Sclerain Swamp, in Canterwall
The 22nd day of Rova, 4711 AR – dawn
Normally Josuf prefers to ride alone at the head of a mounted column, hoping to thwart any conceivable ambush by shear force of personality alone. But he does not know the way to Hirot, so now Albia rides with him, and together the two move off to the north, into the mist-shrouded dawn.
The half-orc is quite unlike most of his ilk you have encountered over the years. Oh, he has the muscular frame and towering bulk of most orc-bred folk, but in his case Josuf lacks the gruff hostility present in most of his kind. He is obviously a soldier through and through; tough and disciplined, he carries himself with a quiet strength that suggests he strives to be firmly in control of the world around him for every waking moment.
The sky above is darkly overcast as you file one by one off the low hill you used as a campsite the night before. Within moments the surrounding mists fall across you like a cloak, and you ride onward, still led by Albia and Josuf. An hour passes, perhaps longer, and then you happen upon the road north. Here you pause a moment, for suddenly a small gaggle of figures appear in the mists, and approach you warily. There are a dozen of them, you see. Each and every one is a humble citizen of Hirot, none mounted, and each with whatever pitiable possessions he or she could think to bring with them. At least a third of their number are either pale-skinned children, or feeble oldsters forced to struggle along with their younger brethren.
A few moments later the lead members of the band spy your group, partially hidden by the mist. A shout of panic arises immediately at the sight of you, and each and every one of the group scatters, frightened like roaches suddenly inundated by bright light. Albia immediately spurs her mount forward with Josuf and Kymrych close at her heels; it is a simple matter to ride down one of the slower-moving villagers, surround him with a wall of horseflesh, and then urge him back to the main body of your group at sword-point.
The man is tall and sallow-featured, with ancient plague scars on his face and hands. He names himself as a swineherd by the name of Stoven, and begs you for his life. Albia puts her blade at the back of his neck, and asks him why he and his fellows are on the road south at such an early hour.
“Tis’ the End of Days!” Stoven cries. “Old Mister Dead is upon us, he is! Last night the hound came, and slew a dozen folk, including Nothan, the Master of the Watch. Our boys put up a good fight, but it was pointless in the end.
“When dawn came, some of the folks wanted to flee. But Lord Mollock forbade it, and ordered the gates locked. Then a lone horseman came a-callin’, and ordered his way inside the village walls. I don’t rightly know why the guards let him in, but there you go. I saw the fellow ride up to the keep myself, and heard screaming a bit after. Men are dying up there, mark my word.” You ask Stoven a few more questions, mostly about this mysterious newcomer. But the pig farmer can tell you but little, save that the rider was tall, and clad in a rough brown cloak, and very well armed with sword, crossbow and shield. The one guard who did try to stop him past the gates received a sword-stroke to the throat for his trouble.
Akorian thanks the fellow, and orders him let go. Once the man has fled into the surrounding mist you continue on your way, cantering now. The smell of burning wood grows ever thicker, and soon you spy a tall plume of smoke rising skyward, hanging over Hirot like some strange portent of doom. The gates to the village stand wide open, and a few villagers are seen straggling out into the wan morning. Those pitiable fools shriek in terror at the sight of you, and scatter. No one contests your entry into Hirot; once back through the gates you see a tall pyre erected in the center of the village square, now alight. The bodies of what appear to be nearly thirty people lay stacked like cords of wood, and burn merrily. The stink of roasting flesh is heavy here, and few linger to eye you as you ride onward, past the flames and up the incline towards the lord’s manor house.
A few more dead guardsmen are seen scattered along the roadway. Nadine takes a moment to dismount and examine the corpses; in this way she discovers that each dead human possesses savage sword wounds that seem to have been seared shut by some sort of great heat. It is an effect she has never seen before, and is uncertain what to make of. The elevated walkway that leads to the manor’s front entrance switches back and forth as it rises up towards the summit, and ends at a set of massive granite steps that lead to the front door itself. Those same doors stand open, and wisps of smoke can be seen emerging from within.
You pause in your advance as you see a lone horse tied up at the base of the steps. An indistinct figure in dull traveler’s attire can be seen there as well, tightening the cinches of his saddle, and making sure the bulging sacks of plunder he has acquired from with the manor are securely fastened in place. The rider pauses in his movements as you approach, however, and one hand eases towards the loaded crossbow leaning against the lowermost steps.
“No sudden moves, friend.” Variel nocks and draws swiftly, and settles in with an arrow directed precisely at the villain’s heart. Those same hands pause, and then move away from the crossbow. Instead they draw back the cloak’s hood, and expose lovely features, cruel sea-green eyes, and a foaming mass of luxurious crimson hair.
“He” is obviously a “she,” it seems. Her hands and arms are speckled with fresh gore, and you see a few minor cuts and abrasions upon her flesh. The woman eyes you each critically before allowing a narrow smile to grace her features.
“I do hope this isn’t some foolish attempt at chivalry,” the woman begins. “I am well within my rights, you know. Mollock owed me one thousand Royal Marks, cash. I hired on to kill a big dog that’s been bothering the sheep around these parts. The dog is dead, and he refused to pay me. So I came here to collect what he owes me, in full.”
The woman pulls a sagging leather satchel from her saddle, and unties the straps holding it shut. She then upends it, and allows the severed heads of both Lord Mollock and Sylle Ru to thud messily upon the stonework at her feet.
“I also see you have an old friend of mine amongst you.” Her smile widens, and she turns to look at Kymrych with an openly salacious expression spreading across her features. “Hello, lover. It’s been a while.”