The butcher plunged his knife into the pig's throat, aiming to make a clean cut. The blood spurted onto the freshly fallen snow, oozing into red puddles on the ground. Nearby villagers watched his work, anticipating the evening feast. Starven rarely had enough food in the winter, but now the arrival of Nasoj's army would assure plenty for all.
Watching others gather for the meal, Marcomir, leader of Starven's militia said, "It's a good thing Nasoj decided to leave a supply depot for his army here. When winter came early, we were afraid that there wouldn't be enough food to last until spring. The ice was already thick on the Sea of Souls well before Yule, so it will be difficult to catch enough fish to feed everyone"
Marcomir then glanced down at his nets, draped across several posts. He normally worked as a fisherman, but also had a military role, due to incessant lutin raids on his village. Starven had more security than usual this December, due to the presence of the wizard's army. Still, Marcomir's militia would need to watch for unruly lutins, as the greedy green-skinned goblins were notorious for grabbing anything which wasn't well guarded.
Cnivagild, a town trader, heard Marcomir comment, and said, "Nasoj's winter campaign is good for business. They'll be fighting for a while, so Nasoj will need to send supplies forward several times, especially in January. At least he won't be demanding as much tribute from us."
Since November, a layer of ice had formed on the edge of the Sea of Souls, stopping boats from going out into the lake. Even the normally open area near the salt flats was covered with floes. The barges Starven rested upon were frozen in place, locking the lake town in a wall of solid ice. Some claimed Nasoj had created the ice, using his wizardry to punish them for not bringing supplies quickly enough to his summer campaign. Others blamed the wrath of Oblineth, fearing the power of the frost daedra more than the magic of a human wizard.
Soon the ice would be thick enough to walk on. While one might break a hole through the ice to catch fish, the schools would migrate into the unfrozen center of the lake, so fishing would be bad. But Starven wouldn't need to rely on salted fish from the summer now, as provisions were plentiful. Cnivagild was also known for his skill at diverting supplies to the town from Nasoj's armies, using his keen ability for striking bargains with the wizard's military commanders.
Marcomir was distracted by the rhythmic chanting of Bragamund, the local cleric. Bragamund was revered by few, for he was an opportunist who would follow whichever religion was being promoted. Because Nasoj urged people to follow Ba'al, Bragamund was making an invocation to the Lord of the Daedra, dipping his staff in the pig's blood.
As Bragamund sought favors from Ba'al, the villagers saw shapes approaching from the long abandoned road to Lik. Bragamund began to chant louder, assuming that the new arrivals were servants of Ba'al. Marcomir was not pleased, feeling that anyone who traveled that path must be one skilled in dark arts. No ordinary person would dare to travel anywhere near the evil nexus found in the depths of that spider-haunted forest!
He decided to remain on the barge closest to the edge of the lake, rather than step onto the shore. Others crowded onto the bank, peering into the darkness to see what was coming. Many were overcome by curiosity, for it was very surprising for anyone to approach from the Tauremorna. But now, all could see that a large group was riding out of the dark woods.
Long ago, Starven had been a prosperous trading town, sending ore from Lik to lands further south. But then war came, bringing ruin and chaos. Eventually, Nasoj restored order, stopping lutin marauders from menacing Starven, but he did not revive the old trade routes.
Nasoj's men told the villagers that Metamor Keep, a grim fortress south of Starven, now had a stranglehold on all commerce in the region. Even worse, the wizard's minions reported that the blasphemous inhabitants of that castle had angered the daedra, bringing down upon them a terrible curse from Klepnos. The Keepers were no longer ordinary humans, but had been transformed into mockeries of their former selves, or even twisted into bestial forms.
Many villagers didn't believe Nasoj's story about Metamor Keep, but were certain that Metamor Keep was hostile to them, for it controlled the only trade route through the mountain pass. Some claimed that Metamor's duke had promised to protect Starven before the war, but had failed to fulfill his duty as lord. Others, like Cnivagild, were certain the castle contained hoards of treasure, amassed by the vicious creatures who lived there. Surely Starven would prosper if Nasoj broke the power of Metamor Keep!
The Moranasi rode down the path, seeming to bring a cloud of darkness with them out of the forbidding forest. Their flowing black robes matched the color of the dark woods, silver edges shining as they reflected light off the snow. They defied the eldritch spell over the Woods of Shadow, using their powerful magic to take the road from Lik without fear.
