The doors of the Wanderer’s Respite tavern swing open, slamming against the stonework. The cold night air drifts inside, encroaching on the warmth of the large hearth. Several startled patrons immediately reach for their weapons, eager to come to the defence of their beloved watering hole.
A cloaked man stands in the doorway, a mere silhouette against the darkness outside. He is supporting a barely conscious individual by the shoulder. Both are heavily injured, their hair matted to their faces, caked with mud and grime. The cloaked figure barges inside, shouting for assistance. He limps his way to the nearest stall and gently places his wounded companion on the bench. He takes off his cloak, revealing the face of a human man in his twenties, though grimy and bruised. His short beard looks messy and singed. He unhooks the scabbard holding his claymore and sets it down next to the bench before taking a seat beside his companion.
The owner of the establishment and guildmaster of the Trailblazers, Marcus Kessler, immediately rushes up to aid the exhausted and wounded men. He signals a waitress to bring food and drinks and orders another servant to fetch some medical supplies. He recognises the man immediately as Vargus Longwinter, a member of his Trailblazers guild.
“Gods have mercy Vargus, what happened to you? Where is everybody else? Who is this guy you dragged in here?”
Vargus grabs him by his sleeve and in an exasperated voice says, “They’re dead Marcus! All except Jon. And we barely made it here with that shadow chasing us! We were foolish, we just charged in, but we were not prepared. They killed them all!”
“Calm yourself son, you are home. You are safe here,” the innkeep replies as he pulls up a chair. “Start at the beginning. Last I saw you you were gearing up to go south of the river. What happened?”
After taking a deep breath and clearing his throat Vargus visibly relaxes and starts explaining.
“We crossed the river at Stillbend, then rode south east for a few days. We found an old Dwarven stronghold to the south near the mountains. We did our usual scouting too before we went in!”
He grimaces as he massages his bruises. He takes a drink from the mug of ale provided by the servants. After a long sigh he continues, “I thought we were thorough at least… It was occupied by some Orcs. We thought we could handle it, we’ve dealt with the beasts before.”
“Everything was going according to plan. We defeated some Orcs without raising the alarm and got in undetected. We got to a large cavern below the stronghold and what we found was definitely no Orc! There was a large… machine. It was basically a massive walking suit of armour. It had a strange otherworldly bluish glow coming from inside and was covered in strange markings. It was old too, looked like it had been in a few fights.”
“Jon said it was definitely evil and must be undone, so I just did what I’m good at; I charged the damn thing.” He stares at the table, clutching his drink with quivering hands. Tears start rolling down his face as he starts sobbing. “It was my fault Marcus, I shouldn’t have attacked the damned thing! They’re all dead because of me! I killed them all!” he shouts as he slams down his mug on the heavy wooden table.
Marcus puts his hand on the man’s shoulder and does his best to console the sobbing man. “No. It was not your fault, son, do not say such things. We have vowed to seek out and vanquish the evils of the empire and that is what you did. There is no blame, son.”
A wave of calmness comes over the warrior’s face as he exhales deeply and takes another swig of his drink.
After gathering his courage he continues, “our spells did almost nothing to it and its armour was so thick we could hardly make a dent in it. Arrows simply bounced off.”
“It was terrifying, Marcus. Every time it moved it made a ghastly noise, like a bone-chilling agonised scream coming from deep within.”
“It killed Ythello in a single blow with its massive, glowing fist, slamming him into the wall. After that it just stepped on him, like he wasn’t even there. It crushed his skull Marcus, there’s no way we could bring him back from that.”
“I did my best to protect the others, but the damn thing just knocked me aside and went straight for them. Tenriel tried every spell she could muster, but none of them seemed to do very much to the monstrosity. It blasted her with a blinding energy bolt several times. Unrelenting, it kept going until she was dead. I tried everything I could, but I just couldn’t stop it, Marcus. I didn’t know what to do!” He tries his best to repress his emotions, but he is visibly shaken.
Marcus beacons the waitress to refill the cup held in Vargus’ trembling hands and allows him some time to breathe.
A few gasps and murmurs escape from the gathered patrons. Marcus directs a stern glance in their direction and gestures to the crowd to give the man some space. “Please, continue Vargus.”
As the crowd slowly disperses he resumes his tale.
