Prologue – Into the East
As the preparations for Richfest (the traditional Midsummer festival) were ramping up, Nuerque had made his way all the way to the High Walls of the Free City of Greyhawk from the remote village of Greysmere on his personal quest. He needed to find where the contraband merchant he’d help take down had been getting his supply of Twig Blight seeds. Even though he had defeated the threat of the terrible plague like creatures, this young Sorcerer was sure he’d not seen the last of the problematic trend. All indications of the problem at hand had pointed him here.
This young Half-Elf had never been this far into ‘civilization’. At best, he recognized the standard mounted patrol of Greyhawk Militia that kept the piece from banditry in the surrounding countryside. But this place vibrated with Wild Magic and endless opportunity. Resisting the call was hard.
A contact on the road gave him a name and place to start looking for more clues. It was called the Astarin Inn, located in the Low Quarter of the City itself. He was to try to make contact with Ian, the Proprietor.
The City was buzzing with activity. Festivals meant so much celebrating, but it also meant so much business. The Oligarchy that controls the Free Trade that Greyhawk’s markets hosted made sure that there was enough happening to keep the gates and ports to the Gem of the Flanaess wide open.
Nuerque made his way through the city streets. He was surprised when he did not meet and immediate security or guard. He was expecting to be taxed or at least documented like so many other towns tended to. While he did notice both posted and patrolling city guard, it was not difficult to recognize less official Watchmen and interest. Perhaps it was his mixed blood; a scrutiny he was used to.
Upon arriving in the Low Quarter, it was not hard to pick out the Inn. While much of the architecture was clearly from the previous century and cobbled with repair, this building stood out like a palace. The sign above the double-doorway even hung with a sense of Pride.
But before he could enter, there was a cry in the streets:
“Mage Mystery Manifests! Mordenkainen the Mighty Missing! 2 Coppers for the rest of the story!”*
A halfling child with a satchel full of scrolled papers was pitching the news and collecting a fair bit of coin for it. And as was doing his business, the news began filtering from the streets to inside the buildings. Nuerque noticed that after a couple of minutes, some happy patrons on the outdoor patio to the Inn were quickly wrapping up their board and beverage as if the news meant work to be done.
While most of the new traffic was leaving the Inn and heading North to the inner gate he just passed, the young sorcerer noticed an older Halfling dressed in casual and clean street attire leave another Inn, the Green Dragon, and enter the finer establishment. How had he not even noticed the competition directly across the street? The shining Inn was drawing his attention, compelling him to go there first.
He followed the Bard-looking little fellow inside.
The Main Hall was no less than intimidating. Marble floors and bright high ceilings, a majestic staircase along the left-hand side of the room formed an ascending highlight to the doorways at its base as well as beneath the steps. To the Centre, a greeting podium with book and quill, apparently, a place to make arrangement for a palatial stay. And on the right side of the room, a swooping arch the allowed entrance into a darker yet shinier Bar and Bench.
Inside the bar, he spotted immediately the person he was seeking. It was unmistakable; this high elf was Nobility personified, even though he was dressed down for the part. He stood behind the bar in a concerned stance, resting both hands on the wooden counter-top as if to hold it up. He was speaking quietly to a couple of humans, perhaps scouts of some kind. He made his way inside.
Crossing the threshold, the gentlest of breezes passed over Nuerque, probably a crosswind from the open patio doors. There were only a few people left inside; the bar now mostly empty. The Halfling male was just making his way to the barstool.
At another table, a robed human sat with a young scribe, the former intensely speaking to the other. The writer switched from pinpoint-like attention to writing down what must be every detail.
And near on side, in not so subtle field plate was a High Elven soldier of some type. He wore the tabard of the Order of Corellon, which was not hard to recognize. This gods worship was still pretty new in the land. The soldier seemed intent on Ian but held his place as a station.
As Nuerque found a seat, a young human woman greeted him and provided him with a menu. He only slightly listened to the specials and yet without being impolite, managed to accept the washbowl and towel offered. He requested the plowman meal and clean water.
It was at this point the Halfling managed to get Ian’s attention.
“Alright, Ian, what’s the scoop, eh? It’s not every day one of the Circle of Eight just up and goes missing!” he said.
Ian, only slightly surprised, considered the Halfling and answered. “Markas, isn’t it? Well, good sir, I appreciate your candor and initiative. It just so happens I may have a thought or two on that very issue.” Ian waved to the soldier to come closer while regarding the rest of the room. The soldier, only slightly surprised, did as instructed.
“As it turns out, this is some important news for everyone here. The Circle of Eight has been the magical protection for much of the Flanaess, even Oerik itself, for years. They’ve had their fallouts and conspiracies, but never have they faltered in their overseeing duties.” He explained.
“I need to know what has happened, and I need to know before anyone else. However, my resources are tapped at the moment. “ He looked at Markas. “Do you think you would be up to collecting the real story for me? I can provide coin and resources now and even a stage to tell your tale on upon your return.”
Markas indicated his interest as the Soldier shifted in his armor.
