Game Master

The High Road Inn is nestled into the saddle of land where the western shoulder of Mount Dain butts up against the long ridge known properly as the Featherstone Scarp, but more commonly called Grim’s Collar. The Inn, and the little collection of outbuildings, cottages, stables and skrain nets in its orbit, are the last real piece of civilization on this frontier. The innkeeper pays his taxes to Baron Guyl, the lord in Featherstone, who, in turn, owes his fealty to the Ercacian throne in Ailmoran on the faraway shores of the Sea of Solace. Featherstone is actually easier to reach from Gar Hammoal, where the Low Emperor of Gost rules, and its loyalties have ebbed and flowed between these two lands over the years. Politics matter very little at the Inn, though, as even Featherstone is three days away on a sure-footed horse. Apart from the tax collector, only two kinds of travellers come here: pilgrims and those concerned with the merchant caravans. In the twenty years since the gods awoke, there have been many more of the former and many fewer of the latter.

From where you sit, drinking mushroom wine on the broad porch at the back of the inn, you are afforded long views to the north and south.

To the north, the High Road winds down into the forested valley, and, if the light were better, could be seen to ford the Vixen and rise again on the valley’s opposite side. Past that, row after row of indistinct and ever gentler foothills march toward the horizon. Beyond them, out of sight, lies the small the fortified city of Featherstone.

On this clear evening, with the sun already below the Collar, the northern sky is a tent of azure silk, seamless except for the sweeping arch of the Skyvein: the bridge of the gods, the all-seeing serpent. Still an opalescent silvery-pink in the west, but already blushing with the crimson of midnight in the darkening east, the delicate Skyvein is slender enough to be obscured by a man’s two fingers held at arm’s length. After sunset, as on every clear night, when the whole of it has turned red and stars glitter all around, the serpent’s tail will rise in the east, followed only by void. Hours later, when the tail is high in the eastern sky, the serpent’s head will rise to chase the tail westward all night until it sets, just before dawn washes away the dim, bloody light of night.

The saddle drops away to the south as well, though the road does not. The land falls off rapidly into a broad canyon, which wraps eastward around Dain’s toes. Beyond the south wall of the canyon, mountains rise in waves. The nearer peaks bare rocky teeth above their tree lines, but behind them lurk the snow-capped giants with their trailing shrouds of windblown white. The road follows a tortuous switchback of ancient construction up onto the blunt ridge of the Collar, which will carry it south, halfway to Ferril’s Pass, the gateway to the Wild.

When your parents were your age, three or even four caravans would cross the Wild each mild season. All through the stormy season, merchants would stage their preparations in Featherstone warehouses, bringing in fine woolen goods, pearls, steel implements, and cinnamon. Bold men would gather as the storms dwindled, seeking work as drivers, hostlers, scouts, and guards. Finally, the caravans would creep out of Featherstone to the Inn, where they would wait, watching the snowy peaks until the season was deemed ripe to venture across the Wild to the far side of the mountains. The barbaric tribes of Dierrabarra on the far side of the Wild had little of their own make to offer, but they brought trade goods from the unknown lands that lay even farther south. Late in the year, when the storms began to grow more frequent and more violent, the Inn would fill up with all manner of merchants, speculators, rogues and whores waiting for a first taste of the wealth of silks, tapestry, emeralds, exotic ornaments and masterworks of precious metal brought back with the returning caravans.

All that was before the gods returned.

Legends told of an earlier time--hundreds of years ago? thousands of years ago? none know truly--when gods walked the earth among mighty heroes and cunning wizards. Wicked elves prowled the wilds consorting with gigantic animals and darker, more terrible creatures from under the earth. The legends end when the gods forsook mankind and all the magic drained out of the world. Your grandparents believed these stories the way one believes a myth: they might be True, but they weren’t real. Certainly there were ruins; some older civilization, more capable than your own, had left behind structures and artifacts. Maybe these old ones had been powerful and clever, but magical? Only children believed such things. The gods? Well, they might be real enough and everyone continued to worship, but their work was impersonal and vague, distant from men. Magic and miracle were the work of circus men and charlatans.

Rather suddenly, in the days just before your birth, things changed. The first signs of the gods’ return were the miracles--both wonderful and dark--performed by priests and itinerant monks. No tricks, these feats were performed for all to see: grievous wounds knit into healthy flesh before watching eyes, holy light lit in dark places without fire or heat, curses that brought forth immediate welts and boils. These miracle clerics were not common, but they were scattered wide, one or two appearing in every town or friary, so that everyone soon knew of the change. Both joy and fear spread quickly. The years since have been marked by warfare, political machinations, and drastic changes among the religious sects. Supplicants flocked to the temples of Ianna, Hallas and Kronnor, seeking blessings, might and order. The worship of the vilest gods has waned, even among the sects who worshipped the whole pantheon and the notion of wholesome balance.

In more recent years, a strange new kind of heroes have emerged. Warriors whose skill and hardiness exceed belief. Mages who work spells without divine aid. Black-hearted rogues who slip unseen through the darkness. As with the first miracle workers, such heroes are not common, but all have heard tales of them. Most of these heroes are young, born after the miracles began. They tend to be reckless, and adventuresome. For good or ill, people have taken to calling them the Children of the Gods.

The return of the gods wrought changes in the Wild as well. Caravans returned with tales of small, slender men with cruel eyes and graceful bows haunting the forest around the High Road. They named these people Elves, after the elves of legend. At first the elves evaded the caravans, refusing to meet face to face and talk. Before long they became a threat, ambushing wagons only to slay the drivers and then flee into the forest empty handed. As the years passed, rumors came back of more fearsome kinds of creatures, which walked on two legs, yes, but could in no way be called men. Finally only a single merchant family could afford to hire enough guards to send a caravan. Last year that caravan set out, but never returned.

The Inn now gets by on the business of housing and feeding the pilgrims who come to visit the two ancient temples on Mount Dain. Closest is the Harmonic Order of Brotherly Friars at the altar of Kronnor, just an hour’s hike up the winding path from the Inn. Supplicants of Kronnor are devoted to orderly ritual, a hierarchical society, strength in combat, and the studies of tactics, architecture, and law. The Harmonic Brotherhood is particularly focused on the art of Mathematics. Farther up, near Dain’s bleak and windy summit is the tiny, nameless temple of Vexia and the austere sisterhood that keeps it.

You glance around at your newly met drinking companions. They don’t look any more like pilgrims than you do. If pressed, you’d probably say that you came here following the scent of adventure and wish it didn’t sound so ridiculous. Somehow, though, you get the sense that these strangers might understand exactly what you mean.

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