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Author Topic: TwiceBorn's Crown of Shadows campaign journal  (Read 42752 times)
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« Reply #25 on: March 06, 2010, 08:56:39 PM »

Character visions in Episode 13 (part 4):

Vision -- Loic

You see a dark cloud spreading across the land, swallowing all before it, and settling ominously over a tiny, impoverished settlement nestled among arrid, rolling plains.  The inhabitants are hung either by their necks, or have been slaughtered by blades... some have their clothes torn, their limbs splayed at unnatural angles, and the livestock have likewise been butchered.  You can’t decide if this is a vision of something yet to come, or of something that has already passed...

Vision -- Vargus

You see a middle-aged, bronze-skinned human man with dark hair smiling triumphantly as he holds up a twisted iron band and gazes at it in wonder, then places it upon his head.  The man’s features then become hazy.  Though you cannot see the background, the first scene changes abruptly, revealing the same man entering the smouldering ruins of Durgis Rock.  A pair of stone goliaths looms in the background.  Accompanied by orc troopers, the man scours the chambers of the Great Keep, clearly angry.  The scene changes again--now the man is staring straight at you, a sinister smile creeping on his lips.    

Vision - Dag

You see an endless sea of grass, stretching beyond the horizon.  Mountains ring the scene to one side, but they seem so small... how can that be?  The vast emptiness of the plains fills you with dread--how can emptiness be larger and more vast than the mountains? You feel as though the darkening sky will fall and crush you.  The scene zooms in onto a tiny, pallisaded settlement on the edge of a river, near a forest... the water levels of the river are dropping... Across the river, furtive, lupine figures skulk among rocky hills... Then, you see a lamb with sad eyes looking straight at you, its wool soaked in blood...  

Vision - Garn

You see a river barque sailing on a broad body of water.  The barque is being boarded by a squad of orcs, who become aggressive with the gnome crew.  You feel as though your hands are tied and don’t react.    One of the orcs ends up cutting down a gnome sailor, whose dead eyes stare directly into yours as his blood pools on the deck; you don't react. Far in the distance, you think you see a large city perched on a rocky cliff.

Vision - Klot

You see blackness.


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« Reply #26 on: March 06, 2010, 08:58:29 PM »


The return to the surface lifted everyone’s spirits, as it felt as though a significant milestone in the journey had been reached.  All experienced relief knowing also that they would not be entombed beneath tons of solid rock.  Cayla pointed out a number of possible routes the party might follow from here, all of which first required a treacherous climb to a narrow ledge below the plateau.

Their options included:

- Heading due west and taking the most direct route to the hills and lowlands.  If the party took that direction from here, they would eventually need to swim across the swift flowing Annyn River.  Although the dry season had begun and the river would recede dramatically over the coming weeks, it might currently present a difficult crossing, especially for those who cannot swim.  The plains beyond would likely be sparsely patrolled, though probably inhabited by wild beasts and even worse Shadow spawn.

- Heading north and sticking to the mountains for the next few days, keeping to higher ground along broad ridges, which would gradually slope down towards the sparsely vegetated valleys below. That would take the party near some abandoned Kurgun settlements. Eventually, the valley would open near the outskirts of a broad forest. While the forest could offer a few days worth of shelter and concealment, Cayla had heard only bad things about the Barren Wood... and if the rumours were correct, even Shadow troops avoid it. She added that there was a small walled Erenlander settlement called Good Hope near the southwestern edge of the wood, on the banks of the Annyn. Kurgun runners used to smuggle goods to and from the settlement, but since the latter have retreated further east into the mountains, contact with Good Hope has ceased. No one knows what, if anything, has happened to the settlement and its residents, and to the local contraband smugglers in particular. The Annyn River reportedly becomes shallower as one travels north from Good Hope, and therefore easier to cross.

- Continuing north through the mountains rather than risking the forest or the Good Hope area, which, a fortnight of travel or so,  would take the party past the region where Loic hails from, and then closer to the point where the adventure began for Garn, Loic and Klot (near the now ruined village of Koln). That area is on the fringe of civilization, and therefore is subject to more frequent patrols.

- Skirting the mountains to the south and west would lead the party into more heavily patrolled territory... that is where the odrendor patrol that the party encountered underground came from. Some odrendor tribes have established large camps on the plains at the foot of the mountains, on the edges of the Annyn, where it courses from the mountains and into the plains...

The heroes were advised that the dry season could be quite murderous. Following rivers and creeks would certainly lead one back to civilization, sometimes along circuitous routes, but where one finds settlements, one also is more likely to find Shadow troops and patrols. Wilderness areas at the heart of the plains, conversely, may result in limited access to food and water... According to what Cayla had learned from her sources, settlements were few and far between on the plains, even along waterways... and many apparently have been abandoned... Garn informed his companions that traveling due west (a journey of not less than one great arc on foot, he imagined) would eventually lead one to the Ardune, a great lake upon which there is a great deal of gnome barge (and Shadow) traffic. Angling sharply to the northwest while trekking across the plains would eventually bring the party to the tributaries of the Eren River and ultimately to his home town of Swift Water, where personal contacts might be able to provide them with temporary shelter and assistance... assuming they survived the arduous trek across the plains. 

After some debate, and following a flare-up in hostilities between Loic and Klot that nearly came to blows (a result of Loic’s on-going mistrust of the former Shadow soldier and the latter’s irreverent manner of speaking about his companions), the party agreed for the time being that they would head northwest along the high ridge that Cayla had mentioned, then down into the valley that ultimately would open on the Barren Wood. From there, they intended to travel under cover of the forest to Good Hope.  The heroes bid Cayla farewell, climbed down a rope she had brought to the narrow and damp ledge that jutted out from the cliff face 50’ or so below the plateau,yet hundreds of feet above the valley floor, then carefully edged their way to the ridge.  The remaining light of the day enabled them to cover a good distance before they decided to set up camp, near a small tarn set between scree and boulder-covered mounds, some 30’ below the summit of the ridge.  Dag and Vargus built a makeshift shelter by piling stones in a semi-circular pattern in order to block out the worst of the wind.  

Garn, Loic and Klot had never spent a night at such high altitude.  While in the tunnels leading to and from Pardrum Holdfast, the stale air threatened to sap the party’s energy, up on the high ridge where they would camp on their first night back on the surface, the thinner air was paradoxically both invigorating due to its briskness, but also draining.  The mountains in this part of the Spinewall Range seemed more arid and rounded, compared to the landscape around Durgis Rock, save for a long series of serrated peaks arising dozens of miles to the east that seemed to split the range in two.  Snow lingered only on the highest peaks or in sporadic patches along the ridge. Dag and Vargus sensed that the mountains in this region were not quite as lofty as those found near the places they most recently called home.

The frigid evening wind seemed to have dispersed the clouds that previously loomed over the valley, and soon, as the party members sat huddled in their ort hide garments and passed around the elvish cups filled with a broth Garn had made from the dehydrated mushrooms, ort meat, cave peppers and fungi they had been given by the Pardrum dwarves, one star after another gradually lit up the somber heavens.  The absence of sound, notwithstanding that of the breeze, could almost convince one that the world was at peace... Since the tension between Klot and Loic nearly reached a boiling point earlier on the plateau, the mood had improved dramatically.  A genuine spirit of cooperation and camaraderie replaced the previous doubt and animosity... at least for now...

That night, while Dag and Garn took first watch, they looked in concern as they noticed that Vargus was sleeping with his eyes wide open, stiff as a board, and moaning softly... Around the same time, the gnome and the Kurgun began to hear the sound of distant thunder in the distance... They woke their companions up, and eventually discerned that the thunder was the sound of marching soldiers, deep in the darkened valley below them.  They also heard the sound of ravens cawing.  The feint starlight occasionally revealed the inky black column of marching soldiers as they appeared between clusters of trees, but the army did not seem to constitute an immediate threat to the party, perched as high as they were...

There was no sign of the column come morning.  As the party continued their journey the next day, they became increasingly concerned that they would be unable to forage or hunt while so high above the tree line, and they already had only two days of rations left.  Fortune smiled upon that afternoon, when they spotted a pack of orts trying to bring down an almost horse-sized, three-horned goat-like creature that was known as an ubu among Dag’s people, on a nearby escarpment.  Rejoiced at the prospect of dining on fresh meat (including something other than ort!), the party stealthily crept up on the vicious hound-sized rodents, which were having a hard time scrambling up some of the steeper parts of the escarpment after the ubu, which was nearing its summit.  Unexpectedly, Vargus stepped forward amidst the pack of rabid orts, threw his arms to the sky, and spoke some unrecognizable words in a voice unlike any his companions had heard him speak of before.  Five of the seven orts instantly began to cower harmlessly in response to the dworg’s mystical commands.  Higher up, the two lead orts successfully brought down the ubu, then turned on Loic as he approached in order to protect their kill.  While the Dorn fought and killed the pack leaders higher up, Garn, Dag and Klot made short work of those that Vargus had left cowering lower on the escarpment.  

With all the orts and the ubu slain, the heroes looked at Vargus and questioned him about this heretofore unknown power, worried that it could lead the Shadow demons that Klot and Garn called astiraxes to them.  The dworg explained in vague terms that he had only recently become aware of this power... that its source came from within and felt different from the other energies he channeled, and that he felt safe using it as he did...

The party set aside the remainder of the day to stripping meat from the ort and ubu carcasses and drying them.  Loic, the goat herder, especially looked forward to tasting the ubu meat.  Vargus used his skills to carve a stone bowl in which to boil some meat, and the party relied on the elven hearthstones and some of the dworg’s arcane powers to warm and dry the meat a bit faster, and even to salt it.  While the meat was not completely dry by the end of this process, they figured that the extra pounds they would carry would at least keep for a few more days.  They buried the remains of the animal carcasses under piles of rocks in order to keep carrion birds away and avoid attracting the attention of Shadow troops.  The ort bites that Loic sustained healed mysteriously within a matter of hours, without any treatment of intervention from Vargus.

The party was blessed with good weather over the following days and quiet, uneventful nights.  Yet on the third full day following their departure from the plateau, they had to travel more carefully along the ridge due to the heavy mists that shrouded the area.  By early afternoon, the heroes reached the northern end of the ridge, which consisted of gentle earthen slopes with patches of short grass, shrubs and clusters of evergreen trees that gradually dropped the last 50’ or so to the valley floor to the west and east.  A rocky massif to the north split the valley in twain, and emerging from this fog-shrouded mountain there appeared to be the outlines of a wall not unlike the one that ringed Durgis Rock.  The rushing of a creek could be heard through the mist somewhere to the west.    

As the party began to descend the western slope, they heard a series of blood-curdling, hysterical screams echoing in the valley, making the hair on the back of their necks stand on end.  The source of those frightening sounds was unclear--human? dwarf? something else?--but whatever made them must have been experiencing great fear or agony.  The shrieks did not relent--if anything, they seemed to be getting worse.

Once the insurgents reached the valley floor, some of them caught sight of a yellowish-skinned goblin riding a grey wolf through the shrubbery, apparently speaking to one another... but wolf and rider also sensed the approaching party, and bolted in the direction of the dwarven settlement.  They stopped and turned around for a moment to take better stock of the intruders, and at that moment, Klot rushed them and attempted to slay the rider.  The goblin dodged the warrior’s sword, as well as a crossbow bolt fired by Dag, and again wolf and rider took flight, promptly disappearing from sight.

Loic noticed that the ground in the area had been heavily churned by numerous large booted feat, apparently headed in the general direction from which they had come.  Vargus observed that there were more recent wolf tracks over those of the army, which seemed to follow a circuitous path in the area but ultimately did not follow those of the soldiers.  A few moments later, the unbearable screaming had come to an abrupt stop...

The heroes crossed the creek and cautiously followed it to a point where the vegetation thinned to almost nothing, near the gates of the Kurgun settlement.  Following a brief wait, they spied a squad of four wolf-borne goblins exiting the gates and riding over a bridge that spanned the creek, the wolves advancing at a cautious lope as they sniffed the air.  Dag released another bolt, which instantly threw one rider from his saddle.  The three remaining riders and the riderless wolf all charged in the direction of the party, three converging on the bushes in which Dag and Garn hid, while the fourth apparently had spotted Vargus.  To his astonishment, Loic felt the urutuks hum and vibrate in his hand.  The Dorn hurled Fury of the Sun at  one of the riders that charged past his hiding spot to attack Dag, missed, but was surprised to find the thrown blade flying right back at him, haft landing perfectly in his hand.  Each in turn, the goblins tossed nets at their targets, all of them falling short of their mark.  To Dag’s horror, one of the wolves locked its jaws on his wrist, and another insulted him in the Traders’ Tongue.

One of Vargus’s spells dropped another rider from his saddle, while Klot drove his blade through the back of the one that had charged the dworg, nearly felling him with one thrust.  Within moments, Dag, Klot, Loic and Garn had brought down the remaining riders and wounded some of the wolves, which then attempted to run back across the bridge toward the fortified settlement.

Vargus, Dag and Loic raced after the fleeing wolves, forcing one of them the injured creatures to turn and face its attackers.  The defending wolf stood on its hind legs and bit Loic in the shoulder, then looked in his eyes with malevolence and human intelligence, growling again in the Traders’ Tongue that “this was far from over.”  The wolf again withdrew, but the wound it had inflicted on the Dorn sent him in a rage, and he chased the beast across the bridge and into the compound, just as the three other wolves and some 7’ tall, muscular and coarse-haired humanoid with a savage grin disappeared through a pair of 10’ x 10’ iron doors beyond the main gate.  

In the meantime, Garn had slit the throat one the goblin that Vargus had put to sleep, and Klot tried to convince the dworg that they should run, that it was foolish to pursue their assailants back to the gates of the fallen Kurgun settlement... and if Vargus insisted on following Loic into the lair of the enemy, then the dworg should hand him Woden’s case.  With the diversion created by Loic and the others, Klot could make a run with the case and keep it safe.  Vargus gave the former Shadow soldier a cold look, retrieved the javelin he had thrown at the wolf that had wounded Loic, and then made for the bridge, where Garn promptly joined him.

Loic managed to catch his quarry just inside the main gate, and buried his urutuks in its flanks, killing the beast.  At that same moment, the massive stone gate rolled shut behind the Dorn, just before Dag could cross the threshold.  The enraged Loic was now trapped alone in an enclosure made of 20’ high walls, with Dag on the opposite side of the outer gate, Garn and Vargus standing side by side on the stone bridge, and Klot somewhere behind them in the mist...

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« Reply #27 on: March 06, 2010, 09:12:15 PM »

Excerpt of dialogue posted between sessions 13 and 14 on my blog (the incident that nearly resulted in intra-party violence... but didn't...): Thought some folks might find it entertaining... but should have posted it before my episode 14 summary. Oh well...

Loic said...

"Are there any among us who can say they know the safest or the quickest route to the elven forest in the west? You Dag, you Vargus? Though I respect the both of you, it would surprise me if either of you have ever traveled more than a mile away from these blasted mountains! Klot, it seems you might be well traveled, it's a pity you cannot be trusted, you've already proved this many times over. Truly, if it were my choice, I would oust you from this group as we speak.
My own knowledge, beyond a small portion of the grasslands to the north, is limited, so my opinion is also of little use here. The only one among us who might know the way is Garn, and if he unsure, then perhaps he can lead us to others who can.

"Yet, if Garn is at a loss, then I would suggest we travel north to visit my kin. I would be lying if I said that my interests here are only for the good of the party, but it is truth that some among them, namely my own grandfather and a few of the other elders, have fought the shadow in the past and might have valuable advice to give us."

Loic waits for Garn to speak.

Klot said...

Klot responds in his usual snarky manner. "I am indeed well-travelled, Loic. And I've given my word to the Lady Rhiann that I will deliver that case Vargus carries to her people. And you know what? I'd be all too happy to take that load off of Vargus's shoulders -- I'd have a much better chance of succeeding if I did the journey on my own rather than with a tattooed dwarf whose name means "sheep's dung" in Erenlander, a magic-channeling dworg who'll be sniffed out in no time by the nearest legate's astirax, and some one-eyed goat herder without a formal travel authorization. I mean, I've travelled the width of Erenland, and I know what we're up against... and you three don't have a chance of making it out alive. At least Garn and I can blend in... but the rest of you?! Forget it. And the closer we get to Erethor, the greater the likelihood that you'll be caught, and I don't want to be there when that happens... it certainly wouldn't do the Resistance any good. So how about you give me the case, and I'll happily oust myself. You're too stupid to know who you're strongest asset is. And as for your lack of trust... if I wanted to turn you over to the Shadow, I would have done so long ago, when we ran into that last patrol. Would have spared me that unbearable time under the mountain... So get your head out of your arse already, Loic! Oh, and lest I forget... those fancy dwarven hatchets are also sure to take you far, Loic... you think they'll be easy to hide?"

Loic said...

"Klot, what I said to you was not meant as insult, but as fact. It is obvious there is a growing conflict within you. Too often your words, to speak nothing of your actions, contradict themselves. If you do not trust us, you should leave us!"

Loic draws his twin axes and steps forward. It would seem that the young Dorn has grown in both height and mass since the companions first met; his hulking figure starting to dwarf even Klot.

"Let us be clear on one thing. This will be the last time I question you on your allegiances. If you would help us, then do so in words AND in actions. No more lies. And DO NOT challenge my honor with petty insults, it can only end badly for one of us!"

It is obvious to everyone in the party, save perhaps Cayla, that Loic is straining hard to hold back the full force of his anger. During the exchange of words, his face has grown increasingly darker, his eye has begun to twitch, his whole body has begun to shudder...

Klot said...

Klot puts his hands up in the air and takes a step back from Loic, keeping his intense and unsettling green eyes focused on the Dorn. "Look, this in-fighting is pointless... But funny that you yourself have constantly been putting me down with your continual mistrust, yet when it comes to taking what you've been giving..." The Erenlander with the olive skin tones and delicate features of a Sarcosan, and with the clear eyes and stature of a Dorn, lets the last sentence hang without completing it.

After a brief pause, he resumes his defence. "I think I've proven my trustworthiness time and again... I got you all past the goblins and the stone walkers at Kurgun Falls... I killed more than my share of orcs at Durgis Rock as well as under the mountain... I took the lives of some of those forsaken abominations... I voluntarily fought by your side in the dwarven fighting pit, and was the first to rush the ogre... I was the first to come to your aid when we fought that faarn thing after leaving the hidden refuge in the Carina river gorge, and nearly paid for it with my life -- you probably don't remember that, because you went into one of your blood frenzies... I could have sold you out so many times if I were an agent of Shadow, and the legates would have acquired the prize they were looking for long ago... what purpose would there be to drag the hunt out, especially if what's in the case is as important and powerful as it seems to be?

"No, I think you clearly owe a debt to me, and even an apology... And if you're still holding that incident back at the high pass against me, well, let's not forget... When we went back to the pass, we said we were going there to make sure that Vallin did not return as a fell... I did my part, and told you all that the only way to see this mission through was by stealth... We cant't fight every creature of evil, nor help every unfortunate soul we meet along the way... If we did, we would never reach Erethor in this lifetime, and we would leave a trail of carnage that would be too easy for the Shadow troops to follow... not to mention ending up with a very good chance of losing our own lives prematurely... Quest over, elves don't get Woden's secret, and the oath to Woden and the elves were both in vain... It's all fine that you chose to save Dag from those fell goblins up there, but that wasn't our fight, and I told you that I was only going back to ensure that Vallin's soul could rest in peace... You lost an eye and nearly your life there -- don't blame me for that... Often, running and avoidance are better paths, and I took the latter... Maybe you'll appreciate my wisdom once you've seen more of the world, and seen more of what I have seen...

"And by the way... thanks for making me look like a liar in front of the dwarven council... But evidently, even the old one-armed crone down there must have known something you don't about me, else the dwarves never would have let me live, much less leave their holdfast after having seen its interior...

"So... shall we move on? Which way were we going again? To be honest, I think that taking us to your kin would be bad... for them... The Shadow has supernatural trackers, and it's only a matter of time until they pick up our scent... but that's your call, Loic... or is it our fearless leader Garn's call?"

Klot's gaze turns to the rolling yellow-brown hills that stretch to the horizon, with only a steep drop from the plateau you stand on and a few more ridges and valleys separating the party from the open expanses. The feint light of the veiled sun is waning...

Klot said...

"Clearly Loic, you resent my presence, for it speaks to something veiled in your own past, or your family's past. You cannot cut away the past like dead skin from a healing wound,.. it will be with you forever, a scar. You do not intimidate me,.. perhaps it is you who hears the call of the darkness for your mind whithers,.. as surely as your bulk grows. And a soft mind is more a target for shadow than flesh - dead or alive.

Loic said...

"...owe you a debt...apologize...fearless leader...sheep's dung...mind withers... soft...stupid..."

Spittle starts to fly out of Loic's mouth as he mumbles, first softly, then with growing intensity. The veins in his face start to bulge, his whole body vibrates...and he moves menacingly towards Klot...

Klot said...

"Now listen and becalm yourself Loic, today we will bury the dead flesh that falls from your growing form, for you must learn to put aside your hatreds, lest they consume you, as does this senseless rage...

"For better or worse we are allied together against darkness - I will not fight you, for it would be only a victory for shadow,.. and if others here do not speak for me, then our ways must part... but if you misunderstand me, it is only because I did not grow to adulthood around a warm fire, nurtured by a loving family as did you (Klot hesitates and a rare, bitter sadness comes over his face), but chained to darkness and raised by orcs,.. yet you taunt me with this, unfavoured, uncultured upbringing, as though I am privileged by such a history. Make no mistake Dorn, I have cast off the burdensome dead skin of my past, but I do not, cannot bury the instinct and knowledge that I have gained from such a legacy... It may be all that keeps you and your friends alive on the long journey ahead.

"Now we have climbed many steps this day, let us rest, and share some particularly fine sausage I had the dwarves cure..."

Garn said...

"Enough. Did we pass through starvation and darkness and battle to butcher each other under the open sky, now that we're finally under it?"

Garn gazes earnestly westward "Out there - almost an Arc's travel - is civilisation. We could hide you on the barges and make our way in relative safety and ease. There would be good food and enough to drink..." here the gnome squeezes his eyes shut, an expression on his face of almost pain. "...there would be pleasant conversation and good stories and jokes... and company again."

With a deep sigh, the Gnome turns back to the rest of the group.

"I see no reason to travelling South West or back to Koln - as much as I would enjoy the hospitality of Loic's kin. To me, the decision lies between heading North through the mountains to the site of Good Hope - as unlikely as the existence of Hope seems these days - or West across the plains.

"Do we fear the darkness of the Barren Woods more or less than the hardships of crossing the plains in the dry season?

Vargus said...

"Garn, as our leader, it falls to you to make this decision. I do not envy you for that. As I said, I am most comfortable in these mountains, so I suggest a northerly route. However, if you think a direct route," his gaze drifts across the plains, "with little cover is the best course of action, then we can try that way..."

Dag said...

Although it pains Dag, he must agree with Klot. "If we are to succeed in our quest we must shed our past and focus on the task at hand."

"Klot has spoken the truth, he could have handed us to the shadow numerous times, and has fought valiantly by our side." Dag looks upon Klot as if for the first time. Even though he will never admit it, Dag has found new respect for the uncouth warrior.
« Last Edit: March 06, 2010, 09:16:51 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #28 on: March 21, 2010, 03:52:06 AM »


While Loic paced about in the walled enclosure beyond the now-sealed main gates of the Kurgun village, two of the massive, hairy, dun-coloured goblins rose from the battlements, one to each side of the stone gate.  Shrunken skulls dangled from the chains that criss-crossed the leather armour worn by the brutes, barely visible through their long, coarse hair.  A grisly collection of ears, hands, feet and tongues had been nailed to their battered wooden shields.  Another three of giant goblin-kin appeared on the walls that ran perpendicular to the stone gate, partially protected by low stone parapets.  Those last three bore a number of javelins in long quivers on their backs and in their hands and were attired in the same way as those flanking the main gates, save one that was clad in a chain shirt, and who was missing half of his left ear and the hair on that same side of his burnt face.  “Let’s see if this calm him down,” growled the mangled goblinoid in the Trader’s Tongue, as it threw a javelin at Loic.  The enraged Dorn felt the projectile tip graze his left calf, and ignored what seemed like a numbness spreading outward from the wound through his leg.  Two of the other brutes held their javelins aimed at Loic, but refrained from hurling their weapons at him for the time being.  Coming from behind the wall that ran parallel to the main gate, the Dorn could hear the snarling of worgs, separated from him only by a pair of iron doors.

Garn quickly deduced that these goblin-kin were bugbears--slavers, rather than Shadow troops.  The  two bugbears that stood on the battlements to each side of the main gate also threw their javelins--one aimed at Dag who stood right at the gate, the other at Vargus and Garn who stood on the bridge over the creek.  Fortunately, both throws fell short of their marks.

Then, Klot called out from the mist using the harsh words of the Black Tongue.  Only Garn could understand what the former Shadow warrior was telling the bugbears.  Surprised, the bugbears became hesitant and turned to their scarred commander for instructions.  Loic took advantage of that opportunity to escape from the enclosure, springing like a plains cat high onto the main gate, just as the iron doors were opened and the feral worgs charged in at the Dorn’s heels.  Despite his missing eye, the plainsman scaled the gate effortlessly and perched at the top of it, standing precariously and staring defiantly at the foes that flanked him, as they kept their javelins pointed at him.

Klot continued to speak, and what he had to say apparently was of interest to the bugbear leader, who stepped up to the battlements overlooking the main gate in order to better see the warrior who spoke in their tongue.  Garn whispered to Dag and Vargus what he knew of their opponents, as well as the gist of the conversation that was taking place in the Black Tongue.  Klot had apparently ordered the bugbears to halt their attack, telling them that King Jahzir would have their heads if they did not obey.  He told their leader that the humans and fey were with him -- traitors that served the Shadow and had betrayed the location of a dwarven holdfast to the orc legion that passed through here a few days ago.  Klot introduced Garn as his gnomish quartermaster, and the latter in turn introduced the “specializations” of the other party members in the Black Tongue as well.

A dialogue ensued, with the goblin-kin commander reverting to the Trader’s Tongue.  He wanted to know why the party had attacked his scout, and demanded compensation for the loss of one worg and four riders.  He would consider the acquisition of Loic and his shiny axes, or perhaps even of Dag and Vargus, as reasonable compensation.  The party instead proposed to purchase some of the slaves that were being held in the dwarven citadel.  The bugbears apparently swallowed the story provided by Klot and Garn, and seemed eager to barter.  Loic,hopped off the gate, and the slavers rolled it open. The Dorn’s rage soon gave way to fatigue.  The leader and two of his lieutenants led the party inside, as two remained on the battlements to keep an eye on the human and fey “traitors” from above.  The smaller goblins and worgs had vanished from sight... The insurgents followed their guides warily, fearing that they were being led into a trap...

Upon closer investigation, the Kurgun settlement seemed to be considerably smaller than Durgis Rock, although its architecture was similar.  Only a few crumbling buildings stood within its walls -- it seemed that the bulk of the population resided within the citadel that had been carved directly out of the mountain face at the foot of which the wall had been erected.  The citadel revealed once again the astounding majesty of dwarven craftsmanship -- broad pillars and columns that supported a series of high arched balconies rising to a height of approximately 50 feet, into which had been sculpted ornate designs featuring the symbols of Father Sun and Mother Moon.  Broken chunks of masonry and smashed wooden crates, drums, wheel barrows and other implements littered the streets.  The fact that the main gate remained intact was a bit puzzling.  A few dwarf-sized skeletons clad in mostly decayed rags were slumped amid the debris, most of their flesh long since devoured by scavengers.  The sight and stench of more recent humanoid refuse also were difficult not to notice.  Swarms of flies buzzed about everywhere.  From the direction of the citadel, the party heard what sounded like a baby crying...     

The humans and fey followed the bugbears up a wide ramp leads to the citadel’s iron doors, which were slightly ajar, and through which a haze of smoke drifted.  The sound of the crying baby came from within, as did occasional coughs. 

Inside the hall, which reeked of smoke and rotting flesh--the bugbear commander barked orders at a smaller goblin, who rounded up the few slaves they had gathered on their raids thus far.  The leader insisted that he still expected compensation for his losses.  The slaves had been sitting on the ground around a smoldering fire, and as they emerged from the haze, it became easier to appraise them:  an elderly dwarf, a deformed forsaken monstrosity and her child, and seven humans--five men and two women.  Among the humans stood a girl with a baby in her arms.  The scream she uttered as the goblin pulled her up from the ground suggested that she might have been the source of the louder, blood curdling screams the party had heard earlier.  It was difficult to judge the girl’s age.  She might have been sixteen summers old, but the dark circles under her tear-streaked eyes and her upturned mouth made her look much older.  Her long blonde hair clearly identified her as a Dorn.  The girl was thin and perhaps 5’8 tall, and she was clad in a grimy cream-coloured woollen skirt and white blouse.  Long bloody streaks stained her thighs, her feet were badly cut and bruised, and she seemed to have difficulty standing. She trembled like a leaf as she was brought forward to be appraised her... Two other Dorns were evident among the slaves--a middle-aged woman who stood near the young girl with the baby, and further in back, an older man with an almost bald scalp, whose face was badly bruised.  The other men appeared to be darker-featured Erenlanders.  All appeared to be in pretty rough shape.

As Loic’s eyes adjusted to the haze and the dimness, the awful truth hit him... The Dorns were kin, the nearly bald man his father!  The younger Batz struggled to maintain his calm as Garn negotiated with the bugbear commander... but as the latter laughed when he mentioned that the young girl provided “good fun,” Loic’s temper began to flare again.  Two of the bugbear guards grunted and stepped toward Vargus and Dag as they perceived that the latter were doing something suspicious, and at that same moment, Dag slipped a dagger into the commander’s kidneys while Loic unleashed his fury and swung clumsily at the one who dared to laugh at his family’s misery.  Klot drew his sword and lunged at one of the sentry’s that was moving towards Vargus and Dag, but also missed.

The commander bellowed in pain and rage as Garn flanked him and stabbed him in the lower back again, ordering the smaller goblin to take the slaves away as he swung his flail at the gnome.  Another bugbear crept up from behind Loic and struck him on the shoulder with a morning star, the Dorn now flanked between his assailant and the bugbear leader, while the latter was caught between the raging Dorn and the gnome.  Klot’s opponent had him practically cornered between a column and the wall, and Vargus and Dag soon found themselves deadlocked with two of the goblinoid brutes.   
The fight seemed to be going against the heroes... Both Loic and Garn had sustained a series of hard blows from the flail and morning star wielded by the leader and his aide, and Loic, Klot and Vargus all fought in vain without scoring any hits against their targets.  The bugbear commander seemed tireless and indestructible--the number of dagger thrusts he sustained from Garn without falling should have slain him.  He yelled at the top of his lungs for the worgs to join the fray--their arrival would surely spell doom for the heroes.  At last, the leader seemed to weaken and cautiously withdrew from the fray.  Loic turned to fight the other bugbear that had been flanking him, Garn killed the goblin that was herding the slaves before running to Klot’s aid, and Dag--fighting back to back with Vargus--delivered a killing blow to his own opponent just before the leader tried to escape through the hall’s main doors.  By then, the dworg had taken a considerable beating and had failed to harm his enemy.  Dag killed the mangled leader as he attempted to slip through the half-open door.  As a bloodied Loic finally cut down his second foe, the remaining two bugbears disengaged and fled from the chamber and out into that part of the village that was under the open sky, just as the growling worgs and goblin riders were charging towards the doors.  Dag lopped off the fallen leader’s head, thereby removing an obstacle that might have prevented Vargus from shutting the portal in the nick of time... All waited with baited breath to see whether the worg riders would break through...

Eventually, the snarling of worgs and yipping of goblins faded.  The party turned their attention to the slaves--towards Loic’s mistreated kin.  Father and son engaged in a conversation in their native tongue.  Mutual concern and grief soon gave way to evident tension, resentment, and accusations.  As the argument between the two men escalated, the girl who held the baby and who had been violated by the bugbears--Loic’s cousin, Grettel--begged them to calm down.  She maintained stoic and dignified, despite the horrific ordeal she had endured.  The other party members steered clear of the two, focusing their efforts on cleaning up the hall of the grisly remains of fallen foes, forsaken slaves, and even animals.  Garn unshackled the slaves, then he, Vargus and Dag did what they could to make them comfortable, including giving them so food and water, before setting out to scavenge whatever salvageable items they could from the ghost town.  The elderly dwarf seemed to be in shock, unable or unwilling to speak as his eyes remained wide open in a hollow stare; the forsaken mother whimpered and huddled in a corner with her equally misshapen child, and also did not appear capable of responding to the questions that were asked of her.       

Garn, Vargus and Dag eventually returned from their explorations of the citadel with a variety of items including dwarven tools, clay flasks with the symbols of Mother Moon and Father Sun carved into them, a few weapons and shields, and footwear--some items in better shape than others.  They also looted the bodies of the slavers, finding decent quality weapons (one flail, two morning stars, nine javelins), rope, a score of manacles and keys, nets, iron and copper pots, copper goblets, a dozen flea-ridden blankets, and grimy waterskins (the latter two sets of items having been shared with the slaves).  The freed slaves were understandably concerned about their fate--where would they go from here? Would Loic and his band lead them somewhere safe?

Aside from the occasional moans and cries made by those suffering nightmares, the night passed by uneventfully.  The surviving bugbears, worgs and goblins seemed to have fled the area.  Come morning, Loic and Vargus watched in wonder as the worst of their wounds had healed, leaving little more than light bruises and feint scars on their bodies.  Although the freed slaves were still weak and tired, the party resolved that no good would come from spending more time in the abandoned Kurgun village. 

Loic declared that he would take his kin to Good Hope...                   

Spell Energy / Taint +12/-3
Posts: 715

« Reply #29 on: March 28, 2010, 07:19:58 AM »


Sorry for the delay in reading your latest account - good as always.  Your players were very lucky to have talked their way in and been in position to try to take down the leader quickly; which unfortunately for them, didn't happen.  If it won't throw off the story or give anything away, what were the stats of the bugbear leader?


Spell Energy / Taint +4/-0
Gender: Male
Posts: 679

« Reply #30 on: March 28, 2010, 09:54:35 PM »

Hi Kane,

Thanks for the kind words - glad you're enjoying the story/journal thus far.

