A Matter Most Mysterious
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
- Psalm 23:4
“… and so, I am afraid, it falls to you to investigate the mystery of Varnhold,” Sasha read aloud with her crystal-like voice. She had just been inaugurated as Natuska’s grand diplomat and already a pressing matter had arrived at her office desk. It carried the seal of the Swordlords. It was important. And urgent. No one had heard from their neighbour kingdom since Falcus Varn had visited Riverlight about a month ago. Messengers went missing. Sasha felt a shiver down her spine. She had experienced a lot. Seen battles. Heard cries of pain and death from brave men and friends. Fought vicious demons and sent them back to their hell holes. But this silence, this mystery of nothingness scared her slightly. And the heavens’ would know that she hadn’t felt that emotion for years. She looked up from the parchment. Beheld the rest of the council. The Duchess yawned and stretched like a lazy cat. But Sasha didn’t buy her bluff. If she appeared that disinterested, she was very interested. Sasha had of course heard the rumours running wild within the castle’s walls – that the Duchess wasn’t happy about her future marriage to Falcus Varn. More vicious rumours told that she disliked him becomes he took no interest in her. That he had been forced by his father to marry her. That he had been unaware and felt tricked. Perhaps he even had a true love somewhere else. Sasha at least knew that the maidens’ stories and fantasies were tantalising and untrue… Yet, also that the Duchess only wore her impressive engagement ring when officials from the Nomen Heights came by.
She let her eyes wander on. Oleg, the treasurer, seemed as always out of place when he wasn’t positioned behind his great oak table with stacks of paper in the castle’s dungeon. He had a slightly sour expression on his face – probably because he thought he was wasting time sitting here, and time was money. High Priest Dagorand watched the Duchess – not to pry a course of action from her, Sasha mused, but to estimate her reaction as well. Lily, or rather Magister Scaletti, was lean and relaxed, radiating the majestic indifference of a lioness though she had recently given birth to her and Henry’s daughter, Belle Scaletti. And she wasn’t bluffing – she truly was disinterested in this affair. Fighting and fool-hearted adventures she left to her husband. He on the other hand was deeply fascinated and did not miss the opportunity to point out that Natuska really did need a standing army… or at least walls around Riverlight. Whatever threatened Varnhold could soon enough be a problem to Natuska as well. Daniel Orlovsky, a man who had not forgotten the ruthless squalor and eloquent poison of Restov, agreed with him, but was also very concerned with the cleansing of the Candlemere island. After all, a tower had to be built out there. For him, of course. Sasha didn’t really see how either discussion furthered the situation at hand. Nor did Dagorand apparently. “We will of course investigate. After all, a problem in The Nomen Heights, as Henry pointed out, could easily spread to Natuska, and that would be unfortunate as we have just stabilised our own political as well as civil order,” he said. Sasha was impressed with the cleric’s ability to put things straight with few words and immense certainty. When the others lost themselves in mind games and speculations he would cut through, see the goal and dictate a course of action. And often the rest of the council would acknowledge his wisdom and heed it. This time was no exception. “We should decide on a temporary constellation of the remaining council,” Master Mongrym continued Dagorand’s line of reasoning. Sasha always found it amusing that the small halfling was called Master – at least by the Duchess. But it was catchy. Rumours, again, had it that the High Counsellor of Natuska had once been a dwarf. Sasha knew that powerful magic capable of performing such miracles did exist, but still the story seemed farfetched.
“A temporary leader should be constituted while your Highness is absent,” Akiros put in directed at Erin.
“Yes,” Sir Henry agreed. “It seems only prudent that Lily should take Erin’s place while we’re away. After all, she’s the only noble of the remaining.” Sasha thought that even Akiros Ismort’s perpetually stern composure became sterner at that proposal. She wasn’t fond of the Marshall and former Erastil paladin. Something had broken inside of him and he seemed dangerous and unpredictable. But he was one of the Duchess’ favourites and it was unlikely that he would leave the council in near future, so she had to learn to cooperate with him.
“You only want her there because she is your wife. She’s a poor substitute,” Orlovsky spit back at Henry.
