Chapter 1: Leaving the Ranks

The sound of the Office of Cartography was loud as ever as Red worked on his favored craft in the Solsu Army: the creation of maps, directions, and orders. He had been doing this service for most of his time in the army and the day he would be released from work had finally arrived. A courier approached him and instructed him to meet with Colonel Layornie, the commanding officer of Fort Trine where Red was stationed. Red made his way over to the Colonel’s building and waited to meet.

While waiting, Red overheard the Colonel shouting at another private. It was Darian, a high elf that had been drafted at the same time as Red. Darian was usually very curt and almost sniveling towards Red, but today his face was maroon with embarrassment. Red overheard that Darian had let slip far too many national secrets during his off time and the southern border at Tielith was compromised because of it. Red took satisfaction knowing that the pompous and rude Darian would be stuck cleaning boots and shoes for the next few days.

Red entered Layornie’s office and learned exactly what he expected: his service with the Solsu Army was ending tomorrow morning and he would be released. Red gathered his equipment and possessions, said goodbye to his friend Sargeant Haun, and left the very next day. He would return home to Tridu at a slow pace. Red wanted to see the countryside and make some more personalized maps for himself.

He took a job flyer from Fort Trine before leaving. The job requested that the employee would find a “lost item”, and a cryptic map was written on the back of the flyer in partially invisible ink with location notes written in Dwarvish. Knowing Dwarvish due to his work in the army, Red was intrigued by the mysterious job and decided to head north to fulfill it, earning some coin to finance his journey back home. The job took him north on the road through the Peace Plains, and he thought it would be at least four or five days before he came to the job site.

Along the way, he attempted to catch a fish using his military crossbow. The bolt missed and disappeared in the stream. Frustrated, Red continued on the path and camped underneath a tree. While trying to name constellations in the sky, he heard a voice! A young halfling girl had followed him, bringing the fish that Red failed to catch earlier in the day. The two struck up a quick friendship, telling tales of the area. The halfling, Corlee, had been on a pilgrimage from her temple in Idil, but was separated from her master and had been wandering the road of the Peace Plains without much direction. Red explained his work in the army and his journey north. Corlee recognized the location on Red’s map and offered to go with him, hoping it would help her figure out the purpose of her pilgrimage.

Red and Corlee took up the road north the next day. A passerby, the Old Wagoner of Noname, gave them a ride to the crossroads of the Peace Plains. Corlee helped Red and herself find shelter and food for the night by winning a contest of strength against some roadside merchant halflings, whereupon Red learned that Corlee had truly been lost on the roads for days and days already.

The next day, Corlee led Red towards the mark on the map. She explained that she and her master had found an old abandoned tower in the fields and that could possibly be the place for the job. Along the way, they were attacked by a Death Dog, a rare site in the Peace Plains. Red took a grievous injury but he and Corlee managed to slay the beast.

They followed the trail towards the old tower, but came upon an old cottage in the woods. The attendant of the cottage was a human man with a pendant around his neck, an emblem showing a star with a half moon overlapping it. The man gave them leave to enter the cabin to rest. Inside, they found an old dwarf named Murdoch, fiercely bent with age, who turned out to be the source of the job. Cultists had taken a rare artifact from him a short while ago: a mysterious ‘heart’ that belonged to his patron. The old man offered to let Red and Corlee spend the night in his cabin before they headed out to the tower where the cultists were located.

During the night, Red awoke and witnessed a strange phenomenon. The cat sitting on the old man’s bed had suddenly become enlarged, filling the space of most of the cabin. Red dismissed it, though, as he was half asleep. It must have been a dream, he thought, and he drifted back to sleep.

The next day, Red and Corlee ventured west towards the tower. They found it broken and in ruins. A dark elf draped in long red robes stood atop the tower, shouting and performing a strange ritual. Red and Corlee snuck into the door and found another dark elf near the top, moving spell components and items around. He seemed sickly and weak, driven almost to madness by whatever task he was doing. The other dark elf from the top of the tower came down a ladder and cut the other’s arm, drawing blood and storing it into a vial, before returning back to the top of the tower. The chanting and shouting began again.

