Lily sighed heavily. "This really is the hind end of nowhere, isn't it?"
The companions continued their journey to the northeast, their horses plodding along at a steady pace. They were traveling a dirt road, which ran under a canopy of trees. The weather was good, mostly sunny, though it was beginning to grow colder. It had been three days since they left Paco and his salt mine. The village Paco had pointed them too hadn't been much, but they had been informed there of a larger town further along the road and the friends were headed for it.
Erlik shrugged. "Depends; There are villages and hamlets about, even some towns. You've seen the map."
"Perhaps, but they're not New Harbor, are they?" Lily asked longingly.
"Missing the 'big city,' are you?" queried Erlik.
It was the rogue's turn to shrug. "I miss the hustle and bustle. I'd go crazy living in a village like that last one."
"An' da ale!" Huthgar chimed in. "Sum o' da stuff tha' be servin' tis nay fit fer any self respectin' dwarf."
"Not much choice in brews, that's for sure," agreed Samuel. "It's really bad when you consider that drinking is the only thing to do in some of these places."
"Well, except for further research in its libraries, New Harbor was played out, for me anyway," said Erlik. "That's why I felt the need to travel." He waved his hand, indicating the country before them. "Out there is all that remains of the once great Valardeem Empire. Many of its cities are covered over now, buried and forgotten, but there are still riches and ancient knowledge to be found . . . by those willing to look."
Samuel nodded. "So you said, why do you think I'm here."
"Aye!" agreed the dwarf. "Twern't fer ya gud looks tha' I cum 'long."
Lily laughed. "Thank Dalt for small kindnesses." She looked at the wizard. "Still, I expected, well . . . more." She pointed ahead. "If there was once a great empire out here . . . where is it?" She shrugged in perplexity.
"The Frozen Steppes now cover much of it," Erlik informed her. "The Great Forest covers still more. Any ruins we find out on the steppes, are likely to be remnants of the old empire and will be worth exploring. We may even find a few such as we traverse the forest."
"Aiyee!" Huthgar's pony stumbled and the dwarf desperately clung to his saddle horn. "Blast'd beastie! Ye'll be da death o' me yet!"
Lily chuckled. "Dwarves are terrible riders."
"Twer dwarves meant ta ride, we'd nae be havin' legs!" Huthgar replied.
"Still, you think they'd be some more obvious signs of this empire," Samuel interjected, ignoring Huthgar's plight. "Especially if it was as big as you say."
"Nature reclaims the land must faster than you might think," Erlik informed the fighter. "And it's been centuries since the Valardeem Empire fell."
"So, what happened to it?" the fighter pressed.
"The same thing that happens to every human kingdom; war, famine, pestilence, the weather," Erlik replied.
"The weather?" Samuel asked, incredulous. "You mean rain . . . snow?"
"Certainly," Erlik shrugged. "You don't think the Frozen Steppes were always frozen, do you? Who would attempt to build an empire in such a land? The weather patterns changed; the climate grew colder and inhospitable. People live where they can obtain food. When the weather changed in these lands, food production dropped and people were forced to leave the area . . . or starve."
"That's where the 'famine' part comes in," observed Lily.
Erlik nodded. "Yes."
"So, where did they go?" Samuel asked.
"South, to warmer climes, naturally," answered Erlik. "Where do you think Bethmoora and the other southern cities come from?"
"Bethmoora be par' o' dis empire ya speak of?" asked Huthgar.
The wizard shrugged. "Can't rightly say, but Bethmoora's been around for some seven hundred years, maybe longer. I'm sure that much of its early population stems from the empire's people fleeing south."
"I imagine you'll be exploring the libraries of Bethmoora for information," Lily said.
Erlik looked at her. "Perhaps, though I have no particular intention of being obvious about it."
"What's the secret?" asked Samuel.
"Secret? There's no secret," Erlik told him. "But about one hundred years ago a battle took place in the city between powerful factions of mages vying for control of the place. The city suffered considerable damage and many people lost their lives. These days, magic users are carefully watched and mistrusted. Needless to say, I don't plan on announcing my presence."
"Whoa!" Samuel threw up his hand as he halted his horse. "Hold up. There's a trail leading off into the forest here." He pointed. Turning in his saddle to look at Erlik, he asked. "Shall we take a look?"
"Does the trail look used?" the wizard asked.
"Nope," came the reply. "It looks like it's not been used in many a year . . . but it's there, nonetheless."
Erlik moved his horse forward. "It's unlikely to be something from the old empire; the forest would have reclaimed it long ago." He shrugged again. "Still, it might be worth investigating."
"Den wha ar' we waitin' fer?" asked Huthgar. "Les 'vestigate."
Erlik looked from the dwarf to the fighter, then nodded. "By all means, let's investigate."
Samuel lead the way threw the trees and onto the pathway.
"I hope there's something worthwhile in there," said Lily. "It would be nice if this started turning into a more profitable venture." She urged her horse forward, following the others unto the unused path.
The trail meandered through the forest for a couple of miles, then abruptly ended . . . at a cliff. Samuel dismounted and the others followed suit. The fighter studied the ground along the edge of the cliff and pointed.
Down below the companions could see a lake with what appeared to be a dock on opposite sides. Some kind of building appeared to be built into the cliff on one side, while a trail lead off into a canyon on the other.
"There seems to have been a trail leading down from here . . . once upon a time," Samuel informed his friends. "But it's long gone. Whatever that building is, it seems you can only access it by boat." He pointed. "That trail leading off; that's the only way to get to it."
"Well, whatever it is, it isn't ancient and -- judging from the smoke rising up -- it isn't abandoned," noted Erlik
"Looks like all we can do is go back to the main road and see if we can find that trail further along," offered Lily.