My game is a hybrid 3.5/Pathfinder game -- I'm using a mix of rules from each set, so the bugbear leader's stats do not necessarily conform fully to either rules.  I also designed him in a hurry, have limited experience designing monsters with classes, and just "eyeballed" things, so there may be some errors...

Gorshekk Slave-Taker

CE Bugbear Fighter 2 / Slaver 1

Hit points: 50 (3d8 + 3d10 + 6) / 6 HD

Initiative: +6               Move: 30’

AC: 19 (+2 Dex, +3 natural, +3 studded leather, +1 light wooden), touch 12, flat-footed 17

BAB: +4

CMB:  +7                            
CMD: 19

Attack: Flail +8 melee (1d8 + 3)
            Javelin +5 ranged (1d6 + 3)
            Net +5 ranged
            Whip +7 melee (1d3 + 3 non-lethal; +2 bonus to disarm attempts; 15’ reach; using whip provokes attacks of opportunity)

Space/reach: 5ft./5ft. (15 ft. using whip)

Fort: +7
Reflex: +4
Will: +1

Str 17, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 14

Acrobatics: +2; Climb +3, Sense Motive: +2, Intimidate: +12(x)  Stealth - +15    Perception: +4     Use Rope - +6(x);  Appraise: +2

Feats: Alertness; Weapon focus: flail; Exotic weapon prof.: whip; Exotic weapon prof.: net (class ability); Improved Initiative

. studded leather
. small wooden shield
. flail
. net
. 3 javelins in quiver on back
. whip
. knife
. clay vial with 3 doses of serpent lily poison
. In belt pouch:
     - 10 gold coins (Sarcosan)
     - 1 silver coin (Sarcosan)
     - 23 copper coins (Sarcosan)
     -  1 bloodstone gem
. necklace made of teeth and finger bones

Spell Energy / Taint +12/-3
Posts: 715

« Reply #31 on: March 29, 2010, 04:45:02 AM »

I was wondering why he was so hard to take down.  The three character levels made all the difference (3d10 + con bonus).  Without magic weapons or heavy magic, 50 hp can last a while in a fight.


Spell Energy / Taint +4/-0
Gender: Male
Posts: 679

« Reply #32 on: August 21, 2010, 03:26:04 AM »


Shortly after morning rise, the group expended the last of their meagre rations and shared a meagre breakfast with the nevertheless grateful and newly freed slaves. Although the latter remained weak, tired and scared, the night’s rest and warm food did a great deal to fortify them. Still shaken by their ordeal, most nevertheless complied without resistance to the instructions provided by Garn and Loic. The forsaken mother and her deformed child ate the scraps of food they were given, but otherwise stayed huddled in a corner. The child--whose yellowish face seemed to be half goblin, half human, with two tiny horns protruding from above its temples--watched the humans and mountain fey inquisitively and occasionally attempted a few awkward steps in their direction, but his mother inevitably pulled him back. The elderly dwarf remained lost in the corridors of his own mind, and the Dornish woman named Kristiania likewise appeared as though she has had her spirit completely shattered by the loss and abuse she had suffered. Loic’s father, Kunibert, spoke little, but kept his attention focused on the well-being of Kristiania, Grettel, and Grettel’s baby sister Liv. The facial scars and stoic expressions on both Loic and Kunibert’s faces only enhanced the already strong resemblance between father and son. The baby cried constantly, apparently due to a high fever.

While the other survivors exchanged few words, the party sensed some tension between Jerrad and Willard, on the one hand, and Gault and Roald on the other. 

Under Garn’s leadership, the party and freed human slaves divvied up the goods and weapons that the heroes salvaged from the slavers and the abandoned Kurgun settlement, loading them into the grungy sacks left by the bugbears. The Erenlanders stared at the goods with excitement, as if they had not seen such a trove of rare and essential salvaged items in a very long time, if ever. The loads were divided in as equitable a manner as possible, and none complained, even though carrying the sacks over one’s shoulder was bound to be awkward and uncomfortable over long distances. While Loic suggested that it would be wiser to carry only essential items since speed was of the essence, Garn considered that a broad assortment of trade goods could prove vital to the group’s survival.  Young Grettel in particular went to great lengths to haul as much as she could on her frail frame, though she was already considerably weighed down by the baby, not to mention her particularly awful mistreatment at the hands of the bugbears. Still, a look of determination shone in her blue eyes as she obeyed the instructions of her cousin Loic, savior and new dhrot of Clan Batz. 

When the group finally began their march, they found that the forsaken mother and her child had slinked away like ghosts in the ruins. For all that Dag tried to gently pull the elderly dwarf from his catatonic state, the old mountain fey did not respond. His eyes stared constantly at some distant thing only he could see, and only the feint movement of his lips beneath his wispy and grimy beard suggested that he was alive. The pitiful dwarf had soiled the rags he wore as pants, and smelled strongly of urine and excrement. Although Dag briefly considered putting the old man out of his misery, the party ultimately decided to abandon him to whatever fate awaited him...


A warm but cloudy day awaited the travelers in the wilds beyond the citadel. The surviving worg riders and bugbears were nowhere in sight. On the outskirts of the dwarven settlement, the party walked past what Dag and Vargus identified as potato and other fields typically tended by the agrarian Kurgun. It was evident that the fields had been left untended for quite a long time, and even if they had been tended more recently, it would be too early in the summer to expect to be able to harvest anything. Once past the fields, Loic and Garn instructed the Erenlanders to assist in foraging efforts. The gnome, Klot, Vargus and Dag scouted and foraged at a short distance ahead of the party, while Loic and his father escorted the Dornish women. Jerrad and Willard seemed intent on keeping a distance between themselves and Gault and Roald, and always remained in sight of Loic and his kin.

Willard seemed like he might be in his 50s or even older, but the hard life of an Erenlander in the Eastern Hills and the man's recent ordeal at the hands of slavers would also make a younger man look far older than his actual years. The man walked stooped forward, and appeared to be no taller than 5'7. He had a hawkish nose, bushy white eyebrows and beard, as well as matted, stringy shoulder length hair. His skin was deeply tanned and weathered, making a sharp contrast with his white hair, beard and brows. He was clad in ripped, sagging, and blood and grime-stained woollen rags. The few times he had tried to speak, his frail voice had broken into an uncontrollable stutter, and subsequently gave up sharing his thoughts, with tears of frustration welling in his eyes. The younger Jerrad, who looked to be in his early twenties, usually completed his elder’s thoughts for him.  Jerrad’s Dornish ancestry was clearly visible in his blonde hair. He was thin and almost as tanned as Willard, and what little facial hair he had grew in uneven patches of stubble. The lad had brown, contemplative eyes, suggesting that he took in much without sharing his thoughts. He usually spoke only to try to complete a sentence for Willard, to acknowledge that he had understood the instructions given him, or to answer whatever questions were asked of him in as brief and direct a manner as possible. 

When Loic noticed that the two men stayed closer to the Dorns and appeared to keep their distance from Roald and Gault, he began to forage closer to them, eventually engaging them in conversation. After some hesitation, Jerrad stated that Willar was his uncle, and that both were herders whose pastures were near the foot of the Kaladruns, a week or so's walk north of the Barren Forest. They feared Gault and Roald, for the latter were part of a band of vicious men that had victimized Jerrad and Willar's hamlet only days before the goblin-kin slavers captured the two herders. It seemed the bugbears then preyed on the wild men shortly thereafter... Willard became particularly agitated and teary-eyed as Jerrad recounted the last week's events to Loic.

Gault was an older man with a bald scalp and only thin wisps of white hair growing on the sides and back of his head. His eyes were baggy and he wore a perpetual frown. His stone grey eyes were cold and expressionless, and he constantly spat big wads of phlegm through his rotted teeth, while rubbing his high forehead with his right hand. He had a thin, wiry frame, and stood a little under 6' tall. When the man spoke, it was usually to tell Roald to "shut 'is trap" and to do as he was told.

Roald appeared to have seen between thirty and thirty-five summers. His long, greasy, black hair was tied in a pony tail that reached halfway down his back. Strands of loose hair stuck out at the temples or otherwise hung down in front of his face. His short beard was equally dirty and oily. The man's most distinguishing features were his hazel coloured eyes, which shone brightly, as though he had a fever or were seeing into the next world. His face was gaunt and sun-burnt, and when he spoke, it was in a stream-of-thought that frequently appeared to have little rhyme or reason, was punctuated by frequent giggles.  Roald's physical mannerisms also betrayed a certain nervousness -- he was fidgety, paced back and forth, and talked to himself quite a bit.

When Loic broached the topic of "in-fighting," Gault looked at the Dorn with his expressionless eyes and promised in an equally affectless voice that "there won't be no trouble from us, friend"... At which point Roald began to giggle, until Gault gave the younger man a hard shove and ordered him to "shut 'is trap." Roald then raised his arms and cowered in fear, substituting his giggles with whimpers... The party now feared that they had potential traitors or snitches among them.  Loic ordered Gault and Roald not to stray anymore--they could walk ahead of him, but always within easy reach, and never out of sight. Gault shrugged and asked why. When the Dorn justified his orders on the basis of safety, the stern-looking older man shrugged and responded "will do, chief... never know when them goblin-kin slavers will strike again." Roald then started to giggle nervously, prompting Gault to elbow his younger companion hard in the ribs.

The awkward loads borne by the weary ex-slaves, and especially their foraging efforts, made for a painfully slow day of travel northwest along the valley floor. Indeed, even Garn and Dag hiked at a considerably faster pace than the refugees. On a brighter note, the route was obvious and at a level grade, streams and ponds were plentiful, cover was reasonably good, the weather had been cooperative, and no hostile troops appeared to have heard the occasional clanging of the metal items carried in the sacks or baby Liv’s nearly constant (if muffled) crying. Signs of the passage of the orc column that had traveled this way a few days ago were unmistakeable, and now and again Dag, Klot and Vargus observed tracks in the earth suggesting that the bugbears and worg riders were traveling in the same direction as they were, but at a faster pace.

The remainder of the day went by without incident, and the party had remarkable success with its foraging efforts, collecting enough wood grubs, worms, spiders, beetles, caterpillars, freshwater shrimp and snails, frogs, grouse eggs, chives, mushrooms, and larch and spruce bark to feed everyone for the day.  Some of the food was consumed while on the march and at mid-day pause, but there was plenty left to eat come evening time. Some of the food was less than appetizing to look at, but no one complained -- for most, hunger has frequently been a fact of life and anything edible that could fill the stomach offered much welcome relief.


By early evening, the main group came to a halt, and Garn prepared a hot meal with the disparate ingredients he has at hand. As per the gnome's instructions, Dag and Vargus continued to range further ahead in order to locate a suitable place to camp. They eventually identified a copse of evergreens that contained a few overgrown boulders, and through which flowed the creek. The ground was soft and carpeted with dry, fallen pine needles. On the approach to the copse, they glimpsed winged figures gliding in the distance among the rounded summits to the northwest, which promptly faded from view. The dwarfkin thought it unlikely that they would have been spotted by the winged creatures... but did not know for sure, as the area immediately before the copse had sparse cover.

As Dag began to forage around the camp (grumbling about all that useless, heavy junk Garn had him haul), Vargus returned to fetch the rest of the party. The dworg motioned to Loic to follow, reluctant to come too close to the refugees. The latter wasted no time finishing their meals and following Loic, Klot and Garn, as they in turn followed Vargus.

It was almost dark by the time everyone reached the copse. A grim, tattoo-faced Dag awaited their arrival with a substantial pile of bark, worms, insects and mushrooms at his feet, enough to provide a decent breakfast for all next morn...

Loic's kin huddled together around baby Liv, trying to keep her and themselves warm, while the two groups of Erenlanders kept to themselves at opposite ends of the camp. The baby cried throughout much of the day, and continued to do so. Grettel had done her best to muffle the infant's cries, but she was clearly worried about her baby sister's health.  As the refugees settled down for the night, many of them relying on the dirty blankets the party salvaged from the bugbears for warmth, Vargus discretely handed Loic a handful of feathery yellow leaves. The dworg stated that they were the leaves of the yarrow plant, which he found as he and Dag first neared the copse. He believed that the leaves, if brewed in a tea, should alleviate the baby's fever... but the dworg feared that Loic's kin probably would not try the remedy if they knew it came from his hand... 

As Loic brought the yarrow tea to Grettel and Liv, Gault could barely be heard grumbling that someone "should make the kid shut-up, or it'll be the death of us all." 

A second later, Kunibert got up, and was promptly joined by Loic, who planted his boot into the Erenlander's face for the comments made about the sick child in his care.  Gault put his hands up to his face and rolled away from father and son. Kunibert stood a few paces behind his son, ready to do his part if need be. "Aaaagh! What the... What did you do that for?!" moaned Gault. Roald scrambled away in a panic, until his back rested against a broad tree trunk. He kept a javelin pointed at the two Dorns, and quietly mumbled some incoherent words to himself. "Look, I'm sorry," said Gault as he cautiously lifted one hand away from his face, revealing a bloody nose. "I was only telling the truth... but hey, it's fine... You'll get no more complaints from me..." Kunibert stared Roald down, and when the young man with the feverish eyes realized that Gault was not offering any resistance and that the Dorns were showing restraint, he lowered his javelin and let himself slide down the tree until he was sitting once again. Grettel looked on in silent concern as she tried to get baby Liv to drink the tea that was prepared by her cousin, but Kristiania kept her head buried in a blanket, as did Jerrad and Willard.

Loic ordered the two Erenlanders to surrender their weapons to him. "We have freed you from the slavers, yet it is becoming apparent that this was a mistake. Try anything and I will bury my axes in your skulls and leave your dead bodies for the scavengers to pick at. Once we reach Good Hope, you will be free to go; until then, you WILL NOT CAUSE ANY TROUBLE!!!"

Both Gault and Roald looked bewildered as Loic ordered them the pair to hand over their weapons. "But... what do you mean, it was a mistake to set us free?" asked Gault in his slow drawl. " We done everything you told us to, helped find food, carried all the stuff you wanted us to carry... and now, because I said something about the kid's crying getting us all killed, you stick your boot in my face and accuse us of being not trustworthy..." The man then bit his tongue, and ordered Roald--who was laughing wildly--to be quiet as well. "Please... you have to let us hold on to something to defend ourselves... what if those goblin-kin and the wolves, or even Fell, should come by in the night? You'll need everyone who can wield a weapon to do so... Whaddaya say? We'll keep doing as you say, just as we done so far... You've shown yourselves to be bigger and stronger than we are, we're no threat to you or anyone else in this camp..."

Seeing Loic unmoved by their pleas, Gault and Roald surrendered the javelins that they had been given previously by the party.

Garn stepped forward with his hands raised as if to gently push all the bad feelings back into the background.  "I'm sure the situation is painful for you, gentlemen. Truthfully these are not kind times for any of us, least of all for Loic who now has to assume responsibility for what is left of his clan."

Here the gnome shrugged as if trying to explain away his colleague’s murderous temper.  "Of course NONE of us like Brigands, which is what you've been accused of being. You can understand how my friend, the son of farmers, might react were two such to brought under his power. I'm not saying it would be JUSTICE, what he would do to you both, but it would be VENGEANCE and that passes for justice in these dark times."

As Garn addressed the two men, Gault then sought to gain further sympathy from the gnome. "Brigands? Why're you calling us that? We're just poor folk who've been taken from their home in the hills by the slavers... we're victims, just like everyone else."

Again the gnome shrugged, almost as if empathizing with the plight the two Erenlanders found themselves mired in.

"I'm the leader of this group, so I think I can keep him from murdering you, if you cooperate as much as possible for the next few days. I'll at least see to it that you'll be armed when we part ways at Good Hope, perhaps a share of whatever food we can barter for too, eh?"

Here Garn smiled widely. "Of course, if you cross me I'll kill you in ways that would make Loic seem merciful. “Are we clear?"

Garn's description of Loic's vengeful temperament, and the gnome’s own sinister and threatening smile, seemed to cow the two Erenlanders into submission. They nodded eagerly and vowed to cooperate when the gnome suggested that the two may be re-armed and even be left with some food when the group reaches Good Hope. "Of course, little master, like I said, we'll do everything you say. And you can count on us, we won't betray you... The thought never would've even crossed our minds--you saved us!... But please... please, I beg you... give us something so that we can defend ourselves. A stick, even..."

Roald grinned like an idiot as Gault pleaded with Garn. Kunibert spat in the general direction of the two Erenlanders as he stepped away from them and returned to his kinswomen and the still crying baby.

Garn considered their plea but shook his head.
 "Your best protection, Gault, is to stay with the group and stay unarmed. If you and Roald had to leave the group to scout or gather food then I'd agree that you needed arms, but here with the main party you're safe enough.  I agree, you've not put a foot wrong since you joined us. You've given us no reason to hurt you - but you have to admit that there's plenty of reason to mistrust you. You've been named as two who did live by brigandage from Loic's Clan in the past - I don't have to tell you that there's little mercy awaiting you if it came to a trial out here. I wouldn't justify what would happen with the name of trial, myself.

 Please, just keep on as you have been. Keep to yourselves, keep quiet and do the task you've been given. I promise you that this journey will soon be over, and then you can go your own way with your share of the trading and live out whatever kind of lives you can make for yourselves according to your skills and your fortune."

Gault seemed about to protest the allegations of brigandry, but then shook his head and laid down again. Roald hesitated a while longer, stifled a giggle with his hand, then did the same as Gault.

The night was long and everyone was on edge. The watch was broken into three shifts--Garn and Dag, Vargus and Loic, and Klot and Kunibert. Despite the yarrow tea administered by Loic to baby Liv, the infant's condition seemed to be worsening as the night progressed. As the moon reached its zenith, wolves could be heard baying in the distance. All prayed that the wolves had not heard the baby, caught the scent of the party... or otherwise travelled in the company of orcs or goblin-kin. Each watch also kept a close eye on Gault and Roald, but the two men lay motionless, wrapped in their dirty blankets and trying to ward off the chilly mountain air. 

Hours later, the sight of the grey light of dawn crept over the eastern peaks brought relief to everyone. The likelihood of attack decreased as day neared, for the dead and orc patrols were known to travel by night...


The next day with the liberated slaves in tow was much like the first -- a slow slog made even slower by ongoing foraging efforts, though Gault seemed even more glum than before. Yet neither he nor Roald (nor Willard and Jerrad, for that matter) said much throughout the hot, cloudless day. The party continued to travel in a northwesterly direction, following a creek as it descended the winding valley at a very gentle grade. Signs of the passage of orcs remained visible everywhere in the form of churned up earth, spoiled, now abandoned campsites, and unfinished half-rotted animal carcasses. 

Sporadic conversations in Norther occured from time to time between the Dorns, and Klot attempted to make small talk with the two women until he was rebuked with a stern look from Kunibert. Aside from that, the crying of the baby, and the odd order from Garn or scouting report from Dag and Vargus, the journey took place in silence. 

The day went by without incident--Gault and Roald always staying within sight and doing as they were instructed to do--and by late afternoon, the mountains to either side of the creek had been reduced to little more than gently wooded foothills. A low hilltop granted a commanding view of the way ahead--to the north and northwest, separated from the party's present position by mile after mile of rolling hills and meadows, was the outline of a large forest, which they judged to be at least another day or two's walk at their current pace. The hills formed a corridor to the northeast and also due west, where they merged with the neverending grasslands. Kayla had mentioned that Good Hope lay several days to the west, not far from the southwestern edge of the forest.  The group established camp among the woods and boulders on the small knoll that overlooked the broad pass that descended from the valley, towards the lower hills and the Barren Forest on the northern horizon. 

The baby's condition seemed to be reaching a critical point, and Grettel was on the verge of desperation...

Loic gently took the child from Grettel and then approached Vargus.  "If you have any skills, magic or otherwise, that may save this child, I would ask that you use them now, for I fear the end is near. I have nothing to give you as payment except these twin mithril axes, which I would gladly concede if you would save her."

Garn kept to himself that evening, numbed by the distrust that pervaded his little group and feeling little more empathy for the Dorns than the Erenlanders. In fact, with little history of spending time among a variety of humans, Garn had originally thought the humans had all been of one community and had assumed they would work together as a matter of course. The realities of the march had driven another wedge of depression into the widening crack in his spirit - first a community of mountain fey who were pathologically unable to trust outsiders. Now a group of very ordinary and run-of-the-mill humans who couldn't even trust each other...  Could their small group made up of Dwarfkin, Gnomekin and Humankind possibly remain as united as they had to date? The knowledge that it was HIS responsibility to ensure that they did so was not a comfort to Garn - he found himself missing Wendell more and more, noticing how much the inbred custom of obedience to elders had cushioned the shocking nature of their trip until the old one had left them.  

The mood in camp was sullen -- Vargus and the Dorns concerned about the survival of the infant, Gault and Roald less than pleased with the way they had been treated, and Garn, Jerrad and Willard all lost in their private meditations. As everyone settled down for the evening meal, Klot approached Loic. "I've still got some of that elven tea in my pack," murmured the warrior. "I don't know if it's got any healing properties... I suspect it probably doesn't, given the reactions I've had to it, but who knows... If you want to brew some of it for the babe, it's yours..." 

When Garn had finally finished boiling the frogs and squirrels that Vargus caught in surprisingly large numbers, the gnome found himself without appetite... feeling queasy and achy, and as though he were hot and cold at the same time...

Later in the evening, Jerrad and Willard cautiously approached Dag, and could be overheard by the others trying to initiate a conversation with him.  "May we sit with you?" asked the younger man nervously, while the elderly man flashed the dwarf a beaming grin, tried to speak, stuttered uncontrollably, then gave up.

Jerrad took over again, making awkward small talk before finally blurting out what he seemed to have been dying to ask all along. "We have never seen a mountain fey before meeting you... Do you really live and fight the orcs under the mountains?... What kind of food do you live off under the mountains?... How many of your kind are left?... Do they all have their faces painted like you?... We've heard that mountain fey women look alot like the men--is that true?... How much longer do you think your people will be able to hold out?..."

Dag looked at Jerrad and replied, "Not all mountain fey live under the mountains. Although being underground doesn't bother me as much as it would a human, I for one much prefer the open sky as opposed to being tunneled under millions of tons of rock.

    "What can I say about dwarven women. They are of strong heart and mind, a man could be so lucky as to bed one of these wondrous creatures. You should have seen the looks of jealousy from this very group when a young lass approached me and asked to share her bed. What a night that was..."

A long silence went by as Dag relived that night in his mind. As if waking from a dream (a little red in the face) Dag coughed and said "Ahem.... well it's late and I'm tired... goodnight."

Without another word, Dag laid down and was fast asleep.

Meanwhile, Loic told his cousin that he was taking the child so that she could get some rest, at which point he gave Vargus a nod indicating that they should meet somewhere out of sight of the Dorns.  The tall warrior then asked the dworg for his advice before giving the child elven tea.  
"I will confess, I know little of the workings of the body and the cause of fever,” responded Vargus. “I am not trained for this. I can call on the spirits, and be they willing, we can hopefully restore the babe's health."

Vargus' command of both Trader's tongue and Erenlander was put to the test to get this point across, but his improvement was marked.

"I do warn you, however, you have felt the reforging of the body, the babe will cry..."

A heavy blanket of cloud cover rolled in shortly after everyone settled down to sleep, blocking out all star and moonlight, making for a particularly black and menacing night for those who could not see in the dark. 

Despite Vargus's best efforts, the baby's fever did not abate, and its crying only seemed to redouble in intensity. When it was not the baby that prevented the group from sleeping, it was the moaning, retching or violent bowel movements of Garn, Grettel and old Willard who seem to have come down with a violent illness of their own. 

The gnome was in such bad shape that he was unable to keep watch with Dag. 

Everyone was tense, fearing the worst... that beasts of shadow would be drawn to the party in its moment of greatest vulnerability. And strange sounds carried by the wind did nothing to reassure them.


Dawn was particularly slow in coming, the sun unable to pierce the veil of low hanging clouds until well into what normally would be morning. As a feeble grey light filtered down beneath the canopy of evergreen needles, an ailing Willard began to stutter frantically.

At first, the heroes presume that it was due to fever...  Then, they notice that Jerrad--who had been resting near the older man--was nowhere to be seen...

Loic attempted to question the stuttering old man, then asked Dag and Vargus to study the ground for tracks while he prepared elven tea for all of those who were ill.   Willard fought back tears as he stamped restlessly around the place where he and Jerrad had slept for the night. He tried in vain to string a sentence together, but the stuttering and sobbing made it very hard to understand what he was trying to say. He then pointed over the Dorn's shoulder at the other two Erenlanders, who were looking back at them. "If you were to ask me, boss, that boy made a run for it... decided it would be in his best interest to beat ya to the nearest orc patrol and turn ya in, rather than be caught dead in the company of mountain fey... it's sad to see that he had to sell out the old man, too..." Roald kept one hand firmly clamped over his mouth.

Although old Willard's pacing about has already disturbed the ground around the spot where the younger lad had slept, the two dwarf-kin still foundd a few useful signs in the earth. They noticed unusual prints with long claws, and drag marks starting where Jerrad had lain and then pulling 2-3 feet away from that spot. Whatever made the prints must have been quite heavy, as the prints were fairly deep - deeper than the prints left by a non-armoured human. Then, all of a sudden, all signs of tracks and drag marks ended. Klot found the blanket that Jerrad had slept in, just a few feet further in the brush... but no signs of tracks or drag marks nearby.

The other Dorns apparently were unaware of the situation. Kunibert kept watch over Kristiania and Grettel, who had as bad a night as Garn. And the baby seemed no better than she was the day before...

Vargus stooped low over the clawed tracks, muttering over possibilities of what may have made them. He consulted Dag and Loic, keeping his voice low.  "These are not boot prints. Are they bear prints, or something worse? If it's natural, the spirits may allow me to tame it, but if it's some beast of the Shadow, we could have trouble on our hands..."

Vargus's gaze shifted rapidly to the refugees, then to the surrounding region, scouring the darkness with his penetrating gaze, searching for some sign of movement.  In hushed tones Dag asks Loic and Vargus "Could it be that Jerrad is one of the shadow?
He seemed very interested to learn about my kin. Perhaps the tracks were made by an astirax, who came to retrieve their informant.”

Willard continued to pace back and forth, trembling like a leaf, tears streaming from his eyes... until he clutched at his stomach in pain, fell to his knees, doubled over, and began to dry heave in the bushes...  Garn pulled himself out of his misery long enough to suggest that staying where the nasty flying thing stole their comrade from would be massively unwise.  He also threatened to gut whoever gave him the horrific disease. His previous preoccupation with the happy idea of transporting all the trade goods to the settlement for sale was shattered. Clearly a break was something that this group was not going to get. Ever. He would put up no fuss if hale and hearty members of the party decided to ditch items, unless they were his personal property.

Loic agreed with Garn that the party should press on despite the sick individuals. He also stressed that, for safety, the foragers should travel in pairs.  The one-eyed Dorn did not appreciate the comments made by Gault and was unnerved by Roald's presence. Glaring at the Erenlanders, he murmured to his close companions, "It is only a matter of time before those two do something to betray or harm the group. We should be rid of them now before this happens. Give the word, and I will...handle the situation."
Garn struggled to raise his head. "Are we really at the stage where we need to kill them? Wouldn't it be acceptable to send them away instead?"
His heart, however, did not  seem to be in it. Frantic with worry about the situation in the rare moments where his condition gave him the luxury to think on anything, the gnome was eager for someone to take the burden of decision from him and simplify the situation.

"They know our destination,” continued Loic. “What if we let them go and they alert the Shadow's forces of our location?"

Silent on this matter to this point, Klot spoke up. "If we kill them - are we not little more than murderers ourselves?... I for one did not walk from beneath the eaves only to do the Shadow’s work in the open.  I would have thought that you of all people, Loic, would know that not all problems can be solved at the end of a blade. If they run or seek our necks in the night, I will be the first to cut them down.  And in another matter, Gault appeared to be right when he suggested this babe will be our doom, for when you speak of gutting whoever gave you this disease, Garn, this child carries a sickness that is beyond our skills. It is not so cruel to place it high in a tree and rid us of its illness... and its incessant crying. It is a harsh world and only the strong survive... sometimes it is for the best." Klot spoke his last words facing away from the group, looking toward the horizon, and left his words at that.

"Sick or not, the child is one of the few surviving members of my clan,” replied Loic. “I am as likely to leave this babe behind to die as I am to abandon any of you...and that includes you Klot."


Although the gentle downhill grade leading from the mountain valley into the rolling and sparsely wooded forest beyond and the shedding of cargo now made for easier walking, the illnesses that plagued the party limited its progress.  Kunibert helped his niece, Grettel, walk, while Kristina now held baby Liv, who no longer cried but breathed only very shallowly.  Now that she had been entrusted with the care of the child, Kristiana’s mental fortitude seemed to be on the mend--if anything, her task had taken her mind off the death of her husband (an older son of Loic’s uncle).  While young Grettel, Willard, and Garn still needed frequent stops to retch or relieve themselves or even just to rest, all consented that the party had to keep moving.

It was a grey, overcast day.  Evergreens gave way to an increasing number of deciduous trees and bushes, and the party wound its way down and up and down again gently along hillsides that regularly gave views to the Barren Forest that still lay many miles ahead to the north.  Boulders fallen from nearby mountains dotted the mossy and grassy landscape here and there, and provided convenient rest spots, vantage points and protection along the way. The party estimated that it would take at least two to three days of solid walking, depending on the health of the group, to reach the forest.  Far to the west, at the edge of their vision, the horizon flattened out.  While the western route was probably the faster and most direct route to Good Hope, it also provided less cover than the Barren Forest.

Within an hour of leaving camp, the party heard shrill cries for help, full of agonizing pain and terror echoing from behind--from the general direction that the group had travelled from.  The cries were as disturbing, if not more so, than those made by Grettel as she was mistreated by the slavers, when the heroes first approached the abandoned Kurgun settlement.  It was not clear if they were coming from the throat of a man or woman.  Willard, who now propped himself up with a walking stick, seemed especially shaken by the screams and kept on stuttering to himself as his eyes glazed over.
Although they probably lasted only a short time, the screams seemed to go on for an eternity, forcing many to cringe or shiver when they thought of their probable cause.  A short while later, the screams reached a crescendo, then stopped abruptly.  After a brief pause, the heroes heard a strange noise, like none they had heard before.  It sounded almost like a cross between a bird call and small stones bouncing off a rock face... like the sound a mountain might make if it were to laugh, or cackle... The liberated slaves could not conceal the terror on their faces.  The women and Willard seemed to want to just curl on the ground behind rocks, put their hands to their ears, and will the source of the terror away...  

Sometime after the last scream and stony cackle were heard, Vargus caught a brief glimpse of something through the trees as he scouted ahead with Dag.  Something with large, grey wings gliding swiftly over the treetops, and heading somewhere lower down and out of sight from the group’s present position... It emitted another stony cackle as it vanished from sight...

Later in the day, Vargus and Dag found a pair of naked and bloody, severed human legs splayed out at the foot of a birch tree in a gulley between hills.  A swarm of flies buzzed fiercely around it, suggesting that the dismemberment was fairly recent. They then heard a noise coming from above, in the trees on the hill top opposite the gulley, and caught a glimpse of a monstrous, statue-like face with huge pointed teeth protruding from a jutting lower jaw, two-foot long horns curling from the top of its head, and baleful green eyes that locked with theirs.  The demon emitted a stony cackle, then disappeared from view...

Come evening time, an equally grisly and alarming scene unfolds.  As Vargus scoped out a potential camp site in a copse of trees, he saw a bloody, naked human torso, its legs, arms and head missing, propped atop a large rock.  The torso had been sliced open, its entrails hanging out.  A cloud of flies swarmed in a frenzy around the remains.  Given the lateness of the hour and the limited cover in the surrounding environs, the party had little choice but to spend the night in a spot that had clearly been visited recently by their demonic stalker.

Illness, fear and fatigue ensured that there was little small talk that night.  Vargus’s slumber was troubled by strange dreams... which were interrupted when Loic, on watch but unable to see far in the dark, roused his companions after hearing a dull thud in the meadow just beyond the treed encampment.   Klot kept watch over the women, the ill and Gault and Roald, while Loic, Dag, and Vargus ventured into the darkened meadow.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  An ovoid stone sat a short distance away in the muddy grass, but the sharp senses of the dwarfkin did not pick any motion or unusual shapes in the inky blackness.  Stepping closer to the ovoid stone, Vargus and Dag realized that it was a severed human head -- Jerrad’s head!

A moment later, Grettel screamed hysterically -- “Help! An-arm-touched-me! It-has-no-body!!!”

As chaos and fear took hold of the camp, Klot--whose gaze had monetarily followed his companions and strayed away from the sleeping figures behind him, saw with his sharp vision a pair of glowing green pinpoints behind Grettel--the eyes of a terrible man-sized winged demon with huge fangs protruding from its jutting lower jaw, and massive bull-like horns curling up from its head.  It opened its maw wide as if leering, and emitted a stony cackle as it did so.  The demon waved a severed human arm in one of its clawed hands, which it had used to caress Grettel’s hair.

Another pair of green eyes suddenly appeared in the trees at the far end of the meadow that Loic, Dag and Vargus had just walked into.  Loic rushed back almost blindly into the camp, followed by Dag, while Vargus attempted to target the second pair of eyes with a javelin... which bounded off its targets rock-hard skin.  The demon made two passes at Vargus, then flew off into the night.  The one in the camp suddenly found itself surrounded by Loic, Klot, Dag, Kunibert and a still-weak but capable Garn.  The demon initially grinned evilly as the first strikes bounced harmlessly off its exoskeleton, but its expression promptly turned to surprise, rage and pain when Loic’s urutuks and some of Dag’s more forceful blows penetrated its skin.  It then followed its companion into the night sky, inflicting little actual harm on the defenders.  Roald and Gault had tripped and fallen into nearby bushes, while a terrified Willard had dashed blindly out into the meadow. The latter was promptly tracked down and brought back by Dag.  

Although the winged demons did not return, the entire party remained on edge throughout the remainder of the night. Grettel remained quite ill, her nerves rattled by the encounter with the demons.  