Nervous at the approach of the Moranasi, the villagers backed away from the road. However, Bragamund stepped forward, murmuring an invocation to Ba'al, as blood trickled off the end of his staff. The riders pressed on, spurring their horses in order to pass through Starven quickly, ignoring Bragamund until they were about to leave town.
Then, the last Moranasi of the circle picked up a gem, and aimed a beam of red light from it at Bragamund's staff, which disintegrated into dust in an instant. In response, Bragamund fell prostrate on the ground, fearing what else the Moranasi might do to him. But the powerful mages were in a hurry to do their master's bidding, so they quickly vanished down the road to the Metamor Valley.
Cnivagild watched this intently. The Moranasi clearly didn't care for low-level Ba'al worshippers attempting to curry their favor. He never liked Bragamund, but was intrigued by the gem. The Moranasi must have gotten it at Lik, the place most valued by Nasoj in all of his empire.
Cnivagild had only been to Lik once, as it was a long journey from Starven. If only he could take the direct path, it would take just a few days to get there, allowing him access to the mithril trade from the mines. But Cnivagild knew he lacked the power of the Moranasi, so he wouldn't dare to take the accursed road, fearing the hungry beasts and ensnaring webs of the dark forest, the dreaded Tauremorna.
Next, a band of lutins came into view, marching irregularly down the main road from Politzen. Marcomir remembered the constant lutin raids before Nasoj established order. Starven still had catapults mounted on its end barges, positioned to repel attacks. Before Nasoj, the villagers feared cold winters, as the Sea of Souls would be frozen, preventing them from moving the barges away from potential attackers on the shore. But that wasn't a problem now. Nasoj sent the green goblins off to fight in his wars, so they wouldn't bother towns like Starven. Even better, the toll of many campaigns was making a significant dent in the lutin population.
The villagers glared at the lutins as they passed, wondering if they might leave the road, and try to steal something from the town. They were relieved to see that Nasoj had posted human archers along either edge of the road, ready to shoot any lutins who caused trouble. The motley troop of lutins advanced slowly, showing evident reluctance to go off on this campaign, but still fearing Nasoj's anger enough to follow his orders.
Cnivagild stepped back from the road after watching the procession, and turned to Marcomir, "It's the last we'll see of those thieving lutins. Nasoj is sure to put them in the front ranks in the battle. Let the Metamor beasts kill those pointy-eared freaks!"
Concerned by the relatively small number of lutins, Marcomir answered, "Aren't there more lutins near the Watchwoods? There seemed to be a lot more the last time an army marched through here. Maybe they are having trouble rounding them up for this war."
Later in the day, the last lutin column faded away, marching to the south, Marcomir spotted a human contingent arriving from up north. The villagers began to cheer, partly because they hoped to never see those lutins again. If they died fighting for Nasoj, then they wouldn't return to cause trouble for Starven. Also, they were glad to see fellow humans arrive, for they could be trusted much more than Nasoj's treacherous lutins.
Later in the day, as the last lutins faded away, marching to the south, Marcomir spotted a human contingent arriving from up north. The villagers began to cheer. This was partly because they hoped to never see those lutins again. If they died fighting for Nasoj, then they wouldn't return to cause trouble.
The procession went on as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. Marcomir watched the banners of Bremen and Caralore go by, but was surprised to see the standard of Lik flying. Nasoj would normally never release the garrison of his mine town for a campaign. While this troop was only a fraction of Lik's total force, it was odd to see any of them marching through Starven. Why were they here?
Cnivagild was also amazed to see the troops from Lik arrive. They were dressed in gleaming plate-mail armor, as befit a town highly favored by Nasoj. It was said that they even had a magical portal, allowing the wizard to instantly travel there and select the best magical stones. If only there was a way to quickly get to Lik from Starven, other than the accursed path through Tauremorna, Cnivagild thought.
He noticed the heavy shields carried by the soldiers of Lik, better than any borne by the men of Caralore. Bragamund also intently watched the advancing troops, looking to see which way the political winds were blowing. He was surprised not to see Ba'al's red pentagram standard, which Nasoj normally flew to show his loyalty to the chief daedra.