Ian looked at the other High Elf. “You are Vir, yes? You’ve been on this overwatch detail for some time. I think that is a pity. I mean, you are trained in field combat, aren’t you? What say you lend your sword to this cause?”
Vir considered the offer as well as his place in his company. “My station . . .”
“ . . . will be excused. Higher orders from the top!” Ian said, grandly, with a pinch of mischief. “I will make sure your High Cleric absolves the shift in duty. And, thank you for the service you have already performed. But, it’s time for you to get some action.” Ian grinned.
“I’m certain your party is going to need a hand and mind proficient in the Arcane,” the robed man called out. “Mordenkainen is, after all, known for his many titled spells.”
“Indeed, sir,” Ian acknowledged. “And you are?”
“I am called Ward. I am a student here at The University of Magic. And this young sir is my scribe, Tyron. He scribes for me. Together, with these other fellows and my grasp of the forces of Time and Magic, I am confident we can reveal the mystery at hand. I do love a good mystery.”
Ian was pleased. “Agreed. Your services would be valuable to these two, I am certain. Come closer and let me impart to you a bit of information you may need.”
And so the five of them spoke quietly at the bar, but not so quietly that Nuerque could not make out some details. They were to meet in the morning, and as long as none of his other “employees” came back sooner, they would comprise the party representing his interest. He would give them Guild Letters along with their supplies, that would pass as legal documentation of their claims under his, and the Inns, business operation. Papers keep adventurers out of trouble should issues of trespass and, more importantly, claims from other adventurers come up.
“Let us arrange the rest in more detail in the morning. I have well-stocked stables and ample supplies.” Ian announced louder as they concluded. The men departed, leaving just Nuerque to the remained of his meal. The bar fell quiet.
Nuerque took the opportunity to seek out Ian. He found the door to Ian’s office nearby ajar, so he knocked.
“Come in.” Ian greeted. “How may I help you? I hope you have found our provisions to your liking?”
“Oh, yes. It’s grand. Thank you! Well, I only just arrived in the city, and I was looking for your help.”
Nuerque began the retelling of his personal adventure immediately. Of the appearance of the Twig Blights and the raids on the farms. Of the corrupt range managers and their conspiracies to force the other ranchers and farmers to agree to terms and conditions else their crops and livestock fall victim to an unnatural siege. He told how he took up arms and how in the process his simple farm life opened up a road to adventure. His efforts garnered him some notoriety, but more importantly the will of the people to have him see this corrupt practice brought to an end once and for all. For while he revealed the twisted plot, there was still bad blood among the country folk and these means to harm had not been entirely vanquished.
Ian listened with intent and considered Nuerque’s words carefully. The half-elf was surprised how much he was willing to say about the situation, about others involved and even about himself. At one point he thought to himself, “I better shut up before I tell my life story.” And so he did. Eventually, Ian spoke.
“I believe I can be of some help to you, but not just yet. I’ll make you a deal. I will set my resources into motion with what you have told me. I have a group gathering in the morning on a matter of some importance. If you contribute your skill to theirs, I will aid you with this problem on your return. It is a paying assignment, and I can offer you the equal share of the salvage rights. Just return alive with the information I am seeking. Do we have a deal?”
Nuerque agreed. Ian arranged for his accommodations overnight and in the morning the party assembled, Ian requested they take to the road as Dawn broke, to get a jump on the other adventuring parties that were likely also to be jumping on the opportunity. Markas the Halfling was stifling a grin, saying “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Let’s just say I have a strong feeling the word on the street has people going every which way!”
And so they departed. Five Light Riding horses left the South Gate and headed on the road back to Greysmere. Their lead on Mordenkainen’s whereabouts was that he had left for the mythical town of Median on an unknown quest. Ian did not disclose how he had learned of this; he only indicated that his source was ‘as dependable as the sunrise.’ Markas knew from many stories told that this place was essentially a Flanish children’s tale meant to keep the wee ones from wandering too deep into the woods. Anyone who had ever gone off looking to verify the stories had never returned.
Markas decided to keep this little tidbit to himself. There was no point raising undue alarm. They would likely find the elderly archmage wandering about the woods, as archmages oft do. I mean, it’s not like he would not have accommodation. He has a spell that creates a dimension mansion wherever he wants. He knew this because the spell to invoke it bared the old wizard’s name,
The first couple days of travel were uneventful. The roads near the city were regularly patrolled and therefore bandit free. However, during midday of Day Three, out amidst the tall grasses and bare roadway, misfortune struck. A small pack of Jebli had dug themselves in on either side of the road. The heavy vibration of the horses walking hooves was enough to awaken these slumbering beasts and prepare their ambush.
The new fellowship made short order of the six rodent-like dog creatures. Amazingly, Ian’s well-trained horses did not spook or cause any additional damage. Each did their part to defeat the creatures, with little damage to themselves. Only Nuerque experienced a misfire of his newly acquired magics, evoking illusionary butterflies instead of raining fiery death as planned.
Of the five, only Tyran the Scribe did not act, helping with the horses. Upon recovering from the action, while the others assessed their damage, the scribe worked furiously to update his journals and notes.
