Arran “the Mouse” rode in front of his two companions. After exchanging their heavy armor for some lighter gear, they had left The Crook for Varnhold. The skies already began to darken by the onset of dusk when the gates of the fortified mountain village closed behind them. It was night when they finally arrived at the outskirts of Varnhold. Silently they dismounted their steeds and sneaked towards the small village. Approaching the first houses, it immediately became clear that Varnhold had been attacked. Windows, doors and in some places even walls and roofs were broken, torn down, or still smoldering from ravishing fires.
They inspected a series of households, workshops, and farms, and discovered that their occupants had either fled, probably to Kiravoy’s Rest in the north, or had been viciously slain. The scene in one house, where a whole family, husband, wife and an indiscernible number of children were slaughtered, their members nonchalantly strewn over the floor, walls, and table, was too much for Mouse. The little soldier stumbled outside. For a moment he was violently sick. Then he heard a faint, whimpering noise coming from the ruins of a building that had been an inn.
Carefully, Mouse entered the premises, drawing his short sword. Although he didn’t look much of a fighter, he was a trained soldier of the Swordlords and could stand his own in any battle. His lack of strength was compensated by his quickness of movement and wit. Still, he wasn’t too fond of a potential encounter with one of the creatures that had ransacked the town.
“Anybody there?” Arran whispered.
“It’s alright, we’re men from Restov, sent by the Swordlords – humans,” he added.
Then, slowly, a porthole in the floor opened. Two pairs of eyes stared at him, reflecting the light of the moon that fell through the broken window shutters of the inn. A woman and her child.
“I’m Arran,” Mouse said softly. “It’s alright, they’re gone now.”
Cautiously, the woman climbed up the stairs, carrying her child on her arm. There was something strange with the kid, but Mouse couldn’t put his finger on it. Instead his gaze was drawn to the woman, a fair copper-haired – or was it black? difficult to see in the darkness of the room – maiden. She sank on the floor and began to weep.
“By Erastil, it’s over,” she sobbed.
Arran reached over to her, clumsily patting her hair. “There, there. You’re safe. What is your name?”
“Hekazta,” she stammered. The young woman suddenly rose, her eyes flashing wildly from left to right. “Two dozen! There were two dozen of those… monsters. Huge like the town chapel. One-eyed and reeking of death and decay. They were armed with rocks and enormous weapons. Breaking and slashing and killing everything in their way…” She sank on the ground, clenching the child close to her. “And at the back of this nightmarish raiding party there was one of them, his single eye shining with an evil red light, shouting commands in a harsh, alien tongue.” The woman shivered.
Mouse was unable to suppress a cold shiver down his spine himself. “This wasn’t the work of centaurs, then?” – he uttered. The maiden shook her head and gestured with her free hand at the destroyed inn. “This isn’t the work of barbaric humanoids, but of demons from the Abyss itself.”
Arran told Hekazta to wait while he called the others. She recounted the story to them and told them the monsters suddenly halted their rampage, after which they left for the east. The Swordlord horsemen discussed their course of action and decided that one of them would head back to The Crook and tell the others what had befallen Varnhold, while the remaining two followed the trail of the demonic horde to the east. Fate – or rather the drawing of straws – chose Mouse as the messenger. The little man offered to accompany the maiden to The Crook, but she said she wanted to go to her house first, collect what was left of her belongings, and then leave for Kiravoy’s Rest, where she hoped the rest of her family was. Although Arran pleaded with her to go with him, Hekazta was adamant in her decision, and soon the three Swordlord riders took off, Mouse in the direction of The Crook, and the two others towards the east.
Hekazta waited until they were out of sight, then she kicked the child to the floor. “All too easy,” she grinned to the youngling, which was slowly transforming into a little ugly spriggan. Hekazta herself shapechanged back into her primal horned and goat-legged appearance. “Let’s return to…” she stopped in mid-sentence, staring at a one-eyed raven sitting on the roof of a house across the inn. For a second, Azkathe’s wild and corruptive fey spirit touched the cold and calculating malevolence of Vordakai’s gaze, peering through his familiar. Whereas the evil nature of Nyrissa’s underlings lied in their taking pleasure in death and decay as the harbingers of new life, Vordakai’s character was totally alien to any sentient creature.
The raven mockingly crowed at her, then it spread its wings and flew away, in the direction of The Crook. It took Azkathe a few heart beats to regain her composure. “Oh no you won’t,” she muttered. She shapechanged into an eagle and flew quickly after her prey. Vordakai’s raven frantically tried to outmaneuver her, but her superior shape made it an easy target. The fey creature grabbed the familiar with her talons. “I’m bringing you to The Crook myself, you filthy spy.”
At that point, Vordakai, miles away from both of them, coldly decided to sacrifice one of his pawns. Weighing the loss of his loyal familiar against the possible death of an enemy, he cast a ravishing spell through his familiar, damaging both the raven and Azkathe. The eagle screeched and fell down, still clutching the blasted raven in her talons. Azkathe crushed on the ground, transforming into her primal shape, unconscious, or worse…