The party resumed its journey at daybreak under persistent cloud cover.  Gault and Roald were responsible for pulling make-shift travois to carry Grettel and Willard, the most gravely ill in the party.  Garn had begun to feel a bit more stable.  After mid-day, the marshy meadows gave way to dry grass, and the odd knoll provided a view to the forest, only a few miles away now.  Groves of trees and lonely boulders continued to break the monotony of the grasslands at regular intervals.  Some of the rocks looked like carved obelisks that jutted out of the ground at odd angles, as if they were drunken giants, but who would have erected such monuments here? The group continued to hike, though the relentless walking and physical hardship was taking its toll on the weaker members of the party.  The setting sun set the clouds afire on the western horizon.  

The sinking feeling returned when the weary walkers started to look more closely at the boulders.  They could almost swear that some of them had vague features sculpted out of them.  One rocky outcrop looked like a crouching person with its back turned to the group.  Further ahead, they discerned something that looked like a mythical griffon, its four claws pawing at the air as if it were a moment in time permanently frozen in stone...      

To their horror, the stone came alive.  The griffin-like tip of one of the leaning obelisks began to twist its head in the party’s direction, making the stony cackle they have come to know so well and dread even more.  As the thing shifts on its perch, the griffon-like appearance faded and was replaced by a living statue with four arms and a demonic countenance.  It cackled again at the band of travelers, turning its head from side to side, then looked up at the sky with an evil leer and cackled yet again...

A small flock of demons came to life from among the surrounding boulders.  Five demons assumed a circular formation perhaps 30‘ in the air, following each other in a dizzying pattern, as if circling their prey in a frenzy from above.  The four-armed one before you remains on his perch and continues to cackle and lear, as the others leap into the air and take flight.  The Barren Forest was so close, yet so far...

Roald panicked and ran with Willard in tow, but was promptly stabbed in the back by Garn.  Kristiania also panicked and attempted to make a run for the woods with Liv in her arms, but was immediately blocked by one of the demons.  Loic charged in to defend her, while Vargus and Dag advanced on the four-armed demon that loomed on a boulder immediately ahead of them.  

No sooner did Loic distract the first threat against Kristiania, that she bolted and was confronted by another one of the horrors.  Loic’s opponent raked him time and again with its sharp claws, driving the Dorn into his battle rage.  Having despatched Roald, Garn seemed to go into a rage of his own and charged from behind the demon that fought Loic and was unaware of the presence of the diminutive rogue at his back.  Kunibert likewise came to his son’s assistance.  Klot sought to protect Kristiania from her second assailant--which seemed to relish in the infliction of fear and despair on the woman.  Every time she turned away, the demon simply glided overhead to land in front of her once again--the cat toying with the mouse.  Now unguarded, Gault took that opportunity to make a run of his own, away from the battle.

While four of the demons engaged the party on the ground, another two continued to circle up and down in a frenzy in the sky.  The four-armed leader slashed viciously at Dag and Vargus, and tried to grab at the tattooed Kurgun in order to lift him off the ground.  The dwarf managed to struggle free, aided by some of Vargus’s own well-placed blows, just as one of the demon’s other minions dove to its aid.  While Klot and Kristania, Loic, Kunibert and Garn, and Vargus and Dag struggled with their foes, Grettel took shelter behind a rock and prayed that her baby sister--wailing in Kristiania’s arms dozens of feet away--would survive the battle.  Another one of the monsters swooped down to eviscerate poor unprotected Willard.      

The battle raged for a short while, the insurgents faring better than the nigh invincible demons might have expected.  After having sustained a few serious wounds at the hands of Vargus and Dag, the four-armed leader retreated into the sky, its minions soon doing the same.  It was remarkable -- notwithstanding Roald’s death at the hands of Garn, Willard had been the party’s only casualty.  Sad though it was to say, many felt that the old man’s passing was best, both for the party as well as for the frail man himself.  Mind still overcome with blood lust, and noticing that Gault had fled, Loic chased after the man and promptly hacked the defenceless brigand to death.  The party wasted no time decapitating the fallen.  Among the liberated slaves, only Loic’s kin now survived.

From here, it was a short distance to what the party hoped would be the safe shelter of the Barren Forest...
« Last Edit: August 21, 2010, 03:34:33 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #33 on: August 22, 2010, 12:45:07 AM »


The party wasted no time counting their blessings after routing the winged terror that had stalked them since they left the abandoned Kurgun settlement.  Given the demons’ resistance to all but the hardest blows or to mithral blades, the fact that the group suffered only one casualty in the encounter--the old and ailing Willard, whose mental and physical condition only seemed to worsen as the party located the remains of his younger companion Jerrad, limb by limb--seemed a small price to pay.  Roald and Gault both tried to take advantage of the chaos of battle to flee from captivity, but each was eventually caught by Garn and Loic and butchered mercilessly.  Dag, Klot, and Loic’s shaken kin turned away from the slaughter and said nothing, and while it seemed that Vargus may have been opposed to the murder of the Erenlanders, the gnome and Dorn had acted with such haste and rage that the bloody deeds were essentially done before the dworg could say or do anything about it.  

Since escaping the dwarven depths, Garn, the once pacifistic leader of the ragtag band, had begun to fall into a downward spiral of moodiness and violence that seemed uncharacteristic of his former self... and at the same time, the diminutive river fey now moved as though touched by some spirit that granted him preternatural swiftness.  The darker turn in the gnome’s personality and combat prowess had been met by indifference or even increased respect among some party members, and with silent worry by others.  Loic almost seemed to embrace the path of unbridled fury that had always lurked beneath his own skin, but which had not fully manifested until this journey.  

It was a short distance from the battleground where the party faced the winged demons to the shelter of the forest the travelers had been trying to reach.  The bloody cadavers of Roald, Gault and Willard were left behind in the mud, along with some of the goods those individuals had been carrying.

While the forest did provide greater shelter from the eyes of flying predators--including the winged demons that could still be seen gliding high above from time to time--, the heroes soon found that traveling along the edges of a trackless wood to be slow and frustrating, more so than most would have expected...  

Even though the survivors did their best to keep to the edge of the tree line, sometimes the undergrowth and deadfall required that they temporarily beat a path deeper into wood.  The Barren Forest had undeniably earned its sinister reputation.  Its old, dry trees, covered in pale lichen, tried to find purchase in arid soil and among jagged boulders.  Looking deeper inside the hazy wood, the travelers noticed a pale glow shimmering in the distance.  The ground was covered by colourless moss and gnarled shrubs, and all the woodlands were flowerless--despite the fact that it is well into summer.  The forest was eerily silent, save for the feint whispering of the wind, and a thick blanket of fog often seeped up from the ground.  

Walking quietly was a challenge, and the silence that reigned in the wood made the party’s advance sound that much louder.  Even though the winter snow had long since melted, a thick carpet of decaying leaves and brittle twigs littered the ground, often unseen due to the fog.  Thorn bushes and briar patches filled in the gaps between most trees, shredding cloaks and blankets and pricking exposed skin, and sometimes leaving slivers therein.

The scouts were disappointed to find how few animals roamed the woods--as a matter of fact, during the past three days, they had not seen or heard a single bird or animal--not even a squirrel.  It was expected that the loss of Jerrad, Willard, Gault and Roald would have made it much easier to feed the survivors, but that had not always been the case.  The first full day in the forest yielded a quantity of mushrooms, worms, and insects that was insufficient to satisfy the hunger felt by all, yet on the next day they found enough to satisfy everyone throughout the entire day, leaving a little bit leftover for breakfast on the third day.  Day after day of hard hiking was taking its toll on the weaker members of the group, and on the women in particular.  Still, they did not complain, and Dag, Vargus and Garn had been able to create a concoction that alleviated the worst of Grettel’s symptoms.  Though exhausted, Grettel insisted on walking, now that Gault was no longer present to pull her makeshift stretcher.  She would be a burden to no one else.  Kristiania continued to carry the child, which had been quiet for days now.  

Yet while every day brought the party closer to Good Hope, each day their spirits also became increasingly weighed down, and a sense of uneasiness was growing. Nights were restless, filled with strange and frightening dreams that could not be remembered come morning.


On the third evening in the forest, a weary Grettel fixed Vargus for a long while.  She remained pale, with deep bags under her eyes, her pretty yet haggard face smudged with grime.  She kept a torn and filthy blanket wrapped around her shoulders.  Then, with great hesitation, she addressed the dworg with her limited knowledge of the Trader’s Tongue.  Though she had not travelled with the party long, her curiosity was beginning to overcome her initial fear of the dworg, and she sought to learn more about him... after all, he was not really an orc, was he?  Kunibert glowered at her and rebuked her in Norther, clearly wanting to discourage her from speaking to the dworg.  Loic snapped back at his father.

The frail young lady continued to question Vargus, asking him if there were many like him, whether they all stood against the Shadow as well, and thanking him for his attempts to heal her baby sister.  She declared that if Loic considered the dworg a friend, then she would too.  

During the evening, she also engaged Dag and Garn in conversation, clearly wanting to know more about their people and the wider world.  They shared with her what they could, but eventually Kunibert snarled at her again, and Loic agreed that the less she knew of the party members, the safer she and they would be.  

Throughout the evening, Kristiania huddled with the baby beside Grettel.  She tended to avoid looking at the dworg, and instead stole sidelong glances at Klot, and also Loic, when she thought no one is looking at her.  The skin on the short and normally rounder-faced woman’s face now sagged, and her usually thick mane of dirty blonde hair had thinned considerably as a result of the ordeal of the past few weeks.  As with almost everyone in the group, the rags she wore seemed too big for her.  Some time after the exchange between Grettel and Vargus had come to a pause, Kristiania whispered something to Grettel, which resulted in a hushed discussion between the two.  

At last, Grettel spoke again:

“Kristiania is a bit shy, but she would like me to thank you all, for saving her... and me and Kunibert... She would especially like to say thank you to Klot, for saving her and my baby sister from the demon... And to Loic, too... Your bravery has given us hope... We know that we are safe with you...”

Klot perked up a bit at the mention of his name by a female, and smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.  Atypically, the former Shadow warrior seemed momentarily speechless.  Kunibert fixed the piercing-eyed Erenlander with a hard gaze.  

Loic had some questions of his own for Vargus and Dag. The Dorn had recently had dreams featuring silhouettes--one of a dwarf and the other of a towering, long-haired Dornish warrior...  Both apparently cutting their palms and sealing a pact in blood by the dim glow of the forge in some limestone hut at the foot of snow-capped mountains that made the Spinewall range seem like foothills.  The words "Thar-kil" were repeated over and over, slowly, while the ringing of hammer on anvil echoed throughout the dream... The scene changed abruptly to the Dwarven warrior screaming out "Thar-kil!" at the top of his lungs as his orcish foes overran his bloody, maimed corpse on some remote mountain pass.  Loic then had the sensation of drifting upward into the air, like a bird... then awoke...

Vargus responded that he too had had similar dreams. Neither he nor Dag were familiar with the expression "Thar-kil." Vargus wondered if the dreams told of the forging of Loic's urutuks, even though legend attributed their creation directly to Father Sun and Mother Moon.

The dworg also mentioned another dream, in which he thought he saw the Witch Queen of the elves telling him to make his way to the city by the sea, the city of Baden's sons.  Garn and Klot stated that they knew of a city called Baden's Bluff on the southwest shore of the Sea of Pelluria, though the gnome had never been there. The journey there was almost as far as to borders of the elven wood, likely many arcs on foot through increasingly populated and hostile territory...


The next morning, the party continued to plod along wordlessly.  Eventually, some caught a hint of a melody coming from deeper in the woods... A high soprano coming from the throat of what could only be a beautiful elf maiden.  Was it possible--a woodland fey out here in eastern Erenland?  The song was at once uplifting and melancholic... It promised beauty and hope, while also evoking deep sorrow... A sheltered paradise away from the unending war and oppression... It made everyone want to cry, it was so beautiful...

Most of the party felt compelled to seek out the source of the song, Klot taking the lead, followed by Kristiania, Grettel, Kunibert, Loic and Dag--all of whom dropped their sacks of salvaged goods before going deeper into the woods.  Garn and Vargus,  however, followed behind more cautiously.  Klot and the others followed the most direct path to the elf maiden, advancing deeper into the forest while ignoring the thorns and brambles that tore at their skin and clothes.  The heart-breakingly beautiful song continued to fill the wood, lifting its gloom and oppression.  A light continued to shine through the fog from deeper in the forest.  Past leaning trees, dead branches, twisting roots, and clusters of thorn bushes, perhaps 50’ away, they saw a grisly silhouette outlined against the fog by the strange luminescence--the silhouettes of three humanoid corpses hanging by their necks from a huge, warped tree draped in vines, the trunk of which must have been at least 10 feet in diameter.  The tree stood at the centre of a ring of massive stones.

Before he could walk closer to the tree, Klot was attacked by some rotted, moss and leaf-covered Fell-like creature with a rope tied around its neck that puffed a cloud of some foul green dust in his face.  The warrior fended off the attacks half-heartedly, desperate to reach the source of the song.  The green dust apparently had little effect on him.  Meanwhile, the Dorns ignored Klot’s plight and edged ever closer to the song.

Perched high in the tree, Loic and Dag saw the most beautiful woman they had ever seen--a naked, slender, silver-haired goddess whose pointy ears suggested she was an elf.  She continued to sing, taking a hand away from her harp and gesturing for them to approach.  They were all too eager to please.  Kristiania held baby Liv up for the elf maiden to take...

At that same moment, one of the tree’s branches came to life and swatted at Loic, nearly slamming him into the ground.  Other tree branches began to lower the humanoid corpses that hung from them.  Dag and all of the Dorns broke free from the trance as their minds suddenly recognized the overwhelming danger they were in, save Kristiania, who still held up the baby for the  “elf-maiden” to take.  The elf-maiden was in fact, to those who now saw through the enchantment, an evil-faced old crone with the lower body, legs and wings of a reptilian monster, a naked torso with pendulous breasts, and tangled filthy hair.  She swooped down from her perch to take the proffered infant.

Meanwhile, Klot continued to struggle in vain against his assailant, as other mossy and leafy Fell emerged from cover near Vargus and Garn.  Every hit by Klot and Garn soon resulted in the regeneration of plant matter.  The gnome quickly deduced that the ropes that were wrapped around the creatures’ necks likely were lifelines that linked them to the malevolent tree, and started to sneak behind the mindless things to sever their tethers and then immobilize them by tying what was left of their severed lines to fallen trees.  While severing the tethers did release some sickly black ichor from the creatures, doing so did not kill them.  Garn’s other tactic--to tie them to trees with the remainders of their tethers--worked effectively.

The observation that the bodies of these Fell seemed more plant matter than decayed flesh and bones led Vargus to surmise that the spirits could grant him control over them.  Indeed, when he called upon his spirit allies and focused their energy upon a plant-Fell, the creature would indeed shield its eyes from the dworg and cower.

Back near the tree, the battle became more desperate.  Loic, Grettel and Kunibert snatched Kristiania and baby Liv back from the talons of the monstrous crone.  Loic and Dag also had to contend with the plant-Fell that now advanced upon them.  The tree itself started to advance slowly, closing the distance between it, Dag and the Dorns.  With their regenerative powers, the plant-Fell seemed nearly indestructible to Dag and Loic, and the creatures struck with frightening strength and accuracy.  Kunibert did his best to shield Grettel, Kristiania and Liv from the creatures, which were quickly wearing down his enraged son and the Kurgun dwarf.  

The old crone retreated to one of the tree’s high branches after it sustained some near fatal axe blows from Loic and Dag, which had interrupted its song.  With unequalled fury and hatred, Loic hurled Wrath of the Sun into the crone’s back, knocking her out of the tree.  The urutuk then flew back to its wielder’s hand.  The sinister, leafless tree ceased its slow shuffle toward the edge of the ring of stones and gently picked up and cradled the lifeless corpse of the winged crone in one of its massive hands.  At the same moment, one of the plant-Fell jumped down from one of the rocks, kicking Loic so hard in the leg that it cracked his knee.  The unbearable pain made the Dorn pass out.  Dag, too had been so severely beaten by an earlier swat from the tree and punches from the two Fell he fought against that he could barely stand.  Garn, Klot and Vargus, preoccupied with their own struggles, were too far in the woods to see what exactly was going on.

To the amazement of Dag and Kunibert, who had accepted death as inevitable, the tree just kept cradling the dead crone, and gradually reeled back up the three still-tethered cadavers.  They promptly tried to pull Loic, whose breathing was very shallow, to safety beyond the tree’s reach, with Grettel and Kristiania seeking out Vargus.  Klot had finally destroyed his opponent, and the gnome and dworg were cautiously making their way toward Dag and the Dorns.  

Just as the party thought that they were finally out of harm’s way, another threat crept out of the shadows of the Barren Forest.  A half dozen primitive, inbred-looking giant-men clad in filthy hides and wielding great clubs--giants that looked much like the one they had slain previously in the Pardrum Holdfast fighting pit--moved with unusual speed and stealth, ringing the already shaken survivors in.  The sentient hangman tree continued to cradle the slain crone.  Vargus discretely turned his back to them in order to start reforging Loic’s body.  The plainsman’s eyes opened, just barely.  The severely battered man could barely speak much less rise and fight.  The throbbing caused by his cracked knee intensified.  

“VA-GA-SHA,” rumbled one of the giant-men in a low, booming voice.  This word was unfamiliar to even those who understood the Black Tongue.  “COME,” it added in the Black Tongue... or so thought Garn and Klot.  The giant-men leaned in, some of them unfurling crude nets and sacks, while the others kept a firm grip on their clubs, ready to bludgeon anyone they deemed should be bludgeoned...    

Looking at the state of Loic, Dag, and the non-combatants, Klot, Vargus and Garn seemed to agree that both fight and flight would be futile.  The women trembled violently and tried to stifle their fearful sobs, all in vain...
« Last Edit: October 17, 2010, 06:33:24 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged

Spell Energy / Taint +4/-0
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« Reply #34 on: October 17, 2010, 05:52:58 AM »

Episode 18: The Bargain


1 - Loic, Dag, Vargus, Klot and Kunibert are killed by the giant-kin, who take the dead with them in sacks and nets and disappear into the white haze of the forest, taking Grettel, Kristiania and Liv with them... as well as Woden’s dragon case.

2 - Garn is the sole survivor of the encounter, certain that his companions are all dead and that only the women and babe were taken alive.  Left alone in the Barren Forest near the sentient gallows tree, he ponders what to do next.

3 - The “dead heroes” wake up in a sinister tower and find that they are the “guests” of a beautiful woman who calls herself Aurana, and who is queen of the giant-kin.  Despite the sinister environment and cruelty of the giant-kin, the heroes all find themselves wanting to trust Aurana, their savior.  They engage in a long conversation about the party’s journey, and tell her about Woden’s dragon case and the oath they swore to bring it to the Witch Queen of Erethor at all cost.  She asks if she may handle the case and perhaps even see its contents, but the heroes refuse.

4 - The heroes end up making a bargain with Aurana.  She will release the party and allow them to continue their quest with the dragon case, but insists that Loic’s kin shall remain in her protection to ensure that the party does not betray her people.  Loic also agrees to perform an additional favour for Aurana.  He must journey to the Withered Wood, at the eastern foot of the Highhorn Mountains, north of the Pelluria and northwest again of the northlands, in order to recover some bones buried beneath the Dolmen of Stars on the night of the new moon during the Arc of Obares, and then bring them back to Aurana.  If the deed is to be accomplished this year, he would have approximately two arcs left to reach the Withered Wood. Kunibert, Grettel, and Kristiania are devastated and incensed by Loic’s acceptance of the terms of the bargain.

5 - Aurana agrees to see if she can locate Garn...    

The Story...

The party’s predicament was grim--they were surrounded by a half-dozen giant-kin, with wounded, women and children, and unable to flee.  Even in the still air and from ten to fifteen feet away, the overpowering smell of feces and carrion assaulted the heroes’ nostrils, making them want to retch. Some of the giants had facial features that were almost human-like, while others seemed more bestial with their long dog-like muzzles and shaggy manes. They stood between nine and eleven feet tall, on short, bowed legs that looked like squat tree trunks. Though all six were clad in poorly cured goat hides, it was possible to glimpse lean muscles through the many holes in their garments. Ribs showed through pale and filthy, yet hairless skin. Each one wore a necklace that consisted of a leather thong from which hung various bones and antlers. The giant-men drooled and waved their great clubs menacingly as they stared down at the party--and especially the women--who averted their eyes and cowered near their wounded kinsman, Loic, while still trying to be brave for the sake of baby Liv.

Klot tried to convince Vargus to hand him Woden’s case, that sacrificing the many might be worthwhile if it created a diversion that would enable the one to escape with the case.  The dworg was unimpressed with the former Shadow warrior’s willingness to so heartlessly abandon his allies, and refused to accede to his demands.  Meanwhile, one of the giant-kin began crept closer to the party, with an unsettling expression of hunger or lust in his eyes.  Before anyone in the group could react, one of the behemoth’s brethren jumped him from behind, leading to a brawl on the forest floor between the two.  The other giant-kin chortled with glee as they watched the beating.  Everyone in the party remained paralyzed with indecision, doubtful that they could outrun the savages even if they took advantage of a momentary distraction.  

The Dornish women trembled like leaves, and even Kunibert was white as a sheet. He looked down uncertainly at his battered son, Loic... "We would be better off taking our own lives than enduring whatever they will put us through," he whispered.  Klot was adamant that not all would make it out alive.  Behind, the eerie white light continued to shine through the mists beyond the sentient gallows tree, which still cradled the fallen crone and groaned like cracking wood. Its leafless branches drooped down. The abomination seemed to shudder, almost imperceptibly.

One of the giant-kin who acted as a leader, a canine-faced specimen, eventually brought the brawlers to order, commanding another one of its followers to beat them back into line with a few well-placed club blows. Attempts at communication by Vargus and Klot achieved nothing.  Nor could the heroes makes sense of the actions of the behemoths.  Did they seek food, wondered Garn? Why had they not bludgeoned the humans, the gnome and the dwarf-kin to death already?

"Murgh, oorgh grah... Va-ga-sha!" roared the leader. The two brawlers picked themselves up from the ground, one with more difficulty than the other. But as the leader yelled out his gibberish, the morale of his kin soared. They started chanting the syllables "Va-ga-sha" while thrusting their clubs and crude javelins in the air, thumping their chests, and hopping in a circle around their captives. The strange white light that streamed in from behind the sentient gallows tree through tendrils of mist enhanced the eeriness of the scene.

The frightened heroes and refugees could barely hear Klot murmuring again above the din of the cacophonous chanting and hooting. "Maybe food isn't the only thing they want..."

Everyone thought the same thoughts, which they dared not speak. If the party followed the degenerate giant-men... would the grim situation improve, or would it plunge them into an even deeper hell? Loic and Dag--the most severely wounded of the group--finally spoke and, to Vargus’s relief, agreed that following the creatures without a fight was their best option.  While Dag, Vargus and Garn sheathed their weapons, Loic growled, spat blood, and held his urutuks high as the giant-men performed their dance, making sure that he stood between them and the women.
The canine-jawed leader’s eyes widened at the sight of the gleaming urutuks. He barked something at Loic, flexed his muscles, and then advanced slowly but threateningly towards the Dorn with his weapon held out in a readied position. The towering giant-man pointed towards one of Loic’s ornate hatchets and then back at his own tightly muscled chest. Loic and everyone else around him felt as though they could pass out at any moment from the overpowering stench the approaching beast-man exuded. As it reached for the Dorn's weapons (coming within 5'), the cloud of flies that buzzed around the filthy giant started to swarm around the party, as well...

Loic begged Garn to do or say something, but it was his father who responded. “Surrender your weapons, boy, and perhaps we’ll live to fight another day,” murmured Kunibert in Norther...  

All of a sudden, the giant-man’s yellow-eyes rolled back until its black pupils disappeared into its head.  Its body trembled momentarily, and its lips quivered intensely, gobs of saliva dripping out of the corners of its toothy maw.  It became unsteady on its squat and bowed tree-trunk-like legs, and it lowered its great club momentarily.  The beast-man started mumbling something to itself in its low, throaty dialect.  Its brethren squirmed uncomfortably and looked at one another, and then down at the ground, mumbling amongst themselves while shifting from foot to foot.  Once again, the party out the syllables “Va-ga-sha” among the otherwise incomprehensible babble of their captors... The leader nodded a few times, his yellow eyes still blank, still drooling and mumbling to himself... Garn took advantage of the latest distraction, hitting the ground with lightning reflexes and rolling for cover beneath the branches of a thorn bush.  It was as if he had vanished into thin air, and none of the beast-men had even noticed him doing so.

Then, just as suddenly, the leader’s pupils rolled down again and he regained his composure, snarling at Loic and gesturing for him to surrender his hatchets... The terrifying and deafening roars kept the women on their knees, trying to shield the screaming baby from the horror around them; they were ringed in by the party. Kunibert avoided making eye contact with the horrors, and held his morning star in a non-threatening manner.  

Loic engaged in a battle of wills with the leader of the giant-kin, as the latter sought to seize the Dorn’s weapons.  Vargus tried to break the leader’s focus by discretely conjuring a veil of bright colours from thin air, which had the desired effect.  Loic took advantage of this latest distraction to lash out at the creature with one of his urutuks.  He drew blood, which snapped the giant-kin back to attention.  The monster clubbed the already-wounded Dorn in the mid-section, dropping him instantly.  The other giant-kin followed their leader’s cue and descended in a frenzy upon Klot, Dag, Kunibert and Vargus.
With an adrenaline surge, Dag disemboweled his opponent with his axe, and Klot promptly finished the job with a deadly thrust from his longsword.  The battle was over before it really began. Garn, paralyzed with fear, watched from his hiding spot as powerful, bowed legs stamped past him, and one by one his companions fell.  First, Kunibert.  Then Dag and Klot, the latter got between the simultaneous attacks of two giant-men.  Vargus made a desperate attempt to flee, but was bludgeoned as he did so and collapsed in mid-stride.


The giant-kin chortled with glee, lifting up the carcasses that once were Garn's companions and dangling them by their ankles, and then dropped them into filthy nets or sacks. They kicked and spat at their fallen comrade and then herded the women and the baby, the leader ensuring that none of his evidently aroused pack members touched them, and then they disappeared off into the eery white haze of the forest, one of them stuck with the evidently unpleasant task of carrying the much heavier carcass of the slain giant-man.    

Once he was sure that the enemy was gone, Garn rolled out from under his bush... Badly shaken, he searched the ground for something, anything... The earth was disturbed where the battle had taken place, but there was nothing to indicate who had been involved... save for a necklace of charms that Vargus had worn, a gift from the children of Pardrum's Holdfast... miniature hammers and axes on a metal loop... The giant-men had taken everything, and even had Woden's case in their possession, but surprisingly left no sign in the ground that they had ever been in the area...

Garn had failed Wendell and the elves, and was now alone in a cursed, barren wood where even dwarves and the agents of Shadow feared to tread... What other horrors lived in these woods?

Dark thoughts clouded his mind and weighed on his heart, disorienting him...

Nearby, the branches of the sentient gallows tree creaked unnervingly, its massive trunk bent forward at an unusual angle... Three eyeless, moss-covered humanoid corpses now hung by the neck from its branches, their hands reaching out in vain in Garn's direction... The body of the slain harpy was still cradled in another claw-like branch, now only a few feet above the ground...    

Loic, Dag, Vargus, Klot and Kunibert were surprised to find themselves awaking inside some strange and completely alien structure, with Grettel, Kristiania and Liv nearby.  They remembered little of the journey via which they came here... Weren’t they all dead? Was this where the souls of the deceased went when they left their mortal shells? If yes, the prospects of a better afterlife were not promising...

The fallen heroes remembered overwhelming pain and a bright light... then complete blackness...

Drifting in and out of consciousness...

Carried in a net, with other bodies... or suffocating in a sack used to carry rotting carcasses...

Darkness, mist, trees... Darkness, mist, trees...

A ravine... a frightening tower...

Faces that did not fit their wearers... Giant-kin holding up masks made up of the stretched skin of humans, orcs, and mountain fey... Pressing their masked faces up to those of the not-quite-conscious party members, roaring, cheering,... Madness and fear...

Limp bodies being wielded like clubs... bashed against one another until they were reduced to a pulp... More cheering...

And into the tower... how long had they been here?  

Everyone was badly bruised and still in considerable pain, yet surprisingly intact.  Loic and Vargus seemed to have mended particularly well during their respective black-outs. While the Dorn’s cracked knee still bothered him, it was healing remarkably quickly.  Either some sort of sorcery had brought the heroes back from the brink of death, or... had the club blows of the giant-kin not been as deadly as they had felt? It even looked like the heroes had been allowed to keep their personal effects.

The interior of the tower was only dimly illuminated by a pair of braziers standing to either side of a throne on a high, circular dais carved out of the trunk of a massive tree at the opposite end of the room from where the party members gradually awoke, by the coals of a cooking fire perhaps 15’ to your right, and by the soft radiance cast by patches of moss that grew on the floor and the inner walls of the tower.  A few windows allowed feeble exterior light to filter in, as well.  

The tower’s interior was unlike anything the heroes had seen before.  It smelled of foul sorcery.  A network of thick vines stretched out from the walls and criss-crossed the entire floor, like throbbing veins that slithered to and fro.  Three massive, twisted trees formed a triangular pattern at the outer edges of the chamber, their trunks bending in towards the centre of the room before rising, intertwined like great serpents through the ceiling.  The two trees that formed what would be the base of the triangle (from the heroes’ vantage point) had platforms carved out of them some ten feet or so off the ground, upon which sat giant-kin sentries with long javelins.  A large pool of brackish liquid occupied the centre of the chamber, forming an obstacle between the party and the largest of the trees at the summit of the triangle.  A horrid, fecal stench wafted up from the pool.  Stone debris littered the floor, scattered amongst the moss and tendrils of vines, and some wall sections had partially collapsed.  The walls and ceiling were a curious mixture of stone, earth, and plant matter, the ceiling being supported by tree branches that fanned out like monstrous claws 30’ overhead. There was a wide, circular opening in the ceiling, above the brackish pool.

Yet standing in sharp contrast with the nightmare that was this crumbling, living tower was the figure that sat on the wooden, fire-lit throne atop the high dais carved out of the largest of the trees, opposite the entrance to the tower.  A tall, broad-shouldered, red-haired woman with a statuesque form rose from the throne and extended one hand in the direction of the party, while running the other through her waist-long hair.  She stood perhaps a head shorter than the shortest of the giant-kin.  At this distance and given the poor lighting, it was difficult to make out her facial features, but her skin was pale as alabaster and she was clad in scintillating white robes. The steps leading to her dais were flanked by two more giant-kin, one of which appeared to be female, but with sharper eyes and more delicate features than those of the other giant-kin the heroes had encountered.  Another female sat near the cooking fire, this one with broad hips, long greasy hair, and pendulous breasts.  The leader of the band that captured the heroes stood by the entrance and barked something quickly in the unfathomable tongue of his people.

“Welcome, travelers,” said the beautiful woman softly in the Traders’ Tongue without any hint of an accent.  “I have been expecting you.  Please forgive the sad state of my palace, and the poor manners of the miserable brutes that escorted you here.  They have the minds of children who don’t know their own strength and have difficulty controlling their tempers.  But like you, they are refugees of the war against the Shadow...”

Outside, a mob yelled and cheered, no doubt as more hapless prisoners were being whacked against one another until they were beyond recognition, or as some other form of torture was being administered to them.  

“Worry no more, for you are safe now within these walls. As safe as anyone in Eredane can be.  The Shadow won’t find you here.  Are you well-rested? You doubtless have as many questions for me, as I do for you...” The hideous giant-kin woman by the cooking fire dipped some crude bowls into some concoction that was simmering in a clay pot, then distributed the bowls amongst the “palace guests.”

The heroes noticed that another man sat at the foot of the dais, bruised and wide-eyed, gagged and bound by some of the writhing, serpent-like vines.  The man looked relatively young and had a shaved scalp. He was clad in tattered black robes, through the holes in which one could catch glimpses of a breastplate.  The woman on the dais bade her guests to come closer, and as they stopped within 15 feet or so from the dais, below one of the giant-kin sentries on an elevated platform, they could see that the unmistakeable symbol of Izrador hung from his neck.

Despite the sinister environment, the woman’s vile minions, and the torture the party suspected was happening beyond the tower walls, every member of the group nevertheless felt in their heart that their host could be trusted.  Even Vargus, who was hearing voices whispers to the contrary in his mind, had a good feeling about their host. She had saved them, and the Dornish women and child were unmolested... she therefore must be a benevolent and trustworthy person.    

Upon learning the names of her guests, the woman introduced herself as Aurana.  When asked if she knew what “va-ga-sha” meant, she hesitated a moment, then stated that she did not know.  While Klot was also inclined to trust her, the warrior still had some lingering doubt as to whether she might serve the Shadow.  He asked if she would mind if he put an end to the captive legate’s miserable life.  She wondered whether the party might not instead want to question the prisoner, but Klot declined. As he placed the point of his sword above the legate’s heart, the latter’s eyes bulged and he squirmed in vain, still bound by the writing vines.  Aurana did not nothing to prevent Klot from driving his blade through the prisoner.  The others in the party stood paralyzed while the priest’s blood spilled out onto the ground and was quickly absorbed by the faintly glowing moss. The sentries seemed bored, inattentive.

The conversation resumed.  Aurana first asked about the group’s journey... what had brought them to the Barren Wood?  While wanting to tell her everything, their instincts and oath to Woden suggested that they should not tell her everything.  They explained that they had been hunted by the Shadow through the mountains and were not looking for safe refuge for Loic’s kin in Good Hope.  Aurana laughed and described Good Hope as an inappropriately named destination, especially since a contingent of hobgoblins was stationed there several arcs ago.  The people of Good Hope now offered human sacrifices periodically to the spirits of the Barren Forest in an effort to appease them. The party’s slim hopes fell again as they heard those comments.  

Her second question caught the group by surprise, as she ran her hand through her long red hair and asked whether the party had ever seen a woman as beautiful as her during their journey. Dag had some of the dwarven lasses he met in Pardrum Holdfast in the back of his mind, but Klot and some of the others agreed that she was very beautiful.

Aurana then asked more questions about how such an odd assortment of dwarfkin, gnomes and humans might be bound together, about the baby, about their plans after they should reach Good Hope or some other place of refuge.  She then inquired about Loic’s twin hatchets “far more beautiful than those typically carried by men of common birth,” she said with a knowing look.  The Dorn gave her a brief answer, omitting to describe the unusual powers of his weapons.  He wondered if she knew something...

