(Another plot-advancing, world-building contribution from our DM. Vendril was the rogue/ranger who was originally part of the "good" party who supported Sol Povos and its king. He comes from a border clan of elves -- not from Duendewood -- and his family has a tradition of military service. It's their way of showing loyalty and contributing to the greater good.)
Vendril slid cautiously into the tavern, making sure to close the door quietly behind him. He didn’t like this. No, he didn’t like this at all. Luckily, the tavern was quite busy.
In the time he’d spent in Solstar, one thing he’d learned was that the guilds were everywhere. No matter how stealthy he was, or how much care he took to cover his tracks, they were always right there, crawling up his ass with their army of spies and informants, like well-organized cockroaches. In truth, he mostly got along with the major guilds, and all had attempted to recruit him at one time or another. He rebuffed the offers, of course; he was not here for profit. Still, it seemed they held a certain respect for him, and it afforded him a pass in most matters. But now they’d just vanished. And that was something Vendril did not like at all.
Across the room he saw the man he was looking for: Erwin Fourfoot, former guildmember and insufferable gossip. Vendril made two passes of the room and counted to five hundred before making his way to Erwin’s table, drink in hand. The man smiled as soon as Vendril sat down.
“So nice of ‘e to be joining meh,” Erwin drawled between his broken teeth.
“Likewise,” Vendril replied.
“I thought you’d ne’er be coming o’er. I thought per’aps you ain’t seen me.”
Vendril glared at him, “Of course I saw you. But I was being inconspicuous. Anybody in here could be an informant of one of the many parties who think they run this city.”
“Oh, ‘e mean the guilds. Well ain’t no need worry ‘bout them no more.”
“Is that so?”
Vendril gave him a hard stare and finally let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, how much?”
Vendril reached for his purse.
“And a bottle of ‘at wine that noble lady be drink’n o’er there.”
Vendril squinted across the bar at the well-dressed lady, sipping deep burgundy wine from a real glass. His eyebrows went up, “That’s a 537 red from Summerwynne! It’s worth well more than the 10 gold!”
“I ain’t care how much it cost, I ain’t ne’er had fine wine a’fore. I wanna taste it.”
“Gods,” Vendril swore, “what a waste of time. Look, how about I just make it 15 gold and we call it a day, eh? Think how much heavier your purse will be.”
“10 gold,” Erwin insisted, “and m’ wine.”
Vendril grunted and made his way to the bar. He was right – the 21-year-old vintage cost over triple what he was paying the man for information. Cursing Erwin for an idiot, he purchased the bottle and took it to Erwin, whose eyes lit up like a child receiving candy. He immediately poured wine into the fine glass all the way to the brim and chugged it down in a single motion, his Adam’s apple pulsing with each gulp. It was a stark contrast to the lady across the room, carefully nursing her drink.
“Well?” Vendril asked.
Erwin poured a second glass – also to the brim – and continued chugging the criminally expensive wine. “Damn, this is good!” he exclaimed, spewing droplets of wine onto the table.
“My information,” Vendril insisted.
“Yes, yes. The guilds be gone ‘cause they all in Brightland.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense. Brightland was just sacked by that necromancer and his evil army.”
“Well, see, that was last month. Our good guild friends, well they be enterprising fellows. They sees an opportunity when it presents itself.”
“Wait,” Vendril gasped. He was sure his jaw dropped all the way to table. “Are you saying the guilds took over Brightland?”
Erwin intimated a toast to show his approval, “That’s right. And why not? Ain’t nobody else ruling it.”
Vendril sat back in his chair, stunned. It was one of the craziest and most obvious things he’d ever heard, all at the same time. It seemed the five major guilds had pounced on the opportunity to take over the ruler-less county.
“I hear,” Erwin belched, “that the common folk sing their praises in the street. They’ve set the whole city to right, arranged for food, protection, all o’ it. I heard the common folk say that the be better rulers than the right proper lords!”
Vendril couldn’t help chuckling as he shook his head. Who better to run a city? The guilds had extremely well-organized networks and a strong, built-in sense of hierarchy. On top of that, they had resources and connections. And unlike the nobles before them, they cared nothing for divine right or the sanctity of nobility. They’d have the city and its businesses back up and running in no time. To the common folk, it would probably seem as if the war had never happened. And once the war was over? Well, he suspected the king might not be so quick to displace those generating more tax income than previously enjoyed.
“See, Brightland’s the place to be, I says, not like Flowerhedge,” Erwin hiccupped, “overrun by vampires.”
Vendril’s eyes darted to the man. He was drunk now, rocking back and forth in his seat. Vendril immediately ordered another bottle of wine – a younger vintage, much cheaper, but in the same bottle with the same label. Erwin squealed like a girl when it was delivered.
In the end, it turned out to be a much more profitable night than Vendril had anticipated. One more bottle of cheap wine was enough to milk Erwin for everything he knew. It seemed the necromancer and his minions had turned everyone in the Flowerhedge castle into vampires before they left. There were 30 vampires, if Erwin were to be believed, plus over a hundred spawn they’d created in the weeks since Flowerhedge was sacked. Like the guilds, they’d capitalized on a power vacuum and organized themselves into the new rulers of Flowerhedge. It was a dim fate, but better than the cities further down the river. Rockdale had been given to a Wildlander warlord called the Iron Lion. Garamond, meanwhile, lay in ashes.
The scariest part, however, was that this small army – apparently a vampire, a necromancer, and a Wilderlander warrior princess – had worked their way up the Rockwind, sacking one city after another, leading them all they way to Brightland, which was adjacent to the royal duchy itself. In fact, all that stood between the capital and Brightland was Duke of Erikol, a ceremonial seat for the most senior member of the royal family not in the line of succession.
As Vendril walked out of the tavern that night, he was filled with dread.