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Author Topic: TwiceBorn's Crown of Shadows campaign journal  (Read 30333 times)
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TwiceBorn
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« on: June 10, 2009, 04:01:09 PM »

Hello all,

Just started my first Midnight campaign a few months back, and so far, everyone's having a blast and really digging the bleak, hopeless feel of the setting.  Like most, we have started with the Crown of Shadows campaign, to which I'm adding quite a few encounters and side events.

Initial cast of characters:

. Loic Batz: Dorn barbarian, freeman from the plains of Erenland (Ironborn heroic path)
. Vallin Onyxarm: Erenlander defender, also from an isolated community on the plains of Erenland that had been razed by Shadow forces (Quickened heroic path)
. Garnbrimble of Clan Greatbarge, gnome rogue (Quickened heroic path)
. Klot, favoured Erenlander fighter (former soldier of Shadow - Shadow Walker heroic path)
. Vargus "the runt", dworg channeler (ironborn heroic path)

NPCs, as per Crown of Shadows module:
. Wendell Gale, gnome trader (expert)
. Lady Rhiann, elf channeler
. Bayal Dethirinn, snow elf wildlander
. Eirinn Alluon, wood elf fighter
. Dunkin of Clan Durgis

Feedback on the campaign welcome!
« Last Edit: August 06, 2009, 09:54:35 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

TwiceBorn
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« Reply #1 on: June 10, 2009, 04:05:00 PM »

In an Age of Shadow...
 
Nasty, brutish and short – this is the only way to describe life in Erenland. Some of the elders say that things were not always so, but human folk who live today were not yet born when, nearly a century ago, the forces of the dark god Izrador—the Shadow from the North—won the war for the continent of Eredane, and plunged it into the darkness of what has come to be known as the Last Age. Some of the longer lived fey may know the truth of it, but only fools would seek out the dwarven folk of the Kaladruns or the elves of the great wood, Erethor. Collaboration with the mountain and woodland fey is but one of many acts that are punishable by death under the laws of the Shadow.

Since the Last Age began, the armies of the Shadow have waged a relentless genocide against the surviving mountain and woodland fey, sending hundreds of thousands of orc and goblinkin legions to besiege their remote strongholds. One can only guess at how the fey have held out for so long, in isolation – but all know that it is only a matter of time until they also fall, for the Shadow is too strong.

The plains and river fey – nomadic Halflings and gnomes – are not considered a threat by the agents of the Shadow. Halflings are seldom seen – their race reportedly is very close to extinction. Whenever they are caught by agents of the Shadow, if they escape slaughter, then they are enslaved and sent in droves to distant mines and worse fates, never to be seen again. The river gnomes are the only fey that are tolerated by the Shadow and given relative autonomy. The Shadow relies on gnome barges to ferry military troops and supplies along the continent’s waterways. They play a key role in the transportation and distribution of goods across Eredane. While the river fey tend to be welcomed cautiously in human towns because they usually bring essential goods for trade that otherwise would be difficult if not impossible to obtain, many inwardly despise the little turncoats for collaborating with the occupying forces.

Of course, the gnomes are not the only ones that can be accused of collaborating with the Shadow. Thousands of human mercenaries serve the Shadow, and the dark god Izrador’s priests—known as legates—are human. The Shadow also has its supporters among common folk—many believe that it is wiser and that their lives and those of their loved ones will be far less painful if they openly proclaim their devotion to the Shadow. The agents of the Shadow have been known to raze entire communities on the suspicion that even one resident might have been acting in collaboration with the Resistance, or committed some other act forbidden by the laws of the occupiers. Who in a given community supports the Resistance, and who might be a secret informant for the Shadow, is difficult to know. Hence, trust is a rare commodity.


Central Erenland, your home, is the breadbasket of Eredane. While farming remains the primary activity in the area, the agents of the Shadow demand an ever increasing portion of each harvest as tithes to support the “protection” of communities from slavers, bandits, beasts, and the Fell, and to support their war efforts against the fey. Thus, poverty and hunger are the norm in Erenland, especially in villages where the Shadow has an established presence. As early as childhood, despair sets into the hearts and minds of all but the stoutest or deluded of souls. Why go on living under such conditions? Because life is precious… and because that which awaits one after death, may be even worse than that which one endures in life.

The largest city in the region, Erenhead, hundreds of miles to the west on the southern shore of the Sea of Pelluria, has been completely overrun by orcs. It is whispered that the human population there has been enslaved, and are used to offload supplies for the war in the Kaladruns sent via ship from northern Erenland, or by barge along the Eren River, from the south. The plains around Erenhead are covered in slave-worked farms and pastures that provide for the growing garrison and the massive numbers of orcs who pass through the city. Most Erenlander settlements are dominated by puppet governors, orc warchiefs and legate overlords. Fortunately, most Erenlander settlements also are quite small and lack the strategic importance to merit direct overseers or garrisons. As a result, they are often left to fend for themselves, and most now follow the tradition of Dornish sheriffs.

The further south and east one is from Erenhead, the looser the grasp of the Shadow becomes… but the poorer the soil is, the fewer the opportunities for trade, and the greater the dangers posed by marauders and untamed beasts. Wild game is in limited supply. Some isolated communities of freemen (and possibly even halflings) eke out an existence in the wilds that are off the main travel and military supply lines, too small or remote to capture the attention of the Shadow’s forces.

Of course, you know very little of what truly goes on beyond the confines of your home community or territory, for travel beyond one’s community without the authorization of the local authorities is forbidden, orcs patrol the main roads, and other dangers in the wildlands make travel a very dangerous proposition that few are willing to attempt, especially since weapons and armour are hard to come by (the possession of weapons and armour contravenes the laws of the Shadow). Folk often are reluctant to trade with wandering freemen—to deal with those who live by their own rules could spell doom for those suspected of dealing with them. Still, there always are a few who are willing to take that chance. Reading and writing likewise are prohibited, so sending written messages tends to be futile, not to mention extremely risky. Magic in all its forms is forbidden, on pain of death; the legates have an uncanny ability to sniff out those who wield occult powers, or who possess arcane items. Ignorance prevails, and thus the knowledge most people have of Eredane’s geography and history consequently is very limited.

Yet for all the fear, despair, ignorance, poverty and oppression that exist across Eredane under the Shadow’s reign, Fate sometimes selects the most unlikely of people to manifest exceptional—some might even say heroic—gifts…
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« Reply #2 on: June 10, 2009, 04:06:06 PM »

The Adventure Begins...
 
It is a chilly and overcast spring afternoon in the 99th year of the Last Age. For various reasons, fate has brought you all to the village of Koln on this day. The village lies at the edge of the rocky and sparsely vegetated foothills that border the towering Kaladrun Mountains to the east—and near a trace road that leads into still-disputed realms of mountain fey…

The journey to Koln has been a long and hazardous one… Several days walk across the barren plains of central Erenland, at the mercy of wild beasts, Fell and other marauders… and for some, even longer journeys from the heartland along winding rivers…

In many ways, Koln is a village typical of central Erenland. Recently tilled corn and potato fields surround the community for hundreds of yards in every direction, and beyond them lie open range boro pastures, where radiant but short-lived crimson, yellow and purple wild flowers are presently in bloom.

As a result of its location on the periphery of Shadow-occupied lands, at the junction of the foothills and the barren plains, the four-score or so homes in the village have had to shelter themselves beyond a shallow moat and two-story stone wall. The mostly single story homes and buildings within the settlement are said to be hybrids of the styles favoured by the ancestors of the Erenlanders that dominate central Erenland—a combination of circular, low brick Sarcosan architecture built on stout Dornish quarried limestone foundations, with low-peaked, thatched roofs. And despite the poverty and oppression of the locals, the homes in Koln seem to be reasonably well maintained. Most of the structures are no more than 20 to 30 feet in diameter, and they fan out along meandering, muddy lanes from a crude and equally muddy central square and water well, which are overlooked by one rectangular home on a low knoll that is perhaps twice the size of the other dwellings and which features a shingled roof, while still being far from opulent. A few other squat rectangular buildings line the square. Shops are few and far between—but you may have passed the workshops of a tanner and rope maker along the way to the town square. The scent of boro dung fires wafts from the odd craftsman’s hut and through the air. The drifting smoke, overcast sky, stone buildings and muddy paths cast a gloomy pall over the village.

Townsfolk—mainly begrimed Erenlanders and Dorns, by the looks of things, clad in worn woollen garb—went about their business and chatted to one another as you entered the village; children played noisily, and tradesmen laboured in their shops… but with every step you took deeper into Koln, you could not help but feel suspicious eyes falling on you, then quickly looking away. Upon your arrival (or when you stayed in town after the departure of your travelling companions, as the case may have been), a scrawny young lad nervously directed you to go to Sheriff Azahn’s office, on the village square. Thus far, you had seen no signs of orcs, or legates… yes, you had heard that the Shadow presence here was light.

It was in the constabulary that your ragtag band first set eyes upon one another: a diminutive gnome, a tall and powerfully built Erenlander with a deep scar across his right cheek, and a pair of Dorns, one a towering young man and the other by many years his senior, both of them with shaved scalps and wooden staves in hand…
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« Reply #3 on: June 10, 2009, 04:07:16 PM »

Episode 1: The Well of Rebellion
 
All you had time to learn during Sherriff Azahn Dowl’s all too brief interrogation in the constabulary were one another’s names, and your reasons for having come to Koln… at least, the reasons you were willing to give for your respective visits…

Garnbrimble of clan Greatbarge -- a gnome who had come to town with a trading caravan, and who had stayed behind as the one convoy left, in order to join another that would pass through Koln in the next few days…

Vallin Onyxarm – a tall and powerfully built Erenlander with a deep scar running across his right cheek, who was “looking for work”…

Loïc Batz and his grandfather Jörg – two shaven-headed Dorns from the plains who had brought a goat with them, hoping to trade it for goods that Wendell Gale’s caravan would soon bring to town…

No sooner had these introductions been made that the thunder of cavalry entering the town square drowned out the conversation and clouded everyone’s face with concern, including Sherriff Azahn’s. A black-clad legate had entered the square on a magnificent destrier with a squad of a dozen heavily armed, armoured and mounted orcs in tow, and pulled up at the foot of the knoll upon which the home of Koln’s lord was perched.

The lord and his man-servant came to meet the legate and his troops. The legate, who eventually identified himself as Drugan Deem before the gathering crowd of onlookers, aggressively questioned the lord, but you were too far away to clearly hear about what. Then, the legate stepped aside and the largest of the orcs proceeded to beat the lord viciously for several minutes. The villagers gasped and the lame-legged Sherriff spat in disgust (unseen by the orcs), but none interfered.

At last, the beating stopped, and the legate addressed the crowd. He stated that the mayor had served the town well, and that the residents of Koln therefore would be spared any suffering. He reminded them of their place in the world, and commanded them to gather a tribute for Izrador, which he would gather in two days time; the villagers were to consider themselves fortunate, for the Shadow’s forces could take far more than they had up to that point. Having issued his decree, the legate rode off with half his orcs, leaving the other half to start “encouraging” the villagers to gather their tribute.

As orcs and onlookers alike vacated the village square, the mayor was left lying face down in the mud, moaning in pain, with one orc standing over him. After several minutes’ hesitation, Garnbrimble bravely stepped into the empty square to help the fallen lord. The orc sentinel glared at the gnome and tried to drive him off, but somehow, Garn managed to pacify the soldier and was permitted to carry the wounded mayor into his home; at that point, Loïc, Vallin, and Jörg came to assist the gnome.

Mayor Derryk Grandmill was thankful for the help provided by Garn and the other strangers. He was badly shaken and practically delirious as he began to reflect aloud on what had transpired between him and the legate. Apparently, the legate had been informed that something in the area radiated magic, and he had come to seek out the source of the aura. Lord Grandmill stated that he had no idea what the legate was talking about, but out of fear for his own life and the wellbeing of Koln, he did blurt out that there was a network of caves nearby—the Tearfall Caverns—a few miles to the east, inside fey territory… perhaps the magic was coming from there?

Although he said nothing of it to the legate, Lord Grandmill had heard rumours suggesting that smugglers had made use of the caverns in the past. If the legate found evidence of Resistance activity in the caverns, Koln surely would suffer for it. Given your willingness to help him even as an orc stood by, the mayor sensed exceptional bravery in you, and begged that you aid the town by racing the legate to the caverns and by removing any contraband that might be found therein. No other townsfolk could safely perform the deed. He also stressed that you should not engage the legate and his orcs, for doing so would only spell trouble for the village. The Sherriff and a local trapper by the name of Tanner Hurly might have other information that would be useful to you, as they had knowledge of the lands between the village and the caves. The village’s dire need, and your own hatred of the Shadow, led you to accept Mayor Grandmill’s call for aid. Before leaving the Mayor’s residence, Garn managed to convince the lord to safeguard some of his belongings, and to provide the gnome with accommodation upon his return.

Sherriff Azahn was reluctant to admit that he had ever been to the caves, but eventually confessed that contraband was indeed hidden therein; he also explained where to find the concealed chamber in which the contraband could be found, and the location of the poison dart trap protecting the chamber. He accompanied the band of unlikely companions to the shop of Tanner Hurly. Like the Sherriff, this man was not eager to share his knowledge with Koln’s mysterious would-be saviours. He eventually did provide you with instructions that would help you locate a shortcut to a concealed trail he called “the high road,” but not before trying (unsuccessfully) to convince you to barter goods for his knowledge. The high road, he said, might enable you to beat the legate to the caverns. The legate would be required to dismount after riding the first part of the low road, which is longer and more circuitous than the shorter yet perhaps even more challenging high road.

Jörg, being considerably older than the others and with a goat in tow, opted to remain on the outskirts of the village and await Wendell’s arrival, out of sight of the orcs who had remained in Koln, while the gnome and the two outlander youths undertook the quest to save the village. The Shadow’s mounted forces already had a significant head start on the party…

Under a stormy sky, Garn, Loïc, and Vallin raced on foot across newly planted corn and potato fields and boro pastures, and into sparsely wooded meadows, following the obvious hoof prints of the legate’s retinue. As a steep rocky escarpment emerged to the right of their route, the adventurers spotted the feint beginnings of the high road where Tanner Hurly suggested it would be. The horse tracks heading east confirmed that the Shadow’s forces had kept to the low road.

The fifty foot climb to the top of the escarpment was tricky, and resulted in a few near-falls. At last, the three reached its summit, and resumed the race. In order to maximize your pace, Vallin carried Garn on his shoulders. As you continued to race along the gradually ascending high road, you caught a glimpse of a pair of orcs and several unmounted horses in a small clearing near the foot of the escarpment. Yet a few miles further, you found to your dismay that a 70’ deep and 15’ wide chasm blocked your way. Wooden stakes wedged into the rock on both sides of the chasm suggested that a rope bridge might once have spanned its width, but none was there now… you mulled over in your minds how Mr. Hurly could have omitted to mention this obstacle. The razor sharp and uneven rock surface in this area made a running jump risky. Instead, you pursued another daring option: the muscular humans swung the feather-light gnome across the chasm, with a rope tied at his waste. Garn then secured the rope at his end that enabled the humans to cross the chasm in turn.

Over the next few miles, the rocky plateau gradually followed a downward slope and entered a wooded thicket. As you made your way down towards the woods, two figures emerged from the thicket. One raised a weary hand, and, as if finally able to give up and rest, the other staggered and dropped to its hands and knees, groaning in pain. You approached cautiously, your calls being responded to in an unfamiliar language. The one figure turned to aid its fallen companion… and as you came closer, you realized that the two must actually be mountain fey! None of you had ever met a mountain fey before. What could they be doing here? As Garn stepped forward with hand outstretched to greet them, wonder turned to fear as the pallid-skinned dwarves rose, and, with blood-curdling shrieks, hurled their urutuk hatchets at you. Their aim was true, and they nearly felled Garn and Vallin with one blow. As they closed for combat with claws outstretched, the awful truth finally dawned on you… these fey were undead!

The Fell dwarves fought savagely, driven mad by the unsatiable hunger evident in their glassy eyes. At last, you destroyed your foes, but the damage was done. Garn and Vallin had nearly lost their lives in the brief encounter. The prospects of survival if you faced a half-dozen heavily armed and armoured orcs and their legate commander were grim indeed. You looted the bodies of your foes and, despite being significantly weakened, you resolutely pushed on with your mission.

As dusk approached, you reached the spot where the high and low roads intersected once again, in the valley bottom. Your spirits sank deeper when you found tracks that suggested that your foes had beaten you here, and were still ahead of you. A half hour or so later, you came to the edge of an incredibly broad, thick bog that emerged from out of nowhere… and which gave you a distinct feeling of unease. A rope-and-plank bridge stretched across its full 500 feet. Once you reached its far end, Garn sabotaged the ropes that supported one side of the bridge.

Not long afterwards, you reached your destination. Four orcs stood by the cave entrance, pacing furiously and grumbling in their guttural language, apparently unhappy about something. You were too late…

On a “discrete” scouting trip around the area, Garn caught the attention of the orcs, who immediately gave chase. The little gnome ran for his life. Hearing the commotion, Vallin and Loïc took positions among the trees to each side of the trail. As Garn ran by with his pursuers a few yards behind, the Erenlander and the Dorn emerged from cover and silently dispatched two of the orcs. The other two, not noticing what had befallen their companions, continued to pursue Garn over a half-mile distance, back to the bridge over the strange mire. Nearing exhaustion, Garn scrambled across the first span of the bridge. When the two orcs followed, the sabotaged span abruptly dumped them into the mire. Vallin and Loïc appeared as the orcs struggled to free themselves from the waist-deep muck. The two humans fought their foes from the edge of the mire, while Garn peppered them with sling stones from a distance. At last, the gnome and freemen took the lives of their enemies—but the final swing of the orc sergeant’s vardatch knocked Vallin into unconsciousness. Garn and Loïc desperately tried to save their companion’s life. Their skills and collaboration enabled him to regain consciousness—just barely.

As the trio trudged backed toward the cave, they heard Drugan Deem coming down the trail, looking for his legionnaires. Fortune smiled upon you, and like the orcs, the legate paid for his sins with a violent death. After looting their bodies, and in accordance with local folklore, you beheaded the legate and his troopers, to prevent them from rising as Fell… and then, you dragged their corpses into the mire.

A careful search of the Tearfall Caverns revealed the concealed contraband chamber. The contents of the chests included a small cache of daggers, shortswords, light maces, spears, light crossbows and bolts, as well as some bundles of clothes, including three sets of good quality boots and cloaks. The chamber also contained a few barrels of preserved food.

A more thorough search of the cave complex revealed a narrow passage that only Garn could comfortably navigate. This passage opened onto a small chamber containing a crystal clear pool, which Garn soon discovered was home to a water spirit. After ascertaining that the gnome was not a threat, the spirit allowed Garn to collect some water from the pool, which had minor healing properties. It explained haltingly in the Traders’ Tongue that it believed that one of the Shadow’s demonic servants (an astirax) had entered its cave recently. The spirit killed the wolf in whose guise it believed the demon walked, but it feared that agents of the Shadow would return, and therefore asked that you hide the access to its chamber.

After doing the spirit’s bidding, you settled in the contraband chamber, hoping for a restful night’s sleep in the dark and extremely humid cavern… contemplating what to do now that you have the blood of a legate and four orc soldiers on your hands…
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« Reply #4 on: June 10, 2009, 04:08:27 PM »

Episode 2: Mysterious Emissaries
 
While returning from their impromptu mission to the Tearfall Caverns east of the village of Koln that led to the brutal slaying of a legate and four orc soldiers, Garn, Loic and Vallin were caught off guard by the blades of an unlikely second party lurking in the trees off the trail: Wendell Gale, a self-important gnomish trader; Klot, an uncanny-looking Erenlander with what you would consider to be a perfect blend of Sarcosan and Dornish traits, who claimed he was a soldier that had deserted from the Shadow’s ranks, and who still bore an army-issued breastplate; and three hooded, woodland fey -- the mysterious Lady Rhiann and her quiet companions, the gaunt and serene-faced Eirinn, and the mercurial, white-haired Bayal.

The meeting was a fateful one: both Loic and Garn had come to Koln with the intention of meeting with Wendell, and Vallin likewise was looking for work of an unspecified nature… by joining with the trader’s mysterious party, the three would also be putting some distance between themselves, Koln, and the Shadow troops that would soon scour the hills in search of the missing legate and his orc soldiers, and of those who may have played a role in their disappearance. The entire village likely would pay the price for the disappearance of the legate and his retinue… but what was done was done, said Wendell, and there was nothing you could do now to save Koln. And besides, a higher purpose awaited you, and he had need of your extra muscle… He assured Loic that he had the time to conclude his business with his grandfather, and that Jorg would be long gone from Koln by the time the Shadow’s reinforcements arrive.

After the lady Rhiann performed some sort of ritual at the Tearfall Caverns with the water spirit that Garn had encountered therein, she identified the cloaks that both Vallin and Loic had acquired from the contraband chamber, as well as the boots that the latter had scavenged, as having been crafted by her people. The cloaks would help conceal those who wore them when their hoods were drawn, and the boots would confer increased agility upon their wearer.

The party set over the pass in miserable, rainy conditions. Wendell explained that he was guiding the elven emissaries to the old gnomish trading post at Kurgun Falls, in the Kaladrun Mountains, and that from there they would be escorted to the dwarven settlement of Durgis Rock for a meeting with the clan’s Dorith. Wendell was quite excited about the mission – he claimed that it had been more than two centuries since gnomes had been to Kurgun Falls; it likely would have been longer since elves had had any dealings with dwarves. “Something important” was bound to happen…

While the trading post at Kurgun Falls was on the banks of the Carina River, going upriver by barge during the current period of high runoff was impossible, and it would be foolish to follow the stretch of river that winds through the open plains and into the mountains. The route the party was following would reduce the likelihood of being observed by Shadow forces. A few days walk would lead the party to a natural bridge over the Carina River, which would connect with the old gnomish caravan route that some traders used to follow when the river was too high to penetrate deeper into the mountains. Given the lack of river traffic and the route’s remoteness from current Shadow strongholds and primary targets, Wendell expected the journey to be safe… relatively speaking…

Finding a dry path across the flooded lowlands beyond the pass was nearly impossible. The group moved as cautiously as possible, but sometimes had to backtrack as they encountered natural obstacles. As a long day full of exertion wearied the party, a submerged, heavily carapaced, scorpion-like bog creature lashed out from a pond with two long barbed tendrils that wrapped around Bayal, and threatened to pull him under. The white-haired elf struggled to free himself, as the rest of the party fought the beast off, eventually slaying it.

That evening, you made camp on a peninsula of dry land, and stole your first glimpses of the lady Rhiann’s unsettling facial features – her sinister, all black eyes made more than one of you shiver with discomfort. The lady also manifested sorcerous powers as she healed Garn, Vallin and Bayal of their wounds. Rather than eating rations with you, the fey kept to themselves, drinking only an odd-smelling brew in small silver cups that they heated without fire on flat black stones.

The night and following day passed mostly without incident. The weather improved, and the sun even poked through the overcast skies on occasion. Klot ranged higher on a nearby ridge, keeping an eye out for signs of pursuit, but finding none. Late in the afternoon, however, you stumbled across some worrisome signs: the criss-crossing tracks of some unfamiliar predator with large paws resembling those of some oversized feline or perhaps even hound; and the remains of some apparently long dead, club wielding giant. The animal tracks stalked past the skeleton towards the east, in the same direction you were headed. Not far beyond the remains, a knoll arose from the lowlands, atop which you spied the ruins of some ancient structure.

You cautiously investigated the site, noting that there were no bones or other signs that the ruins might be the lair of the predator whose tracks you had observed… but the tracks did explore the area before moving on further east. While the upper stories of the structure were ruined, the ground floor was relatively well-sheltered from the elements. Some wall sections had crumbled, but at least the ceiling overhead was intact. The structure was well-positioned defensively – it stood 50 feet or so above the surrounding lands, and one side of the hillock consisted of a sheer, thirty foot rock face. A cursory search revealed a badly rusted greatsword, perhaps of Dornish origin, and the weeks old ashes of a burnt out fire, but little else. In the distance, through an opening in the ridge to the south, you could see a river… the Carina River, you assumed.

As dusk neared, you decided that this would be as safe a spot as any in which to set camp for the night, and so began to make preparations accordingly…
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« Reply #5 on: June 10, 2009, 04:09:32 PM »

Episode 3: Journey to Kurgun Falls
 
As the party prepared to establish camp in the ruined tower, the lady Rhiann entered some kind of mystical trance. Palms held out before her and eyes closed, she hummed to herself in an incomprehensible tongue. A chill wind picked up, blowing dark clouds in from the west. The lady began to make a slow circle where she stood, until she finally declared that she had not sensed the presence of any astiraxes nearby.

It was another awkward evening spent in mixed company – strangers among strangers. Eirinn, who like his white-haired and pale-skinned companion, was a fey of few words (though one of an admittedly less mercurial disposition than Bayal), counselled the humans in the party against making a fire. The fey again ate amongst and kept to themselves throughout the evening, once more heating their pungent broth in small silver cups on a flat obsidian stone, and then reluctantly placed the stone in a location that would enable it to spread its warmth to their human and gnomish companions. This black stone truly was an intriguing artefact – it was no bigger than the palm of an adult human’s hand, yet radiated as much heat as a wood fire, without giving off light. Vallin and Loic said little to anyone, and Wendell prattled on when his prattle was least wanted.

In the wee hours of the night, a blood-curdling baying shattered the night, followed by an indescribable and equally terrifying shriek… whether the source was humanoid, animal or other, you could not tell. But you were sure that a predator was on the hunt. The party, now fully awakened, waited with baited breath and readied weapons. Klot scanned the darkness with his keen eyes, and Garn took up a defensive position with a lantern in the crumbled upper story of the tower. An eternity seemed to pass by, with nothing breaking the silence, or stepping out from the shadows. Yet eventually, the lady Rhiann sensed an evil presence nearing the tower. Klot, Garn and the others still saw nothing. Fearing that the party was now completely at the mercy of a creature of shadow, the lady risked using some of her sorcerous powers to conjure a dome that would enable all within to see beyond its limits, while making all light within invisible to those outside. She also conjured light from nothingness, which should have allowed all to see the unseen foe if it entered the dome’s area. No sooner had the elf maid done so, than a pair of glowing red eyes appeared near the entrance to the tower. The form of the creature was unrecognizable—it seemed to merge completely with the surrounding darkness, and sniffed hesitantly. Garn loosed a stone from his sling, and Bayal fired two arrows in rapid succession through the dome, all of which seemed to have struck their target. The creature howled and fled… but when the dawn came at last, with a murder of raucous crows, no traces of blood could be found… nor could the elf’s arrows.

