Sowing on the mountains
The heavily armoured schlacta stepped up as Vlezny approached. She looked soaked, and none to happy to be out in the rain. Vlezny inclined his head slightly, sending a cascade of water spilling off the wide brim of his pointed hat. Several metal staves topped with oil reservoirs sputtered fitfully in the persistent drizzle. The volhov was thankful for the hundredth time for his lightstone lantern which provided him with steady light no matter what the weather.
"It's bones," said the schlacta without bothering with pleasantries. "Lots of bones. The boyar wants you to see if it's a very bad thing or just a bad thing."
Vlezny furrowed his brow. They were very close to the river here. "Could this have not waited until the morning?"
The schlacta shook her head. "The water's still rising. if this is a very bad thing we'll let the river deal with it. If not, we'll need to get people up here with rocks and gravelsacks and shovels. The boyar needs to know sooner rather than later. Especially if the bones have been gnawed on."
She stood aside then, placing one gauntleted hand on Vlezny's shoulder to push him forward. He resisted, and gave her a cool stare until she dropped her arm.
"When you're ready then," she mumbled without looking at him.
Vlezny beamed a bright smile at her and swept past, sloshing through the mud towards the newly uncovered ruin. An entire hillside had collapsed, no doubt due to the torrential rains Wendell's Hope had been enjoying for the past week. At least they had slackened off this afternoon. There was already a small company huddled around the entrance to the ruins - two worried looking people with shovels, an older woman in a heavy coat and hat with a torch of her own. One of the wise ones he had met when he arrived at the vale. Karinna Walezcjia .... something.
The shovel-bearers looked relieved to see a volhov. Karinna looked a little less impressed but acknowledged his presence.
"It's bones!" said one of the workers.
"So I hear," Vlezny replied. He gave the two worried men a reassuring smile, and moved to join Karinna at the entrance. It was, indeed, bones. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - packed close together in a low chamber of ancient-looking white granite. The wise one was gently handling one of the skulls, her lips and fingertips alike tinged ever-so-slightly purple. Vlezny raised an eyebrow.
"There is no magic here, and no ghost," she said in explanation. "And there does not seem to be a curse. We do not need a volhov to tell us that."
Vlezny gave a lopsided shrug and extended his hand politely for the skull. She handed it over, raising her torch as she did so to examine the wall of bones and rubble protruding from the collapsed bank.
"This is old," said Vlezny turning it over in his hands carefully. "Very old. Older than the vale, definitely."
The wise one agreed. "From the looks of this, it is only one part of something larger," she said quietly - now they were discussing the situation as equals she was cooly professional. "I think that at one point this entire structure was underground but time and the river have slowly eaten away at the hillside. Somewhere up there would be stairs, and perhaps at one time a shrine."
"But no sign of the shrine now." it was a statement not a question. The wise one nodded.
"I had a look while there was still light. As best I can judge, someone or something destroyed the above-ground parts of the ossuary a long time ago. So what do you think?"
Vlezny carefully laid the skull on the broken wall just below the other bones.
"Have the remains been disturbed?" he asked. The wise one shook her head. "Only the skull moved. The rest are as we found them."
Vlezny held his hand near the bones for a moment, concentrating. "I think ... all the bones are here. I may be able to find something further."
He fumbled in his satchel and removed a long thin knife and two irregular orbs of crystal mana. He presented the knife hilt-first to Karinna.
"May I have a little blood, wise one" he asked formally. She looked for a moment as if she might refuse but then snatched the knife from him and pressed the point against her thumb. A bead of crimson quickly swelled there. She returned the knife and held her thumb out towards him. He rubbed his own thumb against it, already beginning to murmur words of invocation as he smeared her blood first on the bony forehead of the skull, then touched his own forehead leaving a crimson mark. As the power gathered around him, the oil lamps flickered and faded a little.
Minutes passed. The dry bone drank the bloodmark he had placed on it. The crystals of mana he held in his hand crumbled to dust and ashes. He stopped chanting and cocked his head to one side as if listening. He nodded his head once, twice.
"These are Varushkan bones," he said slowly. He rested one hand on the skull. "This fellow here is Anastasia Gregorvia Scianova, and there is also Vuk Dusanovitch Sulich and Brata Dusanova Sulich his sister. There are more but it is very muddled and the spell is very weak. They died fighting the orcs, a long time ago - before Volodmartz was part of the Empire. Before there was an Empire even. I think - I get the impression - I think that they think died bravely fighting to protect - something."
