A day’s journey from Everfall, the Oxboro road was safer than those deeper in the wilds. A few of us traveling on roads from Brightwood to Everfall had gathered over the course of the past hour as the setting sun’s purple hues faded to the deep blue of night. I was the second to arrive, finding the encampment of a fur trader I’d met on the road before. She’d already started a fire, providing respite from the crisp evening air. I had joined, offering some ingredients from my pack, and we’d begun preparing a stew of vegetables and venison. Not long after, a man nervously approached, claiming to be a blacksmith apprentice headed to Everfall to hone his craft, at first wary, but seemingly quite relieved to find the safety offered by other travelers.
When the last streaks of sun were barely visible, a fourth traveler strode into the camp silent but confidently, nodding politely and moving to warm his hands over the fire. He was bearded, and while clearly a man of few words, his eyes had a knowledge, or wisdom, in them. We’d sat, chatting on and off for the last hour or so, as we enjoyed the stew under the rising moon.
It was dark now, the sky a deep, rich blue, moon gleaming and highlighting the wisps of clouds in the air.
The fire crackled, and my eyes tracked a trail of sparks ascending into the night. Noticing the bright glow of the fire illuminating the nearby trees, I felt a knot begin to grow in my stomach. Normally, a larger fire would be a good, keeping unwanted wolves and specters away from the camp. Now, the brighter glow and plume of smoke made you more visible to ruthless inhabitants new to these parts of Aeternum— the Varangian Knights, ruthless and cruel in their recent conquest.
“Anyone know exactly how far south the Varangian outpost is?” I said, voicing my concern as the knot grew. My luck won’t hold forever. I’d met them in battle before, and while largely unscathed so far, I had yet to cross swords with a knight of any renown. Even the foot soldiers amongst their ranks were clearly skilled in battle.
“In these parts...” the fur trader gestured toward the Shattered Obelisk, jutting into the sky to our south, before continuing, “...they’re mainly down there. Seem to be mostly interested in the ruins. Word has it they’re searching for some form of advancement created by the Ancients.”
The blacksmith nervously glanced up, meeting our eyes. “That’s not exactly what I heard,” he said. “They’re expanding across Aeternum. They seem to be looking for a few things— relics, I’ve heard. Powerful artifacts hidden across the land.”
The bearded traveler nodded. “Aye, that makes more sense, knowing their history.” He’s heard of them before? No adventurer I’d met yet had.
“What tales do you have?” I inquired, my curiosity piqued.
“Before arriving here,” the traveler’s eyes scanned the wilds of Aeternum before settling back on the crackling fire. “I took pride in my knowledge of the world. These Knights, as they call themselves, have carved a bloody path for themselves through the pages of history.”
“They started off as Northern raiders, pillaging, stealing, and seeking riches across all corners of northern Europe. They seemed to be like other groups of Vikings throughout the years, but something changed after decades of expansion and stealing wealth from the northern countries. They seemed to become less interested in general control of the land, and more focused in their attacks. Like they were searching for something.”
“Their hunger for power shifted, from control of the land to control of true power - power that transcended what humankind could achieve alone. Their raids began to target forces of the Byzantine Empire, quite specifically. As strong as they were, they seemed unable to match the sheer numbers and large forces of the Byzantines. But they were cunning, and realized there were other ways of achieving their goals. Not long after, they attached a group of their fiercest warriors to the Byzantine empire. This group, cunning, bloodthirsty, and brutal, worked their way up the ranks, currying favor with the emperors throughout history. They became an elite guard, often first into the fray.”
“What many seem to think is that they were leveraging the knowledge of the Byzantine Empire to acquire artifacts of great power from all over the world. And it looks like that quest for power is what’s brought them to Aeternum’s shores.”
The traveler paused, before uttering a final word. “I see blood and battle aplenty in Aeternum’s future. They’re not ones to give up. If their ruthless raiding won’t accomplish a goal, their cunning leaders will find another way.”
Worry was visible on a few of our faces around the fire. We sat in silence for a moment. A minute? No… ten? Eventually, I unbuckled my plate armor, pulled my cloak up tightly around my shoulders and laiddown, my back to the fire.
Just after shutting my eyes, a forlorn cry was carried faintly by the wind as it whispered through the towering trees above me and sighed through damp grass below. My muscles tensed as shivers shot up my spine. A wolf’s howl, or something else? Judging by the distance, it mattered not. I let out my breath, relaxed my body, and my mind quickly moved on.
A cruel and cunning foe. Greater cunning than the Syndicate, more battlefield prowess than the Marauders, and deeper knowledge possessed by the Covenant of ancient sources of power and holy artifacts.
For once, the haunting sounds of Aeternum’s night were of secondary concern— I could only focus on the implications of the traveler’s tale as I lay, feigning sleep.