Within an hour of their departure from the tower, the group had reached the banks of the Carina River and by mid-day, the natural bridge. By the time the landmark has been reached, Wendell could not help but extol his superior knowledge and guiding skills. The river was high and swift, at least 50’ wide in most places, with clusters of large rocks breaking its surface. The bridge was nearly 30’ high, and on the opposite bank were the ruins of what appeared to be a circular stone hut.

Klot lead the way to the other side, but halfway across the bridge, a pack of snarling, emaciated dog-like rodents emerged from the ruins and charged to meet the party. The one-time Shadow soldier would have been overwhelmed by the beasts on the precarious high ground had Loic and Vallin not stepped forward to aid him, and had Bayal, Eirinn and even Wendell not been swift and accurate with their bows and crossbows. In the aftermath of the battle, Garn began to mutter to the humans that the elves seemed to be exceptionally skilled—they rarely seemed to miss, even when firing multiple arrows with nary a pause between shots. If the lady’s bodyguards were as exceptional as they seemed, then what purpose did Garn, Loic, Vallin and Klot serve on this quest?

The ruined hut on the far side of the river once was a gnomish way-station, which recently had become a den for the beats that had just attacked the party—“orts,” Wendell called them. Signs of humanoid squatting were also apparent, though much older. Klot could not help but start a fire and feast on the carcass of one of the emaciated, overgrown rodents. No one else joined him… and no one else suffered the intestinal discomfort that he did during the following days.

The party followed the old caravan track that went east from the ruined way-station, switchbacking away from the river on increasingly steep hillsides, weaving in and out of coniferous woodland patches, and then eventually meeting up with the Carina again at regular intervals. Aside from the strenuous climbing in high altitude terrain to which none of the party members were accustomed, Klot’s bowel troubles, and a surprise encounter between Garn and a grizzly bear that fortunately did not result in the mauling of a gnome, the journey to Kurgun Falls was surprisingly uneventful. The fey, however, seemed to grow increasingly glum, restless, and perhaps even fearful as the mountain walls loomed ever higher.

On the afternoon of the third day since leaving the ruined tower in the flooded lowlands, the party reached Kurgun Falls. Although the old trading post was in ruins, its location was quite spectacular. It was situated on the edge of a deep natural pool into which tumbled a 60’ high waterfall, and out of which flowed the Carina River. The waterfall drowned out anything but the loudest conversation, and created a perpetual mist in the area. Two stone barge quays still extended into the pool. High cliffs and bramble-covered escarpments surrounded the ruins on all sides. A 30-foot stone bridge, its dwarven stonework weathered and untended, stretched across the mouth of the river.

The ruins themselves consisted of a circular two-story trading hall, and the derelict foundation walls of two other structures. While exploring the ruins, Garn, Loic and Vallin discovered a secret passage that connects the basement of one ruined structure to the basement of the old trading hall; both sub-structures revealed the presence of humanoid squatters at some point in the past, but nothing recent.

Wendell had mentioned that mountain fey guides from Clan Durgis would meet the party at Kurgun Falls and lead it to Durgis Rock—but no one was there when the group arrived, nor did the group’s investigations suggest that anyone had been at the ruined trading post recently.

The first night at the trading post was uneventful, and the second day, the party did what they could to keep busy. Late in the afternoon, Garn decided to go hunting by himself, and scrambled up a densely vegetated ridge. While crawling through the undergrowth, out of sight of his companions, he found his nose up against a pair of feet – feet that belonged to a mace-wielding, bearded, grey-skinned and particularly hairy being with pronounced orcish features. The gnome fled in terror and screamed at the top of his lungs, fearing that he was either about to be butchered by an orc, or devoured by a Fell dwarf… but was then intercepted by a pale and somewhat pudgy mountain fey with a battle axe. The dwarf, who was called Dunk, and his unsightly, grey-skinned associate, whom Dunk referred to as Runt (even though he was taller than Dunk), proceeded to interrogate Garn to the best of their ability in Trader’s pidgin, and then tied him up to a tree. Who was he? Who were the others that had set up camp among the ruins? Something was not right… the gnome’s bluff was unconvincing, there were too many people there… quite probably Shadow collaborators.

Eirinn and Klot, believing they had heard the gnome scream above the din of the waterfall, went in search of their ally, enlisting Vallin along the way. The trio ended up confronting Dunk and Runt. Vallin nearly killed Runt with his fists, and Dunk struck Klot unconscious with his battle axe, as Eirinn and Garn (who managed to free himself from his bonds) intervened and sought to separate the combatants. Woodland and mountain fey gazed upon one another at last and reluctantly lowered their weapons.

Back at the trading hall, Rhiann introduced the party to Dunkin the Far Tracker and Runt (whose real name, it turns out, was Vargus). It was an historic meeting – the gnomes and humans had never laid eyes on dwarves or elves prior to this journey, nor had mountain and woodland fey met since early in the Third Age. To the dismay of the gnomes and humans in the group, much of the conversation between the lady and the mountain fey occurred in Old Dwarven. The dwarves were also taken aback by the lady’s sinister eyes. Snippets of conversation revealed that Dunkin seemed quite concerned with the size and composition of the group—he and Runt had been sent by their Dorith, Woden, to escort three elves to Durgis Rock, not these others… one of whom bore the arms and armour of a Shadow soldier. Yet when Garn offered to Dunk the two bracelets that he, Vallin and Loic had scavenged from the Fell dwarves that attacked them a week ago, and explained how they came by them, Dunkin appeared quite moved, but also saddened.

Given how late it was in the day when the meeting occurred, and the particularly bad state in which Klot and Vargus found themselves, the group had no choice but to spend another night in the ruined trading hall. The journey to Durgis Rock would take at least another three days and some of walking. Tension and suspicion remained throughout the night… The elves slept upstairs, away from the others… The gnomes and humans eyed the orc-blooded dwarf with apprehension when they would wake from sleep or stand watch (Vallin and Vargus exchanging equally resentful looks), Dunkin stole glances of the newcomers with as much suspicion, and everyone seemed to wonder about the allegiance of the Shadow deserter who slumbered in their midst.

As dawn crept closer, Eirinn roused you from sleep, hissing dreaded words above the din of the waterfall in his heavily accented Trader’s pidgin… “Trouble…”
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« Reply #6 on: June 10, 2009, 04:10:33 PM »

Episode 4 - The Fall of Durgis Rock
 
A dull thunder boomed above the roar of Kurgun Falls, too regular to come from storm clouds. A barely audible chatter accompanied the booming. The party promptly roused itself from sleep, preparing for the worst. Eirinn, the lady Rhiann, and then Bayal came down from the second story of the hall, while Loic peered out the gaping entranceway to the ruined trading hall in which the group had spent the night. In the dim and misty grey light of the dawn, the Dorn could make out the silhouettes of a dozen gnome-sized creatures carrying shields and brandishing javelins and blunt weapons, shoving each other back and forth as they crossed over the bridge in chaotic fashion, followed by some monstrous goliath that was more than twice the height of a man and at least twice as wide. The ground shook whenever the giant took one of its slow, measured steps. Vallin flanked the opposite side of the entranceway, as Loic ordered everyone to escape via the secret tunnels beneath the hall and into the basement of the adjacent ruins. The three elves complied, followed by Wendell and Vargus. In his stubborn dwarven pride, Dunkin chose to stand his ground on the main level, while Garn took cover on the upper floor, sling at the ready.

As the party members either readied their positions or fled into the cellar, the great goliath trod too heavily on the weakened section of the old bridge, which crumbled and sent the monster tumbling with a mighty splash into the Carina river, causing chaos and confusion among the goblins that led it. While the goblins peered down from the river bank at the fallen goliath and squabbled amongst themselves, Klot casually walked passed an alarmed Loic through the entrance and out onto the hall’s front step, calling out to the goblins in the Black Tongue. The goblins turned and prepared their javelins, wide-eyed and clearly not expecting anyone to have been in the ruins, yet refrained from skewering the human warrior.

A tense dialogue ensued between Klot and the goblin leader, Loic and Vallin standing tensely in the shadows to either side of the former solider of Shadow, the former not comprehending the dialogue in the Black Tongue and worried that their companion was about to betray them. Vallin joined the others in the cellar, leaving Loic and Dunkin (and Garn, above) to witness the exchange between Klot and the goblins, with the Dorn discretely placing the blade of his vardatch against the back of Klot’s neck.

While the discussion went on, the gigantic monster eventually pulled itself from the river bank, to the joy of its goblin masters. The goliath was made entirely of stone, with arms and legs as thick as tree trunks, a massive torso, and vaguely humanoid features carved out of its head block. Fortunately, as the Stone That Walked emerged from the riverbed, the goblins seemed to relent. Rather than seeking shelter in their Hall, they accepted Klot’s authority as a soldier of Shadow on a “secret mission,” and went to seek shelter from the rising sun in the chamber beneath the adjacent ruins. In the nick of time, Garn raced down and called those who had escaped via the secret passage back into the cellars of the main hall, just in time to avoid a confrontation with the goblins.

As the goblins marched out of sight, the tension between Loic and Klot erupted, the two on the verge of getting into a fist fight. Wendell put on his captain’s hat and ordered them to stop, just as some of the goblins approached the hall again. Their leader asked if they should post sentries, but the request was denied by Klot. They did, however, leave the stone goliath to guard the bridge, back turned to the hall. While the party had avoided conflict for the time being, a successful escape was by no means assured.

Klot disclosed to the others that during the exchange with the goblins, he had learned that the latter had been called to contribute to a siege against Durgis Rock—the destination of the party and the home of Dunkin and Vargus. There was no time to waste—the residents of Durgis Rock had to be warned—but how would the party get past the stone sentinel? Had it been ordered to attack all that approached it, or merely those that approached from the opposite side of the river? Did it have specific instructions to attack fey or all insurgents?

After waiting for an hour to ensure that the goblins would not resurface, Klot took a chance (at Wendell’s urging) and cautiously approached the immobile goliath from behind, then leaped over the gap in the damaged bridge before the monster. It did not react. One by one, the other party members also took their chances without awakening the creature, and safely escaped Kurgun Falls.

Over the next three days, in order to reach Durgis Rock before the Shadow forces, the party set a gruelling pace and force marched much of the distance through increasingly difficult mountain terrain. Garn passed out from overexertion on multiple occasions, and others also nearly succumbed to exhaustion. Yet despite their best efforts and the good time they initially made, the party experienced an unexpected delay as a result of a rock slide that had buried the most direct route to the town. Dunkin found a detour, but the more circuitous route brought the group to Durgis Rock in the evening, and too late to warn the residents. Shadow forces had already assaulted the village.

Contrary to what the humans might have expected, the dwarven town was built on the surface, in the heart of a maze of crags from which was cut the formidable, 30 foot high wall that surrounded it. A large, sealed gate was set in the south wall; another, smaller one in the northeast corner seemed to have collapsed. A stream passed underneath the wall and bisected the village. At the north end, carved out of a towering cliff, were the battlements of a massive keep, the likes of which no one in the party had ever seen before. Yet the lowlanders had no time to appreciate the beauty of these fortifications, for the tragedy that had befallen the town captivated their attention. Bonfires had been lit around Durgis Rock, and the heart-rending wails of women and children carried on the breeze.

Looking like ants from a distance, a dozen (if not more) goblins could be seen gathered in the town centre. Some seemed to be herding and chaining up a small band of survivors, while others were busy piling up loot on three huge travois. Just when it seemed that things could not get worse, they did… three stone goliaths, like the one encountered at Kurgun Falls, walked in succession, maybe a hundred feet or so apart, from the keep to the centre of town and back again, apparently dumping loot from the keep onto the travois, or bodies onto pyres. Dunkin was on the verge of going mad from grief, rage and despair.

As the party pondered what to do next, the lady Rhiann entered a trance, which enabled her to confirm that Woden, the dorith of Durgis Rock, still lived, but just barely. She described a scene that Vargus confirmed was taking place in the Hall of Heroes, within the Great Keep, wherein Woden lay badly wounded among dozens of dead orcs and dwarves, while a squad of orcs looted the chamber. She declared that Woden must be saved at all cost, cryptically indicating that the elves had waited years to meet with the dorith, and that the meeting was crucial to the war effort against the Shadow. The lady Rhiann proposed to create a diversion with Eirinn and Bayal, which would enable the rest of the party to enter the Great Keep and rescue Woden, without risk of being confronted by the Stones that Walked or goblin reinforcements. All agreed, and Vargus and Dunkin led the party to a “marmot hole,” a secret tunnel frequently used during play by dwarven children, which led into the town’s underground and also connected to the cellars of the Great Keep.

Once inside, the party raced up numerous flights of stairs and passed through numerous corridors and junctions, the wide, stone corridors lit by torches in wall sconces, spaced every 30’ or so. Carnage greeted the adventurers everywhere – scores of heavily armed and armoured dwarves and orcs had fallen atop one another, grimaces of pain and hatred permanently etched into their lifeless faces. The flagstone floors were slippery with blood, and the walls were stained black and red. The sickly sent of death pervaded the air. Everywhere they looked, Vargus and Dunk recognized the faces of close friends who had fought valiantly to save their little community, to the bitter end. Some of them were just barely recognizable, their bodies badly maimed or mutilated, faces scarred, skulls crushed or cleaved.

At last, the party burst into the Hall of Heroes, finding it much as Rhiann had described -- dwarf and orc corpses were piled high everywhere. The circular chamber was wide and supported by massive stone columns, making it difficult to see far into the smoky haze. One orc, his codpiece unbuckled, was urinating on the bodies of his dwarven enemies, while others were looting corpses, or throwing the treasures of the hall into piles.

A furious battle ensued. Seizing the element of surprise, Vallin charged the urinating orc, but slipped in a puddle of blood and lost his balance, giving his opponent an opportunity to elude his strike. The startled orc turned and sent a burning, pungent urine stream into the Erenlander’s face, fumbling to put his appendage away while drawing his vardatch. Garn and Vargus stepped in to assist Vallin, while Loic, Klot and Dunk engaged enemies on their own. As Vallin’s foe was dispatched, others emerged from the haze. The orc confronting Loic drew first blood and seemed close to taking the Dorn’s life, when Vargus emerged from behind and caved the foe’s head in with his mace. Nearby, Dunk and his much taller adversary were locked in a battle of wills, neither getting a blow in, nor gaining the advantage over the other. Klot made short work of his first opponent. Wendell guarded the entrance and kept watch with crossbow in hand, lest reinforcements surprise the party from behind.

Garn then heroically attempted to sling an orc to death, which only drew the ire of the heavily armoured warrior. The orc closed the distance with the gnome, swung his vardatch at the diminutive rogue, sending him crashing head first into a nearby column and sprawling to the ground, apparently lifeless. Klot intervened too late to shield the gnome, but promptly killed his assailant, and then two other nearby orcs, single-handedly with precise strikes. Vargus and Loic provided enough of a distraction to enable Dunkin to finally get the upper hand on his enemy.

Come the end of the battle, eight orcs had been slain by the party, with no loss of life on their side. Garn, they were happy to discover, had been knocked into unconsciousness and now sported a sizeable goose egg on his head, but his wounds were otherwise relatively superficial.

Vargus and Dunk eventually found the body of Woden among the fallen, pierced by four javelins, with no less than a dozen orc corpses laying around him in a ring. As Vargus approached, the dorith blindly and instinctively lashed out with his battle axe, narrowly missing the dworg’s legs. Recognizing Vargus and Dunkin at last, the dwarven leader let down his guard, and with his dying breath, exchanged words with his subjects that could not be understood by the others. Woden thrust an ornate, blood-stained scroll case into one of Vargus’s hands, and his mithril battle axe into his other hand, and to those watching the scene from afar, it seemed as though he was demanding an oath from the dworg… and once he received assurances from the latter, then breathed his last…

Meanwhile, the others searched for other survivors among the fallen dwarves, but found none. Loic recovered a pair of bloody urutuk hatchets, and heard the voice of Rhiann in his mind, stating that the tide was turning against the elves, that they could not hold off their foes much longer… calling the party to their aid, if they were in a position to give it.

The group rushed out of the Keep in search of the embattled elves, leaving Wendell behind to look after the still unconscious Garn. Only the glow of bonfires illuminated the unfamiliar streets of the dwarven settlement. The relative silence in the streets—no clashing of steel, rumbling of Stones That Walk, or goblin chatter—suggested that the battle was already over. To their surprise, the party found the Stones That Walk now inanimate—whether due to the loss of their handlers, or by sorcery, they could not be certain. One still stood but was missing an arm, and several large chunks had been taken out of its body. The other two lay on the ground – one having crushed Eirinn beneath its mass. To your astonishment, a handful of arrows protruded from the figures of two of the stone goliaths. Bayal’s body was found a little bit further away—his body a broken mess, laying at the base of a bloody smear down the face of a stone wall. Rhiann, being cared for by a dwarven woman, smiled wanly as the party approached, assuring them that “there is nothing to be done.” In the shadows cast by the flickering bonfire light, other freed dwarven women stalked about, slitting the throats of sprawling, motionless goblins.

Rhiann explained that she had expended far too much of her powers during the diversion—so much that she would now pay for it with her life, and that these last few moments she had, had been granted only by the will of Aradil. She implored the party to promise that they would take Woden’s gift to Aradil… that the resistance against the Shadow depended on it. As she begged the party to undertake the quest, she began to tremble and her voice suddenly changed, becoming deeper, huskier, with a palpable air of antiquity and wisdom. The voice was calmer, and resonated in the minds of those listening. “Bring the case to Caradul… bring the case to me,” implored the voice. Klot vowed to do so, and solemnly thanked Rhiann for having shown him the way from shadow into light. She smiled on him, and as she drew her last breath, her sinister all-black eyes slowly cleared to a natural, beautiful green…

The dwarven woman who had looked after Rhiann informed Vargus and Dunkin that there was a strange man among the invaders—he seemed human—and he seemed to have authority over the orcs. He was furious that the “elven spies” were not in the village and demanded that the orcs “find them at once or suffer the Shadow’s wrath.” He rode off on a great black horse, accompanied by two massive wolves, just before the main force departed. Dunkin began to curse the “bastard elves” for having brought death and misery to Durgis Rock…

Night had fallen among the ruins of the dwarven town. A few survivors remained, all women and children it seemed, and the settlement was littered with the corpses of dead orcs, dwarves and goblins. Garn still lay unconscious back in the Great Keep, and the party was exhausted from the recent battle and three days of forced marching through difficult mountain terrain.

The party now had to determine what to do next…
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« Reply #7 on: June 10, 2009, 04:11:41 PM »

Episode 5: The High Cost of Victory
 
The party worked hard into the night to dispose of the corpses of the dead—orcs, dwarves, goblins and elves alike—in as efficient (and respectful, in the case of the dwarves and elves) a way they could. The goblins had begun the grisly work before the party crept into Durgis Rock, but hundreds of more dead still lay scattered in the streets, as well as in the Great Keep… and perhaps even out of sight. Loic’s pile of severed orc and goblin heads--some with lolling, swollen tongues, or with eyes rolled back into their heads, or with teeth knocked out or noses caved in—kept rising higher, until it was taller than a man. As the pile grew, heads rolled down and off, as if attempting to flee the charnel mound… Occasionally, the bloody-faced Dorn paused in his work, examining the chain shirts on the odd human or dworg body (who, by their garb and weapons, clearly fought alongside the mountainfolk). Loic also noticed that the orcs had peculiar, strangely-shaped cuts, going up their arms.

Stripping of their armour the dead dwarves and their allies, so that they would burn more easily, took much more effort… and after a while, Dunkin gave up, and started severing their heads as well, keeping them well away from Loic’s pile.

At times, Klot, Vallin and Vargus wondered if they weren’t losing their minds -- wasn’t another corpse there, just a moment ago, or did they just see something dart away, out of the corner of their eye??? But then again, they had seen so many bodies that they had lost count, and their frayed nerves and the shadows cast by the flickering firelight may very well have been playing tricks on them… there was no way to know for sure… The hope of finding any other dwarven survivors quickly faded… and as Vallin overheard the name “Grulg Dwarf-Crusher” whispered by the few surviving dwarven women, he howled in agony, beating orcish corpses to a pulp with his fists, until at last he withdrew on his own to the now-cleared Hall of Heroes.

The humans in the party deduced one thing quickly… Every man, woman and child, and even the elderly (who appear to have been quite numerous in Durgis Rock), did their best to fight the invaders, for all of the dead, without exception, had weapons in hand. There were too few of them to properly defend the massive walls, and they likely were caught by surprise. For all the worrisome tales the humans had heard concerning dwarven habits, there also appeared to be truth to the tales they had heard of dwarven pride, courage and loyalty, even in the face of overwhelming odds. This level of unity and active defiance was, in their experience, unheard of in human settlements. (And contrary to what was murmured in human settlements, the dwarven women were not bearded… and some were even quite pretty, in their own way).

The flickering fire light confirmed that the stone goliaths did a thorough job of knocking down or punching holes through the walls of residential dwellings; they also demolished the gates to the keep.

It was a cold starless night, so cold that one’s breath could be seen upon exhalation. The night was at its darkest by the time Loic, Vargus and Dunkin had finished their ghastly work, and by then, exhaustion had begun to take over their weary limbs… But their survival thus far, the horrors they had witnessed, and the quest that had been entrusted had also given them a boost in confidence, and something of a second wind. Late in the night, under Wendell’s ministrations, Garn also regained consciousness, a massive goose egg rising from the crown of his head…

The refugees and the party sought shelter for the night in the Great Keep. In the aftermath of the fall of Durgis Rock, a rift seemed to have developed between Dunkin, on the one hand, and the party, on the other. Even Vargus, with whom it appeared Dunkin had been on great terms, was now shunned by the dwarf. Dunkin remained with the refugees in a secluded chamber in the keep, and insisted that everyone else keep their distance. While tension mounted between the dwarven tracker and the party, the coolness between Loic and Klot seemed to thaw, Loic offering Klot the long sword he had previously taken from the murdered legate, near Koln, in acknowledgement for the warrior’s skill and bravery during the battle in the Hall of Heroes.

Late in the night, as Vargus was about to relive Klot on watch on the battlements of the Great Keep, one of the silhouettes the former Shadow warrior had spied skulking in the darkness finally stepped forth, and called out in a language the ex-soldier could not understand. Vargus immediately ran down and out of the keep to meet the figure, Loic leaving his post by the gaping entrance to the keep to provide back-up for the dworg, while Klot kept a watchful eye from above.

Leaning against the wall of one of the structures facing the plaza that is overlooked by the Great Keep, was one of Vargus’s friends—a warrior by the name of Agal. The dwarf had an urutuk in hand, and had suffered a head injury that left half his face and beard matted in black blood. A brief conversation in dwarven took place, and at its conclusion, Vargus and Loic led a limping Agal back into the keep. The dworg guided the wounded warrior towards the chamber wherein he might find his son, Heland, with Dunkin and the other refugees.

As Loic returned to his post and Vargus began to ascend the stairs that would lead back to the upper levels of the keep, they heard screams that caused them to rush back to the refugee chamber. Inside, they found an upset Agal yelling in his mother tongue and gesticulating wildly, waving his urutuk threateningly as the women and Dunkin tried to protect a young dwarven boy from the angry warrior. Only Vargus could make some sense of the scene. The dworg tried to get some answers and to calm everyone down. Yet as Dunkin stepped in front of the boy and pulled him aside, Agal struck the tracker from behind.

By then, Vallin had also reached the chamber. Seeing only an apparently mad dwarven warrior terrorizing the refugees and now attacking those who would shield a young boy from him, and not understanding a word that was being said around them, Loic and Vallin both intervened. Vargus remained bewildered, uncertain what to do, and unwilling to harm his friend. He thought he overheard some of the women saying that Agal should have been dead, given the weight of the wall they had seen a Stone That Walks bury him under. The mad dwarf retaliated against Vallin, narrowly missing him, but then Loic skewered their enraged foe on the halberd the Dorn now wielded, killing him.

The boy—who was Agal’s son, Heland—claimed that although the mad warrior looked like his father, he was certain that it was not him. Those who examined the slain dwarf then noticed that no blood dripped out of the massive wound that Loic had torn in his mid-section. How could this be? Could Agal have become one of the Fell? But he spoke… and Fell were not known to speak… or did they??? As everyone gradually recovered from the shock of what they had witnessed, and considered implications, Vargus shouldered his old friend’s corpse, and brought it to one of the pyres near the Keep, escorted at a distance by Vallin.

The remainder of the short night was fraught, for those not on watch, with restless dreams filled with orcs, goblins, Fell and stone walkers. As a blood-red sun finally pierced the dark clouds above the eastern peaks, casting its rays on a still frigid landscape, Dunkin and the refugees were already hard at work, organizing the provisions they had scavenged in preparation for their journey towards a hopefully safer haven. When Vargus asked, on behalf of the party, if there was sufficient food and supplies for the latter as well, the tracker advanced menacingly and spat on the ground, and, in Trader’s pidgin, warned the dworg and the others to keep their distance, for they were “evil” and “cursed.” The women, all armed, spoke not a word, but looked at the exchange between the party and Dunkin with alarm (and some with regret), then looked away, trying to distract the children from the scene as they helped them pack their provisions. If anything, Dunkin’s animosity towards Vargus in particular seemed to have intensified during the course of the night.

By early morning, the refugees were ready to depart Durgis Rock. All of them, down to the youngest child, carried backpacks and weapons. They marched out in orderly fashion, with Dunkin standing at the rear of the column for the time being. One youth (which Vargus recognized as Delel, the lad with whom he used to play “marmot hole”), who had been completely withdrawn until now, stepped out of line and called out Vargus’s name, scanning the ruins for the dworg. Dunkin quickly shepherded the youth back into the line, near one of the women (that Vargus recognized as Nurifra, his “adoptive” sister). The tracker glared one last time in the party’s direction (his glare lingering on Vargus), then jogged towards the front of the column as the refugees cleared the battered northeast gate…

Vargus, Vallin, Loic and the gnomes spent a few hours scavenging among the ruins for food, locating 15 man-days worth of rations. In the meantime, Klot stood watch on the trail the party had followed to Durgis Rock… seeing only the small column of dwarven refugees, as they faded from view to the northeast.

The party was set on ambushing the goblins and the stone goliath they had encountered at Kurgun Falls—they likely were still on their way to Durgis Rock. The first night out of the dwarven ruins, the party camped at the top of the pass which they had previously climbed in order to bypass the rockslide that had buried the main path. Most of the party, exhausted from the last few days forced marching, battles, lack of sleep, and funerary tasks, fell asleep within moments of setting camp, huddled around the obsidian hearthstone that they had salvaged from Rhiann’s pack (and for which Vallin had fortunately overheard and recalled how to pronounce the activation commands in elvish).

