

“That’s damn good timing,” Kelm said, peering at her nearsightedly through his thick spectacles.

On the back of her horse she was carrying a large burlap sack. Every once in a while the sack would move and a low moan would escape. “Just a bag ’o wildcats,” she said. “Pay it no mind.” When we continued to stare, she shrugged, “Mama said to always keep an eye on your man.”


She glanced back at the sack. “Oh, I let him out once in awhile to play.”

Let this be a lesson to you, Pino:
  1. There are all kinds of love.
  2. Never let a man put you in a sack.
After breaking our fast with groats we searched the stockade, finding:
  • type 2 bag of holding with:
    • 6000 gold pieces
    • assorted coins and jewelry
  • payroll coffer with 500 gp
  • gems worth 3500 gp
  • +2 defending longsword with the crest of House Varn
  • wand of spectral hand with 17 charges
  • ring of friend shield
  • darkwood and ivory +2 thundering composite longbow (The workmanship consonant with the several of the centaur tribes of Iobaria.)
  • building supplies
The longbow is an exquisitely made weapon and I took it gratefully. The bow was heavy and the grip well worn with use. It took all my strength to draw back the string and the power of its strike shook the leaves from the trees and blew up a whirlwind of debris. Lev accepted the ring and Kelm the longsword.

The quarters of the Master Dispatch had been destroyed with all his belongings. It seems spriggans are more interested in destroying than acquiring. We found a few scraps of communication with Restov mentioning conflicts with a tribe of nomadic centaurs known as the Nomen, but no hint at what may have befallen the village.

“Is it possible someone is setting the Nomens up?” Kelm speculated.

That’s when we spied a structure we’d previously overlooked—a sod house sunk into the base of a hill, its heavy oaken door hanging askew. Piea went in cautiously, but found no one there. It had been looted but, typically for the spriggans, they’d overlooked a small wooden box about the size of a wizard’s spellbook containing a healthy wad of zong and a pipe. Lying nearby was a book torn in half along its spine. The writing was in Skald, a language I studied at Academy for its poetry.

It was the journal of Willis Gunderson, a ranger in the company of Maegar Varn. It logged several skirmishes with the Nomen centaurs. The last entry was two weeks before our arrival concerning a minor incident at Varnhold Pass. Six weeks before an entry read: “Found bracelet by the river!” Someone had tried to rip the tough parchment page and failed. The next page was of a single large rune inscribed with charcoal—an arcane elven symbol warding off bad luck.

We headed east onto the plain, finding nothing and no one. After hours riding in the midday sun we suddenly realized that we were riding through a vast tract of large burrows, as if the land had been invaded by a giant race of moles. That’s when the ground began vibrating ominously. With shouts of dismay we dismounted as, with a shriek and a huge spray of dirt, a ferocious, snarling bulette surfaced.
Bullete by Ben Wootten

Bulettes are compared most often to an armored shark, but at least with a shark you can stay in the boat. With the ferocious bulette you generally find a rocky outcropping or die.

Or you fight, which is what we did, and so quickly did my colleagues dispatch the beast that I barely had time to set up my spiritual weapon before it was dead.

Since there was unlikely to be another of the predators within many miles we set up camp for the night and had a good steak dinner. By next morning's light we headed south until happening upon eight centaur warriors. They were not friendly, either, pawing the earth with their front hooves urgently, hands clenching their spears and bows with white-knuckled fury, as if willfully holding them back.

“No tread. Your presence here is dread, mon,” the first one said, shaking her big clumpy spikes of hair.

“It’s Jar-Jar!” someone from the back cried derisively.

“Where did you get that?” another demanded angrily, this time speaking in common, pointing at my new bow.

“We found it in the ruins of Varnhold.”

Loudly, they demanded I return it.

“Take us to your leader and we’ll negotiate,” Lev replied reasonably enough. They bristled nonetheless.

“That’s our Skybolt!" they screamed. "It’s sacred!”

