Garrick looked over at where the workers were erecting a wall for a new building and smiled at what he saw. A combination of Tenha refugees, Nyrondian ‘tax evaders’ and Flinty Hills gnomes were putting the final touches on what he assumed was a load-bearing wall. It would never look that way to any other human, he mused, but gnomes had odd ideas regarding architecture; they built things that shouldn’t work, but often did. They were small in number and stature, but nice to have around.
The village was being rebuilt with quality materials, that was for sure. The community that was forming was also high quality it seemed; villagers whose homes were already built still worked as tirelessly as ever to make sure the homes of their neigbours got built too. Some merchants had come sniffing around looking for areas to erect their stores, and a small bidding war for a prime spot was not rare. It seemed word was spreading, with more people heading to Gardmore to start over as it were. The population was heavily mixed, to be sure, but Garrick rather liked the idea of Gardmore being a place where a second chance was waiting for you, no matter who you were.
His mind traveled back to last night for a prime example. He had been woken out of bed by one of the soldiers Myariken had place at Gardmore, saying there was a disturbance in the Vaults. Garrick had wondered how long it would be before something from the Underdark eventually crawled its way to the Vaults, now that the dragon was gone. However, what was waiting for him was not at all what he had been expecting.
Isak was already there, with his falchion drawn, as was Odus with his bow, though his arrow was not aimed at her. Two militia members were unconscious and two more were nervously aiming their crossbows at their target. Said target was a drow woman (or girl? They never showed their age on their face!), barely clearing five feet in height. She was dressed all in black leather, with her hands behind her head, presumably having been told to put them there.
“Maybe. It’s pure luck we found her; these two were coming for their shift when they found her standing over the bodies of those other two, dagger drawn. Figure they stopped her from executing them and moving on with her plan.”
A snort of derision escaped the drow.
“You have something to say?” demanded Isak.
She rolled her eyes. ” ‘My plan’ was to be seen; that’s the only way they ever would have seen me. You don’t exactly have eagle-eyed sentries here. I came in peace, though I guess you won’t believe me since I’m a dark elf and all dark elves are evil, right? Figures.”
She speaks common well, thought Odus. It’s not actually predominant amongst drow.
“If you came in peace, why did you knock the guards unconscious then?”
She shot Isak a look of incredulity. “That IS how you know I came in peace! If I had intended any different, they’d be dead before they knew what hit them…jeez.”
Good point, actually.
“I suppose talking to them was out of the question?” asked Garrick.
“I did try to speak with them,” she replied defensively. “They tried to negotiate with their weapons, so I defended myself.”
“You come from the Underdark, then?” asked Odus.
“You must be the smart one.”
The bard smiled. “I apologize; where in the Underdark?”
“Everywhere and nowhere… I don’t exactly have a home you can mail letters to.”
“So, assuming we believe you have good intentions, why are you here?” asked Garrick.
She bit her lip, trembled a bit, but seemed reluctant to speak.
She looked down, her face a perfect cocktail of anger, frustration and shame but she still couldn’t bring herself to speak.
When she still didn’t answer, Isak stepped forward. “All right, spy, why don’t we head to the new barracks we’re making and you can tell us all about who sent you.”
She smacked his hand away with great speed and force then leapt away from him, her eyes flashing dangerously, her dagger somehow now in her hand. “Don’t touch me!”
Isak had his blade up in defensive position, but didn’t advance. Odus looked to Garrick, who had his hand on the hilt of Moonbane but didn’t draw it. Instead, he called out to her. “Wait! Stop it, no one wants blood shed here. Just…just…why don’t you tell me your name?”
“You know what? Forget it! This was all a stupid mistake, I should never have come here! Just let me back out the way I came and we can forget we ever did this, all right? Here, take this,” and she threw a small drawstring bag to the ground. “That should even us up for the bumps these poor little darlings to to their heads. Ok? All right?”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary; no one wants your money.”
“Whatever, keep it. This was all so stupid, anyway; last time I listen to Gendar…”
In unison, all three of the Guard exclaimed “What?!”
She recoiled from them, a look of annoyance on her face. “Gendar. My cousin. Or ‘kinsman’ might be a better term, I don’t know how you humans would describe it.”
“Did Gendar send you here?”
“… yeah. He said you lot were a decent bunch, had some good interactions with you in the Seven-Pillared Hall. I actually saw you all from afar once, though there were four of you at the time.”