Klot managed to stay awake and keep watch down the south side of the pass. Not much after sundown, the clouds parted, allowing the moon and stars to shed their silvery light over the mountainous landscape. The night breeze carried a dull thunder that boomed like clock-work, accompanied by the sound of animated chattering. The goblins and the stone goliath were coming. Klot awoke his companions, and all took up ambush positions among the boulders that littered the pass.

A party of four panting goblins finally reached the crest of the pass, and began to cautiously scout the area. Klot’s itchy bow-finger released an arrow that missed its mark-- the last goblin to have gained the ridge. Vallin, Loic and Vargus made short work of the three lead goblins, but the fourth fled and alerted his companions of the presence of enemies. The party waited in the dim moonlight, knowing all too well what would gain the pass next…

After an interminable, gut-wrenching and adrenaline-inducing wait, the goliath’s clock-work, thundering steps drew near. The monster was in the lead, its goblin masters hiding behind it, chattering expectantly. At last, the goliath’s head appeared over the sloping edge of the pass, and it stomped obliviously on the body of one of the slain goblin scouts. Two goblins spotted Klot lurking at the base of the cliff to their left, and launched their javelins at him, one of which grazed him lightly.

Garn and Wendell launched stones and crossbow bolts at the goliath, which bounced harmlessly off its hulking form. Vallin boldly broke from cover, and attempted a vain assault from behind on the stone monster. Before he could get close enough, it wheeled around and punched at him, burying its massive fist in the ground and hitting the Erenlander with a blow that almost knocked him senseless as its arm recoiled. A general melee ensued, with Klot engaging the two javelin throwers and Loic, while Vallin tried to manoeuvre in such a way as to attack the goblins that hid behind, and presumably commanded, the stone goliath.

Four goblins fell inexplicably, without having been struck by anything. Some of those still standing started to kick their fallen comrades (one of whom awoke), just as Vallin appeared from the shadows to threaten them. The stone monster turned again and lumbered back towards the goblins, and Vallin... Loic tossed the urutuks he recovered from the Hall of Heroes at the monster’s back, one of which hit its mark and became wedged in a crack in the walking stone’s surface, but did not in anyway seem to affect its victim. Vallin stood his ground heroically, his hatred overcoming his fear… he barely had a chance to scream, as the monster, a black silhouette against the silvery night sky, swung another terrible fist over the heads of the goblins that completely crushed the young man’s skull like an overripe melon, with a sickening crunch. Alarmed by what he had just witnessed, Klot began to fall back, now targetting the towering monster with the bow and arrows he had scavenged from Durgis Rock. To his astonishment, the arrows he drew (from Bayal's quiver) practically seemed to leap in his hand, enabling him to fire with great speed.

Loic, squeezed between a pair of boulders, where moments before he had slain another goblin. Enraged, the Dorn tossed the last of his three hatchets at the last goblin standing, that he presumed was the leader. The goblin fell, but the monster still advanced on the wild man, punching at him awkwardly, but with enough strength to badly bruise and take much of the wind out of the Dorn on the recoil. Loic and the gnomes raced around the boulder, trying to lose the stone walker.

Meanwhile, Vargus tried to wake some of the goblins, hoping that some might know how to call off the monster. He implored Klot to speak to them in the Black Tongue, but became exasperated as the bloodthirsty warrior merely went about slaughtering unconscious goblins with glee. Fortunately, Klot did spare one for quick questioning, but when this one suggested in its broken speech that “only two” could command the goliath, Vargus made good on his own threat and took the vermin’s life.

As the insurgents gathered in the darkness near the spot where Vallin had fallen, the Stone That Walked paused for a moment… The survivors took the opportunity to escape down the steep slope that led to the pass, leaving the body of their fallen companion behind.

Shaken and fatigued, they stumbled in the darkness until, a few hours later and fairly certain that they were not being pursued, they reached a spot where two nights prior they had camped while en route to Durgis Rock… and collapsed from exhaustion…


The survivors had been victorious over the goblin squad… but had the price of their “victory” been worth it? What really had been achieved?
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« Reply #8 on: June 10, 2009, 04:13:53 PM »

Episode 6: An Eye for an Axe
 
As the weary party members gnawed disconsolately on their morning rations, huddled in a copse of evergreen trees clustered at the foot of summits that resembled the serrated edges of a titan’s vardatch blade, they engaged in a discussion in the Trader’s Tongue (the only language everyone had in common, to some extent, with Vargus, who often struggled to find his words even with that language). Both he and the increasingly feral-looking Loic, face still stained with dried orc blood and grime, argued for a return to the pass to behead the fallen goblins, lest they should rise again as Fell and become an even greater hazard to the party, and also to retrieve the twin urutuk blades that the Dorn had abandoned, which the dworg believed were unique weapons forged from a rare metal known as mithril, and associated with Durgis Clan legends. Given their craftsmanship and history, Vargus and Loic believed the twin blades might have some greater purpose, if not mythic powers. Loic also was unhappy with the state in which the group had left Vallin’s body. After a heated discussion, Wendell, Garn and Klot reluctantly agreed to accompany Loic and Vargus back to the pass.

With the sun veiled by the oppressive clouds, gauging progress was difficult, but it was probably mid-morning by the time the group neared the summit of the pass, lungs and legs burning from the strenuous ascent along grassy and then scree-covered slopes. It was easy to identify the spaces where the stone goliath had trod the night before. As the group cautiously approached the crest of the pass, they spied the mashed, faceless remains of their friend Vallin, still laying where they last saw him, partially pressed into the ground, amidst a handful of goblin corpses, some of them as badly crushed as the fallen Erenlander. Beyond the boulders, the distinctive sounds of battle could be discerned – someone roaring in a guttural tongue with increasing intensity, and the sound of steel on steel, or steel on stone. Vargus quickly determined that whoever was doing the roaring, was doing so in the Durgis dialect.

While Loic and Vargus crept closer to the boulders, Garn and Wendell followed at a distance with their slings and crossbows. Klot, however, strode to the inner stone face that hemmed in the pass, and clambered up among the rocks to get a better view over the area. In the boulder-strewn area in which the party had camped the night before, what appeared to be a lone dwarf was surrounded on all sides by a half-score of stooped, yellowish-skinned goblins. The nearest goblins, who had their backs turned to the party, all had gaping and apparently mortal wounds visible through their worn and patchy leather armour, but the blood from those wounds seemed to have dried. Most of them had small javelins in hand, with which they taunted their opponent, as well as wooden bucklers. Their normally animated chatter was subdued; they responded to their foe’s challenges with feeble gurgling and sucking sounds.  Once in a while, the goblins’ prey could be glimpsed – the swing of a heavy axe, and the flash of a braided, fiery orange beard and short mohawk.  The stone goliath loomed over the battlefield a short distance away, apparently inanimate.

As two goblins hurled their javelins at the dwarf, Loic and Vargus charged into the fray, surprising their opponents from behind. Loic hurled his urutuk, sending one Fell goblin back to the realm of the dead. A tangled melee ensued, Loic, Vargus and the mysterious dwarf struggling against three times their number of foes, while Klot, Garn and Wendell peppered the battle field with missiles from their respective positions. At the height of the battle, three of the undead monstrosities simultaneously tried to overbear the dwarf, sinking their jagged teeth into his flesh. Another pair flanked Vargus, who repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to both of his flanking assailants simultaneously with mace and shield. Garn and Wendell occasionally managed to wound some of the goblins, who seemed to have become much stronger and more vicious in undeath than they were in life, but most of the gnomes’ shots missed their targets. Midway through the fight, Klot reaffirmed that he had only agreed to return to the pass in order to bury Vallin and to recover the heirloom urutuks, not to save a mysterious stranger from goblin Fell, and therefore decided that the present battle constituted a needless risk and a waste of arrows. Seeing that no other foes were making their way up the pass, the warrior scrambled down form his perch, and started piling stones on Vallin’s body, ignoring Wendell’s furious commands and the plight of Loic and Vargus.

Having at last defeated the last of his opponents, Loic charged to aid the beleaguered dwarf, who still struggled against two goblins. Meanwhile, Garn tumbled past one of Vargus’s enemies, landing in flanking position behind the Fell. As Loic attempted to trip one of the dwarf’s foes, the latter turned and surprised the Dorn with an unexpected attack of such ferocity that it plunged the freeman into unconsciousness. When Garn, Vargus and the dwarf had finally dealt with their own opponents and turned to aid Loic with the last of the abominations, they were horrified to find that the creature, which was practically impossible to slay in its bloodlust as it rent the Dorn’s flesh and flailed about savagely, had already swallowed one of his eyeballs and was trying to suck out the other.

When the monster was finally destroyed, the unconscious and now one-eyed Loic was hanging onto life by a thread. Vargus, manifesting some of his strange powers, began to “reforge” Loic’s badly scarred body. His powers closed some of the Dorn’s surface wounds and helped him regain consciousness… just barely. Just out of sight, Klot continued to pile boulders on Vallin, unperturbed by the near loss of his only other human companion. As Wendell berated Klot for his callous disregard for the lives of his companions, Klot dismissed the gnomish elder’s concerns and argued that it was the other party members who had been reckless and foolish. As all knew, life in Eredane was brutish and short… so why take needless risks?

The bloodied dwarf, who had an odd pair of symbols tattooed on each cheek, tried to take stock of his rescuers, and they of him. The dwarf introduced himself quite proficiently in the Trader’s Tongue as Dag of Durgis Cove. He had travelled from another, more distant settlement to exchange news with the Woden and the residents of Durgis Rock, but found the village reduced to ash and ruin. He had followed the party’s tracks up to the pass, when he was besieged by the goblin Fell. When informed of Woden’s fate, and of the quest that had been handed down by the late leader of Durgis Rock, Dag offered to help the party accomplish the dorith’s dying wishes. While most of the party seemed pleased to have another blade on their side, mistrust and tensions emerged early on between Dag and Klot… which were only intensified by the warrior’s Shadow issued weapons and armour, condescending remarks concerning dwarves, and perceived cowardice in the last battle.

The abandoned pair of mithril urutuks recovered (one from the stone goliath's back) and returned to a still weak and unsteady Loic, the ragtag band again stumbled down to the valley below as the menacing clouds finally unleashed torrential rains. Over the next two days, the party attempted to backtrack to Kurgun Falls, trying to remember landmarks that they might have seen when Dunkin first led them this way, many of them now obscured in the endless rain. The wet weather made the rocky ground slippery, resulting in many cuts and bruises from tumbles, slips and falls along the uneven and overgrown terrain. Had it not been for Dag’s ability to miraculously locate relatively dry wood and kindling in the downpour, and for Vargus’s even more awe-inspiring (if not fear-inspiring) ability to spontaneously ignite that kindling, the party may have been far colder and in worse health by the time they reached Kurgun Falls than they actually were as a result of being constantly soaked to the bone. Loic’s health seemed to hold. While he remained unable to engage in conversation and regularly ran his hand over his one empty eye socket, he still managed to keep up with everyone else. Though Dag attempted to thank him for saving his life, and Wendell sought his forgiveness, the now one-eyed Dorn did not acknowledge either of their words.

At times, the party caught glimpses of silhouettes of four-legged beasts dogging their steps in the rain, or prowling about the small cave in which they sheltered during the second night – wolves, perhaps?

Through sheer determination, skill, perseverance, and not a little bit of luck, the party actually made it back to Kurgun Falls in a little over two days. They then spent two nights at the old trading hall, drying out their clothes, nursing wounds, and attempting to fish and hunt in order to preserve their rations (Vargus speared a few fish from the pool beneath the falls). Fortune smiled upon the heroes – nothing disturbed them as they rested in the trading hall, and the rains gradually tapered off. As they hit the trails again, Vargus reflected that this was the furthest south and west that he had ever travelled.

On the afternoon of the party’s second day out of Kurgun Falls, Klot, who walked in the lead, spotted a trio of human children fishing on the edge of one of the Karina River’s eddy pools. The children caught sight of the warrior before he had a chance to conceal himself, and they fled up a wooded hill to a low ridge. Klot chased them, followed by Dag, Garn and Loic. Klot caught one little boy by the neck, and, threatening harm to the boy if the other children did not stop, he then attempted to “befriend” the. Fearing that the warrior was a Shadow soldier, and that “something bad” would happen if they did not do as they were told, the dirty, raggedly clad children complied nervously. Fortunately, Garn managed to reassure the children, who were eventually persuaded to lead the party to their camp. Approximately thirty gaunt and dirty individuals had set up camp together in a hidden vale beyond the ridge, with only a few ragged tents to shelter them. As the party approached (Vargus staying well behind), a half-score of shabbily clad men brandishing rusty farm tools and sticks, including a few adolescents, rushed to block the heroes’ path, while behind them women gathered their children and prepared to run. While poorly armed and desperate, and still wet from the recent rains, there was no doubt that these miserable folk would defend themselves and their families to their deaths.

Garn and Loic’s efforts convinced the men that the party were free men not allied with the Shadow, but they still eyed Dag, and especially Klot, fearfully. Speaking on behalf of the other refugees, an Erenlander who called himself Severi Daklan confirmed that a few days ago, a legion of Shadow forces burned Koln to the ground, as punishment for the town’s alleged role in aiding the insurgents that had recently murdered a legate and his orc squad in the nearby foothills. Mayor Derryk Grandmill and sherriff Azahn Dowl had both been executed in the public square before the town was razed. When asked whether the trapper the party suspected of having betrayed them, Tanner Hurly, had been slain, Severi believed it likely that the man was indeed dead, but could not be certain. Some villagers had been taken away in chains, and those who were gathered here were the lucky few that had fled the legion. Some of their number had died in the lowlands beyond the high pass near the Tearfall Caverns – some sort of beast had stalked them by night. As the heroes prepared to take their leave, Dag drew a map in the earth for the refugees, describing the way to some trail beyond Kurgun Falls that could lead them to safer ground. The group resumed their journey down the winding path that paralleled the deep and mist-shrouded Carina River gorge, seeing nothing else but the familiar sight of ravens in flight during the remainder of the day, and eventually seeking shelter in the ruins of another abandoned way station.

On the third morning out of Kurgun Falls, Vargus began to observe goral fen, dwarven guidemarks, at irregular and wisely spaced intervals along their route, marks that seemed like nothing but ordinary, meaningless formations in the rock walls of the gorge to the eyes of the gnomes and humans. Vargus believed that these pointed to some sort of dwarven refuge ahead, which Dag suspected may have been made by members of the Cardaal clan, underground clan dwarves with whom the Durgis had lost contact decades ago.

Around midday, Vargus identified a different mark pointing to a rock fall a few hundred feet off the trail, at the foot of the bluff face…
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« Reply #9 on: June 10, 2009, 05:48:09 PM »

holy damn...that's a lot of installments all at once...glad to see the campaign is going so well.

...now just to read all the updates...maybe I'll get some time this weekend...but keep them coming, it's always useful!

Joe
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« Reply #10 on: June 11, 2009, 05:26:50 PM »

Very well written, and very useful! Like the fell dwarf in Durgis Rock, really the way i should be Smiley
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« Reply #11 on: June 11, 2009, 07:29:32 PM »

Very well written, and very useful! Like the fell dwarf in Durgis Rock, really the way i should be Smiley

I'm lucky that I have a decent group of role players, and that scene played out really well (I was especially pleased with the dworg's unwillingness to attack his old friend). A Fell that seemed to be an ordinary, living mortal, and who could actually speak, rrreally got them worried.  Evil
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« Reply #12 on: July 25, 2009, 11:47:29 PM »

EPISODE 7: UNDER THE MOUNTAIN

Vargus, Dag and Garn went in the direction pointed out by the goral fen to the foot of a rock slide in the bluff face, and began to search for an access to the dwarven refuge that should be in the vicinity, while Klot, Wendell and Loic took cover in the woods and kept an eye on the trail. While Vargus and Dag concentrated on the base of the cliff walls, Garn clambered higher up the slide area, and eventually spotted an ort-sized hole opening underneath a boulder, and concealed from the foot of the rock slide by other large rocks. The gnome called his two companions up, and they crawled cautiously inside the hole, which led to a small cave and a natural chimney that led up and deeper into the mountain. Vargus spotted another goral fen (indicating “safe place”) that suggested that climbing the chimney would eventually lead the way to the dwarven refuge, and occasional worked stairs along the way also suggested dwarven workmanship. The tunnel was tight even for a dwarf, but all the more so for humans, orcs or dworgs. Still, Garn, Vargus and Dag decided to explore further, turning back only when, after having scrambled in the dark for hundreds of yards, the tunnel still had no end in sight.

As the three reported back to those who had waited outside, a decision was made to keep following the old gnomish trade route that the party had followed from Koln and into the mountains. The humans were reluctant to crawl in such a narrow passageway, especially when they were not sure of its ultimate destination, how safe the passage would be, how long it was, etc. The thought of going underground was completely unappealing to Klot and Loic, and Wendell also was very reluctant to travel the dark below. Klot openly derided the idea that a safe place could be found anywhere in Eredane, especially underground. He also doubted that the group would be given a warm reception if they did find dwarves in their refuge

The party thus continued down the main track for several hours. It was a warm and generally pleasant day in the otherwise narrow and shadowy river gorge, which helped lighten spirits somewhat... if only temporarily. Late in the afternoon, as the sun dipped behind the bluff face and they neared one of the ruined gnomish way stations they had rested at on their way up, the party caught site of a large group of heavily armoured orcs, some mounted on large beasts, others on foot but accompanied by enormous wolves and ogres, heading in their direction on the trail. Klot and Garn, who were perhaps the most knowledgeable concerning the resources of the Shadow, feared that the wolves might in fact be possessed by magic-sniffing demons that could lead the enemies straight to Vargus (not to mention to the rest of the party, by relying on conventional scent). Hiding off the trail among the rocks and woods therefore was not an option. Despite some clumsiness that resulted in Garn accidentally kicking some large stones down a slope and into the river below with a big splash, the orcs and their beasts seemed to have been too far away to have noticed, and presently seemed unaware of the insurgents. The party fled as fast as they could back to the access to the dwarven refuge, reaching the entrance at night fall.

Dag quickly foraged for some wood and kindling to stuff in his pack, and the party then commenced their climb through the long dark, Garn illuminating the way for Loic and the gnomes with his lantern. The climb seemed endless, and was extremely uncomfortable and even painful for Loic and Klot, who had to crouch much of the way. Just as the passage became so narrow as to be almost impassable to the dworg and humans, it emerged on a narrow ledge which was slippery from a small cascade, and ultimately to a low ring of barely visible dwarven pictographs set into the wall. At that point, the party began to hear spine tingling, guttural screams echoing in the passage behind them. How could the orcs have gotten here so fast? Could they even squeeze through the tunnels? Speculation was pointless – their foes had arrived.

Although neither Vargus nor Dag knew how to reach dwarven, the images depicted in the pictographs reminded them of a children’s nursery rhyme (a rather twisted-sounding nursery rhyme, to those not raised among dwarves):

Orcs from the North,
I swing my axe,
Orcs from the South,
I swing my axe,
Orcs from the East,
I swing my axe,
Orcs from the West,
I swing my axe,
Death comes with them,
I swing my axe.


After thinking about it for a moment, Vargus guessed that if he pressed on each pictograph in the sequence of the nursery rhyme, then the portal would open. He did so, and, after a brief silence broken only by the din of approaching orcs, the low, the pictographs lit up and the circular door finally opened inwards with the sound of stone grating on stone. The party leaped into the dark chamber beyond and the door sealed itself again, just as an orc of smaller stature emerged from behind, a moment too late to catch them.

For several tense moments, the party waited to see whether the enchanted door would hold, or whether a horde of orcs would come pouring through. They heard some faint knocking from outside, and even this eventually subsided.

A quick inspection of the refuge, which consisted of four simple chambers including a hearth, store room, sleeping quarters and rear landing, suggested that the refuge had been abandoned for a long time. What food provisions had been kept in the crates stacked in one chamber had long ago become mouldy and decayed. A few flasks of dwarven spirits, oil, a rusty lantern and equally rusty weapons remained, scattered across the various chambers. Dag found a beautiful mithral dagger among the other rusted blades in an old chest, engraved with the insignia of Cardaal Clan. The same room in which he found those weapons also contained a half-dozen dwarf-sized bunks carved out of the stone walls, and worn woollen blankets. The very last (and smallest) chamber revealed a grisly sight – the dessicated skeleton of a dwarf lay sprawled face down in the middle of the room, the lower half of its body nowhere to be seen. Fragments of the stone door that had once closed the gap in the back wall were scattered across the floor, as was the hapless victim’s equipment. A careful search of the corpse turned up a handful of colourful and finely crafted gem stones of various sizes. Stairs lead down into the darkness beyond the gap in the wall.

The party now worried that they were trapped between orcs on one side, and something potentially worse on the other. Garn tried to rig a trap near the front door, and everyone except Loic seemed intent on moving the heavy, broad stone table they had found in the second chamber to block the gap in the wall in the rear chamber, but to no avail. Loic, still exhausted from the ordeal of the past few days that had cost him his eye, curled up on one of the small dwarven bunks. At last, the others conceded the futility of their attempts, and decided that the only thing they could do was post a sentry in the rear chamber and hope for the best.

After having sufficiently rested, the party began their descent into the depths of the mountain. The steep staircase spiralled down seemingly forever, and once they finally reached the bottom, Vargus confirmed that they were indeed below the level where they first entered the tunnel that lead to the refuge from the river gorge. The stairs opened on a cavern so vast that even Vargus, Klot and Dag could not see its edges through the darkness. Huge and wondrous stone formations climb from the tacky mud of the cave floor. Loic and the gnomes, who had never been this deep underground, were awed and a little bit worried by the immensity of the caves, by the alien and very lifelike formations that rose from the ground, and by the knowledge that an entire mountain of solid stone could bury them at any time. Anything could be lurking in the darkness a few feet away from where they stood, and only creatures of shadow could make their home in this abyss, where beyond the starless sky there was only more rock.

The air in the cavern was very chilly, and each party member could see their breath in the lantern light. Just beyond the lantern beam, a stream rusheed loudly, its song amplified by the enclosed space. Nearby, Vargus noticed another goral fen etched into a conical rock column, which he believed indicates that a holdfast could be found somewhere to the right—the same direction in which the stream flowed. There were three other symbols carved underneath the one representing “holdfast.” All Vargus could make out was that “upstream” was a “dead end.”

Travel along the cavern floor was easy enough, and the landscape remained awe inspiring and intimidating to those who had never walked beneath the earth—even Wendell remained speechless. The broad cavern continued to twist and turn with the stream, and went downhill at a very gradual grade. Once in a while, Vargus, Klot and Dag were able to make out a wall in the distance beyond the far side of the stream, to their left (and which, in most places, was approximately 10’ wide). Pointed rock columns of all shapes and sizes, some with pretty colour bands, were a common sight on both sides of the stream. On occasion, the ceiling became low enough for the party to observe similar conical formations reaching down from above, making the surface dwellers feel as if they were inside the fang-filled maw of some immense beast. At other times, they were required to clamber over natural obstacles or down rock shelves. The lantern light revealed narrower passages branching off to the right from the larger tunnel, and now and again, insects and rodents scurried into the shadows as the lantern beam swept across them. Every 500 to 1,000 yards or so,Vargus made out another goral fen indicating that they were still going in the direction where a holdfast supposedly could be found.

Hours passed by – this the party could determine by their hunger pangs and bodily needs, and by the amount of fuel that had been consumed by the lantern. Still, it was difficult to judge how much progress had been made, distance-wise, or how much further the party had to go… and what, ultimately, they should be looking for down here – the holdfast to which the goral fen supposedly led, or an exit that would lead you back to the surface? The idea of eating a meal under a mountain seemed strangely exciting to those who had never done so before, and worthy of tales… but the prospect of having to camp under the mountain was slightly more worrisome for most, especially since the orcs might find way to give pursuit.

Following a brief rest, the heroes continued to follow the river, which was flowing more swiftly as it cut deeper and deeper into the rock, being fed by other side streams, until it constituted the bottom of a narrow but deep ravine. Then, suddenly, everyone’s blood curdled and hearts leaped in throats as some inhuman and indescribable bellowing sounds became audible above the din of the rushing water… from ahead? Behind? To the side? It was difficult to say.

The sounds continued to echo off the walls for what felt like an eternity. The bellowing became louder, full of rage or pain – and perhaps made by more than one creature? Then, just as abruptly as when the noise began, there was nothing but the hiss of the river, and the thundering of hearts.

The party proceeded carefully through the darkness, hoping that whatever made those dreadful sounds was dead, or at the very least long gone. To the left was the chasm, and to the right, the cavern walls were gradually closing in, and were pretty much always visible on the outer edge of the lantern light. The odd, conical stone formations still rose from the ground and jutted down from the ceiling at irregular intervals. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the side of the chasm along which the party had been walking reached a dead end, but a goral fen concealed among limestone draperies perched on fluid walls and shelves seemed to indicate that the path to the holdfast lay in another cave across the chasm. A spur of rock formed a partial bridge across the chasm, leaving an approximately 10’ gap between the edge of the spur and the ledge on the far side. At this point, the party could barely see the roiling water at the bottom of the chasm, which rushed through the rock wall, and, judging by the loudness, dropped in a mighty fall beyond the reach of the lantern or dark vision.

Loic took a running jump across the chasm and cleared the distance without difficulty. Wendell was very worried about the leap, to the point that he suggested the party turn back and try their luck by backtracking to the refuge, hoping the orcs had given up and left. Klot thought he would give the diminutive, self-proclaimed leader of the group a hand to get across the chasm, but would have dropped him in the chasm if it wasn’t for Dag snatching the gnome just in time to save him from what likely would have been a fatal fall. Wendell was justifiably panicked by the situation, but Klot made light of it, making the others wonder whether his “slip” might not have been intentional. Given the former Shadow warrior’s refusal to aid his companions as they battled the goblin fell at the pass (which cost Loic an eye, and nearly his life), his continual references to Dag’s name meaning “sheep’s dung” or “sheep’s butt” in Erenlander, and now the near death of Wendell, all strained the other party members’ good will towards the warrior. With Wendell doubly reluctant to make the jump, Klot decided to make it himself. Loic tried to “clothesline” the warrior from behind and “help him along” as he touched the ground, but just missed… the attempted assault did not go unnoticed by Klot. Garn and Wendell finally made it across the chasm, with help from Vargus and Dag. As tempers flared between Loic and Klot, Garns lantern light uncovered a horrific scene.

