The Damned Sons of Baron Thorn

In the heart of Ayrlaston, at the centre of a vast region of rivers and marshlands known as the Middemire, lies the city of Daggeron. It is an old city of water and wood, one with a history divided by circumstances of both valour and vanity. Which era can be attributed to which though is entirely dependent on who sits as the baron of the riverborn at any given time.

Today that man is Baron Edrik Thorn, second son of the late Elwin Thorn and husband to Lady Miriam. Ambitious, cunning and resourceful are all words that have been used to describe this man and none can be considered more appropriate than the former. He has earned the mocking title of the ‘Mire King’ by his fellow lords and ladies, such is his desire to rule his lands, and some might say the entire country, without having to bend the knee to another.

The great silver hall known as the Chamber of Kings is the seat of the silverborn and the House of the Valorayne Kings of Ayrlaston. Every year, the barons of the kingdom are summoned to an assembly to discuss the matters of rule and realm. Before the long talks and feasting may commence, each baron must bow to their king before all to see as a continued show of allegiance to their master and ruler. For the barons of Stonehold, Frosthaven and Amberfall this a formality that takes mere seconds to fulfil. They understand the prosperity of their unity and will not allow hubris to sully their allegiance. Yet for the stubborn Edrik Thorn, whether through spite or pride, the simple act of kneeling before his king is a burden almost too heavy to bear as he is always the last to bow.

‘The House of Valorayne and the House of Thorn, once we were equals in the great Court of Winter, when men ruled solely in the northern realms. Now I must bend the knee to that pompous arse of a king every time I see him? He who drinks wine with our so-called allies from Wintermere and dallies over trade agreements with those gold peddling Mithylfar fools to the south. The very thought vexes me. One day my son, our roots will grow deep and we shall be free of the rule of fools.’ – Edrik speaking to a young Edgar Thorn as he comes of age.

Many men and women have served the Baron of Daggeron in the decades since his father and elder brother disappeared, a dark hour for the barony still mired in mystery and murmurings of foul deeds. To this very day their bodies, nor any evidence of their whereabouts, have ever been recovered. Upon being informed of his father’s disappearance, after weeks spent enjoying the company of his new bride in Frosthaven, is was said that Edrik walked over to the fire pit in his father’s hall and burnt the letter from the king informing him that he must take up the mantle of baron before taking his seat as lord of the Middemire. In the years since, many have also fallen, in dark ways and in death, to the whims of a man never having been content with his station in life.

Edgar Thorn, firstborn and heir to his father’s seat, was killed in a bloody battle as he led the River Bann in the war against the Dothylfar years ago. The House of Thorn and every proud citizen of Daggeron would have you believe he fell to the Bloody Horde in a glorious clash of blood and blades, dying with honour as he served his House and his king to rid the Eastreach of this terrible scourge. The more commonly known story though is that he tried and failed to kill the son of the king whilst the fight raged on. There are some who doubt such a claim, saying how can Edgar Thorn have mistaken the silver clad son of the king for an ashen, blood smeared Dothylfar. Many others, including the nearby survivors who were said to have witnessed this, speak of the battle being so bloody that there was not a soldier amongst them who was not coated in a blood red veil and that the son of the baron seized the opportunity to carry out his father’s orders that night. A tale furiously denied by the Edrik Thorn to this very day. Any who speak the words saying it was so within earshot of the Bann are sentenced to be executed.

Cedrik Thorn, secondborn and now next in line to succeed his father after his brother’s death, may never see the day he becomes the Baron of Daggeron. He was a popular, charitable man and well-liked by his subjects and the people of the city, yet he never saw eye to eye with his father. Their conversations rarely ended in anything but aggressive debate. Those who consume, intentionally or not, the sap of the ebonroot are condemned to sleep for eternity. No one knows for sure how he quite managed to ingest such a substance but the effects are unmistakable. His eyes are unblinking and ever open, unable to close but he sees nothing. His skin bears a strange hue of darkened grey as if every day that passes his life to continues to gradually drain from him. Cedrik’s days are now spent in this perpetual ‘sleep’ within his room where his frail mother Miriam watches over him, day and night, tending to his needs in the hope that he will one day awaken from this nightmare. Every now and then he whispers a single word, father, yet despite this still he remains ignorant and cold to the waking world.

