The heavy grey clouds poured rain on the day Trifus and Barthram found the grave of Cedric Tremayne. Huge drops pelted off of the companions clothing and armor, so cold as to be nearly on the verge of freezing. The noise of the rain in the forest east of Barradin’s Hold was nearly deafening—a constant barrage on the ears that blocked nearly everything out. Both men stood at the foot of the grave, stunned and speechless for a long time, the only sound in the tiny clearing the rain beating on fallen leaves and armor. Silent figures closed on them from the woodline, blending with the shadows thrown by trees long bereft of leaves. The rain obscured the sounds of armor creaking and steel blades slithering out of their sheaths.
Neither Trifus nor Barthram noticed, consumed by their own silent thoughts.
Trifus and Barhram had saddled and ridden south within an hour of returning from the assault on the Thorn River Bandits. The letter sent by Tremayne and carried by Ehod had spurred them both into immediate action and they set forth to Barradin’s Hold with all the speed they could muster. Almost immediately they realized their headlong rush to find Cedric Tremayne—Trifus’ sworn Lord and Barthram’s father— would take them far longer than they had anticipated. The roads were a mire of sludge and muck, transformed in just the small time they had been in the Greenbelt. On their trip north, the rain had been constant but the roads were ancient and had been traveled by cart and foot and horse since before the Tiberian Empire came. They had been muddy and sometimes slowed travel, but the situation had become considerably worse since the heroes had traveled north. Now, though, the constant rain and cold had turned the trade-ways into ankle-deep muck that froze at night and only barely thawed by mid-day. It was hard, slow, miserable going, and when the adventurers came upon the first settlement south of Kennet’s Hold, they were both visibly relieved.
What should have been only two days of travel had taken Trifus and Barthram nearly a week, and during that time they had seen not a single soul—not one. Fields along the road lay untended, houses sat empty or burned to the foundation. On two occasions, Trifus stopped their travel to cut down bodies that had been mutilated and tied up to posts on the side of the road. Barthram nearly gagged when he got near the corpses—the aura of blood magic was so thick on the bodies that it was even palpable to Trifus’ untrained senses. To Barthram, skilled in the identification of magical energies, the effect was like standing next to a charnel house.
“Who… what could do this?” Barthram asked. “The souls of these poor folk have been… harvested! Torn from their bodies to use as fuel for more blood magic. I’ve never seen the like. It’s… it’s horrible. It’s blasphemous, no matter what god you pray to!” His voice quavered as he spoke his thoughts aloud.
“Kairn.” Trifus growled to his companion. “It’s got to be them. But how?” His brow furrowed, Trifus’ scarred face was a glowering mask of both confusion and anger. “We scattered them at Tellern Creek. There shouldn’t be enough of them to so this kind of damage.”
A week later, the two were still slogging their way southwards, far more slowly than they had hoped for. Even pushing themselves and their horses as hard as they dared, the going was still murderously slow and exhausting. Two small villages they had passed were completely burned to the ground, with signs of large numbers of troops camped nearby—a small army, though neither companion could decipher who the troops belonged to. The camp appeared to be orderly and at least slightly well organized, but the magical after-effects of blood magic were obvious as well.
Patches of ground lay wilted and dead, and what appeared to be a makeshift stone altar had been constructed at one end of the now-abandoned camp. Barthram could not force himself to come near the altar, so horrid was the magical aura of blood magic around it. Plants that should have been merely brown and waiting for spring were instead burned to ash in a radius around the altar. Barthram found his magical abilities were greatly diminished within the circle of destruction—as if the life energy that fueled his magic was hard to reach within the circle of ash.
A second village they found was much the same, but this time Barthram followed a “trail” of the magical residue left behind by blood magic into the woods near the village wall and found a mass grave—easily twenty or more villagers had been sacrificed and their souls harvested to power blood magic spells. This time, Barthram’s bile rose and he spilled the meager travel rations they had eaten for lunch upon the blackened, ash-strewn ground. The constant, pouring rain mixed with the ash residue of blood magic to make a thick black soup that surrounded the pit filled with the twisted, broken bodies of the villagers. Men, women, and children—Trifus recognized the face of a comely barwench who had served his drinks during their journey north. Barthram remembered speaking with the village elder and asking about the Greenbelt. Now that elder’s blank eyes stared upwards, his body contorted among the pile of corpses in the pit. A dark, smoldering fire sparked in the hearts of both adventurers.
“This is wrong, Trifus. These folk deserved better.” Barthram’s throat was tight with fury, his words escaping between clenched teeth.
“They will be avenged, Barthram. They must be avenged.” Trifus looked to the sky, cold rain pattering his face. “But first we must find Tremayne. Alive, dead, or something else, we must find him.” Silently, they returned to the road and continued south.
The first of the silent assailants closed on Trifus, a wide-bladed spear aimed squarely at the middle of his back. Long-limbed and covered in coarse hair, the attacker rushed forward and attempted to skewer Trifus completely through. Barthram saw the assault out of the corner of his eye and cried out in alarm, but the attack was already coming and Trifus barely able to react in time. He spun sideways threw himself towards the muddy, fresh-turned earth of Tremayne’s grave.
The spear slammed into the back of his new plate armor, and Trifus knew that if he had been wearing his old scale armor, he’d likely be dead now. The air was blasted out of his lungs, and he staggered forward with the force of the blow. Barthram’s calling in the language of magic was uncannily loud, clearly carrying over the constant rushing of the rain. Trifus turned to face the foe, gasping as he did and thankful for Thorad, the dwarven armorer who had arrived at Kennet’s just before their return from the Greenbelt excursion.