The far side of the chasm was littered with old bones, half-rotten animal carcasses, and large piles of horrid-smelling dung. A few feet ahead was a cluster of conical limestone formations, and what appeared to be a monstrous figure laying in a pool of gore less than 20’ from the chasm’s edge. The monster looked like nothing anyone in the party had ever seen before. Its low, rounded head was dominated by a massive pair of mandibles and rows of triangular teeth. It had two big compound eyes like a beetle’s, with two smaller eyes like an ape’s in between. Copper-coloured armour plates covered virtually all of its broad, chitinous frame. Its arms seemed longer than its approximately 8’ tall body, and they ended in massive three-fingered claws and heavily armoured forearms. Something incredibly strong had eviscerated the creature – its still steaming blood and guts had formed a pool that was approximately 20 feet in diameter. Although the dead monster seemed to have all of its limbs, a bloody claw similar to that of the creature lay in the mud behind a nearby pointed stone column.

As Garn, Loic, Klot and Wendell looked at one another with apprehension, and before Dag and Vargus could even cross the chasm, the party again heard the deafening bellow that they had heard earlier, in the distance, but now coming from close by. Emerging from a side tunnel was another creature like the one that lay in the pool of gore, save this one had a bleeding stump where one of its arms should have been. Mandibles clicking angrily, it advanced towards the four. Loic and Klot challenged it, the warrior trying to move into flanking position behind the horror. Garn kept to the shadows, trying to sneak up on it, while Wendell peppered it harmlessly with bolts from his crossbow.

The creature struck Loic hard with its one good claw as the Dorn approached it, which drove the one-eyed barbarian into a mad frenzy. Man and monster exchanged savage blows, but the hulk stunned Loic, knocking him to the ground. Klot took advantage of the monster’s distraction and attacked it from behind, causing it to shriek in pain. It turned around, struck him with its claw, and then nearly sliced him in two with its mandibles. In mere seconds, the warrior lost consciousness and lay dying, the monster preparing to snap his body in twain. At that point, the enraged Loic rose to his feet again, drawing the monster’s attention back to him. Vargus leapt the chasm and invoked some of his mysterious powers to heal some of the Dorn’s wounds, just as the hulk lashed out again at the barbarian. Dag watched the entire scene unfold from across the chasm, unable to get a clear shot with his bow, and reluctant to make the jump. Garn crept up bravely behind the monster and plunged one of his punching daggers between its plates, while Loic simultaneously dealt it a death blow with his dwarven halberd.

Vargus and Dag recognized the creature as a faarn, as the dwarves called it. Aside from its incredible strength and ferocity, the monster was known for its mind-numbing gaze, which dwarves avoided at all cost. Vargus tended to the fallen Klot, reforging the warrior’s body, as the dworg called the process. Painfully, the worst of the soldier’s wounds closed, and he regained consciousness. For better and worse, Klot would live… for now...
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« Reply #13 on: July 25, 2009, 11:52:03 PM »

EPISODE 8: THE DARK BELOW


Following a deadly battle that left Klot grievously injured, and after spending many long hours wandering through the darkness, the party decided to rest in the vicinity of the faarn’s nest, despite its decidedly unpleasant odour and the sickening bones and carcasses strewn about. Taking advantage of his dark vision, Vargus scouted the tunnel from whence the faarn came, but saw no signs of other threats in the area. Loic sifted through the mucky crater that must have served as the creature’s nest. Aside from bones, refuse and rotting carcasses, he found only three large, green globes, which he concluded must be the monster’s eggs. Without hesitation, he shattered the eggs against the cave wall and stomped on their viscous contents, to the dismay of some of his companions, who would have preferred to cook them. Dag pulled the wood and kindling he had collected outside the entrance to the refuge from his pack, and proceeded to light a small cooking fire. The dwarf broke off the faarn’s remaining arm and placed it on the fire, looking forward to eating fresh meat, especially since dwindling rations were a concern. Wendell and Garn stayed near Dag and the fire, reluctant to leave its warmth and light, lest they stumble across more horrors of the dark.

Sleep in the cold, dark, unfamiliar and threatening environment proved elusive for some party members. At one point during that first night, Dag and Vargus decided to probe some side tunnels after having heard “something,” and eventually encountered a strange lizard that made a rapid clicking sound. Thinking that they might eliminate a potential threat or otherwise make a potential meal of it, the dwarfkin attacked the lizard, which defended itself by generating electrical shocks and then fleeing down another narrow passage.

When the party finally determined that they had rested sufficiently and should start moving again, some members began to experience significant intestinal discomfort that lasted several days – they suspected that the previous evening’s faarn meat had not agreed with them.

The following days would blend into one another as a result of the perpetual darkness. The main indicator of time was the amount of fuel consumed by the lantern, and the circadian and other bodily rhythms of party members. A few days past the faarn nest, food became critically low as everyone was still eating their full daily rations of dried ort and goat meat up to that point, but it was starting to look like the holdfast hinted at in the goral fen that Vargus had been tracking could still be days away – especially since he had been unable to interpret some of the symbols found with some of the marks. A major challenge therefore became both navigating in the endless network of tunnels, and finding food. Water, fortunately, was found with relative ease.

During the first few days past the faarn’s nest, Vargus could still spot the occasional goral fen, though on an increasingly sporadic basis. As the party ventured ever deeper, they wondered whether some of the guide marks seemed to vanish. Whether the dworg and the rest of the party have simply missed some of the cleverly concealed marks, which seem to be nothing more than natural features to the untrained eye, or whether some of the marks have been damaged over time, was impossible to know. There were collapsed walls and caved-in tunnels—perhaps some of the goral fen had been inscribed thereupon?

The constant darkness weighed especially heavily on the minds of those who had never lived underground before. Wendell worried that he would never see sunlight again, that he would be doomed to die in the darkness, under tonnes of rock, or torn apart by a faarn. How could anyone choose to live in this perpetual darkness? How could they not get lost in the maze (then again, maybe that’s why they lived underground—because they could not find their way back to the surface)? How could they not go mad by dwelling in the depths of Aryth? Clearly, those dwarves who lived below ground, and far more sinister creatures, had to be aberrant.

By sharing their survival skills and knowledge of the underground, Dag, Vargus and Klot were surprisingly successful at foraging enough food to keep the party going—primarily mushroom and other fungi, insects and small rodents. Though the fare was less than appetizing, the choice was that or starvation, and hardship and less than satisfying meals were nothing new to many party members. No one complained. Dag and Klot always managed to find well protected and uninhabited chambers to sleep in, and the group had thus far encountered nothing while resting but the occasional small lizard or insects. When the lantern was dimmed, Loic and the gnomes were essentially blind. The party’s supply of lamp oil was also beginning to run low, thus requiring the conservation of fuel whenever light was not absolutely necessary. The oppressive gloom, stale air, damp and rocky ground, torn and clingy clothes, grime-encrusted skin, and strange echoes and growls in the distance made it difficult to fall asleep, but sheer fatigue eventually claimed most. Fortunately, between the two of them, Garn and Klot were able to pronounce the difficult elvish words that activated and deactivated the hearth stone, thereby ensuring that all were at least warm while they rested in the chilly subterranean environment.

Throughout their wanderings, the party continued to encounter alien geological formations, some of which almost fooled them into thinking they were alive, even humanoid. In one chamber, they found the head of a long dead orc impaled on a stalagmite. Drippings from the ceiling were building additional layers atop the head.

When it seemed that goral fen were nowhere to be found, Dag, Vargus and Klot still generally found agreement on the best way to proceed, usually by staying close to and following the current of underground streams. Some hostile creatures, they learned the hard way, also laired near those water sources. The party was particularly excited when they found in some tiny pools beside a particularly fast flowing stream, pearl-like balls that might be used as improvised caltrops. As Wendell crouched over a pool that was close to the edge of a crevasse, tentacles slithered up from darkness and started pummelling and wrapping around the startled gnome. Dag, Garn, Vargus and Loic rushed to Wendell’s aid. Another tentacled beast crawled up to threaten Dag, while the first attempted to drag the elderly gnome down below. Garn rushed in and pushed Wendell out of reach of the monster, which seemed impervious to Loic’s halberd. Dag continued to struggle against his opponent, which tried to wrap its tentacles around his legs, and also found that his war axe practically bounced off the abomination’s rubbery skin when he struck. Klot eventually drew closer to assist Dag, firing arrows at the monster, but failing to hit.

Once Wendell was safely out of reach, the first tentacled horror lashed out at Loic. The Dorn sensed that perhaps the mithral urutuks he recovered from the Hall of Heroes in Durgis Rock might be more effective at penetrating his foe’s hide. He drew and swung one of his axes with all his might, the blade slashing cleanly into the creature’s body. Taking his cue from Loic, Dag drew the mithral dagger he found in the refuge, and drove it deep into his aggressor. After a few more moments of struggle, the abominations fell back into the crevasse from whence they came, apparently slain by the victorious heroes.

The frail Wendell’s wounds had almost caused him to faint. Garn, seeing that his elder would be alright, took a chance and clambered down into the lair of the monsters to see if he might recover the belongings of past victims. What the monsters normally fed upon, and who or what else might actually pass this way, remained largely unanswered questions. Garn found long layers of skin that likely had been shed by the twin tentacle slugs, excrement, and a few rodent bones, but nothing else.

Throughout the following day, the party had become increasingly concerned with the sporadic tremors that had been shaking the ground – tremors that caused dust and pebbles to drop from the limestone walls and ceiling around them. The mountain, it would seem, was moving, and could bury them alive at any moment. Intersecting with the route they had been following were freshly dug tunnels that left debris of earth and limestone scattered on the ground at the intersection. The new tunnels were 10 to 15 feet in diameter, and the earth and stone within them seemed strangely discoloured. An acrid odour also came from within. Deep, strangely shaped craters and grooves, each of the craters probably as long and wide as a dwarf, marked the ground. The adventurers decided to press on, worried that any delay might place them face to face with whatever behemoth might be causing the mountain to quake, or could result in the mountain falling on their heads.

After the next rest period, the group estimated that they had been wandering the tunnels beneath the mountain for the equivalent of seven days. It was difficult to determine exactly how far they had travelled given the winding passages, tricky ascents and descents, moments of indecision, and tight squeezes, but they guessed it to be at the very least 100 miles… though whether that 100 or so miles was taking them closer to the surface or the dwarven holdfast was impossible to ascertain, given the disappearance of goral fen.

On this presumed seventh day of endless dark, the party entered a vast chamber that contained a number of imposing stalagmites. The largest, in the centre of the room, had a height that extended beyond the reach of the lantern beam or dark vision, and a diameter of approximately 25 feet. Approaching this gigantic stalagmite, those with sharper eyes noticed that a two-foot wide stairway had been chipped out of the sides of the formation. The stairway coiled its way around the lower portion of the stalagmite up to a height of twenty feet, where it ended at a small platform. There was no time to take a closer look, as some unnatural darkness suddenly dimmed both the lantern, as well as Vargus, Dag and Klot’s dark vision.

Strange shadows glided down silently from the ceiling above, slamming into their targets and then trying to envelop them in their strange, rock-hard flaps. Poor Wendell never saw them coming, and was the first target. It sounded as though he was being suffocated, and after a few moments of struggle, his muffled voice could no longer be heard, and he ceased thrashing about. Other creatures tried to wrap around Dag and Garn. Loic, who stood near Wendell, did his best to tear the gravity-defying, squid-like monster off of the elderly gnome. Garn struck his predator a few mortal blows with his dagger, while Klot and Dag desperately tried to bring down the third.

Without warning, a blinding light shone through the darkness. A grotesquely hunchbacked humanoid with reddish-pink flesh, a devil-like face, and a large and fearsome rack of horns advanced toward the party, practically crawling as one of its padded hands touched the ground for stability. In the other hand, it held a small oblong gem that radiated bright light. If the creature were to stand at its full height, it likely would tower over even Loic. The creature’s back was protected by a thick black carapace, from which it seemed that all sorts of strange objects dangled. It gibbered a few words as it advanced (Vargus and Dag understood it to be saying, in heavily accented and broken Dwarven, “shoo, shoo, bad”), and the light from the gem became brighter, apparently panicking the last of the three cave gliders. As the glider tried to escape back to the lofty ceiling, Dag finally knocked it out of the air, dealing it a mortal blow. The death of the last gliders resulted in the restoration of both the lantern light and the dark vision of those who had lost it. The devil-crab slid its oblong gem back into its gem, where its glow faded.

The creature’s faarn-like appearance and imposing size kept the party on edge as it scuttled closer. To their surprise, Vargus and Dag heard it say in Dwarven, “Trade? Trade? What have? What want?” Once reassured that the party was interested in trading, it pulled out some of its wares from inside its shell, or from one of the sacks of clutter that hung on the outside of its shell, including some food and fuel, as well as various trinkets: a set of four rock crystal goblets, a whistle carved from bone, a set of small orc (obsidian) and dwarf (quartz) figurines, and a wooden die, among others. Garn and Dag took the lead in negotiations, Dag acting as an interpreter for the gnome. The party sought food, fuel, and information. The creature seemed to have much of what the party had in its possession, and therefore drove a hard bargain. It seemed interested in acquiring one of the “small pets” the party had with them – they had two, so they could part with one, couldn’t they? Dag answered that this would not be possible. It also eyed Loic’s twin mithral urutuks with interest, but the Dorn’s glare and growl clearly communicated that those items were off limits, too.

Dag tried to question the creature, but the only “free” information it volunteered suggested that it knew how to find the dwarven holdfast, which still sounded like it was relatively far away, but closer than the surface. The crab-like merchant also hinted that the source of the tremors was “He Who Devours the World,” a legendary monster that Dag and Vargus recognized from dwarven stories. After a lengthy and intense bargaining session, the party agreed to trade four daggers, a suit of studded leather armour, a 50’ coil of rope, two flasks of dwarven spirits, one throwing axe, and a mithral dagger, in exchange for two days worth of dry meat for each party member, and the creature’s promise that it would guide them to the dwarven holdfast. The trader seemed especially reluctant to agree to the latter, but did so in the end.

The party felt exhaustion setting in. Looking on the bright side, they now had an agreement with a knowledgeable guide, and a bit more food. Yet they also had an unconscious “leader” on their hands…
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« Reply #14 on: August 03, 2009, 07:44:40 AM »

Very interresting stuff you are serving your players down in the mountain I must say Smiley Sounds like some of your players are having fun sending backstabbing-notes and stuff over to you as well (the ex-shadow-guy doesn´t sound to popular). Good thing with a few choices down there so the adventure doesn´t get to narrow-tracked. What are the monsters attacking just before the crab-like helper appears? Sounds like something extra infernal Wink Will be fun to hear about the stuff thats coming up now, loads of opportunities for new mini-quests and stuff.
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« Reply #15 on: August 03, 2009, 09:10:32 PM »

Thanks! I always thought that for the PCs of various races to get a true appreciation (or distaste) for the various environments and cultures found in each of the environments they explore in CoS, they should spend a fair amount of time there, in game time.  Also, given how much further south Pardrum Holdfast is in the Kaladruns if one looks at the map in Hammer and Shadow, I felt that it made sense for the journey to take several weeks rather than a few days. Limited food and fuel became a real concern for the party -- so the longer underground journey also drove the point that food and fuel cannot be taken for granted, and the players have become diligent about keeping track of their stuff. They are so excited when they find food now!  Bargaining with the crab-creature (a "cave hermit," which originally appeared in Bastion Press's Into the Black and was reprinted with 3.5 stats in Expeditious Retreat Press's Monster Geographica: Underground) was quite painful for them -- they gave up some good gear there!

The creatures that came down from the ceiling just before the crab-creature showed up were nothing more than plain old darkmantles... I had the crab-creature and darkmantles operate in "partnership" -- the darkmantles would "flee" as the crab-creature pulled out his light-shedding gem, making it seem as though he had saved whoever was being attacked, thereby assuring potenial trading partners of the creature's "benevolent" intent. In other situations, the creature would set potential victims up for the darkmantles to feed, and would loot their bodies afterward. Its preference, however, is to trade (trading is part of its "genetic make-up," so to speak).  

EDIT: It's a shame that episode 9 (summary yet to be posted) was the last session for the player who played the ex-Shadow soldier. The guy was an Aussie in Canada on a work visa, and he's on his way home.  He'll be missed at the table -- he brought alot to the game and was fun to play with. His character, Klot, will go on as an NPC for the time being... but it just won't be the same...
« Last Edit: August 06, 2009, 09:52:14 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #16 on: August 06, 2009, 01:22:07 AM »

EPISODE 9: FAREWELL, OLD FRIEND...

Note: the episode title refers to both the passing of a character, as well as to the fact that this was the last session for one of our players, who is en route home to Australia.

Tired from another long day spent wandering through the endless dark, one of their number unconscious, and their deal with devil-crab sealed, the party decided to investigate the strange cavern in which they found themselves and the even stranger stalagmite tower. Garn, Klot and Dag were the first to climb up the spiralling stairs that had been carved out of the side of the monstrous stalagmite. Standing on the wide yet relatively narrow platform at the end of the stairs, 20’ or so above the ground, the pair started to examine the sturdy iron door that had been built into the stalagmite. Excited by the prospect of finally having found something that would warrant the use of his lock picks, Garn went to work right away on the keyhole. Klot, not entirely confident in the gnome’s skills—especially given the odd context in which they found themselves—clambered up along the side of the stalagmite, near the top of the door. Dag searched the limestone for hidden switches, or other signs of something unusual. Vargus eventually joined the others while they tried to solve the mystery of the door, while Loic lit a second lantern and kept watch below over the unconscious Wendell and the devil-crab. The dworg spotted two nigh invisible goral fen, one above the door (which suggested “safe place”), and another beside the door (suggesting “danger”). Not sure what to make of the contradiction, he only shared the discovery of the former with his companions. A few moments later, as Garn continued to fiddle with the lock, a trap door concealed beneath layers of clay and sediment slid open at a sharp angle right before the iron door, swallowing the gnome and his lantern into a gaping void, and then closing on him just as quickly.

Unable to hear Garn at all, the others who were on the ledge went into a panic. Vargus tried to uncover the edges of the trap door, and once he had done so, tried to pry it open with his hands, and then by wedging the edges of his mace in the cracks, to no avail. The door was extremely heavy and barely budged, and all the dworg succeeded in doing was splintering the haft of his weapon. Singly, and then together, Klot, Dag and Vargus attempted to force the iron door, hoping to find some sort of leaver inside that would enable them to lift the sliding panel on the platform. After a few attempts, they finally succeeded in forcing the lock. Yet doing so also triggered the trap once again—this time, Vargus and Dag fell in. Klot rolled over the two, and his momentum carried him into a small, musty smelling, hollowed chamber beyond the pit, in the heart of the stalagmite. The sliding trap door now closed on three party members.

While darkvision enabled Dag and Vargus to see within the unlit confines of the slide, to the dwarf’s horror, he witnessed some horrific curse wash over the dworg as they slid towards a hole in the pit’s angled bottom. While the hole normally would have been too small to allow even the passage of a gnome, Vargus appeared to shrink before Dag’s very eyes and slid right through the aperture! The dwarf also felt some strange sensation wash over him, yet somehow he remained unaffected by the curse that had touched both the dworg, and, he would soon find out, Garn.

Indeed, perhaps 15’ below the hole, Vargus landed on a shrunken Garn. They shared a small cell with a badly decayed goblin carcass, which seemed unusually large to the two. Garn had already searched for alternative means of escape, without success. The gnome and dworg looked up at the hole through which they had fallen – it looked so high up, and the walls were straight, with few handholds. Garn had previously tried to climb back up, using the goblin carcass as a stepping point, but only slid back down onto the corpse. Seeing Dag’s gigantic looking arm poking down through the hole, the gnome rummaged through his pack for a rope, made a broad loop with it, and made the perfect toss around the dwarf’s arm. Dag then proceeded to pull the diminutive dworg and gnome back up through the hole.

Meanwhile, back in the hollowed chamber, Klot rummaged around, finding a large sack and clay urn, a wooden keg, hammer and twelve iron spikes, a glazed clay chamber pot, four dwarf-sized bunks carved out of the limestone walls, several ceramic flasks, a pile of dried ort dung, and what appeared to be some kind of metal lever sticking up from the floor near the door. When the lever finally commanded the warrior’s attention, he heaved against it with all his might, but without luck. He called down to Loic for aid, who then carried the wounded Wendell up to hollowed refuge, wondering what the commotion was all about.

The Dorn laid Wendell on a bunk, and then he and the former soldier of Shadow pushed the lever together. It finally budged, releasing the trap door, which swung down with a mighty clang, slamming into the slide just inches above the fingertips of a diminutive dworg who had managed to crawl part way back up. Eventually, with the assistance of Loic and Klot, all of the entrapped managed to climb out of the pit. Vargus and Garn tried to make the most of their situation, and, judging from the goblin corpse, assumed that they would resume full size upon their respective deaths. Despite their situation, they were grateful to be alive.

The party then occupied itself by undertaking a closer examination of the refuge’s contents. In addition to bunks and a simple hearth, the round chamber also had a half-dozen port holes with metal shutters, which provided a 360 degree view around the entire cavern, as well as ventilation for dung fires. They rejoiced as they found the equivalent of fifteen man days of dried meat and mushrooms in the sack, a few more quarts of oil in the ceramic flasks, water in the urn, and flat but still drinkable ale in the keg. They managed to close both the trap door in the floor and the main iron door again, thereby ensuring protection for the coming rest period. Better yet, Garn, and then Vargus, both resumed their normal proportions without warning, their limbs lengthening in a process that was extremely painful, but fortunately of short duration. What had led to the reversal of the curse remained unknown.

As everyone settled down to rest, Vargus invoked his mysterious gifts to reforge Wendell’s body (as well as the haft of his mace). The elderly gnome winced and moaned in agony, and then his eyes half-opened. He was pale, his voice feint. The self-appointed leader of the group was shocked that he was still alive, and wondered whether they had finally made it to a dwarven holdfast. When the reply was negative, tears began to run from his eyes. When he spoke anew, it was with resignation, with defeat: “Thank you for saving me… again,” he rasped, “… but I cannot go further… I thought I was a great leader, that I would bring you to safety, but I have failed… I am too old for this… I am nothing but a burden to you young, strong lads…” Garn tried to lift his elder’s spirits, but Wendell was adamant that his time was near.

He then addressed each party member in turn:

“Vargus, you have done much for me in the short time we have known one another… you have an unbelievable, if frightening gift… may it keep you safe, and not lead you astray…

“Dag… I knew you the least, but wish you well, child of Durgis… if not for your axe, some of us might have fallen sooner…

“Klot, I hope you will remain on the path that you have set upon, and that you will remain free of the Shadow’s taint…

“Loic, give my best regards to your grandfather when you see him again… he is the most honourable man I have ever met, and it is good to see you following in his footsteps…

“Garnbrimble Redshoe Nefarian of Clan Greatbarge… Your loyalty and courage have not gone unnoticed… You remind me much of me when I was your age… This quest you are on is very important… And these men and dwarves will be lost without the wisdom and guidance of a gnome… especially Klot… I therefore appoint you great leader of these brave folk… You have more than earned it, and will only become stronger in the role with time… You will make sure that Woden’s case is brought to our Captain in Swift Water… he will know what to do with it…” There were smirks and looks of disbelief all around the chamber as Wendell appointed Garn as the new leader—Garn himself seemed surprised and not quite eager to embrace the task. The elder gnome then waved Garn closer, whispering something that only his junior could hear.

Wendell pulled his blanket up and addressed the group briefly one more time: “Now… I must… rest… and you will leave me here when you are ready to resume your journey… Take my things… Just promise that you will not let me come back… as… one of them… I’m so scared…” He then passed out, snoring gently. By the time the party awoke some hours later, they found him laying stock still, eyes wide open. Upon seeing this, Loic immediately beheaded the old gnome with his halberd. Garn mourned the passing of his mentor, of the years of wisdom and experience he had accumulated, given that he had been on Aryth longer than the party members had lived.

A debate then ensued over what to do with Wendell’s corpse. Klot suggested that their former leader’s wisdom and spirit could be transferred to the other party members if they partook of his flesh. Everyone else was opposed to the idea, Garn vehemently so. The younger gnome swore that he would kill the much larger warrior if he attempted such a deed. In the end, it was settled that Wendell’s decapitated corpse would be left in the bunk he slept in during his final night. There was no time to grieve.

Of the ten that had at one point or another been involved in the Lady Rhiann’s quest, half were now dead: the lady herself, her companions Eirinn and Bayal, the Erenlander freeman Vallin Onyxarm, and now old Wendell Gale… all in the passing of less than an arc… and the surviving companions wondered whether they would ever see the surface again, or follow in Wendell’s footsteps over the coming days or weeks…

As the unlikely heroes prepared to move out again, they found that the devil-crab that had agreed to guide them to the nearest dwarven holdfast had deserted them as they rested, fleeing with the goods he had acquired from the party. Dag found feint scuttle marks on the cave floor, heading back the way the party had came. He vowed to hunt and kill the treacherous creature, but his companions convinced them that giving pursuit would not be wise at this time, given their extremely limited fuel reserves, and the fact that their would-be guide was travelling in a direction opposite to the party’s own. The dwarf was especially upset by the loss of the mithral dagger he had found in the refuge in the Karina River gorge.

Over the next three travel periods, the group’s blessings were mixed. After wandering without navigational markers for the past three days or so, Vargus finally spotted some goral fen that again pointed the way to a “holdfast,” although he still could not estimate the distance to this holdfast. All he knew was that the party was still deep underground, well below the level at which they first left the river gorge. Occasional tremors continued to shake the earth and knock debris loose, which fortunately never struck anyone. A pack of rabid orts, much larger than the ones Loic, Klot and Garn had encountered when first crossing the natural bridge over the Karina River while en route to Kurgun Falls with companions now deceased, emerged from a side passage and nearly tore Garn, Dag and Vargus to pieces. Yet the party was victorious. And despite their size and ferocity, and the damage these orts had made, Dag and Vargus could still vouch that they were of average size for their species. The combined survival skills of Dag, Vargus and Klot enabled the party to carve up the ort carcasses efficiently, wasting as little fresh meat as possible. They also improvised a way to cook the meat, using the Lady Rhiann’s hearthstone and some oil. Within a matter of hours, all had full bellies and each had another five days worth of meat.

The party suspected that they must be getting close to a dwarven holdfast when they encountered sophisticated, large-scale mechanical pit traps set above underground streams, which Vargus’s reading of hints on nearby goral fen, and Garn’s keen senses, enabled the party to bypass without too much difficulty (although one of Dag’s failed leaps was nearly disastrous).

As the party stopped for their fourth sleep since departing the stalagmite tower, with but one flask of oil left, they pondered how on the morrow they would have to rope up and follow the lead of those who could see in the dark. They awoke hours later to the sound of battle echoing in the tunnels, and to the unexpected sight of a dwarf in plate mail that gleamed so bright they could swear that it shimmered, standing in the passage a short distance ahead of where they had camped. The dwarf had a majestic, double braided beard that tumbled from his open faced helm to his waist. The dwarf stood silent and motionless, holding against his shoulder a heavy maul engraved with a radiant sun on the side of its head that was visible. He stared straight at the party, as if waiting.