The woman asked about anything else the group might have acquired during their travels, for if she were to guarantee the party’s protection, then she must know if they bore items or knowledge that could draw the Shadow to the forest, despite the fear those of lower rank had of the wood.  And why should she allow the party to depart, when she had never allowed other guests to do so... how could she be certain that her current guests would not betray her?

“We are friends now, and I have pledged to protect you... are you sure that you have told me the whole truth?” she asked insistently. “I would be very disappointed if you did not, or if you felt you needed to hide something from me...”

The party remained silent.

Aurana’s patience was wearing thin.

“One of you carries something that shines like a blinding beacon, to those who can attune to Aryth’s energies... something that is sure to draw the eye of the Shadow as you come closer to civilized lands... how long do you expect to remain free, with such an item in your possession?  Why do you not tell me about it?”

At last, Dag gave in and told her about Woden’s case and of their quest to bring the case to Witch Queen of the elves.  Vargus showed Aurana the magnificent dragon case, but neither he nor Dag was willing to allow Aurana to handle it, as she had requested persistently.  Surely they must be curious about what it exactly it was they risked their lives for? The dwarf-kin replied that they had sworn to Woden that they would allow no one but the Witch Queen of the elves to open it, and they would abide by that oath.  No one else would even hold the case. Aurana eventually gave up, though her frustration was evident.

“I would like to propose a bargain... I will set you free to continue your quest, however hopeless it may be.  No good would come of holding in my domain an artifact like the one you carry. By aiding the enemy of my greatest enemy, you do me a small service... but it is not a service that will necessarily ensure the survival of my people, or produce any benefits in the short term. In fact, if you fail, I will benefit not at all. I certainly don’t believe that you can accomplish your quest encumbered as you are with women, a babe, and an old man... the challenge of carrying your artifact unnoticed, in a party half made of dwarf-kin, is already big enough.  I therefore propose to do you a second favour.  

“The women, babe, and old man shall never be safe in the human settlements, as our other guest”--she shows the corpse of the murdered legate with her hand “has confirmed.  The forces of Shadow search for you, and are more vigilant than ever where the movements of strangers are concerned. The women, babe, and old man shall remain here, in our protection, until you should complete your quest and return for them.  I would only ask that you make a small favour for me... I ask that you journey to the Withered Wood on the eastern flank of the Highhorn Mountains, north across the Pelluria, and north again and west of the northlands--home of the once proud Dorns.  As its name would suggest, the Withered Wood is not so different from this forest.  Therein will you find the Dolmen of Stars.  During the time known among men as the Arc of Olibares, on the night of the new moon, retrieve the bones buried underneath the dolmen, then bring them back to me. If you have their trust, the woodland fey might be able to guide you towards routes through the Highhorn Mountains that would be safer than sailing across the Pelluria and then traveling through the northlands... I also have a token for you to bear to the Witch Queen of Erethor, should you reach the fabled elf city of Caradul... She will know what it means...”  

If this deed were to be achieved this year, then the party would have approximately two arcs to reach the Withered Wood in the far north and retrieve the bones.

Kristiania and Grettel trembled like leaves as the implications of the proposal for them sank in...

Loic asked Aurana how they could trust that his kin would not be harmed in his absence.  He wanted to trust the woman, but the savagery that he still heard coming from outside the tower walls presented a jarring picture that nagged at the back of his mind.  Why did she allow the giant-kin to perpetrate such acts of cruelty upon their prisoners? Something did not seem quite right, despite her charming demeanor...

Aurana repeated that the remaining giant-kin in Erenland unfortunately have the minds of children and tempers that they cannot control. She could not suppress their inner instincts indefinitely, but she could ensure the protection of those who stayed within the tower walls. Journeying beyond, of course, would be another story. And as for concern about the barbarism that the other captives had been subjected to... most of those captives were orcs--should anyone be concerned about their treatment?

Klot was satisfied with the lady’s explanation, and with the latter remark in particular.  Loic struggled internally.  On the one hand, he knew that he could not ensure the safety of Kunibert, Grettel, Kristiania and Liv on the remainder of their long journey.  Likewise, his kin would slow them down, and would expose the party to additional risks, thereby jeopardizing the success of an already difficult quest.  If he tried to take them to Good Hope or some other settlement, there was a significant chance that the forces of the Shadow would track them down and kill them or do worse things unto them.  However uncomfortable Loic was leaving his kin among the barbaric inbred brutes, it seemed that this would be the one place where the Shadow could not reach his kin.  And so long as they remained within the sanctuary of the tower, and so long as he retrieved the remains from the Dolmen of Stars, they should be fine.  He did not like the terms of the bargain, but felt he had no other choice.  It was clear that his companions did not want the burden of refugees on their journey, and this distasteful solution might be the only way for him to maximize the safety of his kin.  Dag assured the Dorn that Aurana would keep her end of the bargain.  Of course, if they did not accept the terms, Loic suspected that they might be on the receiving end of the wrath of the giant-men... and this time, there might really be no survivors...

 As Loic agreed to the terms of Aurana’s deal, Grettel and Kristiania shrieked hysterically and broke into tears while Kunibert lunged at his son.  “How can you leave us with these monsters?!” cried the women.  “So this is how you demonstrate loyalty and ensure the well-being of your clan as dhrot, boy?!” spat Kunibert as the much stronger lad deflected his father’s attack and pushed him away. “You’re no son of mine!”

Aurana was pleased with Loic’s decision and reassured him that his kin would be kept safe so long as they remained with her in the tower.  In a show of good faith, she also used some of her powers to help the wounded heroes recover faster.  During the awkward moments that followed, the group also informed her that their leader, the gnome Garn, had vanished during the battle... could she find and reunite him with them?

She seemed surprised and annoyed that her servants had missed someone, but would see if she could locate the missing gnome, though she questioned whether he would be essential to the completion of the quest...    


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« Reply #35 on: January 02, 2011, 02:30:11 PM »

Episode 19: Release

In the early dawn twilight, Garn spied a trio of giant-kin stalking through the woods and dumping their burdens on the ground.  The gnome soon realized that the “burdens” were some of his barely conscious companions, whom he thought dead.  One of the giant-kin tried to have his way with Dag.  The captives awoke, and fought desperately for their lives and Dag’s “honour.” The giant-kin fled once the battle started to turn against them and upon witnessing Vargus’s magic. One of them--the leader--was knocked unconscious by one of the dworg’s well-aimed balls of flame.  The heroes spared the brute’s life and left him some distance away from where they were dumped, but did not bind or try to interrogate him.  Loic, Vargus and Dag were clearly distracted by their reunion with Garn, the predicament in which Loic’s kin still found themselves, and the quest.  Loic, Vargus and Dag were surprised to find that Aurana--the queen of the giant-kin--allowed them to keep their weapons as well as the dragon case, and Loic’s twin urutuks and Woden’s axe in particular. Were the weapons too small to be of use to the giant-kin? Did she have some other motive? The three also were concerned by a shared lapse in memory.  The last thing they remembered was agreeing to Aurana’s terms--that they would leave Loic’s kin in her protection, while she allowed the heroes to continue their quest and to aid the enemy of her greatest enemy. Aurana also insisted that the heroes recover the bones that are buried underneath the Dolmen of the Stars in the Withered Wood, which lay far north of the Pelluria and north again and west of the Dornish northlands, at the foot of the Highhorn Mountains. The bones would need to be retrieved on the night of the new moon during the Arc of Obares, barely two arcs from the present time. Aurana would release Loic’s kin upon delivery of the bones; in the meantime, she claimed that keeping them in her domain would provide them with the greatest protection from the Shadow’s forces. While she did not specify a time by which the bones had to be delivered, Loic was under the impression that the longer it took him to accomplish the quest, the more unlikely it was the he would ever see his kin alive again. But between the moment they agreed to the terms and the one that saw them dumped in the forest, the trio had no recollection... although they felt as though something significant happened during that time.  The amnesiacs has a bad feeling... and where was Klot? Dead? With Loic’s kin? Had he escaped or deserted his companions?

The trio and Garn recounted what had befallen them over the past few days.  Garn wandered aimlessly through the hazy woods until he took shelter in an old barrow. In the barrow, he had a strange dream of a large tribe of giant-kin led by three witches, which took shelter in the forest. At one point, the three witches gathered for a meeting in a grove.  Two of them fell over, apparently paralyzed, while the other laughed. Rasping voices declared that “Vagasha is a lying bitch,” and that beneath the barrow of the Tuath, one might find the secret to releasing the fallen witches from the spell that still holds them to this day, and who in turn could help free the gnome’s companions. Vargus stated that the spirits had murmured something similar to him when he first awoke in the tower of the giant-kin.  None seemed to be sure who this "Vagasha" was, though. Garn said that there was a shaft leading deep into the earth inside the barrow where he spent the previous night, but that he dared not explore it on his own. Loic was eager to investigate the barrow, thinking  that its secrets might enable him to release his kin sooner rather than later. The others agreed.

Dag easily found Garn’s tracks and led the party back to the barrow.  There, they found the decapitated and rotting remains of Roald--the Erenlander that Garn had stabbed in the back whilst unarmed--during the battle with the stone-fleshed demons. Garn said that the headless Erenlander pursued him to the entrance of the barrow, where the gnome fought back until the undead horror had been destroyed. The implication of this encounter was particularly troublesome... everyone knew that beheading the dead would prevent them from rising as Fell... yet in this case, the dead man still rose after having been beheaded.

One by one, the group descended into the deep shaft, which appeared to be largely natural.  Two full lengths of rope were required to reach the bottom.  Garn went first, followed by Loic (using the last of his dwarven glow sticks as a feeble light source), then Dag, then Vargus. Part way down, the heroes found three demonic heads with open maws and jagged teeth carved into the walls of the shaft. Dag searched each of the maws, cutting himself on their sharp teeth (-1 Dex penalty), and finding nothing but a few pretty gems for his pain. Offerings to the demons?

The shaft opened above a lake in a large cavern. A red mist made it impossible to see beyond 20’, even when a light source was produced. A few narrow, half-rotted posts protruded from the blood-red water below the shaft. A few careful leaps enabled Garn to reach a small, rocky island in the middle of the lake; Loic followed, but slipped and fell into the water near the edge of the island. A loud rush suggested that there was a waterfall or fast flowing stream nearby. Dag would later confirm what Garn had suspected--that minerals known as hematites were responsible for the colour of the water. If consumed in large quantities, the water could be poisonous.

 Upon the island, Garn and Loic discovered three large bones--each as tall as a human--set into the ground. They pulled on them each in turn, which had the effect of raising two narrow causeways from the water, the ends of which disappeared into the mists. The causeways were an amazing feat of engineering that could only be rivaled by the work of the dwarves--Loic and Garn had certainly never seen anything like it. In the darkness, they also heard some loud, metallic clanking and rattling, partially muffled by the nearby sound of rushing water. Loic was the first to attempt to cross one of the causeways, but was attacked by a blood-red water guardian as he tried to do so.  As Dag reached the island, he helped the Dorn defeat the guardian... or so they thought. It reappeared when Garn made his way across the other causeway, but the gnome managed to deftly evade its attacks.  He had tried to communicate with it, assuring it of his good intentions, but it either did not understand him or did not care.

As the episode came to an end, Dag stood alone on the rocky island, Vargus balanced on one of the half-rotted posts that protruded from the water beneath the entrance to the shaft, and Garn and Loic had disappeared into the blood-red mists across the causeway...

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« Reply #36 on: January 02, 2011, 02:31:04 PM »

Episode 20: The Road of the Dead

As Loic and Garn disappeared into the blood mist, he mechanical causeways started to drop back into the lake, leaving Dag stranded on the island and Vargus balancing precariously out of sight on a rotting post that broke the surface of the lake. A loud rattling and clanking manifested again shortly after the causeways dropped beneath the water. Vargus could make out the dim glow of Dag’s light source on the island, but the dwarf was unable to make out the dworg’s silhouette through the thick mists. They could barely hear one another above the din of the rushing water.

The dwarf attempted to distract whatever water spirits might still be lurking in the lake by moving to the shore opposite where Vargus stood on his fragile perch, and stirring the crimson water with his axe.  Vargus leaped for the next post, but misjudged the distance and fell into the lake.  As he clutched this second post with one hand to avoid sinking, he felt something under the water bump into him.  Panic took hold of the dworg, who was not a proficient swimmer, and he made a mad dash for the rocky shore.  Fortune smiled upon him, as he managed to evade whatever it was that had tried to drag him to the bottom of the lake.

Meanwhile, across the causeways, the feint light of Loic’s last glow stick illuminated a ghastly scene.  An archway topped by a snarling demonic face at its apex pierced the natural cavern wall ahead. On either side of the face, small but intricately detailed figures carved in the act of fleeing decorated the stone.  A portcullis of fused bones blocked the way forward.  Bones littered the ground and skeletons slumped against the walls to either side of the archway. Although the skeletons varied in size, most looked like they might have had roughly the stature of very short, deformed dwarves.  Some skulls appeared more goblin- or beast-like.  Could these be the bones of giant-kin children? The bones and skulls did not appear to have been damaged.

Garn stepped closer to the archway, intent on scanning the area for potential traps.  He had a very uneasy feeling, and as he reached the threshold, an overwhelming terror seized hold of the gnome. Garn fled for his life, preferring to dive back into the blood lake rather than facing whatever lurked beyond the archway.  Loic also felt the fear welling inside him, but with a great effort of will, he managed to stand fast and snatched the gnome by the collar before he could throw himself in the lake.  Garn struggled to break free from the Dorn’s bear hug, kicking and screaming that they were doomed and that everyone was going to die.  The diminutive leader struggled for some time before the terror subsided and his exhaustion made struggling against the much larger and stronger warrior futile.

Back on the island, Dag pulled back the bone levers that had reset once the causeway had dropped beneath the lake. The handles of each of the levers were carved to resemble the horrid, melting face of some vaguely humanoid undead or demonic creature.  The causeways rose again, and, across the lake, the portcullis also was lifted.  Dwarf and dworg worked together to pry loose some of the stakes and stones that littered the island, and to then use them to wedge in place the bone levers.  That hopefully would prevent the causeways from descending again while the party explored whatever hell lay beyond them.  One by one, the pair, moved across the slick stone causeways.  Though harried by the water spirit, they managed to get across unscathed, only to find Loic holding Garn tightly in his arms.  The dwarf-kin could not help but wonder what Dorn and gnome had been up to while out of sight in the mists.  Garn apologized profusely for his momentary cowardice... but still doubted the wisdom of going further...

Beyond the archway, a wide flagged road sloped downward through a wide tunnel. The sound of tumbling water filled the air.  The party advanced cautiously, with Dag taking the lead in the dark passage and the others following close behind.

The flagstone road descended a ways before abruptly ending atop a steep escarpment. A thunderous roar filled the air as the blood‐red river tumbled over the same escarpment, throwing up a crimson mist that hung menacingly in the air and that made the heroes look as if they too were covered in blood. The floor glistened with moisture and a field of jagged stalagmites crowded together atop the escarpment. Vargus noticed that both the points and edges of the stalagmites in the area were unusually sharp, and had to have been fashioned in this way by whoever had created the complex.  

Looking over the edge, the companions were dismayed that there was no way of telling how high the cliff was.  The crimson mist obscured vision beyond about 20 ft., and Garn and the dwarf-kin could determine that the escarpment dropped down at least that far.  Though handholds were visible here and there, there was no obvious way down. Sharpened stalagmites jutting up along the cliff face like spears and swords, only made the climb even more hazardous.  They had left their two ropes behind, in the shaft above the blood lake.  The party searched everywhere they could for hidden triggers, passages, or climbing routes along the slick walls... but found none.  They also pondered why anyone would create a complex like this one--after all, climbing up or down this face seemed nearly suicidal.  And then, an answer dawned on Vargus... the bones, the cliff, the demon heads... perhaps a demon laired deep within these caverns, to which living sacrifices were made? By going further, did they risk unleashing another evil upon the world... not to mention upon themselves? The foursome began to worry about other things... what if someone cut, or pulled up, the ropes they had left in the shaft? There might be no other way out...

Ultimately, the group decided that one more evil loose in the world would make no difference, and that the risks were worth the potential pay-off of being able to free Loic’s kin from Aurana and her brutish servants... Of course, the heroes also wondered whether the ogre witches might not also turn on them once released from the spell that “Vagasha” had placed on them...

Loic finally decided that they had only one option, and that was to go down.  The one-eyed Dorn was not the most proficient climber, but down he went, doing his best to avoid the sharp stalagmites and disappearing down the cliff face and into the thick mists.  His companions did not see nor hear the numerous close calls he had, when he temporarily lost his footing or his grip, or had trouble finding his way past the spikes, or remained suspended and unable to move.  And then, Loic finally reached what appeared to be the bottom of the cliff.  Looking around, he felt increasingly uneasy, as though some sinister presence lurked nearby.  His glow stick dimly outlined a towering, jagged but motionless silhouette through the red mist... He chose to wait for his companions to join him before investigating.

When they finally heard Loic call out above the roar of the waterfall, Dag and Garn decided that they too would attempt the descent.  Vargus, however, had little confidence in his ability to make it down safely without a rope, and opted to stay on the upper ledge and wait alone in the darkness for his companions to return. The dworg kept Woden’s case in his possession.

Dag, still weak from the previous day’s ordeal, went down next. Early in his descent, while he was still visible to Vargus, the dwarf nearly fell to his doom. He had difficulty finding handholds and footholds and nearly impaled himself on the unusually sharp stalagmites. Garn clambered down past Dag (and practically over him) without incident.  Dag’s legs ended up badly lacerated by the stalagmites. His strength was fading fast, and he now doubted that he would be able to make it to the bottom alive. He began to panic, and made a desperate attempt to climb back to the top. Vargus reached down to help him, in vain... the dwarf lost his gripped, slid along the wall and was swallowed up by the mists...

Yet somehow, the Kurgun lived. He suffered more lacerations and landed hard on a jutting piece of limestone, unsure how far done the wall he was... was he closer to the top, or to the bottom? He still could not see the glow of Loic’s light stick. Heart pounding, body wracked with pain, pant legs cut to ribbons and legs bleeding, Dag carefully eased himself down... and eventually reached the bottom, alive... but just barely...

Loic, Garn and the dwarf took a moment to examine the cliff from the bottom, hoping that a more obvious route back up would be visible from below... but they found none. A quick, easy escape back up the cliff was unlikely, but the trio did not dwell on this...

Despite the growing unease Loic had felt upon reaching the bottom, nothing had stepped out of the shadows and mist to attack them. The companions stepped closer to the towering, jagged shape that had been revealed by Loic’s light source. The menacing silhouette was that of a semi-circular cluster of tall rocks.  The cluster held a pool of opaque, blood water, and strange runes were carved along the edges of the pool.  The script was none that Garn recognized, and the runes definitely were not dwarven.  Loic guessed that it might be some sorcerous scrying pool, but neither of the three were inclined to drink of its waters.

The trio spotted two dark passages beyond the pool -- one paved with more flagstones, the other natural. They followed the flagstone passage, Loic taking the lead, followed by Garn and a limping Dag.  Eventually, the mists from the falls subsided, making it easier for the dwarf and the gnome to see further in the gloom.  The underground road led them by natural caves in which more bones had been piled--this time, closer investigation confirmed that many of them had been broken or gnawed.  In the darkness beyond, the companions still heard the rushing of the falls... but sometimes, above that, they thought they distinguished the feint but rythmic sound of clanking metal...

Loic, Garn and Dag pushed on deeper into the complex.  The walls in this part of the complex had clearly been worked, and crude carvings illustrated humanoid creatures being cooked , devoured, or drowned by demons. Three distinct demonic forms emerged time and again from the carvings throughout the labyrinth: one looked like a melting shadow or skeleton; one like some grotesque, bloated humanoid; and the last like a small sun or ball of flame.  At every intersection, all of them with unworked passages, the companions chose to keep following the paved road.

Eventually, the road opened onto a large pool of blood‐red water fed by two small streams. Within the pool, the flat top of a large stone (perhaps an altar or similar object) barely poked above the water’s surface.  Across the pool, the paved road continued to wind its way into darkness.  Loic waded in to take a closer look at the barely visible altar stone. Near the altar, the water was chest high on the Dorn.  It was evident that he was standing on piles of bones that were invisible beneath the opaque waters.  The warrior also unwittingly kicked a big, metal object.  He went under, and pulled up an ornate, somewhat rusty heavy steel shield, which he handed to Dag.  The dwarf acknowledged that the shield was of superior craftsmanship--surprisingly good, if crafted by non-human hands. A faded emblem could be discerned upon its surface--an eagle, dragon, or griffon, perhaps?

The altar was 5’ wide by 10’ long. Loic carried Garn above the water so that he could take a closer look at it.  The gnome found nothing suggestive of a mechanism or immediate threat, but he did notice that the altar surface was pitted, scorched and scarred. Dag once again heard the feint sound of metallic clanking in the dark of the tunnel from which they had come, getting closer. As he crossed the blood pool, he also felt something unusual beneath the worn sole of one of his boots.  He allowed himself to go under, feeling among the bones on the pool’s silty floor, and pulled up a slime-coated, plain silver ring. Despite its simple design, it too seemed to be of superior quality.  The trio waded across to the far side of the pool, then resumed their journey along the flagstone road, noting again the horrific scenes etched into the passage walls.  Given their situation, Dag did not have much time to study in depth the ring or shield.

The soggy companions sloshed their way along the winding tunnel, until a bend in the tunnel led to a circular stone the height of a dwarf set against the wall. The subterranean road carried on beyond the stone, and the companions thought they heard a crackling sound coming from up ahead, akin to that made by an open fire.  The three used their combined strength to roll aside the incredibly heavy capstone, then cautiously entered the small circular chamber beyond.  The feint light of the glow sticks  revealed a plain stone sarcophagus in the middle of the chamber, and strange runes similar to those found in the natural basin near the bottom of the falls.  The trio worked together again to slide off the cumbersome lid of the sarcophagus, which hit the ground with a heavy bang, then leaned at an awkward angle against the side of the coffin. The companions peered in with bated breath, ready for some horror to leap out, but found only mouldering bones of the unfamiliar humanoid type identified previously in the complex, clad decayed clothes that evidently were the remains of some ancient ceremonial garb.  Nine stone tablets were laid out around the skeleton.  The three took a quick look at them -- each tablet weighed about 10-15 lbs., and was inscribed with more unfamiliar symbols. Garn suspected that the tablets might be of some trade value if presented to the right buyer, but the weary adventurers balked at the idea of weighing themselves down with nine such tablets.  Garn did, however, stow one of them away in his pack.      

The heroes resumed their journey along the flagstone road, bypassing all unworked intersections, always following the direction of the crackling sound.  At a bend in the passage, they noticed flickering light dancing along the walls. Loic and Dag tucked the light sources into their clothes to avoid giving their presence away to whatever might lurk in the fire-lit chamber ahead.  The Dorn and the gnome moved cautiously toward the chamber entrance, the wounded dwarf loading his crossbow and keeping a short distance behind.

Uneven, roughly hewn steps led down into a natural cavern dominated by a pool of liquid fire. Four huge, intricate carved demon heads with gaping maw and glittering black eyes sat upon roughly hewn plinths, positioned as opposite pairs. The ceiling towered 40 ft. above.  More bones littered the ground.  The chamber appeared devoid of guardians.

Garn crept stealthily into the chamber to look for signs of potential threats, whether living, undead, or mechanical.  As he descended the stairs into the chamber, smokeless flames suddenly filled the maws of each carven demon head and a low chuckle echoed through the chamber.  Plumes of fire shot out 25’ from all of the carven maws, nearly incinerating the gnome, who ducked and rolled just in time past the head of the nearest demon head.  

As he searched for some concealed mechanism along the side of the plinth on which the fiendish head rested that might prevent the maws from shooting more flame, sinister laughter resounded again and a small, flame-shrouded winged demon who had roughly the stature of a gnome flew out of the pool of liquid fire in the centre of the chamber, gibbering madly in some unrecognizable tongue. Before Loic and Dag could react, it circled above, then dove toward Garn, breathing more fire in his direction. The gnome dove out of the way and evaded the worst of the searing blast, remaining miraculously unscathed... but for how long? The demon was getting ready to make another pass...

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« Reply #37 on: January 09, 2011, 07:01:38 PM »

Episode 21: Dancing with Fire

The cackling, fiery demon prepared to swoop down on Garn again, muttering over and over a word that sounded like “maughuxin” among the other incomprehensible words it babbled. Dag stepped to the threshold of the fire-lit chamber and fired at the demon.  The bolt sank deep into the flames that shrouded the winged fiend, but the creature seemed oblivious to it, keeping its attention focused on the gnome.  Garn continued to search desperately for some trigger that would open the stone plint nearest him, but to no avail.  The four carved demon heads once again blew flames that engulfed most of the chamber.  As the plumes of fire receded, Loic dashed from the threshold over a carpet of scorched bones and leaped through the air at the demon, swinging one of his urutuks at it. The mithral blade bit through fire and hard flesh, causing the babbling demon to turn its attention away from Garn and to snarl in pain.  The demon flew up and away from the Dorn, then dove back into flames of the nearby pool of liquid fire.

Dag thought the key to defeating the demon would be to douse it or the liquid fire in water, so the dwarf began to run back the wide, flagstone tunnel in search of the spot where he had least a stream or pool of tainted water.  Garn snuck away and took cover in the space beyond the far wall of the chamber and the furthest carved demon head.

For the next few moments, Loic kept focused on the flame that rose from the fiery pool in the centre of the chamber, trying to spot the demon.  Plumes of fire erupted again from the four carved demon heads, and for a moment, the Dorn thought he saw humanoid shapes burning, wailing in torment. He threw one of his urutuks through the fire at the centre of the room, and it returned to his hand a moment later. The one-eyed warrior then heard the demon cackle again. He felt his weapons and armour warm gradually, until the heat became unbearable. He dropped both his urutuks on the ground and between fiery explosions from the carved heads managed to escape from the chamber unscathed, running down the flagstone tunnel in search of the same water source that Dag had gone searching for. The dwarven glow stick his only source of illumination in the sinister darkness, Loic ran as fast as he could, screaming in pain.

Garn was now abandoned and alone in the chamber. He heard the demon cackle again, then pick up and strike what could only be Loic’s urutuks against one another.  Had the gnome’s companions abandoned him for good? Had they given up hope of delving deeper into this hellish complex? And if not, how long until they would return? How long until the fiery demon found him?

Dag was getting ready to return with a pot full of water from the area with the sunken altar, then froze ad he heard and then saw Loic screaming and racing in the darkness in his direction.  The Dorn leaped past the dwarf into the red water, producing a cloud of steam as he did so.  Loic sat in the pool for several moments, waiting to make sure that his chain shirt cooled sufficiently and that he could trust that they would not burn him further.  As he and Dag pondered what to do next, Vargus--clothes torn and shredded--emerged from the tunnel on the opposite side of the pool. He crossed the pool to stand by Dag, while Loic continued to cool down in the pool.  The dworg had sensed that his companions might be in mortal danger, and decided that he should come to their aid, despite his reluctance to climb down the deadly cliff with the sharpened stalagmites.    The dwarf-kin had nearly perished during his climb, having relied heavily on his magic to heal the wounds he sustained on the way down. Seeing that Loic and Dag were in even more ragged a state than he, Vargus channeled his healing powers to mend some of their wounds.  

As the three debated their options, the rythmic metal clanking they had heard in the distance on various occasions drew nearer.  Vargus and Dag saw two humanoid skeletal warriors wearing breastplates and wielding double-pointed spears emerge from the passage from whence the dworg had just come, but they were too far beyond the radius of the glow stick for Loic to see them.  The three companions prepared for the worst, but the guardians made no move to cross the altar pool.  Dag fired a bolt into one skeleton’s breastplate, with little effect.  The undead sentries crossed their spears and eventually turned back and disappeared into the tunnel from which they had appeared. Loic, Vargus and Dag concluded that the skeletal warriors had been commanded by their masters to follow a set patrol route in death.

Despite having only a dagger for a weapon after having dropped his enchanted urutuks in the chamber with the fiery demon, Loic tired of the indecisiveness and declared that he would return to the chamber.  They could not abandon Garn to whatever torment the demon might reserve for him.  Vargus leant the Dorn his mace, and the trio hurried back along the widening flagstone passage.

From the threshold of the chamber, Loic scanned for his twin urutuks, but could not see them... nor Garn.  The demon cackled “maughuxin” and babbled as it had previously, flying out of the pool of liquid fire with one of Loic’s urutuks in hand.  It taunted him by holding the blade out, and breathed fire at him.  Vargus immediately stepped forward, expending more of his vitality to heal the Dorn of his burns.  The latter then leaped again at the demon, knocking the urutuk out of its hands with the dworg’s mace.  The mithral weapon still glowed fiery hot as it struck the ground.  Dag threw one of his own urutuks at the demon, but missed.  Loic then dumped the dwarf’s pot of water onto his overheated weapon, and Vargus conjured yet more magic to further cool it.  

While the demon was distracted, Garn stealthily crept into the bone-littered passage at the far end of the chamber, and took cover there.  Between explosions from the carved demon heads, Loic and Dag moved to one side of the flaming pool, Vargus to the opposite side.  The demon hovered overhead, near the ceiling.  

Loic tried to sense the location of Wrath of the Moon, and found it after plunging Fury of the Sun into the pool of liquid fire.  With great concentration and agility, the Dorn managed to fling the second blade out of the pool, which landed a few feet behind him.  Vargus hurried closer, channeling the limited energy he had left to cool the weapon.  At that moment, the demon dove from above, apparently intent on stealing the blade again.  The heroes swung desperately time and again, either missing it or otherwise not harming it.  

The fiend leaped at Dag, raking him with flaming claws and singing his beard.  The dwarf fell beneath the cackling demon’s vicious onslaught.  Meanwhile, Garn had scavenged some bolts and javelins among the bones in the passage where he hid.  He stepped forward, desperate to save his Kurgun friend from a fiery doom.  Twice he fired; twice he missed.  Flanked by Loic and Vargus, the demon spread its wings and tried to fly to safety, but the Dorn and dworg both swung their mithral axes frantically.  Their blades struck just as their foe was about to evade them. It shrieked and wailed, its winged form disintegrating into ash, the echoes of its fading screams still audible moments later.

A groggy and practically dead Dag arose shortly thereafter the battle ended at last.  At first, the dwarf could barely stand, so shaken and badly wounded was he.  Then, he felt a tingle in the finger which bore the silver ring he had found in the water near the submerged altar, and a warmth that spread through his body.  While hunger, exhaustion and the strain of combat and injury still affected him, he felt a renewed vigour and felt better than he had when first entering the accursed barrow.

The party hardly felt victorious.  The battle had severely tested their skills, luck and endurance.  That one little fiend, likely minor with respect to demonkind, had nearly been the end of them.  Luck had frowned upon them throughout much of the confrontation.  With the exception of Garn, all were battered and exhausted.  Vargus’s breath seemed increasingly laboured as a result of having channeled some of his own life force to power his magic.  Facing another demon that was equal or greater in strength than the one they had just encountered likely would be the end of them... Yet, taking a closer look at the small javelin and bolts that Garn had discovered among the bones in the chamber, Vargus observed that they had been forged of “cold iron” -- a rare form of iron that comes from the deepest heart of the mountains.  The dwarves believed that cold iron had properties that could harm certain creatures that otherwise were practically invulnerable to normal steel. Whether cold iron could have harmed the fiery demon, or whether it might be helpful against some of the complex’s other guardians, was another question.

The companions knew that Loic’s commitment to liberating his kin had led them astray from their mission, and that there was a strong likelihood that they would perish in the sinister complex in which they currently found themselves. Their failure might harm the efforts of the Resistance.  Did the needs of the few--Loic and his kin--outweigh those of the many? Yet as a result of the hardships they had endured on their quest, the companions had forged a bond that was as great if not greater than any of them had felt before.  The struggle against the Shadow was much more meaningful if it could be waged in order to protect still-living kin and friends. Loic was willing to do anything to save his kin--even if it meant risking his life--and neither Dag, Vargus, nor Garn had questioned that while enduring hell beneath the barrow.  Some had taken vows of fealty--spoken and unspoken--towards one another earlier in their mission. They had followed Loic down the road of the dead, and even their cautious leader, Garn, had consented to explore the complex beneath the barrow.  None had wavered or suggested that they should turn back... yet...    

Vaguely remembering something about the “maw of Maughuxin” in his recent dream, Garn, with the aid of Dag, set about to inspect each of the carved demon heads.  He pried the small opaque black gems that filled each head’s eye sockets (eight total). He then gazed into the maw of each of the carved demon heads between fiery blasts.  

While Garn and Dag continued their inspection, Loic and Vargus ventured into the passage beyond and into the next chamber. They peered into a vast chamber beyond, where weirdly glowing phosphorescent fungi cloaked the walls of a large cavern.  Their dim light revealed a macabre sight.  A lake of blood, traversed by a network of 5 foot wide stone walkways, surrounded a steeply sided stone pyramid-like island.  A large altar--reached via a set of steep steps--crowned its top.  A small ball of fire roughly the size of the demon they had just slain floated through the air above the pyramid, writhed by what looked like sentient flames.  A bloated, black silhouette sat on the pyramid steps half-way between its base and apex.

Unholy terror and despair crept into the hearts of Dorn and dworg... could the ball of flame and the bloated silhouette be two of the three fiends depicted in the disturbing carvings etched into the walls along the flagstone passage that had devoured the bodies and souls of their victims long ago?
« Last Edit: January 10, 2011, 12:40:44 AM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #38 on: January 23, 2011, 07:28:05 PM »

Episode 22: A Hope in Hell

Loic and Vargus kept to the cover of the passage, daring not to enter the vast cavern with the hovering ball of flame and bloated black silhouette sitting halfway up the ziggurat steps.  The two had endured much suffering over the previous arcs at the hands of malevolent creatures, but the overwhelming aura of evil they sensed coming from the cavern was greater than any they had felt before, and reached into the very core of their being.  They also spied ripples in the blood pool from time to time.

One by one, Garn inspected the four carven demon maws located in the chamber with the pool of liquid fire, starting with the one on the far right side of the chamber. At first, he reached in to scrape away at some of the soot, hoping to find some concealed inscriptions beneath.  He found none, and dared to step inside the maw between blasts, remembering that the dream he had had while sleeping in the cairn above suggested that something might be find in the maw of Maughuxin.  The diminutive demon that had guarded the area had uttered the name repeatedly. Could the carven demon heads represent the maw of Maughuxin?