He put one hand to his forehead and closed his eyes.
"I would wager that there is half an army's worth of skeletons here, maybe more. I would also guess - only a guess mind you - that the Thule destroyed whatever shrine was here long ago, long before the tavern was built, on their way south and west. They didn't bother to despoil the skeletons - why would they? This is Varushka and the dead do not take kindly to having their resting places interfered with."
"So worth preserving?" said Karinna, but it was clear from her calculating expression that she was thinking of something else. She glanced speculatively across the lake, toward the mountains, then looked quickly at Velzy to see if he had noticed. He pretended to be more interested in the bones.
"I would say so," he said. "Certainly worth protecting from the hungry river, if that is possible. But not so valuable as to throw the lives of the living away."
"These men and women died to protect Varushka; the least we can do is fight to protect their resting place from the rain." said Karinna. She spoke confidently, as if addressing a crowd rather than talking to a tired volhov on a rainsoaked hill.
Vlezny spread his hands wide. "As you say wise one," he said. "I will return in the morning to see what else I might find - there is an invocation to the feathered serpent that might find more pertinent..."But she was no longer listening to him, and had turned back to give instructions to the two labourers. After a moment he shrugged both his shoulders and excused himself, keen to get back to the inn, and his warm dry bed.
A month after the Autumn Equinox a major storm roars across northern Varushka. It rages through the mountains that separate Volodmartz from Otkodov. Torrential downpours of rain and hail accompanied by gale-force winds, punctuated with deafening thunder and razor-sharp bolts of lightning piercing the skies. Opinion is heavily divided - is it some magic of the Thule orcs? The work of a sovereign? Or just Mother Varushka letting off a little steam.
The storm rages for a week or so, then roars itself out leaving the air fresh and clear and cold as Winter approaches. Over the next few weeks it becomes apparent that the storm has done more than wash out a couple of northern vales and send a few boulders cascading down into the hills. The high winds and the pounding water have reshaped parts of the mountain peaks, in some cases revealing hidden treasures.
A Monument at Wendell's Hope
In Mieriada, on shores of the Coldmere, stands Wendell’s Hope, one of the most famous vales in Miekarova. Sometimes called the Last Warm Hearth in the North, it is a mining vale that grew up around a tavern and trading post. It is unusual in that its boyar is traditionally the owner of the largest tavern in the vale. Groups of warriors planning to raid into Otkodov often gather here on their outward journey, and on their return. It is especially welcoming to stzena; the nights are long, and both the miners and the warriors are wealthy. It is a place of pilgrimage for devotees of Courage. The Thule Embassy lies just across the lake from Wendell's Hope, and only a stone's throw from the Thule embassy to the Empire in frozen Kógur.
The storm waters threaten to wash everyone away. The orcs and civil servants at the embassy pitch in with the men and women of the vale to deal with the extensive flooding - and there are reports that the Thule embassy across the mountains has been badly damaged by a rockslide. When the storm breaks, and the clean-up begins, something unexpected is discovered amid the rubble. The flood has eaten away at one of the river banks and reveals a ruined white granite structure. Cautious exploration discovers hundreds of ancient bones in partially collapsed underground chambers - the remnants of an ancient ossuary that clearly dates back to the years before the foundation of the Empire. Further investigation gives context to the remains - these are the bones of Varushkan heroes who died fighting the Thule two centuries before Volodmartz was finally claimed for the Empire.
For decades there has been talk of building a proper temple for pilgrims of Courage to visit. Several of the wise ones here have been agitating for assistance from other vales in Miekarova to recognise the value of the Last Warm Hearth in the North. The discovery of this bones gives additional weight to their words. They claim that it shows clearly that even before Wendell's Hope was built in 182YE, the Varushkans were fighting to claim this land. They propose that the site of the ossuary be marked as a proper place of pilgrimage here, in the uttermost north, in the shadow of the brooding mountains that separate the Empire from Otkodov.
Dedicated to all the heroes who have laid down their lives through the centuries keeping Varushka and the Empire safe from the jealousy not only of the Thule, but of all the barbarian tribes, a monument and a shrine would see many more pilgrims pass through Miekarova on their way to Wendell's Hope. While it would be possible to build such a monument as a sinecure, the wise ones of Wendell's Hope suggest something more substantial. A great work that would not only inspire pilgrims but also be visible from the Thule embassy - reminding them that if war breaks out again the Varushkans stand ready to defend themselves.