Trifus had been right—somehow the Kairn had returned to Lyonesse. The savage, lanky warrior with the spear again tried to skewer him, the primitive weapon still more than enough to kill, especially when wielded by the heavily-muscled Kairn fighters. Trifus steeled himself for battle, sucked in a deep, cold breath and cried out as he rushed forth to meet the enemy—and perhaps his own death—with honor. He had done what he came for; his lord lay cold and dead in the ground beneath his feet, and Trifus would be damned to the coldest hell before he let the Kairn blood mages scavenge his Lord’s soul for their own use. Not now, not ever. They would fall beneath his axe like ripe grain. His battlecry echoed around the small clearing, and his axe raised in challenge to the Kairn warrior who had ambushed him.
“For the Guardian Lion!” Trifus roared as he hurled himself in near-suicidal fury into the enemy throng.
Purple-white lightning erupted from the heavy clouds above; laden with power, it cracked and blasted the clearing with thunder. Trifus’ teeth gleamed white in a feral smile; his axe threshed through the Kairn like a scythe.
Barthram invoked arcane energies as he placed his magical curse on yet another enemy. Eldritch bolts of golden energy erupted form his palms and seared the oncoming Kairn as they flung themselves at him. He felt a surge of power from above, and then the strangely-colored lightning blasted between the clouds. He called forth a more powerful spell, and its energies flew from his hands to yet another Kairn warrior. This time, the Kairn’s eyes glowed golden for a moment, and Barthram took control of its mind for a split-second. Barthram forced the Kairn to lash out with his spear at an ally, and then the possessed Kairn’s eyes erupted in golden-white flame. It screamed a primitive cry of utter anguish and it fell to the ground dead, its eyes burned into two gaping red holes in its skull. The warrior that it had stabbed also collapsed to the ground, pink foam erupting from its mouth as it drowned on its own blood.
Barthram called his curse down on another enemy, and felt a prickling, rippling power resonate through him. The ground beneath his feet trembled, and again the multicolored lightning cracked among the clouds overhead. Barthram spared a glance upwards and saw that the clouds had turned a strange shade of golden-grey, and had begun swirling in a circular pattern above them.
What in the Nine Hells was going on?
By the time they made it far enough south to encounter Lord Tremayne’s remaining subjects, the situation had become even worse. Redwall Castle was under siege by an army of unknown origin—Trifus and Barthram were unable to get close enough to positively identify the invaders. The two of them realized they could do little to help the defenders, and that their mission lay southwards. Reluctantly, Trifus and Barthram turned southwards and continued their journey.
From what Ehod had said before they left, Trifus was nearly certain that the invaders were the Dalriada, come over the western mountains to invade Lyonesse. In their last meeting, King Connor had stated that he was worried about an incursion from Orkenay to the north. Instead the invasion had come from the most unexpected front, troops pouring over the mountains and into the Lyonesse; already weakened by the war against the Kairn, Lyonesse had little hope of prevailing against an organized attack.
The land was at war, and as always the peasantry and smallfolk paid the hardest price. But how were the Dalriada raiders and the Kairn connected? Evidence of both forces was evident all over southern Lyonesse. When Trifus and Barthram made it as far as the village of Krokar, they got their answer. Nestled between the Whitefang mountain range and the edge of the Blackfen swamp, Krokar had managed to stay relatively safe from the invasion. The forbidding terrain of the area had allowed them to fortify their borders and when they neared the settlement, well-armed scouts challenged the two adventurers a long ways from the heavy wooden walls that now surrounded the small town.
Krokar had been a wealthy silver mining town during more peaceful times, and Lord Tremayne had encouraged many of the Free Dwarves in the region to settle there. The town provided dwarf-crafted arms and armor to the area, and the scouts, Barthram noted, were far better equipped than the bandit Dalriada they had been avoiding for days. Dwarves armed with steel-armed crossbows and thick dwarven armor were likely quite a deterrent to the roaming bands of brigands.
“State your name and business!” one of the outriders called, well out of melee distance but holding a powerful crossbow aimed directly at them. Trifus’ battle-trained ears heard the creaking sound of multiple crossbows being armed coming from the treeline surrounding them. The grizzled warrior looked over to the young man to his side; he hoped their plan of action wasn’t about to get them killed.
Barthram cleared his throat and then called out in a clear voice, “I am Barthram Tremayne, heir to my father’s title and estates, come to speak to whoever is left in charge here. I come on behalf of my father, and in his name.”
The outrider’s eyes went huge, starkly contrasted against his dark, braided dwarven beard. The whites clearly showing, he was obviously surprised, and the crossbow in his hands began to shake visibly. The thick-limbed pony under his saddle shifted uncomfortably, and the startled dwarven guard suddenly fell heavily to the ground, still obviously stunned by Barthram’s declaration.
“Well, you certainly have their attention.” Trifus growled under his breath. “Hopefully—“
“Hopefully, this is still a place where law and civilization hold power. I pray that Father’s name still holds some influence here.” Barthram interrupted.
Trifus looked up towards the gloomy, rippling sky. Dark clouds roiled overhead, and Trifus knew that rain was going to come sooner rather than later.
“Are you listening up there?” he muttered to himself.
The clouds continued to roil and shift, a foreboding omen of what was to come.