It is easy to see how the rolling hills between Aluar and Torun became the birthplace of civilization. The gentle slopes were once covered in green – light shades of grass punctuated with dark clusters of trees. The wide Goldrun River cut through this landscape. The water reflected the yellow-orange light of the evening sun, making the river look like it’s namesake: a slowly flowing river of gold. Crowded herds of animals drank from this golden water, attracting predators, scavengers, and the first curious humans.
Tribes became settlements became hamlets, and soon the countryside was dotted with farms and mills and townships. The city of Torun grew from this, a testament to the knowledge and organization of mankind. It represented their mastery over nature, magic, the divine, and even their own animal instincts.
Thousands of years of growth were reversed in a cosmic wink. An impact scarred the earth, burning the world and the sky. It’s cruel to imagine it as a random act of coincidence, that all of civilization’s progress was destroyed by happenstance. It’s more comforting to imagine that it was a deliberate act of evil, or even punishment from a vengeful god. These things, at least, give meaning to the last few pockets life.
These rolling hills between Aluar and Torun are dying. The grass is a tough, yellow-brown reed. The few insects, animals, and birds that still cling to life are skittish and rare. The Goldrun River is a flowing mass of grey blue ash, barely one fiftieth of it’s original width. The water winds through a dry riverbed, but even the water doesn’t know why it continues to flow. Always downhill, thinks the water.
The heroes did not receive a warm welcome home to Torun. At the Westown Gate, after climbing hundreds of steps, they were stopped by a group of bandits – highwaymen, really – that demanded a toll for entering the city. Behind the the bandits, a wizardly looking man leaned against a wall, chewing simultaneously on tobacco and a long piece of grass. The bandits stood across the gate expectantly.
Rosey could see Fair Street and Westown Square behind the bandits. They were blocking his way, and he was tired. They were all tired. It had been a long journey from Aluar. Charley was sick. They’d just climbed what seemed like a thousand steps to get to the gate. It was hot and hazy outside, and they were sticky with sweat.
Rosey thought about sneaking in, but decided he was too fed up to bother. With a sigh, he strode forward, through the crowd of bandits. He saw Gaebriel do the same. Sometimes the two of them shared one mind.
As he brushed by the shoulder of a stupefied bandit, Rosey made eye contact with the wizard. He had dusty hair and a sunburned face. He was an ugly man. The wizard returned his stare and spat. Brown spittle collected in his rough chin hairs. The wizard shifted his posture, enough of a sign for Rosey to know what was coming next. So, before the wizard could utter a single arcane word, Rosey slyly unfurled a shuriken from his belt with a flourish. The shuriken whistled through the air, striking the wizard in the chest.
To his right, Gaebriel was already summoning a vengeful light. Yes, sometimes they were of one mind.
Orra pushed the last of the dead bandits over the edge of the great Westown Gate stairway. The body plummeted down nearly eighty feet to the riverbed below. Hack wondered if they should be buried, for he respected all death-customs, but Orra declared that these scoundrels did not deserve the honor of a burial. Hack briefly wondered how much this desolate world was affecting Orra.
The heroes found Torun to be empty and quiet. They heard occasional shouting and screams echoing through the cobbled alleyways of the city. The buildings were dilapidated and clearly unmaintained. Most were stone, but even many of those were cracked and crumbled, the famous white roofs stained grey. The streets were filled with rubble and waste. The glistening towers of Torun no longer glistened.
Rosey suggested that they go to the statue fountain in Westown Square. It was nearby, and he explained that he has stashed a trove of treasure underneath. It might be useful. He said that he’d need their help to disarm all of the traps he set, as he no longer had his keys.
The heroes saw few people on the main street. Those they did see were going about their daily business in terror, ducking into buildings and alleyways, suspicious of everything. They saw some sleeping in doorways, and saw signs of families hiding in abandoned, boarded-up buildings. It was clear that not too many people still survived in these empty streets, and those that did were scared and untrusting.
The heroes ducked into alleyways of their own, thinking that it might be safer to avoid the main streets.
Orra always felt like a rat trapped in a maze in the winding alleyways of Torun. The buildings towered above him, all at least thirty feet tall, making an artificial canyon. As he walked, he kept a watchful eye on the rooftops and doorways. He tightly held his axe and shield. Seeing the city like this gave him the creeps.
