Upon reaching the center of the ancient circle of Tovag Baragu, the Intrepid Paragon saw Vecna engrossed in concentration, viewing mystical scenes which seemed to hover within several of the stone arches. As near as they can remember, the conversations went thus...
Scene 1: Dunthrane, Southold (House of the Just One)
The scene in this arch depicts the interior of a grand cathedral. Dominating the scene is a statue of an imposing, bearded warrior. He is dressed in plate armor, carries a mace in his right hand, and in his left, a shield with the royal blue cross of Southold on a canary yellow field. Yet his eyes seem to radiate the wisdom of the ages, a strange look for a warrior. Behind him, emblazoned on the wall, are the scales of Justice.
Kneeling before the huge altar is an aged man, easily in his seventies, with a long white beard. He wears deep blue and purple ceremonial vestments, tied with a white sash. He is attended by a dozen similarly garbed priests. All of them have a black left glove, and a white right one. This is clearly the sanctuary of Tyr, God of Justice and Rulership, the leader of the Gods of Good. Beside him is a warrior garbed in plate armor, matching his steel grey hair.
As Greywolf well knows, this is the center of his faith, in the capital of Southold. The aged man is none other than the Patriarch, perhaps the greatest priest of Good alive, Stephen Menote. The other figure is well known among Southrons as King Edmund’s supreme general in the war against the Cortals, Lord High Marshal Count Ethelwulf of the Order of St. Cuthbert.
High Patriarch Stephen Menote: Ah, good day Count, or what passes for day with the pall that has fallen across Grund. How goes the holy crusade against the Banite scourge to the west?
Count Ethelwulf: The news is good ... too good. We’ve overrun Orsk Province in the north, spearheaded by Anorien Ducal troops. This was quite a coup as the enemy had been defending the Pavlosk River fiercely, but once we were able to seize a bridgehead, they retreated in good order. We are advancing in the south as well, where Count Thingol’s forces are driving on the Uralsk Road. New is not so good with our Taran allies in the far north, but they are at least tying down significant enemy forces. At this rate, I estimate our northern and southern army groups will reach Gos within three months. That fell city’s walls are indeed mighty, but I believe they will fall to a prolonged siege.
Gos is the central transportation, economic, political and religious node in the Cortalish Empire. Whereas power in Southold flows from Dunthrane, thence to the five provincial Dukedoms and thence to the Counties, Baronies, and Fiefs, the Empire has its power concentrated in this one city. There are different power centers to be sure -- the Whispered One himself, the Fire Wizards, the Banite Clergy, and the Army, yet all are based in Gos. Take Gos, and the war is as good as over.
Menote: Excellent. Yet your tone belies your optimism. There is more, is there not, something you’re not revealing.
Ethelwulf: Indeed. I have received disturbing reports of the Cortals hoarding reinforcements. The best
source was plans taken from tower of Fire Wizard in Orsk Province provided by Calvin, former scout of the Bywater Six. Prisoner interrogations confirm this story. The Cortals have been giving ground too easily, and may be massing for a counterattack while our supply lines are stretched to the limit by our rapid advance. The Nuadans refer to it as the “culminating point of victory,” where one side may be victorious so far, yet through continuous advancing may spend and weaken itself, stretched like a band made from a rubber tree ... until it snaps.
Menote: If such is Tyr’s will, then so shall it be, but we must have faith. I am more concerned with the increasing isolation from the gods. Our chief man working on the subject is Justice Girwulfdin, and his Intrepid Paragon. I have already told you that they suspect this is all Vecna’s doing, in a bid for absolute power. The fate of Southold, and indeed Grund, may be determined on the distant fields of the Yazak Khanate, at a lonely circle of stone known as Tovag Baragu, rather than on the Plain of Gos. In coordination with Bigby, who remains in an extra-dimensional space, we have been coordinating the efforts of several other bands, including Thingol and Company, Gaston’s Gallants, the Circle of Arden, and Shinare’s favored, the Lucky Seven. They have failed to prevent the fifth sign foretelling the Night of Evil, and the scroll of Hyskosa does not list the sixth sign, so they are concentrating on finding the source of our planar isolation.