“Why did he send you to us?” asked Isak.
The drow stammered and looked uncomfortable, like she was struggling to admit an inconvenient truth. Finally, she said “He said you would be sympathetic to cases like mine. That if I was tired of being a wanderer, I might find purpose with you lot. Obviously, he was wrong, big surprise to no one.”
Odus was smirking at Isak like he always did when the subject of Gendar came up. Garrick, meanwhile, assessed the situation in front of him. He wished Mordekai had been here; the man had a better sense of character, but the swordmage decided to believe the drow anyway. He held out his hand.
“Why don’t we walk to the surface now and get something to eat? Then you can tell us what “a case like yours’ sounds like.”
She didn’t take his hand, but she did sheath her dagger. “Fine,” she said in a small voice.
She looked the slayer up and down. “So you’re Isak, eh? Hmph.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means my cousin’s penchant for exaggeration when he’s in love is still as strong as ever.”
Garrick smiled. I like having her around already he thought. Out loud he asked “So, if we’re going to be spending time together, could you tell us your name?”
Bhintel‘s case had been a hard one, that was for sure. She talked about it casually, but there was still a lot of hurt in her voice as she told her tale. Garrick reflected that while he had heard tales of drow before, having one sit across from you and describe in detail what the culture was like was enough to make one’s blood run cold. At the end, Bhintel was offered a chance to stay on as a professional treasure-hunter and Underdark-consultant (Odus had thought that last one up, obviously). She managed to swallow her pride long enough to accept.
She had walked right up to the gate and demanded an audience with the Winterguard. Not in any sort of imperious way, but just with a forthrightness that dispensed with social pleasantries. In fact, when the militia at the gate seemed insulted, she appeared confused by their reaction… but then quickly shrugged and awaited for that which she had asked for.
Mordekai had been nearest, so he came to the gate. That people should show up requesting access to Gardmore Abbey was becoming more common, but none seemed as strange as this visitor, Mordekai noted… and he was a man who had seen some strange things, it must be noted.
She stood about six feet in height, with a lithe, athletic build. She was a warrior of some sort, clearly, by the size of the enormous blade strapped to her back, a sword that nearly matched her in length. She wore no visible armour, though, only brownish-gray silken robes; there were slits for her legs and her muscled arms were likewise uncovered, though there were a pair of bracers adorning them. She had auburn hair but it was barely visible beneath her elaborate veil. It seemed a fusion of practicality and some sort of cultural expression, thought Mordekai, for when he stared at the fabric of her robes, it seemed to move…
“The robes are there for a reason,” she announced. “While it is my understanding that it is normal to try to get a glimpse of the power of my form, the robes are there to distract you from that. I appreciate the stare as befitting the dedication I have put into the temple that is my body, but I fear you will suffer from concentration issues.”
Mordekai smirked. “That may be true, but it’s not because I’m…I mean, I am, but…sigh. Never mind. What are your robes made of, may I ask?”
She stood proudly. “Githweave.”
Mordekai arched an eyebrow. “Does that mean you are…?”
“Greetings,” the tall woman said. “I am here to join the Winterguard.”
The heroes all exchanged confused looks with each other. “We… we aren’t exactly holding tryouts,” stammered Garrick.
“Of course not, why would you? I’m sure I’d meet any test you could administer.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed behind her veil. “I apologize for your confusion. I am not here by invitation, or any decision you have made; I am here because my mistress demands it of me.”
“All right, enough! Who are you, where are you from and why are you here?”
She removed her veil to reveal tanned yellow skin, fierce black eyes, and angular features though hardly any nose. I was right thought Mordekai. Githzerai… she looks like an alien elf.
She spoke “I am Izera of the Vault, bride of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel, god of practical wisdom, dedication, zeal and retribution. I am here because my mistress has heard word of Gardmore Abbey’s restoration; in the past, St. Cuthbert was one of the many gods of good whose worshippers found a home here. With the presence of the faith of Pholtus, I was commanded to come here to make sure the Cudgel’s spiritual presence is felt as well.”
“You don’t look like any priest I have ever met,” said Odus, grinning.
“I am no priest,” Izera responded, without a trace of a sense of humour. “I am the Cudgel’s dark bride, his loving angel of death, the tool for which his retribution is felt. All brides of the Vault serve this function for their celestial husbands. I focus my zeal and dedication to a chosen enemy, then my faith does the rest, guiding my blade in all things.”