The dragonborn caught a scent of fire in the still breeze. He sniffed again to make sure. Yes, fire. Burning rotted wood… and humans? He was alarmed, and picked up his pace.
Quickly turning an alleyway corner, he saw the source of the fire. A three story building was ablaze. A human woman was hanging half-way out of the top floor window, screaming and crying, trying to breathe in clean air. Below, through the smoke, Orra made out a dozen men dressed as brigands and thugs. They were humans, half-elves, half-orcs. Maybe a dwarf or a tiefling amongst them, too. He noted that they all worse at least one piece of red fabric, be it an armband or a tunic.
Grotesquely, each had a reddish scar inscribed on their forehead and cheeks. It wasn’t a brand, it looked more as if a knife had been used to carve the round mark. One of them called out to Orra, “Go home!”
Orra inhaled deeply and charged forward. He used a moment of surprise to his advantage, and exhaled a burst of his own fire. Dragonfire. Three of the brigands were instantly scorched. Behind him, Orra heard his friends gather arms. He ran into the center of the mob of brigands, drawing their attacks. He raised his shield and reveled in the blows raining down upon him. This was when he was at his best, and more importantly, when his friends were at their best.
He drew the mob’s attacks long enough for Gaebriel to summon a divine wind, striking several more brigands down. Hack phased behind the crowd, but Orra saw a warcaster strike the Eladrin in the jaw with a lightning-charged staff. Orra called for Lilo, the Aluaran cleric, to aid Hack. This was Orra’s opportunity, and he thought the battle was under control.
Orra wrapped himself in his cloak and burst into the flaming building. He coughed against the smoke, but ran deeper, seeking the stairs upwards. His blackened armor protected him from much of the fire, but the smoke filled his lungs and stung his eyes. He focused on the human woman. It might not be too late. He ran harder.
She was still alive when he found her. Orra tucked her small frame into his cloak, and ran back down through the burning building. With purpose, he burst through the entrance door into the clean air. They both collapsed on the cobbled street, gasping for clean air. He could breath fire, but smoke and ash were a different story. He had a feeling he’d be coughing up black phlegm for the next couple of days.
Gathering himself, he saw that his friends had indeed killed the rest of the brigands. He turned to question the woman.
The woman explained through deep sobbing that these red-scarred men were the Redround Clan. Orra pieced together that her husband was in debt to them, so they came to kill him and his family. The Redround Clan owned Eastown. Orra noted that they were currently in Westown, so their influence must be very strong.
Orra gave the woman some bread and gold coins. It was small pittance for what she would have to face, but it calmed her down. She told the heroes about Emanuel (what Orra took to be the old Emanuel Street), a protected market area that many people lived. Emanuel, she said, was organized and had soldiers and walls. She thought that she’d seek refuge there.
Gaebriel questioned her about the Library of Marach. The woman said that she’d never been there, but heard it was full of cultists. They wore inky robes and burned books for power. She sounded scared and superstitious about the place, and Orra directed the conversation away from the subject.
The heroes emerged from the alleyways next to a building they had never seen before. It was an enormous hall, similar to a cathedral but less ornate. It must have been built after the Impact, but before things got too bad, for it looked newer than the surrounding structures.
Above the entryway, high above them, an inscription read, “Hall of Heroes”.
An old, weathered, balding halfling slept in the entryway. He cringed back from the heroes, and flinched when Gaebriel spoke, “What is this place?”
The halfling coughed and said in an elderly voice, “The Hall of Heroes – it’s haunted, you know.”
“Haunted? What is inside?”
“Spirits be inside. I’ve gone in, I have. The spirits can’t see you, you know. You can walk right through them, and they can’t see you.”
“Nay, not evil. They seem kind. They are soldiers and knights and kings. But they can’t see you, you know.”
The halfling paused, a dark look fell on his face, and he continued, “Once a spirit left. Last week. He be scary. He had a skull-face and was wrapped in black cloaks. I hid, I did. Spirits never leave, but he left, he did.”
The heroes looked at one another. They had to go inside. They had to see for themselves.