As Garn and Dag tried to speak to the quiet warrior, their entreaties in both Dwarven and the Trader’s Tongue continued to be met with total silence. A battle continued to rage, not too far away. The party quickly lifted camp and opted to follow the unspeaking dwarf, who, though he seemed to walk at a normal pace, did so with nary a sound and always kept several paces ahead of the party. The shimmering warrior led the party straight to the site of the battle, where but two axe-wielding dwarves stood back to back with one another, knee deep in a bloodied pool of water wherein the corpses of perhaps a score of recently fallen dwarves and orcs lay half-submerged. The two surviving, yet badly wounded dwarves were ringed in by nearly a dozen orcs that loomed well above them, all clad in scale mail and wielding vardatches, some of them wounded as well. Four of the orcs also bore broad steel shields, with an insignia of a dripping blade painted upon them. All those engaged in battle seemed unaware of the party’s presence.

Despite the overwhelming odds, Loic and Dag charged into the fray, with Garn close behind the tall Dorn illuminating the battlefield with his lantern. Klot kept to the shadows, hoping that stealth would grant the upper hand on his first target. Vargus, who one might think had become privy to the secrets of spiders during the long journey through the underdark, tapped into his well of yet unknown mystical powers and conjured a web of monstrous proportions in one corner of the cavern, trapping two orcs as if they were hapless flies. The heroes took advantage of the element of surprise and landed some good hits upon their foes, some of them falling with a single strike.

While Dag and Loic ended up in a deadly melee with a particularly fearsome, shield-bearing orc who withstood blow after blow and still continued to hold his ground, Garn hit another one in the back of the head with a perfect shot from his sling, dazing his victim. Klot engaged two orcs at once, while Vargus lit a torch and tossed it into the conjured web, setting it ablaze. The two dwarven warriors, emboldened by the unexpected support from the party, broke their defensive stance and attacked.

One after the other, the last of the dwarven insurgents fell to the ground, claiming orc blood as they did so. Still, the tide of battle seemed to be turning against the party. Dag, Garn and Loic had all suffered slashes or bruises from the serrated orcish blades. The two trapped orcs had been singed by the flaming web, but with most of the web burned away, they now rushed impatiently through the last remaining flames to join the fray. Fortunately for the heroes, this last act of recklessness cost the two orcs their lives. Dag finally dealt a fatal blow to his seemingly unstoppable opponent, while Loic and Klot continued to duel with the last of the orcs.

In the end, the party emerged victorious. Despite the overwhelming odds, they were surprised and elated to have sustained no casualties, given that some believed that they might not live beyond this battle. They searched for survivors among the dwarves, and found that only the last two to fall still breathed. As Vargus reforged their bodies, Loic and Klot wasted no time beheading the remainder of the slain orcs and dwarves.

Under Vargus’s arcane ministrations, the two unconscious dwarves regained their senses. The one, eyes going from the bastard dworg, to the warrior whose gear seemed typical of the Shadow’s forces, commanded the cowards, in the Trader’s Tongue, to “get it over with.” Garn tried to reassure the dwarf that the party had saved both he and the one who had his back, that they would not kill them, and that they were not in league with the Shadow. He seemed pleased that at least one of his compatriots, whom he acknowledged as Badel, had survived, though the loss of the others was a heavy burden. The acting leader’s own name was Golan of Cardaal Clan. As Golan thought on what Garn had said, he focused momentarily on something beyond the gnome. “It cannot be,” he murmured. “Durum Wormbane… Dola’s prophecy comes true,” he whispered again, incredulous and perhaps even hopeful, as the shimmering dwarf that had led the party to the battle site nodded and then faded into the shadows of the cave.

After a brief pause, Golan uttered the following verses:

Unlikely allies by ancestor lead
Shall bring new light
And lift the dark
Where the eyes of dwarves now fail

Hail the victorious, hail the brave
Who on their own
Did honoured deeds
For them shall our gates open


Dag handed him the flask of dwarven spirits he had recovered from the refuge. “Unlikely allies indeed,” the clan dwarf declared, his eyes lingering primarily on Vargus, Klot, and on the now unhooded and tattooed features of Dag of Durgis Cove, the significance of which had never been disclosed to the other party members. When questioned about the devil-crab, Golan indicated that yes, he was familiar with it. He referred to it as "ushra," a dwarven word meaning "maggot."

After a few more moments of consideration, Golan seemed resigned to accept the combination of recent events—the party defeating the last of the orc patrol and saving his and Badel’s life, the vision of Durum Wormbane, and the prophetic verses that seemed to describe the unlikely allies (by ancestor lead) among his saviours—as highly portentous. He explained more to the assembled heroes:

There was collapse in a tunnel somewhere beneath Pardrum Holdfast (which lay approximately one day away) …

Unfamiliar enemies using unnatural darkness besieged an excavation team and provoked a cave-in, behind which the excavation team was now trapped with their assailants…

The dwarves from Pardrum had to find another tunnel access to rescue their brethren, and to find a special light source that could dispel the unnatural darkness and repel the invaders…

The holdfast’s loremaster had a plan… to herd giant scarab beetles that shed light brighter than the sun, and bring them down a long neglected passage…

The dwarven squad was on their way to find the scarab beetle herd and lead them down the alternate path to the excavation site, hoping they would not be too late…

There was no time to waste… but then, they were ambushed by the orcs… this is the closest a scouting patrol has ever made it to Pardrum, and bodes ill for the dwarves of the southern Kaladruns…

If his rescuers were indeed those alluded to in the prophetic verses, then they would lead the beetles to the place where the eyes of dwarves now fail… He would lead the party to the herd, and share a few basic herding tips with them, but from there, fate would determine if the unlikely allies would be successful…

While the heroes went to the aid of the excavation team, he and Balel would seek reinforcements at Pardrum in case other orc patrols were on the way…


The gates to Pardrum would open if the party returned…
« Last Edit: August 06, 2009, 09:53:29 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #17 on: October 13, 2009, 05:28:25 PM »

Prologue to Episode 10 -- The Mistress of Many Names

She and her sisters were known among men, some say well before the Shadow was cast down by the gods…

She was the fire that enflamed men’s souls, the poison that turned husbands from their wives, and that placed in the hands of the scorned and the spurned wicked daggers to plunge into the backs of those who dared betray them…

She was passion… She was lust… A thousand lovers made one…

The Sarcosan Sahi named her Shami-Amourae…[1] They wove cautionary tales of the evil wrought by this infernal temptress and her siblings long before the first of their people had crossed the Pale Ocean… How their affections might weaken one to the point of death, or worse, could result in the theft of one’s soul and eternal damnation… Yet even amongst the devout, there are lustful men who heed not the warnings of the wise…

To this day, the Dorns recall the deeds of their ancestors, which have provided their peoples with a moral compass since time immemorial… Legends of the rapture experienced by those who delved deep in the hinge of Malcanthet’s thighs are still told around the fire, once the women have retired for the night, or flit in the minds of solitary men as they dream of warmth and comfort…[2] Yet the fables also allude to the blood feuds that erupted between Dornish families when men chose to indulge their passions with the Daughter of Fire and dishonoured their wives and their clans, and how these feuds nearly resulted in the total slaughter of certain clans. It is said that Malcanthet’s progeny still roam Eredane… But one must be careful what one wishes for – for the greatest pleasures always come at a high price…  

Waves of colonization ensured that in time, the Mistress of Many Names and her sisters  traveled, one by one, from the Old World to Eredane.  Few men initially recognized these women for the infernal temptresses that they were, and most men would have been all too glad to have them aboard their galleys or long ships.  Some may even have dreamed of making them their wives.  

The new continent only opened the door to a new garden of sensations with its own amorous challenges for the Mistress and her siblings to revel in.  These succubi rarely consorted together, and so journeyed across Eredane independent of one another, going wherever their whims might take them.  Some were drawn to the Shadow in the North, while a few have resisted the call, preferring to indulge their chaotic instincts by maintaining control of their own destinies… for the time being… Some even play a dangerous game, simultaneously pulling the strings (not to mention other things) of agents of both the Resistance and of the Order of Shadow, with no clear objective in sight… What worth is an immortal existence if a lady cannot have her fun?  

Yet as the early centuries of the First Age passed, the Mistress of Many Names grew bored with men, especially since the Veil that had fallen over Aryth after the Sundering effectively prevented her from leading the souls of her conquests back to the Abyss.  She continued to feed her insatiable lust, to gather information, and to execute a particularly creative and satisfying murder from time to time, but otherwise had few rewards to show for her work.  In time, the Mistress assumed the form of the fey folk in an attempt to seduce the bravest of each of these reputedly incorruptible and benevolent races.  Her sojourn among the elves ended prematurely.  The wisdom and magic of Eredane’s longest lived race quickly exposed Xinivrae—the name she bore amongst the Carunsil—as the fiend she was, but not before she claimed at least a few victims [3].  

Given her near destruction at the hands of the elves, she returned for a period amongst the Sarcosans and Erenlanders of the southern cities, before targeting the gnomes of the Ardune and Halflings of the central plains.  It is in the latter that she would finally determine if size really did matter.  Some Gnomish songs mention Szenra Ka, the maiden that serves bittersweet nectar and makes their men folk “love-crazy-in-a-bad-way.”[4]  Halfling stories speak of those who were “touched by Lynkhab” (meaning “Wildfire,” in Halfling), a lone, red-haired lass of incomparable beauty who sought shelter among their tribes and ended up stealing some of the men for a while.[5]  It is worth noting that mortals do not distinguish between the Mistress of Many Names and her sisters--to most, they are one and the same.  How many they number, whether in the present or in times past, is uncertain.        
    
Those unfortunate souls who have lain with the Mistress of Many Names (or one of her sisters), if they survived the encounter, will never get her out of their minds.  The males she frequents seem driven, even manic when she enters their lives, and become listless once she leaves.  They can never forget the ecstasy-inducing tricks she performed with her serpent-rope, which she claimed from a slain erinyes rival by the name of Jezabel.  The sentient and animated rope, which calls itself Sosias, has thus far been unwaveringly loyal to its new, if slightly more unruly owner...[6]  

Over the Ages, the trysts in which the Mistress and her sisters engaged in occasionally resulted in the birth of offspring, which were invariably female.  These orphans usually were left on the doorsteps of couples or families of their own kind, usually in isolated rural communities where they were less likely to be detected and apprehended by the Order of Shadow.  Some of the babes showed no physical signs of their infernal heritage until they grew up, while others had deformities that were visible at birth, such as tiny horns or claws, fangs, hoofs, tails, oddly coloured eyes, or discoloured skin.  A few of the more normal-looking infants were taken in by good-hearted folk, but the majority of the orphaned infants were either murdered discretely, abandoned in the wilderness, or left on the doorstep of the nearest Temple of Shadow.   In the latter instances, entire families and communities have been slaughtered for failing to disclose the origin of these mysterious children who radiated arcane energies, and who invariably were taken by the Wolves of Shadow back to Theros Obsidia to become trained as legates (especially if it was concluded that they had been touched by the Shadow), held as bound channelers, or otherwise sacrificed to the Black Mirrors.  Similar fates awaited those who saw childhood and even adolescence among their adopted families.  Come a certain age, strange physical features or powers would manifest, engendering fear among family and other community members alike, who would either slay, banish, or report the tainted youth to local authorities.  The former two methods were preferred, as the third could result in the whistle blowers and their loved ones being held accountable by the Shadow for collaborating in the “concealment” of the “gifted” youth for so long.  

In time, the surviving half-demon youths would produce offspring of their own, often against their will if they had been indoctrinated or enslaved into the Order of Shadow, or else by magically charming (with the powers inherited by their demonic mother) or otherwise forcing themselves on others if they survived by their own wits on the fringes of human, halfling, gnomish and elven settlements.  The same cycle of birth, abandonment, fear and violence would continue, and as each generation passed, the number of demon-blooded descendants of the succubi in Eredane would increase.  Many of these descendants lived very short lives, and few of those who lived to reach adulthood knew that they were among the first of new races of fiend-blooded humans, elves, halflings and gnomes, nor who the great progenitors of those races were.

It is unlikely that the Mistress or any of her sisters actually had a definite plan with regards to the birthing or placement of their offspring.  That having been said, while it would have been simplest for the demonesses to murder these babies at birth (or even before they had come to term), on some deeper level, the succubi seemed to realize that at some point in the distant future, they might benefit from the aid of these Forsaken outcasts, both those in the service of the Shadow, and those who escaped or even actively opposed its grasp.  The strong or cunning would survive, and come the appropriate time and given the proper incentive, they might even prove more loyal to their great progenitors than to the Shadow or the Resistance.  They could become useful pawns that would protect their fiendish grand matrons, or serve their ends in other ways.  With the rise of the Night Kind Ardherin late in the Third Age, and his apparent preference for erinyes at his court, the need for loyal allies in a variety of places has become, to the succubi, more important than ever.[7]  Of course, these ladies will make bargains with anyone that might help them reach their ends and who somehow resist their charms, whether descendants or not...

A few years into the Last Age, the Mistress had managed to infiltrate a dwarven clanhold in the southern Kaladruns, near Pardrum Holdfast.  She might have done so for a number of reasons: in order to find greater shelter from the Shadow, to use the secrets of the hold and its environs as a bargaining chip with Izrador, or just because she could and wanted to experience the challenge of seducing dwarves and perhaps even controlling an army of them.  Though this fact is known among few, even among clan dwarves in the Pardrum area, the Mistress--in the guise of a comely dwarven maiden that claimed to be a refugee from further north--eventually exerted an unbreakable influence over leaders of the Vausra clan.  Internal strife threatened to tear the clan apart, and the divided factions took arms against one another.  Gesti Vausra, the clan’s lore master, deduced the nature of her peoples’ enemy and feared that brother would slay brother before becoming united against their neighbours under the influence of this fiend, yet she did not have the power required to defeat their foe.  In order to contain the threat posed by the fiend, she committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice--she brought the cavern ceiling down on the demoness, but in so doing also buried herself and most of her clansfolk.  The Mistress survived, along with Sosias the ensorcelled rope, but they were trapped under several feet of heavy stone.[8]  

Fearing that an excavation team might release the demoness from her prison, if she still lived, and that this in turn might negate Gesti Vausra’s heroic act, the Pardrum dwarves decided to leave rubble of the neighbouring hold untouched for a century.  This incident did, however, generate the first tales (among the dwarves of the Pardrum area) concerning the existence of a nameless, demonic, shape-shifting temptress, which has only increased their paranoia and mistrust of others, including neighbouring clans and Kurgun settlements.  

Over the Ages, two unexpected developments occurred with respect to the descendants of the succubi.  First, some began to band together in loosely knit communities.  Either they would feel an instinctive call that would lead them to “their people” in secluded vales in the southern Kaladruns (in the spur that is due south of the Eastern Hills), or they would be invited or rescued by small parties of their accursed “kindred” that stealthily roamed the countryside in search of children or youth who were either abandoned, exiled, or on the verge of being executed.

Second, and perhaps even more surprising, the demon blood that flowed in the veins of the Forsaken enabled them to crossbreed in such a way that they would sometimes exhibit the traits of races that normally were unable to reproduce.  Successive generations have become increasingly bastardized, many exhibiting the mismatched features of humans, halflings, gnomes, goblinoids, orcs, hyena-men (the latter three hunting and raping the Forsaken for “sport”) , and their own fiendish heritage.  Despite the  malevolent tendencies that many of the Forsaken harbour in their souls, those who have banded together manifest a surprisingly high degree of cohesiveness.  These communities of increasingly degenerate, demon-blooded mongrelfolk have no aim to speak of aside from day-to-day survival.  They constantly flee from the blades of spiteful dwarven and orcish legions alike. They generally speak their own patois, but some can speak Pidgin or even Basic Trader’s Tongue, Erenlander or Halfling.  They also are adept at imitating the sounds made by others.  When they feel strong fear or hatred within, those emotions can manifest outwardly as a darkening of the light.[9]                  

While the Mistress lay trapped deep beneath the Kaladruns, Sosias eventually slipped free from the debris, and made his way back to the surface.  For decades, the ensorcelled rope has sought the descendants of his Mistress across southern Eredane.  The endlessly patient servant tracked down and made contact with a number of them (including some of the Mistress’s direct offspring), and introduced each of them to the truth of their heritage.  Appearing as a black serpent with red eyes, and gazing hypnotically into the eyes of the children of the damned, he spun an alluring tale to persuade them that their forgotten mother/grandmother/great grandmother was calling, and that they could at last be made whole if they would only embrace their true heritage.  Once adrift and with little purpose, the three dozen strong Forsaken ones that Sosias had been able to recruit over his decades long search were finally unified with a shared goal: to secure the release of their great progenitor.  

While Sosias was busy recruiting his small force of demon-blooded mongrelfolk, the Bloody Sword orcs were pressing further into the southern Kaladruns, and by the turn of the first century in the Last Age, were on the verge of locating Pardrum Holdfast.  The Pardrum dwarves feared that the orcs might stumble upon the rubble of the Vausra clanhold and release the trapped demoness.  Also, they believed that Gesti Vausra had been in possession of an important artifact, which could prove essential during Pardrum’s last stand.  The Pardrum dwarves therefore decided to send an excavation team to the ruins in order to recover the artifact and to seal the fate of the demoness once and for all, before the orcs could harness her power against them.

Just as the Pardrum excavation team reached the ruins of the Vausra clanhold, Sosias and his band of outcasts intercepted the dwarves and cut them off from both a retreat to their holdfast and reinforcements...[10]

Endnotes:
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« Last Edit: October 20, 2009, 02:50:42 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #18 on: October 14, 2009, 01:23:47 AM »

Episode 10 - The Herd

After decapitating the heads of the dead and salvaging what rations and other goods the party could, a limping Golan and the grim-looking Badel began to lead their rescuers deeper down a broad tunnel where their next task--the one that would determine whether they would have the goodwill of the Pardrum dwarves--awaited them.  Noting the party’s concerns over the dwindling fuel reserves for their lantern, Golan handed over two wand-like devices, one that he had kept wrapped in his pack, one gathered from a fallen companion.  Unwrapped, the wands emanated a feint glow with a radius that was about half that of Garn’s lantern.  “Oil is precious, and needed for many things,” said the dwarf in heavily accented but surprisingly good Trader’s Tongue.  “But sometimes, we dwarves need light, for in darkness, our eyes see only in shades of grey.  Some mushrooms look alike, but where some are good to eat, others of a slightly different shade are poison; some minerals escape notice if no light falls on them.  These flameless torches, made from glow moss dipped in amber, have maybe another three days of light left to give, and they are less fragile than lanterns.  They are yours now – a small gift for our lives, to help you fulfil your destiny.  The light they give unfortunately is not strong enough to lift the veil of darkness cast by the enemies who assail our brethren below—this much we know.”  Golan’s gaze often lingered on Klot, Dag’s facial tattoos, and Vargus, with uncertainty.  

Badel occasionally grumbled something, barely audibly, to his companion in dwarven, and mainly stared at his feet.  Golan replied to his friend in measured tones.  Dag caught a few words spoken in their dialect, suggesting that despite the party having risked their lives to save the dwarves, and the latter now sharing some of their tools with the heroes, the surface dwellers were still viewed with suspicion by Golan and especially Badel.  The former apparently tried to reassure the latter that the vision he had had of the ancestor, Durum Wormbane was true, and that the coming task would confirm the valour and trustworthiness of the party.

At last, after about an hour’s walk, the party arrived at a wide, irregular cave that reeked intensely of bat guano.  Their light sources fell upon monstrous beetles—far larger than any they had seen before.  The black-shelled insects were, for the most part, over 10’ long and more than half as tall.  They had glowing yellow eyes and relatively small but sharp mandibles.  The chamber was filled with an ear-splitting, buzzing sound, which required that party members shout in order to hear one another.

The massive beetles grazed lazily on the guano.  At any given moment, one or more of them beat their wings into a frenzy and their abdomens flared up with a blinding flash of white light, illuminating the entire chamber (which was at least 100’ long and wide) and the dozens of creatures that lurked therein.  Others leaped effortlessly over their neighbours.  After a few moments, the light dimmed again, until another beetle beat its wings.  With each flash, the companions noticed over a half dozen natural exits leading out of the chamber.

“Quite a sight – and smell – isn’t it?” called Golan above the din.  “The herd used to be much bigger—it must have split. About a half-dozen of them would probably be enough to lift the darkness that has fallen on the excavation team, but it would probably be wise to bring at least twice as many—you’re likely to lose some along the way.  Some may escape… and the tunnels that should still connect with the cave in which the excavation team has been trapped were abandoned decades ago… who knows what roams them now…
        
“I cannot claim to know much about beetle herding, as neither I nor Badel have ever done so ourselves--it is a rapidly fading skill, even among our people… a few who did know how to do it were among those claimed by the orcs this morning.”  Golan banged the butt of his axe on the ground as he spoke those words, eyes filled with sorrow.  “But you may have this” – he produced a small earthen jar from his backpack – “it’s filled with some stuff, mainly juices from other bugs, that’ll make the beetles follow.  Lift the lid, splash some around, and they’ll follow...  But don’t douse yourself with it, unless you want to get licked to death.  Use it sparingly – there isn’t much of it.  Aside from that advice, all I can say is… drive them as you would boro on the surface…”

Golan then turned to Vargus, hesitantly.  “You say you can see goral fen?  There are several old ones, marking directions to abandoned settlements, and other landmarks.  Keep an eye out for these” – he points out a jagged, rounded, inverted V-like pattern that no one else would have noticed, at the far end of the cave – “assuming that the route has remained intact, those runes should lead you to the cavern in which the rubble of Clan Vausra’s hold, and the excavation team, can be found.  The journey should take you one long day, if you do not stop to rest… and time is off the essence…”  

Golan offered the party a second jar – “this one contains 6 doses of a potent healing salve prepared by our loremaster.  It is a rare and treasured thing even among our folk, as the ingredients are in short supply.  Use it wisely.  May you succeed in the task that Durum Wormbane has appointed to you… I look forward to your return… Now Badel and I must get reinforcements… If all goes well, we shall meet again in two to three days time, in the place where we first met...”

And on that note, Golan and Badel headed back up the passage down which they had led the party, leaving the heroes with the at-least two-score strong, malodorous, guano-eating, monstrous beetles, some of which locked mandibles aggressively and engaged in flaring contests with others of their kind, while others still effortlessly leaped nearly 10’ in the air to evade their assailants.  Conflicts between beetles seem short-lived and relatively benign, despite the intimidating appearance of the creatures.

Initially, the heroes felt at a loss with regards to their appointed task -- aside from Loic, who was an experienced goat herder, none of the party had any idea how to herd anything.  Even Loic felt less than confident in his ability to herd beetles.  The group formulated the best plan they could.  Given his basic underground navigation skills, keen eyes, and ability to identify goral fen, Vargus (accompanied by Dag) would run approximately 150 feet ahead of the herd in order to spot their directional markers and guide the herd accordingly, smearing on walls at strategic intervals the “bug juice” that Golan had given them.  Loic and Garn would take up the rear with the dwarven glow rods, doing their best to keep strays and stragglers in line, using the haft of the Dorn’s halberd as a substitute for a shepherd’s crook.  Klot would keep to one side, near the middle... yet to the surprise of his companions, the former soldier of Shadow vaulted onto the back of one of the largest beetles, and not only managed to stay on, but also found a way to guide the monstrous insect.  Dag and Vargus smeared some of the foul-smelling jelly on the wall of the passage down which they wanted to steer the herd.  The whole party was surprised and somewhat worried by the speed with which most of the beetles raced toward the smelly patch--before they knew it, there were more than two and a half dozen giant, flaring beetles racing down a tunnel after Vargus and Dag, who kept on smearing the jelly on the walls in order to keep the herd moving.  From his perch atop one of the largest specimens, Klot could keep an eye on the overall flow of the herd.  The intermittent flashes of light created a strobe-like effect, and the loud buzzing and zapping limited communication between the herders.  At times, the companions worried that they might be trampled or bitten by the monstrous beetles, but soon, they achieve a steady pace and kept their unlikely flock moving forward in a relatively orderly fashion… at least for the time being.  Fear and worry among the party members soon gave way to exhilaration.
  
The passage along which the herd travelled was on average 15 to 20 feet wide, significantly larger than most of the narrow tunnels down which the party had journeyed over the last half-score days. The stalactite-lined ceiling was usually no less than 20, and sometimes greater than 40 feet high, again much higher than the heroes had become accustomed to.  Although they spotted other passages that intersected with their route, some as wide as the one they were following, the Vausra Clanhold goral fen were, fortunately, quite obvious to Vargus at this point.  The heroes imagine that this once must have been a fairly important thoroughfare between various clan holds... why it had been abandoned, they could only guess.

Just as the adventurers were becoming somewhat comfortable with their bug herding abilities, they hear a loud boom echoing in the tunnel.  A few of the beetles flapped their wings, their abdomens flaring, but the herd kept on going straight ahead at full speed… As the herd advanced down the broad passage, the booming became louder and clearly audible above the buzzing of the insects, if not more frequent.  The ground sometimes shook with the impact made by whatever was causing the sound.  Between booms, the heroes occasionally heard some deep, rumbling noises, deeper than anything they had heard before.  A feint glow shone ahead…

Dag and Vargus were the first to step into a gigantic cavern lit by a patchwork of pale luminescent mold that had accumulated among the stalactite curtains hanging from the ceiling.  A bowl-like depression, twenty feet at its centre, filled most of the cave, surrounded by a wide, flat, horseshoe-shaped ledge of rock.  The cave’s most noticeable features were its stalagmites: each stalagmite cluster on the cavern ledge was composed of exactly three stalagmites.  In each case, the central stalagmite was the tallest, flanked by two smaller columns on each side.  A quick count revealed at least a dozen such groupings.  A single boulder rested next to a shattered stalagmite.  The Kurgun and the dworg feared that the herd would split here, and that some of the beetles might even jump down into the bowl.  As they pondered what to do, a boulder hurtled through the air, landing a few inches short of a nearby stalagmite cluster.  More of the deep rumblings sounded from the far end of the cave, several hundred feet away across the bowl--some were suggestive of deep-throated laughter, while others were more suggestive of an enraged beast.  Realizing that time was running out and that they would not be able to communicate with Klot, Garn or Loic, Dag and Vargus decided to make a mad dash along the rock ledge, trying to stay as far away as possible from the stalagmite clusters, while dabbing the walls now and then with the bug juice.

