The six Deathless were silent for a short time, the enormity of the task ahead of them beginning to gnaw at their collective consciousness.
At first it appeared that Rosalee might speak, but as she took a step forward and opened her frost-white lips to speak she was overshadowed by the Vampire, Vlad. Normally calm and calculated, Vlad seemed agitated by Aroden’s speech, and not entirely convinced:
“How do we know you are who you say you are?” Vlad began in a clearly venomous tone, barely bothering to conceal his distaste.
“You claim yourself a God, but what proof do you give us? Magical tricks? A Wizard or Sorcerer could show us such things, illusions of far off places does not make you a God Aroden….or whoever you are. If you are a God, prove it!”
Victor flung Vlad an angry glare then, his knuckles whitening as his left hand clenched into a fist and his right moved toward the stock of Graveheart. Vlad was oblivious to this however, his blood red eyes fixated on the man they had just rescued.
“A God does not need to prove their existence,” Aroden replied. “A God exists on Faith, not proof.”
Growing increasingly annoyed, Vlad spat disrespectfully upon the floor.
“You have to prove yourself to ME if you expect me to become involved in this…..quest of yours…”
To this, The Last Azlanti sighed.
“Very well,” Aroden replied, half-saddened and half annoyed. “What would it take for you to believe, I wonder? A show of power perhaps?”
Aroden raised his right hand then, and clicked his fingers together. Instantly Vlad exploded into a shower of crimson gore, as his organs and bones propelled in all directions. Outstretching his palm, Aroden stopped the parts of what were once Vlad hanging suspended in mid-air, droplets of blood and flesh floating timelessly mere feat from the other Deathless.
“Or would you prefer the actions of a vengeful God?” Aroden said, his eyes narrowing in a show of anger. Suspended at the very point of his destruction Vlad was unable to begin his Deathless cycle of rebirth, forever stuck at the agonising moment of his demise.
“No,” Aroden concluded as he brought his other palm in-line with his first and moved them gently about as if conducting an unseen orchestra. “What you need is a forgiving God, a compassionate God, one who asks for your help as much as he expects the same respect shown to him as he does unto others.”
Rapidly the suspended parts of Vlad flew back together, knitting bones and sinew as the blood rushed back under the skin and the organs found their rightful place. Almost instantaneously he was whole again and dropped to the ground from a suspended position a couple of feet of the ground, landing with the usual grace and perfect balance he was known for. The Vampiric Deathless was returned to his exact state before Aroden had acted.
“There is your proof, Vlad. No mortal spell-slinger could accomplish such feats to one such as powerful as you. Know that I do not wish to do that again, and took no pleasure in it.”
Vlad winced at the pain but maintained a steady, embittered stare in the Gods direction.
“Now,” Aroden continued. “Are there more questions?”
The Deathless looked at one another, hesitant to anger the God but also much in need of information. Of them, it was the towering barbarian Ursk who stepped forward:
“The Elf – Celetaellyn – how did he manage to stop the Eternecrüx on Castrovel?” The Graveknight Deathless enquired. “If what you tell us was true, he was a mortal when he somehow managed to stop it. We would need to know as well.”
To this, Aroden nodded.
“A fair question, and one I wish I had solid information on. At the time of Earthfall I was mortal, as Celetaellyn was and yet I was able to raise the Starstone. These things can be done, the task lies in finding out how. By the time I encountered Celetaellyn he was already fully the NightWalker, but in his captivity of me he would speak with me and try and glean information from me. In this manner I too was able to listen and observe him, and what tiny spark of his Elven nature still remained seemed obsessed with his family, his bloodline…..or more specifically his blood. I heard him talk with the Vampire Tiriac on several occasions about the preserving of blood samples for ritualistic purposes. I cannot guarantee this is involved in how he stopped the Castrovellian Eternecrüx, but it would be an avenue of investigation I would recommend you look into.”
The God paused then briefly, looking in Gregor’s direction.
“I would still suggest your best move at this juncture would be to visit the Romavitch ascestral home; Tiriac is bound to still be there and he may have answers you seek. Tiriac is your best chance at locating The Nightwalker. For my part I will use my resources within Axis to locate the Golarion Eternecrüx.”
When it became obvious that the six were either unwilling or lacking any further questions, Aroden bowed to them as he prepared to leave.
