Tasker is a myth among explorers. According to the tales, this brilliant gnome was driven from House Sivis when he sought to expose secrets that had been sealed by his house. Some say he was killed at this time. But others claim that he wanders the world, passing his knowledge to those who need it. This dispatch could be found under a rock where the party chooses to make camp. It could be found tied to the leg of a bird. Is it sheer coincidence that the party acquires this knowledge? Or is Tasker pointing them toward their destiny?
When the PCs acquire the parchment, read the following:
This weathered parchment bears the arcane mark of the winged eye.
If a PC can make a successful DC 15 Knowledge (nobility and royalty), Knowledge (local), or Knowledge (arcana) check, read the following. This is a continuation of the text found in the first part of Tasker's missive.
Those versed in the lore of the dragonmarked houses recognize this symbol as the sigil of Tasker, excoriate of House Sivis.
The elves of the Valaes Tairn first set foot on the soil of Khorvaire thousands of years ago. They sought adventure and glory, and they hoped to find challenges worthy of the heroes of Xen'drik. There were no giants on the southwestern shore, but they found goblins aplenty. The Tairnadal welcomed war with the Empire of Dhakaan, and for decades hobgoblin and bugbear matched wits and steel with the warrior elves. It took the call of a greater conflict to draw the Valaes Tairn back to Aerenal -- the clash of elf and dragon. When the forces of Argonnessen attacked Aerenal, the Tairnadal abandoned their holdings in Khorvaire and returned to their island home.
Many who deal with the elves of Valenar know this story, since it forms the foundation of High King Shaeras Vadallia's claim to the land. Vadallia asserts that his ancestors held their current territory before humans ever laid eyes on Khorvaire, and he is prepared to defend this claim with sword and spell. Politicians can debate the rights of the Valenar, but the presence of the Valaes Tairn in distant times has never been in question. The elves may have abandoned the land, but they left their taers behind. Now those fortresses have been restored, and Taer Valaestas is the heart of Vadallia's kingdom.
Most travelers are surprised by their first glimpse of Taer Valaestas. In Khorvaire the Valenar are known primarily as fierce cavalry troops. People think of them as soldiers -- people who deal in steel and war. So imagine that you are standing on a hill, looking down across a long, flat plain. Any shrub that could provide cover has been stripped away, but the ground isn't completely bare. You occasionally spot a bit of tough root protruding from the dirt . . . a hint at a web of vegetation that lies just below the surface. Then you see the city. Slender spires of carved densewood are surrounded by domes built by Aereni architects and the rougher baked clay homes of the humans. At this distance, you might not even notice the wall. But look again. Six stocky stone towers are spread around the city, and a thick wall runs between them. You might think that the wall would be the same stone as the towers, but you would be mistaken. As you draw closer, you start to see the rough edges and irregular surface of the fortifications. And then it becomes clear. The walls of Taer Valaestas weren't built . . . they were grown. The six keeps of the city are bound together by a vast ring of thorns. The largest vines are thicker than an ogre's torso. But these are only the core strands, and they are surrounded by vines of many different shapes and colors. It may seem like an odd choice for such warlike people; aside from the risk posed by fire, the many strands of the wall seem to invite would-be climbers. But appearances can be deceiving. The major vines are wood, indeed . . . bronzewood, resistant to fire and with the strength of steel. The thorns spread across the walls might just as well be razors, ready to dig into the flesh of anyone who tries to enter by stealth. And the stories say that there are deadlier briars hidden along the outer walls -- poisoned thorns that can steal the strength or life of anyone who seeks to climb the walls.
Where did this city of thorns come from? How is it that the Valenar are protected by bronzewood walls instead of stone and mortar? Many have heard the tales of the druids of the Eldeen Reaches, but few realize that a similar tradition thrives among the Tairnadal elves. When the ancient elves challenged the giants of Xen'drik, they were slaves fighting some of the most advanced civilizations the world has ever seen. One to one, the elves couldn't match the arcane magic or sheer military might of the giants. Instead they drew on stealth, mobility, and the land itself. Their heroes included mighty sword-wielders and gifted sorcerers, but some also listened to wind and water. The latter people turned the jungle vines and beasts of the wild against their foes. The typical Valenar soldier may rely on his scimitar or bow to overcome most challenges, but he has a bond to his steed that goes beyond simple training . . . and he can imbue himself with the speed of a wild animal, or call on the vines in the earth to entangle his foe. The Tairnadal may lack the devotion displayed by the Wardens of the Wood, but they share many of the same powers; for the Valenar, nature is a weapon.
Most Tairnadal rangers only have a few tricks at their disposal, but a few among the host have a greater bond to nature. Known as the Siyal Marrain, this is the order that first bound the Tairnadal to their wondrous steeds. The Siyal druids of the modern day continue to care for the herds in Aerenal, but there have always been those who have ridden with the warbands, bringing lightning and thorn to bear on their foes.