The herd emerged a few moments later and, as feared by Dag and Vargus, split upon entering the cavern, some following the rocky ledge to the ride of the tunnel access, while the majority fortunately turned left, following the scent trail left by the dworg.  Only one fell into the bowl.  Klot, still in control of his mount, raced after the stray group, while Garn and Loic, oblivious to the impending threat, ensured that the majority of the herd stayed in line.  Yet as more boulders rained down, nearly striking them and the beetles, the rear guard realized the severity of their predicament and spurred the creatures on with renewed urgency.  Giants were lobbing boulders at them, and could crush them at any instant!  No wonder dwarves no longer dwelled here.  Klot miraculously managed to round up all the stray beetles save the one that went into the bowl.  Fortune smiled on the party, and against all odds, not a single beetle or herder was struck by the devastating projectiles that shattered cluster after cluster of the towering stalagmites.

There was no time to rest.  By the time stomach rumbles suggested that it would be well past mid-day on the surface, the grade of the tunnel had steepened considerably, but remained relatively wide and high.  Natural ripples in the flow of the rock appeared to form functional, if uneven steps.  These natural stairs went on for dozens of feet, their full length unseen due to small bends in the passage.  Part way down the stairs, Dag noticed a cord strung across the bottom of one of the steps.  Closer inspection of the area revealed a clay jar concealed overhead and out of reach, among the stalagtites.  With the herd on the verge of arriving, the Kurgun and dworg sought to eliminate any potential hazards posed by either the cord or the jar.  Their clumsy  efforts dislodged the jar, which shattered on the ground beside Dag, releasing a cloud of insects in the air that temporarily blinded the dwarf.  Vargus rolled out of the way in time, avoiding the worst of the cloud, and its effects.  Seconds later, the herd charged, apparently eager to devour the cricket-like insects.  A strange prank for either orc or dwarf, thought Vargus and Dag once the latter had recovered his vision, unconcerned that the beetles were momentarily distracted and feasting on the smaller insects.  Yet within minutes, a quarter of the herd manifested symptoms of illness and abruptly passed away.  The party was incredulous.  How could this have happened?  Were the insects themselves poisonous to the gluttonous beetles?  Who knew they were coming, and why did they want to poison the herd?

The bottom of the flowstone stairway  emerged on a narrow tunnel bearing the Vausa Clanhold goral fen, and continued to slope down at an ever steeper grade.  Several hundred feet further, the passage levelled off but remained narrower than before.  Soon, the party found the 10’ or so wide tunnel partially obstructed by the bloated body of a massive, purple-coloured, segmented worm.  There was less than a 5’ gap between the creature’s equally high body, and the ceiling.  Its nearly five-foot long, thorny, ochre-coloured stinger protruded from the tip of its tail, and stuck halfway into the passage, pointed right at the point men.  The other end of the worm was beyond sight, as its unmoving body wound around a bend in the tunnel.  An overpowering, rot-like stench that was stronger even than the stink of the malodorous herd pervaded the area.  Disbelieving the size of the monster, and guessing only at the sheer strength and nigh invulnerability of such a beast, Dag and Vargus spent a nervous moment confirming that the worm was in fact dead.  Satisfied that it was, they raced ahead.  Beetles then squeezed into the tunnel, either running along the top of the squishy and decaying carcass, or along its side, stealing bites as they advanced.  All were shocked that creatures of this magnitude actually lived within the bowels of the earth, but had no time to ponder the matter.  As Loic and Garn brought up the rear, the worm unexpectedly spat a gob of green acidic spittle at the Dorn, and lashed a nobby tongue out of its long-toothed maw, which it wrapped around the gnome.  As Loic stepped forward to fend off the beast, it spat yet another gob onto the barbarian and hit its mark, the acid burning into the Dorn’s flesh and sending him into a rage.  Garn slipped free momentarily from the constricting tongue, yet somehow a second tri-pronged tongue lashed out from the rotting monster’s maw and began to pull the choking gnome in.  The noise created by the beetles covered the sounds of battle from Klot and the others, and the beetle traffic effectively cut Garn and Loic off from the others.            

Without even moving its head, the worm began to swallow Garn, who was helpless in the ever tightening grasp of a tongue that was nearly as wide as he was tall.  The gnome, unable to breathe, lost consciousness as Loic followed him into the reeking, man-sized maw, desperately attempting to sever the tongue that was strangling his diminutive companion... and found to his surprise that the twin tongues that had lashed out at Garn were not tongues at all, but were in fact the incredibly long and spindly limbs of a creature roughly the gnome’s size, with rubbery, mottled flesh.   The horror hissed at Loic, the feint glow of the glow rod tucked in his belt revealing jagged teeth and beady, hate-filled eyes. The creature was cornered and already severely wounded by the Dorn.  The next blow of the barbarian’s halberd severed its second appendage and killed it.  

Garn, still held tightly in the grasp of the creature’s severed limb, still was not moving or even breathing...    
« Last Edit: October 16, 2009, 11:27:03 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #19 on: October 20, 2009, 02:46:25 AM »

EPISODE 11: DEFENDERS OF THE GREAT MOTHER

No... another companion fallen... another senseless death... Garnbrimble Nefarian Redshoe of Clan Greatbarge did not deserve such a horrible end, any more than Wendell Gale and Vallin Onyxarm deserved theirs...

With great fury, the Dornish barbarian named Loic Batz continued to slash again and again with his halberd at the rubbery corpse of the diminutive, long-limbed thing that had strangled his gnomish companion to death, and that had spat acid upon himself... Why had this creature ambushed them? Why???

Vargus “the Runt” and Dag of Durgis Cove squeezed along the narrow tunnel walls, evading the clicking mandibles of the giant beetles they were herding deeper into the depths of Aryth, while they made their way back to the purple worm carcass, Loic and Garn. Klot had signaled that there was trouble behind. Still astride the largest of the beetles, the human warrior did his best to keep the herd under control while the dworg and the Kurgun dwarf tried to reach the Dorn and gnome.

Loic barely noticed their arrival, so fixated was he on the pulverization of the bizarre assailant. Aside from the large, tri-pronged, knobby hand that had throttled Garn, there was nothing left of the creature by the time Vargus and Dag reached the scene. The dworg called upon the mystical fire within him and desperately attempted to reforge the fallen gnome’s body. Miraculously, colour returned to Garn’s pale face, and breath to his lungs. He coughed violently as air was forced down his throat, his crushed windpipe gradually and painfully opening again under the power of Vargus’s gift. Their gnomish leader still lived!

Despite having been brought back from the brink of death, Garn’s body was still worse for wear, wracked with pain. He searched for the medicinal salve that Golan had handed the party, and applied a third of the jar’s contents to his bruised neck and ribs. Within moments, he felt the worst of the pain dissipate, and most of the bruises fade; his breathing gradually returned to normal. The rogue’s self-confidence, however, remained frail. This was the third time that he had come within a hair’s breadth of death since first embarking on this quest nearly an arc ago. How much longer could he survive in this deep pit, when he could not even see much stronger and deadlier enemies creep up on him? Yet he had no choice but to go on... to pray that it would not be much longer until he regained the surface and its more familiar dangers...

After a few moments of rest, the party prepared to move forward. With some effort, they broke up fights between stray beetles that had evaded Klot, and brought the herd together once again. More hours passed as the train of strobing light pursued its trajectory into the seemingly bottomless abyss beneath the Kaladruns. Vargus’s superior depth perception confirmed that the party had descended to a depth that was at least 500 feet lower than when they first encountered Golan, Badel and their orcish foes, and far deeper than the point when they had first entered the dwarven refuge in the Carina River Gorge about a fortnight ago. The broad passage they had been following, marked by Vausra Clan goral fen visible only to the dworg’s eyes, frequently intersected with other passages and chambers, some broad and high-ceilinged, others narrow, each with their own, unfathomable guide marks. If Golan had not shown Vargus the Vausra Clan goral fen, which fortunately were obvious to the trained eye, then they easily would have gotten lost in this labyrinth.

Eventually, the goral fen lead into another broad cavern. More stalagmite clusters rose from the ground, to a height of ten feet or so. Not unexpectedly, the ceiling was shrouded in darkness, and even the keen eyes of the party scouts--Dag and Vargus--barely enabled them to see the tips of stalactites emerging here and there from the edge of the shadow. One outcropping of rock within the cave floor reached halfway to the cave roof. Water dripped loudly from the ceiling, forming wide pools. The ground was slick with much. As Dag and Vargus stepped into the cave, looking for the next Vausra clan goral fen, the dwarf spotted out of the corner of his eye something that the dworg did not. A bat-like, uniped monster the colour of night, with a 7’ or 8’ wing span and a long prehensile tail capped with a sharp spike, glided silently out of the shadows above. Its long, single claw, dug deep into the dworg, ripping both cloth and flesh as it flew back towards the shadows. To the surprise of both dworg and dwarf, the monster bore a rider on its back--a wild-maned, feral child that hissed, growled and laughed in a bestial manner as it launched stones at them with a sling.

Vargus, still reeling from the unexpected drop attack and the vicious wounds he had just suffered, sought cover from the beast’s deadly claw and the rider’s stones in the tunnel from which he and Dag had just come. Dag stood his ground, exchanging missile fire with the feral beast rider. As the beetle herd arrived on the scene, Vargus realized that he would need to take a risk and race back into the cave and seek out the next goral fen while Dag distracted the beast and rider, lest the beetles should follow the wrong tunnel out of the chamber. Upon entering the cave, the herd split, the majority of the bugs heading straight across the centre of the cave, while a smaller group veered off to the right...

With the arrival of the herd, the beast and rider changed tactics, charging from the air at undefended beetles in order to push them into one of three deep sinkholes that gaped in the cavern floor. The beast now constituted the only real threat. With a stroke of luck, Vargus was spared from further attacks and quickly found the goral fen he was looking for, and was delighted to see that most of the herd was heading in the correct direction on its own. He ran ahead of the insects as they entered the tunnel, trying to slow their pace. Klot, still mounted, attempted to round up the strays, while Dag and Garn continued to fire on the beast and rider. A clumsy attack by the feral child resulted in the loss of his sling into one of the sink holes, and an accurate shot by Dag slumped the rider in his saddle. The beast successfully knocked two beetles into the sinkholes with its powerful charge, then itself was swallowed by one of the holes upon a successful hit by one of Garn’s sling stones... only to fly out again from another hole near Loic and Garn, turning and coming in for yet another charge. Its claw struck a third beetle, which put up more resistance and enabled Loic to strike the bat-like creature with his halberd. The beetle survived, and the beast and slumped rider fell into the sink hole a second time.

This time, they did not return... but some other monstrosity rose in their stead. A jet black serpent with red stripes and intensely glowing milky white eyes rose from the sinkhole through which the beast and rider had fallen to a height of nearly 20’ – much of its slender body apparently still beyond the lower rim. A broad hood suddenly flared around its head, as it weaved rhythmically, looking down on Loic, Garn and Dag in turn with its chilling gaze. Fear held the adventurers in place as the serpent addressed them. “Thissssss issssss your lassssst chanccccce to turn back and flee,” it hissed menacingly in the Traders’ Tongue. “Thosssse who help the cruel fey bassssssstards commit their atrocccities will get what they desssserve…” The serpent tensed and coiled as if to strike, but just as abruptly began to slither backwards down the sinkhole from whence it came…

Why were the beast and rider intent on targeting the beetle herd? What was that serpent thing? What were these atrocities it accused the dwarves of committing? What was going on down here? The bewildered trio had little time to ponder those questions, as Klot had successfully rounded up the strays, and Vargus could only slow the bulk of the herd for so long...

The Vausra-rune marked passages twisted, turned and dropped ever deeper into the dark below, some intersections posing significant navigational and herding challenges. For a time, the passage narrowed again to a width 10’ or so, its uneven ceiling angling down gradually to a height of no more than 15’. The stench from the guano hoarding beetles was sickening and overpowered any other odours party members might otherwise have identified. The constant buzzing of the insects numbed everyone’s senses, and drowned out all sounds except for the occasional calls of party members. It felt as if the better part of a day had gone by, and the group began to wonder whether they would soon locate the besieged dwarven expedition team… They wondered whether they might have missed a key turn-off... but then, a Vausra clanhold goral fen would appear…

Eventually, the passage opened onto another cavern, the ceiling remaining 15’ high. Here the path traversed a flat, fissure-riddled shelf of rock that dropped into a deep gorge on the right-hand side. Ahead, to the left, a small forest of gypsum flowers, strangely beautiful formations of white cave rocks, sprouted from the walls and floor. Dag and Vargus thought they heard the groans of some wounded creature coming from the bottom of the gorge, but could see no living thing among the towering stalagmites on the chasm floor. A quick scan of the main cave revealed no threats, so the dwarf and dworg carried on into the only tunnel that led out of the cavern. Yet mere moments after the arrival of the beetles, walls of flame burst up from some of the fissures in the cave floor, trapping the bulk of the herd between two of the incendiary walls, the gorge, and the gypsum forest that seemed impassable to the giant insects. Klot’s mount was near one of the fissures when the flames erupted, and was knocked off his mount as it fled the flames and leapt into the air, turning towards one corner of the cave that was untouched by flames where a smaller number of beetles were congregating. The panicked insects that were not trapped by the firewalls milled about and eventually sought to overrun Garn and Loic in order to flee back up the tunnel from whence they had come. While the lead creatures practically trampled Garn, Loic held the broken, oversized bug herd in check with his halberd, forcing them back into a safe corner of the cavern.

While Garn and Loic tended to those beetles that were within their reach, someone or something taking cover in the gypsum forest was lobbing globes of green acid and sling stones at Klot, none of which hit their target. The warrior charged into the forest, first engaging with a living horror seemingly pieced together from parts of other species as some vile joke or blight on humanity and fey folk, and clad in poorly cured, putrid hides. The first one he encountered was hunch-backed, with mismatched ears (one dog-like, the other the size of a human child), a broad snout-like nose, one half of its face hairy and swollen, the other hairless and delicate, and with half-rotted teeth of various sizes and lengths. What he could see of the rest of its body was just as warped – a scarred, hairy muscular left arm that would fit better on an orc, and which ended abruptly in smooth stubby fingers that jutted out from the hides worn by the creature, and which contrasted with its other arm, which seemed human-like but ended in gnarled fingers. The freak had an uneven gate, and clutched a bone club in its hands. It was not much taller than a gnome, and uttered sounds that might be words in a nasal gibberish. The former Shadow warrior made short work of his deformed opponent.

Vargus and Dag promptly returned to the cave. The dwarf clambered up into the gypsum forest and attacked and quickly killed two of the other deformed monstrosities, while the dworg, unschooled in the ways of oil and water, conjured water from thin air in an attempt to douse some of the flames... to the latter’s surprise, the spell only seemed to spread the flames. From his vantage point in the gypsum forest, Dag spied two deformed freaks the size of tall humans or orcs, waving arms that had been set on fire at the trapped beetles. The frightened, non-aggressive insects leapt into the gorge in order to escape the flames.

Seeing that Loic had the remaining beetles under control, Garn entered the gypsum forest to provide back-up to Klot. The warrior had slashed a strange-looking woman with a weak blow from his sword--the one he had presumed had thrown the acid globes at him. As she fell to her knees and begged for mercy, the warrior raised his blade and prepared to deliver her death blow... but was convinced, just barely, by Garn, to spare her life (for the moment at least), if only to gain more knowledge about their unfamiliar foes... Klot, a dark glint in his eye, proposed to give her some “other kind of mercy.” The warrior, overtaken by bloodlust, turned his attention towards one of the flaming-armed freaks. The other freak leapt through the diminishing wall

of flame and charged Loic. Both the deformed, yet fearless opponents, surprisingly exhibited few signs of having been burned by the flames that licked their arms. Flaming fist after flaming fist swung at the Dorn and the dwarf, who managed to avoid the strikes and
grapple attempts of their foes, and ultimately prevailed against them. Garn and Dag kept close watch on their female prisoner, while Vargus looked down into the gorge for signs of the fallen beetles, and for a way to bring them back up. Most, it seemed, had survived the fall by gliding down on their small wings... Yet to his dismay, they did not seem able to leap back up to the lip of the 50’ gorge, nor could he think of any way to catch or pull them back up.

Once the battle was over, Dag, Vargus, Garn and Klot closed around the strange woman, while Loic kept watch on the remainder of the herd--perhaps a third of the original number remained. The woman was slender and clad in simple traveller’s garb – a worn grey woollen cloak over brown trousers and a cream-coloured jerkin. A leather satchel hanged at her left hip, slung from the right shoulder. Her features were quite pretty, but unsettling -- her flawless skin was very dark, darker even than most Sarcosans that Loic, Klot and Garn had encountered, her green eyes intense and piercing. Her brows were very sharply angled. Long, silvery-black hair flowed past her shoulders. A wooden staff lay on the ground at her side.

It did not take much to convince her to cooperate. Garn promised that her life would be spared, and that she would not be mistreated (even by Klot) if she answered the party’s questions truthfully. They would even allow her to keep her possessions.

The woman also began by asking questions of her own. “You cannot be Agents of Shadow, if you aid the mountain fey,” she stated fluently in the Trader’s Tongue. “Why do you help them? The mountain fey are as cruel and cold-hearted as the Shadow… they butcher everything and everyone they do not trust… and they understand nothing, and therefore trust no one…”

After Garn provided his guarded response, and then questioned her further, she revealed the following:

“Years ago, my many times Great Grandmother, sought to make a pact with the fey… They would not see the spirit of love beyond her twisted physical form, and thus tried to kill her, believing her Shadow-spawned… They are as bloodthirsty as…” (she glanced briefly at Dag and Vargus, and did not complete her sentence)… “She yet lives, Great Grandmother, trapped in her physical form, underneath mounds of rubble… There she has lain for years, and we come to save her… If you had no one in the world, and you had the opportunity to meet the Great Progenitor whose blood flowed through your veins, and set you apart from everyone else… would you not take it?”
With respect to her fallen allies, she added:

“These poor, deformed wretches are Forsaken. They and their forebears were the victims of generations of cruelty, abuse and rape… by orcs, by goblin-kin, by the savage feral folk that roam the plains… some have the blood of river and plains fey, and even of humans in them… and of the Grand Mother… I first encountered them but recently… they eked an existence in remote parts of the mountains south of here, hunted by all who encountered them… The orc armies push deeper into the mountains, and like the mountain fey, the Forsaken flee before the hordes… They seek only to live in peace, among their own, bastardized people…”

After some hesitation, she continued. “I, too, share some of their blood… though my ancestors must have endured far less savagery and barbarism than those of the Forsaken did… still, life on the fringes has been far from easy for my kind, as well…” The woman’s words struck a chord in Vargus, for he knew that his origin was not so different, either.

When Garn questioned her about the serpent, she said:

“Sosias the serpent is Grand Mother’s guardian… It fled the ruin that buried its master, and came and found me, and found the others… it recruited the Great Progenitor’s grandchildren from across Eredane, to come and save her… Sosias unites and leads us… He knew you were coming… he sent us to stop you, because he thought your hearts and minds could not be swayed… but now that you know the truth, will you aid us, now?” As an afterthought, she asked about the fate of “the rider,” whom she correctly assumed you had encountered previously in the tunnels. She felt sorry for him, for he was little more than a child.

She desperately pleaded with the party to abort their quest. “I beg you, please reconsider what you are doing… by bringing these beetles, you will only allow the mountain fey to pierce that one defence that enables us to conceal ourselves as we work to rescue Grand Mother… you will help them slaughter us, for they will not be swayed in their thirst for blood… we kill their warriors only because they slaughter us…”

Giving her story further thought, Garn proposed that the party attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution between the dwarven excavation team and the defenders of the Great Mother. She was skeptical that such a resolution could be achieved, due to the dwarves’ bloodthirsty nature, but she agreed that it would be the ideal outcome. Garn’s conciliatory approach seemed to reassure her.

She even complimented him, stating that she thought him a worthy ambassador of his people, and that she understood why gnomes had fared so well in the Last Age...
« Last Edit: October 20, 2009, 03:07:48 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #20 on: January 04, 2010, 02:45:49 PM »

EPISODE 12: WHERE THE EYES OF DWARVES NOW FAIL

Of the more than two dozen beetles the party had initially herded to bring to the aid of the besieged dwarven excavation team, barely a half-dozen had survived the most recent ambush conducted by the horribly misshapen and suicidal freaks that the comely, dark-skinned woman that was now prisoner of the party referred to as “Forsaken.”  The odd-looking woman had led the deformed monstrosities against the party, but had been cooperative since her capture.  She had also informed her captors that no more ambushes awaited them on their way to the battleground between the mountain fey excavation team and the Forsaken, and that the conflict zone was not much further ahead.  She seemed sincere in her hope that Garn would be able to broker a truce between the warring factions. 

Aside from the loss of more beetles, the party had suffered no casualties, and so continued to press on towards their destination.  Ever since accepting Golan’s allegedly prophesied quest, the insurgents had had no time to rest, and had swallowed what rations they could while on the run.  Muscles and eyes (for those unaccustomed to life underground) had long grown weary, and the wounded felt especially run down. 

The air in the depths was cold and damp, and party members could see their breath as they moved.  After some time, and after passing several more intersections, the party arrived at another junction where they discovered five dead bodies -- two dwarves, two deformed Forsaken (one gnome-sized, the other orc-sized), and one human male.  One dwarf had been bludgeoned to death; the other had been rent beyond recognition, and also had a large puncture wound in his chest surrounded by what appeared to be burn marks. 

Just a few moments travel passed the intersection with the corpses, the beetle herd unexplainably began to flare wildly, practically blinding Klot, Garn and Loic, and then increased its pace into what could be considered an all-out charge.  The passage widened yet again and opened onto an immense chamber, the ends of which the party could not see.  Vargus and Dag, ahead of the herd and their companions, saw the cave floor fall away in a series of high steps or shelves, towards which the herd was racing… Above the din of the giant insects, they thought they could hear occasional yells. 

The beetles glided safely from shelf to shelf, while the herders clambered down concealed iron ladders until they reached the cavern floor.   A dwarf ran towards the party, telling the surface dwellers frantically, in his own tongue, that they had to rein the beetles in and take them away from the battlefield... there had been some sort of misunderstanding between the dwarves and their assailants, and this dwarf now felt that his brethren were committing some great wrong by slaughtering the beast men... The beetles and the light they shed would only accelerate this needless slaughter... Discussions with this dwarf were confusing, and complicated by differences in dialect, and by the din of combat.  Loic kept the herd under control, while Vargus and Klot advanced on their own in order to better appraise the situation.  Their keen eyesight only enabled them to see so far -- a cloud of roiling darkness dimmed their vision.  Vargus stepped within a few feet of the cloud and addressed those within, but his entreaties were met with a volley of crossbow bolts, one of which was deadly accurate.  The dworg retreated and found cover behind some rubble, near the foot of a massive rockslide.  Klot maintained his concealment -- both he and the dworg became aware of movement in the nearby rubble fields, and of a shadow gliding far overhead.  Corpses of dwarves and Forsaken littered the ground around the shadow-ringed area.

As Dag and Garn continued to negotiate with the dwarven pacifist, a woman-child roughly Garn’s height appeared from behind a stalagmite outcropping ahead, not far from Klot’s position.  The woman-child was clad in brown leather leggings and jerkin, and bore a number of small javelins, including one mahogany-shafted weapon with a silver tip.  A hooded black serpent with a crimson stripe was coiled around her waist, its head hovering above her shoulders.  She introduced herself as Jassantha, and you had met her serpent Sosias, at the end of your confrontation with the airborne rider.  The dark-skinned prisoner explained the party’s intention to Jassantha, and the latter permitted Garn and Dag to approach the dwarven camp -- without beetles.  Loic stayed behind, keeping an eye on the herd.   

Dag and Garn approached the cloud of darkness that engulfed the dwarven encampment, and attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with its occupants.  The besieged dwarves refused, claiming that the Forsaken were Shadow-spawn, that the “mother” they were trying to free was a demon, and that those who would aid the Shadow-spawn must be agents of Shadow themselves.  Although mention of both Golan having sent the party to the aid of the excavation team, and of the manifestation of Durum Wormbane, created some hesitation among the defenders, in the end, they remained unswayed and fired another volley of bolts at the Kurgun and gnome.  Garn charged into the darkness and vaulted into the camp, intent on proving to the dwarves his benevolent intentions, even though thus far the mountain fey had shown no inclination or ability to communicate in the Trader’s Tongue.  The gnome was confronted by the silhouettes of two dwarves, which swung at him with their battles axes, even though the intruder kept his weapons sheathed and did nothing to counter attack.  In the meantime, Dag began to hurry back toward the herd, intent on sending them to the dwarven encampment in order to dispel the unnatural darkness, if only as a show of good faith.

At that moment, Jassantha ululated loudly, and three Forsaken emerged from cover of darkness and attacked Loic, who had but a glow-rod to cast feeble light on his opponents.  Others emerged from the rubble fields around the dwarven encampment, and began to pelt the excavation team with stones.  Jassantha and Sosias intercepted Dag before he could reach the herd, but startled by the ambush on Loic, the insects began to stampede towards the roiling darkness around the camp.  Klot then joined in the fray, engaging and swiftly felling the dwarf that had tried to convince them to lead the beetles away while a human-like being with great horns protruding from his forehead moved to flank the former Shadow warrior. 

Having miraculously dodged all the axe blows of the two dwarven defenders that cornered him, still refusing to fight, and using whatever Dwarven words he could think of to pressure his assailants to negotiate rather than fight, Garn eventually led by the scruff of his neck out of the makeshift fort by one of the dwarves, who initially held the gnome as a partial shield.  Overhead, the dark-winged cave glider, feral child-rider still slumped in its harness, swooped down towards the charging beetles.  Volleys of stones also rained down on the insects from above.  Nevertheless, a half-dozen beetles disappeared into the darkness.  A moment later, their flares lifted the supernatural gloom and cast a bright light throughout the cave, resulting in a loud cheer from the dwarven encampment.  Loic continued to struggle against his unsightly attackers, and having slain one of the Forsaken.  The gigantic serpent coiled itself around Dag as two of the gnome-sized Forsaken came to the aid of Jassantha.  The Kurgun’s axe blows seemed to inflict little, if any harm when they struck either the woman-child or the serpent.  Jassantha dropped her javelins and chose instead to claw and bite at the flanked and entangled dwarf -- teeth and talons extending as her child-like features took on a demonic countenance, and her strength as well as proficiency in hand-to-hand combat were both surprising and terrifying; Dag began to fear that the diminutive woman might tear him limb from limb.  The dwarf that held Garn released the gnome and charged into the fray, burying his axe in the dark-skinned woman the party had taken prisoner; she did not even have a chance to defend herself.  Klot turned his attention to a human-like Forsaken with great horns protruding from his forehead.  Garn and Vargus tried to protect the beetles from the winged predator. 