“Besides Lily has Belle to look after,” Dagorand quickly put in to appease the imminent confrontation.
Henry looked angered, but held his tongue as he discovered the smirk on Lily’s lips. She was very happy not being appointed with anything. Sasha smiled slightly at the play unfolding before her eyes.
“Sasha should take over while Erin is away,” Daniel suggested rather off-handedly. Sasha stopped smiling. As none seemed to disagree, he continued:
“All in favour?” Nine hands were raised. “Sasha will be the substitute leader of Natuska then,” the wizard continued and concluded.
“We should set out by the first of Adoran. That will give us time enough to get supplies for the journey,” Sir Henry proposed. “No, that’s a rest day. We will have to wait until the second,” Dagorand noted. “Are ye mad?” Master Mongrym almost yelled with great indignation. “Ye don’t begin no thing on a Moon Day! Any fool could tell ye that, me good priest.” Suddenly Sasha wasn’t so sure about the halfling’s heritage anymore.
“We will leave on the third,” the Duchess stated flatly and rose. “I’m sure a day or two extra won’t matter to the citizens of Varnhold.”
A fortnight later they set out as they had done for many years now. But there seemed to be an air of eeriness over them. None liked the implications of the Varnhold letter. None dared to think of the horrors awaiting them to the South-East. And for the first time most of them felt they left a great lot behind in Riverlight. Yet, it did feel right to be back on the road. Good to sit around a campfire and laugh as if heavy responsibilities did not weigh down their shoulders. But sometimes, when the conversation quieted, and the fire’s light became ruthless in its revelation they could mirror their faces in each others’, and it was plain to all that they looked ten years older than the three they ought. Natuska had taken its toll and now it seemed that an even greater sacrifice would have to be made.
The mountains outlining Varnhold finally rose in the horizon one evening. They were beautiful and the sun coloured them golden. The road leading through the pass seemed to be made of red copper. It was a beautiful sight. Delicate as a dream, Erin thought to herself.
“A day and a half and we should be there,” Travin said as he looked to the mountains hands resting on his hips.
“A day and a half to see if it is a dream or a nightmare,” Erin said with distant worry.
“We should probably hope for the last,” Barim laughed. “We’re more accustomed to that.” But despite the humour his voice trembled ever so slightly. Luckily, only Henry noticed. The rest smiled and continued.
Varnhold was silent as the grave. No people, no animals, no sounds – nothing. “This is quaint,” Henry muttered and stopped Lucky in front of a farm. He knocked on the door, but there was no reply. He opened the door and the stench that hit him and the thousand flies that rolled over him in massive waves made him vomit. Death had settled in the house. Henry was too sick to investigate, but Travin was more accustomed to the entropy of Mother Nature. He walked into the small farm and looked around. Except for the amount of flies and reek of decay due to a dead cow in the kitchen everything occurred extremely tidy. A cup with a bit of water and a bowl with now dried food stood on a table. The spoon lay next to it. Apparently someone had walked out on his or her last supper. Travin knitted his brow in a thoughtful and worried expression and left the building.
“Let us get to the other side of the river. Maybe people have gathered in the inn or temple over there. Perhaps they have even evacuated at the garrison,” Daniel suggested.
Barim carefully observed the water moving beneath him. He was glad that it was not his, but the horse’s legs that were submerged beneath the mirroring surface. The abandoned city in its serene and ominous silence caused him to feel uncomfortable. The horse seemed nervous as well. Its ears shifted direction constantly to catch sounds that were not there. Barim’s glance fell on a farm on the opposite side of the river. A literal army of black crows covered the roof. Alive, but still as a grave. Then the surroundings changed suddenly. Under him his horse plummeted downwards with a shrill neigh, and immediately Barim felt the cold water enclose him from his torso and downwards. The water around him turned red and sped down the stream. The horse was completely still and on its flanks, Barim could glimpse wooden stakes protruding from a crafted hole. Traps against centaurs, his brain concluded despite the million chaotic thoughts rampaging through his mind due to the chock.
