The PCs paused before following Marta. They searched the fallen Guardians, looking for clues about these men who claimed to be “protectors of Esk.” The men bore strange mutations (odd growths of hair, claw-like fingernails, etc.) and each was branded with a humped symbol. Seamus recognized it as a stylized bridge – the emblem of Esk. The party dragged the bodies off of the road, and dumped them in a draining ditch, then covered the corpses with debris before following Marta into the wilderness.
The dark-skinned girl led them north, into the Old Forest. She seemed humble, thankful, and unassuming, but the PCs observed that she glanced about nervously as she hiked through the undergrowth. The party pressed her for information about her attackers, and asked where she was leading them.
Marta explained that the Righteous March left Esk in ruins. Most of the population either fled or joined the March, and those that remained had hidden from the army during its occupation. They returned after the March left the city, and began the process of rebuilding. Recent events had left the survivors severely traumatized. Fearful and distrustful, they soon fell prey to a charismatic cult leader. He rallied the survivors around the idea of Esk as a sentient entity – our mother and provider – and called upon the survivors to join him as her “Guardians.” While the Guardians initially mobilized reconstruction of the city, they soon began persecuting anyone they perceived as an outsider. Marta’s father Ohgren, an immigrant tailor from the southern duchy of Hornvale, was one of those targeted, as were many other non-Veldsmen, human and demi-human. Marta and her father decided to flee the city, rather than risk greater persecution.
As she talked, Marta led the party to her father’s camp. Though initially mistrustful of the strangers, Marta’s father eventually accepted their story. After pressing the PCs for information about the Righteous March and rejoicing in the news of their defeat, he confirmed Marta’s story and provided additional details. He named an arms dealer called Ernest Harker as the leader of the Guardians, and insisted that each new Guardian was put through an initiation ritual where “Esk bestowed her gift upon her protectors.” The whole thing stank of Chaos. Marta’s father also told the party that the High Hammer of Phaelan, Rictiln, still lived, but had still not regained consciousness. The Guardians had adopted Phaelan’s temple as their headquarters, naming themselves as the priest’s protectors until he regained his faculties.
The PC’s shared a meal with Marta, Ohgren, and their camp-mates, then set off for Esk. Using Seamus’s magic and the two masks of disguise in their possession, they sneaked past the sentries and made their way to The Three Kegs, the inn they’d stayed in during their previous visit. It was nearly abandoned. They found the innkeeper, Sarah, to be sympathetic to their cause, and set up base within the city.
The following morning, the party members split up to reconnoiter the city. Seamus remained in the inn to study. Byl and Gardain (who used one of the masks to disguise himself as a human) scouted the exterior of Phaelan’s temple and assessed the strength of the Guardians’ defenses. Smidgen used the other mask to disguise herself as a child, and joined a group of other children who were being led to “class” within Phaelan’s temple.
As Byl and Gardain were scouting the entrances to the temple, a sparrow swooped down from the clouds, directly toward Byl. Before he could react, the bird transformed into roll of parchment. It was a note from Crucian, head of the Deepvale Library and high-ranking member of the Wind Weavers.
“The plan has failed,” the note read, “The King has executed the Marchers and turned the Weavers against one another. You must abandon the plan and flee. The King knows your destination and will come for you next.”