“Luckily it suddenly just stopped, like it ran out of energy or something. There was a whirring noise and some clanks and then just… nothing. And it wasn’t a moment too soon neither! We were all on our last legs. Everybody had taken a severe beating from this abomination. While Jon was tending to Tenriel I pried the thing open, to make sure it wouldn’t start up again.”
“I’ll never forget it. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it. It was ice-cold to the touch and every inch the cover moved resulted in another echoing scream and a stream of blood flowing from the opening. Turns out that sound was this guy right here, trapped inside”, as he points toward his silent companion.
“The inside was gruesome, like an iron maiden, with thick black spikes going deep into his flesh, blood caked all over the interior. The putrid stench pouring forth was almost unbearable. It took quite some effort to pull him out of there too.”
Marcus screws up his face in disgust. “You mean to tell me someone built a walking iron maiden and put this guy inside? That’s horrible… Was he controlling the machine or something?”
“No, Jon thought it was draining his energy to power the machine, or something. That’s why he is barely conscious.”
“He can hardly speak. I don’t think he can understand what we’re saying either, he just stares blankly at me whenever I ask him something. He tried talking to me, but I don’t understand a word of what he says.”
Marcus studies the ragged individual dragged into his establishment. He looks like a young man in his twenties, with a tanned skin. His frazzled dark brown hair is matted to his face and back. His whole body is covered with gaping puncture wounds and old scars. A dirty long blanket has been wrapped around his shoulders.
Vargus tugs on the Guildmaster’s sleeve, pulling him close. In a harsh whisper he says, “you’ve got to see this Marcus! Here, take a look.” He gently pulls down the back of the blanket just enough so Marcus can see the man’s shoulders. Two blackened, ragged stumps protrude from the shoulder blades, covered in dried blood and surrounded by necrotic tissue. They twitch slightly as the blanket is pulled away. “I don’t think he’s human,” Vargus whispers in his ear.
The guildmaster’s eyes widen in amazement and he quickly covers the man up again. “Don’t mention this to anyone, it may cause trouble,” he whispers back. He straightens his clothing and sits back on his chair, lost in thought for a moment.
“Did the clerics heal him?” he asks.
“Yeah they tried, but hardly any effect,” Vargus admitted. “Jon also tried, but these are some nasty wounds. The bleeding stopped, but that’s about it.”
Marcus turns to regard the silent man and gently puts a hand on his wrist. “Mister, you are among friends, we mean you no harm. Can you speak?”
Up until this point the scarred individual was just sitting on the bench staring in the middle distance, unmoving. He hadn’t touched any of the food or drink provided, even though he looks thin and emaciated. When Marcus addresses him directly he gives him a blank stare. He speaks a few rasping words, but they are all in a strange, flowing and melodic language. He gives Marcus an apologetic look and shrugs, immediately grimacing from the pain caused by the small movement.
The guildmaster leans back in his chair, pondering what to do. “I’ll have to find an interpreter somewhere I suppose. Maybe one of the Mages can help.”
Vargus looks sullenly down at the table, his face saddened. “Tenriel would’ve know, I’m sure. She was always so good with languages…” He downs the remainder of his beverage and beacons for a refill.
“Excuse me, master Kessler?” a small, uncertain voice says behind the men. A young woman with flowing blonde hair has stepped forward and taps the innkeep on the shoulder.
“Apologies, I don’t mean to intrude on guild business, but I believe he is speaking the Celestial tongue. He just said that he doesn’t understand your language.”
Marcus looks over his shoulder at the newcomer. “Really? You understand him? Can you translate for us?”
“I haven’t heard the language spoken in quite a few years, but I will do my best,” she replies.
“Thank you, that is quite fortuitous!” He pulls up another chair and motions for the woman to sit down. “For starters, can you ask him for his name?”
After a few faltering starts she translates the question. The man gives her a benevolent smile and replies, which she translates back to the others. “He said to call him Sam.”
“Wondrous! Welcome to the Wanderer’s Respite, Sam,” Marcus exclaims. “Do not worry, we will treat you as one of our own.”
“And to you miss, I have a feeling you are going to be a great help in this situation! What is your name, dear, if I may be so bold?”
“Ardea Caeles, sir.”
Suddenly, the ragged man’s eyes open wide and he grabs the girl by the arms. He starts excitedly rambling sentences in his strange unfamiliar language.
“Γαελεσ?¿ Είσαι που σχετίζονται με Κυαεφο?! Πού είναι, και τι ξέρεις; Τι συνέβη? Ξέχασα. Δεν μπορώ να θυμηθώ πια. Γιατί δεν μπορώ να θυμηθώ?"
