Valdorian Age - Rising Power on the Frontier
The Elothian Duchess
This tale is set 300 years before Valdor’s rise. It is a tale of an Elothian Duchess, who cared deeply for her lands. The lands were experiencing a time of prosperity, and she was a fine Duchess, ruling her lands in a way that, though not quite leading to an earthly paradise, at least ensured the prosperity and respect of her subjects. The only cause of distress, one which her subjects, both noble and commoners, complained was that she showed no signs of producing an heir. In vain, she tried to emphasize that her twin responsibilities of running the principality and deepening her studies (of such arcane subjects as astronomy and natural philosophy) left her little time for such foolishness.
Ignoring her words, the Duchess’s well-meaning counselors invited many eligible princes and nobles to her palace in her capital, in hopes that at least one would find favor with her. Unfortunately for their plans, the suitors’ foppishness, arrogance and stupidity always repelled her. This continued for some time, before the Duchess bowed to the pressure. Calling the people together beneath her palace balcony, she declared that if she were to have a consort, then he would be one of her choosing. He would be someone with an intellect to mirror her own.
To this end, she devised a series of cunning riddles and puzzles that only the most adroit of wit could solve. This complete, she issued an edict that the first man of marriageable age to solve these tests could win her hand, be he noble or commoner. Though the tests were not dangerous, merely subtle, they were of such difficulty that she felt there was little danger of anyone succeeding. If nothing else, the test would at least silence her critics. For some time, her instincts proved correct, as disappointed suitors were prominent throughout the region. Though the puzzles remained unsolved, something of a festival atmosphere prevailed among the people, with riddles and puzzles becoming a popular pastime, and many young ladies adopted this method of choosing a spouse.
As a year passed, the people began to despair of the Duchess ever taking a mate, when a young wandering bard by the name of Gallanos arrived from the east. Amazingly, Gallanos easily solved her puzzles and presented himself at court. Despite being both charming and intelligent, the Duchess expected nothing more of the marriage than a political expediency. The last thing she expected was to find herself falling in love.
Despite her previous reputation for being indifferent to the softer emotions, the Duchess became enamored of the young man, devoting herself to him. Through the efforts of the other nobles, the country still prospered. Her studies on the other hand, suffered as she devoted all her attention to her new consort. For almost two years this continues, yet there was still no sign of a new heir to the throne.
Another year followed when disaster struck. Gallanos was returning from a three month-long sea and overland journey. As he walked through the courtyard to take the Duchess into his arms, he collapsed. The Duchess immediately summoned the finest clerics and healers in the land, but to no avail. After four lingering days, Gallanos finally succumbed to the embrace of death. The Duchess fell into the blackest of despairs, withdrawing to her private rooms in the palace and refusing to see anyone. The land wept with their Duchess, but eventually the sorrow passed. Still the Duchess was a recluse.
Only a month after Gallanos’ death, a black-robed man calling himself Teshu arrived at the palace. Seemingly a rough and common man, the guards were about to remove him when he claimed he had news to break the Duchess out of her despair. Unexpectedly, she agreed to see him, despite the advice of wiser heads who did not like the look of this newcomer. Within hours of his arrival, Teshu moved into the Duchess’s chambers. Days went by with no sign of them, but when the Duchess ventured forth, she seemed less despondent than before. She occasionally made veiled references to a “Darklight Codex,” within which she claimed her new companion had showed her something to lighten her heart. Some spoke loudly their happiness that she had returned to her former studies, while others whispered rumors that Teshu was her new lover. The truth would turn out to be much less pleasant.
After some months had passed, the pair remained behind closed doors, and unpleasant rumors begin to circulate. A group of men, calling themselves “Cult of the Black Sigil” frequented the palace. Noises of construction and digging echoed at all hours, while the Duchess shunned her wise old advisors. Without the influence of a strong ruler, the land began to fall apart.
Two years to the day after Gallanos died, the citizens became the victims of a curse far worse than an indifferent ruler. All over the countryside, the peacefully buried began to rise from their graves and roam the land. In an orgy of slaughter that lasted four days and four nights, the dead terrorized the living. Meanwhile, a fearsome plague known as “The Wrack” began to manifest among the people. As stories of the horror began to spread, Cynthia’s Holy Order of Servant Knights moved into the area. Declaring that the necromantic work of an insane Duchess had caused the curse, they rallied the stronger and braver of the townsfolk and stormed the palace.
However, the Duchess, with the aid of her still-loyal nobles, their servants and the Cult of the Black Sigil had built a cunning dungeon maze beneath her palace. In her insanity, she filled it with arcane and subtle traps that she hoped Gallanos would solve upon his return from the grave. The Duchess believed that he, and he alone, would be able to win through and find her again. In truth, the Cult of the Black Sigil cared not whether Gallanos returned, but they continued to help the Duchess, confident that with her death they would be able to conquer the countryside from their new power base beneath the palace.
Many of the Duchess’s guards, in an agony of indecision about whether to support or oppose Cynthia’s Holy Order of Servant Knights, remained neutral, though many others followed the Duchess and her dark allies. Whether they did or not, it made no difference, for the newcomers were too strong.
Long and terrible were the battles fought between the Cult of the Black Sigil and Cynthia’s Holy Order of Servant Knights, both on the surface and deep within the maze, but neither side would yield. Finding themselves incapable of defeating the Duchess and her allies in their own domain, the Knights opted to seal them into what would become their tomb. The mighty Knights razed the palace and sealed the dungeons beneath with the powers of the gods.
The battle over, the Knights informed the people that the plague of undead was the result of the Duchess’s misguided attempts to raise her lost love. The Knights built a stronghold within a few hundred yards of the ruins. Their clerics instituted daily rituals to keep the Duchess sealed, even many years after they assumed that she and her followers must be dead. The town, much of it destroyed by the fighting and plague, was largely abandoned. As time passed, the Knights reduced their garrison to only a token force, while the commoners grew less frightened of the area, and began to return. They built the village upon the flattened ruins of the former city and it began to grow again. Stories of the Duchess and Gallanos faded from fact into legend.