Yet I feel the Yazak Khanate is where the final showdown will be. We must render the Intrepid Paragon aid. I will have a Sending cast to dispatch Thingol and Company to the area. Though fewer in number than the Intrepid Paragon, Count Thingol’s band is the most famous and prominent adventuring group in Southold. They are out of position, but have limited flying ability at their disposal, and should be able to reach Tovag Baragu by Midsummer.
Count Ethelwulf: I can also dispatch one of my best field armies from Orsk -- the Third Bywater Expeditionary, an Anorien Ducal force under Baron Elrich of Wraithstone. I’m sure Duke Duncan will approve the detachment. The Third may be comparatively small, but they contain elite contingents of Nuadan Knights and Flaming Fist mercenaries -- they pack quite a punch for their size. All are veterans of the famed march to Daargard Keep in the Civil War. We don’t have the logistical base to support a larger force on such short notice. We’d have to keep the force small in any case, since they’ll have to march close to Videssian occupied Alesia. Likewise, we will have to disguise it as a large merchant caravan. Otherwise the damned Videssians will think we’re moving to liberate occupied Alesia by force -- one day perhaps, but we can’t antagonize enemies in our rear now with victory over the Cortals so close. The Third can make it there in a month by forced march.
Patriarch Menote: Then make it so, and may the combined aid of our Nuadan brethren from this army, and Count Thingol’s band aid the Intrepid Paragon in ridding us of the scourge of the Whispered One.
Scene 2: Gos, Cortalish Empire (Darkhold Keep)
The scene is of a dark cathedral. Its arching walls are punctuated by large stained-glass windows, all done in various shades of crimson. All depict scenes of death and destruction. Even through the scrying, the interior feels dark and foreboding. The altar is of a huge, demonic creature with curved horns, sharp talons, black leathery hide and eyes which burn with cold flames. It is the very essence of a Demon -- it is one of the most common representations of the Lord of Darkness himself, the leader of the Evil gods -- Bane. His standard, a skeletal hand on a field of black, is etched upon the wall behind the monstrous statue.
Around the altar are various aged men, all dressed in plain black hooded robes. There are two other factions of perhaps a dozen people each present standing beside the altar. One is composed of warriors, dressed in resplendent field plate armor -- clearly very high ranking nobles. The other consist of humans, as well as three undead-type skeletal forms, all garbed from head to foot in fiery red robes adorned with strange arcane runes.
This can be none other than Darkhold Keep, seat of Banite worship, in the Cortalish Empire’s capital of Gos. No doubt the three assemblages represent the three power factions of that dread city, the Banite clergy under High Priest Fzoul Chembryl, the Cortalish Army under Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, and the Fire Wizards, with no leader as such, but with Archmage Malec-Keth as the first among equals.
High Priest Fzoul Chembryl of Bane: I appreciate your swift response to my summons to Darkhold Keep -- I well know that many of you have business away from Gos, but a problem of the most dire nature faces our great Cortalish Empire. You all know of the Whispered One's hushed plans this past year. He has given us orders -- claiming some great occurrence would soon bring us victory. General Moltke, he has ordered a gradual retreat from the Southron hordes, and a husbanding of reinforcements, has he not? Archmage Malec Keth, he has withheld his magic researches from the Fire Wizards, though in years past he has relied on your loyal ranks to advance the interests of the Empire, has he not? I know he has given short shrift to the clergy of Bane -- ignoring our counsel and refusing to share his secret plans with us.
Comrades, the Whispered One has betrayed us! We have heard nothing from the Spidered Throne for weeks now, and though his elite guard would hide this fact from us, my spies indicate he has left the capital. We believe he is trying to attain full godhood -- probably by isolating Grund so his is the only power to worship. There are problems with this theory, as some other Demigods walk Grund and are not isolated. Also, it take time to create a base of worshippers. Most of the Empire is loyal to Bane not Vecna. Perhaps he intends to usurp Bane’s mantle of godhood in some way.
Comrades, I don't know what exactly he's planning, but there is a plot afoot. I have dispatched a personal agent, one of the few Southron Banites I trust -- Colstan Rhuul of Bywater. Rhuul reports that Vecna has retrieved his Hand and Eye. Further, he plans to take over Grund. The mixed racial band known as the Intrepid Paragon is involved trying to thwart him. They have the Sword of Kas. The last time this was used at the end of the First Cortaslish War, its user, Kas, was destroyed and Vecna banished for a century -- perhaps the Paragon and Vecna will destroy each other.
