Chapter 83: The Road to Imnesvale
Lord Valygar Corthala was a gruff, quiet man, with a strong distrust of magic and mages that he made no attempt to hide, but he was not an unfriendly man. From the moment Ember and her companions set out from Athkatla with him, he insisted they call him Valygar rather than Lord Corthala, and as they travelled through the light woodlands that lay between them and Imnesvale, he behaved more like their peer than their employer; he hunted small game with Minsc, discussed the terrain around them with Ember, and sparred with Yoshimo. And in the evening of their second day on the road, as the group relaxed around the campfire after a supper of rabbit stew, he told them about the planar sphere.
"My ancestor, the necromancer Lavok, committed many foul deeds, and my mother's family swore to put an end to him. They pursued him for many years. Eventually, he built a sphere that would let him reach other planes. He disappeared in it, over five centuries ago," Valygar said. "In the years that followed, my mother's line continued to produce wizards, but not one of them learned from Lavok's folly. They all came to bitter ends; they killed each other in their pursuits, or had to be... dealt with. I am the last of Lavok's line."
"And then the sphere returned," Yoshimo said.
"Aye." Valygar sighed. "The sphere appeared in the slums of Athkatla around Midwinter. I was wintering in my cabin in the Umar Hills, and only learned of its return when a group of Cowled Wizards came for me. Naturally, they knew of Lavok, and they believed my blood would allow them to gain access to the sphere. They tried to force my co-operation. I... defended myself."
"Cowled Wizards again?" Minsc exclaimed. "They are everywhere, winding sticky ropes of evil around the feet of all good heroes! Just thinking of them has Boo outraged!" He glanced at his shoulder, where the hamster in question was calmly nibbling a seed, and added, "It is a good thing that Boo does not think about the Cowled Wizards while he is busy eating."
Valygar stared at Minsc with a bemused look on his face. "What happened next?" Ember asked him.
"What happened? Ah, yes. I could not knowingly allow a fiend such as Lavok to return to Amn."
"But surely Lavok would be dead, after so many years?" Anomen asked.
"He had extended his life before through foul magic, and time may flow differently on the planes," Valygar said. "I could not ignore the possibility that he might still exist. I gathered a group of trusted companions, and went to the sphere. As the Cowled Wizards had guessed, my relationship to Lavok allowed us to enter. However, the sphere soon sealed itself again, and took us away to another plane."
"We were trapped," he continued. "There was nothing to do but investigate the sphere. We worked our way through its many traps, and found a group of knights from another plane. Much like us, they had become trapped inside the sphere when it came to their world. They aided us as we fought our way onwards... there were many foul creatures from many worlds, including our own. Two Cowled Wizards had followed me within. They ambushed us, but we were stronger than them."
"Or merely less foolish than them," Edwin said. "(Knowing the Cowled Wizards, that would be no large task.)"
"We found Lavok in the very heart of his sphere. The alien knights fought with us against him. One of my comrades fell to his accursed spells, and two of the alien knights were destroyed, but in the end, we vanquished Lavok. My family's oath was fulfilled."
"But you were still trapped," Yoshimo said. "How did you manage to return?"
"The controls of the sphere were not hard to understand. Returning to Faerun was a simple matter. My companions and I left the sphere to the alien knights, so that they might find their way home again."
"So you just gave away the sphere," Edwin grumbled.
"There was nothing within that I wanted."
"Five hundred years of accumulated knowledge. The secrets of planar travel, of longevity, just tossed aside."
"Some things are not worth learning. I would not expect you to understand, wizard," Valygar said, glaring at Edwin.
The wizard leaned forward, as if readying a sharp retort, then sat back down again with an exaggerated, disgusted sigh. "(My time is too valuable for this,)" he grumbled, and pointedly reached for his bundle of research documents. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group.
"Young Anomen!" Yoshimo said. "Samurai of the west, roaming in service of god and lord. Tell us something of your adventures."
The cleric's eyes lit up. "And what shall I tell you of?"
"A tale of a foul beast slain, perhaps?" Yoshimo suggested.
