The year was 4968 New Reckoning. Autumn was coming quickly as the leaves began to change color and the weather grew more cool every day. Days were often overcast and entire weeks of rain would occasionally come. Sigmar rode on his large horse, taking in the fresh autumn smells and relishing his new promotion to Second Lieutenant. The unit of men he lead moved sluggishly, only recently recovering from one of their skirmishes with the south. The war had been quite brutal for the past two years, with high and low points. Each side had a number of victories, but it was the peasants that paid the greatest price. The economy of the south was spent without their high-price mithril mines in the north to fuel the effort. Sigmar and Mardan had defected to the north, although they had quickly been split up and assigned based on their expertise. The biggest development of the war was the presence of arcane magic. To most of the countries in Ilithria, arcane magic was a superstitious and sacrilegious thing, but when the war broke out, the north made use of a number of arcane mages. In turn, the south revealed that they too had arcane casters. This was shocking to the religious southerners, and the presence of powerful arcane magic meant that collateral damage during the war was high. Large bounties were paid for the death of a wizard or sorcerer on the opposing side.
Sigmar had felt the backlash from all of it. He was the one healing the troops after those heathens rained fire and lightning down on them. He was the one that had to inspire his mean when they feared for their lives. He had proven himself time and time again, and now he was getting a well-earned break. His unit had been assigned to Cardis, the westernmost city near the border between north and south. As he approached he could see that it clearly had been influenced by the war, as wrecked buildings had been quickly and practically rebuilt, trenches had been dug, and city walls erected. His men entered the city in ranks behind him, and as he made his way to the central barracks, a hand grabbed his arm.
“Could you spare some change, my good sir,” came a beggar’s voice that had a hint of a familiar accent. Sigmar turned and stared at the beggar. His long, unkempt hair and scraggly beard make him look of no import, but his eyes said otherwise. The man had dark skin, and his eyes were narrow, like a cat’s and his skin looked thick and leathery. Despite the shocking appearance, Sigmar could recognize the man’s voice and accent.
“M’ut? My old friend, can that possibly be you?” The beggar gave him a sly smile. It was indeed him. Sigmar couldn’t help but hang his mouth open in shock. “Where have you been? I… what… wow! Just wow! You’ll have to come and visit me in the central barracks, tonight, as my guest. Feed you, bathe you… the Light knows you need it! I must be off with these men,” he said gesturing to his unit, “but come visit me!” M’ut stopped smiling, gave a quick nod, and then continued to beg other strangers, most of whom were shocked at his appearance.
- * * * *
Mardan was in the courtyard, showing his men how to perform a disarm using a sword. The men worked hard, although they weren’t the brightest or most capable, the early parts of the war had taken most of those… He had to work with what was available. He had done his time fighting on the front lines, but when the opportunity to hang back and train recruits came up, he couldn’t say no. He was worried about his mother and sister in Farran not far to the north. He had been able to see them occasionally, but for the most part he was needed where he was. For almost a year he had been the head trainer in Cardis, and had equipped a great many successful and deadly warriors. The greatest skill he could give them was teaching them how to use their minds. Most just wanted to use brute strength to win battles, but he had won a number of skirmishes against greater odds because of his tactical strategy and lateral thinking.
“And that is how you…” he stopped dead in the middle of his sentence. Riding through the barracks gate, in his unmistakable full plate and large shield, was none other than Sigmar. What cruel fates have brought him back into my life, thought Mardan. Sigmar would notice him eventually, and there would be no getting around it.
That evening in the mess hall, Sigmar approached Mardan. “My brother! What brings you to Cardis? By the Light! I never thought I’d see you again!”
“Me too… I’m… I’ve been better,” Mardan said with a courteous tone, although it was a struggle for him.
“Well, we might be working together again! My unit’s been assigned here. So you’re a trainer I hear? Wonderful, wonderful.” Sigmar clearly wasn’t picking up on any of Mardan’s annoyance, and he seemed distracted, always looking at the door. Mardan looked to see what he was looking at. A scraggly-looking man came in, clearly out of place, and Sigmar waved him over. Something was familiar about the way the man walked. As he got closer, there was no mistaking, it was M’ut. Mardan was utterly shocked.
“Look what I found wandering the streets of Cardis,” Sigmar said, slapping M’ut on the back. Mardan tried to take in all the changes M’ut had undergone. His eyes and skin looked more… sinister, but his disposition was still the same. Mardan shook his hand and the three all caught up with what they could. Mardan continued to be polite, despite M’ut’s strong odor and dirty appearance. The man must not have eaten much recently as he devoured as much as they’d give him. It was a relief when Sigmar excused them to get M’ut clean and prepped.
