The next morning I awake to the sounds of hooves as the centaurs arrive in our camp. The centaurs themselves are large beings having the lower bodies of horses wed to the torso, head and arms of a humanoid of appropriate size. They seem to come in every color one would normally associate with a horse, fur and hair wise, and the skin of their upper parts range from pale white to black. They all have long manes that run the lengths of their human torso and range from brush-cut to ground sweeping in length, which also tends to be reflected in their tail length as well. The other distinguishing feature of a centaur is that perched atop their head is a pair of very equine ears that twist and turn to catch sounds around them.
The small female we had seen yesterday is today flanked by six gargantuan males all carrying halberds. They enter the camp as Ta’Resh and Silthan, who were on watch, rouse the rest of the party. Not thinking of my condition I grab hold of one of the wooden sides to the wagon and vault over, landing neatly on my feet then fishing out the cloak I had on last night.
Then I realize I just did that.
While the centaur lady addresses Ta’Resh I look quite the fool as I first stand on one foot, then the other, reveling in the fact that I’m not being pitched onto my horn for doing so.
We are eventually allowed to not only pass though the forest of the centaurs, but we have been invited to meet with them to discuss the events of the “greater world” as they term it. We come to find out that we have been deemed non-threatening as they figure if we were going to attack them, we would have or if we were going to tell anyone we’d found them, we would have.
I still elect to walk with the staff Ta’Resh gave me as we proceed though the forest towards the village these people have built here. The staff gives me a decided sage-like appearance that I find useful right now, as with my borrowed cloak, long white mane and beard, and gnarled staff I’m easily dismissed as an elderly member of whatever my race is.
I find during our trek that my stride has a lot of spring to it. The length of the bones and the positions of my joints seem to be designed for sprinting… Not that I can really experiment with this right now as I try to remain hunched and elderly. For should things go bad suddenly, any surprise we might have could be deciding.
We reach the village after about an hour’s walk. It’s really quite an amazing affair with low, flat buildings that are mostly poles and roofs. A few of the larger hall-like buildings have complete walls on three sides and large leather flaps coming down over the fourth. I figure these people probably don’t need much in the way of shelter with the temperate climate of this forest and their being of an obviously hardy nature.
As we enter the village outright I note that the roads are all smoothed dirt, raised in the center and sloping to banked runoffs at either side to prevent the roads from turning completely muddy. I also see a blacksmith, a huge draft-horse sized example of the species, shoeing another of his fellows while the customer looks over a manuscript at our procession. The forge is of an amazing design wherein water is pumped up to the top of the chimney then run down the insides of it on angled steel plates. The resulting steam captures the coal smoke while pressurizing the smoke stack and allowing the remaining steam and smoke to be exhausted into the waters of a nearby stream… There would be no finding this village by its telltale smoke plumes.
As I quickly forget my act and look about me at the wonder of this little village, I notice a waterwheel-powered sawmill that uses the slow, yet steady power of the river to lift a huge stone up a rather large scaffold. Then the stone is released to provide more power for a shorter period to make the mill more efficient. Across the stream, and sharing the same water wheel shaft, a regular looking grain mill operates.
The houses are of the same single floor wooden construction consisting of a low wooden wall set into the earth then raised about two feet and polls supporting a thatched roof. I have to assume the low wall keeps water from running though the living room. All of the floors are packed earth and it appears that there are leather ‘walls’ rolled up for use in inclement weather. Each building has a central brick fireplace that uses a similar system to the blacksmith’s forge to prevent them from making pillars of wood smoke that would be easily seen.
As I walk along, trying to see everything all at once, I bump into the back of Ta’Resh who is doing similar. “They don’t seem to be savages at least.” He rumbles.
I shake my head, “No, no they don’t.”
We approach one of the meeting halls and the leather flaps are drawn aside to allow us entry. The female centaur that has been leading us makes a great show of tapping her hooves on a low board to knock any loose dirt from them before entering, so we do the same and she smiles and nods, and proceeds us inside.
Inside the building the walls are painted in a fairly iconic representation of what appears to be a great battle with many beasts and a flight from a demonic image. The images swirl and blend together and it is difficult to make out much more.
Three centaurs lay on woolen rugs woven into strange geometric patterns at the far end of the building: A male and two females, one whom we’ve been walking with, and we are beckoned to approach and are seated on similar rugs.