On his way in, Garn’s foot caught on a pair of the carving’s teeth, knocking them out of place. He heard an audible click, then saw a crack in the wall where he had not seen one before... the outline of a hidden door? The gnome stepped out again in time to evade the timed blast, then quickly hopped back in to try to open the secret door.  It was stuck, and he did not have the strength to open it on his own.  Garn then searched the other three maws for hidden triggers or levers.  He found nothing in the next two maws he searched (those near the entrance to the chamber), but found that pulling on a pair of teeth inside the carving on the far left side of the chamber, a hidden door swung open at the back of its “throat.”  The gnome tumbled into the niche beyond, avoiding again the clockwork blasts, and found himself in a small niche with a stone windlass set in the ground.  The windlass handle was higher than Garn could reach, so he called on Dag to come in a and help him.  Even the two together were unable to turn the crank.  Loic and Vargus came to the aid of the two, and after several attempts and a great deal of effort and frustration (and time spent trying to turn the crank in the wrong direction), the group finally managed to turn the crank counterclockwise.  As they did so, they heard the sound of stone grating on stone beneath the floor.  The flow of oil that apparently fueled the clockwork blasts had been cut off, and even the flames in the pool of liquid fire at the heart of the chamber began to diminish.

Garn and Dag took the opportunity to double check the two maws that apparently had no triggers or secret door releases within them.  Upon his second pass in the maw to the left of the entrance, Garn found that lifting the tongue would reveal yet another secret door.  In the hidden niche, he found that the rear wall contained a half-dozen circular recesses, each of which contained some ancient leather scrolls that crumbled to dust as he touched them.  Following the gnome’s instructions, Dag made an identical discovery at the back of the maw to the right of the entrance.

The party then struggled to open the first secret door that Garn had found, but been unable to release.  Vagus used one of his javelins as a makeshift crowbar, and after numerous attempts (and Loic nearly losing his temper again), the stone door finally swung on its concealed hinges.  The companions crowded into the niche beyond, where they found an ebony lectern fashioned to resemble two clawed hands holding a stone tablet above a demon’s head, and resting against the horns.  The tablet had symbols chiseled into it, which were filled in with iron.  A symbol that looked like an eye was carved into the top of the tablet.  On a narrow shelf, four clay flasks had been arranged, each of them with an identical “eye” symbol.  The companions pondered at length what to make of this find.  Garn concluded that although the occasional symbol on the tablet could be traced to Old Dwarven, most of them represented no language he had ever seen written.  The “eye” symbol on both the tablet and flasks suggested that the items were somehow linked; the symbol itself might suggest enhanced sight or even insight into something.  

Loic decided to take a few sips from one of the flasks.  It was strong and bitter, though no worse than the dwarf spirits he had tasted in Pardrum Holdfast. At first, he sensed no particular effect from the draught.  Then, as he looked over Garn’s shoulder at the tablet the gnome was inspecting, the Dorn noticed the symbols forming shifting patterns, which only he could see.  The one-eyed, illiterate Dorn was surprised to find that he could make sense of the patterns.  They read:

Doom befall the souls of the wicked and the weak, enemies of the Tuath, and those who would be sacrificed to keep the Tuath safe.  The Demons Three bade the Tuath build the Road of the Dead: Felclugh, Guardian of the Blood Lake, Gatekeeper of the Underworld; Lhamskarr the Hungry One, Devourer of the Fears of the Living and the Dead; and Maughuxin, Keeper of the Abyssal Flame, Tormentor of the Damned.  The Spawn of the Demons Three await the Damned at the end of the Road of the Dead, beyond the Fires of Damnation and the lair of Ixjavis.

Only the truly repentant may walk unharmed to the altar of redemption, and only if they proceed peacefully past the Spawn of the Three.

Only those with noble intent who a virtuous promise make at the altar of redemption shall be blessed and granted safe passage back to the land of the living.

At the bottom of the tablet, Loic now saw a crude carving depicting four humanoid figure with heads bowed and hands clutching what appeared to be small tokens or charms as they advanced towards a ziggurat-like structure crowned with an altar, while demons harried them on all sides.

The Dorn then asked to see the tablet that Garn had taken from the sarcophagus.  It had been scribed in the same writing.  Loic began to understand the runes, without really reading them, but their exact meaning remained unclear. According to Loic, the symbols on Garn’s tablet stated something like:

This most powerful secret revealed and inscribed by Varkaroth the Unseen with the hand of U’rth Folah, high priest of the Tuath.

No greater words of power known, here scribed in mystic runes.

Only most powerful to wield.

Those spellbound to release.

Magic disjoined, separated, destroyed.

Loic wondered whether the tablet Garn had taken from the high priest’s sarcophagus might not be “the key” to the release of Vagasha’s fallen rivals.  

In the end, the group agreed that they might find something at the altar of redemption that could play a key role in the liberation of Loic’s kin.  Garn distributed a pair of the black jaspers he had pried from the carven demon heads to each of his companion’s thinking these might serve as charms or tokens to present to the Demons Three on their  way to the altar.

With hearts in their throats, one by one the heroes proceeded into the dimly illuminated cavern, along stone walkways, towards the ziggurat-like structure upon which stood the altar.  Dag went first, followed by Garn, then Vargus and Loic. Each walked with head bowed, weapons sheathed, and hands held out with twin black gems in their palms.  Each spoke aloud of things for which they felt guilt, and now repented.

Dag repented for not being with the people of Durgis Rock and Durgis Cove when the forces of the Shadow razed their settlements.

Garn repented for all the times he had pocketed things that did not belong to him, and especially for placing so much value on material items. The  latter had led him to murder an orc in Erenhead, which in turn had resulted in many problems for his clan folk and in his exile from Swift Water.  Garn’s old friend and mentor Wendel Gale might not have perished on this quest if the younger Greatbarge had not been exiled. He also repented having let fear and anger get the better of him in certain situations, such as when he stabbed the bandit Roald in the back when the latter fled--hands bound--from the winged demons of stone.  It was only natural for the man to have fled in terror.

Vargus repented for having been away when the Shadow attacked Durgis Rock and took the lives of Woden and his adoptive clan.  He also repented his inability to save the lives of new acquaintances, like Vallin Onyxarm, who had sacrificed their lives so that the dworg might carry out the oath he had made to Woden.

Loic repented the consequences that his well-intentioned actions had brought to his family, and especially for the death of his mother.  He also felt guilty about having left his father, Kristiania, Grettel, and baby Liv in the care of the sadistic giant-kin.

The flaming sphere flared and shot downwards on a collision course with Dag, but stopped abruptly mere inches from the dwarf, as he continued to repeat his repentance.    He could feel the demon’s flames warming his face and already-singed beard, and its living tendrils of fire writhed about and cried out like thousands of souls moaning and crying for deliverance. Dag kept looking straight ahead and marched forward without pause, keeping his focus on the altar ahead. The flaming sphere hovered over the repentant heroes one by one, yet refrained from attacking any of them.  

The heroes stepped around a 10’ wide and 40’ deep pit littered with bones, then proceeded up the ziggurat steps.  Dag walked fearlessly towards the bloated and hairless, yet incredibly muscular horror that stood on squat legs and blocked the steps.  It bellowed and punched at him with rage, yet could not harm the dwarf, who continued to advance with resolute faith.

One by one, the heroes focused on their regrets and blocked out the nightmares that assaulted them on all sides, until all four stood safely around the altar at the top of the ziggurat.  The altar was pitted and scarred, with a small niche on its far side in which lay six tarnished silver wolf statuettes and a clay chalice.  The flaming sphere hovered above them, abruptly zigging then zagging from one position to another.  It burned brighter than ever, its light almost blinding.  While its erratic behaviour suggested fear or anger, it still refrained from attacking.

The misshapen, bloated demon that guarded the stairs snarled incessantly a few steps below the top of the ziggurat, apparently unwilling or unable to step onto the summit of the structure.

In the dim fungal glow of the cave, the companions heard multi-layered, dissonant, bone-chilling bellows emerging from the blood-red waters, as if they had been made by a legion of hateful souls.

Could there be a worse place to die? The heroes had survived encounters with goblins and stonewalkers, orc patrols, Fell, slavers, stone-skinned flying demons, and giant-kin... yet none of the foes they had faced before had exuded the overwhelming, palpable, otherworldly evil that now threatened to shatter their spirits.

Somehow, the four managed to retain their wits despite the surging, primal terror.  Each in turn, they gathered their courage and what little hope they had left, placed the black jaspers they held on the altar, and thought of the most meaningful promise they could.

Dag vowed to kill Vagasha, the lying bitch, and to bring the dragon case to the Witch Queen of the Elves.

Garn also vowed to see the group’s mission accomplished, and the dragon case safely delivered in the hands of the Witch Queen of the elves. He hoped this could in some small way compensate for his prior failings.

Vargus vowed to bring some light back into the world, to fulfill his oath to Woden, and to help all those they found in need throughout the remainder of their journey.
Loic vowed to deliver the dragon case to the Witch Queen of the elves or die trying, and to deliver his kin from the giant-kin or die trying.

Their vows made, the heroes waited for something to happen... but nothing did... The Demons Three raged all the more, still unable to reach the souls that were nearly within their grasp.  The demons primarily screeched and growled unintelligible gibberish, though at times the companions could make out the odd word they understood in Old Dwarven and the human or gnomish tongues--all of them involving killing, torture, rape, burning, mutilation and endless pain. As the group prepared to descend from the ziggurat, Garn deduced that the chalice was the item they sought and stowed it in his pack.

Then, a white, translucent face materialized on the surface of the altar. Its features were indistinct--it might have been male or female, and possibly of distant dwarven or even gnomish ancestry.  The heroes heard its androgynous voice in their mind, in their respective native tongue.  It momentarily blocked out the fearful sights and sounds of the raging demon spawn.

“The Tuath awoke from the dark sleep of Aryth ages ago, after the gods abandoned the world,” said the voice.  “Our people have long since vanished, the last of our line having become twisted, degenerate creatures corrupted by the blood of the demons we feared.  In our time, we learned to respect, placate, and even revere the demons that haunted the woods, as they revealed to us the final destinations of the souls of the dead.  The Road of the Dead was built as a warning and a punishment, for protection and worship.  Yet our high priests also taught us that the souls of the virtuous could go to a better place, and thus was my spirit bound to this altar, as a last ray of hope and final chance at redemption for the innocent and repentant ones sacrificed to the Spawn of the Demons Three.

“Your vows have been heard and deemed virtuous. You are hereby blessed and granted safe passage back to the realm of the living, so long as you refrain from striking the Demons Three and leave the Chalice of the Tuath here.”  At the latter remark, a guilty look crept over Garn’s face, and the gnome promptly pulled the chalice from his pack and returned it to the niche at the side of the altar.

“Hold true to your vows. Break them... and suffer the curse of the Tuath ‘til your death...”

As the words faded from the heroes‘ minds, so did the translucent face from the altar. They were left alone again with the snarling demons that were trying to press in with unparalleled ferocity, yet still held back for the time being by whatever enchantment kept them at bay. Yet one by one, the companions felt changes within themselves--blessings from the altar of redemption?

Dag felt his vision sharpen--he could now see much deeper into the shadows than before.

Vargus knew, without knowing how, that much as the spirits had taught him to channel Aryth’s energies into many different ways, the altar had granted him the ability to read and understand arcane writings, and both the written and spoken words of mortal beings.

Garn felt even more confident in his skills than previously.

Most shocking and wondrous of all, was seeing the scarred skin over the socket of Loic’s lost eye, part in an admittedly painful manner reveal a new and fully functioning eye--this one blue rather than green.  The Dorn ran his hand over the new eye, and could now see as well as he had before. Everyone was in complete disbelief.

The altar also seemed to bless them with renewed vitality, and a boost in their senses or abilities. Loic felt stronger, and Garn faster and more nimble than his already quick and nimble self. Dag felt himself blessed with greater stamina than he had before, and Vargus sensed himself privileged with deeper insights.  

The companions gathered their courage and retraced their path down the ziggurat steps.  They took a closer look at the charnel pit at the base of the structure; Garn wondered whether that pit with the sacrificial remains in it might not be the Maw of Maughuxin, since it was so deep and clearly at the end of the Road of the Dead, which is where his dream suggested the “key” might be found.  Loic was willing to explore it, but reconsidered when his companions noticed the sheer walls and sharpened ledges that would make climbing out extremely painful if not impossible, especially without a rope... and they had left their two lengths of rope in the shaft below the cairn.

The demon spawn continued to threaten the heroes on all sides, but could not harm them.  They caught a glimpse of a roiling red mass in the red waters, with a head that resembled that which had been carved into the bone levers on the island in the first blood lake. The companions walked safely back to the chamber with the four carved demon heads, the spawn of the Demons Three stopping near the threshold.  Having left the Chalice of the Tuath behind, the four now wondered whether they had left behind that which they needed to free Vagasha’s rivals.  And where were the ogre witches’ bodies? Garn racked his brains, confused about the inconsistencies between his dream and what they had found in the complex.

Was the Maw of Maughuxin represented by the four maws of the carved demon heads?

Was it the charnel pit at the base of the ziggurat, since Garn’s dream said something about the maw of Maughuxin being at the end of the Road of the Dead... and all agreed that the flagstone “road” ended at the edge of the blood pool, just before the ziggurat?

Was Maughuxin the flaming demon they had defeated, since he had repeated the name on several occasions and dwelled in the flaming pool that might be interpreted as the Abyssal flame? But if that was Maughuxin (or his spawn), then who or what was Ixjavis, whose lair travelers supposedly would pass through on their way to meeting the Spawn of the Demons Three? Could the flaming sphere encountered near the ziggurat have been the Spawn of Maughuxin (and the others the spawn of Felclugh and Lhamskarr?)?

Dag wondered whether the Maw of Maughuxin, which Garn’s dream also indicated was below the cairn of the Tuath, might not be the shaft... there were three carved demon heads in the shaft as well, in which gems had been tucked away. So perhaps the “key” could be found anywhere in the complex beyond the shaft? But, Garn argued... that was inconsistent with the reference to the maw being located at the end of the Road the Dead?  

Garn remembered that in his dream, the fallen ogre witches were covered in cobwebs in a grove of trees, near some strangely shaped tower in a ravine... which led Vargus to conclude that the bodies of the witches would not be found in this complex, but rather close to Vagasha’s lair.  What they were looking for down here was the “key” to the release of the witches.

Another thorough search of the debris in the chamber with the carved demon heads and the now flameless pool of liquid fire turned up nothing.

The increasingly frustrated heroes backtracked to the chamber with the sarcophagus. A thorough search of that chamber, which included sliding and turning the heavy sarcophagus, revealed no secret passages or compartments.  Loic and Vargus reviewed the magical writing on the other eight tablets, but found that they only chronicled the ancient history of the Tuath.  The runes on the burial chamber walls writhed as they read them silently, the meanings of their patterns incomplete, constantly changing.

Vargus now took another look at the tablet Garn had recovered from the sarcophagus. The blessings granted by the altar of redemption gave him both the ability to read its arcane symbols and to gain greater insights into their meaning.  The spirits hissed and babbled louder and louder in his mind, suggesting that what he beheld was both very powerful and dangerous--perhaps one of the most potent tools for channeling magic known even to the spirits? Only the most powerful channeler could wield it, but even then there might be unintended consequences.  In the hands of a lesser channeler, the risk of the magic backfiring was considerable.  The magic contained within the tablet should be able to release those bound by magical enchantments, but it apparently could also disjoin, separate or even destroy all magic caught within the area of the spell.    

The four then decided that maybe the pool with the runic inscriptions near the base of the waterfall might hold more answers. At least, it seemed likely that Loic and Vargus would now be able to decipher the meaning of the inscriptions on the pool. The companions backtracked further through the complex, keeping to the flagstone road and avoiding unworked tunnels.  They heard the rythmic clanking of the skeletal sentries in the distance, but made it back to the rune pool without incident.  Now all they heard was the deafening thunder of the waterfall.

Loic and Vargus deciphered the runes on the pool, claiming that they read “Drink of the Abyss‘ knowledge and ask.”  Loic questioned the wisdom of doing so, fearing that nothing good could come from seeking the wisdom of the Abyss. Still, each in turn, while being soaked again by the mists from the falls, the heroes drank from the hematite-tainted water and asked a question, including:

Was the chamber with the four carved demon heads the Maw of Maughuxin?

Was the tablet Garn had recovered the key they were looking for?

The person asking the question felt doubt, or woe, creep over them in response to the question.  Loic still wondered whether they had in their possession what they were looking for. He had little knowledge of or trust in the mystical arts and the puzzles of ancient races, but he questioned whether a “key” really needed to take the form of a key, as Garn seemed inclined to believe. The Dorn still thought the tablet might be the key to the release of the ogre witches.  Yet once everyone had drunk from the pool, the uniformly negative responses to their questions left them thinking otherwise.  Garn thought the Maw of Maughuxin was the charnel pit at the bottom of the ziggurat.  Dag still thought the Maw of Maughuxin was the shaft, or the complex as a whole. Dag tried drinking a second time, but this time felt absolutely no sign--whether positive or negative--when he asked his question. He thought it might be prudent to investigate the unworked passages to make sure they had not overlooked anything.

If there was one thing Vargus could confirm, it was that the spirits were often very difficult to understand and even more difficult to interpret.  It was not inconceivable that some of the information he and Garn had received in dreams might even be incomplete and inaccurate... and whether such inaccuracies were intentional or not would be nearly impossible to determine. Of course, dreams themselves often could be less than reliable.

As things stood, Vargus felt that the deeper insights he had acquired following the altar blessings could probably enable him to complete the rites required to release the magic from the tablet (if necessary), though he feared there might be unanticipated consequences if he did so. The casting was something that he did not think he would have been capable of at all prior to being blessed by the altar spirit. And though he had been bestowed the ability to read magical inscriptions, he knew there was a difference between understanding arcane symbols and successfully unleashing or harnessing their power.

But the heroes had to wonder... how long would their blessings and safe passage last? Would they still have safe passage if they went back into the chamber with the demon spawn?  
« Last Edit: February 25, 2011, 04:55:26 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #39 on: February 25, 2011, 04:56:15 PM »

Episode 23: Escape from the Underworld

After drinking from the augury pool near the foot of the Bloodmist falls, the companions pondered their next move in light of the ambiguous and contradictory information gleaned from the pool and the strange dreams that had haunted Garn while he slept in the barrow above.  Dag and Garn, unconvinced that the tablet with the magical inscriptions found by the gnome was the magical key that could release Vagasha’s fallen sisters, decided to venture down another passage in search of other possibilities as well as food to sate their growing hunger. The Kurgun did not want to climb the treacherous cliff in a weakened state, on an empty stomach, if he could avoid it... and if anyone could find food underground, the dwarf would. Vargus would stay with Loic by the falls, thereby ensuring that each group had at least one person who could see into the darkness beyond the dim glow of the glow sticks carried by gnome and Dorn.

Dag and Garn set off down the unworked tunnel that opened a few feet away from the augury pool, and which soon branched into two passages. They kept to the broader, leftmost tunnel.  Its walls were covered in lichens that were unfamiliar to the Kurgun wildlander, and which he feared might be poisonous.  Disappointed As the thunder and mist from the falls gradually faded with distance, the gnome and dwarf perceived something unusual along the ceiling, at the edge of their vision.  It seemed as though the ceiling were crawling.  Closer observation revealed swarms of small creatures flitting to and fro, and shrieking shrilly... bats... food!!! The ceiling was 15’ high, though, which would make catching them a challenge. The two then recalled Vargus’s mysterious powers over animals -- he could probably make some from the ceiling!

Garn and Dag went back and called on the dworg for assistance.  As they ventured back down the tunnel, the group were surprised to find the twin skeletal guardians they had previously seen patrolling the tunnels walking in their direction, past the swarming bats.  Garn became one with a stalagmite that hugged a wall, and Vargus and Loic both hid around natural bends in the wall.  Dag stood his ground.

The armoured guardians advanced mechanically, their archaic yet ornate breastplates and unusual double-pointed long spears rattling as they did so.  They strode directly towards the dwarf... and stopped immediately in front of him, crossing their spears. The guardians stared at the Kurgun with chilling, empty eye sockets.

Dag recalled that the altar spirit had granted them safe passage back to the surface, and assumed that this would allow him to walk unharmed past the skeletal guardians. He parted their spears, squeezed by them... and as soon as he was behind them, the undead warriors took a few paces back and proceeded to wield their double-pointed long spears with uncanny speed and grace, both of them striking at the dwarf in unison with deadly accuracy. The wounded dwarf moved to attack with his axe, but had difficulty getting past their effective defenses.  Vargus left his cover and hurled a ball of flame at the guardians, but missed. The flame hit the cavern wall instead, and generated a cloud of smoke upon contact with the damp lichens.  Loic and Garn leaped through the smoke to attack the undead warriors from behind.  Another series of deadly thrusts, and the dwarf fell to the ground.

Garn vaulted past the whirling spears to shield and try to save the dwarf while Loic, in a frenzy, shattered one of their unliving foes.  The remaining guardian turned its attention to the raging Dorn, and its rapid, powerful spear thrusts tore deep gashes in the barbarian’s abdomen and drove him head first into the wall. The party’s two strongest fighters had fallen.

The skeletal warrior now targeted Garn, and pierced the gnome’s leather armour with two rapid thrusts. Fearing that the next thrust would end his life, the river fey tumbled away from his fallen companion, part way down the tunnel past Loic’s bloodied and motionless form.  Better that at least one of the party members should live.  As the gnome ran, Vargus risked his life by reaching deep within himself for the life force that might power the forge’s blaze one last time. A ball of flame ignited again in the palm of his hand as he raced towards the skeleton, then plunged his blazing fist through an opening in its breastplate. The undead warrior exploded in a shower of bones.

Gnome and dworg wasted no time tending to the fallen dwarf and Dorn, and, miraculously, were able to save their lives... for now.  Vargus had drained most of his magic and would need to sleep before being able to heal his companions to a level that would enable them to negotiate the deadly cliff ahead.  Garn now abandoned the idea of conducting a more extensive search of the complex -- survival was all that mattered now.  The pair dragged their wounded companions to the narrow, guano-spattered niche they found down the opposite branch of the fork in the tunnel, and salvaged the breast plates from the undead warriors. At first, the breastplates were used as vessels in which Vargus could conjure potable water.  One, they would later find out, fit Dag relatively well. The niche would be an easily defensible location.  Vargus then helped Garn harvest bats, his mysterious power making dozens literally drop from the ceiling.  The gnome then pulled out the elven hearthstone and the copper pot salvaged from the bugbear slavers from his pack, and did what he could to skin and cook the pests... and tried not to think of the diseases they might contract by eating them.

Time passed, with gnome and dworg taking turns resting and keeping watch.  Fortunately, no other guardians materialized. In some strange twist of fate, the hellish underworld in which the party found itself was now possibly the safest place they had been in since leaving Pardrum Holdfast. They remained there for the equivalent of what Vargus’s senses perceived would be the equivalent of a full day on the surface. Loic’s wounds healed remarkably quickly, as did the dworg’s.  Feeling revitalized following the rest, Varg was also able to channel some of his energy to heal his companions’ most serious injuries... and Garn ensured that everyone could leave with a stomach full of cooked bat, and an additional two days worth of meat in each of their packs, as well!  Dag strapped on one of the ornate breastplates worn by the skeletal warriors; the other did not fit Loic, was of no interest to Vargus, and deemed to heavy and cumbersome to carry for trade purposes.

At last, the moment everyone simultaneously anticipated and dreaded had come at last.  It was time to return to the surface... but to do so, they first had to negotiate the deadly cliff with the razor sharp stalagmites that had nearly been the death of many of them on their way down into the complex. And despite his rapid recovery since the encounter with the skeletons, Loic already felt the extra strength that the altar spirit had channeled into him starting to fade [metagaming = lost one of his two bonus Strength points].

In order to help Vargus--arguably the poorest climber in the group--back up the slick cliff face, Dag and Garn set to cutting up one of the two goblin nets they had salvaged following their encounter with the slavers the week before, fashioning it into a crude 20’ long rope. The gnome scurried up the 60’ high mist-shrouded cliff without incident.  Dag and Loic had a little bit more difficulty, but with effort, patience and determination, eventually reached the top, trailing the makeshift rope behind them.  The dworg still suffered significant cuts and nearly fell on a few occasions, but with the aid of his friends  finally made it to relative safety.

The party backtracked down the first stretch of the flagstone road underneath the arch with the fear-inspiring demon’s head, to the lake of blood.  They were relieved to find the causeways still in place, but could not see if the rope they had first climbed down to reach the lake was still there. Garn and Vargus were the first to make it across the causeway, disappearing into the red mist beyond the sight of Dag and Loic. As the dwarf tried to cross, he lost his footing and fell into the lake.  The water guardian manifested and rushed in his direction, while Loic laid flat on the beam that he had been crossing and frantically tried to reach for the dwarf in the water. Several moments passed, the Dorn fearing the worst as he neither saw nor heard further signs of the Kurgun above the din of the water rushing towards the falls.  At last, the dwarf surfaced by the strip of land near the archway, apparently unharmed by the roiling water spirit.

Meanwhile, Garn leaped from post to post through the mists beyond the rocky island, and was relieved to find the twinned ropes they had left behind still there.  Vargus tried to follow the gnome, but miscalculated his jump and landed in the water.  The gnome fell in as well when he just missed the rope.  Seeing that they had drawn the attention of the lake’s guardian, the two began to panic.  The shapeless creature frothed and thrashed around them, threatening to drown them... but never actually touched them.

The heroes prayed that if they refrained from attacking the angry spirit, it would allow them to leave unharmed... and so it was.  With great effort, the heroes climbed the twinned ropes up the long shaft, past the trio of carved demon heads from which Dag had retrieved gems on the way down (and cut his hand badly while doing so)... and reached the barrow on the surface, exhausted but safe for now... They had left one hell behind and returned to another...

The companions judged that it was approximately mid-morning when they emerged from the barrow, and that they would benefit from another day of rest.  They made the barrow their shelter for the day, and Dag and Loic managed to forage enough mushrooms to feed the group for a day.  The elven hearthstone helped them dry their ragged and stained ortskin clothes.  Vargus looked over the tablet again, but was concerned that inscriptions and instructions that had made sense to him the previous day were gradually becoming more elusive, as if his intuition were weakening [metagame = lost 1 of his 2 bonus Wisdom points]... he worried that if this decline continued, he might not be able to unlock the powers of the tablet at the requisite time. His newly acquired ability to read magical inscriptions apparently did not enable him to understand how to channel all forms of written magic, at least not indefinitely...

In order to rescue Loic’s kin, the heroes now had to find the location of the ravine that sheltered Vagasha’s tower, and where her captive sisters might presumably be found in some web-shrouded copse of trees. But how would they find the tower in the fog-laden woods given that the giant-kin never seemed to leave a sign of their passing, despite their large size and brutish ways?

The night in the sinister barrow went by uneventfully. At dawn the companions left in search of the wounded giant-kin they had left a few miles from the barrow, two days ago. If he were still where they left him and alive, perhaps he could be persuaded to lead the way...  

Spell Energy / Taint +4/-0
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Posts: 679

« Reply #40 on: May 11, 2011, 12:50:11 AM »

Episode 24: The Ambush

Dusk fell quickly, as it always did in the mist-shrouded forest.  Dag, Vargus, Garn and Klot hid upon the bluff beyond the chasm, shielded by deadfall, boulders and trees.  They had thrown debris down the sides of the bluff to make it more difficult to climb from the sides; they had carved crude javelins, and trimmed and sharpened the branches that remained on deadfall into stakes; and they rolled some of the “spiked logs” atop the face of the bluff that looked over the chasm and towards the clearing in which sat the cairn of the Tuath -- ready to be pushed down onto any enemy brazen enough to leap across the chasm and to attempt the climb up the slick rock face. To the heroes‘ dismay, smart opponents could circumvent the chasm and attack them from the left, right and rear -- the streams that tumbled into the chasm apparently continued their course underground. 

Dag had managed to file down the length of some of his crossbow bolts so as to make them fit Garn’s smaller weapon.  Though not balanced perfectly, the modified bolts nevertheless expanded the gnome’s options in combat.  Klot, having steeled his nerves for the moment, donned Vargus’s studded leather, and was also handed the dworg’s wooden shield and a pair of javelins, in addition to his heavy mace.  He stood a few feet to Garn’s left, and kept an eye on that flank. Dag and Vargus kept watch over the right flank and rear, with the dwarf having taken a position a few feet below the summit of the bluff, behind a tree on a wide ledge. 

In the clearing, across the chasm, brave Loic sat bravely by himself by an open fire and makeshift shelter he had constructed.  He was the bait, and he waited patiently, gnawing on his reserves of bat meat as his stomach growled in reaction to the fragrant smoke that arose from the fire -- the result of some sort of enchantment cast by Vargus to hopefully lure the giant-kin.  The Dorn had one end of a rope tied at his waist -- the other end was tied to a tree across the chasm, where Dag stood ready to help the Dorn up if he should fall short in his jump when the time came for him to leap to the relative safety of the bluff.

Dusk gave way to stygian night, and the Dorn alone could see nothing beyond the glow of the firelight.  There was no moonlight to aid him, and the roar of the streams tumbling into the nearby chasm dulled his hearing, making him largely dependent on his companions to notice approaching foes.

A few hours into the night, those on the bluff--all availed of sharper vision--noticed silhouettes moving near the tree line beyond the cairn. Vargus and Dag had noticed six figures stalking in the shadows, while Garn and Klot noticed only four.  Loic was oblivious to them all.  Dag tugged on Loic’s rope, signaling danger.  At that same moment, a sudden gust of wind fanned the flames momentarily, granting the companions a momentary glimpse of their foes--a half-dozen giant-kin.

As the gust of wind fanned the fire, the giant-kin started to holler and hoot gleefully, like sadistic, overgrown children.  Loic could see four of them at the edge of his vision.  The fire’s glow dimmed again, and they stood behind him about 40’, at the very edge of the shadows.  Dag, Vargus, Klot and Garn, however, could see them all -- one who had rock-hopped to a little patch of ground between the braided streams, in Loic’s blind spot.  Another had clambered up among the tumbled menhirs above the cairn of the Tuath, also beyond the edge of the fire’s glow. 

Fear crept into the veins of the heroes, as they struggled to maintain their composure while the giant-kin crept closer to Loic, waiting for the right moment to strike.  Three advanced a few paces behind the Dorn, just within the flickering shadows cast by the fire.  A fourth snuck around the cairn and then moved into flanking position near the edge of the chasm, facing the warrior. 

A few more tense moments passed, with the flanking giant-kin making all sorts of groans and hoots, slowly stepping into the Dorn’s field of vision.  The inbred, vaguely human-like behemoth held a club in one hand and a long javelin in the other, and was clad in filthy, poorly cured hides.  An amulet of bones, teeth and skulls rattled from his neck.  He sniffed at the air, gestured as though he wanted to “share” Loic’s meal, and chortled incessantly, clearly relishing the terror he thought he instilled in his human prey. 

The giant-kin’s ghastly cohort chortled and hooted in the background, brandishing their clubs and javelins, keeping to the edge of the shadows.

The one nearest Loic moved slowly closer... and closer... until he was close enough for the Dorn to get a clear shot at him.  Garn was the first to fire, and one of his modified bolts piercing the monster’s groin. A fraction of a second later, the ogre was struck in the collar bone by a second bolt -- that one fired by Dag.  Klot hurled a javelin, which fell short of its mark and tumbled into the chasm.  Loic then hurled Wrath of the Moon straight into the brute’s chest.  The Dorn then made a running jump over gaping darkness and cleared the chasm, gripping the trunk of the tree behind which Dag hid to avoid sliding down the slippery rock face and into the chasm. Vargus hurled yet another javelin at the seemingly unstoppable enemy.  At last, the giant-kin spun on its heels, eyes wide with fear as it bellowed and pain and tried to retreat while practically falling to its knees.

The other ogres howled in fury and outrage.  The one on the patch of ground amid the braided streams hurled a javelin and struck Loic in the butt, then rock-hopped to the far side of the braided streams.  The warrior cringed in pain as he tightened his grip on Fury of the Sun with one hand, and on his handhold with the other, while Dag yanked the weakly embedded projectile free.  The trio of giant-kin that had previously chortled and hooted at the edge of firelight bolted for cover -- one also running to join his kinsman on the far side of the stream, while the other two sought to hide behind the cairn.  Garn finished the wounded ogre with a second bolt to the back of the neck and straight through his throat.  The giant-kin who stood among the tumbled menhirs atop the cairn hurled his javelin towards the gnome, but the missile bounced harmlessly off the bluff face with a loud “clack,” and fell into the chasm.

Vargus conjured a massive web from thin air, and tried to snare the two giant-kin on the far side of the braided streams within its strands.  One of them managed to avoid the web, but the other one found himself caught in it, and struggled in vain to free himself as hundreds of tiny spiders crawled over him.  Dag launched a bolt into one of the brute’s outstretched hands. 

Meanwhile, Loic caught Wrath of the Moon as the urutuk pulled free from the fallen ogre’s chest, flew across the chasm and landed haft in the Dorn’s hand.  He clenched Fury of the Sun between his teeth and climbed one-handed up to the top of the bluff, where he found cover behind a boulder, near Garn and Vargus. 

With his dark vision, Klot observed one giant-kin skulking from behind the cairn and into the darkened woods beyond and out of sight, likely with the intention of flanking the party.  The other giant-kin that had avoided Vargus’s conjured web disappeared into the woods on the opposite flank.

Another brute broke from cover behind the cairn, threw a javelin with all its might at Dag and drew dwarf blood, and then, to the horror of all, sprinted and tried to clear the chasm in an attempt to reach the top of the bluff.  Garn and Klot both took aim and Vargus also tossed an improvised club at it, but the charging brute so rattled their nerves that they both missed, hitting instead the one fallen ogre again.  Yet in a surprising twist of fate, the raging ogre tripped on its fallen companion as it leapt into the air, fell short and tumbled into the chasm below. 

Vargus called upon the spirits for the power of the Forge’s Blaze, and a ball of flame erupted in the dworg’s hand without causing him any pain.  He held his flaming hand aloft, trying to ensure that the Dorn could see any foes that might creep up from the flanks or behind the bluff. The web-shrouded ogre had finally extricated himself from the sticky strands, and there were now at least three giant-kin lurking out of sight in the woods around the bluff.