Bragamund glanced at the dust which had been his staff, thinking about the circle of Moranasi. Something wasn't right, because Ba'al would insist on his standard being prominently displayed on an authorized expedition. Maybe Nasoj was just trying to get rid of some extra lutins, Bragamund thought. They always caused trouble, and were best kept busy on the frontier, in some minor skirmish.
Or perhaps Nasoj thought he could gain an easy victory by attacking in winter, when war was rarely waged. Ba'al did not like failures, and Bragamund knew that Nasoj had failed to advance the frontier far from Starven. Indeed, rumors claimed that the bestial scouts from Metamor Keep had been seen nearby, launching sudden attacks on lutin lairs.
As the sun set, Cnivagild watched the splendidly attired troops from Lik fade into the south, vanishing down the road to Metamor Keep. He wondered why Nasoj had sent them on this campaign. There were stories that the wizard was worried about his gem mines in Loskaei, due to raids by disloyal lutins. Perhaps Lik was regarded as safe by comparison.
Cnivagild wished he lived in Lik, and could join a trade guild. Maybe he would have a chance soon! The wizard must be determined to force open a new trade route through the Metamor Valley. After all, the riches of Lik wouldn't be worth much if he couldn't trade with the outside world. If the beasts could be driven out of Metamor Keep, the commerce of Nasoj's whole empire would flow south through Starven, bringing untold prosperity to the town. Who knows what riches might be found in the Keep itself, once its vaults were plundered.
Several days passed, as the sun ebbed to its lowest position in the sky. Occasional wagons passed down the road, bearing supplies to Nasoj's army further south. Rumors flew around Starven that a great battle was about to start.
Then, just after dawn, as the sun started to dimly shine through a cold, blue sky, Starven awoke to a loud cracking sound. The ice in the center of the Sea of Souls had parted. A strong wind started to blow across the lake's now open waters. Clouds rapidly formed, and scudded off to the southern horizon. As snow began to fall, Cnivagild prepared to take shelter within a barge. Looking at the storm brewing on the lake, he said, "This is magic. I've never seen a storm form this quickly. It must be Obli . . ."
"Don't say her name!" Marcomir interrupted, "It's probably those Moranasi, creating a cloud to cover the advance of our army. Nasoj has always made sure of good weather during his campaigns." As the snow became heavier by the minute, both men moved to the shelter of the barges. Marcomir remembered the days before Nasoj, when Starven would make sacrifices to Oblineth to appease her, as they needed open water as protection from enemies. But now, they could count on the wizard for safety.
After the blizzard, a thick sheet of ice rapidly grew to again cover the Sea of Souls. Snow was so deep that it was hard to tell where the shore ended and the lake started. Occasional wagons appeared along the drift-clogged road, bearing news from the battle. Apparently, the initial assault had gone well. Cnivagild wondered if he should head down the road to see what was happening. After the Keep fell, there would be a great deal of plunder.
Marcomir also watched the road, looking at the heavy, dark clouds resting over the forest to the east. While the wind was not howling across the Sea of Souls any more, it had never stopped snowing. They hadn't seen the sun for days. "Are you really thinking of going out in the storm? You could easily wander off the path, and become lost in the woods," he asked Cnivagild.
"Not when there's plenty of food. It's better than the salted fish we usually eat," Cnivagild replied.
Looking at the forest again, Marcomir thought he saw something move along the seldom traveled road to Lik. "Cnivagild, look at this. It must be one of those dire wolves from the army. Maybe it got loose from its handlers," he said.
The ill-defined shape appeared to be a large wolf, sitting near the road junction, blowing snow shrouding its features. The beast seemed to be looking at an abandoned wagon, half buried in a snow drift. Even though it was far away, and cloaked by a white fog, both men could make out the glow from its red eyes.
"There's probably more than one out there," Cnivagild said. "Another good reason not to wander out in the snow. Maybe we should get bows, and try to shoot it."
Before he finished speaking, the wolf darted back into the woods, as if it sensed his hostile intent.
More time passed. As the snow grew heavier again, no more wagons were seen. People wondered what had happened in the battle, but could get no news. Rumors spread in Starven, about whether the wizard's plans had gone awry. Normally, Nasoj's magic ensured that his troops had fair weather for their campaigns.
Bragamund had taken one of Marcomir's fishing poles for his rituals as a replacement for his lost staff. Each morning, he would walk out to the road and chant, appealing to Oblineth, asking her to relent and bring fair weather. But each day, the snow banks along the road were stacked higher and higher. The road itself was hard to make out, as drifts obscured its course. No one would dare to venture out now.