Pomeranian, Fire Wizard Lich: I have just reformed from being destroyed at the Paragon’s hands. We attacked them from two sides with the Wall of Force. Rhuul is a traitor, he fled at the critical moment of the battle, he is not to be trusted! If they are heading to Tovag Baragu, then so am I -- I will have my Pipes of Doom back!
Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke: We of the army care nothing for your minor artifact -- the army’s skill in arms, and the innate superiority of the Cortalish fighting spirit will prevail on the field of battle. But I must agree with comrade Pomeranian about his distrust of this Rhuul. Banite though he may be, he is Southron scum, and as such, cannot be trusted.
High Priest: He was the man on the scene -- besides, he has crossed them and survived on several occasions. As for Rhuul “fleeing” the battle, I gave him instruction to follow the Paragon, as we knew they were onto something regarding the fight against Vecna. He moved to seize the Sword of Kas -- when he failed, he allied with them, distasteful as that may be, against our common enemy, the Whispered One.
Moltke: The Intrepid Paragon -- I've heard of them, descended from two famed groups of adventurers -- The Bywater Six and the Miscreants. The Bywater Six had reputation of being stout defenders of Southold, of great moral "character" -- they would never aid Vecna. Their leader, Baron Elrich leads the 3rd Bywater Expeditionary Army, one of Southold's most capable units. The Miscreants, as their name would suggest, are more doubtful -- some might switch sides to our esteemed former leader. Yet they are dangerous, formidable opponents. All are scum, but these worthy of some respect. If Vecna has betrayed the faith, the Empire, and the Cortal race, then clearly we must move against him with whatever means available.
Malec Keth: This Intrepid Paragon has fought us time and time again. They slew Count Victor von Drakov -- no Fire Wizard, but a Silvanian ally of the Empire nonetheless. More importantly, they have stolen a minor battlefield artifact of one of our Fire Wizards -- no one does that and lives. As Archmage Pomeranian has said, he has mauled them in his attempts to get the Pipes of Doom back, but he has perished twice now in the process. A few of this annoying band also recently slew one of my most promising lieutenants, a new Fire Wizard, Dimitri Kuropatkin, at his Tower in Orsk Province. We can use them to rid ourselves of Vecna, but then we must in turn be rid of them.
High Priest Fzoul: I see the issue of Vecna’s trechery is not in doubt. You are quite sure we all act together in this? I have no intention of reprising Kas's role of the powerful lieutenant who challenges the Whispered One and brings about his own doom.
Moltke: We are agreed. But let it be clear that neither I nor the Army will submit to trading Vecna’s rule for your’s priest -- we share power as a triumvirate from this day forward. In this vein of cooperation, our first act must be to topple the Spidered Throne. If I am guaranteed magic support from the Fire Wizards, my elite Plamyasoldati can storm the place. Vecna's Tower may be well-guarded, but we shall overwhelm it. It is ironic -- Vecna has ordered me to husband my reinforcements, and so I have three legions in Gos right now -- more than enough.
Malec Keth: I will support the attack personally. I fear the Whispered One's magic wards and traps more than his soldiers -- I leave such tasks to those raised to the sword. I shall be the first in his libraries. That is where we shall learn the secret of his plans.
Pomeranian: While you move against the Whispered One, surely we should send aid to defeat his fell plans at Tovag Baragu. I have some personal troops, but if the Army would contribute just a few companies, especially some Plamyasoldati, then I can render aid to our new “allies” in their fight against Vecna.
Moltke: I don’t like it -- you care more about those damned Pipes than the safety of the Empire, as if our skill in arms were not enough for victory...
Malec-Keth: Enough! Regardless of his past actions, I am sure Archmage Pomeranian will restrain his impulse to destroy the Intrepid Paragon until after the primary mission has been achieved. Needless to say, if he betrayed us, it would be a simple matter to find and destroy his spirit bottle.
Moltke: Very well lich, the 39th Dog Soldier Regiment, with augmented Plamyasoldati and humanoid auxiliaries, is yours. At forced march, they should reach Tovag Baragu by Midsummer. Use them well, as they are fine troops which will be missed in the battle against the Southron hordes. Now, to other business, surely once Vecna is out of the way we can strike with our massed reinforcements and drive the invaders back.