Klot noticed that the last one who stood in the clearing--among the tumbled menhirs atop the bluff--was behaving as though in some kind of trance, as the party had noticed one giant-kin do when they first encountered the brutes following the encounter with the gallows tree.  They surmised that it must be engaged in some sort of communication with Vagasha, or that she might be looking at the scene through her servant’s eyes.  The entranced ogre then regained his focus, bellowed something at the top of his lungs (including what sounded like Vagasha’s name), then also ran from the cairn roof and into the forest.

Some long, tense moments passed.  The heroes, even those with dark vision, were unable to see or hear the giant-kin.  Had they fled? The heroes remembered the supernatural stealth and speed of the monsters--atypical for their kind--and kept their guard up.  Eventually, they noticed some trees swaying, and out came three giant-kin from the rear flanks.  One brought Klot down in a flash with a well-aimed javelin.

The other made straight for Loic and Vargus, but had not noticed the gnome that had discretely repositioned himself behind a different boulder and aimed true with his crossbow, striking the club-wielding behemoth square in the chest.  Garn ducked again out of sight, the wounded ogre still oblivious to the gnome’s presence.  The monster strode up to Vargus and Loic, prepared to swing the tree trunk it used for a club, but the dworg used the Forge’s Blaze to ignite the pile of wood and kindling upon which it stood.  The monster took a step back in fear, pain and surprise, and then felt both Wrath of the Moon and Dag’s war axe slicing its gut open, while Garn dealt the killing blow from behind.  As that ogre fell, two more reached the summit of the bluff, putting the desperate heroes on the defensive.

The one that had felled Klot with a javelin now swung at Vargus with its club.  The dworg rolled with the blow and miraculously avoided the worst of it.  Meanwhile, the second one that came up the rear left flank spotted Garn and tried to pluck the gnome from his hiding place.  One of Dag’s bolts had previously incapacitated one of the monster’s hands, and now the adrenaline surge that coursed through Garn’s body gave the gnome the speed and strength to lop off the monster’s other hand with one of his daggers.  It fell to its knees, blood spurting all over the gnome, and Dag rushed forward to lop its head off. Garn, overtaken by the spirit of fear that had previously claimed his mind during the battle with the winged stone-demons when Roald and Gault had tried to escape, hopped onto the headless and handless ogre corpse and continued to stab it relentlessly until its entire corpse was but ribbons of bloody flesh and until the gnome himself was unrecognizable beneath the blood that masked his twisted face.

The last remaining ogre on the bluff traded blows with a frenzied Loic, but tried to flee upon realizing that it was the last of its kind standing.  It leapt from the bluff after slamming the Dorn with a particular brutal swing of its club.  While the blow most certainly would have killed even a strong orc legionnaire, the enraged warrior all but ignored it and gave chase.  Loic sprang at the fleeing brute and sheared its face off as it looked over its shoulder, and just as the 50‘ safety rope that was tied around the warrior’s waist yanked him back like a mad dog in chains.  Both fell to the ground at that moment.  Only one lived.

A few feet ahead, hidden in the woods, Loic heard another giant-kin growling something regarding Vagasha.  He could not see it, though, and this last enemy did not come to challenge the heroes.

Despite the misery, torment and loss they had endured, the party’s morale had seldom been better.  This was possibly the greatest victory they had yet achieved, a victory that half the party doubted they could achieve. They had slaughtered five of the giant-kin and suffered no casualties of their own.  Even Klot would live, thanks to Vargus’s healing powers.  Should the outcome of this battle be viewed as an omen?

The heroes proceeded to decapitate all of their fallen foes, and then chopped up their bodies and hung their remains among the trees in the vicinity of the bluff -- as a warning to Vagasha, her servants, and any others who might threaten them.  Garn claimed one ogre’s bone necklace as a trophy.

The victory emboldened the companions.  Before taking shelter in the cairn for the night, they considered what to do next... and despite Klot’s initial protests, the companions decided to take vengeance upon Vagasha by doing whatever they must to release the ogre queen’s sisters.  If they did not do it for Loic’s kin--some of whom they suspected might still live, despite what Klot had told them--then they would do it for Dag.  The dwarf had sworn to the spirit that inhabited the Tuath’s altar of redemption that he would kill Vagasha the lying bitch...

... and the spirit had warned that woe would befall those who did not keep their oaths...

While the supernatural powers of the giant-kin might have made it impossible to track them back to their lair, it should be possible to follow the track that Klot had made when Vagsha released him for the sport of her servants...   

Spell Energy / Taint +4/-0
Gender: Male
Posts: 679

« Reply #41 on: August 24, 2011, 12:02:06 AM »

Episodes 25 / 26: A Bitter Defeat

Note: for the blog post with photos and illustrations, see http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.com/2011/08/episodes-25-26-bitter-defeat.html

Sleep came with some difficulty after the heroes retreated to the relative safety of the cairn of the Tuath. Their exploits in the diabolical complex deep below the cairn left the companions with the impression that whatever supernatural guardians still lurked down there were bound and incapable of pursuing them to the surface. The small band of giant-kin that had hunted the party had been dealt a crushing defeat--one greater than even the heroes had thought possible. Although at least one giant-kin escaped, the companions doubted that reinforcements would arrive quickly. Regardless, a second wave of giant-kin attackers would have difficulty reaching the heroes within the cramped confines of the cairn.  Moreover, the companions had faith that the warning they had left the giant-kin--the dismembered and decapitated remains of four of the first attackers, hung in trees around the battlefield and cairn--would act as a deterrent against the brutes.

Physical exhaustion and the comforting warmth of the elven hearthstone brought sleep to the heroes, but some found themselves waking occasionally with a start and a scream throughout the night, the  horrors of battle or other torments suffered and the grotesque features of their savage opponents at the forefront of their minds.  The sound of rushing water coming from outside and also from the bottom of the shaft inside the cairn brought some peace to the weary insurgents. 

As the dimness outside the cairn lifted somewhat with the coming of what passed for dawn in the hazy, barren wood, the heroes stumbled out from their shelter to find signs that someone--or something--had been in the area during the night.  Human and perhaps even orc-sized bootprints appeared here and there, but most telling of all, the area had been cleared of most of giant-kin remains that had been hung from the trees. Klot concluded that a pack of Fell must have scavenged from the battlefield during the night... and the heroes were lucky that the undead had not realized that living flesh lay so close, vulnerable and weakened as the party was. 

The wounds sustained by Loic and Vargus had once again healed unnaturally quickly--so much so that one would be justified in doubting that the two had fought giant-kin in melee, much less taken punishing blows from their great clubs.  Prior to resting for the night, the dworg had also channeled some of his spiritual energy to heal the worst of Klot and Dag’s injuries.  As the companions ate their rapidly dwindling rations of cooked bat meat, Garn and Klot voiced their trepidations regarding the determination of the other three to try to liberate Loic’s kin from Vagasha’s hold.  Victory against a half-dozen giant-kin when the party had had time to set an ambush and enhance their terrain advantage was one thing, but tracking the monsters back to their lair, where they had the advantage and the support of a powerful sorceress would be suicidal.  The party also had no idea how many giant-kin they might be up against or whether they had even encountered the strongest of them, and the witch might even be able to track the party’s movements via sorcery.  The dwarves at Pardrum Holdfast had stated that both the forces of Shadow and their own people steered clear of the Barren Forest due to the powerful and uncontrolled evil that lurked therein.  And given Vargus’s diminishing grasp on the arcane inscriptions scribed into the stone tablets retrieved from the Barrow of the Tuath, would he even be able to release Vagasha’s sisters?  The plan was potentially suicidal. 

Yet Loic would not be swayed, and was prepared to die for his kin.  Vagasha’s spells had initially clouded their minds and made them believe she could be trusted to keep his family safe, but her spells had worn off and the subsequent actions of her servants made it evident that all her promises were lies.  Vagasha, Garn had been told in strange dreams, was a lying bitch.  The last four surviving members of Clan Batz were all he had left in the world.  Their liberation was a much more personal and tangible objective, one that might even be achieved during the coming day if all went well, while the completion of Woden’s quest seemed so much more distant.  Dag and Vargus remained staunch in their support of the Dorn, and Garn and Klot chose once and for all to follow and no longer question the course set by their allies. They increasingly also felt that they had no one left in the world but each other. 

The search for Vagasha’s lair took an entire day, from grey dawn to dusk.  Dag and Klot led the tracking efforts, following the spoor left by the battered warrior when he had been released--whether for sport for her brutish servants or for other reasons--by Vagasha.  Not once did they spot tracks left by giant-kin.  Fortune appeared to smile on the heroes, for no other threats manifested during the day.  As a deeper darkness started to creep over the wood, the trackers followed a creek in the bottom of a ravine, which led to a large cluster of towering limestone pinnacles concealed in the forest.  Garn had seen in dreams when he first sought shelter alone in the Cairn of the Tuath that Vagasha’s lair--and the spider’s grove in which her sisters lay bound--were located in a ravine.

Dag and Klot conducted further reconnaissance, and confirmed the presence of giant-kin inside three caverns at the base of the pinnacles.  Some of the caverns were 5 feet or so above the ravine floor, and a stream tumbled out of the central cave into a small pool, before flowing onwards down the ravine.  This was the creek that the trackers had followed.  How many of the brutes were present in the caves, they could not tell.  The heroes briefly considered climbing the 80 or so foot-tall rock walls, but quickly abandoned the idea due to Vargus’s poor climbing skills and the potentially key role he would play in the release of Vagasha’s sisters.  A direct assault on the giant-kin likely would fail, so stealth was the only option left. Yet even with this strategy, some party members might not fare as well as others.

To the companions’ benefit, the giant-kin were not particularly alert or diligent.  One appeared in the entrance to the leftmost cavern, then appeared again at the entrance of the central cavern long enough to empty his bladder and scratch himself in a very public and repugnant manner.  He then retreated to the darkness within. The insurgents crept to the rightmost entrance and heard another one of the brutes lurking just beyond the entrance, humming in a child-like manner to itself.  They managed to lure this particular ogre out of its cavern, with all five companions desperately hacking, bludgeoning or hurling urutuks at it before it could sound the alarm.  The brute was taken by surprise but bellowed out before falling to the ground dead after taking a half-dozen blows in quick succession from the party. 

The sentry that the heroes had observed urinating moments before then leapt down from the ledge from which tumbled the stream, landing behind Garn, Dag and Vargus.  It roared but swung clumsily, granting the heroes the upper hand--an opportunity they did not squander.  Yet the element of surprise had been lost, and more growls could be heard coming from within the caverns, heading for their location.  Stealth no longer mattered, and the situation took a turn for the worse.

The heroes entered the rightmost of cavern, and positioned themselves in such a manner that only one of the giant-kin could fight them at a time. Dorn, dwarf and gnome stood their ground together against one ogre, which landed some awkward blows against the plainsman.  As this third ogre sustained wound after wound from the insurgents, it and the other one that stood futilely behind it turned and fled deeper into the complex.

Loic, in a berserk rage, gave chase heedless of the darkness and stench, but soon found himself beyond the caves, in an open area lit by the dusky grey sky.  His companions soon caught up with him, and all gazed up at the tower that Garn had seen in dreams--the same tower within which the others presumably had been held when they had been captured by the giant-kin. 

The structure reached a height of perhaps 70’, was sheltered within a hollow in the pinnacle wall, rising out of the ground straight ahead perhaps a 100‘ away from where the heroes stood.  Tree limbs emerged from the smooth stone tower, which had the twisted shape of some demonic or mythical creature, most of its distinguishing features worn away with time, save for its two maws--one where its belly would be, the other opening in its head.  The tower was awe-inspiring, beautiful, and frightening all at the same time, its workmanship of unknown but obviously ancient origin--likely not the work of giant-kin.  Four ogres, including the one the party had just wounded, stood halfway between the heroes and the tower, half of them standing before a grove of scraggly bushes and sickly trees obscured the left side of the courtyard.  One of the brutes stood atop a grassy mound, above another cavern entrance.  They snorted and waved their crude clubs at the heroes, daring them to come closer.  Another pair of giant-kin guarded the entrance to the tower, separated from the other ogres by a wide, circular depression in the ground. The ground where the heroes trod was littered with flagstones, broken statues, bones and other debris.

The feint cries of a baby drew the attention towards the top of the tower, where some ogress stood on a platform within what looked like the upper maw of the tower-creature.  She addressed the heroes from afar in a voice that initially sounded like Aurana’s sultry voice, but at times also sounded more like an old crone’s rasp.  She accused the heroes of breaking the pact.  They now had but one chance to surrender, if Loic wanted his kin--and in particular the baby--to live.  If they refused to surrender, there would be no second chances for any of them--they would all die. 

The enraged Dorn accused the witch of lying.  She had killed his father.  That, she answered, was retribution for those children the party had slain shortly after making the pact... and so promptly breaking it.  It was clear early on, when the companions descended into the Cairn of the Tuath, that they had no intention of fulfilling their quest and were going to turn on her.  Loic responded that her “children” had attempted to brutalize the heroes shortly after the pact had been made, that he and his companions killed her children in self-defence and that henceforth he could only doubt that his kin would indeed be unharmed.  Vagasha excused the behaviour of her servants on the basis of their underdeveloped, child-like minds and inability to control their instincts and urges.  Kristiania and Grettel were brought forth onto the platform, and as could be seen, the women and babe had not been harmed... and would remain unharmed if the party surrendered. 

Loic ignored Vagasha’s weak excuses and refused to swallow any more of her lies.  He knew that he and his friends would be killed if they surrendered, that the women would suffer a horrible fate if he failed to liberate them, and that the witch likely would never give up the baby.  As he and his companions readied for combat, the witch cast a spell.  All around them, writhing black tentacles broke out of the ground and nearby cave walls, wrapping around the wide-eyed, panicking heroes and constricting them. Klot alone managed to evade the tentacles, and sought cover within the central area of the caves from which the party had emerged. The four nearest ogres also took a step back, evidently afraid of the sorcery their queen had channeled.             

The mass of black tentacles was incredibly strong, their hold nearly unbreakable.  They gradually crushed the breath out of their victims.  Vagasha cackled as the baby and the Dornish women cried, as the would-be heroes neared the brink of death. Garn was the first to miraculously slip through the field of tentacles, rolling, diving, leaping and crawling to safety with greater agility and even greater luck.  The gnome sought cover on the right side of the caves. 

The ogre witch’s cackles gave way to disbelief and annoyance as, one by one, Dag, Loic and Vargus struggled free from the tentacles.  Vagasha snarled orders at her servants, who stepped forward and hurled long javelins at the now free, but winded Dorn, some of which struck and further wounded him.  He now struggled to stand--the next hit could probably be the killing blow.  The witch then cooed at the baby that lay nearby, in the tower.  Between shots aimed at ogres, Dag fired a crossbow bolt at the witch and actually managed to graze her at long distance.

Vargus attempted to distract and delay some of the ogres by channeling a spell of his own--spider’s snare.  One of the giant-kin became stuck in the giant web, while another--the one that the party had wounded in the caves--just dodged it.  Yet Vargus’s channeling ability had clearly made them all nervous.  Klot broke from cover and charged the ogre that had avoided Vargus’s spider’s snare and which was now advancing towards Loic, determined to defend the Dorn who had saved his own life and in recent days displayed a level of compassion, understanding, respect, and even loyalty like none the tortured ex-Shadow warrior had ever known.  The ogre howled in pain and rage as the warrior swung a heavy mace into its midsection.  Ogre and Erenlander traded blows.  Klot’s eyes briefly met Loic’s before the ogre caved in the warrior’s head with its knobby club.  As Klot’s body fell lifeless to the ground, Loic, Vargus, Dag and Garn felt despair take hold of them.  The battle was going from bad to worse. 

Vagasha cackled again and warned that one of the women would be next to go to her doom if the companions did not surrender.  The ogre that had felled Klot now charged Loic, but the Dorn managed to strike just as the bloodied behemoth raised its club, and took its life before it could claim his. It fell into the mass of still-writhing black tentacles.   

The companions fell back into the caves, pondering whether they should regroup or flee.  There was no time to mourn Klot’s death.  Loic’s rage gave way to fatigue.  Vargus took the opportunity to channel some of his magic to heal Loic. Garn dipped some crossbow bolts in the vial of poison he had acquired from a fallen bugbear slaver.  As the heroes quickly considered their options, they heard a woman scream, only the scream was suddenly interrupted by a dull thud. It could only have been Kristiania or Grettel.  Vagasha cackled hysterically once more.

Two ogres were coming after them in the tunnels.  They would not get another opportunity to free Loic’s kin, or to release Vagasha’s sisters.  Retreat likely would be futile at this stage--night was falling and the giant-kin could easily hunt them down as they tried to rest and heal.  Dag thought he had seen a thick veil of spider’s webs in the grove behind the ogres.  All agreed that Vargus should make a dash for the grove, and that the others would do what they could to divert the ogres away from him.

As the two giant-kin caught up with the companions near the entrance to the cave complex, Dag also caught a glimpse of something dropping down behind the ogres... and then, they heard Vagasha’s voice, much closer than before.  No... the witch could fly! Unseen, she commanded her servants forward in their harsh tongue, taking their fury to new heights...

The first ogre lumbered towards Loic and Dag, and was greeted by Wrath of the Moon flying into its flank, and then by a swing of the dwarf’s waraxe.  Garn’s aim was true, and his crossbow bolt quickly paralyzed the second ogre.  It slumped against one of the cave walls, struggling to breathe as the bolt-wound turned a sickly hue.  Dwarf and Dorn  eventually slew their foe. 

Vagasha was close--the heroes had heard her but moments ago, yet she was nowhere to be seen.  Dag took a handful of dirt and tossed it into the air, and it fell abruptly, as if it had met some invisible force or object... the witch had become invisible!  Dag, Garn and Vargus quickly tried to surround and strike their unseen target, and one slice definitely drew blood and a curse.  They swung their weapons frantically as they sensed her rising up and beyond their reach, then heard her cackle from the grassy mound above the entrance to the side cave.  Something could be heard stirring from within. Meanwhile, Loic was busy duelling with the ogre that Garn had paralyzed.  The effects of the poison had been short-lived.  It slammed the Dorn with its club, but soon tried to flee as it too was wounded repeatedly... it fell with an urutuk in its back.

This was the opportunity the heroes had waited for.  There were now two giant-kin and Vagasha left to contend with--one of the original frontline brutes, and one of the tower guards which was stepping out of the crater at the base of the tower.  Vargus made for the grove, and found two vaguely ogre-shaped figures lying slumped therein, shrouded in thick webs.  He knelt and pulled the stone tablet out of his pack. 

A note of worry crept into the still invisible witch’s voice as she saw the dworg run for the grove.  “What are you doing? Get away from there! Fool! You don’t know what you mean to release -- it would be the end of us all!!! But you cannot possibly have the power to do it...”

Vargus heard the spirits whispering frantically in this mind.  The whispering grew louder and louder. He tried to recite the incantations that were inscribed in the stone with their aid.  The strange symbols on the tablet would glow, then fade, with no effect.  He was doing something wrong.  But what was it? He had to try again... and again... If he failed, they would be doomed...

Loic, Dag and Garn prepared to defend against the last wave of ogres.  Vagasha reappeared on the platform near the top of her sinister tower, where one of her servants held Grettel.  The baby continued to cry.  The witch recited some arcane words and wove strange patterns in the air, which produced a ball of flame that expanded as it hurtled toward the party... but fizzled out inexplicably as it struck them, doing little more than singing clothes, beards, and nearby vegetation.  Vagasha was as surprised as the heroes were.  Oblivion seemed inevitable, yet the party had cheated death once again... at least for the moment... 

The latest wave of ogres were closing in.  And emerging now from the side cave and from some unseen area beyond the spider’s grove, female giant-kin answered Vagasha’s call and lumbered forward behind the male warriors, clubs in hand.  The companions would not be able to hold much longer. 

Vargus continued his efforts to channel the magic in the tablet, all in vain... The situation was becoming increasingly desperate.  Garn imbibed one of the potions that had enabled both Loic and Vargus to read (but not channel) the power in the tablet, hoping that the potion’s effects, combined with his own linguistic aptitude, might help the dworg understand what he was mispronouncing or doing wrong... but to no avail... The thrumming of the spirits had grown in intensity in his mind, but was now starting to recede...

Loic regained a second wind just as the latest wave of ogres closed on him and Dag... but he was still severely wounded, barely standing.  He had to be strong... for Grettel... for baby Liv... for his friends... The next few moments were a blur... He fought one of the giant-kin as best he could... Over its shoulder, he saw Vagasha push Grettel to her death from the tower platform... The witch then picked up the baby in her arms and smiled as her purple eyes locked with Loic’s... He had failed... His clan was no more... His will faltered... Wrath of the Moon and Fury of the Sun fell from his hands to the ground...

He never felt the crushing blow that ended his own life... that released his spirit from his body, to follow the souls of his father and cousin towards the Veil, and perhaps to a better place beyond... but... was something calling him back?

Garn turned and saw the swelling numbers of female ogre-kin joining the last male warrior on the front line as Loic fell.  How could there be so many? How many more could there be? The companions had failed here, but might still complete Woden’s quest. He dodged the incoming ogresses with extraordinary speed, called for his companions to flee, and raced through the caves and out into the forest...
Tears welled in Vargus’s eyes.  He too had failed.  They had counted on him to free Vagasha’s sisters, yet he had failed them all. The dworg turned around and hurled the stone tablet into the mob of ogres, then ran after Garn... 

As Loic fell, Dag had flown into a rage that rivaled the Dorn’s most impressive display of fury.  All he saw everywhere was red.  So long as he lived, they would not lay a hand on Loic’s body.  He slaughtered the brute that had slain his friend, and whirled around like a crimson tornado, delivering mortal wounds to countless other giant-kin that attempted to surround him.  Then, he glanced over his shoulder for a brief instant and saw Vargus, waving Woden’s mithral axe high with one gesturing for Dag to withdraw with the other... to live to fight another day... to fulfill Woden’s quest, fight for the living and seek vengeance later...

The dwarf had vowed at the altar of redemption to kill Vagasha the lying bitch... And he had failed for now... and Loic and his kin were all dead, save the babe, who was good as dead... maybe Vargus was right... maybe he would find another opportunity to fulfill his vow... if the altar spirit did not exact a price before then...

Then he saw Wrath of the Moon and Fury of the Sun in the mud near Loic’s cold dead hands. For a moment, he thought he could reach the dwarven relics... but he knew that the moment he reached for them, the ogres would finish him... He abandoned the twin blades and the body of his fallen friend and followed the dworg...

Two more heroes had fallen this day, and nothing was gained from the sacrifice...

Yet for those who had survived against all odds, survival could in itself be deemed a victory...

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« Reply #42 on: August 24, 2011, 01:49:13 AM »


Garn, Vargus and Dag ran for their lives through the Barren Forest, worried that the giant-kin may be on their heels. However far they ran, it seemed they could not escape Vagasha’s evil cackle, nor baby Liv’s cries. 

As darkness smothered the wood, a bright silver moonbeam broke through the forest canopy, making it possible for even Garn to see clearly.  The three hopped over or crawled under deadfall and other obstacles, and encountered no threats in the haunted wood.  It was as though some benevolent force guided them onward, safely.  If that were the case, why had this force not manifested sooner, when they needed aid to defeat Vagasha and her giant-kin, to save their friends? Then again, they might merely have been blessed with a bit of good luck...

But luck or benevolent forces aside, sorrow, anger, doubt and shame weighed heavily on the companions’ minds... until hours into their flight, they collapsed from mental and physical exhaustion.

When they awoke some time later, it was to another welcome and unexpected sight.  They had collapsed near what appeared to be the northwestern edge of the forest, and beheld true sunlight as it gradually shone down upon the endless grasslands of central Erenland.  The big empty seemed rather daunting to the two dwarf-kin.  There were no mountains to hold up the sky, which could fall upon their heads at any moment.  They would be exposed as they crossed the rolling plains, and likely easy to track through the tall grass... taller than the gnome, anyway. And would there be anything to hunt or forage out there? They were down to the last of their bat meat. 

This was completely unfamiliar territory to Dag and Vargus, and even Garn had only very limited knowledge of this part of Erenland, since it was well off primary gnome shipping routes.  Most of his life had been spent on the Eren River and in towns and cities, not out on the plains.  All they knew was that the forest of the elves lay far to the west, and that a lady that looked much like Rhiann had appeared to Vargus in a dream some nights past and told him to make for the city of Baden’s sons, where they would find a guide that would lead them to their destination.  Garn knew that the city of Baden’s Bluff was located on the southwest shore of the Sea of Pelluria, a continent away northwest of their current position. And the further west and north one went, the greater the Shadow presence.  Getting to Erethor on their own would be next to impossible... not that reaching Baden’s Bluff would be much easier... but if anyone could get them there, Garn knew it would be his gnomish brethren. 

But for the next weeks if not months, it would be one gnome, one dwarf, and one dworg clad in torn, blood-caked rags, armed to the teeth and trekking through open and human dominated lands where being fey-blooded or consorting with fey was punishable by death. Yet another easy leg on their quest. But at least the sun was shining... for the moment at least...

Their thoughts soon strayed back to their fallen comrades, to the way they had failed them, to their collective burden. Vargus wondered how he could possibly be destined to have a place in a dwarven Hall of Heroes, given his heritage and demoralizing failure when his companions most counted on him to succeed.  Loremaster Dola at Pardrum Holdfast must have made a mistake. Yet it seems she had read Klot correctly when she said: “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.” The former Shadow warrior’s redemption had led him to his grave... but what new beginning would follow his end?

Vargus’s faith in his abilities as a channeler had been greatly shaken as a result of his inability to release Vagasha’s sisters.  In his exhausted sleep, the dworg had also dreamed again the dream that he and Loic had both shared one night not so long ago [details forthcoming].  Yet some parts of it had changed... what could it all mean?

Garn... did he have what it take to continue in the capacity of leader? Would he ever fully embrace the role? Did his companions have faith in him? Loic, Dag and Vargus’s decision to attempt to free Loic’s kin, despite the gnome’s reservation, clearly suggested that his companions would only follow his lead when that accorded with their own whims.  Did he have the bravery, charisma, and decisiveness required of a strong leader? He also pondered the vision he had had in the crystal cave at Pardrum Holdfast, as well as loremaster Dola’s words to him: “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.” Why couldn’t she speak more clearly? Was the promise in question the one he had made to Wendell when he assumed the mantle of leadership? The one he had made at the altar of redemption?

Aside from brooding about Loic’s passing, Dag wondered if, when and how the spirit in the altar of redemption would exact a cost for his failure to kill Vagasha. Of course, he did not specify exactly when he would kill the ogre witch... could that little detail save him from an unpleasant fate? He also remembered some of loremaster Dola’s words to him: “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.” If he had sacrificed his own life while battling giant-kin, would the outcome have been different? Or would he have to give his life for the greater good at some point in the future?

There was much for the three companions to reflect on as they moved forward into the unknown...

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« Reply #43 on: September 22, 2011, 11:15:30 PM »

Episode 27: Unlikely Acquaintances (Part 1)

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.com/2011/09/episode-27-unlikely-acquaintances-part.html

Garn was grim and silent at camp that night. Although he gave orders regarding watches and chores in a manner that said he expected them to be followed it was also true that he did not check to see that they were.

Perhaps he lacked faith in his ability to lead. Perhaps he lacked faith in the party's ability to follow. Perhaps he simply no longer cared.

 With the loss of Loic, Garn was now the only survivor of that naive band which set out from... Could he even remember the name of the town anymore? Did it matter, since the place had long since perished in flames?

The Elves had been first - proud, haughty and sure in their own strength. Wiped out by Goblins and walking stone behemoths.

 Then Vallin - perishing at the hands of another stone giant.

Next to go was Wendell, the old Gnome's cunning and experience proved no match for the exhausting demands of the underdark.

 And now Klot and Loic - slain by Ogres in a desperate and futile attempt to save Loic's clan.

Elven strength and craft, Vallin's bravery, Wendell's experience, Klot's caution and Loic's fury - none had been enough to guarantee either survival, let alone victory.

Who would be next?

Vargus responded to Garn's orders with the barest grunts, seemingly once again the introvert raised in a hostile home. He completed his chores without hesitation, taking refuge in someone else taking charge of the situation. His new-found confidence--or was it arrogance?--seemed to have shattered.

Dag likewise went about his chores without a word of complaint. In fact, Garn and Vargus noticed that Dag had not said more than two words since they left Vagasha's domain.  Once the chores were complete, he set himself apart from the meager group that remained. The once proud dwarf who stood tall and confident despite having been branded by his people was now slouched and broken.

During his watch, Vargus sought out a suitable stick that he could fashion into a passable quarterstaff. Once he found what he was looking for, he sat near the hearthstone, Woden's axe in front of him, silently questioning his worthiness as successor.


Come the next morn, Garn and Vargus woke to see Dag some distance away, kneeling with his waraxe in both hands.  Although far off, the wind carried a few words in dwarven back to camp -- “never forgive... should have fallen... dishonour... VAGASHA WILL DIE!!!”

After some time, Dag rose to his feet, stomped the butt of his axe on the ground, and then returned to camp. "What now?" he grumbled at Garn, who had started to boil some water on the elven heating stone--the hearth stone and copper pot were two of the all too few items the survivors had somehow managed to retain.  His torn but freshly washed ort-hide clothes were laid out on flat rock in the thin sunshine, and he was busy scraping the top layer of tick red clay and gore that had accumulated on his leather armour.

As Dag spoke, the gnome nodded, as if having received an answer, then he looked up at the Dwarf and gazed evenly at him.

"Clan Batz is dead and gone. We have done all for our friend that we can and whilst we might have... business... still with that overgrown bitch that business is in the future. We are done with these cursed woods. It's time we got on with the job that Woden gave us."

As he finished the sentence, the gnome unconsciously emulated his dwarven allies and banged the pommel of the dagger he'd been using to scrape mud off his boots onto the flat rock under him. 

"So... It's time we got out of here. Time we got back to civilisation - wherever the hell that is. We need food, rest and some sleep. Can you get us out of here and provide us with those in the wilderness?"

This part of Erenland was far beyond the river routes that Garn or any of his gnomish relatives/associates have ever travelled. Hence, he knew nought of the lay of the land or of any useful landmarks the party might search for during their travels. He only knew the general direction of Good Hope, Swift Water, and Baden's Bluff -- probably a few days walk south to reach the former, west and north hundreds of leagues for the latter two. If one traveled far enough west, one would encounter the eastern shore of the Ardune, upon which there were numerous human and gnomish communities, not to mention gnome barge traffic. Garn's hometown, the smuggling haven of Swift Water, was located a little bit northeast upriver from the Ardune, on an embankment along the Eren River. The party might also encounter other tributaries of the Eren well before they reached the Ardune... but knowing whether a given watercourse flowed from (or into) the Eren would be difficult to determine without local knowledge...

The dwarfkin had even less of an idea of where they were.

The thought of how long it might take to reach any of those far away places on foot, through grass that was taller than a gnome, was disheartening to Garn. Equally disheartening was his observation that the rolling plains beyond the Barren Forest seemed hot and dry, with little water or shelter in sight.  

On a brighter note, Garn suspected that the infrequence of gnome river travel in the area also meant a more limited Shadow presence... and what could the orcs and legates possibly want in this vast, empty land? This region seemed far removed from the main battle fronts in the northern Kaladruns and Erethor. Of course, emptiness and a sparse population would not stop foul Shadowspawn from prowling the land, and the dream of the elf maid that Vargus had dreamed but a week or so ago indicated that Shadow agents were actively pursuing the party... but how far behind they were, and where they might be coming from, was anyone's guess.

Vargus looked as though he were still defeated. His physical scars had healed once again with miraculous speed, but a weariness still permeated his actions. He followed the gnome, speaking little, helping where he could. Woden's scroll case seemed to be an impossibly heavy burden, and he set his pack aside when the group stopped, keeping a wary eye on it as though he expected it to grow legs and run off.

After a long period of indecision, the trio eventually decided to start trekking in a northwesterly direction.  Vargus tucked Woden’s axe as best he could in his pack, and walked with his crude staff in hand.  More than a week would pass without incident. Since leaving the eternal mists of the Barren Forest, the party had been blessed with good visibility -- to the extent that they could see through or over the high grass!  Father Sun shone high in the sky, even though often veiled by cloud or haze... which did little to diminish the heat.  While the companions initially welcomed the warmth of the sun after having spent so long in misty woods and in or below the cold mountains, they quickly found the heat to be very uncomfortable. Rivulets of sweat constantly dripped from beards and sagging mohawks, along temples, and into their eyes. Armour and dark-coloured ort hide rags only added to the discomfort, when worn. Fortunately, the party stumbled upon small copses of scraggly trees from time to time where they could find some shade.  

Finding the way through the 3’ to 4’ tall, broad-bladed, yellow-brown grass was challenging. Garn usually could not see where he was going, so the dwarfkin had to break trail for him. When the wind blew, the blades of grass sometimes left painful nicks. Although the grass was not particularly dense, it nevertheless slowed the companions’ progress. And while the grass did provide concealment, the three also wondered what else might be luring therein, just out of sight. The dwarfkin, paradoxically, felt almost claustrophobic as a result of being encircled by so much grass, while also fearing the unsupported, wide-open sky. The mountains to the east, beyond the Barren Forest, were now but tiny jagged lines on the horizon... the dwarfkin had never seen them from such a distant vantage point... very few dwarves had... and this might have been the last time that Dag and Vargus would look upon their native ranges...

Where was Bolart gathering his forces? How many Kurgun clans had he rallied to his banner? How long would they hold out against the Shadow -- and could they turn the tide of the war? They might never know... might never see a dwarf again...

The trio passed by long abandoned woodsman or herders’ huts, with nothing remaining but ruined foundations, caved in timbers, and the odd human skeleton. Occasionally, they spotted raptors gliding high above on thermal drafts... and at other times, they noticed larger figures with longer tails and talons soaring in the sky in small flocks. They feared they might once again become prey of the stone-skinned winged demons that had attacked them as they first left the mountains, and in these instances were grateful for the concealment provided by the accursedly high grass.

