The northern countryside was a place of a great beauty juxtaposed with a sense of lingering, imminent doom. Unending plains of unruly grasses stretched out in every direction, undoubtedly harboring some foul burrowers beneath their surfaces. Forests bloomed in the distance, dark and untouchable by the greedy, grabby hands of men. Mountains towered on the horizon, indistinguishable shapes fluttering and flapping as they soared about the peaks. The power of nature was evident - the strength of the unnatural creatures taking refuge in its warmth was yet to be determined.
"Sir!" a sharp voice cut through the tranquility. "Sir, we'll be disembarking now. This is far enough."
Robert Kurtz was a tall Imperial with a hard gaze and a face like the solid gray rock of a cliff side. He had recruited the members of his party in the tavern at Endibraut Hall, where they had heard the story of Sir Aliser Holt and his mysterious fate. With promises of treasure to find and monsters to kill - an adventure worth telling a tale about - it had not been difficult to find a sizable group of warriors to accompany him.
The crew was a motley bunch. There was a good mix of Imperials and Northmen, as well as a couple of dwarves and a lone elf. A few were suspiciously dressed; some were clearly into thieving and others were suspected users of magic, but that mattered little in this country. Kurtz hardly seemed like the kind of man to go turning anybody into the Inquisition, at any rate. The man with the mask in particular was an odd one, but the locals whispered with such fear where he walked that he could be nothing if not useful to the expedition.
In town, Kurtz had paid a handsome sum to a merchant traveling from Endibraut to the Dwaerrodowns to pick up a shipment of foodstuffs. The merchant's wagon was empty in anticipation of his goods, and so there was plenty of room for a small band of adventurers to load up their equipment and occasionally hop onto the back of the vehicle to rest their weary legs - for a price. Kurtz was more than happy to pay the merchant his fee and cover the expenses of his traveling companions.
Now, at his command, the wagon rolled smoothly to a halt as the horses towing its load slowed to a trot. Kurtz was the first to jump off. As the others gathered their things from the wagon and stretched their legs, he went around the front to give the merchant the second half of his payment. He waited a minute while the last of the gear was secured, then stepped aside.
"We are grateful for your services, sir." Kurtz bowed slightly. "Best of luck in your travels."
The merchant nodded in return. "And to you as well." His gaze lingered in the distance, on the treacherous terrain off the road and across the plains. "From the look of things, you'll be in need of it." He gave his horses a sharp lashing that set them back into motion. The cart rocked noisily down the path, which snaked away and slithered between two foothills before disappearing over the horizon.
Robert Kurtz turned to his party and rested one hand on the pommel of his longsword. "It will be several hours before we reach the edge of Blekmyr. I hope to make it halfway there by midday, at which point we may rest if our progress is sufficient."
"I'm sure none of us are in the mood for complaining; I'd like not to hear it." He began to set out on foot, the rest of the party trailing after him, looking more like a herd of cattle than a row of ducklings following their mother. The ground ahead of them was uneven and without paths, with rocks and cliffs overlooking their progress on all sides. Further ahead the terrain leveled out, only to grow untamed with weeds and shrubs as solid soil gave way to puddles and pools. Here, just walking would be a task better suited to animals than men.
It was only the maw of the wilderness. The belly of the beast was far ahead, submerged in shadow and swamp.