A great work on the scale the wise ones are suggesting would require an outlay of 30 wains of white granite and 10 wains of weirwood, and require 10 Thrones for labour. This would not only build a monument and shrine, but also improve several of the roads leading to Wendell's Hope. The increase in pilgrims travelling to northern Miekarova would grant an additional 50 votes in the Imperial Synod and 25 liao divided among the congregations of Miekarova owned by Varushkan priests. (OOC Note: Under normal circumstances it is not possible to build a great work that provides liao; this construction is only possible with this opportunity.)
The high peaks of the mountains of Brez are perpetually shrouded in snow, even at the height of summer. The entire region has a dark reputation, even for Varushka. It is sometimes suggested that without the presence of the Granites of Veltsgorsk high in the eastern peaks, no outsider would ever come here despite the rich seams of ore the mountains conceal. The mountains and foothills alike are home to many regio, primarily associated with the grim forces of Winter, and this has attracted many cabalists such as those who live in the vale of Void in the western foothills. They are also said to be riddled with passages, natural and otherwise, some of which potentially pass deep under the roots of the mountains to connect to Otkodov.
But there is wealth here, as well as eerie magic and dark caves. During the great storm a team of wagon raiders became lost in the foothills below Bredavoi peak. Looking for shelter from the storm, they discovered a cave showing signs of rich deposits of tempest jade. Trapped by the weather with nothing to do for several days, they carefully explored the caves and discovered it was much larger than it appeared. The cave opened into several natural passages and caverns, and the tempest jade seam was significantly richer than any uncovered in living memory. At first they thought to exploit the find themselves, but it soon proved to be beyond their capabilities. In the end, after several unpleasant encounters with what they describe as "dark spirits" in the deeper areas beneath the mountain peaks, they resolved to sell the information to the cabalists of Void. Tempest jade is a valuable component in the creation of covenstones and many other items of interest to magicians, after all, and the magicians of Void are known to be reasonably wealthy. The cabalists paid a handsome price, but even they could not muster the resources to exploit a tempest jade find of this size. In the end, after a great deal of discussion, they have suggested that someone else may wish to try and build a mine of sufficient size to quarry the material from the mountain - in return for a portion of the bounty for themselves.
Civil service surveyors suggest that accessing the rich deposits here will not be easy - it will require a commission and cost 20 wains of mithril and 10 wains of white granite - the latter to fortify the area against the various threats that exist in the mountains here. Labour costs would be 60 crowns, and it would take a season to complete. It would create an Imperial title - the Foreman of Bredavoi Cave - and essentially serve as a sinecure providing 20 ingots of tempest jade every season. The well-worn path for appointing this title would be through the Imperial Bourse - by private ballot of Varushkan mine owners if it were national, or by open auction if it were Imperial.
There is one further note from the surveyors however - the tunnels here go very deep, much deeper than any surveyor, wagon raider, or cabalist felt comfortable exploring. The further down under the mountains one goes, the thicker the darkness becomes and the more certain one is that there is something down there that does not welcome intruders. Once the exploitation of the upper caves was complete, the Foreman might wish to either explore these deep tunnels or (if they were sensible) collapse them and give them no further thought.
The Travelers Secret
Storms in the northern peaks are not uncommon, but over the last several months they have been particularly virulent. In the wake of the great storm an avalanche rumbled down the eastern foothills of Opascari. Prospectors and wagon raiders keen to explore discovered that the rock fall had uncovered something entirely unexpected. Above the treeline on the side of the easternmost peak, known for centuries by the peculiar name of the Traveler, they found the remains of an outpost carved into the stone walls of a high and hitherto overlooked mountain pass. Excited archaeologists and scholars were quick to declare that the structure was almost certainly Terunael in origin! Some Thule remains found in the ruins suggested that the archaeologists were not the first people of the modern age to come here - but were still the first people to come here in the last century.
The exploration has been preliminary so far, but there are interesting remains here - orcs and humans and a few minor trinkets that seem to date dating back to the time of Chaos after the fall of Terunael. More interesting to the Varushkans, however, was the discovery that these ruins were part of an extensive orichalcum mining and smelting operation - a very extensive orichalcum mining and smelting operation.
With a little effort, the mines could be reopened, and the primitive smelting facilities updated and expanded. The peak is tricky to reach, and very cold indeed, but it is almost certainly worth the investment. Some of the explorers here have uncovered peculiar structures here which they initially took to be decorations - inlaid mithril designs that wind and swirl across the walls of several parts of the ruins. Quite by chance it was discovered that when these designs are warmed - by a torch or brazier or even by extended contact with human skin - they hold that heat and if the heat source is strong enough spread it slowly through entire sections of the ruins. So perhaps the cold would not be such a problem after all ...