The large male nods to us and as Ta’Resh seems to be the leader of our little band, the centaur addresses him. “So friends, what brings you to our forest? I will apologize for any treatment you had while we determined your intentions… We cannot be to sure of anyone lest we end up the slaves we once were.”
Ta’resh rumbles in his odd accent, “No harm done. I am Ta’Resh and these good people travel with me to the northwest. We seek the castle at Valendara and to return Tatianna to her home. She is under a curse and we also seek to lift it from her if possible.”
The centaur stallion tilts his head and his ears perk, “A curse you say? Well now, that is interesting. My name is Morgan, the elected leader of my people and to my right is Melissa, my wife whom you’ve met, and to my left is Karine, our daughter.”
We all introduce ourselves and get down to the nitty gritty of story swapping over a dinner of breads and cheeses, and a fine red wine. We tell Morgan about the things we’ve seen on the way here and his interest seemed to be very intent on our descriptions of the Plain of Despair and especially keen on my travels across it.
After recounting, with as much detail as I could stomach, my seven day journey across the Plain of Despair, Morgan elects to tell us of how his people came to be in this place and in hiding…
“Some thirty years ago now our people were created by a mage from what he figured were the best parts of the peoples in the villages surrounding his tower and the horses they used in their day-to-day lives. Rather than having to work with the animals wouldn’t it be easier if the two were one? In his ideal we would have the brain and hands of a man with the strength and speed of a horse. So after hundreds of years of research he discovered the magics of life itself, the ability to create and alter life at a whim, and thus we were created.”
At Morgan’s mention of thirty years I look over at Ta’resh in confusion… Morgan seems to speak og the Mage ware as recent history, not the ancient rumors we had heard to this point.
Morgan stops for a moment and takes a long drink from a wine cup, then continues. “The mage sent out summons for a carnival of sorts where there would be tests of strength and cunning, and a running of the animals for prizes and notoriety. The peoples from the villages around the tower arrived in droves and the atmosphere was one of happiness as the grounds around the tower filled with both man and beast.”
“For three days the contests were held and the races run, and on the eve of the third day the winners were called into the tower to meet with the mage to receive their winnings and commendations. Several hours passed as a great storm cloud gathered above the tower and the assembled masses that were hastily pitching tents and pavilions for the weather.”
“That evening a strange malaise spread though the encamped peoples; a sort of paralysis that stopped folk in their tracks and crumpled them wherever they happened to be. Some fled and managed to get clear of the spell which the mage had cast, while the rest were victims of its terrible power.”
“No one is exactly sure what happened next, but the following morning the gathered peoples who were struck by the spell awoke as you see us today; a creation of dark magics and a twisted will. For twenty years our parents worked in servitude to the mage; tending his fields, hunting the beasts of the wood and supplying the tower with food, working the mines and quarries, and transporting the stones and fuel to build a new, larger tower on the same grounds as the first.”
Morgan takes another long drink before continuing. “While they were lashed to the heavy labor for the mage their thoughts flowed like mud. The magics of the mage permanently freezing their intellect to be like that of a 5 year old. They were simple beasts, only slightly better off than the horses they were wed with in that they could understand spoken commands and could slowly puzzle their way though a problem if it came between them and their appointed task. What the mage didn’t know was that he had done a far better job with his spells than he had known. They weren’t just his simple creations, they were a true race and they began to have children of their own, like them in every way… Save one.”
“We, the children I speak of, didn’t have the locks magically placed upon our minds like our parents did, and as we grew our unrest began to spread. Roughly twenty years after the creation of the Centaurs, the first of us children met in secret and formed our plans for escape.”
“During that twenty years the mage was not stagnant. He had created the mighty Minotaur from what he had learned with us. These incredibly strong warriors were trained as a military force for the mage, for not all battles are fought with magic. He also created many other halfbreeds, some of which were specifically designed for the building of his new tower.”
“We often heard rumors that the mage sought the ultimate pairing of man and animal and to these ends he had captured a member of an Elven royal house, and was searching for an elusive white beast that was steeped in magic and wore upon it’s brow a single spiraled horn.”
At this Morgan looks squarely at me, then smiles.