Then, Bragamund was surprised to have a visitor. A lone lutin stumbled out of the forest, carrying a broken spear. This was strange, as the lutins almost always moved in bands. Marcomir decided to investigate, and walked over to the road. The snow had decreased to flurries, but it was still difficult to trudge through the drifts, going from Starven's barges up to the lake shore. Bragamund passed him on the slope, muttering about how his ritual had been spoiled by the presence of a lutin.
"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be with the army?" he asked.
Glaring at the human, the lutin answered, "We don't follow Nasoj no more. Fight for him an' you get killed real quick."
"Didn't General Selig order you to report for duty in November?"
"We fight for winner, like Grim Ironfist. Selig's just Nasoj's dog. He ain't taken no loot for a long time."
"We? I don't see anyone else. Where is your tribe?"
"Run away to trees. We saw a flying beast. It attacked at night. Don't find no bones or nothin'. So we run, go hide."
Marcomir wondered if that would explain the wolves the villagers had spotted on the edge of the woods recently. Some lutins were supposed to keep them as pets. Perhaps a rogue band was hiding in the woods, planning to attack Starven. The town would be vulnerable if raided, as the barges could not be pulled out into the frozen lake. He needed to find out more information.
"So, why are you alone? Where are the others? Tell us, or we'll send you down the road," Marcomir asked.
Glancing at the path, the lutin replied, "Road no good. Big snow. But we don't worry none. Find plenty food in trees. Dark hair lady appears. See skeleton men on old path. Start to clear snow away. Sent to get wagon. Queen must have it."
The lutin suddenly stopped talking. Marcomir became aware of a pair of red eyes glaring at him from the old path to Lik. He couldn't make out its shape in the shadows, but it seemed to be a giant dire wolf. Whatever it was, it vanished as quickly as it appeared. Something odd was going on. Turning to the lutin, he noticed that he had a glassy look in his eyes. The lutin was glaring directly at the wagon, half buried in the snow.
"Queen? Who's your Queen? Aren't the lutins supposed to obey Nasoj," Marcomir asked.
The lutin did not respond, but began to brush the wagon in a rhythmic motion, clearing snow off of it. Then, as quickly as he started sweeping snow, the lutin stopped, and turned to face the forest. Marcomir heard a distant howl, from deep in the trees. Immediately, the lutin began to walk rapidly back into the woods, never moving his head to the right or left. Within a minute, he was gone. Marcomir walked back to his barge, wondering what had happened.
"Lutin lost his doggy?" Cnivogild said. "People say they have seen lots of wolves lately. Other beasts as well. The lutins must be bringing them here."
"No, something different. I couldn't see it clearly, but it was really big. I've never seen a lutin act like that before."
They heard another distant howl, but gave it little thought. The clouds were rolling back in, and it might start to snow again. Heading back to shelter, they could here Bragamund complaining, saying that his spell would have brought fair weather if only the lutin hadn't messed it up. No one thought much of this, as Bragamund had been making a new excuses for days now.
Meanwhile, in the woods, only a mile away, a great dire wolf watched lutin crews hard at work on the long unused path between Lik and Starven. Some of Lilith's skeleton men were busy shoving snow into ravines near the path. They needed to have it clear so Lilith's army could strike quickly. The section from the Nexus to Lik was already passable, so this was the only part of the road to finish before the Vampire Queen's plan for conquest could begin.
The wolf watched a lutin stumble through the trees, occasionally hitting gnarled branches with his head. Using mind control on a lutin wasn't subtle, but they obeyed quickly. The Queen would not be pleased if the humans discovered her plan, especially from a talkative lutin. He could always send another lutin to get the wagon. Or perhaps he would get it himself.
Black Fang didn't always appear as a wolf, but preferred lupine form now. He could direct the lutins with mental control, delegated by Lilith herself. Besides, the cold wasn't so bad when you were covered with a dense coat of fur. Soon, the snow would end, and he would need to carry out the Queen's plan for Starven, which required him to appear human.
Lilith's messengers had already told him that Nasoj's attack on Metamor Keep was failing. Within a day or two, Nasoj's shattered host would fall back in retreat. Then Lilith would deal with them. As for the people of Starven, and the men in the wizard's army, Black Fang would act as Lilith's emissary, and give them her offer.