Seeing the predicament Dag was in, Vargus eventually left Garn alone to deal with the cave glider.  The dworg ran to his Kurgun companion’s aid.  As the melee reached its most desperate point, Dag severed the milky-eyed serpent in twain.  Its twin halves thrashed wildly on the ground, and then were still; yet in the place of flesh and blood, all that was left of Sosias was two sections of black-hued hemp rope.  Jassantha’s eyes turned red with rage, and a pair of bat-like wings ripped through the back of her jerkin.  The woman-child flew beyond the reach of blade and bow, heading into the darkness of the broad passage that had led the party to the battlefield.  Fearlessly battling the cave glider on his own, Garn finally slew the oft-stricken creature with a well-aimed thrust, while the dwarves in the makeshift fort either fired crossbow bolts or pursued the now leaderless Forsaken that hid among the rubble fields.         

Within moments, the last of the Forsaken had fled through some shadowy holes in the rubble.  The light from the beetles dimmed, becoming but sporadic flashes once again.  The surviving dwarves and surface dwellers eyed each other warily.  Despite the mutual aid and victory against the Forsaken, and nods of acknowledgement and gratitude from the surviving members of the excavation team, some mistrust (primarily and ironically directed at Vargus and the tattooed Dag, as well as Klot) remained evident.  Nevertheless, following further reaffirmation of the party’s encounters with both Golan and Durum Wormbane, and given their role in the defeat of the Forsaken (Shadow-spawn, in the opinion of the dwarves), the mountain fey indicated that they would take the unorthodox beetle herders with them back to Pardrum Holdfast.  Yet before the return journey, which would take approximately the equivalent of two days, all agreed that a brief period of rest would be necessary.  Fewer than a half-score of dwarves had survived the assault by the Forsaken, and all survivors were wounded.  From what Dag and Vargus could gather, the freaks had kept the dwarves pinned within their makeshift fort, and also vaulted the walls under cover of sorcerous darkness, which did not impede the assailants in any way.  When the dwarves attempted to take the battle into the rubble fields, other clouds of unnaturally deep darkness would manifest around them.  Wherever they fought the Forsaken, they ended up at a disadvantage.  Thus, sheltering within the walls of a ruined structure seemed their best tactical option.  Still, a dozen had perished, taking more than double that number of Forsaken with them; others no doubt left the battlefield wounded.  Though most of the dwarves had full beards, by human or gnomish standards, they were of modest length for mountain fey.  Worried about what might still live beneath the rubble field, the dwarves felt it would be wiser to find a smaller cave in a side passage to rest in, lest the survivors should succumb to the buried evil.  Their clan elders would decide how to deal with the Great Mother of the Forsaken... not to mention the party of surface dwellers that had helped drive off the horde of deformed beastmen...
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« Reply #21 on: January 25, 2010, 03:32:04 AM »

EPISODE 13: PARDRUM HOLDFAST (Part 1)


After a peaceful night’s rest, the party awakened to the usual darkness of the underground.  After another breakfast of mushrooms and dried ort, washed down by fiery spirits, Golan led the surface dwellers and his brethren that had been under siege among the ruins of the old Vausra Clanhold further into the dark and twisting labyrinth. The threatening cries of prowling Forsaken and other underground predators heard on the previous day ceased to be audible, and while still vigilant, the battered dwarves seemed more at ease.  Much of the route taken by Golan snaked ever downward, until the group reached a depth that Vargus suggested would be equivalent to 1,000 feet below the surface.  Loic and Klot found it particularly difficult to squeeze and crawl through the narrow spaces and onto the precarious ledges that the last leg of the journey to Pardrum Holdfast required.  Assuming that the holds of the mountain fey of the northern Kaladruns were situated in much the same way as Pardrum was, the tight passages might explain in part why it has taken the Shadow so long to conquer the former.  On multiple occasions, Golan instructed the surface dwellers to be especially careful with their footing... one could only guess what would happen if one stepped in the wrong place.

At long last, one of the many crawlspaces opened onto a cavern that seemed to have been ravaged by collapses.  Three walls had been reduced to debris.  Indeed, the party had crawled into the chamber from beneath a massive file of rubble, and the surface dwellers could not help but wonder about the stability of the ceiling that was just beyond the edge of even Dag, Vargus and Klot’s more acute senses.  Near the cavern wall, to their left were approximately two-score iron poles sticking up from the mud, topped with the heads of recently slain orcs--perhaps those left at the conclusion of the battle a few days prior with the odrendor scouting party?  Other orc and goblinoid heads adorned the poles below those, like bloody beads on a gruesome necklace.  From the top down, the heads were increasingly rotten.  Many of the ones near the ground were half-mummified and showed signs of having been picked at by scavenging orts.  

The poles were scattered haphazardly in front of what must once have been an ornately worked opening in the cavern wall.  The entranceway was suggestive of a carved dragon’s maw, but most of the dragon’s features had been worn away and most of the mouth had been filled in with heavy stone masonry, leaving only a small passage through which even a gnome would need to crouch.  “Pardrum Holdfast,” announced Golan. The dwarves seemed relieved by the sight.  Golan waved the group onward. leading them through the narrow passage.    

Once again, all but Garn had to get on their hands and knees to crawl through the narrow tunnel, which bent back and forth for approximately 50 feet and then emptied onto a chamber that was 30 feet in diameter.  Across the room was a large, circular stone gate, similar in design to those seen in Durgis Rock.  Those who could see in the dark observed that the surrounding walls were 30 feet high, very smooth, tapered inward slightly, and were crenelated at the top. Klot, Vargus and Dag took note of the dozens of holes and slits perforating the ceiling overhead.

As the party emerged from the crawl passage in clothes that looked no better than tattered rags, they heard a massive shuffling of boots and clanging of weapons overhead.  Those with sharper vision caught glimpses of what must have been dozens of helmed heads, spear tips and crossbows among the crenelations. Once the last of the surface dwellers had entered the enclosure beyond the tunnel, a deep, authoritative dwarven voiced boomed from above, in heavily accented Trader, demanding the names, places of origin, and purpose of “those who traveled with a son of Pardrum.”  Each in turn, Loic Batz, Dag of Durgis Cove, Vargus of Durgis Rock, Garnbrimble Nefarian Redshoe of Clan Greatbarge, and Klot (now suspiciously claiming to be from a place called Blackweir) introduced themselves cautiously, explaining that they had stumbled into the vicinity of Pardrum Holdfast unintentionally, as a result of having followed goral fen subsequent to having evaded an orc patrol on the surface; the party sought only to return to the surface.

After a long, tension-laden pause, Golan added, in the local dialect, that the party “were the friends of whom he had spoken, the unlikely allies Pardrum’s revered lore master said would come. The voice of authority remained skeptical: “we shall see,” it replied in Trader after another long pause.  The unseen commander spoke a few more gruff words in the local dialect, following which Golan turned and instructed the party to drop all their weapons, packs and personal belongings.  “You have my word... you will not be harmed, and my people are not thieves,” he stated.  This step allegedly was necessary for the safety of the Hold.  The surviving excavation team members took place along the perimeter, axes, picks and hammers held at the ready.

Garn immediately piped up, assuring the unseen speaker that the party would cooperate, promptly tossing his daggers on the ground, and dropping his pack.  The others did so hesitantly, and Klot could not help but make a few taunting remarks in Erenlander, but ultimately all complied.  Long moments passed by, without the dwarves uttering a word or making a move--spears and crossbows still trained on the surface dwellers.  Then, the massive stone gate slowly rolled aside, and a squadron of a dozen barrel-chested dwarves clad in plate mail and bearing steel shields and waraxes stepped forth and moved to encircle the party, who were then led beyond the gate and into a small chamber that featured heavy iron double doors in its other three walls.  The ceiling was barely 5’ high, forcing the taller party members to stoop as they entered.  As you the party was herded down the passage leading through the set of doors to the right, Golan followed a squad of soldiers heading in the opposite direction.  

The insurgents and their armed escort travelled along a 5’ wide and just as low corridor cut through the stone and dimly illuminated by glowing runs.  The passage took them beyond multiple sets of iron double doors; slits lined the walls and ceilings, and other murderous and well-protected mechanical devices were positioned in key defensive zones.  The guards took their prisoners up a spiraling flight of stairs and into a circular room, into the walls of which were set seven single iron doors, watched by two custodians in chainmail armour.  One of the custodians opened an iron door, which led into the party’s holding quarters: a windowless and spartan, yet seemingly clean and comfortable 20‘ square room furnished with two beds, a stone stable, chairs, empty shelves and a chamber bucket.  Given the circumstances, the party certainly did not feel there was anything to complain about.  Once all were in, the custodian barred the door behind them.

The party did not know what to think.  Loic felt there was a possibility that they would be freed and perhaps aided to return to the surface, but that there was an equal possibility that they would be executed.  Klot thought the latter was likely--given what they had witnessed of mountain fey behaviour thus far, what else could be expected, especially when they had a dworg in their company.  The former Shadow warrior took the opportunity to interrogate “Sheep’s Dung” further on the significance of his facial tattoos, with no explanation coming in return from Dag.  Klot suspected that the tattoos could not be good news, as none of the other mountain fey they had encountered had them.  As tempers flared momentarily, Garn made it clear that as leader, he only desired to leave this hold and find a way back to the surface without delay.  In his opinion, the deep dwarves had proven themselves to be nothing more than genocidal xenophobes of the worst kind, and he did not even wish to make allies of them.  All wondered what the Pardrum dwarves would do with Woden’s dragon case and mithral axe, Loic’s matching mithral urutuks, the elven hearthstone, and everyone’s personal equipment. Eventually, the group acknowledged the futility of worrying, knowing that their fate was entirely out of their control.        

Some time later, as most of the party had gone to sleep (feeling the safest and most comfortable they had in weeks, despite their predicament), the custodian brought them
trays with hot mushroom soup, freshly cooked ort meat and mushroom bread, cave peppers, and flasks of dwarf spirits--the best meal they had had in recent memory, after having spent weeks living off foraged fungi and half-cooked ort.  When the group was on the verge of passing out from exhaustion, their hunger satisfied, the armed escort returned.

This time the surface dwellers were led along a different set of corridors, making turns at various intersections that all looked the same.  After some time, the corridors widened into a broad, onyx-floored, high-ceilinged hall dominated by ornate marble columns carved into the likeness of muscular dwarves supporting the vaulted ceiling.  There was no opportunity to admire the sculptures, suits of armour and weapons that lined the walls.  The party was led down the central isle between the columns, through a set of ornately carved bronze double doors and into a wide, circular, low-ceilinged chamber.  Large runes were carved at regular intervals in the walls of the chamber, the light they radiate glinting off the suits of armour that stood in alcoves between colourful murals that depicted dwarves engaged in warfare against orcs and Shadowspawn, or standing victorious over foes with gleaming, possibly enchanted weapons in hand.  A round stone table with a diameter of perhaps 15 feet filled the middle of the room, perhaps 15 feet below where the insurgents presently stood, rows of seats radiating outward and up from behind the table to their level.  Six aged, grim-looking dwarves, half of them women, sat on one side of the table, waiting for the party to descend the stairs and stand before them.  The men were clad in burnished mail.  One of the women had leathered skin and long, black and kinky, greasy hair.  She had a stump for a left arm and, like Loic, had a scarred socket where her left eye should have been.  The crone was dressed in stone grey robes with a silver sash and runic designs embroidered into the fabric.  Golan, looking healthy and well-groomed in a suit of polished plate mail as he stood stiffly at attention before the elders on the party’s side of the table, turned his head and fixed the surface dwellers with a confident gaze.  An exceptionally stout and tall-looking elderly gnome, in elegant yet simple robes, stood between Golan and the elders.  The foreigners seemed out of place in their torn, stained and ill-fitting rags, but all the same, one of the elders motioned for them to come down and take a seat at the table. The dozen mail-clad soldiers that escorted the party shut the chamber doors and took positions along the walls.

The third elder from the left, seated in a gilded, high-backed chair topped with a swirling dragon motif, spoke in his dialect in a booming voice, while the stout gnome translated for the party in Trader.  “I am Thedron, dor of Cardaal Clan,” he said, “and I bid you welcome.”  The latter statement seemed difficult, uncertain.  The other members of the high council were introduced in turn: Dola Cardaal, lore master (the maimed crone), and dorthanes Bergthor, Hammar, Umea, and Ringgeld (the latter two being the other women).  Contrary to what some party members had heard with regards to dwarven women, none of these ladies happen to be bearded or ugly even, save the maimed crone.            

Dor Thedron stated, via his interpreter, that Golan, son of dorthane Umea, was held in high esteem by their people.  The dor added that Golan told the council that had the surface dwellers not come to his aid when an odrendor scouting party ambushed his zuhr, and that were it not for their bravery, then he surely would have perished with his comrades.  Golan also informed the council of the way the foreigners herded the light-shedding beetles that saved some of their youth who unknowingly tunneled into the ruins of the old Vausra Clanhold, and who ended up trapped and besieged therein by foul Shadowspawn that could blind them with unnatural darkness.  

Dor Thedron also asserted that it was not customary for the high council to meet with strangers at night--or to grant hospitality to those of Vargus and Dag’s ilk--but given the circumstances, they felt that the meeting could not wait until morn because of “pressing questions” that needed to be answered.  Since most of the party really could no longer distinguish day from night due to the perpetual darkness of the subterranean environment, this lack of consideration on the dwarves‘ part was deemed to not be particularly bothersome.  The dor and his dorthanes then took turns asking the party questions via the interpreter.  

They inquired again as to each of their “guest’s” origins, and then sought an explanation as to why such an odd assemblage of misfits would travel together.  Who sent them to Pardrum?  Garn, who had inherited the mantle of leader since Wendell’s passing, was uncharacteristically subdued throughout the interrogation, so the others frequently had to chime in on his behalf.  They pieced their story thus far as best they could:

Garn, Loic and another companion by the name of Vallin Onyxarm, who previously had been unacquainted with one another, met for the first time a little over an arc ago in a village by the name of Koln.  There, they became unwittingly embroiled in an impromptu mission to beat a passing legate, Drugan Deem, to nearby caves that contained insurgent contraband.  The legate had sensed the presence of magic in the area, and some locals feared that the contraband cache might be the source of the aura detected by the legate.  Ultimately, Garn, Loic and Vallin ended up murdering the legate and some of his orc retinue.  

While traveling through the wilderness back to Koln the day after the fateful encounter with legate Deem, Loic, Garn and Vallin were ambushed by Klot, who accompanied a party of three mysterious woodland fey and an elderly gnome trader, Wendell Gale.  Both Loic and Garn had come to Koln with the intention of meeting with Wendell, and Vallin likewise was looking for work of an unspecified nature… by joining with the trader’s mysterious party, the three would also be putting some distance between themselves, Koln, and the Shadow troops that would soon scour the hills in search of the missing legate and his orc soldiers, and of those who may have played a role in their disappearance. The entire village likely would pay the price for the disappearance of the legate and his retinue… but what was done was done, said Wendell sadly, and there was nothing they could do now to save Koln. And besides, a higher purpose awaited the trio, and his group had need of their extra muscle…

Once in the mountains, the eight met Vargus at a place called Kurgun Falls, from where he and his companion Dunkin guided the westerners to Durgis Rock, to meet with dor Woden.  Apparently, the elves were on a mission of great importance, which required that they carry something that Woden would give them back to the great wood of Erethor.  

During Vargus and Dunk’s absence, Shadow forces had raided Durgis Rock and put its residents to vardatch and sword; others had been crushed by monstrous stone juggernauts.  When the party approached the ruined settlement, they noticed that a rear guard was busy looting and burning corpses.  The party split in two--the elves would distract the goblins and stone goliaths while the others went to seek out in Woden in the Great Keep.  They found Woden on the brink of death, and he entrusted Vargus with his mithral axe and the dragon scroll case.  The dying dor made Vargu swear an oath that he would carry the scroll case to the Witch Queen of the Elves, and the dworg took the oath.  

Upon leaving the Great Keep, the party found that the Lady Rhiann and her two bodyguards had defeated the remaining goblins and goliaths, at the cost of their own lives.  

As the party traveled back down the valley, they aided a beleaguered Dag, who was fighting alone against a horde of goblin fell.  As he had been on his way to deliver a message to Woden from a neighbouring clan, the tattooed Kurgun felt that the best way to honour the memory of his fallen ally was to make sure that the former’s wish was fulfilled.  

A few days later, the party nearly stumbled into a large orc squadron that was heading up the valley.  The group found the hidden Cardaal refuge, and eluded the orcs by traveling under the mountain.  While it had not been their intention to travel underground for so long, they felt they had no choice, and the dworg’s familiarity with goral fen led them into the vicinity of Pardrum Holdfast.  Wendell, their former leader, passed away in another dwarven refuge a few days from Pardrum.  Some dwarven spirit that Golan later told them was Durum Wormbane led the party to the site of the battle between Golan, Badel and the orc scouting party, and from there they herded the giant light-shedding beetles to the ruins of the Vausra Clanhold.

The high council listened to the story intently, at first incredulous that elves could have made the journey to the Kaladruns, then suspicious of their motives.  It had been long since elves and dwarves had met, and they worried that as a result of their affinity for sorcery, it was likely that the forest folk had been corrupted by the Shadow and cast some kind of spell on Woden that he might surrender to them precious dwarven lore. They also wondered how Vargus had learnt to read goral fen, since Durgis Clan were soft surface folk.  In quasi-disgust, Dor Thedron admitted that Cardaal Clan “had once traded, many great arcs ago, with Durgis Clan, before they took to sheltering criminals and orcs,” fixing Vargus and Dag as he made his vexatious statement.    

As the interrogation became increasingly hostile, the high council demanded to know where the party intended to go from here, to what end, and what they expected from the sons and daughters of Pardrum.  The insurgents indicated that they only wanted to be directed toward the surface; the high council willing, they would also be grateful if they could be provided with a guide, provisions, clothes, and their equipment. The councilors responded that such would be considered only after all questions had been answered and after they had discussed the fate of the surface dwellers.

The party also had to allay concerns over their alleged support for the Forsaken that had besieged the excavation team in the ruins of the Vausra Clanhold... why did they side with the servants of Shadow?  Were they acquainted with their kind before?

Likewise, the council was suspicious of the equipment carried by the party.  Where had Klot obtained his apparently Shadow-crafted sword and armour?  Where had Loic obtained the twin mithral urutuks he carried, and why should he be allowed to keep such exquisitely crafted dwarven weapons?  What was inside Woden’s dragon case? The lore master indicated that it was guarded by powerful wards that even she could not dispel.  What was the smooth black stone that Garn carried in his pack?  What made an “ort” like Vargus worthy of carrying a dor’s axe?  Why should an exiled adulterer (the significance of Dag’s tattoos finally became clear to those companions who did not previously know what they represented) and an orc be trusted, given that dishonour and treachery run in their veins? If they turned on the Shadowspawn in the ruins of Vausra Clanhold, what would stop them from turning on the sons and daughters of Pardrum?

Klot claimed that he was a member of a resistance cell near Baden’s Bluff, and that he and his associates had ambushed a legate’s retinue, and that he took his present garb and weapons from one of their fallen enemies to facilitate his movements through the countryside.  Loic angrily retorted that Klot was a liar, that he had repeatedly told them that he was a deserter who was born in the Shadow’s “breeding pits.”  Klot argued that Loic’s claims had merely been part of his “cover.”  The already aggressive interrogators now had more grounds for suspicion as a result of the party’s internal strife and suggestions that Klot may have been an actual agent of Shadow.  The dwarves wondered why, if the party had difficulty trusting Klot, they traveled with him.  Garn offered that Klot had for some unknown reason been chosen by the elves as a protector, and that he had demonstrated his worth in combat against Shadow forces on several occasions... doing his best to avoid mentioning the incident where Klot’s inaction nearly cost Loic and Dag their lives...  

In their own defence, Vargus and Dag contended that one should have faith in the decisions made by a clan’s dor, and if Woden entrusted the dworg to wield his axe and to fulfill the quest, then such should be sufficient testament to the dworg’s character.  Dag further exclaimed that the dor had no right to judge him and that he did not know the circumstances that led to the Kurgun’s branding, that he had lost his home to the Shadow, and that at least he and Vargus were doing something to actively oppose the enemy, rather than “hiding” underground and waiting for the invaders to come.  The Kurgun further argued that the Cardaal should learn from Bolart, Dor of Gorand Clan--that the clans must unite if they are to stand against the Shadow.  By this point, Dor Thedron’s honour had been severly wounded, and the old crone spoke to him in pacifying tones, uttering words in the Cardaal dialect to her fellow councilors that none of the surface dwellers fully understood, and which were not translated by the interpreter.    

The crone then asked the party why, if they were released, they should be allowed to leave with the dragon case... after all, no one, especially a dwarf and a dworg, can be expected to cross Erenland without being captured or killed, which would make it all too easy for the secrets of the case to fall into enemy hands.  Vargus reasserted that he had made an oath, that he had faith in Woden’s judgement, and that he had to try... that doing nothing was no better an option...

The party were then escorted back to their holding chamber, all to a man sinking into a deep slumber, exhausted by the grueling interrogation and their endless journey through the oppressive underdark...  
« Last Edit: January 25, 2010, 03:34:50 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #22 on: January 26, 2010, 01:16:10 AM »

EPISODE 13: PARDRUM HOLDFAST (Part 2)

The captive surface dwellers passed the time in their reasonably comfortble holding chamber primarily by sleeping for long spells, waking only when food was served.  At last, well into the following day, the group was summoned again before the high council.  The dor and most of his dorthanes seemed as grim as they did the night before, which did not bode well for the fate of the insurgents.  Only the old crone seemed to have a more welcoming countenance.  At last, dor Thedron addressed the foreigners.  The council, it seemed, remained divided on certain points, but in the end--and to the astonishment of the outsiders--they had agreed that the weight of the surface dweller’s passionate words and great deeds spoke for themselves.  Consequently, Loic Batz, Dag of Durgis Cove, Vargus of Durgis Rock, Garnbrimble Nefarian Redshoe of Clan Greatbarge, and Klot “of Blackweir” would be accorded the status of honoured guests.  All their possessions, including Woden’s mithral axe and dragon case, and Loic’s twin mithral urutuks, would be returned to them.  The council granted them more comfortable rooms in the heart of the hold, and the visitors would be free to travel as they pleased among the somewhat misnamed “civilian” quarters... for it seemed that only the youngest child could be considered a non-combatant.  The surface dwellers would be free to stay as long as they wanted, and a guide would lead them back to the surface when they were ready to undertake the trek.  While they remained in the hold, they could make whatever trades they could with the local craftsmen; new outfits would be provided for them at no cost to replace the rags that they presently wore.  Most important of all, the council would not interfere with the strangers‘ quest.  While the council stopped short of apologizing for some of their more vexatious remarks, they did acknowledge that it was unfortunate that the first meeting took the tone that it did.  They also explained that their cold welcome was in many ways a necessity... that it was the only way to truly gauge the worth of the mysterious outsiders...

As the party gathered their belongings, from the holding chamber, Garn quietly whispered that they should take the opportunity to leave Pardrum Holdfast without delay.  The others preferred to linger for a few days, to take the time to recover fully from their injuries and exhaustion in relative safety, and to hopefully barter for quality armour.  The gnomish leader was overruled by his taller and stronger companions.  Shortly after the council’s decision, party members were supplied with new garments, made of dyed ort hide.  The outfits were warm but somewhat itchy, and “the look” did not seem right on the humans and the gnome.  Yet given the state of their travelling attire, none complained.  

Over the following days, Golan acted as a guide and interpreter for the party, showing them the town and introducing them to friends, family, comrades-in-arms, and craftsmen.  Most of the dwarven folk the surface dwellers were introduced to were polite and cordial (though more weary when presented to the dworg, the tattooed Kurgun and the unsettling Klot).  The surface dwellers were amazed by the scale and construction of the underground hold.  At first, they saw only claustrophobic passages with few landmarks for those unfamiliar with dwarven runes to distinguish one tunnel, intersection or other area from another.  The place was a veritable maze, with heavy doors and gates set at regular intervals that would enable tunnels to be sealed.  The party could easily imagine invaders becoming lost or trapped in the labyrinth, then subject to traps or attacks from concealed positions behind the walls or above the ceiling.  Despite dwarves’ ability to see in the dark, light-shedding runes adorned the walls throughout the hold.    

In Golan’s company, the party strolled past heavily defended guard posts and other chambers, many of them containing armories, workshops, or storage and training areas.  Now and again, they hear the clanging of metal on metal -- either smiths hard at work forging weapons and armour, engineers developing new siege devices and traps, or young folk--mere adolescents, many of them, judging by the lengths of their beards--being drilled in the arts of war.  All bore dour expressions, and were completely focussed on their tasks.

At one point, as the foreigners were walking down a corridor, Vargus and Dag overheard two soot-covered blacksmiths in a side-chamber talking amongst themselves in the local dialect about the upcoming pit fight, and about how “some outsider dwarf was going to be pitted against that orc that was captured the other day.”  There was even talk of a “gnome facing off against a goblin, and of some other strangers going into the pit.”  The two smiths wondered who would be matched up against the ogre, and they seemed to think that the upcoming match would present some of the most exciting round of fighting they had seen in a long time.  

As Vargus and Dag pondered what they heard, they asked Golan whether they and their companions were ultimately destined to fight in the pit.  The latter shrugged and sidestepped the question repeatedly.  He merely stated that a pit fight indeed was scheduled in two nights time, and that honoured guests were expected to attend... and the companions would stay at least another two nights, would they not?  The foreigners had a feeling that they would be present as combatants, rather than as spectators...  


Throughout their daily wanderings, the foreigners also became exposed to an unexpected aspect of clan dwarf culture: there was a great deal of majesty and beauty to the hold’s older civilian quarters; while war and death had become the dominant preoccupation of these people, one could also find a sense of tranquility at its heart.  Just when they began to think that Pardrum Holdfast was nothing more than an endless warren of tunnels, they came to a balcony that revealed an incredible vista.  Perhaps three hundred feet below, they saw the streets of a densely constructed town, at least three to five times the size of Durgis Rock.  The town had been built at the bottom of a shaft a mile or two in diameter, which rose to dizzying heights, its summit shrouded in darkness above.  A massive column of roaring turquoise water dropped down from one side of the darkened upper reaches of the shaft, into a hole a hundred metres or so in diameter in the centre of the cavern floor on the outskirts of the town, shrouding much of the cave in mist.  Fanning outward from the waterfall, carved out of the walls of the shaft, were rings of stone balconies and walkways, each marked by elaborately carved entrances bearing the crests of various dwarven families and accessible by lift platforms, the likes of which none of the surface dwellers had seen before.  The prospect of stepping onto one seemed terrifying. Thousands of runes cut into the walls and floor of the cavern provided faint luminescence that, combined, generated the equivalent of daylight, dimmed by the haze of the waterfall.  The party could not help but marvel at the feats of engineering that had made all of that possible.  The dworg judged that part of the complex to be ancient, and much older than some of the other passages they had walked through. Even the hold he grew up in prior to leaving for Durgis Rock was neither as large, nor as majestic as this one.  The air here seemed remarkably fresh, despite the depth below ground.  Given what the unlikely heroes have lived the previous days and weeks, and the impression some of them had developed of clan dwarves as xenophobic and genocidal fools,  they had not thought it possible to feel a sense of peace in an underground dwarven hold... perhaps they had thought wrong...    

