Dead Winter, this is known throughout the land as a sentence that should fill you with dread. Because it means the sisters Lady Life, and Lady Death are at it again. The lady of death will send her magics along with the cold frosty winds and the snow’s they carry. And the lady of life shall send through her faithful messages of reassurance and clarity on how to weather the storm. And so it goes that every few winters, the dead shall rise up out of the ground. Most mindless creatures, some intelligent enough to praise their dark mistress of death, and a special few among the teeming hordes intelligent and wicked enough to command her seemingly endless legions in their crusade of the damned against the living. This is the tale of two people trying to etch out an existence in the harsh reality that is their homeland. Amara is a human Hedge Knight trying to earn enough reputation to receive land. And her companion since childhood her one-fourth elvish friend Fane. Once he was almost carted away for his bardic magic, singing spells onto his arrows. But she claimed him as her ward, stating he’d be put to better use under her guard as support.
This time the duo of best friends were hunting after a dangerous magic user reported to use pure chaos magic. Such a mage running free and unchecked was unheard of and unacceptable. And so they were dispatched by the local lord to track down this menace. And bring him back in binding shackles, or bring back his head. Now we find these two traveling a rough old path that has seen better days of usage. The part elf, as she’d known him for all her life Fane spoke up. “Why are we traveling along this old path anyways? Wasn’t a new road just finished going all the way to the border?”Amara went through this conversation what must’ve been, what felt like the fifth time with that childish young man.
Amara: Yes we could go along the nice new road full of refugees and goods going here and there. I’m sure that’s a fine place to be when dead winters winds truly blow in a gale. Now stop your belly aching at least there is a path to follow here.
He turned his head to argue but she had that strong confident smile of hers. Radiant like the dawning sun, and he simply couldn’t argue with her. Even if she had a horse that did most of the work for him, and so he simply shrugged grabbed a lute off his back and began singing a tune to no song, in particular, to lighten the evening of travel ahead before they set camp for the night.
A small hike to the south, under an ancient and forgotten graveyard. A figure makes his way deeper into his makeshift dwelling. The only voice his own, ringing out in his mind. They shall not find me here, they will not take me to their city of tortures, and I shall not be bound by such people because I wish to live free…
Into the Depths
Waking up as the sun’s light shined down upon his face, Fane sat up rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and looked around the camp. His eyes fell upon Amara, ever the first up and the first on guard duty. He’d almost forgotten how her facial features could appear so soft and warm when she didn’t have a helmet and a determined look about her. But upon closer inspection he could see a sad look in her eyes, leaning up with some witty remark he saw why she bore such a happy smile and such a sad look in her eyes. And the same look and smile came across his face because as they had slept a thin crisp layer of snow had fallen and the trees had changed from summer green to their autumn colors overnight.
They redoubled their efforts traveling fleet on foot and horse.
Fane: Is all that armor cold or are you just… chilling?
Amara cracked a slight smile
Amara: Worry about your own temperature Fane, at least I have a horse to help keep me warm.
Fane: Hey now that’s cold as ice what you just did there.
Despite the casual banter between the two whatever atmosphere they could recover the fair weather mood that had kept them company had also fled on the first cold winds from the south. As they entered the cemetery they glanced around. The tombstones were old and worn, barely legible writing was visible in bits and pieces…the graves were also empty, shambled paths in the dirt led into the cave.
Fane: At least we don’t have to wonder where they went right?
Amara: Be ready, this is where the mage is and if the dead are already raising they must be after him too. If he gets turned…we need to hurry before that can happen Fane lets go.
The two adventurers worked their way through the cave. Cutting down any undead simple enough to wander into their blade and arrows. Slowly and surely our heroines worked their way into the deeps of the caves. Here they heard a great and terrible battle taking place, and soon enough they could witness the battle being drawn between the mad mage and some fiendish zealot of the death goddess.
Agni: You will not take me quietly into the dark abyssal creature! Your mistress can and will accept my rejection of her embrace, as I cling to the light and heat of life!
An older-aged man at the least hurled spells of blazing fire from his hands. impacting all about a figure surrounded in darkness, melting the stone itself around the figure.
Across the chamber stone melting around him from the intensity of the wizards fury the figure stood drawing a long blade wreathed in shadows.
Her Herald: I have been sent to collect you for the lady demands it. And I shall not disappoint my master this day, you are the only man left, and man is imperfect.
As the figure clad in shadow smelling of decay and rust strode forward to cleave the wizard in as least harmful a way as possible. Amara drew forth her shield and slid down the slope of the walkway they were on placing herself between herself and him. Fane drew an arrow instinctively when Amara involved herself in the wizards fight and began singing a song of heavy burdens weighing someone down.
Amara: By order of the north I was charged with collecting this wizard. And that does include taking him from you and your lady. You will move and let us leave or you will be moved.
Her Herald: Who are you? Nothing but a petulant girl standing in the way of things she could not possibly fathom! Who are you to resist the will of a god!?
As he said this the herald hefted his blade and an arrow flew the Herald and Amara clashed blades and an arrow struck the Herald in his shoulder. Quickly as the herald collapsed to the ground struggling against some invisible weight. Fane slid down the slope and joined them, Amara turned to the wizard.
Amara: I don’t know what my companion just did but I assure you it won’t hold him for long we need to go are you coming peacefully or must we have this conversation here?
Agni looked at the figures sent to collect him by the state. And looked at the figure here to assure his death.
Agni: Very well young lady we shall be off but this does not mean I will go to the north in shackles!
With their experienced guide leading the way they avoided what few dead remained and stayed ahead of the Herald long enough to escape. But now the question was the north or the south? The north though a series of fortresses were built to weather the storm also excelled at attracting massive tides of the living dead. And the south though lacking in such copious quantities of undead and fortress cities. Was ill-prepared for winter no matter how hard they tried, and this meant there were people that would need help. And so ultimately by choice, the designs of fate, or sheer luck they turned their heading south. And a grander quest than any of them could have realized began.