“Again let me express my thanks at the release from my bondage. I wish the destiny set before you was a more pleasant one, but I shall aid you in any way that I can. Question Tiriac, find The Nightwalker. I shall locate the source of the signal and contact you as soon as I do so. Remember that you will need all nine Deathless to thwart the Eternecrüx; finding the remaining three Deathless should be your next priority. Farewell.”
With that, Aroden was encircled in a column of golden light which bored into the ceiling of the cave and retreated through the ceiling, taking the God with it.
The group found their exit from the cave no longer barred as they traversed the tunnel in silence until they eventually arrived back out in the cavern underneath the Tree of Sorrow.
Patiently awaiting their return Zakalov, Alexandria, Faeona, Herod, and Stoalis turned in their direction as they passed the invisible barrier. The others were helping Stoalis back to his feet as it appeared he had suffered some sort of collapse.
“I-its t-true, isn’t it?” the man stammered as he straightened up with Faeona’s help. “He’s back, isn’t he? Aroden’s back.”
“There was nothing in that cave, you craven fool,” Rastomir scoffed with a mix of amusement and spite. “Your ‘God’ is dead, so you may as well just accept your entire life has been a lie and put an end to it now so that we don’t have to listen to your incessant prattle a moment longer.”
The look on Stoalis’ face as the blood drained from it was all the response the Warpriest needed, turning away from the man and laughing as he did so.
Victor stepped up and placed a calming hand upon the man’s shoulder.
“Don’t listen to Rastomir, he is merely…unhappy about the situation we find ourselves in. The Lord of the First Vault is indeed alive and well, as I am sure you can even now feel his light upon you. He gave us advice, put us upon the path. You must return to Absalom. Tell the others, spread the word. Abodar has reclaimed his throne in Axis and balance is restored.”
To this, Stoalis nodded and held back some tears of joy.
“Y-yes, of course. You are right. Thank-you Victor. Thank-you all. I shall return to the Order and update them.”
“I will accompany you,” Rosalee suddenly piped up.
The rest of the group looked at her then, and shared a glance among themselves.
It was Gregor who spoke first, stepping forward and taking Rosalee’s hand in his own.
“Are you sure?” he began, speaking softly and keeping her eyes upon him. After being separated by the veil of death and assuming he would never have seen his wife again, Gregor found the thought of her leaving hard to accept. “You know where we must go, WHO we might run into..”
Rosalee nodded gently and un-cupped her hand from his, instead raising it to his face and trailing her slender fingers down his cheek.
“I am quite sure, Husband. Your colleagues are more than capable of assisting you in questioning Tiriac and while the idea of running into your father again brings a chill to my already frozen heart, that alone would not stop me from accompanying you.”
A reassuring smile from her then.
“Though we need to speak with the Vampire, we also need to find the three remaining Deathless. With time being a factor I recommend we split up. The city of Absalom is as good a place as any to start, somebody there may have heard something.”
With the slightest sigh, Gregor nodded in acceptance and stepped back from her, granting her leave to go.
Silent up until this point, Ursk rubbed his chin in thought then spoke in his usual deep baritone:
“Take Faeona with you as well.” The half-elf maiden looked initially shocked by the suggestion, but then nodded to the Graveknight Deathless and went to stand next to Rosalee.
“She is a smart woman, and two minds work quicker than one.”
“Then it is decided,” Victor continued. “Rosalee and Faeona will accompany Stoalis to Absalom, the rest of us will travel to Varno to speak with this Tiriac.”
“You do realise how far that is I take it?” Gregor said as Rosalee began to collect her belongings ready for the journey. “Varno is hundreds of miles to the east. It took us a considerable time to escape from that place years ago, I cannot imagine the roads will be any safer or easier to traverse now.”
“I can get us there, though I am not sure how much strength I will have left when we arrive,” said Zakalov who had been quietly sitting with his daughter as the Deathless discussed their options.
“I could create a portal for us all.”
Alexandria patted her fathers hand gently.
“No father, you are exhausted. Such magics could be dangerous in your state.”
“By horseback we would be looking at a fair journey, I should warn you.” Gregor continued. “It took Rosalee and I a week and a half to make the trip from Redleaf to Dharnic, and considering how far north we are, you should look to round that up to a fortnight. We could potentially save time travelling by boat.. we could take the river Vistear as far as where it branches off into the Senir, travel along the southern border of Ardeal and follow it up the Kingfisher river; disembark at Carrion Hill. We’d only have to cover fifty or so miles across land that way. With good fortune and a capable captain we could reach our destination within a week.”
