You arrive finally at the Salt Serpent, a dingy inn not far from the dock where you disembarked from the ship that brought you to the city of Xynnar. The journey could have taken weeks or even months—you can’t truly tell as time seems to be a foreign concept on the waves. The wind carries a bite that rolls off the sea and reminds you not only that summer is drawing to an end, but also of your northern destination.
You look down at the parchment you received so many weeks or months ago, carried to your doorstep or tent flap by an enormous raven. In its talons it clutched this and a letter of credit from the Bank of Karaduman, redeemable for 3,000 gold lions. The letter was from King Tanrek of Athkaria, imploring you to travel to his castle and discuss a matter of great importance. You have little idea who King Tanrek is and even less of an idea of how he knows about you, but with crops dying of disease, trade goods drying up, shipping routes plagued with bandits and pirates, and little work outside of conscription for wars between petty city-states, the coin promised only for traveling and listening to what this king had to say was hard to pass up.
So now you are here at this seedy seaside grog house, instructed to pose as an out-of-work sailor and telling the barkeep you are here looking to meet a prospective captain. From there, you know little else. The growly barkeep looks at you with a crooked eyebrow, obviously sick of seeing out-of-work sailors which must be as common as wharf rats in this city, and beckons you with a grunt to take a seat at table and wait—your “captain” has not arrived yet and he’ll be sure to let you know when he does. With that, you turn to ponder the common room, the reek of boiled cabbage and unwashed longshoreman creating a smell that is somehow worse than either alone.
- “The crops might be dying on their stalks this year, but the hunting and trapping have never been better! My brother in Brex says you can’t swing a dead ermine without hitting three more and that the deer have been running around in droves. Must have come down from out of the Shieldwalls!”
- “Aye, but its too bad we’ve had this bounty and no one to hunt it. Tanrek has cleared nearly every able-bodied man old enough to grow fuzz on his lip for his army to the east. A handful of Uigan tribes barreling down out of the steppe lands is hardly anything to be that concerned about. They’ll raid a few villages and head back to their yurts before winter.”
- “I heard that the horse khans are traveling with orcs! We haven’t seen an orc in these parts for over a hundred years. They’ve stayed far to the east for centuries! If it’s true that they ride with the Uigan, why would they do it. They have massive territories in the northern steppe. Something doesn’t seem right.”
- “Psh, it’s just another rumor to get your kids scared and justify another tax levy. I’ve heard better stories fall out of my horse’s behind!”
Meeting with Mata:
“Greetings, friends. My name is Mata. I’m King Tanrek’s ambassador to Calinthia and Vene and have just disembarked from a ship myself, though I again come back empty-handed save for this decanter of wine and apologies from the Polemarch of Karlia. We are living in ever-desperate times. For several years our kingdom and its neighbors have seemed to have spiraled slowly into a darker age. Wars have increased in frequency, strife between nations, city-states, tribes, and familial clans have heightened and the ground yields less and less bounty every year. This year is going to be an especially desperate one for Athkaria, which has long prided itself on its agriculture, but might not even make it the winter without some people going hungry.
But my recent travels have shown we are not alone in this. Calinthia has stopped engaging in trade due to conflicts with shoddy goods from the East. Our Venish neighbors to the south are suffering from a series of internal struggles of warring praetors and provinces, and Nargol to the east, barely more than nomadic plainsmen, are now being overrun by the Uigan horse khans flooding in from steppelands and are set to descend fully into our own lands.
The king is very worried and has reached out further beyond our borders than even I can travel. And those who responded are you that sit here in this very room. We must travel to Castle Athkar from here. I will have mounts secured this evening and we will start riding at first light.”
The next day the PCs will embark on their journey. It is roughly three days’ journey to the castle on horseback. On day two, in the late afternoon, a herd of elk will thunder out of the grasslands from the north toward the hills to the south.
As the day begins to wane toward evening, you hear a sound as if a cavalry is galloping your way from the northwest. Rounding a short hill, you catch sight of a large herd of elk running across the road toward the hills to the south. The confusion over such a large herd moving this quickly through the land is interrupted by a pained bleating sound that is abruptly cut off. Looking to the north you catch the source of a sound. A monstrous creature that looks a large lion with leathery wings and a long tail ending in wicked-looking barbed spikes has bore down on an elk, ripping its entrails from its torso with a savage bite. Pulling your mounts to a halt, you notice three more of the creatures flying swiftly from the northwest—directly toward you!
After three hard days on the road, the last half of today being a tiring trek up into some rocky and wooded hills, the castle finally comes into view. Built overlooking a series of waterfalls that dump into the Blackhorn River, it is a truly imposing sight.
Mata, who looks to have physically aged over the past few days, suddenly breaks his horse into a clipped trot. “Come friends, if we hurry we will make it the main gate in time to partake in a hot meal and maybe a mug or two of mead.”
After the meal, the PCs are asked to disarm themselves and leave their equipment with Radag while Mata escorts them to meet the king.
The PCs are then led into a dark throne room.