Agni: Well not that I am ungrateful for the rescue, but you were no doubt on your way to detain me yourselves and bind me to a different kind of master.
Her hard expression gazed at him softened. She saw a man older than they had expected, less eager for carnage then propaganda claimed. He looked like a man used to running used to hiding what he is and what he could do. She’d seen what he could do, she didn’t want to be on the wrong side of that. She had hunted a lot of rogue wizards, but most were young passionate, and unstable people who did cause chaos.
Amara: Look that was my duty before winter came. Now my job is to keep us alive and maybe, maybe if you are compliant enough for long enough during winter I let my guard down a bit and you just slip away on the trip back from dead winter.
Fane looked from her to him and back to her. This was the first and only time he had heard her give such reprieve to a wild mage. But he wasn’t like the rest, not from what he’d seen. And if they had to spend however long winter lasted this year together then so be it if she had to lie to keep him in line, or strike a deal with a good man time would tell.
Agni: Well that sounds suitable as far as military escorts go. Let’s be off then to where do we head? I presume not to another cave hideout of mine yes?
New In Town
1 week later…
A young woman on a horse wearing armor and a heavy cloak, a young man with a bow and pointed ears, and an older man with a walking staff covered in bit and bobs of oddities. Not the weirdest thing the “city guard” had seen come through. The glorified weaponized farm hands from the good weather months let them through after questioning and reminded them to be civil and the townsfolk would be civil back.
Fane: C’mon we’ve been looking through their marketplace for an hour Agni! They don’t have your crystalline whatever in stock and I’m starving.
Amara: Goddess be praised shut up Fane if you’d like I can give you some of my field rations so we can keep looking its important that we find this….object we’re looking for. What are we looking for again Agni?
Agni peeked his aged head from the inventory of crystals from the north he was inspecting.
Agni spoke to his compatriots. “We are looking for an ideal candidate crystal in order to build ourselves a crystalline looking glass, or a mana seeker with which to detect the risen dead. Simple enough and useful enough that such crystals rarely stay in stock close to or around dead winter and rare enough that their hard to locate in the first place.” And with that short and concise statement, today’s day’s goal his head ducked back down to crystal level to begin inspecting crystals. As the group of travelers was in the market place they failed to notice the guard making a b-line straight for them until he was right new to them. He leaned in right next to Amara’s ear and whispered something. Suddenly she turned ghostly white, the same woman who’d seen a field of the walking dead and charged through anyway.
After having convinced the trio to come along the guard named Sebastion led them to an inn across the small town. The inn was called The Rowdy Time Inn, and it is here that a guard gathered the group together for an important discussion. Amara was the first to speak turning to her companions before they followed the guard into the Inn. “He thinks we’re here on official business. Let’s not give him any reasons to doubt our purpose here alright?” Agni and Fane nodded their heads and followed her in easily finding the guard in a booth waving them over as a waitress delivered the first round of drinks. Amara looked to the guard looking as official as possible. “Now citizen tell us why pulling me and my cohorts away from other important business was so imperative.” The guard paled a bit and sputtered out a short tale of a convoy that’d come through here. Laden heavily with mages recruited in the southern towns, picking up extra provisions for what was thought to be a normal winter. And finally, how the mayor and the city guard had decided to safe keep them after those being transported showed up one night. Survivors of a terrible accident on the road caused by some freshly risen dead.
And so it was the well-provisioned trio left the town with a special key meant for a door even the undead couldn’t breach. Arriving up the towns nearby mountain trail, they then turned from the well-trodden path to an obscure and forgotten mine. Arriving with haste they found the entrance a great metal bulwark carved with glyphs unknown to Fane or Amara. Agni, however, recognized it as warding sigils meant to keep something in not out. And so he egged them on all the faster to make haste. Entering the main area of the mine revealed a great magical battle had taken place. Earth shifted and scorched, torn and splintered with such power it was a wonder the cave still held. Agni was the first to speak among the trio. “We must gather the survivors and fly from this old and tainted place. No magic from here beyond our own and the sane can be trusted.” Fane could feel it in the air the saturation of mana spent and mana being beckoned further in by those still fighting “I must agree with the old man we should be going as soon as we can…” Fane spoke these words with finality and grimness unbecoming of his usual character.
Tremors From the Deep
They had explored a number of tunnels, each time to come across blockage in the way, magical or otherwise. They also had come across a few survivors, usually badly injured and left to die rather than waste the mana on killing them when other duels remained to be won. The survivors spoke of how in the deeper area mages were using magic to mine for something that called to them. Something older than the mortal races of the world. Agni and Amara had similar reactions “Such a thing cannot or should not be brought from the depths.” and “Though fascinating anything capable of warping the minds of friends so is a hazard and damnation to all.” And so it was they agreed they must stop it from emerging from the depths. As they continued on the way, however, fewer and fewer survivors were sent back to the main chamber. As the mages grew nearer to the source it seems the level of mind altering effects surpassed any childhood friendships.
The trio entered the largest room yet. Unaturally mined through extensive use of fire and earth magic. A great tiered cave had been dug out, sculptures melted and shaped on each tier that seemed to thrum with power not meant for mortal things. The statues seemed to be of terrible beings of bizarre and unnatural bodily configuration. In the center, a spiral stair case plummets down into the earth. bodies of those unworthy strewn about, barely recognizable at all as human or otherwise. Amara and Fane approached ready to take on any foe, Agni trailing behind less confident in what they were to face this day. Approaching the stairs they could hear one somewhat human voice speaking a chant of some long forgotten tongue.