While most of the revered ancestors of the Tairnadal are heroes of Xen'drik, the goal of every Tairnadal elf is to match the deeds of the ancestors and to join their ranks as an equal. Only a few of the Valaes Tairn are thought to have achieved this exalted status. One of these is Maezan Shal, the Thunderhand, believe by many to be even mightier than the Siyal Marrain of Xen'drik. Maezan accompanied the host of the Valaes Tairn when they first came to Khorvaire, and his magic raised the stone towers of the taers from the earth. It's said that he planted the seeds of the bronzewood thorns, laying the foundations of the walls of Taer Valaestas. Following the departure of the Tairnadal, the Dhakaani broke the walls of Taer Valaestas. But at the coronation of Shaeras Vadallia, the Siyal druids called on the spirit of Maezan Shal . . . and the bronzewood vines burst up from the soil, knitting together to form the wall anew. The city of thorns was reborn.
The Walls of Taer Valaestas
While similarities exist between the thorns of Taer Valaestas and a wall of thorns, the barrier is exceptionally dense and the vines unnaturally solid; one simply cannot squeeze through the wall. The bronzewood vines that form the bulk of the wall have a hardness value of 10 and 25 hit points per inch of thickness; in most places the walls are 10 feet thick, requiring 3,000 points of damage to break through. The gates of the city are also made from bronzewood and have a hardness value of 10 and 300 hit points.
The walls of Taer Valaestas are 40 feet in height. Due to the handholds, it's a base DC 10 Climb check to scale the wall. Anyone forced into the wall or attempting to climb it takes damage equal to 30 minus their Armor Class value for every turn they remain in contact with the wall; ignore Dexterity and dodge bonuses for purposes of this calculation. Furthermore, there's a 25% chance that the victim will be injured by a poisonous thorn. This inflicts 1d4/1d4 points of damage to either Strength or Constitution (determine randomly); a DC 25 Fortitude saving throw negates this effect. If the climbing character chooses to increase the base Climb DC to 30, she can avoid any damage from the thorns while climbing.
The bronzewood vines do not burn, but fire-based attacks can damage them. Warp wood or similar effects inflict 40 points of damage per caster level; however, the walls are considered to have spell resistance of 25 due to the lingering influence of Maezan Shal.
In addition to the wall itself, the roots in the land around Taer Valaestas are ideal for entangle, briar web, or similar effects.
Entering the City
When a Tairnadal elf draws his veil across his lower face, he has indicated that he is ready for battle. Every Valenar warrior wears a brooch called the zaelshin, which bears the emblem of his sanctified ancestor. By covering his face, the elf ensures that the glory of the victory will pass to his patron champion.
As you approach Taer Valaestas overland, you are sure to encounter a warband of soldiers with their faces hidden. These sentinels always demand to know your business in the seat of the Darkwood Crown, as well as the details of your journey across their land.
If you are proud, you can answer this challenge with steel. Be warned; the guardians of the High King are chosen from the finest warbands of the host. Taken overall, the Valenar are the deadliest soldiers in Khorvaire, and these are champions among their own kind. At least one wizard stands among them, ready to counter any spell you bring to bear; they likely already have long-term defensive spells in place. None catch them by surprise; at best, they are unprepared for the tactics you have chosen. Should you defeat the guardians without killing any of them (or their mounts), you have earned your passage into the city . . . though this draws the attention of the crown, and you can be certain that watchers observe you during your stay. And should you slip up and kill one of the servants of the king within sight of his walls, you have spat upon the crown. The watchers on the walls don't immediately interfere with these battles -- but if either elf or horse is killed, the Valenar spare no effort to see you slain. Think carefully before you take this path.
Alternatively, you can try to win the respect of the warriors with words instead of swords. Tairnadal culture holds heroes in high regard. If you can spin compelling tales of your own great deeds, you may earn respect without the risk of bloodshed; some of the sentinels may even choose to serve as guides in order to hear more of your adventures or to see your plans come to fruition. Of course, if you have lied about the nature of your business in the city, this could prove more of a handicap than an aid.
The simplest approach is honesty and humility. Your group may stand out from a typical band of merchants, and the elves surely employ barbed speech and probing questions with you. If you harbor any hostility, they try to bring it to the surface outside the city walls, and at least one among them is an expert at reading emotions and motives. However, the warriors of the Tairnadal are only interested in battles that can bring glory to the memories of their ancestors. If you don't present a challenge, they may let you be and hope for a more interesting target.
Once you have dealt with the guards, you can pass beneath the vast bronzewood gates. The city of thorns lies before you. You have done well to make it this far. But many dangers hide in the city of thorns, as you may soon learn.
- When the PCs explain their business to the sentinel warband, one of the rangers is inspired by the tale. She asks if she can accompany the party in the city, serving as guide and fighting at their side if need be. This could be just as it seems, in which case she could be a valuable ally who can defuse conflicts with other locals. But she could have a hidden agenda. Is she a dragon of the Chamber, hoping to observe the party to see if they are the ones spoken of in the Prophecy? A Lord of Dust laying the groundwork for a distant scheme? Or a niece of the High King himself -- a woman with noble intent, but one whose friendship could prove both valuable and extremely dangerous?
- If the PCs defeat a group of sentinels in fair battle, they are watched during their time in the city but are left in peace. However, some of the "heroic" ancestors of the Valenar were truly evil soldiers -- as bad as any modern worshiper of the Mockery. A Valenar bound to such an ancestor may feel obligated to take vengeance against the PC who bested him, and he stoops to any form of treachery to make the adventurer suffer. Note that he may wish to cause the PC pain, not simply kill him; this could involve discrediting the PC, killing a beloved NPC, stealing a prized possession, or otherwise causing suffering sufficient to redeem his wounded honor.