As she picked up the last of her belongings and was flanked on either side by Faeona and Stoalis, Rosalee nodded to the group and wished them well.
“We shall leave you to decide how best to proceed,” She continued. “I will contact Gregor within two nights to update on our progress. Gods-speed Gentleman!”
With that the three walked off into the Maidensnarl Wood, leaving Gregor, Vlad, Rastomir, Victor, Herod, Alexandria and Zakalov to decide how best to get to Varno…
“We need to hurry,” Victor said first, taking the initiative as the others left for Maidensnarl.
“I understand that some of you don’t trust Aroden, and I shall not argue that point but if what he says is true we need to get moving as soon as possible.”
“We can’t afford for this to be a bluff,” he continued, seeming agitated. “If we don’t believe Aroden and don’t follow this path then if we are wrong, its the end of Golarion. End of us. I suggest we take Zakalov up on his offer and teleport to Varno immediately.”
Vlad shook his head in disagreement. His face still obscured by the mask he wore, but his intent could be clearly heard in his voice.
“I disagree. For one, we don’t know if this ‘Aroden’ is telling the truth. For another, we don’t even know if this cr….” he looked at Zakalov and Alexandria, the latter of which through him a distasteful glance. “…If this man even has the strength to teleport us. We know for a fact he has not been of right mind for some time, he could teleport us anywhere! No, I suggest we follow Gregor’s suggestion and travel by river.”
To this, Rastomir merely nodded, remaining silent.
“I have a magical device that can store people inside of it, we could use that and Zakalov could therefore transport less of us?” Ursk said, breaking the silence.
“That wouldn’t work,” Victor replied. “You would be creating an extra-dimensional space within another extra-dimensional space. The resulting magical reaction could be….”
“….catastrophic.” Gregor finished for him. “Victor is correct, though it was a good idea, Ursk.”
The large Graveknight Deathless shrugged off the response in his usual carefree manner as the group decided how to proceed.
“I would ask,” Alexandria piped up when an appropriate moment presented itself “..that my father not use his magic if at all possible. I do worry for his health, but Vlad also makes a valid point. He is still recovering from whatever hold The Nightwalker had over him, and I would feel happier if he did not exert himself too much.”
After a stroke of his chin, Gregor nodded decisively, taking control of the situation.
“Then its decided: we get ourselves a boat and travel east along Vistear River, head southwest along the Senir River and finally follow the Kingfisher River east until we reach Carrion Hill.”
Pulling out a scroll case and unfurling a map of Ustalav that Rosalee and he had used on their journey away from Varno years ago, he couldn’t stop himself from letting out an audible sigh. Gregor had made a new life away from that place, away from his family… now fate had conspired to return him to his ancestral home.
Getting the others to gather around the map, he pointed to a location.
“This is Clover’s Crossing”, he said, pointing to an area to their east. “At one point it would have been our best bet to find a ship to sail along Vistear. Sadly now it is little more than a ghost town since it was over-run by Ghouls years ago. Our best chance lies here,” The Lich Deathless said as he trailed his finger southwest of their position, past Lake Lias.
“This is the community of Ravengro . We should travel to that town and look for transport there. It is not a large place, but chances are someone there makes their living off the river and might be able to assist us…” Nodding toward the Antipladin Herod as he did so, he concluded: “It may be the last sensible place to gather supplies for our mortal friends as well.”
Alexandria helped her father to his feet as the group readied their weapons. Out of all of the Deathless only Victor seemed hesitant to head to Varna by boat, be he also understood the importance of remaining together as a group, especially with the Nightwalker out there somewhere, waiting.
As they collected their belongings, a strange eerie diffusion of light seemed to shift around them, almost like the heat haze rising off a cobbled road in the hot midday sun. Yet it was not hot there in Ustalav on the edge of Maidensnarl Wood, nor was it bright. The ground beneath their feet seemed to shrink away from them as the grass upon which they stood wilted and died, leaving a dark circle almost like a burn mark surrounding them. Emanating outward random plants died in a zig-zag pattern for about ten feet, creating veins of blackened dead plants in their wake. The air had a strange sulfurous smell to it which caused the mortals among them to cough momentarily.
“What was that?” The Vampire Vlad inquired as he looked at the area around them.