“When it comes to wielding a blade, I prefer muscle and skill to faith,” responded Isak.
She looked him up and down, appraising him. “You look to be a fine warrior, but imagine what more you could do, fueled by faith? I shall enjoy fighting alongside you, strong one. I shall convert you slowly, with every swing of my sword, you shall see!”
No one knew what to say.
“I like her,” said Odus out of the blue.
Garrick rolled his eyes, but had to admit allies were in short supply, especially since Erevas had informed them he would remain in the Feygrove. “Well then, welcome to Gardmore. One thing though: what, exactly, is ‘The Vault?'”
Izera began replacing her veil as she answered. “It is a clandestine organization, devoted to secretly seeking out enemies of the faiths of good and removing them from play. We are the hidden blade that strikes down the evil ruler in his sleep; that cuts the hierophant’s throat before he performs his human sacrifice; stabs the humanoid chieftan in the back before it can order its troops to assault the village. All with the power the faith in our gods provides.”
Well, sounds like she’ll have her uses, at least, thought Isak. Is her sword bigger than mine….?
“I couldn’t help but notice you called yourself a bride of the Cudgel,” said Odus.
“Yes,” replied Izera seriously. “Each of us is devoted to one deity and each deity has one servant in the organization. It provides solemnity of purpose, a proper devotion… to be a chosen bride of the deity is to have one’s priorities made clear at all times. And, if one of us falls in battle, naturally a new bride is chosen; a deity can never be without a bride.”
“Arcanists,” said Izera almost under her breath, nodding.
“… um, yes. This is Mordekai, Speaker with Spirits.”
“A seeker? Truly I have found myself in an odd place… but it is the will of Vault.”
Izera appraised the young warrior again; Isak was sure she was smirking beneath her veil. However, she merely nodded and said “Pleased to be counted amongst your number. May we continue this later? I need to find lodging and prepare myself for evening prayers.”
“Sure,” said Garrick. “Someone will show you to somewhere that should suffice until a more permanent solution can be found… tell me, though: Why is your organization called ‘The Vault?’ ”
She stopped walking and turned to look at the men. “Because whatever is put in our care is made safe.” She began walking away and called out “You need no longer worry, stewards of Gardmore: the Abbey has been placed in the Vault.”
They watched her walk off with her escort, and when they thought she was out of hearing Isak‘s sarcasm could not be held back. “Well, good, because we were going gray with worry, right frie… wait, she just turned around…there’s no way she heard me…do you think she heard me? How could she have heard me?”
The next few weeks cemented the challenges that would be facing the Winterguard. In keeping with Sir Oakley’s vision, the Abbey would be a home to shrines of good-aligned deities, and people of any of those faiths would find a home here, though a special place would be reserved for the Platinum Dragon, in honour of the Abbey’s history. That meant including the faith of Pholtus (much to the consternation of Izera and the satisfaction of Myariken) and therefore accepting a certain amount of presence from the League of Valourous Blindness (to the consternation of both). Since all were technically servants of the gods of good, trouble really should be minimal, but when religion was involved one never knew.
Money was another problem. Odus‘ plans notwithstanding, gold would be needed to get things done here, and doing it through even more taxation was not an option. Other revenues would have to be discovered, even if those revenues came from the caves of defeated dragons. Maybe especially then.
Politically, Gardmore would have to stay under the radar as much as possible or the house of cards risked tumbling down. Paradoxically, the more successful they were, the harder this would be.
The Winterguard hadn’t forgotten their enemies either. While they may have dealt with Maldrick Scarmaker, the Blackfang gnolls still had a presence in the area. The passage from the Vaults lead to the Underdark, they now knew for certain thanks to Bhintel, and that made it potentially very dangerous. They knew that Fatale would still be hunting for them and now that they were higher profile it would be harder to evade her sight. Finally, Solomon had shown an interest in them, even here in Winterhaven, having made a play for the Deck of Many Things. Would he give up on such an artifact? It seemed unlikely… and they wanted to deal with him for their own reasons at any rate.
No, this new era would bring many more challenges than they would have considered possible when they left in pursuit of a negligent merchant all that time ago… but they were also certain they could meet them.
And so it begins again.