"Very well. I shall tell you about the Order's campaign against the Hillgnasher giants... now, that brought the blood up!"
The unease left by Edwin's and Valygar's exchange soon dissipated as the young Helmite embarked upon his tale from the previous summer, when he and his Order had ventured into the southern hills of Amn to slay giants in glorious combat.
The village of Imnesvale lay at the foot of the Umar Hills, some three days' travel east of Athkatla. The area was named after Umar, a cruel witch who once terrorized the region; as Valygar told the others, it was rumoured that she returned once every hundred years to snatch new victims from the villages. It was just the kind of landscape one would imagine to be haunted by an evil witch, with windswept hills and moors that were dotted with large boulders, clusters of trees, and the occasional sheer cliff face. It reminded Ember a little of the Windspear hills, some distance to the north; she wouldn't be surprised if the two hilly regions were both part of the same large expanse of rough terrain.
Imnesvale lay where the hills to the east met a dense, dark forest to the north, and was surrounded by several small farms. The village itself straddled a winding stream that came down from the moors. There were no distinct streets, and even though there was a single bridge, made from thick planks, it was not needed; as the group entered the village, Ember could make out at least two good wading sites. Most of the buildings were thatched with thick layers of straw, and their white-caulked walls seemed to glow in the strong afternoon sunlight. It would have fit anyone's imagination of a perfectly idyllic village if not for the flocks of sheep that milled around in makeshift pens beside several of the small houses, bleating plaintively as they trampled the grass beneath them into a muddy mess.
"(Yet another barbaric village, inhabited by sheep,)" Edwin muttered, looking simultaneously bewildered, disgusted, and amused.
"Strange," Valygar said. "Ho there, Dale! Margaret!" he called out to a man and a woman, both tall and with weathered faces, who were guiding four dappled cows through the village.
"Lord Valygar!" the woman exclaimed.
"Oh, it is good to see ye again," the man said. There was an air of nervous relief about him.
"What goes on here, Dale?" Valygar asked.
"Well, ye can see for yerself," Dale said, gesturing with one hand towards the sheep pens. "Me an' Margie had to come into the village... just ain't safe anymore out there! I knows two other herders who vanished, an' the farmers ain't safe, neither. Farmer Jacob an' his wife were both slaughtered... and then their bodies disappeared! Merella's gone missin', too. She set off with some adventurers, and they ain't ever come back! Turrible things, all."
"Aye. I heard about Merella." Valygar turned towards Ember, and said quietly, "Merella is the missing ranger I told you about."
"It's the wolves, you see," Margie said. "Merella told us they were acting strangely this spring, and now they've started in on us people... mauling and stealing corpses. It has... it has been just ghastly."
"That's just foolish talk!" her husband protested. "Wolves would go after th' cows, right? An' we've had no more killin' of the cows than we've had before. It's 'em ogres, sure enough. Never should have trusted 'em, I say!"
"Nonsense! How could an ogre sneak into the village and steal a body? No, no. I am certain they still protect us."
"Ogres that protect?" Minsc asked. "But ogres are evil! How can this be?"
"They are deserters from the Sythilisian armies," Valygar explained. "They came here a year ago, asking for peace. Now they guard the village border to the east. In return, they are allowed to stay near the village, and may come here to trade a few goods every now and then. Their leader Madulf is wise, for an ogre. I have spoken with him."
"Everyone is so upset and frightened," Margie said. "People start thinking things are happening that aren't! Some blame poor Madulf and his band," she looked pointedly at her husband, "some think that Umar has returned... and our very own daughter spun a tale about shadows in the woods!" The woman said the last part with a light air, as if to show how dismissive she was of the very notion, but the spark of fear in her eyes told otherwise. Ember felt a pang of sympathy for the woman; she knew all too well what it was like to be hounded by an unknown enemy. It's no wonder at all that they're clinging to whatever rational explanations they can come up with.