“Throw him a rope, Henry,” he heard Erin order anxiously somewhere in front of him. “Are you alright, Dagorand?” Daniel cried out from the opposite side of the shore. It became clear to Barim that he was paralysed by chock and fear. “Catch the rope, priest. I’ll drag you in. Just don’t step on the bottom,” Henry called to him and threw a rope. It took a few tries for Barim to catch the lifeline. When Henry finally got him to the shore, Erin and Travin had been searching the nearby ground and found two additional pit traps. “Them folk sure don’t like centaurs here arounds,” Travin muttered grimly. Barim simply nodded sternly.
This observation was confirmed by a found in one of the houses – the tannery. Several hides in different stages of completion and decaying were stretched over frames. A couple of them were especially big. “Ohh,” Daniel exclaimed when he saw them. “What?” Barim asked. “These are not hides from animals. They’re from centaurs,” Daniel answered and cleared his throat, clearly upset by the fact. Barim simply shook his head in sheer disbelief.
Erin had walked a little away from the others. They were searching the tanner’s tools, but it seemed futile that they should all do that, so she had decided to look through another part of the building. And she wanted to be alone. Thoughts were swirling through her mind. What has happened? Who has caused it? We need more clues. Where is everybody? Dead? No, that is too horrible. What about Meghran? Falcus? Why have you been so horrible to him? Because he is arrogant and loaths me. But he is just an unhappy boy being forced into a marriage. And what about me? You chose it, however reluctantly. And for arrogance – you called him a boy. You accepted Meghran’s offer of peace and cooperation with his son as the currency. I didn’t know, I didn’t. I thought he knew about it. That changes a detail not the picture. It’s not fair. He doesn’t like me. You are not very likeable.
Reason and feeling duelled fiercely while Erin absent-mindedly walked further into the building. She entered an odd hall with several doors and a ladder. Her feet and not head chose the latter. Slowly she ascended while trying to assess whether her behaviour and attitude were childish, unforgivable, justifiable or just common. “Why can nothing be simple?” she sourly pouted aloud just as she reached the top of the ladder. The sight revealed before her eyes immediately got her attention. The hayloft itself was normal enough, but there was nothing common about the number of its eerie looking inhabitants. Erin stared at the massive amounts of crows with eyes wide open. She couldn’t help but gasp loudly in amazement and surprise. There must be hundreds – probably scavengers. After all they had survived, hadn’t they? One of them turned its head and stared at her with an unblinking black eye. Then another, then a third… They started croaking in union – intimidating and menacingly. Before she could even think of getting down, they took to their wings with a unanimous shriek and swarmed over her as a black tide of disaster. Their beaks and feathers were everywhere. She tried to fend them off with one hand while attempting to climb down with the other. Suddenly one got between her arm and face and started hacking furiously at her. The pain was unfathomable when its beak sank into the softness of her left eye. Reflexive she pushed the bird away with force enough for it to hit the wall and break its neck. But the movement had left her face unprotected and new crows attacked relentlessly. Sharp beaks pounded down on her and left nasty wounds on her forehead, cheeks, scalp, everywhere. In sheer panic she brought up her other hand to protect herself, but it was too late. From her right side one of the devils attacked and went straight for her gray, sparkling and watery eye. She screamed in agony and fear and yet another swarm flew into her as if they were trying to pass through her. She fell to the hard stone floor, blind and with hot, red tears pouring down her cheeks.
Henry looked up. Was that a scream? Then he heard it again. Much louder, much more desperate. Orlovsky had already passed him before he got moving. Behind him he could hear the priest and halfling move too. Something in that scream prompted all of them to act with more haste than normally. Henry drew his sword while running.
Daniel stopped abruptly as he entered the hallway. First he couldn’t identify what he was looking at. Blackness swirled around Erin who had coiled up on the floor, trying to shield herself against the darkness.