“After leaving your arms behind, you are led into a long, dark audience hall lit by only a pair of large braziers and a couple of wall sconces at the end of the hall. Below the braziers rests a large stone throne upon which sits a dark-faced man in his mid-50s, his trimmed chestnut beard and mustache flecked with silver. Even as a king, he wears modest clothing—soft leather breeches, a woolen longcoat, and a red, ermine-lined mantle. The only indication of his royal status is a stout sable-trimmed crown of hammered gold with a handful of small gemstones adorning the band. To his left stands a tall imposing rakasta in studded leather armor, a number of swords and daggers hanging from his belt, his amber eyes watching you intently but betraying no other emotion on his feline face otherwise.
He glances between you and forces a slight warm smile to break his otherwise stoic visage, “Welcome friends, “ he greets in a deep baritone, “I apologize that we are not meeting under better circumstances and that I couldn’t hold a proper feast to welcome you. But these are bitter times where food is scarce and good tidings even scarcer. And for the safety of us all, we wanted to have this meeting in as discreet a manner as possible.”
“I’m sure Mata has told you of our troubles. But even he has not been privy to the breadth and depth of our problems. It all started a little over a year ago, when our crops started withering early. We have had no problems with drought but still they shrunk under the sun, as if overcome with some sort of blight. Harvests were smaller, but not dangerously so. My people adjusted to the sharp increase in food prices but as is our nature, we endured—even here at the castle where the king and my retainers share in the suffering of the common citizen.
But as autumn was upon us, we noticed that the livestock started acting strangely and many did not make it through the winter, their bodies weakened as if with sickness. At first we thought it was a sickness somehow passed from the feed crops to the animals, but when Uigan raiders started skirmishing near our eastern border—people who have kept to themselves for so many years, we started getting suspicious. As Spring came upon us, so did the frequency and strength of the Uigan raids. Given the vast distance they would have had to cover to be at our backdoor, there is an air of desperation to their raids. But when they started riding at our borders equipped with orcish equipment—and then with orcs riding alongside themselves, we knew something dire was happening.
I started reaching out to our neighbors to the south in Vene and Calinthia for aid. While they have never been strong in diplomatic relations with us, we figured some aid was owed for our help many, many years ago in suppressing some peasant revolts in their northern regions. Instead, it appears, their problems are also magnified.
My public outreach toward our neighbors seemed to have reached the ears of someone who was not particularly pleased with our desire to suppress our problems for right after the planting season I was attacked in my own chambers by a dark-cloaked assassin. Luckily I’m not as soft-bellied a king as many others and I managed to hold him off while H’zdar and Radag came in to finish him off. But the assassin was no Uigan warrior—and such tactics are not in the nature of their kind besides—but that of a pale man from lands unknown. We had little time to investigate, however, for his body very quickly started to decompose into a pool of reddish ichor which eventually hissed away into air like a crimson mist, leaving only some ripped clothes and this. . .”
He beckons to the rakasta who pulls a wrapped sheath from his belt and hands it to the king. The king slowly unwraps the bundle as if expecting leeches to pour forth from the bundle but instead presents you with a red-bladed dagger. The dagger has a strangely curved blade and ornate crosspiece and hilt that is shaped into sharp and awkward angles. The blade itself looks like it was forged from blood itself, so deep red its color.
[The PCs inspect the dagger]
You are alarmed. That tells me that I am not overreacting to what is occurring here. Do you know its origin? Upon seeing this blade, I sent messengers out to the other kings around Kharkaethia pleading for aid. My responses have either been denying my worries or no response at all. And that is when I sent for you.
Four of those kings are direct descendents of the Wise Ones who protected our realm so many centuries ago. As such, I felt it important to remind them of their ancient obligations. If the origin of our darkening world is truly something infernal, then we can’t waste any more time. That is why I sent for you. There was an agreement signed by those five Wise Ones that if such trouble ever plagued our lands again that they would raise their armies and return to fight again. But they have long since forgotten their duties!
I sent for the treaties several weeks ago but my retainer has not returned. This is very troubling as they are housed at the Priory of Tameris high up in the Shieldwall Mountains. While secluded and hard to reach, my retainers should have been able to reach the priory and return by now. So unfortunately our first task is to have them retrieved.”
TRAVEL TO THE PRIORY
Paertk – In the town of Paertk the PCs are approached by a blonde-haired peasant woman named Narra, she is worried about her husband and son Acian and Cainta. They went hunting near the Shieldwalls and she’s worried they won’t return.
“After a long and arduous battle with the trolls, you find their warren nearby. Within it you find the remains of two human-sized beings, gnawed beyond identification. On one of the bodies you find the shredded remains of a tabard with the crest of Athkaria. You also find among the scattered debris you find a large number of coins, a couple of gemstones, and a small suit of chainmail far, far too small for a troll that has been dashed to the side with some offal and other trash. The chainmail suit appears to be in pristine condition despite its ill treatment and is adorned with the symbol of a dove hammered into a small plate interlaced in the mail across the sternum.”
55 gp, 45 sp, 50 cp, 3 sapphire gems (1000 gp each), as-yet-unidentified suit of chain mail (small sized).