High Priest: Not yet, I have a plan...
Scene 3: Videssos City, Videssian Empire (Temple of Mithras, seat of the faith of Donablas)
This arch opens on the interior of a huge cathedral. The architecture is distinctive and recognizable to all immediately -- with its ornamented columns and huge dome over the altar, it can be none but Videssian. Behind the altar is a colossal marble statue of a hooded old man with an hourglass in one hand, and a huge tome in the other. Behind the statue is the symbol of a single amber arrow pointed toward the heavens.
This is the Temple of Mithras in the Eternal City, holy of Donablas. The Pontifex Maximus stands before the altar, attended by representatives of the four divisions of the faith. The Order of Pontiffs, with its Cardinals in red, bishops purple, and lower priests black. The Order of Augurs, all wearing pure amber with no distinctions. The Order of Festials -- monks wearing common brown burlap And finally, the Order of Templars -- dressed in plate armor with white tabards decorated with the amber arrow of Donablas.
Pontifex Maximus: Fellow clergy, may the blessing of Donablas be upon you. Alas, in these dark hours, it seems Grund is separated from the Lord of Time. My fellow clergy, what do you make of it:
Augers: The end of the world is nigh!
Templars: Nonsense, it’s a Southon trick.
Festials: It is Donablas’ will that we suffer without his divine aid
Cardinals: It must be punishment for our transgressions.
Pontifex: Silence! This bickering is typical -- these internal divisions are all that is wrong with Empire. Now, one at a time -- we shall begin with the Augurs.
Augurs: We can only say that Grund has been isolated -- no divination, no prophecies are possible. The cause is a mystery.
Festials: We do not know the cause either. We must continue ministering and spreading the faith even if our powers are waning. Surely it is a test of our faith, our order shall pass and be rewarded. Answers will come in the fullness of time
Cardinal Sulla: It is not a test as my esteemed colleagues in the Festials would have it, it is punishment. The isolation of Grund is punishment from Donablas, for we have been lax in spreading faith. We must
reestablish the Empire to its former glory for this to occur. Are we not the nation of Donablas? We must expand our borders once more, rather than being hemmed in by the barbarians -- Thonians to the east, Yazak plainsmen to the west, and Southrons to the south. The best target is Southold -- even now, they are enaged in a bloody war with the Cortals. It is the best time to strike. After 500 years it is time to retake those lost provinces.
Grand Master of the Temple: Invade Southold? Foolish advice. I respect Cardinal Sulla’s religious zeal, but he is no expert in military affairs, and after decades of defending the Empire’s frontiers, I am. I respect the Southrons. For instance, our single remaining client kingdom where they are an enslaved majority, Alesia, has always been draining sore on the Empire. They resist us in any way possible. I have reports that some have recently resorted to armed insurrection. It is difficult to keep these Southrons down, they have a strong spirit. We have enough trouble with one small kindgom of them, the empire does not need an entire country of unruly subjects. Painful as the memory might be, I must remind Cardinal Sulla that it was these Southron “barbarians who kicked the Empire out in 1066.
Our forces are not ready in any case. Emperor Otho purged the Legions after Scipio's Incursion into Southold in 1504 -- serious problems remain with morale and with command and training. The Papal legions remain loyal, but regular Imperials are not what they once were. We should be wary and observe, perhaps moving three Papal Legions into Alesia near Southold’s north border, but no more.
Cardinal Sulla: You lack crusading zeal, a key defect in a military leader. The Festials speak of passing Donablas’ test -- you refuse to even attempt it!
Pontiff: Enough bickering. We will not take precipitous action, as Donablas has not instructed us. Rather, we shall remain neutral in these affairs. Finally, what of the recent news of the Cabals?
Grand Master of the Temple: Dammed demon worshippers! We have no need of them, for they have turned their back on the patron of our great Videssian race.
Cardinal Sulla: On that we agree. My sources indicate there has been a great disturbance within the 9th Cabal. A purge of the senior leadership. A vampire of high Videssian blood -- Caius Vipsanius Agrippa, has usurped the position of Magus Ippisimus. He slew his predecessor. We have also noted a very powerful rogue Cortal wizard, formerly a Fire Wizard, but exiled from that band of Vecna's Banite stooges. A certain Vladimir Antonovich Smitchkoff, renounced his former allegiances....