“Please allow us the honor of returning it to your chief,” calmly, Kelm answered them.

Courtesy Paizo

They agreed, grudgingly taking us to their camp, another hour’s ride through a sea of grass. It sat on a low hill. A large bonfire crackled in the center, although they must have traveled dozens of miles to get the wood.  Around it, the tribe’s females sat in a circle, humming. Younger warriors stood outside the circle, cleaning armor, sharpening swords. They took us up to the circle and one of the women, red of hair, approached. She introduced herself as their leader, Aecora Silverfire.

Lev explained that we were investigating the atrocities that had occurred at Varnhold but she only had eyes for the bow. “Where did you get that?” she demanded.

“We found it in the stronghold,” I said. “Some spriggans had it.”

Her voice became as chill as the wind off the lake of Mists and Veils in mid-winter. “There are about 200 warriors here in this camp,” she said in a deep growl. “You need to give me the bow!”

I’m not used to giving in to threats but I also had the desire to see justice done and, obviously, this bow had been obtained by someone through foul play. “I'm honored to return this beautiful weapon to its people,” I said gravely, handing it to her with careful ceremony.

She gazed at it closely before handing it off to another. I could read love there, and fear. “What brings you?” she said, turning back to us.

“We were looking for the Nomen who were responsible for the cleansing of Varnhold,” Kelm replied carefully.

“I know that place. We’ve had our issues with Varnhold.”

“Everyone there has vanished.”

“Why ask me?” After a moment’s pause, “Have you tracked down the Culcheck spriggans? They were probably involved.”

“There were some spriggans there,” Kelm answered. “They were pretty inept. They could not have caused an entire town to disappear.”

“I’m afraid that I can’t help you,” she coldly dismissed us. She's telling the truth, of that I have no doubt.

 We tried to parlay further. I even tried to entice her with a description of PURK’s bountiful zong harvest. Centaurs do love their herb, don’t ask me why, but it might explain their suspicious natures. We made her a present of the box we’d found and its contents.

“Where’d you get that?” she said suspiciously.

“Varnhold,” we spoke as one.

“It belonged to my brother . . . he disappeared about three weeks ago. Did you see any centaurs in Varnhold?”

“There were several skins,” Lev blithely volunteered. A shiver ran up my spine at the look on her face. She said something in a dialect I did not understand but her tone was clear.

Smoke was coming out of Kelm’s ears as he turned toward Lev. “You don’t—what—you don’t—You say, ‘We found some remains that were properly disposed of with all ceremonial rights.’ You don’t say, ‘Yo! We saw some skins!” They continued arguing until suddenly Silverfire spat noisily on the ground.

Piea was about to spit back but we grabbed her in time to avert certain tragedy, or your uncle would not be writing these lines.

“You realize that there are 200 of them surrounding us,” Cane said from the side of his mouth.

“Phaa! That’s what my great-axe is for!” Piea sniffed.

Kelm tried again with the centaur leader. “To show our friendship we returned to you the things that belong to you,” he said, trying to establish a quid pro quo with her, but she was having none of it. “We’re looking for information about Varnhold,” he pleaded, “and what happened to its citizens.”

“I don’t know and I think we should stop talking to each other,” she replied brusquely.

After a short pause Lev decided to push our luck a little further. “We’ll leave you in peace with one final question.”


“We’re looking for a jade bracelet . . .”

“I don’t know anything about a bracelet.” She turned, walking quickly away as several of her lieutenants closed ranks, scowling down at us.

“Drop by Tuskland sometime,” Lev called after her. “We’d love to see you. . . .”

We gave up with that. Either she cared a great deal, or she cared not at all, either way defeats our purpose. We were given an escort, less for our security than to ensure we didn’t wander back.

Our conclusion was that someone was trying to frame the Nomen for this crime. But whom? What have we missed? Who murdered the spriggans? And why would such an inept bunch then wait around for us to show up and kill them?