- * * * *
M’ut was happy, in a way, to see his old companions. He didn’t really get attached, but these two strange clerics were something familiar, and right now, he needed that. He wished he could tell them why he had disappeared, but they would likely thing him some sort of evil thing. He had received a calling through a dream from his clan’s shaman, and had made the long trip home without so much as a word. Aiding his shaman on a dark, spiritual journey, he had desired to go back to Ilithria and continue the life he had started there. Unfortunately, some other dark fate had made plans for him. Getting lost one night, he fell into a deep pit full of serpents. Perturbed, they started biting and wouldn’t stop, the pain was excruciating but somehow he didn’t die. He lost track of all time, passing out from the mixture of venoms coursing through his veins. When he awoke, the serpents were gone, and he was weak and famished. Based on the movements of the stars, he estimated he had been in that pit for almost two weeks, and yet somehow he was still alive. After a long recovery, he noticed that canines could produce a venom, and his skin had started to harden and become scaly. His eyes also looked reptilian, giving even more reason for him to keep his cowl up. People that saw him had become frightened and called him all manner of devil names, so he had to move often, begging and stealing to stay alive. Now, under Sigmar’s protection, he might have some solid meals and a decent place to sleep for once.
It had been a few weeks since Sigmar had brought him in from the street and vouched for him as one of the unit’s specialists. The barracks commanders had wanted some sort of validation, so he had used some of his newly-learned magic to impress them, turning invisible, conjuring fire, throwing his dagger with great accuracy… They seemed reluctant, but gave him under Sigmar’s care. Now, the unit was back on mission, just like the old days. M’ut had also noticed that Sigmar had changed quite a bit. Not so… exact in his religious beliefs and a little more… unhinged than he remembered. War did strange things to people. He had gotten their stories about Gripplin and the monsters, which instead of producing fear or doubt, made M’ut more interested than ever in the powers that lay beyond. This cult sounded powerful.
Sigmar lead the unit southwest with a quickened, intentional pace. The unit had been assigned to uncover the reason behind the mysterious disappearance of one of the scouting patrols to the southwest along the river that bordered Drachurst. Others had looked, but no obvious trail could be found, and with M’ut being some sort of exceptional specialist, they had been assigned. Sigmar had insisted that Mardan join them, even pulling rank to make it happen. Mardan accepted, but brought along ten of his best recruits in the hopes that this might be a good training experience for them. So, the group of around sixty member tromped along the scouts’ usual route, looking for any clues. M’ut was far up ahead, looking at the hoofprints and occasionally bending over to look at something more closely, muttering to himself in his native tongue as he did so.
“Sir, I believe I found something,” he finally said after nearly four hours of slow tracking. Sigmar got off his horse to have a closer look. “See right there, this is the outline of boot,” M’ut said as he pointed to a few very subtle indentations amidst a thousand other obvious tracks. Sigmar couldn’t see it, but nodded his head anyway. The print M’ut outlined was quite large. A man with a foot that size had to be at least eight feet tall, but the odd thing of it was, a man of that size would be quite heavy should have left a much deeper print. Just another mystery for M’ut to solve. The tracks headed towards a small, nearby forest at the foot of a cluster of small mountains. M’ut followed the subtle tracks, pressing on with excitement.
- * * * *
The tracks had lead through the forest and into a small clearing near its center. In the center of the clearing lay a simple, gray stone well. Sigmar had tried to detect any magic as soon as they got into the forest, and had felt extremely strong emanations pulsing from this area. They appeared to be coming from the well. Without any signs of danger, the company was sent to search the forest in small groups and then create a perimeter while Sigmar and M’ut looked at this unassuming well. Sigmar touched it gingerly. Nothing seemed out of place. They looked inside. Instead of seeing water, an imperceptibly-deep hole lay before them. Using a trick he’d learned, Sigmar cast a simple light spell on a small stone and tossed it in. It never stopped falling and never made the sound of hitting any sort of bottom. After some very careful inspection, M’ut had discovered that a number of hieroglyphic-type runes were etched into the stones on the surface, fifteen in all, each one different. Further inspection had revealed nothing about these marks.
For some time the two inspected everything could about the well. It was clearly magical in some capacity, and despite it’s simple appearance, was quite powerful. Sigmar had hit one of the stones with his hammer and with all of his strength was still unable to break even the smallest chip off of one of the stones. M’ut had used various spells near the well, each one causing the well to emanate a small pulse of bluish, magical light only visible to those possessing magic. Through trial and error, he had discovered that the well responded more strongly to conjuring magic than any other, but he still wasn’t able to break it’s secrets. Frustrated, he jumped into the well, hoping for the best. Falling only for a second, he splashed into cold water. He was only about thirty feet from the surface of the well and was treading water. He would figure out this well’s secrets…
“Who goes there? Show yourself!” Sigmar barked and the sound of drawn steel could be heard.