Although hunting and foraging in this unfamiliar environment presented a new challenge to Dag, the Kurgun wildlander had remarkable success. Vargus’s mysterious ability to make animals cower in fear only made the hunting easier.  Despite the initially barren appearance of the grasslands, the three soon found themselves gathering more food than they could eat everyday.  They dined on rabbits, dear, and strange rodents that they cooked up in stews over the hearthstone, and also ate sour apples, roots, nuts and wildberries.  Everyday, they found small creeks or ponds from which to fill their waterskins, and only once did one of them--Dag--suffer a brief period of intestinal discomfort. Despite the discomforts related to the heat and Dag’s one health-related incident, the companions gradually adapted to the great wide open and soon began to wonder whether the great plains might not be the closest thing to paradise in Eredane, given the accessibility of game and fresh food. And so far, good fortune had been on their side like never before--they had yet to encounter any immediate threats. Garn had suggested that settlements might be few and far between... but they could not have guessed just how few and far between!    

Night time was cooler and more comfortable... but the unfamiliar sounds made by the creatures of the plains were far from reassuring. It was hard to know which were natural, and which were not. The companions sometimes worried that giant-kin or Fell might be hunting them. Mother Moon was often veiled. No matter how far they travelled, they could not drive the heavy, silent burdens they carried from their minds. Vargus’s sleep was increasingly restless--the dworg was haunted by confused, disturbing dreams.

 The three had practically lost track of how long they had been walking, though their achy bones, muscles and feet (and sunburnt faces) confirmed that it had been quite some time, when one morning they came across a broad yet shallow river.  They debated whether to follow it, but decided not to when they judged that it was flowing in a northeasterly direction. They forded the river and kept on hiking north and west, thinking that starting the following day, they might opt to journey by night in order to avoid the worst of the heat.

Yet come mid-day, over the top of the grass, the group caught sight of what looked like a wake of vultures circling in the sky about a mile or so from where they stood... an ill omen, to be sure...

The companions chose to investigate, with Garn scouting up the middle, while Dag and Vargus took the flanks.  While the dwarfkin moved clumsily and somewhat noisily through the grass, out of sight but perhaps sixty feet or so to either side of the gnome, Garn stumbled upon a broad swath that had been flattened down, likely by a large group of travelers. The tracks seemed to head in a direction nearly perpendicular to that which the companions had been walking in--south into verdant vale between two low hills.  The vultures circled above the vale. Garn crept along the edge of the flattened grass towards the vale, when he spied dozens of bodies scattered on the ground. He turned back and reported his discovery to the other two... and all three returned to explore together...

The illusion of paradise was instantly shattered. Dag confirmed that the hobnailed boots of an orc patrol had left the trail.  Bodies of what looked like little more than beardless gnomes or human children with circular, yet slightly pointed ears, clad in animal hides, lay scattered everywhere.  The dworg wondered whether the dead bodies consisted of “elf children” -- for did elves not have pointy ears?      

Many of the corpses had some or all of their limbs hacked off... and some had their internal organs pulled out.  Yet few of the missing body parts were to be found on the bloodstained ground.  Others lay face down in a small pond. The vultures squawked as they carried on with their grisly feast, pecking out an eyeball here and a beakful of rotting flesh there... watching the intruders closely and hopping away reluctantly only when the latter came too close. Clouds of flies swarmed over the corpses, and the stench of death was overpowering.  The companions also found a few orcs and some thick-bodied hounds amongst the score of dead plains fey.  While there was little risk that they would pose much of a threat if they rose as Fell, given how most had lost limbs, the trio methodically checked for survivors and decapitated the slain--plains fey, orcs, and hounds alike. Dag estimated that the raid had taken place perhaps three days prior.  

The trio advanced gradually through the debris of the ruined encampment, finding four torn and partially collapsed hide tents. Little of the debris was salvageable--a few flint-tipped javelin or spear tips and arrow heads; some tent awnings, hide blankets and leather clothes, all torn and bloodstained; small broken bows; punctured and likewise bloodied orcish combat fatigues and hobnailed boots.  The plains fey had apparently been barefoot.  Dag and Vargus tried on some orcish boots; Vargus actually found a pair that fit reasonably well, if he stuffed them with cloth. Aside from that, the raiders had looted the camp thoroughly.

Just as it seemed unlikely that they would find any survivors among the dead, Dag found one hound breathing shallowly, a broad gash across its flank. The dwarf wondered at first if it might have returned from death, for he remembered the tale Vargus had told him once about an encounter with a dwarf in Durgis Rock who had perished, and, unbeknownst to the other survivors, had risen from the dead and initially behaved as his old self... until he suddenly tried to feed on the flesh of his living child.  Would this hound reserve a similar surprise for him? Yet as the dwarf cautiously felt for the creature’s pulse he did find that there remained life in its body.  He wondered whether it might be best to put it out of its misery, but Garn and Vargus talked him out of it.  The dworg instead used his mystical gift to heal some of its wounds and to bring it back to a wakeful state.  At the gnome’s suggestion, Dag then attempted to feed it some of the rabbit meat they still had from a few days earlier.  The shaggy brown dog growled feebly, snatched some of the proffered meat, then limped away.

Beyond the ruined tents, Vargus found a naked male orc tightly trussed to a bundle of wooden tent poles driven deep into the ground, a vulture perched atop the poles; its arms were behind its back.  The orc’s head hung down, its face buried in its chest as flies buzzed around.  Its head was shaved, save for a long topknot, and it had some strange black symbol etched into its grey skin.  Its torso was covered in bruises and dozens of deep knife cuts.  Was it alive or dead? At first glance, they could not be sure... but why had an orc been tied and left in such a manner, on a field of battle where orcs had clearly been the victors?
« Last Edit: September 22, 2011, 11:19:28 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #44 on: October 16, 2011, 07:13:42 PM »

Episode 27: Unlikely Acquaintances (part 2)

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.com/2011/10/episode-27-unlikely-acquaintances-part.html

Garn, Vargus and Dag cautiously approached the bound, naked orc, stopping five feet short from where it was bound.  The dwarf’s first instinct was to kill it, if it was not already dead.  The dworg had strong reservations about doing so.  If he had fought valiantly alongside dwarves and risked his life to aid those who resisted the Shadow, despite his orcish heritage, then might it not be possible that this odrendor had also fought against its own kind? Why else would the raiders have left him here?

They prodded the odrendor, who raised his head with a start, squinting in the bright sun.   Its face was swollen and bruised, its lips cracked and dry.  It looked around with wild eyes, struggling in vain to be free as its eyes fell on dwarf and dworg, while mumbling something incomprehensible in Orcish.  When they began to began to interrogate him in the Trader’s Tongue, he responded in kind.  The trio asked him his name, and what had happened to him.  “Sardric,” he answered in a deep, gravelly voice. He begged Garn to free him, for he had to save the “little ones”--some of the tribesfolk apparently still lived and had been taken captive by the raiders.

Still suspicious, the companions continued to interrogate Sardric. Why was he so concerned for the small folk? What had happened here? “Not all orcs are as they seem,” he growled. “You would not understand...” This he repeated a few times as the interrogation went on, but he said little else.  Hate burned in his eyes.

The odrendor’s evasive answers only irritated Dag further, who wondered whether it would not be safer for the party if they simply ended his life now. When pressed further, Sardric eventually stated that his fist had been ordered by the Hunter to keep an eye out for a group of insurgents last seen in the company of elven spies near Kurgun Falls, thought to be heading west and possibly trekking across the eastern hills. As the patrolled the area, the fist came upon a nomad camp and descended upon them for slaves and fresh meat.  Sardric claimed he refused to attack the halflings.  When one of the troopers began to torture one of the small folk, Sardric cut him down.  The other troopers then fell on him, then beat and tortured him.  They left him here to die a slow, agonizing death in the sun, to be devoured by any Fell that might arise among the battle dead.

Who was this “Hunter,” asked Vargus, and what did he look like? “A legate,” answered Sardric, one he had never seen before.  A Sarcosan man with a twisted iron crown, whose face was strangely hazy, making it difficult to distinguish his features.  Fear crept into Vargus’s heart--the description of the Hunter matched that of the unknown man he had seen in recurring dreams since leaving Pardrum Holdfast.

Dag asked Sardric what weapon he had wielded during the battle, and the odrendor confirmed that he had used a vardatch, like all the raiders.  The dwarf took a moment to take a closer look at the slain orcs.  Three had perished from puncture wounds left by arrows and spears... but one orc had clearly been cleaved by a large slashing weapon.  The odrendor clearly was dehydrated, weaponless, wounded and very weak, and hence posed little threat to the companions, who at last decided to free him from his bonds. He fell to the ground, revealing forearms covered in dozens of small scars.

Vargus offered Sardric some food and water, which the orc accepted hesitantly.  When asked again why he sought to defend the small folk, and why he was so determined to save those that had been taken captive, he remained adamant that his liberators would not believe him, would not understand.  When the trio persisted with their interrogation, Sardric relented at last, and offered the following explanation:

“Orcs believe once they have eradicated all the fey, and then the humans, they will inherit the world and rule as Izrador’s chosen and then rise into the heavens with Him.  We all hear the sending... Izrador’s voice in our dreams... He whispers to us every night of pain, of loss, and of the consequences that follow failure or being captured by fey hands... Never have we known a night free from the terror of the Dark God... But this fills us with hate for the fey. All orcs fight for for the Dark God, for the promise He has made us... Yet some us have seen through the lies... What world will we have left to inherit? What is to stop the Dark God from sacrificing us for His unknown purposes, once the fey and the humans are gone? The Followers of the White Mother are few and scattered... but we know the truth... we are slaves to the Dark God, and not his Chosen Ones... and when I saw the others torturing the halflings, I could stand it no more... They are harmless and innocent, they should be left in peace... I broke my chains, turned on my own kind, and paid the price... I know you do not believe me...”  

As the companions wondered what to do next, a volley of arrows fell upon the party from behind, one of them sticking in Vargus’s studded leather, and one striking Sardric, the others striking the ground nearby.  “You are surrounded,” called a gruff voice in the Trader’s Tongue. “That shot on the “orc” was a warning shot -- drop your weapons or die!”

Garn and the dwarfkin spied three figures crouching under tree cover on the hilltop. Sardric rolled for cover behind a tree, while the other three took a few steps toward the hill. “That’s no orc,” called Garn, pointing at Vargus. “Are you blind? He’s a dworg!”

“He’s a what? Looks like an orc to me. If it looks like an orc, it must be an orc,” replied the man before he called on his archers to loose another volley of arrows. Another four projectiles flew from the hilltop and hillside, and Dag noticed a few more figures concealed among the scraggly bushes.  He was sure, however, that they were not surrounded, as the man had suggested they were. Vargus was struck again by a pair of arrows, but his armour fortunately absorbed the worst of the hits. “A gnome and a dwarf travelling in the company of orcs... you have some explaining to do! Now surrender or you’ll die with the orcs!” yelled the man.

Vargus tossed Woden’s axe a few feet behind him, then stumbled a few steps forward and slumped by a lone tree.  Dag charged the hill with waraxe in hand, but halted partway as Garn also dropped his weapons and called on the dwarf to do the same.

The leader ordered Garn to walk slowly towards the foot of the hill, and the gnome complied.  The man was clad in heavy hides, and stood confidently with a heavy bastard sword in hand.  Beside him stood a hooded figure in a dun-coloured cloak with a longbow.  When Garn reached the foot of the hill, the man in the hides seemed surprised.  “Gnome, you look familiar to me. Where have I seen you before?”

As the man pulled back the grey hides that veiled his features, Garn was started to find that he did recognize the aging, bald Dorn from somewhere. He had met him several arcs ago, in Koln... on that fateful day when he had first met Loic Batz and Vallin Onyxarm in the sheriff Azahn Dowl’s quarters, and this whole ordeal had begun. He had come with Loic to Koln, goat in tow.  It was Loic’s grandfather!  

As Garn explained where they had met before, the old man’s associates seemed taken aback, unsure what to do.  The archer kept his bow aimed trained on Vargus, while another archer--this one with a helm that had long horns protruding from the jawline--kept his sights on Dag.  A halfling emerged from somewhere off to the side, clad in deer leather, and wailed as he ran towards the fields of slaughter.  Another man, this one brown-skinned with white spiral patterns etched into his skin, running from his neck, up his cheeks over the bridge of his nose and around his eyes, also broke from cover, keeping a watchful eye over the three companions. Gaudy red, yellow and blue silk trousers showed beneath a drab, earth-toned woolen cloak, and a white headscarf was wrapped around his head.  With both hands he gripped a long and wide exotic curving blade the likes of which none of the heroes had ever seen before.  He grinned at them, revealing a mouthful of incredibly perfect white teeth.

The old Dorn, Jorg, took a moment to process what Garn had just told him before acknowledging that the gnome had indeed spoken the truth.  But where were Loic and Wendel? His grandson was supposed to have aided the old smuggler with an important errand.  And why were the gnome and dwarf in the company of orcs?

Garn broke the news of the passing of both Loic and Wendel.  Jorg turned a deep crimson following the news, veins bulging from his neck and forehead. The old man screamed in agony. His own companions, who stood a few paces back, were clearly shocked by his sudden eruption. The scream seemed to go on forever and filled the great emptiness of the grasslands.  Vultures scattered... and then, the enraged veteran suddenly seemed frail, hanging his head low and fighting to hold back tears...

He asked that Garn tell him how Loic and Wendel had died.  The gnome gave an abridged account of what had happened to the party since he had met Jorg in Koln, omitting important details, such as the group’s destination and the specifics of their mission. He did, however, inform Jorg that the party had at one point rescued some of the old Dorn’s other kinsfolk, but that all save baby Liv had died during the same battle that had claimed Loic’s life.  Vagasha the ogre witch had claimed the lives of Loic, their companion Klot, Jorg’s son-in-law Kunibert, Loic’s cousin Grettel, and his sister-in-law, Kristiania.  Too many lives had been sacrificed with nothing gained, so the trio decided that they had no option but to flee the Barren Forest, abandoning baby Liv to Vagasha for the time being. The ogre witch’s dark magic made her too powerful, and nearly impossible to defeat.

Jorg turned a whiter shade of pale and started trembling violently. He seemed to age ten years in that instant.  “I had no idea that my son and other kinsfolk had survived the razing of our homestead... I did nothing to find them...” He dropped to his knees and rested his head against the crossguard of his bastard sword, tip firmly planted in the ground. The hot sun washed over him, but left the man cold... Tears of rage and importance began to stream down his face...

He then spoke the following, coughing frequently as he did so:

“It is as my son-in-law, Kunibert, feared all along. I have brought ruin to my clan... Clan Batz is no more. Those I loved best... have all been taken... Loic was the last reason I had to live.  He was more a son to me than Kunibert and my sons ever were... Loic could not have been more like me, or more unlike his father, who was more cautious in all things.

“Loic was fearless, like me... and filled with anger, like me... Yet he was also possessed of an unearthly fortitude... as if forged in iron. You know of what I speak, don’t you? I could feel he had a greater destiny ahead of him.  

“He did not know the extent to which I had been, and still was, active against the Shadow. I had not yet told him...

“When I got word from Wendel some arcs ago that he would need help for a very long, dangerous journey, the specifics of which he did not disclose to me... I knew that this would be the perfect opportunity to nudge Loic into the world beyond our farm, the perfect opportunity to learn to focus his inner rage. He would learn the ways of the world from Wendel, as I had when I was younger. And though I remained in that old smuggler’s debt, age had finally caught up with me, and I feared I would not have the strength to complete a journey on the scale of the one Wendel suggested. But there were things I could still do here...”

Jorg rose to his feet again.  “I don’t want to know where you are going, or what you are doing...” Looking at Dag, he said “you’re either the bravest or the most foolish dwarf I have ever come across. None that I know have crossed the breadth of the eastern hills, and most would have turned back with whatever they came for long before they had reached this point...” The Dorn sought news about the war in the Kaladruns, but Dag had little to offer other than his home of Durgis Cove had fallen.

Then, Jorg’s attention shifted to Vargus.  “What I don’t understand,” he asked Garn and Dag, “is... how did this filthy orc come to join you? How came you to let him live, much less travel with you? My grandson would have killed him on sight...”

Garn immediately came to the dworg’s defense, reaffirming that Vargus was no more an orc than the he or the humans were, and that Loic had judged the dworg on his deeds, not on his appearance.  As a matter of fact, Loic and Vargus had become very close during the journey, and the former turned to the dworg for help when baby Liv was sick.  

Vargus then told Jorg that he was sorely mistaken if he believed that the dworg had had any choice in determining his heritage, or that his mother had somehow wished to be violated by an orc. Surely, many Dornish women had also been taken against their will by orcs? An uncomfortable silence fell. Jorg clearly was unable to find anything that might rebut the words of dworg and gnome.  

“What of this one?” asked the old Dorn eventually, nodding towards Sardric. “Is he also a friend of yours?” Garn explained how the party had come upon the orc, and that the evidence available on the battlefield supported the odrendor’s account of what had happened. He had expressed a desire to seek vengeance against his unit and to liberate the surviving captives, and the gnome, dwarf and dworg had grudgingly agreed to give him an opportunity to prove himself.  However unlikely it might have seemed, Sardric presented the unexpected hope that even among full-blooded orcs there might be some who  would turn against the Shadow.  

“Mother of Blood,” murmured the slender, hooded archer with the longbow to Jorg, referring to Sardric. “I’ve never seen one this far south. There are also Burnt Skull among the dead... more common in these parts.”

Jorg’s expression made it clear that he remained dubious that any orc would rebel against the Shadow or could deserve anything other than death, but for the moment he resisted the evident temptation to kill Sardric. He mumbled that he could not believe that he was allowing two with orc blood to live on this day.

At that instant, the distraught halfling called out in a lilting voice, in Trader... overjoyed that one of the big dogs was alive. Small consolation, given the scale of the carnage and destruction... but a life saved was worthy of celebration. Garn, Vargus, Dag and Sardric no longer considered a threat, the archer and the smiling Sarcosan warrior walked away from the group to join the halfling.

“Is this your first time seeing a Dunni?” asked Jorg of the party members. “They are the children of the plains... though very much fully grown, despite their small size... Many years ago, Wendel helped us free Spek and other Dunni who were destined to end their days in orcish cook pots.” He spat on the ground.

“The orcs and legates sometimes spare a rare few to act as personal servants or playthings, and some are kept to dig in the tightest corners of the mines. Trust me... the sound of Dunni being cooked alive might kill you.  Out here on the great plains, they are constantly on the move, hiding among the sword grasses in hidden vales... They have a strong spiritual connection to the land... But their numbers dwindle quickly, their tribes now few. They not only have to evade the orcs and slavers that roam the plains, but the hyena men that first appeared in the grasslands when I was a somewhat younger man. The hyena men tear them apart in their jaws, as a wild dog might. Spek has no one now but us... you can imagine what the sight of this carnage does to him... And the orcs leave the dead to rise as Fell... walking dead only encourage villagers to stay within their settlements...”
The archer returned.  He had pulled his hood back, revealing a weathered face and bushy salt and pepper beard and brows. Incredibly, he looked as though he had seen as many winters as Jorg, if not more. His skin tone and features suggested a blend of Dorn and Sarcosan. “A blind man could follow the path left by the orcs,” said the archer softly to Jorg. “They continued south from here, probably heading towards the Dark Mother camp at the head of the Annyn River, and they’ve probably got a few days head start on us. But they’re likely going at a slow pace... we’ve seen signs suggesting that they have taken many captives, as well as several boros with travois. You know what Spek wants to do...”

The old Dorn first looked back for a longtime towards the west, in the general direction of the distant mountains and the no longer visible forest where his grandson and other kin had lost their lives.  “There’ll be time enough for grieving and vengeance later,” murmured the archer, putting a hand on the Dorn’s shoulder.  “The living need our help now... but there may be more orcs than we can take on...”

Eventually, Jorg nodded.  “We follow the orcs,” he informed Garn and the others. “And what of you? You are welcome to join us... If you are looking for a faster way to cross the grasslands, we can show you a track a few hours south of here that follows a shallow creek. Depending on how quickly you walk, the track can lead you to the gnome settlement of Durstan, at the fork with the Carina River, within a fortnight. Be warned, though. Durstan is occupied at all times by a hobgoblin garrison, and orcs frequently have camps in the area. The gnomes are not easy to contact or deal with. Take care if following the Carina river--though there are other settlements scattered along its banks, none are likely to welcome your kind; most will turn you in... and there are checkpoints, too.  The only traffic you’ll see on the river are ferries bringing supplies to Durstan to support the assault on the Pass of the Eagles. Inland, there are hyena men, shadowspawn, Fell, brigands and freeriders... there’s no telling what even the free riders will do if you cross their paths... at best, leave you alone; at worst, kill you. Some are sworn enemies of the Shadow... others serve only themselves, and might consider betraying you to the Shadow for profit. If you help us dispatch these orcs we track, we might be able to provide some assistance with your travels...”

Vargus had sworn at the Altar of Redemption that he would assist anyone he came across in need of help, and so readily consented to try to liberate the captive dunni, even if this once again made them stray temporarily from their main objective.  And by helping Loic's grandfather, he would be honouring the memory of the friend he had failed. The companions all agreed that the promise of assistance to safely navigate the grasslands in exchange for their support with efforts to rescue the captive dunni was a fair deal.

Dag, Vargus and Garn retrieved their weapons.  The dworg yanked out the arrows that stuck out of his leather armour, returning them to the grizzled archer. “You know those were warning shots,” he said. “Had we really wanted you dead, you would be. What better warning than to hit the target without killing it?”

Sardric salvaged what rags he could from the dead orcs on the battlefield.  He remained unarmoured and empty handed, as all intact weapons and useful pieces of armour had been taken by the raiders.  The orc’s liberators did not trust him enough yet to put a weapon in his hands.  As the new allies set off, Dag fell back and warned Sardric that he had his eyes on him, and that he would not hesitate to kill him if he did anything threatening or suspicious. The orc grunted his acknowledgement, hatred burning in his black eyes...
« Last Edit: October 16, 2011, 11:56:51 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #45 on: October 25, 2011, 01:38:59 AM »

Episode 28: Retribution and Liberation

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.com/2011/10/episode-28-retribution-and-liberation.html

The new allies immediately set forth after the orc patrol and their captives, and had no difficulty tracking their quarry.  They left a broad swath of flattened grass with their advance, made even greater due to the dozens of captives and boro travois that now accompanied them.  Allid--the skinny, grizzled Erenlander--estimated that even though slowed by the halfling prisoners, the orcs could still reach the Dark Mother encampment within ten days, and they had a three day head start on the insurgents.  Sardric confirmed that the Dark Mother encampment would be the fist’s destination, and that it would currently number two dozen orcs, including scouts and officers.  And when asked how many orcs they might find at the Dark Mother base, the battered odrendor suggested there would be hundreds. Garn turned pale at the thought of encountering an encampment of that size, and all agreed that they would need to hustle in order to intercept the fist before it reached its destination.

The group initially was determined to force march as long as it could everyday to make up lost time, but had little success doing so.  While Garn was incredulous that Jorg and Allid had both lived to see more than sixty winters, age was catching up with the men.  Jorg was frequently seized by coughing fits, and Allid likewise often needed to stop to rest weary bones and muscles.  Vargus and Sardric struggled under the bright sun and cursed the often cloudless sky, and even Dag and the boro-helmed Weylan at times succumbed to the intense heat and ensuing fatigue.  The dry air of the arid, dusty grasslands also took its toll on the party.  There was not one day where the whole party had the stamina to hike much more than a normal day’s overland hiking.  Fortunately, the combined wilderness skills of the party members ensured that fresh water, game, and edible plants were accessible every day.

Vargus shared with Sardric whatever food he could harvest. The orc remained silent unless spoken to, and would say only the bare minimum when questioned. That first evening, Sardric used a sharp, pointy rock to carve yet another scar into his heavily scarred arms--this one for the orc he had killed during the raid on the halfling camp, he said. The dworg noticed that there was a certain pattern to the scars on Sardric’s arms, and that they were carved into three different shapes.  He had perhaps two dozen scars on his arms, about a quarter of them in the shape that he had most recently carved--something that resembled a cross. The other patterns, which were more numerous, consisted of jagged wavy lines and of a dwarven rune that the dworg recognized as literally meaning “dwarf.” One would notice this only if looking closely at the arm scars.  The latter two patterns accounted for the majority of the scars. Self-inflicted cuts notwithstanding, the orc’s previous injuries were healing well.   

Little socializing took place between the two parties. Jorg and his men kept weary eyes on Vargus and Sardric, and even among themselves said very little. The old Dorn was always in a foul mood and  mostly grumbled about the heat and his failing health and strength.  Garn tried to learn more about the dunni from Spek; he had never met a dunni before, and was very curious about their people, who looked a bit alien to the gnome.  The 3’ tall, wiry halfling had reddish-brown skin, and his nose was broad and flat.  He had striking green eyes and coarse, waist-long hair worn in small, intricate braids adorned with colourful beads shaped in the pattern of an owl. The halfling was missing his ring finger and baby finger on his left hand.  He wore remarkably durable leather clothes made from deer hide and an intricately woven wool cloak, made to look like strands of sword grass.  Spek carried a short spear decorated with eagle feathers at its tip.  A leather thong with various finger rings, ear loops, teeth and bleached orc finger bones hung from his neck. Though Spek clearly was able to converse in the Traders’ Tongue, the dunni was not particularly forthcoming with his responses. He answered with short, vague sentences. Garn learned that far west, there were other halfling people who were farmers rather than nomads.  Contrary to what Vargus had thought when first seeing the dunni, the people of the plains were not elf children, though it was said that far in the west there existed luiniel--the little offspring of dunni and elves.  They did not form communities of their own. That was the most he would get from the mercurial halfling, who did not ask Garn anything in return, but devoted most of his attention to his new canine companion, which he called a “wogren.”  The beast and Spek were quickly developing a strong bond.

The inquisitive gnome also sought to learn more about the enigmatic Weylan.  Boro horn helm notwithstanding, the slender and enigmatic young man strode with long and graceful strides.  He wore cured animal hides decorated with various animal fetishes, mostly bones and feathers.  Long black hair extended well below the bottom of his fearsome metal helm, and he carried at his waist a large curved blade like that carried by the Sarcosan warrior, Kasseem.  Weylan’s complexion was bronzed, though his skin was only half as dark as his Sarcosan companion’s. Yet the man’s outlandish attire notwithstanding, it was his other distinctive facial features that had piqued Garn’s curiosity, especially since they tended to be invisible most of the time within the shadows of his helmet. Weylan had green, almond-shaped eyes, a broad, flat nose, high and rounded cheekbones, and a large jaw with canines that were much longer than even Vargus’s but only visible when he spoke.

Spek’s new wogren companion, however, growled as much at Weylan as it did at Sardric and Vargus, and the halfling struggled to stop it from attacking them.  They all quickly learned to keep their distance from the beast.  Weylan did not seem to have any orc blood in him, so what could possibly explain his unusual features and the wogren’s hostility towards him? Garn sought answers from Weylan himself, but the man ignored him.  The gnome then directed his questions regarding Weylan’s heritage to Jorg.  The old Dorn told Garn to mind his own business, and that Weylan was under no obligation to tell him anything.  Garn begged to differ, declaring that he had a right to know more about those he was associating with, especially since he and his companions had shared a great deal about themselves with Jorg and his company.  If they were to trust one another, then he and his companions should be entitled to some answers, asserted the gnome.  The old Dorn only rebuffed him again.  Whether any but Weyland himself truly knew the answers to Garn’s questions remained unclear.     

Kasseem was by far the most gregarious of Jorg’s band.  And while he was only too happy to speak with the newcomers and to philosophize about the Riding Host that dwelt in the night sky, he too essentially deflected Garn’s questions about Weylan’s heritage... always with a warm, beaming smile. “Look to the Riding Host, and they will answer your questions when the time is right,” he would respond good-naturedly in heavily accented Trader’s...

Garn and the others occasionally caught glimpses of a wild cat stalking the party in the tall grass, which also elicited growls from the wogren.  Weylan apparently had an affinity for the beast, and would often go to it during the evening or after nightfall, while Spek did all he could to calm the wogren. Vargus resisted the temptation to invoke his spirit-granted powers and make a meal of the cat.

As one day gave way to the next and they drew increasingly close to the southern spur of the Kaladruns, the party began to worry that they might not intercept the orcs in time.  They had initially anticipated catching up with them within five days, but seven had passed without sightings.  Yet every day, they found flattened patches of grass where the orcs and their prisoners had camped, as well as the remains of dunni who had been the previous night’s meal.  More than a dozen must have died on the journey thus far. 

At last, by the afternoon of the eighth day, they sighted the orc fist and halfling captives camping by a small rise and pond in the middle of the rolling grasslands, at a distance of three hundred yards; the allied forces then crept to a rocky outcrop perhaps a hundred feet or so from the camp, which gave them a better vantage point over the area.  Approximately three dozen captives were huddled close together in the middle of the camp.  Some tents had been erected, but only one orc sentry standing atop a boulder could be seen at that distance. A low, sparsely treed hill rose up a short distance beyond the captives.

Even though Jorg stated that his group had always focused their efforts on smaller units that were easier to pick off, the companions were confident that with their combined forces, they should be able handle the two dozen orcs in the camp.  After all, they had fared reasonably well against large numbers in the tunnels near Pardrum Holdfast, and now had even more experience on their side.  Sardric warned them not to underestimate the fist--these were not disorganized new recruits, but seasoned light infantry led by two respected officers--Llerg Manyscars and Fhrag the Relentless.

Garn went off on his own to scout around the eastern side of the camp, while Allid and Spek took the west side, all of them taking advantage of the concealment provided by the tall sword grass.  The gnome came close to some of the tents, and heard heavy snoring coming from within.  He also counted at least a half dozen boros grazing near the tents, and noted that several travois on the ground, most still loaded with plunder.  On the opposite side, Allid had an uncomfortably close encounter with a sentry that had been just beyond the archer’s sight, hidden by the angle of a grassy slope.  At one point, the sentry was standing right above the Erenlander, yet never noticed the man that lay in the high grass at the foot of the slope, just a few feet below him.

While the scouts were out investigating the lay of the land, the allies who kept hidden behind the rocky outcrop noticed another, previously unnoticed orc emerging from the tall grass at a point that lay between them and Garn.  The newcomer, clad in scale mail, strode in front of the boulder-top sentry and across a section of grass that had been trampled by the fist and its captives, then into the high grass beyond.  He was walking in the general direction of the party.

As Spek tried to catch up with Allid, the orc that had failed to notice the Erenlander now grumbled something in its own tongue, and an arrow pierced the grass and landed inches from the halfling’s head.  Spek turned around and fled back as quickly as he could while trying to remain out of sight.  The orc shouted and jumped down to the spot where he had fired his arrow.  Allid froze where he was, perhaps twenty or thirty feet away, conscious that he was now potentially trapped between two orcs: the one that had fired at Spek, and a second one that he had just noticed standing in the shade of a pannock tree higher on the hill that loomed over the far end of the camp.  Tents were visible up there, as well.

The orc that was making his way through the grass towards the rocky outcrop behind which hid the allied force reached a point that was deemed too close by the latter, and hence was met by a volley of arrows and crossbow bolts.  As he fell, the sentry on the boulder at the entrance of the camp sounded the alarm.  At his end, Garn stumbled upon a fourth sentry that had been slumbering in the shade of a tree and promptly slid his throat before the alarm calls could wake him, and Allid backtracked through the grass and loosed a series of shafts into the back of the orc that hunted Spek. The tents began to shake with activity.

As a still-unarmed Sardric broke from cover to retrieve the vardatch of the first orc the allies had slain, the sentry recognized him and taunted “the worm” they had left to die in Orcish while targeting him with his arrows.  The sentry had time to release two arrows and was himself struck by one missile before a charging Sardric reached him and cut him down, the fires of vengeance burning in his black eyes.  The halfling prisoners grew agitated as chaos erupted in the camp, but a lion-maned orc emerged from a nearby grove of trees and cowed them back into submission.  Allid crept through the tall grass as close as he could to do the ring of prisoners, and tossed a knife to the edge of the ring.  The hilltop sentry spotted him and loosed an arrow in his direction, which he managed to dodge.  The orc that had just cowed the halflings roared and charged the grizzled archer, swinging its vardatch in a sweeping arc that cut deeply into the man’s armour but failed to slice through bone or any vital organs.  Allid nearly buckled from the strength of the blow and the ensuing pain, but managed to step back just far enough to fire two arrows quick as lightning and at point blank range into his foe.

Sardric was the first in the camp, and he did not wait for his former comrades to emerge from their tents--he sliced right through one of the hide shelters and struck one of the troopers within.  The Follower of the White Mother called for the other Mother of Blood to kill their Burnt Skull masters.  Yet within moments, a horde of orcs emerged from the eight tents scattered about the camps, squinting painfully in the bright sunlight and howling and shrieking in terrifying blood lust.  Most had wild manes, save for three that had shaved scalps and top knots like Sardric, but those three did not heed their fellow tribesmen’s call.  None of the orcs that emerged from the tents had had anytime to don their armour, and so they rushed out of the shelters naked and with only their wicked vardatches in hand.     

The wild-maned orcs concentrated on overwhelming their nearest enemy--Sardric, who fought ferociously just a few feet away from the halfling prisoners.  One particularly powerful-looking, silver-maned odrendor stood a full head taller than the others, and mocked Sardric while legionnaires attacked the pariah from all sides. Sardric was in as deep a rage as the former comrades that now sought to overwhelm him.  He dispatched one of them before taking one cruel slash from a vardatch, and then another.  He could barely stand when Llerg Manyscars himself strode towards him, laughing, and split his skull in two.  The captive dunni cowered as Sardric fell, and more orcs came rushing down the hillside. 

Yet fortunately for the allies, Sardric’s self-sacrifice had created a diversion that had granted them the upper hand on the west side of the camp.  Allid slew the archer on the hilltop, and Jorg, Dag, Spek and Kasseem fired more bolts and arrows into the enemy horde before closing for melee.  The orcs that had milled around Sardric now turned their attention to the remaining allies, and their frenzy doubled in intensity when they saw dwarves among their enemies. Waves of orcs now charged the allies. The “dirty business,” as Kasseem had described it with a broad grin, was about to begin.

Kasseem moved fluidly and swung his broad and elegantly curved blade with astonishing grace and speed.  To those who had never seen the Sarcosan warrior fight before, it looked as though he performed a dance of death.  All those who stood against him swiftly found their heads severed from their bodies.