“We, the first children, managed to make good our escape before the other high mages took notice of the new tower and all of the creations laboring away for their master. When they saw this they became insanely jealous and desired this knowledge for themselves… There were meetings and parley, emissaries and gifts galore, but the Mage simply would not release his secrets. The others deemed to work together to pry this knowledge from his dead skull if need be and the great Mage War began.”
“The Plain of Sorrows is where this great battle happened and the powers that were released there rent the very fabric of the universe asunder… Leaving that blasted plain locked in a limbo between the physical and the ethereal. It is a place of otherworldly ghosts and tormented souls; those trapped by the war and those trapped by the effects of the war both eternally locked in a struggle for powers that died in the conflict.”
“Yes, the mages exterminated themselves and are no more; and too their vast, unimaginable power. The Army of Light, the combined forces of Humans, Dwarves and Elves, never knew what had happened to the mage for as they fought though his forces, suddenly the tower erupted in flame and a magical explosion rippled across the landscape. The few of us who were there saw the other mages arrive and shortly thereafter the explosion ripped the tower apart and sealed the fate of the Plain of Sorrows.”
Morgan takes another drink, “And that, is as the bards say, that. This all happened some ten years ago and we have been on the run ever since, afraid that perhaps the mage wasn’t killed and has merely been gathering his strength in quiet. This is why you were met with such decisive force in the woods, and why we have no posted borders.”
Ta’Resh nods to Morgan while making a slight hand signal for us to remain quiet. “We thank you for your information, that clears up a great many mysteries for us.”
“It was my pleasure. Feel free to enjoy the hospitality of our little village. Karine will show you around.”
At this Karine nods, surges to her feet, and leads us from the building. We spend the remainder of the day bartering for goods and services with the locals. The cats are enlisted for some tree climbing to place great iron rings for a rope and pulley system we couldn’t fathom for several loaves of bread and a wheel of cheese. The Druid holds a few mini-seminars on planting and crop rotation in exchange for several heavy blankets and a bushel basket of berries, and I wind up watching the blacksmith’s two children for several hours in exchange for a new set of shoes for our horse.
As the sun set we are shown to seats around a large communal fire where more story telling took place for another hour or two… When I asked if the smoke from the fire was a problem I was told that with the cool night air and the darkness, the smoke tended to stay below the treetops and disperse quickly.
We were eventually shown to an empty “house” for the evening where we bedded down. We talked quietly amongst ourselves in regards to the apparent problem with the Centaur’s sense of time. For they seemed to figure the Mage War was a mere ten years ago when we knew it to have happened over a hundred years ago… This was quickly written off as just a difference in terms for years. As everyone felt quite safe, no watch was posted and we all simply fell asleep…
The next morning we awoke in the middle of a clearing that showed no sign of ever having a village anywhere near it. We were immediately on edge as this was discovered and the theories began to fly. The woods are haunted, the Centaurs were a hallucination, and the surviving Mage took the Centaurs overnight… The problem with the “apparition” theories was the little fact that the things we’d gotten from the Centaurs were still present such as the new shoes on the horse and the foods in the wagon. The problem with the “returning Mage” theory was the fact that the Centaurs weren’t just missing… It was as if they’d never even been here.
We looked around and tried to deduce what happened to no avail and decided to stick around the site and check a few more theories while Silthran and Aryntha in his dragon form scout around.
After about an hour Aryntha and Silthran return with a tale of meeting some odd Elven person who says the path though the forest is dangerous, who knows of both of their pasts, and wants to talk to us. I decline the offer of flight on principle and eventually we decide as a group to travel to the Elf by way of traveling next to the path rather than on it…
We travel a few miles though the forest and meet this person who immediately awes us with his knowledge of not only our native languages, but also seems to know an amazing breadth and depth about us as well. Quickly we determine that this person knows how to put all of the pieces of our puzzle together and we are happy to talk to him about it… We are told that the reason he has come to us now is because we are now as we need to be and he verifies a lot of the theories we had as to how things got to where they are now.
We are also told that I am the “key to a lock that was broken that held closed a door” and that the Elven Princess is “a pawn that has fallen and who would be a queen”.
For several hours we talked with this being who spoke in riddles, had no concept of time, and seemed to either know everything or be a complete loony before we made camp and he flittered off into the woods.
(TO BE CONTINUED)