The rest of the day’s activities had to be cut short to recover. The weren’t far from the road to Greysmere, but they weren’t heading that way. The path to Midian lied somewhere in the foothills to the east. After another sound and uneventful rest, they returned to the road.
A road which quit upon entering the foothills. There were a few landmarks on the hand-crafted map Ian had provided them. Once the known roads ended, they were to follow the well-tread paths further into the Urnstridge Mountains. The elevation began to climb steeply, too steep for a trade pass road. All the caravans took to roads north or south of mountains to bypass this hazard.
* * * * * *
Filandrea would have preferred to be back at barracks, performing her martial art drills rather than wandering through the foothills on patrol. At least then she could focus on improving her combat techniques. Following Shandra around the deer paths and stopping at every little hazard seemed futile at times, as there was never any real danger. But the patrol captain had given them orders to be on the watch for travelers. The word was that a group of adventurers would be wandering too far into Shantyran borders.
The most exciting part was that the patrol route took them near the Midian Wards. Before joining the Sisterhood, Filandrea knew nothing about that horrific place. It still fascinated her how someplace could be decreed both Sacred and Forbidden at once. Midian was a cursed place; a prison for her Goddess’ last and greatest mortal foil. And it was Shantyra’s Will that it remain cut off from all humanity.
Midian was the site of an old Oeridian settlement. What was once a thriving waypoint for mountain travelers was now literally a ghost town. The Patrols knew all the landmarks and signs to keep themselves and others clear. For it contained the undead remains of Shantyra’s old foe. Otherwise, it was supposed to be abandoned. And now it looked as if some idiotic, but probably innocent, travelers were about to find themselves too near it for anyone’s good.
It had not taken long for the two warriors to establish a shadow trail on the horse riders. The forest provided plenty of covers. But since there were only two of them it was some work to keep the travelers corralled and on the safest path. They did their best, but the riders seemed determined to head directly into the magic traps surrounding Midian as if they meant to.
Their orders were clear; keep themselves and any innocents out and safe, no matter the cost. When the party of men bypassed the last best path to achieve this, Filandrea had no choice but to block the way.
Stepping from out of the brush, the Wood Elf defied, “Halt! Ride no farther, lest you do not value your lives!”
The party stopped their horses, not exactly surprised but readily yielding the path.
The party questioned this new arrival about their whereabouts and the distance to the otherwise mythical Midian.
“You are close. Too close. I cannot allow you to proceed.” the wood elf answered.“So it IS real!” Markas piped up.
As the questioning continued, Shandra made her presence known as well. She appeared by dropping out of the tree branches onto the path directly behind the party.
“Why would you seek out such a dangerous place? You are either fools or misguided.” Filandrea assessed the group. Only one apparently combat trained among them, and he was over-armored at that.
“We are on a trek to locate a missing person. We think that he sought out Midian for his reasons. We came to find the truth of it.” said Ward.
“There has been no report of any travelers in this region. And had they managed to slip into our perimeter here; I doubt there would be a trace left beyond this point.” Filandrea informed.
“Perimeter of what?” Nuerque asked.
“These are the protected lands of the Domain of Shantyra, our Ruler, and Goddess. No man treads upon these hills. We see to it.” Filandrea stood defiantly.
Shandra shot a glare at Filandrea, indicating that she should choose more thoughtful words. “What man believes he is capable enough to travel to Midian alone? Is he compensating for some shortcoming?” she taunted.
Ward offered more, “None other than the Archmage Mordenkainen. Perhaps you have heard of him? I doubt he is trying to prove anything to anyone. A Wizard of his talent goes where he pleases. We are only trying to confirm that his will lead him here.”
Shandra drew a concerned look on her face. She made her way around the party to approach Filandrea, speaking in a whisper.
“Stay with them. I can find out if their story rings true, but I will need to check in first. I will return soon with further orders.” Shandra explained. Then she made her way back into the brush, with only the slightest of sound. And then she was gone.
“So does this mean we can go?” Vir asked.
“I apparently cannot keep you standing here. If you must proceed, at least I can accompany you and keep you out of harm’s way. There are more dangers than just ancient magics in these woods.”
And so the party grew by one for the evening, which settled in quickly. It became apparent that the best decision was to camp again and await word from the wood elf’s companion. But as the campfire burned on, a mist was rising around them in the forest. The distance was lost to darkness and then obscured by the slow moving fog.
As food was served out, Filandrea reported, “It is going to be safer if we stay put until a larger contingent returns. We are on the very edge of the Midian border. Too close, in fact. Whatever tales or stories you have heard about this place are true. Death stalks the roads through that old town, and more than a few evil creatures walk free beyond its walls. I suggest that those who need all night to rest do so now. We will want as many eyes on the darkness as we can manage.”
The party made watch shift arrangements quietly. And as the night wore on, the temperature dropped and the need to keep the fire persisted. Cloaks and blankets warmed, but did not eliminate the persistent chill. And the ever growing fog all but blotted out the stars and moon throughout the night.
As the sun arose, the oppressive gray of the overhanging mists refused to yield anything but diffused light. But it was still very plain to all the observed that the surroundings of the camp were much different than the day before.