The manor house stood on top of the hill, the empty graveyard stretching out beyond it in all directions. If you looked closely you could make out the tracks where the masses had shuffled, first up the hill and then down, and here and there you could still see a pile of what remained after the migration, which after a few months was not much to speak about.
The gate to the manor was closed, now, as it should have been that night, and inside the compound an eerie silence reigned. There was room aplenty for many people to call this place there home, but those who had lived here before that night had fled, and of the five that had claimed the place in the aftermath, three had since departed for adventures beyond, chasing their pasts and forging their futures.
D’cafnaet’d was standing on the roof of the Manor, looking south. He had spotted the rider half an hour ago, the sight lines of the valley being quite useful for this sort of thing, and had postponed going downstairs until he had some inkling of who the approaching person was. They were certainly not in any hurry. But as the horse disappeared behind a copse of trees he figured that he would have to go and open the gate in any case. He grabbed the side of the roof, somersaulted over the edge, and landed on the balcony below, then went inside.
By the time he got to the gate, though, he could see the rider making a hasty retreat, the horse now galloping at a brisk pace away from a small satchel tossed at the bottom of the gate. The Manor was a useful resource, but its reputation was deserved and overcoming it would be an undertaking. D’cafnaet’d wasn’t sure it was an effort anyone should bother undertaking: that kind of reputation was useful in its own way. The drow reached through the gate, picked up the satchel, and went inside to find Montiago.
Back and forth, back and forth. Kynun was rubbing his foot hard on the floor. A casual observer would notice the swaying even though they couldn’t see the leg beneath the genasi’s robes. Montiago, a more-than-casual observer, knew exactly what this newcomer was up to, and smiled a bit. That summoning circle was spent– he’d seen the ritual himself– but it never hurt to make sure such a device wasn’t in a ready state for reuse. The gnome looked down at the pipe in his hand, then back at the deva opposite him. Lady Ronstein and Montiago had known each other for quite some time, but it had been a number of years since they’d crossed paths. That the Manor would be the location and the reason for this new crossing amused him: this place was built brick by brick with history and intrigue, and the cumulative karmic debt it represented would take some time to pay off. If it didn’t somehow swallow them beforehand.
Montiago took a drag on his brother’s pipe, held it, then exhaled. “I have searched this house quite thoroughly, Victoria, and I can assure you that I’ve come across no such artifact.”
The cleric leaned in, pointed into the rows of shelves in the rough-hewn cavern behind Kynun. “But you must admit that it seems plausible.” Kynun lifted his eyes and turned to look at the gathered artifacts. He’d seen enough of the world to know that this was a fair collection, but he also knew in his bones that the faint petrichor of darkness that lingered in this place was nothing compared to what The Heart kept around itself. And yet… if he closed his eyes and let his senses extend outward…
“Oh, certainly.” Montiago said, “Likely, even.”
“It was here.” Kynun said suddenly, lifting a finger and pointing. Montiago and Lady Ronstein followed the path he traced. It led to an empty table, draped in linens. Montiago reached out, snapped up the cloth, and pulled. The table underneath was scorched black, as if lightning had hit it dead center.
Lady Ronstein smiled, “The Shadar-Kai witch did not lie. I told you she could be trusted.”
“That’s why she sent her minions after us when we left, and we spent a week losing them in the wilds?” Kynun asked, his eyes now open and his mouth curling up.
“I never said she wasn’t dangerous.” Lady Ronstein said. She turned to Montiago, “Might we stay a while, and read through some of the archives? Perhaps we can learn what became of the Heart after it left this place.”
Montiago nodded, “What with Leeloo and Tortolla off chasing ghosts in Astrazalian, we certainly have the room. And I don’t think you’ll be bothered by the noise.”
The satchel landed between the deva and the gnome, the rock inside rolling out onto the ground. “We had a messenger,” D’cafnaet’d said. “The attacks continue, and there is a small group not far from here who’ve recently been sighted with the attackers. If we hurry we might catch them and find ourselves some reward.”
“Attacks?” Kynun asked.
Montiago nodded, picking up the satchel and kicking the rock off into the darkness. He withdrew the paper within, confirmed what the drow said, ran through the list of his nefarious brothers to try to match a modus operandi, and came up short. “The attackers are riff-raff. Orcs and goblins and the like. But they choose targets wisely, strike quickly, and disappear into the ether.”
“So someone is guiding their hand,” Lady Ronstein said.
“Guiding them well,” Montiago said. “They’ve killed many and taken much.”
Kynun looked at Lady Ronstein, “M’Lady, the Heart is important, but we must aid these people.”
Lady Ronstein nodded, “I agree. The Heart leaves a trail that does not go cold. We can take the time to do our duty.”
Within a half hour they were trekking up the valley in the direction the message indicated, and before midday they caught the trail. As the sunlight began to fail they saw an outcropping of ruins ahead, a small fire burning in the center. Their prey had settled in for the night.
The party crept up slowly, and in the light of the fire saw five minotaurs, passing what remained of a humanoid between them. They spoke to each other in Abyssal, and Kynun managed to catch a few words that had not drifted too far from the Primordial roots of that language. He glanced at his allies and sent his thoughts to them, “Scouts; them or waiting for. Hit now, before reinforcements.”
D’cafnaet’d needed no more prompting; he tumbled out into their midsts, slashing one and pulling him away from the flames. After that they all ran forth, Kynun’s lightning driving the minotaurs into the fire, Lady Ronstein’s protective light deflecting blows, and Montiago’s arcane energies leaping about confusing the beasts. For their part the minotaurs pummeled D’cafnaet’d, flung Kynun across the field, and charged across the field again and again. Lady Ronstein was able to aid D’cafnaet’d just before he fell, and Kynun lashed out lightning and pushed the lot of them into the fire. At one point the biggest Minotaur, eyes glowing with a demonic heritage, managed to run past Kynun, D’cafnaet’d, and Lady Ronstein–and through the fire–to gore Montiago, before the combined might of the rest brought him down. The magus among them charmed Lady Ronstein, who herself ran through the fire to slap D’cafnaet’d, but she missed, and the magus took the opportunity to flee the scene.
The beasts’ meager belongings included a letter, sealed in wax. Inside, in elvish script, a fine example of pensmanship proclaimed that “The minotaurs bearing this letter and my house mark are indeed in my service.” Affixed to the bottom– and, when they looked, to each minotaur’s calf– was the seal.
The seal of D’cafnaet’d’s house.