Though the fate of his elder brothers remains clouded in uncertainty, there can be no doubting what happened to Edmond Thorn, third son of Edrik. Whilst feasting with his family one evening, Edmond looked around their table to see the seats of his brothers and mother empty. Gripped by sorrow and angered by the ambitious machinations of his father, Edmond lost his temper and proceeded to shout words riddled with years’ worth of pent up anguish and frustration.

‘Look around father, look at this feast and all we have and yet our table grows emptier with each passing year. My brothers lie dead, broken or are trapped in towers miles away succumbing to the madness of your wishes. How many sons are you prepared to lose before you are finally satisfied?’

Edrik said nothing at first in response to this assault on his pride and on his honour. Instead he drew his blade, a sword of sapphires and black steel passed down through the ages from father to son, that was resting by his seat and plunged it deep into his son’s chest and spoke these words before he died.

‘You are my son, my blood, mine to use as I see fit. If you have nothing for me but bitter words and treachery in your thoughts, then I have no use for you. Now or ever again.’

Only two of his sons remain amongst the living. Elrik Thorn, a talented man who bears the burden of his father’s name and the reputation of his House as he resides as a mage of the Aeon Citadel. His awakening to magick as a boy was both a horrifying and gratifying experience as Edrik saw in his fourthborn son the potential to bring great honour and prestige to the House of Thorn as one of the most naturally gifted water weavers in the kingdom. It is this potential that greatly excites the baron as he eagerly awaits the culmination of Elrik’s progress.

The other is Eron Thorn, a callous man possessing great athletic prowess and sharp wit, who is imprisoned in the Spire of Covenraen for attempting to steal from the Vault of the Valoraynes. What would possess him to even try such a bold move? This is a question many have asked, including the Silver Legion commanders responsible for keeping him locked away. Their inquiries are met only with blunt observations, remarks about their lineage and incessant requests for female companionship and all are spoken wryly with a mocking smile. The king awaits his father’s attendance in his halls to answer for the crimes of his son.

The great table of House Thorn once sat a loving mother, her five young sons and a proud father with a strong will who had yet to be fully consumed by his ambitions. Now it sits empty with each evening that passes’ as Edrik Thorn dines alone, scheming in his chambers and patiently awaiting the day the last of his sons will return home to him.

The Woeful Tower

‘Impure and wretched are the cursed who walk amongst us. Pity not their fate for it has been decreed by Altyr when he spoke to his vanguard Daryan that they bear an unforgivable taint. May the pure and dawning light of the One God wash over them in death for the blight of magick, a wicked conception cast upon us by false gods, dwells deep within them. May He have mercy on them, for we cannot.

Let it be known, now and forever, that they who carry the taint, they who harbour this sin and they who forgive this curse – there is no sanctuary for you. You will be sought, you will be found and you will be Judged.’  – the teachings of Godrik Gatekeeper, Grand Minister of High Kairon.

It is well known throughout the lands of Ayl’gard that to be mageborn in Hammarkand is almost like living with a death sentence. Those born Aeon blessed within the borders of the Altyran Empire are shunned, exiled, hunted and slain not only for what they are but also for what they may become. History tells of countless tales of mages driven mad with grief, vengeance or a lust for power that have gone on to wreak excruciating havoc upon the lives of those afflicted by their will. One particularly dark account involving a uniquely gifted mage tells of the destruction of an ancient city, that of Duskholm, after an unsuccessful attempt to control his shadow magicks failed in the most devastating way. The ruins of that once glorious testament of the prowess of the Mithylfar lie buried deep underneath the city of Amberfall and its legacy is now almost entirely forgotten.

To wield magicks within the borders of the Empire is forbidden. To offer safety and give harbour to a magick user within the borders of the Empire is forbidden. To express any sentiment or pursue any action that doesn’t follow the laws written and passed down by the first Emperor Daryan, the Vanguard of the One God, to the very letter is, without a shadow of a doubt, completely forbidden.

For a mother to look upon her child and see that faint wisp of fire flicker from nothing or to feel the sudden shudder of an unnatural breeze, it can stir incomparable emotions of despair and sorrow. Should they hide away and flee for the safety of another shore so that she can see her child blossom into what they were intended to become? Or does she rid herself of such an unnatural abomination? That of a cursed child born with an unforgivable impurity whose only true fate by law is to be ridden from society. In the eyes of many dutiful citizens of the Empire, it is considered to be a worthy sacrifice in the eyes of the One god to rid the world of magicks in all forms for magick is a curse, the dark blight of a civilisation striving for purity. Even if the end result is the death of an innocent.