“Erin, this way,” he cried out while he drew a wand made of delicate ash wood. A second later he was waving it in intricate patterns and called out strange and mesmerising words. The words prompted Erin to act. She was trained in basic arcane arts and knew what was about to happen. If she got hit, the birds would be the least of her problems. She rolled to her stomach and scrambled to her feet. The hair on her arms and head was rising – the air was already filled with electric charges. She stumbled towards the wizard’s voice. He stopped his incantation. She leaped and curled into a rolling dodge, getting to safety behind him.
The devastating bolt of intense electricity filled the entire hall in a roaring and bright white dance of sparkling discharges. Daniel shut the door close and spun around. Travin was in the process of casting a spell. Wind was picking up around them rapidly and tools already flew around them in a wide circle. Within seconds it was a regular tornado that destroyed everything outside its calm eye. They could glance the angry birds that aimlessly and futilely threw themselves into the storm and got ripped apart as a consequence. Barim picked up Erin, who pressed her hands hard against her eyes and cried in utter terror: “They took my eyes, they took my eyes”, while blood continued to stream through her fingers.
“Erin, stop! You’re only making it worse. I need to look at it,” Barim explained in the most calm voice he could muster and took a firm grip around her wrists, forcing her to remove her hands. With his thumbs he gently lifted her eyelids in turn and examined the damage. He looked at the others. “We need to get somewhere safe immediately where I can start treating her wounds.”
“The inn is just across the street. I think it’s our best chance,” Daniel replied and retrieved a winter blanket from his backpack. “Can you cover us? Then I’ll get Erin over there.” Henry nodded. Barim closed his eyes for a second and whispered a prayer under his breath. His skin darkened and hardened. Then it sprouted into brambles and thorns. “I’m ready,” he said. “So am I,” a dry and crackling voice pronounced. The hafling had transformed into the purest of fire.
Daniel watched his three companions bravely charging through the wind wall out into the open courtyard under a sky filled with frenzied crows. He turned to Erin, who now only sobbed relatively controlled. “We have to make a run for it, Surtova. I’ll support you, okay?” he said softly and put the blanket over their heads and then his one arm around her waist. She nodded and put her arm around his neck. “Let’s do this.” He led her to the edge of the protective wall.
Henry was in the saddle within a blink of an eye, meanwhile slicing down three attackers flying too close by him. Barim swung wildly around himself with his mace. The crowd was almost all but too dense to avoid his blows, but those few who did impaled themselves on the long, sharp thorns of his body. Travin roared as a hungry and all-consuming fire and sent out pulses of extreme heat. All around him, crows dropped in his aura of pure destruction. The sudden and powerful assault made the immediate pack of crows soar upwards and scatter against the gray sky. Daniel knew that now was their chance – before the birds returned, empowered by their rage. “Now!” he bellowed and started running his grip tight around Erin. She followed with surprising ease her blindness taken into consideration. His own sight was extremely hampered as well due to the blanket, but at least he could see the ground beneath his feet. Above him he could hear the angry screams of crows charging back in flight. A moment later, Henry cried out in anger and disbelief.
He found it hard to believe. The warm and wet pain. The inability to see. Not a moment too soon, he caught the sound of the deep and nefarious croaking approaching his left flank. Instinctively he raised his shield to cover his upper torso and head. The heavy impact made his arm buckle slightly. He felt something hit his leg – a sack filled with fluids – then he heard the bump as it reached the ground. He had to get away from the open field. “Lucky, follow Daniel,” he leaned forward and commanded his horse and trusted companion. Lucky understood and hasted after the wizard with a speed extremely uncomfortable to its blind rider.
They had stopped attacking the roaring column of bright death. Some were chasing the fleeing group, but others had turned their attention wholly towards the thorned man. His spikes proved less and less effective by the second. Thorns had snapped off and some were simply too filled with dead carcases to do any damage. And they started getting heavy too – heavier for each swing of the mace.
“Run. I’ll keep them occupied,” Travin encouraged him. The priest nodded and started moving in a controlled pace. Apparently, the halfling did keep them at bay because none stroke down upon him.