Marcus cocks an eyebrow at the unexpected response. “You seem to have struck a nerve lady, what did you say?”
“Erm… I don’t know, sir, he is talking too fast. Calm down, please, ηρέμησε!” She switches to the foreign language as she tries to understand what he’s saying.
Marcus calls to his wife Marie Kessler, who runs the bar while her husband is dealing with guild business. She is a middle aged woman with a friendly face who always carries herself with grace, even when doing menial tasks.
He kisses her hand and says, “my dear, would you be so kind as to accompany our two foreign friends here to the salon please. It’ll keep our guest clear of the prying eyes of our nosier patrons. I’m sure they have a lot to talk about and I’m sure they would like some more quiet surroundings. Make sure they have everything they need. Get the clerics to take a look at him too, to dress his wounds and such.” She gives him a smile and a nod and escorts her two new guests to one of the side rooms.
“Meanwhile, you have a story to finish, Vargus,” the guildmaster says as he turns back to his friend. “Where are Earildur and Tenriel now? Didn’t they come back with you?”
“Well, that guy is only half the story, really,” Vargus says as he motions toward the now excitedly chatty Sam. “While we were busy trying to revive Tenriel and taking care of our new charge we heard sounds of more enemies approaching. Before we could even gather our wits a door burst open and a bunch of nasty creatures covered in spines poured out. Jon seemed to know what they were. He called them fiends and told us not to use flame for out attacks.”
“But we were in no shape to take on even more foes, so i called a retreat. We had no choice but to leave Ythello’s body behind…”
“We managed to slow our pursuers down a bit by quickly barricading a few doors on our way out. This bought us enough time to reach our horses and escape. Earildur carried Tenriel on his horse and we placed our new companion on the spare horse.”
“But we were definitely not clear yet. While we were riding away as fast as our horses would carry us something appeared behind us. And I do mean ‘appeared’. One moment the road was clear, the next this cloud of smoke appears out of thin air which produces a flaming horse with a terrifying black rider. It roared louder than a dragon and spurred the horse to charge straight at us. The speed of this fiendish steed was tremendous. It was upon us in mere moments.”
“We got separated from Earildur when his horse took a hit and collapsed. He used his entangling magic to slow the monstrosity down, allowing for our escape. I don’t know what became of him and Tenriel, but I fear the worst. No mortal can escape the speed and strength of that beast on foot.”
“We rode for days on end, only stopping to give the horses some much needed rest. We did our best to hide and obfuscate our tracks, but that’s usually what Earildur does…” The sombre expression creeps back on his face.
“We had to leave Ythello’s horse behind. It was too small to keep up the pace. We sent it off in a different direction and hid our own tracks, hoping to throw off our trail.”
“For a while it seemed to have worked. We rode for another couple days straight until we were almost home. At that point it caught up with us again, right as we were approaching the fort. It was trying its hardest to catch us before we got beyond the gates, but it wouldn’t go near the wall, so we managed to escape. It almost got Jon right at the end. He is still in Fort Westergard, sleeping off the nasty bite of those shadows.”
“Well, some good news at last,” Marcus replies. “I will make sure he receives the best possible care from the clerics right away. Marie and I will go visit him first thing in the morning. In the meantime, how can we find out more about this… dark rider you speak of.”
Vargus takes a moment as he tries to recall details. He perks up with a gasp as a memory pops into his head. “I have this amulet, we found it in the stronghold. Here, check it out.” He rummages through his pockets for a while and eventually produces an old, tarnished necklace with a seal of Dwarven design embossed on it.
“It supposedly had something to do with the old Dwarven clan and something about a desecration? I don’t remember man, Tenriel always knew this kind of stuff. She was prattling on about some ritual and fiends and whatnot. I tuned out after a while, she always goes on for way too long. Or she used to at least…” His gaze turns inward, remembering his fallen allies.
“She even scolded me for not caring about the link to our shared path that led us here, as she so often did. Turns out she was right once again. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Marcus casts his gaze down in reverence. “It is a great loss indeed, she had a keen mind and was always so very lively. But, as you say, she may yet live, if Earildur’s skills shine through the gloom once more! Do not underestimate those two, they are a resourceful lot.”
“That may be true, but these odds are stacked against them quite heavily I’m afraid,” the warrior gloomily replied.