They thanked Dale and Margie and offered some words of reassurance before taking their leave of the couple. Valygar then led the group onwards, towards a large, cozy-looking house on the very outskirts of the village. Brambling vines covered most of the walls, and a mass of flowers had been planted around it, especially along a gravel walkway that led to the front door. As they started up the walkway, a rotund, middle aged man with a balding pate, came out the front door and all but ran to meet them.
"Lord Valygar, thank goodness that you have come! You have no idea of the dire straits my little village is in!" the man exclaimed, wringing his hands.
"Greetings, Minister Lloyd," Valygar said, and shook his hand. "Tell me what has happened."
The minister immediately began to tell a story that did not differ much from the one the group had just heard from Dale and Margie. He knew more of the leads Merella and the pack of adventurers that vanished with her had been following, and he was adamant that Madulf's ogres were innocent - humans were not the only beings that had been lost - but other than that, he had little to tell them that wasn't merely rumours or speculation.
While Minister Lloyd spoke, a woman emerged from the house and came down the path towards them. She was slightly less heavy-set than him, and her only adornment was her silvery hair, which she wore in an elaborate bun. He introduced her as his wife, Eina.
"It's a gruesome business, isn't it?" Eina said. "People being murdered in their very own beds... their bodies disappearing... not to mention what happened to poor old Hudson! It's horrible, just horrible!"
"What exactly did happen to him?" Yoshimo asked.
"We found the poor soul only yesterday morning," the minister said. "Someone... someone'd cut his skin off, neat as you please, then then put it back on him, inside out!"
"Inside out?" Ember repeated, aghast. She didn't know of any murderers that would tear people apart and steal their bodies later, but she did know of one that might do such things to his victims. "Has anyone else been found like that?"
"No, my lady," Minister Lloyd said. "The others... none of them were cut by a blade. Them that were found were all torn to pieces."
"Just the kind of thing you'd expect from wolf attacks," Eina remarked.
Could Rejiek Hidesman have fled here? The tanner would have been in Athkatla when the troubles started, but he would have had ample opportunity to reach Imnesvale by the time old Hudson was killed. "Out of curiosity," Ember asked, "have any tanners arrived in town lately?"
"Actually, a tanner did pass through only a few days ago," Eina said. "You can't miss that smell!"
"Oh yes, I remember the fellow," the minister said. "Had a mage friend, didn't he? They left two days ago."
Just before old Hudson was found. So far, it all fit. "What did the tanner and his friend look like?"
"Let me see... the tanner was rather short, brown hair... nothing to look at, really," Eina said. "And his friend was quite tall and lanky. They were both so unfriendly, I wasn't at all sorry to see them leave!" She eyed Ember warily. "Do you know them? Do you think they might be... involved?"
"I believe my lady suspects the tanner might be a murderer who recently fled from Athkatla, accompanied by a mage," Anomen said grimly. "He would skin his victims."
"Oh dear!" The minister's wife covered her mouth with a hand.
"Minsc remembers the evil skinner! His time will come, for Minsc will bring him it to him on a silver platter of righteousness!" Behind the giant ranger, Edwin groaned exasperatedly.
"Do... do you think he might have killed old Hudson?" Minister Lloyd asked.
"It's possible, if that was them," Ember said. "The descriptions fit them both. Where did they go?"
"South, I think," Eina said. "Towards Trademeet, perhaps? But I don't know for certain. I'm sorry."
"Do not worry! Minsc and Boo and friends will find them, and give them a swift kick in the evil! We will-"
"No, we will not," Edwin said. "We were not hired to follow some random murderer across the country. (Especially with no tangible proof.)"
"Edwin's right," Ember told the fuming Minsc. "We should investigate the cause of all the other killings before we do anything else."
Minsc slowly nodded. "Minsc does not like agreeing with the wizard, but it is as little Ember says. We must go where evil is in most need of a beating."
"I thank you both for sharing this information with us," Anomen told the mayor and his wife. "Minister, if you would be so gracious as to send a missive to Trademeet about this matter, I would be most grateful."
"Yes, yes, of course! I'll do so immediately!"
"My companions and I will do our best to expose the fiend behind the other murders," Valygar said. "We will follow Merella's trail tomorrow."