“I’m not…sure,” Gregor replied as he reached down and plucked a piece of grass which disintegrated like ancient paper at his touch. “Something magical.”
“I know what is is,” This time it was Zakalov speaking, stronger now and with more confidence than he had moments earlier.
“It is a reality ripple.” The Wizard said with clarity.
“A…what?” Victor replied, looking noticeably concerned.
“A reality ripple,” Zakalov repeated. “It is the Prime Material Plane reacting to utterly alien forces within itself. Namely you.”
The old man cleared his throat, removing the last of the sulfurous taste from his lungs.
“Remember, you may look and sound like your living selves but you are not. You are alien entities who wear their minds, emotions and memories. Gregor, Rastomir, Victor, Vlad, Ursk. All those people are dead. You are their….dopplegangers if you will. You are not meant to exist in this reality and now our reality is pushing back against your presence. It will grow more severe and with greater regularity the stronger the signal becomes….the nearer the Starkiller Beast approaches.”
“Fantastic,” Ursk scoffed. “As if we didn’t have enough problems now even reality itself is giving us hassle!” The Graveknight Deathless laughed it off, but the thoughtful looks upon the faces of his companions almost gave him pause as they collected their belongings and headed southwest toward Ravengro…
The journey to Ravengro was a hurried but uneventful one, and despite the groups usually dangerous surroundings the most interesting thing to happen was than the heavens opened to wash the group with a constant, cold rain that hampered the three mortals among them but did little to slow the Deathless.
Making their way around the Lake Lias, the eight travellers entered the town from the north, across a sturdy stone bridge that spanned Ravengro Creek; a small and gentle-flowing river that ran through the centre of the small town of just over three hundred citizens. It was early evening by the time of their arrival, but the dark overcast Ustalavian skies made all but the brightest sunlight seem like inky midnight at the best of times.
Unremarkable in most ways and starkly drab in others, the township had four large buildings of note among its otherwise nondescript two and single-storey structures: In the centre of the town stood the town hall, neutral in appearance but nevertheless noticeable due to its three-storey height. The western side of the town housed both a fairly large and impressive Pharasman Temple as well as The Eigenhaus, an inviting tavern which bathed a lot of the town square in golden light from inside opened windows, through which wafted the smell of fresh meats and the combination of singing and laughter escaped into the night air.
By contrast, outside of the town on its southern side, nestled upon a hill like the carcass of some looming monster stood the burnt out remains of Harrowstone prison, destroyed and never rebuilt since a prisoner uprising in 4594 AR. The still-flowing rain added to the town’s overall drab nature with only The Eigenhaus seeming even remotely appealing.
“I shall order Herod, father and myself some food from the Tavern,” Alexandria said as they moved across the bridge and into the small town. People turned in their direction and whispered among themselves as they passed, unsure what to make of the new strangers in their town. Even though no longer in their Deathless forms, Gregor, Rastomir, Victor, Vlad and Ursk still gave off an unnerving presence that saw domesticated dogs walk gingerly away from them and cats fur stick up on end as they walked past.
As Alexandria and Zakalov broke off toward The Eigenhaus, Vlad looked around at the surroundings they found themselves in.
“I’m sure I can….persuade someone to take us up river,” he began and although his expression was obscured by his mask, his companions knew the Vampire Deathless well enough to know that he meant to mind-control someone in the town to do their bidding. “Assuming nobody has any qualms with that?”
The other Deathless remained quiet, either having no concerns with Vlad making a random citizen his unwitting slave or being too caught up in their own thoughts to respond. It was only Victor, who even attempted to persuade the Vampire otherwise.
“Would it make any difference if we said we had a problem with you doing so?” The Shadow Deathless said, almost rhetorically.
“Not really, no.” Was Vlad’s matter-of-fact response before he did a semi-theatrical bow and then retreated into the shadows, leaving Gregor, Rastomir, Victor and Ursk standing in the main square.
“I suspect it will take Alexandria a few moments to gather some provisions, and Vlad perhaps a few moments longer to get a …. volunteer,” Gregor eventually said to break the so-often uncomfortable silence between them.
“I am going to take this opportunity to prepare some spells; I assume that we may have need of them once we arrive in Varno. I shall meet you back here within the hour.”
With that Gregor nodded to Rastomir, Victor, Ursk and Herod then made his way down one of the side alley-ways to find a secluded place to concentrate.
The three Deathless remained in the town square before deciding how to spend their preparation time.