Corlee delivered a swift kick to the weak elf’s head, knocking him senseless and on the floor. The other elf came back down the ladder and attempted to cast a horrible spell, but Red’s crossbow and sword brought him down. He interrogated the stunned elf, who explained that they were performing a ritual meant to open the ninth realm and bind the god Phibea. Doing so would introduce a world of darkness and prosperity, though Red doubted this would be so. Red and Corlee could get no further information from him before he died of his wounds, inflicted by the other elf over the course of many days as part of the ritual.

Atop the tower, Red and Corlee found a large shimmering plate that seemed to act as a magical conduit of some kind. The dark elf in charge had a blood ruby in his possession that Red took, as well as a pouch of spell components on his belt. Near the base of the tower was a cellar that had a single chest in it with a leather skinned bag. Red somehow knew that this item was what he was looking for. The heart of Murdoch’s patron. As Red and Corlee removed the bag from the chest, the tower began to rumble. It came crashing to the ground right as they escaped, forever burying the cultists and whatever rituals they had failed to perform.

Red and Corlee returned to Murdoch’s cabin, but the attendant outside suggested Corlee follow him, leaving Red to report back to Murdoch alone. Murdoch was exuberant at learning that the heart is back, asking Red to place it on a nearby shelf. The white cat cuddled close to Murdoch, whose breath was very labored, and watched intently as Red reported what had happened.

Murdoch suggested that the shimmering plate he recovered was a key of some kind, and confirmed that the ritual they attempted was to open the ninth realm to Phibea, the god of darkness. Phibea was one of the Eleven along with Altee, Carond, Demar, Sebastian, Vanta, Chreo, Dauch, Covea, Valtare, and Solutte (the god of dominion and the one worshipped in Solsu). The ritual, in a way, binds the god to the service of those that perform it. The heart of Valtare, Murdoch’s patron, was required as its mere presence gives off a fantastic and powerful energy. The world, Murdoch explained, is very fortunate that the cultists did not have the correct formula for the ritual as it would have brought great disaster to everyone, including themselves.

Murdoch began to struggle, coughing and hacking. Red left his bedside to get him a cup of water. When he turned back to Murdoch’s bed, the sky outside had very suddenly gone completely dark. He began to hear voices, some cheerful, others sarcastic, muttering about him. One voice rose above all the others, emanating from all around Red. As it spoke, Red saw Murdoch’s white cat begin to grow larger and larger, looming in the room with multiple tails, long gray stripes, and many eyes.

It was the voice of Valtare. She explained that Murdoch’s time in this world was at an end and she would receive him soon. But Red would soon make a pact with her and Valtare would become his patron. The world needed him and his light, she explained, and she needed him to perform a great task that would very possibly save all of the realms. In Missuk, the mysterious country to the far north, a temple holds the hearts of ten of the Eleven. Valtare’s heart is not among them, and she must have it join the others. But Missuk has a strange spell cast over it. Anyone with any magical ability finds themselves lost in the land, dumbfounded by a spell of repulsion.

Valtare then made a pact with Red as her tiger-like form filled the entire room. She would grant him power and magic of his own if he worked to help people, fight evil, and find a way to enter Missuk to return her heart to the temple with the rest of the Eleven. Red accepted the pact, and the world returned to light around him. The white cat, small and docile again, sat upon Murdoch’s chest. Murdoch gave one final breath and he and his cat, his Valtare, faded away into nothingness.

Red turned and saw that the bag with the Heart of Valtare was missing. Alarmed, he began searching the cabin until the attendant’s figure blocked the light in the doorway. He told Red that his name was Greigon, a demigod in Valtare’s service. Greigon explained that the Heart was safe with him at the moment, but he would return it to this realm with Red occasionally as it needed to exist in both realms as often as possible.

Red asked what he should do to best serve Valtare. Greigon suggested he starts by going West to Padoria and seeking knowledge of Missuk. The cabin was Red’s now, and Greigon would do what he could to keep it in good condition for Red’s eventual return. It was hallowed by Valtare and would provide him and any of his companions with safety if they needed it. With that, Greigon faded away and left Red alone.

Red stepped outside and saw Corlee, not far away, fishing in a nearby stream. He walked towards her and began to think of ways to explain what just happened and where he would go next.