But what of those who live? What becomes of one born with the ability to wield magick who has escaped the watchful eyes of a nation led to believe that their mere existence is an affront to their beliefs?

As previously mentioned, some lucky few might escape north across the sea and flee to Sollistar or Ayrlaston. To have the opportunity to study and practice their craft in the gardens of the Aetherian Academy or the halls of the Aeon Citadel, it is a chance to lead a life free of persecution and fearing for simple being alive. A chance to bring some value and distinction to a life once thought damned.

Others, even fewer in number, will attempt to suppress their power in the hopes of living a ‘normal’ life. Though what sense of normality can be gained from constantly looking over their shoulder as they try to have an almost statuesque reaction to all they come into contact with is a debate best left to the unfortunate few who have had to deal with such things. For a hidden magick wielder to give into the whims of potent emotion, it could unintentionally reveal what they have strived to hide their whole life.

There are those however, who have managed to cling to life and yet have not had the chance to keep hold of their free will. They see only dark walls and iron chains and hear only the screams of the damned or the words of their captors. To the east of the city fortress of High Kairon, a hundred hours away by foot and shrouded in the mists of a vast lake at the centre of bleak, empty moorlands stretching for miles is a solitary tower built upon a foundation of blood and stone. It is known as the Woeful Tower to the few who are aware of it. There are no roads that lead to its doors and Imperial law forbids its location to be noted on any map. Even the Minister of its closest town has been heavily bribed with women, wine and gold to be completely ignorant of its existence. It also helps that he is the second cousin to a high seated Council member of the Imperial Circle. A fact he never shuts up about either, to the annoyance of his subjects.

Its original name, along with its purpose, has been long forgotten. There are some who say that it predates the arrival of Daryan and his followers onto the shores of Valleden and the complex stonework, that no mason of the Empire can replicate, certainly seems to indicate such a perspective. An Emperor who lived over a century ago, known as Uthor the Boastful, once proclaimed it to be the stronghold of the First Mage, a wicked and corrupt man who conjured the very demons from the Hollow Plane to reap his will upon the ancient inhabitants of a civilisation long dead. Though he also once tried to have the wine imported from Solharbour decreed as ‘red piss water tainted by the hands of the unfaithful’ so there are many who have dismissed this claim, amongst others, as the fiction of a thoughtless leader.

Whatever the original intent of the tower though, now it has a darker purpose. It has, over the ages, held countless individuals condemned as cursed by the Ministers of Altyr and the Imperial Circle where only those considered to have very little magickal aptitude are permitted to reside. The Judges of the Sworn Order are sent to scour the Empire in search of any impurity, those deemed unworthy in the eyes of the One god, such as mages in particular. Most who are encountered and are then actually powerful enough to have put up a fight are put to death right there and then. Some however are considered so inept and pitiful as to be considered worthy of redemption. They are sent to the Woeful Tower to live out their days in darkness and silence, to be cleansed of their corruption until the day they are deemed fit to re-join their fellow man in the service of Altyr.

For the outside observer, to be cleansed in this place is thought to be a cruel and unjust fate. A mage who dwells here is starved, beaten, tortured and their skin is routinely burnt until it resembles the ashen grey colour of a Dothylfar. Once the Wardens have decreed someone to have been salvaged, which is a rare circumstance as most who suffer the misfortune of dwelling in this place have a high chance of succumbing to their cleansing, they have their tongues cut out and their fingers removed. Once the prospect of their magicks returning has been utterly eliminated, they are sent to serve in one of the many Cathedrals dotted around Hammarkand where they shall live out the remainder of their days to live and to serve the Empire and their god, Altyr.

If they are finally able to leave such a torrid existence, they are given a name befitting the status of what remains of their life. They become known as one of the Cleansed. To see someone such as this serving in the midst of a sermon to the people, it rarely elicits any sentiment of pity or remorse to the countless followers of Altyr. They see it as an example of the power of an Empire driven to rid their lands of the scourge of magick and also a testament to the will of their god. A deity who has seen fit to bestow upon his chosen the responsibility of such acts to ensure a pure and just society, all according the will and the words set down by the Emperor and the Imperial Circle leading all the way back to the foundations of the Altyran Empire under the rule of Daryan.

