- Nov 10, 2008
It started, as it always did, with a story. Wild stories, impossible stories, the sort that Laelia might have passed off as fanciful rumor before, but now... Now, with her very life force being drawn from her by the dagger still wedged beside her heart, now if fate opted to smile down at her, it might be her salvation.
There were legends everywhere, of course. Some of them had begun walking Donevrion openly again all too recently, and new ones had been born among the flames of war. The recent past was important to Laelia now, however. Her search for a cure to her ailment had taken the young kitsune far, had caused her to reach far where once she had been all but sedentary. Ever since the cursed blade had afflicted her and left her all but crippled, she had sought every scrap of knowledge, seen every expert... And yet, she had no answers. No one had recognized the make of the weapon, even when it was recreated with all too accurate illusions from what had by now been burned into her memory. No one had been able to tell her how to free herself of it, no reclusive sage or holy man or back alley sorcerer.
The answer had to lie further back than the present, originating much like the blade itself from the distant past. Artifacts of the past had been her area of study, her passion, and now it might be her only salvation even if it had been what had put her into this predicament in the first place.
Unfortunately, it was most certainly not going to be an easy journey, nor one without its own perils. That fact sat like a weight in her thoughts as she trudged through the muddy earth, raindrops pattering against the hood of her cloak - or against her bare head if she had opted to travel without one. It was cold, barely above the point where the rain might have been snow or sleet. It was well past the end of summer now, and travel was becoming harder by the day, but still she had to move on, though exhaustion made her limbs leaden with every step.
She was in Northwestern Crolia, in lands that had seen elven and human habitation for thousands of years. The roads were well traveled, the pine woods on either side of the path she walked well used to passage and the occasional bout of logging to feed the hungry fires of people looking to avoid the cold. Everyone that she had passed was in a hurry, gearing up for the winter and complaining of the weather and bandits and all manner of things. It had not been an easy journey. It wouldn't have been if she were healthy, and with fatigue constantly sapping her Laelia had taken twice as long as anyone had said it ought to.
Through a mountain pass she had gone from the roads still maintained by the cities belonging to the kingdom of Therion, around the coast for a hundred miles North and East through all but barren lands, then through another pass that let out onto tundra for another two score miles before she had been able to turn South again and enter more hospitable country. The seas were too treacherous and her purse too light to book passage on a ship, and too few were coming and going to this part of Crolia at this time of year to make the voyage cheap enough that she might have been able to work for it in a reasonable amount of time. No carriages or caravans came here, not at this time of year, and few enough travelers passed this way. She had gone by few villages and not a single town since leaving the lands she was familiar with. The last had been a fishing village located along the coastal tract, a small but dense collection of small huts populated sparsely by odd, insular folk who had done any business in gruff tones and made little secret of the fact that they wanted her gone.
Now, however, as she trudged through the muck on the dirt path, with narry a stone set to keep it from becoming a river of mud, she sighted civilization on the horizon. The woods gave way to an ancient crumbling stone wall, looming like an ancient specter just a few more miles ahead. Gargoyles stood atop the gatehouses, leering demonic figures resplendent with moss and the wearing down of centuries of hard weather, and watchtowers appeared every so often along the wall. Beyond it, slowly rising on a hill, were rows of buildings, some of stone and others of wood. They were ancient, all of them, but not in the wholesome way that she might be familiar with. Many parts of Therion were ancient, and the Academy was ancient, and if she had been lucky enough to see it Gods-Reach was ancient. This place might have matched any by age, but it was to a distinctly different effect. This place looked as much like a ruin as a place where people lived, a remnant of a bygone era, and the figures she saw moving across it looked more like ants crawling across a carcass than they did the bustling population of a thriving civilization.
The land flattened as she drew nearer, the last mile or so mostly a flat plain where it looked like crops had been grown, but now lay fallow after the harvest had come and gone. That left no cover from the drizzle falling down around her, but the skeletal trees and occasional hearty pine growing nearer to the road had offered little before anyway.
Beyond the town lay her real destination, past it and sitting on the side of a mountain like a bloated tick. An ancient, crumbling ruin, a castle which she had read a dozen names for and heard a dozen more. All of them spoke of its curse, of the lingering darkness that walked its ruined passageways, of the evils that may have caused it and of the folk who gone to loot it. As far as she could tell, few returned, and most of those who did came back maimed of body and mind alike, raving of impossible horrors. Some legends said that a vampire had taken up residence there long ago, had ruled over the land around the fortress as his own personal empire for centuries before a brave hero for whom she had heard countless different descriptions had finally slain him. It was said that his minions and his ghost still walked the halls, slaying any who would come to pillage the place of its remaining wealth for their trespass.
Other tales said it was a liche, or a maddened spirit of Badaria's first king, or a wicked faerie, or a demon lord risen from Hell, or a dragonborn tyrant. Still other tales spoke of tragedies that had played out there, of loves lost and betrayals and all manner of things that worked wonderfully in a storybook or as the script of a play, but made little sense if used to explain why it was supposedly so dangerous. Legends whirred about the place, but as many as she had been able to find connected to this secluding, crumbling land, Laelia had found one thing to be almost universally in common. The legends always spoke of dark artifacts of mysterious power, and more often than not of something that stole the very life from a person's body.
The kitsune had heard many names for this place in her research. Blacktower. Raven's Keep. The Blood-Soaked Palace. Aekarian. The Ashen Throne. Numenrioun. The town, however, always had the same name, and it was one that she had seen on a sign post that had looked ready to collapse at any moment; Horibyrg. Whether or not Laelia wanted to actually stop at the decrepit village, however, was up to her. It was growing late, and though she couldn't see the sun through the dark haze hanging in the sky it was surely well past midday. Even so, she might prefer to avoid further dealings with people and instead continue on towards her true destination, exhaustion be damned. The choice, ultimately, was hers.