“I do recall whispers from the past about this sort of thing. Maybe we can send an expedition out to look for them. We’ll have to see what we can dig up.”
The guildmaster rests his arm on the back of the chair and tilts his head toward the room. “Laevisi!” he calls out. “Are you still hanging around here somewhere?”
A golden voice responds from nearby, “why of course I am, master Kessler, where else would I be at this hour but in your magnificent establishment?”
The voice belongs to a tall, slender man dressed in a long, stylish coat, resting comfortably in one of the nearby lounge chairs while he twirls a thin flute between his fingers. A silvery white mask with long white horns adorns his face.
Marcus turns his head to face the source of the voice. “Good. I assume you have heard every word of this conversation, am I correct?”
“Naturally, master Kessler. A skilled musician’s ears are highly sensitive you know.”
Marcus chuckles. “I’m sure they are, you scoundrel. Do you have any useful input on this whole ordeal?”
“Well, it sure sounds like your friend there encountered a Nightmare in his travels, and I don’t mean the sleepy kind. Also, I not only recognise that Dwarven seal, I know exactly which clan that belongs to and I even have some friends there!” he replied, his mask unable to hide the smugness in his voice.
“I thought you might,” the guildmaster answered. “Well, don’t just sit there, grinning like an idiot behind your mask as I’m sure you are, go get them!”
“At once, my liege, you can count on me! Though I must protest, I was just starting to relax after a long day’s work in your acoustically superior halls,” he replies with a cheeky grin as he gets up and straightens his sleek outfit. He takes a low bow and starts towards the main doors.
Marcus laughs out loud and replies sarcastically, “The chair will be here when you get back, don’t worry." He claps the man on the shoulder as he passes by. "I knew it would come in handy to keep you around, friend!”
After nearly half an hour the main doors swing wide once again. Laevisi saunters into the tavern, a sturdy looking dwarf in tow. He salutes one of the waitresses as she walks by. “Good evening, Lizzy, could you please direct me towards the owner of this tavern, he is expecting my return.”
She giggles and replies, “Of course, ‘sir’. Mylord Kessler has retired to the salon with his guests. I believe you know the way.” She flashes a smile and resumes tending to the patrons.
“Always liked that one,” he says as he nudges his Dwarven friend in the shoulder.
“Wha’re we doing ‘ere, lad, I ‘ave work in the morn’”, the dwarf grumbles.
“Don’t worry about that, you’ll thank me later. No need to sulk just yet,” he jokingly retorts.
Laevisi leads him to the salon, where Marcus, Sam and Ardea are conversing. It is a sizeable, comfortable lounge area with a crackling hearth and fine carpets. A bottle of strong liquor is shared among the group.
Laevisi steps forward into the room and in a dramatic voice announces, “Salutations and a good evening once more! I have returned with due haste and as promised, and I present to you; Thorgrim Metalbeard of clan Hammerhand, son of Mordin, blood of Grodrik the orc slayer.”
The dwarf scowls and shakes his head at his flamboyant friend before walking over to the Guildmaster and clasps his hand in a firm handshake. “Well met, master Kessler, it be quite the ‘onour to meet wit’ ye.”
“Oh no, master dwarf, the honour is all mine. I believe we have a tale of both ancient and quite recent history to regale you with, if you would indulge me. Please have a seat and a glass of our fine whiskey.” Marcus introduces the group and explains the whole situation to the dwarf while food and drink is served by the staff. Thorgrim seems sceptical at first, but listens intently.
As soon as the guildmaster produces the Dwarven medallion the usually stoic Thorgrim leaps out of his chair in amazement. “Yer tellin’ me ye found the halls o’ Durgeddin? Tha’s fantastic news! Tha’ be the greatest discovery o’ the last two decades!”
“Well, don’t cheer just yet, there is more to the story,” the guildmaster grimly replies. “Apparently Sam here has been trapped inside a fiendish machine for quite a while and was just found in those very halls by one of our Expeditions. They freed him from his prison, but barely escaped. Only at the cost of great personal injury and even greater loss of life this information has reached us. They were chased all the way here by a shadowy rider on a fiery steed. The machine in question is somehow connected to a desecration of your ancestral halls and we fear the rider is as well. Though Sam isn’t very coherent yet, he is most clear on one thing…”
“Ο αναβάτης της Φέλ Σκιές πρέπει να καταστραφούν.”
“He says the Horseman of Fel Shadows must be destroyed.”