We went west next. On one sleepy afternoon we saw some crows by the roadside near a dead mother cat, still protecting her kittens. Piea took one as a pet, stuffing it in the bag with Arven, and I got one for you, too, dear Pino. I’m calling her Sizzles, Jr., but you can call her anything you want.

We returned to Varnhold in hope of finding more clues, but it all came to naught, later earning a scolding from Bert Askew for wasting time. Even so, I had the distinct feeling of being watched while we were there. Where was Maegar Varn? What has the bracelet got to do with things? Who's this Vordakai? We studied the clues we’d been given but drew a blank, like little Billee at show-and-tell. With Lev yawning from boredom we decided to head back the Tuskland.

Studying a map Kelm saw that we could easily take our folding boat down the river to Tuskland.

“That’s smart!” Lev said in astonishment.

“You said that like you were surprised,” Cane replied and we all had a good laugh.

Later, we came back to the mountains at the headwaters of the Shrike River. There we discovered a large, recently vacated cave. Everything inside was smashed.

After following alongside the waters while they raced down a deep ravine to the plain below, we finally found a quiet spot we could unfold our boat to place in the water. It was quite comfy, with room for our horses, men’s and women’s privies, a mess, lounge, rumpus room, and servants' quarters. In a short cove we discovered a smashed rowboat that had recently been unearthed by storm or earthquake. Inside, covered with moss and dirt, grinned a pock-marked skeleton. A gold locket suggested he had died nearly 200 years ago, when this land was Erastil’s.

The water of Lake Silverstep is as clear as winter’s morning, the air as fresh as a bite from a lemon. So it surprised us to see a three mile swath of the northern lakeshore bubbling with sulfurous mud. As much as we wanted to investigate we could not stop, having important business in Tuskland that could not wait.

Ah, it was wonderful to finally be home, sharing dinner with you, Pirna, and Bert. I introduced you to your new little friend, whom you immediately named Nymeria. While you two were getting acquainted I met Bert’s son, little Ernie Askew, who has been living with his aunt in Brunderton until his daddy could send for him. I hope you become great friends.

Later, I went to the tavern to meet with Old Beldame, who promised to tell us what she knew about the centaurs if we stood her for beer—she’s a stout old dame. I saw her give Kelm the eye while she told us about Nomen belief. Apparently, they’re the guardians of an ancient valley in the Dunsward. Concerned, Kelm sent Aecora Silverfire a message by bird feather token asking her to explain this legend. Then he went home with the Old Beldame. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino, never underestimate adversaries or friends.

“According to Nomen tradition,” Bert Askew lectured us in the Common Room two days later after receiving her reply. “Vordekai is a slumbering warlord in the time of the Mother tribes, an ancient power figure,” he said she’d written.

But there was this little bit more. “There is an evil place in her tradition that her tribe is supposed to watch the valley to the west and south against disturbance, a place they call Olah-Kakanket—the Valley of the Dead! Taboo to the Nomen.

“‘Recently one of my scouts,’” he read excitedly, “‘claims that she saw a large lumbering shape amid the stone of the Olah-Kakanket—I can only wonder that maybe your friends from Varnhold awoke this entity.

“‘The scout that saw the shape was my own daughter, Samantha. She has since disappeared and I fear the worst—that she has defied tradition and entered Olah-Kakanket.’”

“Good Lord!”

“And that’s all the information they have. They’ve lost much of their archives in the years following their battles with the Taldorian army.”

Bert tossed the letter into the air. “And this sainted woman is the one you slandered as standoffish!”

“Time to go back,” Kelm and Lev said as one.

“‘I would warn you against going into the valley of the dead’” Bert snatched the letter back from the floor, “‘but if you do and you find clues of my daughter’s disappearance I’ll be very much appreciative.’”

At Kelm’s suggestion we sent her a message thanking her for the information. “When we enter the Valley of the Dead I will make certain to look for your daughter as our paths take us into that dreadful place,” he wrote.

“Are we really going to go back?” Cane asked.

“We have to,” Lev replied. “We have to.”