Travin praised mother nature for their luck of dumb birds. As long as he agitated them they seemed to forget everything about the others. At his side Gurul happily lunged himself at the flying menace. Sometimes he even succeeded at catching one between his huge paws. Without hesitation, he would bite their heads off. Travin was mighty proud. Suddenly the entire crowd spiralled to the sky with a shriek that sounded like the laughter of an old hag. The swarm flew high and then dived towards the fleeing cleric. They wrapped themselves around him as a wail around a dancer, and hid him completely before they soared upwards again with the same grace of flight. Barim staggered blindly around, then fell to his knees and forward. He used one hand to steady himself against the ground, while he pressed the other against his face. In the sky Travin could see the birds starting to turn so that they might strike down again. Barim did not look like he would withstand another hit by the crowd. Travin dashed towards his companion while transforming back to his natural form with every stride. “Get up. Get up,” he screamed and tried to support Barim as well as his height allowed him. Together they ran towards the inn, Barim having difficulty seeing because of the blood pouring into his eyes from the scratches and wounds the birds had inflicted all over his body and face. Daniel signalled panickingly from the inn’s doorway that they should hurry. From his vantage point he could see the rolling wave of blackness getting closer and closer. Unceremoniously, Travin pushed Barim in through the opening with both of his hands planted solidly in the cleric’s lower back. He fell head first onto the wooden and rough planks of the inn floor closely followed by the druid and 300 pounds of black bear. Daniel slammed the door shot and put his back against it. When the enraged crows crashed into the door it sounded like the thundering of giant hailstones and Daniel had to use considerable strength to hold the door. Several moments later the siege stopped and Daniel could breathe easily again and assess the situation. Erin had finally stopped screaming and now sat literately staring blankly into thin air. The blood had ceased running from her eye sockets and had instead hardened in streams down her cheeks. Her golden hair had escaped their braiding and encased her delicate face. Daniel could not help think that she was the perfect image of loss – painstakingly beautiful in flesh and blood, but without a soul. Serene, mortal and deeply wounded. Barim moaned quietly from his place on the floor. He had only managed to roll onto his back and his left arm rested gently over his face. His wounds were very fresh and blood still trickled from the corners of his eyes to his ears and temples and into his hair. Henry had managed to feel his way to a chair and had sat down with his forehead resting against his palms. He thought of Lily and Belle. Right now he missed them so much. He could almost feel Lily’s soft hands against his hurting eyes and soothing words whispered into his ears. He smiled at the thought at it actually made him feel slightly better off.
“Travin,” Barim hoarsely called from the floor. “Yes,” the druid replied and kneeled beside his companion. “You have to cleanse and apply salves to our eyes if we are not to lose sight. You should find everything you need in my backpack,” Travin nodded and stood up. “You should try to find out what has happened here while I tend to their wounds,” the hafling dictated to Daniel. “Indeed,” the wizard sighed and barred the door. Then he trotted up the stairs of the inn with heavy steps. This was surely not to be an easily accomplished task. And where in the nine hells was everybody?
He did not return until early in the morning. His eyes were hollow and sunken with fatigue. He placed a heavy tome on the big oak table the others were seated around. He fell into a chair with a disparaging look and started running his hand through his beard. Travin looked at him and the others turned their heads in the direction of the sounds. They looked ridiculous and helpless with their heads wrapped in linen to shield their eyes. “All I can gather is that they found a bracelet from a tomb or something like that. Probably belonging to someone named Vordakai – by the guess of a Restovian scholar, an ancient centaur god. And then this word “Nomen”. My guess is that it is simply related to the area. At least I have found no evidence to imply anything else,” he concluded with a heavy sigh and closed his eyes. Almost immediately he started to drift away, but Travin’s voice chased away the peaceful slumber. “I guess our only option is to make contact with the centaur tribes nearby then. Perhaps they will know more of this mystery. I believe out blind mice will be ready tomorrow morning.” “Yes, the centaurs. They will probably be thrilled to see us. How many years is it that Meghran Varn has warred against them now? Not to mention that his citizens have made hides of their neighbours’ skins,” Daniel replied with a rhetorical questioned and thrust his head backwards, staring into the ceiling. This better be worth their while because it would be exceedingly troublesome.