So, you may be wondering, what becomes of those who do not survive the ordeal? What happens if, after years of suffering at the hands of the Woeful Wardens, the only way to escape such a life is to simply give up and perish? Underneath the tower is a vast network of caverns and tunnels where the remains of thousands who have died here have been discarded over the centuries. Nigh countless broken bodies and the decrepit remnants of lives extinguished remain scattered and piled in what is considered to be the largest mass grave ever formed in the history of Ayl’gard. So few are those who know of it yet so many are they who lie dead and buried, entombed in darkness and forgotten by history. All to rid an Empire of magick.

The Dare of Crocker Hops Drop

Would you be prepared to do that which you would expect of a fool? For a fleeting glimpse of silver and gold would you dare risk what the tales have already told?

Would you risk your life in the pursuit of wealth if someone were to ask you to do so in exchange for completing a simple game of dare and drink?

On the outskirts of the small village of Harrowtown where the pathway narrows and the trees grow wilder; there lives a strange elderly woman who reeks of soil and earth known as Old Dot Crocker. Her devious dare is infamous throughout the region of Middemire as well as that of her homemade brew of ale. She has been confined to the outskirts of the village for good reason for she likes nothing more than enticing work weary men, prideful persons lacking perception and travellers from afar who may know nothing of her. With the sweet smell of her own concoction and the glowing light of her lantern acting like a wisp in the dim dark of the eve, she will offer them a challenge. Old Lady Crocker will reveal to these eager and somewhat misguided folk a brown leather bag of coins filled to the brim with silver crowns, the currency of the kingdom of Ayrlaston, that glisten a beckoning glow against the shimmering bright of the lantern’s candle light. With a wink and a smile, she will place it onto a table to be set in front of them and speaks softly these words every time.

‘Drink but one cup of my ale until there is nothing left and if you remain standing, this bag of crowns will be yours.’

‘That’s easy’ are the thoughts of the arrogant souls who have already drank far too much in the tavern down the road. Blurry are their eyes and cloudy is their judgement as they often willingly accept the challenge that lies before them. It will be another chance for them to get just as sloshed in dazed insobriety for the next several nights. Or if they’re sensible enough they may invest this sum of silver in increasing the livestock of their respective farm holds, maybe a new bow string if they hunt or to buy themselves some fresh furs ready for the winter ahead.

There is however one small stipulation that the old lady will demand before she will proceed any further. The participants must remove their effects, leaving only their clothes, and place them on the ground at their feet before they stand on the edge of a deep, dark pit that lies at the back of her garden of hops. Stare down they will into the black of the hole that seemingly has no end to it, especially in the dead of the night when the moons are shining dimly in the sky. She appears to challenge the locals only every so often, when the dusk is to her liking and enough time has passed so that the people of the village barely recall her presence save for the odd rumour or twisted tale that lingers on the tongues of the few who can remember.

And so they will stand on the precipice of the pit with the cup of sweet ale within their grasp, ready to down it in one and earn themselves a tidy little sum for seemingly no effort at all. But wait; some of those whose minds have not been completely addled enough to lose all sense of wit and wonder will ask.

‘What’s the catch old hag, is this a brew of poison?’

To answer their inquisitiveness, Old Dot Crocker will take the first gulp and swallow it in plain sight before returning the cup which is filled anew into their waiting hands. With a glint in their eyes and a thirsty smile, they drink and drink until there is nothing left.

Nothing left at all.

Down they fall one after another into the deep pit known as Crocker Hops Drop to their end. They will be neither seen nor heard from again. She places no tonics, reagents, poisons or ill liquids into the brew of her special ale save for a particular type of bitter sweet hop that she grows herself in her hop garden. She, and the odd challenger who has survived to tell the tale, is immune to the mysterious effects of such a flower. She could not tell you why and she does not care why. The riches and effects she gathers from the soon to lie dead before they fall are all she cares for. And who amongst the village can cry foul murder when those that do fall compete for the challenge so willingly. For those that cast doubt and question her brew for a tiny glimpse of a fatal sip, she need only drink a cup in its entirety to prove her so called innocent intent.

So will you stop before Crocker Hops Drop to challenge this hag for her silver coin bag? Shall your mirth and pride be you sole guide this night? Will you walk on by to your home, to your bed alone, refusing to succumb to this old ladies sweet ale from her deadly hop crop? Or shall you succumb to the challenge of Old Dot Crocker and stand before the dare of Crocker Hops Drop?