Restoring the ruins would require a commission. They would cost 20 wains of mithril and 10 wains of weirwood, and labour costs of 30 crowns. It would take a season to open the mines, restore the smelting facilities, and perhaps even replace some of the damaged sections of mithril designs. This would create a title - Warden of the Sungold Pass - and the civil service suggest that it would function as a sinecure providing 20 ingots of orichalcum each season. The well worn path for appointing this title would be through the Imperial Bourse - either a private ballot by the mine owners of Varushka if it were national, or a public auction if it were Imperial.
Obviously, there is some interest in these ruins from the Navarr, who are very interested to know what a Terunael outpost is doing out here on the edge of the world. If the mines and the pass were reopened it is possible that there may be more to find here. The Navarr are not the only people likely interested in this new discovery however - the Thule have already been here at least once, and may well intend to claim the mine for themselves if they discover the high pass it occupies is open again.
Suvretz is one of the most northerly parts of the Empire, and almost certainly one of the coldest and bleakest. The vales here tend to cluster among the south-western forests of the region, and are invariably heavily fortified. The further north and east one goes, the more scattered the vales and the more extensive their fortifications. Part of the threat is the wolves, of course, who lurk in the deep forests and the foothills of the northern mountains. Historically though the bigger threat has been the Thule. Three times in Imperial history, the Thule armies have marched out of Sküld into Volodmartz. Three times they have come through Suvretz, overwhelming the vales and enslaving those who did not flee.
The Thule peace seems to be holding, but that does not stop the people of Suvretz fretting. The Thule are a major threat but not the only one. There are odd creatures in the forests northwest of Volodmartz, warped beasts and vegetable horrors more abhorrent even than the dubik. They stir only rarely - they seem to dislike the cold - but during unseasonably warm summers they come down out of Otkodov to attack the northernmost vales.
For years now there has been an argument that what Suvretz needs is a castle. One was proposed in the time of Emperor James, and work even begun, but it was never completed. There have been stories for generations that the remains of this aborted keep still stand in the north-western forests, overgrown and battered by snow. In the aftermath of the great storm, a band of hunters discovered proof that there was indeed truth to these stories - as the flood waters receded they revealed extensive granite walls and foundations. An expedition from one of the nearby vales discovered a large number of skeletons - both humans and orcs. Examination suggested that the architects, overseers, and slaves had been buried in a mudslide along with most of the construction no doubt the reason the castle was never completed.
In addition to the remains, a watertight strongbox recovered from the ruins was found to contain the extensive plans for the original fortification. The plans are ambitious indeed - an immense white granite keep, thirty foot stone walls, and a series of ditches and dykes lined with fire-hardened stakes.
It would obviously be possible to build a normal fortification in Suvretz, but there is another angle to this opportunity. The eternal Adamant has a well-known interest in castles. Before his retirement to tend the Empress of all Goats Theatre Hubert Gremani had been in negotiations with the Stone King, allegedly about securing aid to fortify Varushka against its enemies. Regardless, following the recent increase in koboldi travelling across the Empire, several of them have confirmed that they would relish the opportunity to work on a fortification on the scale depicted by the plans - as would any number of ambitious mortal masons and siege engineers.
The great Irontooth Keep would require 150 white granite and 30 weirwood to construct, with labour costs of 45 Thrones. Under normal circumstances it would take two years to finish, but the existence of the strong foundations and the assistance of the koboldi would each reduce that construction time by one season. If the same magics as were employed to speed the completion of Alexandra's Watch could be employed, Volodmartz could conceivably have a major fortification to rival the Silent Sentinel in Casinea or Remember Exile in Reikos in less than a year!
The opportunities to build a monument at Wendell's Hope, or to complete the work on Irontooth Keep, are not time sensitive. There is no obvious time limit on when the Bredavoi Cave can be exploited, but a lot might depend on the nature of the "dark spirits" in the catacombs. The Travelers Secret may be more time sensitive - the ruins can be reached as easily from Sküld as from Volodmartz and the Thule may stake a claim if the Empire does not. There is no evidence that the northern orcs are even aware the ruins have been uncovered, but it is impossible to say how long that state of affairs will continue.
These opportunities are all still available as of the Spring Equinox 382YE.