As they strolled among the upper walkways, and eventually into the lower town, the foreigners caught curious looks from dwarven women, children and elderly folk.  Though short and stout in build, by human standards (tall and stout by gnome standards), many of them were surprisingly attractive and definitely not bearded--contrary to what the humans had previously heard.  Few adolescent or adult men seemed to be about.  Even then, it seemed that there were fewer women than children, adult men, or even elderly throughout the hold.  Before the foreigners knew it, a growing throng of children had begun to follow them, murmuring, pointing, and giggling among themselves. Many of them carried diminutive, blunted axes, picks and hammers.  Vargus and Dag caught the gist of their snickers: they were intrigued by the party, referring to Loic and Klot as tall stalagmites, for they clearly had never seen non-odrendor so tall before; they wondered whether Garn was a dwarf that did not finish his plate of ort meat and peppers when his mother told him to do so; they pondered why Dag had runes on his face, and what they meant; and they questioned why an orc was walking the streets of Pardrum... should they kill it?  Klot drew his sword and began to spar with the dwarven children, who ended up kicking the tall stalagmite in the shins and swinging a hammer past his defences and deep into his groin.    
              
During the tussle with the children, Vargus noticed a girl peering at him from around the corner of an alley.  With a great deal of hesitation, she approached cautiously from behind the throng of children.  Her age was difficult to judge--but it was unlikely that she has seen more than ten great arcs.  She had a larger head than the other children, greyish skin, and bristly, mane-like hair.  The tips of pointed canines barely jutted from her lower lip.  She stared intently at Vargus, opening her mouth, yet no sound came out of it.  As some children noticed her, they turned around and started to beat her back quite violently with their weapons, telling her to go away, not to scare their new friends with her ugliness...

Vargus called for the children to stop, and embarrassed by the incident, Golan did the same.  The dworg tried to reassure the girl that it was alright to step forth, but she stuck to the shadows and alleys.  As the party continued to wander the hold, the children continued to tag along... as did the dworg girl, from a safer distance... Wherever Vargus went, she was never far behind, imitating his every gesture...
« Last Edit: January 26, 2010, 01:20:16 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #23 on: January 29, 2010, 01:09:54 AM »

EPISODE 13: PARDRUM HOLDFAST (Part 3)


The following morning, a young dwarven lady in a grey robe summoned the party to meet with the clan’s loremaster, wise old Dola Cardaal. The rune hall was located on one of the upper rings of the colossal shaft.  The hall itself was quite a site to behold.  All was dark as the foreigners initially entered, but with every step they took, floor tiles and nearby wall runes brightened, gradually revealing an ancient, cyclopean room that was filled with stone pillars.  So tightly packed were they that there was barely enough space for two men walking shoulder to shoulder to squeeze between each set of pillars.    The room was divided into a number of nearly identical sub-chambers.  Every single wall section, every pillar they laid eyes upon had been inscribed with runes on all sides--more runes than party members could count.  The sound of metal pounding into stone echoed throughout the sub-chambers.  Eventually, light became visible ahead, where the source of the pounding also eventually was found--easily more than one hundred yards from the entrance to the hall.  In a smaller chamber, the companions found Dola, the old, maimed crone, sitting on a simple stone bench. The crone turned her head away from the floating hammer that was chiseling runes into a pillar 10’ off the ground, as if wielded by some invisible giant. As she raised her one hand, the hammer ceased its pounding, and a loud scraping of stone on stone was then heard coming from the nearby darkness.  Two more stone benches emerged from the shadows, to either side of the crone.  The hearts of the surface dwellers pounded as they wondered what kind of creature dwelled within the tenebrous recesses of the hall. As with the hammer, they saw nothing actually drag the benches.

The crone smiled a gap-toothed grin as the party approached, then bade them to sit down in perfect, unaccented Trader’s tongue.  Looking up at the spot where the hammer lay suspended in mid air, motionless in mid-swing, she said:

“I was just inscribing the events associated with your coming -- the manifestation of Durum Wormbane,” she pounded the butt of her staff on the ground as she uttered the ancestor’s name, “your fateful first encounter with Golan and Badel against the orc patrol, your journey to the ruins of the old Vausra clanhold, and your subsequent arrival at Pardrum.  The runes in this hall contain the entire history of the Cardaal Clan, from times that predate the First Age of men.  Over time, sub-chambers have been excavated and added to extend the original hall.  Yet there is little room left on which to inscribe runes in this last of the sub-chambers,” she pointed out a few lonely patches of bare rock, “and I do not foresee that we will have time to extend these halls further. Mighty Calador’s last days are numbered--it will likely fall during the next Great Arc, if not sooner.  The siege of Pardrum will commence shortly, as the great orc host will sail across the Pelluria to besiege the dwarves of the southern Kaladruns with its full force... but we will give the Shadow a final stand that they will never forget.

“Your journey, determination, fellowship and survival thus far have been nothing short of remarkable.  Will you indulge an old woman who has lived under the mountain most of her long life, and tell her about the lands you call home? What are these places called, what do they look like? How do things look and smell there?  How do they taste and feel?  What are your fondest and unhappiest memories?”

And so, the party engaged the old woman in light conversation, Klot reiterating again a story that said nothing of his origins in what he called the “breeding pits of Izrador,” but rather focused on his allegedly fond memories of a place called Blackweir, a few days from Baden’s Bluff.  The loremaster went on making small talk with the surface dwellers for a long time -- they got the feeling that she could go on asking questions and chatting forever.  Then, abruptly, she stated that she sensed that “at least one of you has not told me the complete truth.”  One by one, she gazed into each party member’s eyes with her one good eye.

“There is more to you than meets the eye,” she said, opening her one eye as wide as she could, cackling madly as she did so.  “Aryth is alive, and she fights the Shadow in her own mysterious ways... I believe that, however unlikely the success of your quest, you may be part of Aryth’s mysterious ways.”

She then asked Loic whether he knew the names of the twin urutuks he carried, and whether he had knowledge of the great power they contained.  “When I first laid eyes upon them,” she said, “I sensed that they were imbued with great power, as artifacts crafted by our ancestors sometimes were.  The methods for doing so have been lost to the ages, but if you would know the secrets of these wondrous blades, I would be happy to unlock them for you...”

The Dorn seemed worried that he would never see his blades back, but then accepted her offer.  She would send for him once she had unlocked their secrets, after several days of uninterrupted study.

Prior to the of conversation, the surface dwellers also sought to learn more about the upcoming pit fight from the loremaster.  “Pit fights are at the heart of our culture,” she replied in her gravelly voice.  “They are important events--ties that bind, that enflame the souls of the people.  As to the crux of your question -- I cannot answer it, for to do so would draw ill luck to you...”      

Though the companions spent a great deal of time resting in their quarters over the two days following their visit with loremaster Dola, children (including the little dworg girl) always seemed to wait expectantly for the surface dwellers to emerge, and then followed them wherever they went.  They sensed a mounting air of anticipation and excitement among the residents of the holdfast, which reached a fever pitch on the night of the pit fight. Golan requested that the heroes attend the celebrated event with him.

On that most highly anticipated night, crowds of dwarves--male and female, young and elderly alike--made their way towards the pit near the heart of the civilian area, at the base of the natural shaft.  The surface dwellers had seen the place during their daytime wanderings, but it seemed so different with the rabid crowds.  The fighting pit sat in the middle of an open plaza and was roughly 100‘ long by 60‘ wide, and 20‘ deep.  Eight stone pylons, each two feet in diameter and 15‘ high, were arranged in a ring arounf its stone floor.  Tall, smoky flames burned from oil-filled basins in the top of each pylon, casting the pit in flickering yellow light.  Crude iron spikes lined the walls and several of the pylons, and the far walls had openings sealed by heavy iron-barred portcullises.  The floor and walls were stained with rust-coloured splotches of various sizes, and a feint odour of death permeated the area.  Around the edge of the pit were three rising tiers on which hundreds if not thousands of spectators stood to get a better view, and at one end, the dor and his dormut stood and watched from a taller dais.

Guards lined the edges of the pit, ready to push back anything that miraculously jumped out without being impaled on the barbed upper wall spikes.  Although most of the spectator area was full by the time the party arrived, Golan got them a prime spot near the edge of the pit, and did his best to interpret whatever may have required interpretation above the din of the crowd.

The crowd was already worked up as a fight between a young, unblooded warrior and one of the goblins from the dungeons was about to begin.  The dor tapped a heavy steel staff on the stone at his feet and when the crowd quieted, he called out in a deep voice, “Let the time of youth behind, and the let the life of a warrior begin.”  With that, one of the grates in the pit opened, and a feral-eyed goblin stumbled out of the opening, obviously prodded from behind.  The dwarven youth was armed with an axe, the goblin with a spiked iron mace.  The fight began tensely when the boy stumbled once, but it ultimately was a short bout, as the youth killed the goblin with a chopping blow that split its chest.  The crowd erupted in frenzied cheering, hauling the new warrior up as he left the pit, mobbing him in congratulations.

Dor Thedron again pounded his staff on the stone, and the crowd quieted yet again.  The clan leader declared that there were honoured warriors among them -- should those guests be offered a test of that honour?  At those words, the crowd--including Golan--parted, leaving the knot of foreigners standing alone on the edge of the pit, waiting expectantly with a sea of wild eyes.  As the companions hesitated, Golan beamed at them, explaining to the surface dwellers that they could fight as a team, or that one of them could act as champion for the group.  Loic, Dag, Vargus and Klot accepted the gauntlet, while Garn, wearied by the violence he had witnessed and been subjected to over the previous weeks, declined.    

As the surface dwellers had not been told specifically to come armed to the event, they were handed weapons and armour comparable to what they brought into the holdfast.  The portcullises at each end were raised, the companions stepping out and standing side by side.  At the opposite end of the pit, a pair of scale mail clad odrendor and one other odd-looking, greyish skinned creature with only a loin cloth were pushed out into the pit.  Loic and Dag advanced fearlessly between the flaming pylons toward the middle of the fighting ground, and this display of fearlessness and defiance met with approval from the crowd.  One orc moved towards them, while another moved along the outer wall of the pit, taking a flanking position.  The other grey-skinned creature kept its distance, turning its head this way and that, as if trying to sense something.  Vargus advanced on the orc that had taken the flanking position, while Klot crept along a sidewall, the latter’s sneaking resulting in jeers from the spectators.  

Dag and Loic engaged the odrendor in the middle, while the second orc charged Vargus, growling that he would do to him what the dworg’s biological father had done to his mother.  While the grey-skinned creature seemed to stay as far away from the fighting as possible, to the horror of the surface dwellers, a fourth monster emerged from their opponents’ end of the pit.  The corpulent, battle-scarred and warty humanoid stood 10’ tall, bellowed defiantly at the crowd, and swung a club the size of a man.  At its appearance, the crowd went into a frenzy.  The beast seemed to revel in the moment, waving its club at the spectators, while Loic, Dag and Vargus struggled against their respective opponents.  At last, the ogre lumbered forward, diverting Loic’s attention away from the orc.  All of a sudden, Klot charged the monster from the edge of the pit -- but before he could reach it, the sickly and putrid smelling giant nearly crushed him with its weapon.  Fortunately, Klot’s reflexes enabled him to dodge the worst of the blow.  

 The odrendors had absorbed blow after blow from Loic, Dag and Vargus and had inflicted wounds on the latter two, leading the heroes to fear that if those opponents did not fall soon, then the ogre would make short work of them.  After a series of what should have been fatal strikes to his opponent’s torso, Dag finally planted his axe firmly into its chest, practically splitting the orc in twain.  Klot and Loic kept the ogre busy, while Vargus struggled with the second orc, which had managed to trip the dworg.  The humans cut the towering ogre on a few occasions, and fortunately managed to evade its clumsy swings.  As Dag moved in to assist in the melee against the ogre, Loic took a flanking position opposite Klot.  Now surrounded by three opponents, the monster seemed to get desperate.  It attempted to bat Loic’s halberd out of his hands, but in a fortunate twist of fate, lost its grip on its weapon, which landed on the ground a few feet away and behind the heroes.  The crowd roared as the three now gained the upper hand on the ogre and kept stabbing and hacking at it mercilessly until it fell to the ground with its innards spilling out.  The creature looked almost pitiful as it lay on its side, feebly holding one arm above its head while trying to prevent the rest of its guts from falling out.  Loic stepped in to deliver the coup de grace...

Meanwhile, Vargus had miraculously been able to get back to his feet and turned the tables on his enemy, cleaving his skull with Woden's axe.  As the dworg channeler’s foe slumped to the ground, the scaly, greyish skinned humanoid made a blood curdling howl and charged him, swinging a stone axe at him.  The man-thing was even more frightening up close--its eye sockets were completely covered over with skin.  Vargus had never seen an abomination such as this one before.  Exhausted from the fight with the orc, the dworg seemed on the verge of succumbing to his new foe’s savage attacks, when Dag charged at it from behind, killing the party’s last opponent.

Loic grasped the ogre’s severed head by its greasy hair, holding it up for the blood-crazed spectators to see.  Not wanting to be outdone by the Dorn, Klot then decided to sever its genitalia, and held that up for the crowd’s adulation.  Many in the audience seemed taken aback by the latter gesture, and were a bit more subdued in their response...

After the battle, the bloody celebration lost its edge, turning into a long night of drinking, singing, and storytelling back in the feast hall of the great keep.  The combatants--including the dworg--were treated as heroes and lauded all night long.  Garn was subdued throughout the evening, evidently disillusioned by the bloody spectacle he had witnessed, the rabid crowd, and his own companions’ evident comfort with the whole thing.  The gnome leader retired early, while the others continued to celebrate late into the night, reveling in their newly found success and the admiration of a people that had initially been so cold and untrusting.  Folk started to steer clear of Klot, however, when he requested that his trophy be cooked--to eat the genitalia of an ogre, he claimed, was to absorb its strength and virility.  

Noticing that the little dworg girl was discretely observing the celebrations from a corner of the hall, Vargus requested that the deeds of the dworg fighting legend Targot Kerl be recounted.  An awkward silence fell on the hall.  Eventually, Pardrum’s storytellers recited the story, albeit briefly and not quite as Vargus remembered it.  He was not sure whether this was due to the clan dwarves‘ persistent and deep-seated hatred of dworgs in general (perhaps it was foolish to think that dworgs might gain respect and acceptance instantly as a result of Vargus’s own deeds in the pit and beyond), or because they were unfamiliar with the story.  Tergot Kerl was, after all, better known amongst the Kurgun, and Durgis Clan in particular; a growing number of Kurgun warriors had learned his unorthodox fighting techniques in recent years.  If anything, the story that was recited sounded strangely like a retelling of Vargus’s deeds and experiences since leaving Durgis Rock on this quest.  Still, the fact that a story of a dworgish hero was recounted in the feast hall had the desired effect--it told the little girl that there was room for dworgs in the world, and that she too could achieve great deeds and earn the respect of her dwarven brethren... she likely had never before heard a tale of a dworgish hero, much less met one.

Dag, for his part, missed the telling of the story. Despite the facial tattoos that branded him as an adulterer who had been exiled from his clan, a young lass had clearly been taken with him, likely as a result of his performance in the pit and newly acquired celebrity status.  The two disappeared in the middle of the celebrations to indulge in their carnal desires, despite the potential risks involved for both of them... and especially for the Kurgun...
« Last Edit: January 30, 2010, 11:12:18 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #24 on: January 30, 2010, 01:43:32 AM »

EPISODE 13: PARDRUM HOLDFAST (Part 4)


Over the following days, Pardrum’s newly adopted heroes sought to find a way to barter for better weapons, armour and supplies.  Having crawled into the holdfast in a state of virtual destitution, they had nothing of value to exchange.  Despite the respect they had earned from the clan dwarves, who were clearly eager and willing to trade, the latter seemed disappointed that they would get nothing in return for the time and effort that had gone into crafting their goods.  Loic proposed to do several days of physical labour--whatever might be required--in order to acquire properly fitted armour; Vargus initially offered to lend assistance in a forge, given his own prior training and experience therein.  Then, seeing the younglings training for war, Loic proposed to spend his remaining days in the hold assisting with their training in exchange for the properly fitted armour he was hoping to obtain--after all, the “tall stalagmite” was much closer to the stature of an orc than any of the dwarves in the hold were.  Vargus agreed to “play the orc,” and Dag  and Klot also contributed to the war drills.  Their offers were enthusiastically accepted, and only enhanced their standing in the eyes of Pardrum’s warriors.  Garn, wanting nothing to do with martial activities and still pining for the surface, explored the main residential area on his own--admiring its grandiose architecture, as well as the locally manufactured goods that he could only dream of trading under the open sky.

The little dworgish girl--Fedwyn was her name--still followed Vargus wherever he went and peered at him from around corners.  To his satisfaction, he saw that the dwarven children seemed to be behaving in an increasingly less hostile manner towards her, some even inviting her to play with them. 

A few days after the pit fight, Loremaster Dola summoned the party to a second audience.  This time, they found her sitting at a small stone table lit with ort lard candles.   This time, she offered no welcome as the surface dwellers joined her.  As they took their seats near her, she explained to Loic what she had discovered with regards to the twin urutuks:

“These mithral hatchets feature engravings of Father Sun on the one hatchet,” she said, “and of Mother Moon on the other.  Legend claims that a common figure of dwarven legend, a youth known only as the Child of the Mountain, was one day hunted by a party of orcs.  Wounded and weaponless, the child was cornered in a narrow defile.  It is said that Father Sun, hoping to see a noble last stand, bestowed a single urutuk on the boy.  The boy fought valiantly but was clearly outnumbered.  Mother Moon, seeing his plight, gifted him with a second urutuk to even the odds.  Wielded together, the magical powers they manifested allowed the Child to prevail against the orcs.  The twin blades came to be known as the Wrath of the Moon and the Fury of the Sun.”

The old one-eyed and one-armed woman then asked Loic whether they had witnessed any unusual powers while in his possession.  His reply was negative.  The loremaster further explained that when a wielder proves himself worthy and acquires sufficient skill, that when he throws one of the hatchets while keeping the other in hand, the thrown weapon will return to his hand.  As one continues to grow in skill and forges a deeper bond with the weapons, it will feel as if the urutuks are trying to guide the wielder’s aim toward their target.  Warriors with great proficiency can, through the power of thought alone, call the weapons into their hands from a distance, so long as they are within sight.  They may eventually also enhance the warrior’s defence, and not just his offence.  Old Dola Cardaal stated that her clansmen had pondered whether such prized dwarven weapons should be kept among dwarves.  In the end, they had concluded that these had been heirlooms of Durgis Clan and no other, and if their dor had consented to a human taking these weapons in order to fulfill an oath, then Cardaal Clan had no business interfering in this matter.  Loic was humbled by what he had learned of the twin urutuks’ origins and veiled powers, by the precious gift he carried.

The grizzled loremaster then explained the significance of Father Sun and Mother Moon among the clan dwarves: “They created the world, and the dwarves.  Father Sun is a great warrior and punisher of all that is wicked.  Mother Moon is the source of the world’s magic.  When not crossing the sky, Father Sun and Mother Moon rest deep within the underground.  This is why they rise from and sink within the earth with the passing of each day.  It is the hot yellow blood of Father Sun that seeps through the ground to form veins of gold and the cool white blood of Mother Moon that forms silver.” 

Old Dola then proceeded to offer each of the heroes a gift:  to Garn, the party leader, a matching set of stylized daggers forged by a master smith;  to Dag, a waraxe of equally great quality also etched with beautiful patterns.  Vargus’s gift was somewhat more cryptic: a belt with a buckle in which one might conceal and discretely release small charms, like those already contained therein--a smooth pebble (“to be held in the palm of your hand, when you need to be glib of tongue and most convincing, and in need of reliance on half truths”); etched flint (“strike it, and it will protect you from bitter cold for a period equivalent to the daylight hours of a winter day”); a silver coin with identical faces showing two crossed axes blocking a vardatch (“when tossed, it will enhance your ability to evade the blows of your enemies”); and a strand of twisted metal wires (“untangle these when you need your senses to be at their sharpest”).  Loremaster Dola specified that each charm would work only once. 

To Klot, she stated that the warrior’s chosen weapon, the longsword, was not one typically crafted by her people.  If he wished to have such a weapon, the party might need to wait up to a fortnight for one of superior quality to be crafted; else, he could take another available weapon of his choice.  The former soldier of Shadow bowed respectfully, thanking her people for their gift, and expressed a willingness to wait a bit longer for a fine sword to be crafted.  And finally, to Loic, she stated that there was no greater gift that they could offer him than what he had just been given: the secrets of the Wrath of the Moon and the Fury of the Sun.   

The old woman continued: 

   “The path you take is fraught with peril.  The dead lie behind you, the unknown lies ahead, and enemies are close at your heels.  The burden you bear is a mystery for which you risk your lives, and though it may serve small comfort in your darkest hours, I sense your quest is worth those risks.

   “Most dwarfkin believe prophecy is dangerous and leads those that heed it on fools’ errands.  I believe it is a tool, and like any tool can be used to create or destroy.  Behind me, there is a crystal cave.  Those who are strong of heart and spirit and gaze upon its walls may gain insights into events past or future, near or far, that may influence the outcome of your quest.  Do you dare to look?”

Each of the heroes replied with a nod.  Only one person at a time could enter the cave.  Before entering, they would each in turn break a round rock with a silver hammer. 

Each in turn, the party members smashed a rock with the hammer, and each time, the rock split neatly in two halves, no matter how hard they struck it.

Each in turn entered the crystal cave, and then, having witnessed the different scenes that manifested on its walls, walked out solemnly without speaking a word, without sharing what they had seen.

As each individual walked out of the cave, old Dola gazed upon the insides of the rock they had shattered, and whispered to them what the patterns within told her...

To Garn: “River-blooded.  The fate of your family has come to pass and your beloved Eren flows with tears.  Be strong and hold true a promise.  The ends are indeed justification of the means.”

To Loic: “Proud Dorn, do not dwell on the shame of your ancestors.  Loose pebbles on a mountain slope may trigger an avalanche... and you are one of the pebbles--small, yet powerful.”

To Vargus: “Mountain kin.  Fear not your dark blood.  You are no more orc than I.  Remember your people and die for them as they died for you.  The hall of heroes is your fate.”

To Dag: “Stoneheart.  The blood of heroes flows in your veins.  Do not fear to spill it for your friends.  The future for you is a branching tunnel.  Choose wisely and doom may yet be averted.  Prove weak of heart and all is lost.”

To Klot: “Twilit one.  You walk a narrow path between darkness and light, between truth and lie.  True redemption lies at the end of the hardest road, and may lead you to your grave... yet hold to your course, for in every end there is always a new beginning.”

 Once all had gazed upon the walls of the crystal cave and then been privy to the old Dola’s soothsayings, she said: “I offer my small soothsaying for what use you may make of it.  Listen with your ears but understand with your hearts.  Champion each other, and rely on friendship before your weapons.  The way calls to you, and you must soon depart.  Stay to the path of honour, friendship, and faith, and though some of you will not live to see its end, your quest will prevail.”

By that point, the wizened crone seemed drained and a bit disoriented.  “Are you determined to go on?” she asked.  “You would find a place here... if you sought one...” Every member of the party affirmed their intention to continue with their quest.  Old Dola then gently, almost sadly, wished the surface dwellers farewell and sure footing on their journey, and with the help of her younger assistant, retired to her inner rooms.

When, a fortnight later, Klot’s sword had been forged (and Dag had gotten to indulge his lusts a few more times), the party at last prepared to depart Pardrum Holdfast, having been granted five man-days of food each, fresh black-dyed ort-hair garments (to help conceal them in the dark tunnels), the repairs or replacements requested to their armour, and a dozen high quality axe heads for the heroes to trade or deliver as they would among surface folk .  To their surprise, the guide who would lead them back to the surface--a journey of approximately three more days through tenebrous and winding peril-fraught passages--was a dwarven woman by the name of Cayla.  A large crowd had gathered to see them off; the passage via which they would be exiting Pardrum was different from the way via which they had entered.  Dor Thedron, his dorthanes, and Golan wished them a safe and successful journey, the goodwill of all dwarves, and the protection of Father Sun and Mother Moon.  Children mobbed the heroes with farewell gifts--gold, silver and obsidian figures in the form of dwarven warriors; mallet, pick and axe-shaped amulets; lucky ort’s paws; and bracelets, among other things. 

As the gates rolled open and one by one, Cayla and the party members began to exit, a seventh person joined the queue--Fedwyn, the little dworgish girl--equipped with a cloak that dragged on the ground, oversized pack and rusty axe.  Vargus turned and spoke to her gently, trying to explain why she could not follow him without breaking her spirits.  Already, tears were streaming down her face.  Vargus told Fedwyn that she was needed to protect Pardrum... and she nodded in understanding... A few paces behind, profound gratitude was written in Fedwyn’s mother’s face for all that Vargus had offered her unfortunate child... Rune-lit Pardrum gave way to total blackness once again, save from the glow rods that Loic and Garn had again been permitted to carry for their own sake...

The three days that followed seemed to last forever, but at least the travelers were at full strength and with good morale.  With every step and every crawl, the party knew they were getting closer to fresh air and sunlight.  Cayla made sure they did not trigger unseen traps, and led them safely through the underground maze, climbing continually until Vargus sensed that they had climbed above surface level.  Although they occasionally heard worrisome sounds coming from the darkness around them, the party fortunately was able to avoid confrontations with anything more menacing than the odd cave reptile (which ended up making for a different meal). 

After three long days of travel, the heroes felt a fresh breeze wafting towards them... then heard the sound of a waterfall... Cayla led the party into a small cavern, along the edges of the waterfall curtain, and out onto a high, rocky plateau that overlooked mountainous ridges, undulating, rolling hills, and then the open plains... It was dusk, a grey dusk... After having spent more than an arc in darkness, even the dull natural light of the moment practically blinded the party, but the momentary pain and discomfort were outweighed by the relief the surface dwellers all felt... Garn cried with joy... Yet Dag and Vargus, accustomed to surface life in the middle of the Kaladruns--had never seen such a sight... how could there be so much flatland beyond the mountains, and how could the distant peaks seem so puny compared to the vast plains that rolled out as far as the eye could see? What held the sky up where no mountain stood? Where would one hide, out in the open? What was the safest path from where they stood on this high plateau, down to the plains, and across the endless expanse of grass?

The dwarf and dworg began to wonder if perhaps the depths of Aryth were not safer and more pleasant after all...         
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