The wogren joined Spek in the melee, and pulled to the ground several orcs with its mighty jaws, who were then finished by nearby allies.

Jorg met the onslaught fearlessly with his bastard sword, but his age and ill health manifested in his inability to slay any of his enemies or to defend effectively against them.  The old Dorn came within a hair of losing his life and was forced to withdraw at one point, and would have perished had it not been for Vargus’s selflessness and Weylan’s deadly accuracy.

Garn avoided the melee until he spotted one lone orc archer on the hilltop.  The gnome dipped a crossbow bolt in the vial of poison he had salvaged from a previous encounter with bugbear slavers. He crept stealthily up the hillside, aimed, and hit his target in the ribs... but the gnome began to panic when he realized that the poisoned bolt did not have the expected effect, and the orc turned and loosed an arrow at him. The gnome dodged, then charged his wounded foe and stuck his dagger deep in its gut.     

Dag stood his own against one orc after another, and became the prime target of the second-in-command Sardric had called Frahg the Relentless.

Vargus felt Woden’s mithral axe thrumming in his hand as it bit into orc flesh.  The dworg felt a sense of redemption as he moved across the battlefield, finishing the work begun by others.  The bright sun bothered him as much as it did the orcs, but this did not stop him from flanking wounded foes and dealing coup de grace to others. Both the dworg and his Kurgun brother sustained vardatch wounds, but remained undaunted.

Weylan and Allid sniped from a short distance away, shooting as fast as lightning and rarely missing a shot.

The frenzied yet vulnerable orcs soon lost their numeric advantage, and as they did, their ferocity began to subside as well.  Soon, there remained but a handful of odrendor. Fortune had smiled upon the allies, enabling them to capitalize on the element of surprise, the orcs’ lack of armour, favourable daylight conditions, Sardric’s unplanned diversion, not to mention their combined skill. 

The battle evidently lost, Llerg Manyscars called out, in the Trader’s Tongue, for the dwarf to meet him in single combat.  He would even grant him the first swing.  The dwarf accepted Llerg’s challenge, and the first swing of the dwarf’s waraxe drew blood.      Frahg--wounded by Dag--reluctantly broke off combat with the Kurgun, and then closed with Vargus instead, gloating about what had been done to the dworg’s mother.  Vargus, Spek and Weylan wasted no words and made him pay for the insults with his miserable life.  The last of the Burnt Skull troopers, who had been watching the prisoners, fled into the grasslands.

Dag continued his duel with Llerg, but the dwarf’s companions cared not whether they violated any notions of “orc honour.”  Victory and survival were all that mattered.  Kasseem and the wogren also closed with the odrendor, and Garn raced down the hill and through the ring of captives, who were busy cutting through their bonds with the knife Allid had tossed them.  The gnome hoped he could sneak behind the orc unnoticed and stab him in the lower back while he was focused on the other combatants... but Vargus buried Woden’s axe in Llerg’s bare chest before the gnome could strike.  Meanwhile, Allid chased the lone fleeing orc and took him down. Not a single orc had escaped or even survived the attack. The “dirty business” was finally over.

Though most of the allies had suffered significant wounds, all save Sardric had survived the battle and most were ecstatic about their victory; only Jorg grumbled and cursed his shameful performance. The halflings cried out with relief as they were liberated.  Yet the celebratory mood of the others turned to fear and dismay when they observed a lone figure in black astride a dark horse on a hilltop several hundred yards southeast of the battlefield.  The figure lingered a moment, as if studying the scene, before turning its mount and disappearing from sight.

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« Reply #46 on: June 09, 2012, 06:41:56 PM »

Interlude - Part 1: Aftermath

As the halflings gradually freed themselves from their bonds, they shared tearful embraces with one another. Some wailed at the sight of discarded bones, flesh, heads, and clothes of what evidently were friends and relatives eaten by the orcs, which littered the orc camp. A few even went over to Sardric's corpse, shaking their heads in sorrow.

Yet the dunni evidently were a pragmatic people, used to the harsh reality of having to constantly flee orc raiding parties who would enslave or eat them. The embraces were quickly done and over with. Many of the halflings had also noticed the black rider on the distant hill to the southeast before he rode away, and understood that they had no time to lose. Men and women alike sifted through the goods left on the travois, reclaiming some of their belongings, while others prepared to untie and load up the boros. Given what they had just gone through, they were remarkably fast and efficient despite their evident fatigue, hunger, dehydration and wounds. The weakest of the captives were placed onto the travois and tended to.

Although many of the halflings eyed the party warily, it seemed that actions spoke louder than words for most of them. Few apparently knew the Trader's Tongue fluently, but this did not prevent them from approaching the companions (as the latter either kept watch on the horizon, decapitated the dead, or searched the camp for salvage), gently clasping their wrists or sleeves, nodding and speaking what the heroes assumed to be words of gratitude. Vargus, Dag, Garn, Spek and the wogren drew a disproportionate amount of attention, the former three primarily due to apparently benign curiosity. The wogren continued to snarl and snap at both Vargus and Weylan... which made some of the halflings a bit more suspicious of the dworg and boro-helmed human. Spek tried to ease their worries concerning the latter.

The liberators could only wonder what happened to the children... so very few remained.

Once the decapitation and the gathering of salvage items was complete, Dag started peeling off--with some difficulty--hobnailed boots from their now headless owners. He was surprised that on the second try, he actually found a pair that fit his dwarven feet... at least the quest for boots would not delay the party's escape from the battle ground!

Weylan had never seen as magnificent or complex a bow as the one he was inspecting (composite bows being extremely rare, and virtually non-existent among free men and resistance fighters). The bow was of an extraordinarily strong wood, painted black, with a flaming demon skull dyed red, white and black carved into the back of the bow (the side facing away from the archer), above the arrow shelf. The top and bottom limbs were not only nearly perpendicular to the main body of the weapon, but nearly parallel to one another; they had been notched with symbols that resembled the scars that the orcs bore on their arms. At the end of each limb was a steel wheel, which formed a pulley-like mechanism with the string. The string also ran through two smaller rods that jutted out from the main body, likely to enhance stability. Despite Weylan's considerable strength, he had difficulty pulling back the string. The orc that had wielded this bow--likely Llerg Manyscars--was strong indeed.

Vargus found a black wool cloak that could cover him. It did not smell pretty, but then again, neither did the dworg. He found a number of helms that would fit him well, including Llerg’s own demon-faced helm; he took the latter, as well as a more plain half-visored helm.  Weylan, Allid, Jorg and Kasseem helped themselves to some arrows and javelins.

"I'm sure that rider on the ridge will be back quickly and with reinforcements,”  muttered Dag as he placed on his fingers a pair of silver rings with Sun and Moon designs taken from slain orcs. The dwarf then glowered at a grisly orc trophy -- a dessicated dwarf child’s hand wrapped around a miniature dwarven hammer.   “Although I would like nothing better than to kill Orcs, to stay would be to throw our lives away. We should move and move quickly."

As the surviving tribespeople prepared to leave the grisly encampment, an old, silver-haired woman no more than three feet tall approached the companions with a pronounced limp, and gestured for them to follow the nomads in a northerly direction. Jorg engaged in conversation with the old halfling woman, using Spek as an interpreter. Then, the Dorn made his way back to Garn and the others.  "The dunni say the quickest way out of here is to follow the trampled grass left by the orcs and captives, in a northerly direction... at least for now. There are so few of the dunni left now, that all of them--wounded, ill, elderly, women and children, and even the few warriors they have left--can ride on the travois without being a burden to the boros. The boros should be able to match our pace, if not to outpace us. I intend to follow them, if only for a few days. We need to make good time now to avoid pursuit, but can strike off in smaller groups as we advance.”

Motioning towards Garn, Vargus and Dag, Weylan replied to Jorg, "If you would still have me join their ranks as their guide, then I agree we travel together and splinter off into several small groups to confuse and thin out any orc pursuit. After this massacre, they will likely come fast and hard; many innocents will suffer for what we have done. You and the surviving dunni will have to warn as many of the free peoples as possible."
"You know that I would like nothing better than to take my grandson's place on this quest, Weylan,” responded Jorg, “but today's battle and the last week's march have only confirmed that strength and stamina are leaving me all too quickly." The old Dorn coughed violently, spitting blood and grimacing in pain, emphasizing the truth of his words.

"I would place no burden upon you that you would not take on of your own free will, Weylan, or that I would not accept were I younger and stronger. But it would honour me greatly if you were to lead these three across the grasslands... I have lost a son and a grandson in the last arc, and you, Kasseem, Allid, and Spek are the closest thing I have now to kin... and you are the youngest and strongest of us. I have watched you become a man, and have seen you grow in skill like no other. Though it pains me to think it, it is possible that my grandson, Loic, departed this world so that you might take his place."

Jorg stared into the distance to the northeast for a moment, shaking his head. He then doubled over as another coughing spasm took hold of him.

"Let's take another look at that vardatch wound," murmured Allid almost inaudibly. The archer stood a few paces behind the Dorn, a small clay pot in hand. "Soon enough," growled Jorg, dismissing him with an angry gesture.

The old Dorn returned his attention to Weylan and the three companions. "I will be forever in your debt for doing this task on my behalf, boy... your life will be placed at even greater risk than before, and you are agreeing to fulfill the terms of the bargain I made with these three strangers. But go only so far as feels right."

Dozens of dunni, including the old silver-haired woman, watched the conversation with interest from the boro convoy a short distance away, though it seemed unlikely that most actually understood what was being said.

"As for the free peoples," added Jorg, "you know as well as I do, Weylan, that the best thing we can do is to stay as far away as possible from the settlements. The worgs will know if we've had contact with peasant folk, and will make them pay if they have. Spek and the other dunni can range ahead and warn the other tribes. And if we come across other free folk, we'll spread the word. But we must lead our pursuit into the wildest, uninhabited, and most inhospitable terrain we can. That won't be hard to do... the only question is how long we can all stay ahead of them..."


The dunni began to march north, the vast majority being carried on the travois. A handful of their surviving warrior folk who could match the walking speed of the boros--and that set by the humans, dwarfkin and gnome alike--hiked alongside the beasts and kept them in line with thin willow rods. Spek rode up at the front, mounted on the wogren, and the liberated captives all saluted the creature and smiled happily as it moved past them. Its presence seemed to bring them great relief. Behind, a cloud of carrion birds already circled the battlefield.

Vargus wrapped himself in his newfound woolen cloak, putting a helmet on, hoping that it might make him pass for either a human or an orc.  Kasseem flashed him a wide grin. "You would be the shortest, fattest orc I have ever seen--I would be very afraid," laughed the Sarcosan blademaster. "As for passing for a small man... you look too short to be a Dorn, and too broad to be a starving Erenlander. But, maybe you could be the servant of a false Sussar." Kasseem's thick and unfamiliar accent proved a little challenging for Vargus to understand at times... or was it merely some of the words the dark-skinned man used that were unfamiliar?

"Those traitors kiss Azogduk's filthy arse crack," continued the Sarcosan, "and tend to be better fed for it. They are sometimes found wandering the Eastern Hills on horseback... If one of them called you out, you would need to explain what happened to your horse and why you keep the company of mountain fey. But I think they would not give you the time to explain before impaling you on their lances, especially if you did not speak the Colonial tongue... after all, those found in the company of fey, may as well be fey themselves. Best to avoid any situations that might lead to dirty business, even with those scary helmets... Peasants and cowardly folk, though--they might be scared enough of the helmet and of your overall look to assume you were a real servant of the Shadow in the North. Who is to say that the dark god does not have new recruits coming in all shapes and sizes, new crossbred bastards?"

Kasseem suddenly realized what he has just said, then offered Vargus a guilty smile. "No offence intended, of course... And all this to say, you are probably better off with the cloak and helmet than without..."

As the humans, gnome and dwarfkin caught up with the boro train, the rearmost of the beasts became agitated. One of the dunni herders did his best to calm it, while those in the travois hauled by the beast glance at their saviours with concern... as if they were the cause of the beast's nervousness.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Azogduk himself came after us," grumbled Jorg, "and that would be bad news. It's probably been a while since anyone has been able to wipe out a whole orc fist without leaving any casualties of their own."

The old Dorn became seized by another coughing spasm. The afternoon sun was merciless, and rivulets of sweat streamed down his red face, dripping from his nose and brows.

He looked at Weylan. "Do you know where you intend to break away from the dunni?"

The rearmost boro continued to snort and bellow, and then abruptly turned around to face the humans and dwarfkin, pawing the ground as it raised its tusks. The travois nearly tipped over, but righted itself. The herder tried to caress the beast's head and to whisper soothing words in its ears, but his attempts clearly were not having the intended effect.

Weylan muttered, "It might be best if we travel either ahead of the dunni or trail behind them a bit. Clearly some of us are upsetting the boros... But before I can formulate a plan of action I need to know where we are going. Are we heading directly for the woods of the Witch Queen, or do we need to travel to another destination? I have heard you mention Baden's Bluff. The farther north we travel, the more resistance we are likely to meet, and Baden's Bluff is as north as we can get without crossing the Sea of Pelluria."

After obtaining more information from Jorg and Garn, the young wildlander declared: "Then let us splinter from the main party on the third day and head due west for  three to four days. From there I would recommend two viable options:

"One - Continue heading west until we reach the banks of the Ardune lake. There, we might be able to find help among the many human or gnomish settlements. We could secure passage on a ship or barge to reach the western shore of the Ardune or north to reach Swiftwater. The journey to reach the banks of the Ardune will likely take us between two and a half to three weeks all told, but we run some risk of running into orcs or free riders through much of the territory. Alternatively, if we are lucky, it might be possible to secure passage on a gnomish barge heading for Swiftwater once we reach the Denna River.

"Two - Head north and eventually northwest through the plains to reach Swiftwater. This journey is through miles of uninhabited grasslands, so the danger from orcs diminishes greatly. Unfortunately, we still have to contend with shadowspawn, fell, and other wild beasts equally as dangerous as any orc patrols. We will also have to ford several waterways to reach Swiftwater, which may be a problem. I am unsure of a timeline here.

"Both options are dangerous; if you want my opinion, the first option is the best...but, choose as you will..."

"These grasslands do not flow right,” grumbled Dag. “I am ill at ease away from my mountain terrain. Your words speak true and you seem to know this land better than any of us, but I will wait to see what our fearless leader has to say." Dag then looked over at Garn, who was now resting comfortably in a travois.

The gnome pondered the advice. "If we head to the lake we could follow the river to Swiftwater. Who know, perhaps there might even be some barge traffic we could take advantage of. Unfortunately I'm unlikely to have ties by blood to any of the Captains we meet on the Ardune to Swiftwater run - and we will need that to be sure of those we ride with. Not only that, but there will be many checkpoints on the river, and we have special problems to consider which we will need help with..."

Here the gnome gazed at Vargus, whose magical powers were likely to attract the astiraxes which might be at one or more of the checkpoints.

"Heading directly to Swiftwater would likely by the more dangerous land crossing, but once there I have a cousin or two who should be able to help us. Family is always such a blessing in times of trouble, isn't it?"

The Dunni on the rearmost travois continued to stare at the stragglers with curiosity throughout the afternoon. The Dunni passengers that Garn caught a ride with were shy, but happily moved to offer him space. The boros seemed not to notice the gnome. A few women whispered among themselves and stared at him incessantly, frequently giggling. Some of the other passengers either were asleep or unconscious, and more still wore morose expressions on their faces. The stares and giggles only vanished when the Dunni spotted a leopard some distance away among the tall grasses. The cat's presence alarmed the halflings. Some of them grabbed the shortbows and arrows that the orcs had previously taken from them, knocked their arrows, took aim, and even loosed a few shafts... but Spek rode back with the wogren, waving his hands and evidently instructing them to lower their weapons. The leopard is not a threat, the companions guessed he was trying to convince the tribesfolk... even as the wogren continued to growl at the now hidden cat.

"Leopards often prey on Dunni," said Allid in a barely audible voice, raising a hand to shade his eyes from the sun as he attempted to spot the cat.

Jorg answered with a grunt. Though the grim old Dorn looked like he would benefit from a lay down in a travois, he kept on walking with the others, barely able to conceal the pain he was in.

Vargus seemed uneasy travelling with the halflings, always keeping a mask up - alternating between the demon visage and the plain visor.
« Last Edit: June 09, 2012, 06:57:58 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #47 on: June 09, 2012, 06:56:59 PM »

Interlude - Part 2: Weylan's Secret

As the day gave way to dusk, Spek, the wogren, and a small handful of ragged-looking Dunni hunters fell back, taking two boros and travois with them. "We go to make more tracks behind, leading away," said Spek to Jorg and Weylan in heavily accented Erenlander. Surprisingly, the mercurial halfling seemed to be taking on a leadership mantle with the tribe... while Jorg withdrew deeper and deeper within himself.

Weylan informed Spek that would be leaving with the newcomers soon, likely the day after tomorrow, bidding his small friend a heartfelt goodbye.  

The halfling nodded at Weylan as he dropped to the back of the line with the wogren and the hunters. He waited a few moments--until the non-Dunni and the other survivors had moved out of earshot--before answering. "The People of the Silver Owl need me," said Spek in a thick and unusually expressionless voice. "My tribe is gone, but these people need me... and though Hai'na and I become close,” he declared, petting the wogren, “she is still a guardian of the Silver Owls. She would not be parted from her people... nor I from her, now. I hope you understand. But you too are a friend of the Silver Owls, now, and will be welcome among them... among us... always..."

The halfling--little more than a silhouette upon the thick-bodied wogren--looked for a moment to the western horizon, where the rapidly receding sliver of fiery sun had set the rolling sword grass covered hills ablaze in red-gold light. "It is wise for you and the mountain folk to take a separate path soon... Some of the Silver Owl will do the same in the coming days, though they are too weak to travel in very small groups... But if you follow the wise woman, Bright Star, eight or nine days journey to the Kedunni Plains, you might be granted a boon. The Kedunni Plains are sacred to our people, and some things I have not shared with you, my good friend... some things simply cannot be seen by the tall folk... I will see you again soon, if you choose to follow Bright Star..."

The last rays of sun faded, plunging the hills in grey twilight. The halfling turned away from the horizon to look at Weylan again. He removed a rainbow hued bead and bone bracelet from the wrist below his maimed hand. "I would have you take this, Weylan, in case you should keep to your decision to be gone by the day after tomorrow... a memory and a bond... You and Jorg and Allid and Kassem have given me a new life, and reason to live... and now, I think maybe Keela, the Spirit Mother, puts you on a different path so that mine may join with Hai'na and the Silver Owls..."

Spek handed Weylan the bracelet, then clasped the Erenlander’s hand. "May the Spirit Mother and her children keep you safe..." Weylan glimpsed a tear falling from one of the halfling's eyes as he released his hold and Hai'na turned and loped after the other hunters.


The remaining survivors veered off the beaten path shortly after Spek and the hunters fell back and started covering some of the trail. Hai'na growled over her shoulder at Weylan, but Spek murmured something that pacified the wogren - for the moment, at least.

Weylan spent a bit of time alone before eventually catching up with the main group, which was establishing camp several hundred feet off the trampled orc path in a panock tree oasis concealed in a hollow between hills. The crown of the squat, sprawling tree with multiple trunks was not even visible from the orc path. The tree looked like a grove of fifty all sharing a single crown.

The non-Dunni were impressed with the efficiency with which all the halflings--young and old--worked together to quickly set up camp in the twilight. In a short time, they had erected their boro hide tents, gathered some of the most readily available herbs, berries and roots, and reluctantly distributed some of the unappetizing dried rations that had been salvaged from the orcs. A watch was posted on the hillsides surrounding the hollow.

The Dunni even had a few extra tents for the humans and dwarf-kin. The shelters were remarkably spacious, and despite their low ceilings, they could comfortably accommodate three to four humans. Furs were rolled out on the ground for warmth and comfort, and the interior walls even had storage pockets.

The tents were clustered close together, their entrance flaps left open, so that the Dunni could sit in a circle and face one another. To the consternation of the heroes, the Dunni seemed intent on building a fire between the tents... and would not take no for an answer. Yet to their credit, the fire was small, remarkably smokeless, and concealed by the tent circle and the panock tree's thick canopy.

The halflings shyly invited their liberators to join the circle and to share what little food there was, insisting that their rescuers help themselves first. Despite the invitation to a communal meal, most of the Dunni seemed uncomfortable sitting too close to the strangers--hence the gathering was segregated into Dunni to three sides and non-Dunni on the other side of the circle. Although the fire and the less than satisfying meal provided some comfort to those in the camp and warded off the worst of the evening chill, the mood was sullen. The Dunni spoke only a few words even among themselves, but frequently stole curious glances at the newcomers in the flickering fire light.

Once all had eaten, Bright Star began to chant what sounded like a long, but subdued dirge in the tongue of the Dunni, keeping rythm with a rattle. Her tribespeople joined in on the refrains. Even though the heroes did not understand the words, the haunting song touched their souls. Bright Star moved in front of a different person with each verse, toucheed her hand to their heart and forehead, and as she chantsed, the person before her broke into tears. At one point, she stopped before a helmetless Vargus, touched his heart and forehead, stared deep into his eyes... and amid the incomprehensible words of her chant, the dworg swore he heard her utter the name "Sardric"...

"They mourn the fallen--each verse sings the praises of a different kinsman," murmured Kasseem as the chanting continued. "Including the orc, Sardric."

A very short while into the communal meal and gathering, Garn seemed to relax, as if having made a difficult decision. Some of the tension flowed from him and he used his gift with languages to learn the refrains to the Dunni song and tried to join in. Many of the Dunni nodded appreciatively at Garn as he tried to sing the refrain with them, including Bright Star. While most maintained solemn faces, a few of the younger women folk actually smiled between tearful outbreaks.

When the Dunni proved uncommunicative, the diminutive gnome turned his attentions to his team instead, making a few jokes and comments to each of them. This was the first time in many months that he'd been in the company of more than twenty beings who did not want to kill him. This had been the first meal he had eaten in any sort of community with others and he pointed out that it was not likely to happen again until Swiftwater - if they truly ended up making it there.

He advised the team makes the most of it.

Bright Star went around the circle in a clockwise direction three times. On the third pass, she produced a long, narrow wooden pipe with an owl-shaped bowl, which she handed to the mourners one by one as she sang the praises of their loved ones. Each recipient took a few puffs of the strong-smelling weed, spoke a few words, returned the pipe to Bright Star, and she handed it to the next person. Long faces soon looked like they had found some peace in their grief.

Eventually, the pipe came to the non-Dunni...

Weylan took the pipe from Bright Star, took a few puffs and passed it on to the closest companion. At first, the ceremony calmed the normally restless ranger. Then, as one by one they inhaled the smoke, the companions sensed their consciousness shift. Their vision became distorted, and some momentarily glimpsed fallen friends and kin, unknown folk, and distant places and events... some of the dreamers took flight, others ran with the wind... insights flooded in... some filled the companions with a sense of hope and love like none they had ever felt before, others with profound sadness and despair that could drive one to madness... Whether the events witnessed were reflections of the past, present or future, or whether they were mere hallucinations without substance, was hard to tell... The heroes sensed Bright Star gazing intently at them, with what might have been taken as a sinister smile on her lips. The deep lines that traced her weathered brown face looked like veritable chasms, her broad, flat nose a mesa... The gaps between her crooked teeth were immense, her pupils impenetrably dark pools of night... She stood tall as an ogre and even laughed like one--the laughter streaming from her wide open maw in a slow, deep rumble, as the tight silver braids on her head turned to hissing serpents... Fear rose to a crescendo...

And then, it ended, a lifetime of visions and feelings compressed in a tiny moment, suddenly expired...

Bright Star looked herself again, and the party was still sitting in the circle among the Dunni, who stared at them, their silence broken only by the crackling of the fire and the chirping of crickets.  Jorg was the only one to refuse the pipe, and he left the ring shortly after the others came to again, stepping into the dark beyond the tents.

Later, Weylan approached Dag, Garn and Vargus, counting on the gnome or dwarf to translate what he spoke in Erenlander into the Trader’s tongue for the benefit of Vargus:

"I must apologize to the three of you if I seem ill at ease in your company. Part of it is because I do not look forward to leaving my friends, but there is more to it than that..."

At this point he looked up at the night sky.

"There are things about me that you need to know before we start our journey."

Weylan paused for a long time, clearly uncomfortable as he searched for words.

"I am... different... I share my body with a spirit... an animal spirit. In many ways, this is a blessing, in others... it is not."

He looked at them, carefully, gauging their reaction, then continued.

"In three nights the moon will be full. When this happens, it becomes very...difficult to contain the animal spirit inside me. I must hunt to appease the beast...if not, I become dangerous...to friends and foes alike."

Weylan stopped talking and waited for a reaction, the silence now filled by cricket song and that of wolves howling at the waxing gibbous moon that rose over the hills.  

Garn pondered Weylan’s words. "I don't really understand how something like that happens, Weylan. I'll be honest -- it makes me a little nervous. On the other hand 'normal' people don't trek halfway across the world to deliver a package to the Elf Queen, so maybe 'normal' doesn't really apply anymore."

The gnome conferred with the Dwarves in their own language. "He seems nice, for a human. The animal thing worries me a little, but I say we give him a chance during the trek - if he's out of control we can leave him out here or kill him. What do you think? We do kinda need the help..."

Vargus looked the stranger up and down, meeting his eyes only briefly before returning his gaze to his feet.  "If he truly possesses an animal's spirit, I think we cannot help but assume it is a blessing from Father Sun and Mother Moon to see us safely to the elf queen, just as my powers are their gift."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2012, 07:04:56 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #48 on: June 09, 2012, 07:00:58 PM »

Interlude - Part 3: Stars and Horses

As the night passed, a strong wind blew out of the north. Garn struggled to fall asleep as a result of the disturbing visions that came to mind when he partook of the pipe weed; his restlessness was only made worse by Dag's loud snoring. The gnome eventually decided to step out of the tent and take a stroll around the camp perimeter, just as Vargus came in from his early watch. They both saw ominous black clouds rolling out of the north, swallowing the stars and their feeble light.

At one point during his walk, Garn's heart jumped into his throat when he spotsted movement in the grass nearby... but sighed with relief as he noticed Kasseem stepping out from behind a cluster of bushes. "Many sorries for startling you, friend Garn," said the Sarcosan swordsman. He gazed up at the incoming clouds. "Is it the wind that keeps you up? Such stormy weather is not uncommon in these parts during the Arc of Zimra, which will be upon us soon enough. You may find your eyes blinded by dust and your skin cut by blades of sword grass blown free by the winds, as you make your journey across the Big Sky country... But the way the clouds obscure the Riding Host, after so many days with clear night skies and good fortune, concerns me..."

The warrior took a swig from his waterskin, then offered it to Garn. The wind caught in his cloak and loose-fitting clothes, making them billow.

"Did you know that among my people, it is considered bad luck to be born in Zimra? It is an arc oft filled with ill tidings. In times not so ancient, many children born on the zenith of Zimra were drowned. But I should not worry you with such things..."

The gnome could make out the bright toothy grin the Sarcosan flashed him, even in the midnight darkness.

Garn accepted the waterskin with a distracted nod of thanks and immediately took a pull on it. So often had the Gnome been deprived of fresh water that he did not stop to consider actual thirst until the water was already coursing down his throat and, finding himself replete, he took only a small drink before handing it back.

"What good comes from the sky in these times, Kaseem? Is there a month that brings good omens? I haven't heard of it." Snapping out of it he turned to more practical concerns. "Is there a way to shield oneself from the wind without slowing down too much? To protect the eyes and breathing from the dust? You seem to have spent an age on these plains, you must have some tips you can pass on to the uninitiated?"
The Sarcosan could not help but laugh good-naturedly. "Friend Garn, you sound as grim and dour as Old Jorg... and I thought the river fey had it pretty good overall -- freedom to roam the rivers, easy access to food and goods, not targeted for extermination by the Shadow -- you are essentially the Shadow's favourite pets! Take advantage of it as long as you can!"

Garn could see the warrior's silhouette look up to the stars again. "What good comes from the sky?" He paused for a moment, lost in thought. "I do not know the stars so well as the Sahi... but I can tell you that the Sorshef--the Riding Host--have never stooped so low as to grant boons in exchange for the prayers of mortals... which, if you think of it, amount to little more than divine bribery. 'Grant me this boon, Riders of the Host, and I shall perform this great deed or pray to you forever' -- nonsense! The Sorshef are strict teachers, concerned only with providing their faithful harsh lessons that serve to cull the unworthy. The challenges and troubles you fare today in your mortal life, friend Garn, are only tests by which your worth will be judged in the end. When we Sarcosans die and take our hashu--our heavenly ride--we will be challenged by the god riders of the Sorshef. If we are found wanting, we will be thrown from our mounts and forced to walk forever in the dark spaces between the stars, horseless and dishonoured. If we find favour, we shall ride as part of the starry host of the Sorshef and shine as examples of virtue and honour to mortal Sarcosans. Curse the traitors that stole mine own horse..."

Kasseem pointed briefly to the sky. "That star, I believe, is my father. I saw it appear the night he took his hashu."

After a long pause, he continued.  "This time some people are calling the Last Age has already lasted many generations. It may go on for generations, if not centuries more, like the other Ages before it did. You can draw lessons from the Sorshef and their hosts in the night sky--but ultimately, you decide what you will make of this life. Take heart -- you are still alive, and you are free, which is more than can be said of the people of the northlands, the mountain fey and even the woodland fey. You still fight, and every man that stands against the Shadow, great and small, may one day help turn the tide of the war. You have drawn orc blood. You carry the torch of hope. And depending on what deeds you accomplish and how you comport yourself, your name and story might also one day carry from soul to soul -- a parable of inspiration for those who hear the tale of heroic Garn and his fearless companions. You may even live to be as old as Jorg and Allid... they may have a lesson or two that would be worthy of the Riding Host.

"Among my people, the Arcs of Doshram, Sahaad and Sennach are viewed favourably. Crops are planted and horses broken during Doshram, and it is a good time to be wed. Sahaad marks the end of spring and is the favoured time for birthing foals. Traditionally, this was also the time when we left our winter camps. If born on the zenith of Sahaad, a Sarcosan child is thought to be destined for greatness. Senneach is the Arc of Battle -- need I say more?"

Although Garn had little knowledge of the relationship between the ten Great Arcs and Sarcosan beliefs, the Sarcosan calendar itself had become the accepted standard throughout Erenland. The Arc of Battle was but one great arc ago, and Doshram and Sahaad would be on the other side of winter -- Doshram the closest, and still more than six arcs away.

Kasseem picked a blade of sword grass and twirled it between his fingers. "As for the dust storms," his laughter now was mirthless, "we have long ago learned to give this harsh land its due. The horse lords generally avoid travelling through the dust storms of Zimra. Fortunately, so do the orc legions. I do not envy you the challenge of making the journey through the Eastern Hills on foot during Zimra... but you have Weylan as a guide, and he will tell you what to do... at times, you would be better off being moles, as the small folk... I mean, the other small folk... sometimes do. If you insist on travelling through the storms -- stay low, keep your eyes down, cover your mouth and nose and all exposed skin. The winds not only blow dust, but blades of stinging sword grass -- a painful experience, and a true test of one's fortitude. Regardless of what you do to protect yourself, the going will be slow in strong wind and poor visibility, and food and forage harder to come by. See if the Dunni are not willing to spare a tent..."

The Sarcosan pointed out another star. "That is Dal Hali -- the evening star. She has the endless, exhausting task of dragging the sun from the sky each night. My people look to her for wisdom and guidance when they must accomplish physically difficult tasks or survive circumstances that challenge their endurance. As you can imagine, her name is invoked frequently. And keep an eye out for Dal Pashva -- forever a young colt that has just taken to hoof and runs endlessly across the night sky. Dal Pashva is the avatar of fortune, luck and coincidence, and is only seen in the light of falling stars..."


The night passed without incident. Although the small Dunni tents and hide blankets offered a level of comfort greater than any the companions had experienced since leaving Pardrum Holdfast, most found sleep hard to come by, due to their thoughts dwelling either on the strange visions they had witnessed after inhaling the pipe smoke, or worrying that the black rider might return with a horde of orcs in the dead of night. An orc patrol had surprised the Dunni previously -- what would stop them from doing so again, especially if they were lead by a legate who had witnessed their successful ambush on the orc camp? Many of the Dunni were weakened from their ordeal, and they now had but one wogren to guard over them. But fortunately, the only sounds that had disturbed the still of the night were those of wild animals--wolves or coyotes, and the growls of a hunting cat--none of which ventured into camp.

By the time the heroes emerged from their tents, they found that most of the Dunni had already risen and were kneeling in the shade of the great pannock tree with their backs to the camp. They hummed and wailed softly, rocking back and forth gently as they buried small objects--bone jewelry, scraps of clothing, knives and javelin or arrow tips, beads and so on--in the earth near the roots of the tree. Bright Star walked from person to person, taking them by the hand and pulling them up to their feet once their respective burial had been complete, and then embracing them and kissing them on the forehead. As they turned one by one to return to camp, the companions noted that the mourning Dunni had smeared ash and dirt on their faces, now streaked by tears.

The ritual complete, the Dunni quickly set to a number of other tasks -- tending to the sick and the wounded, distributing the berries, nuts and edible roots that they had been able to forage (among their own people and to the non-Dunni, as well), striking down the camp, and harnessing the boros. Tents were rolled up into tight little bundles that could easily be carried by human or wogren.

No time was wasted in small talk.

Vargus's wounds had once again healed completely during the night. Bright Star and many of the Dunni frequently looked upon the dworg and then murmured among themselves.

And then, they were off again, only a few Dunni remaining behind to conceal traces of the previous night's camp. All seemed relieved to be increasing the distance between the party and the Dark Mother camp, where Sardric had previously suggested that hundreds of orcs had gathered. All were in agreement that if an orc squad had been sent to hunt them, it was unlikely that they would travel under the sun... but it also meant that the survivors would need to travel to the point of exhaustion if they wanted to avoid being caught in the night.

The Dunni rearranged half of the the travois so that they effectively took on a sedan-like form, slung between pairs of boros rather than being dragged by individual beasts. Those arranged sedan-style broke away from those arranged travois style, the latter leaving more evident drag marks in the ground. Thus, though it was risky given the few warriors the Dunni had left, they decided to split the tribe in two for the time being. Allid indicated that Spek and the hunters would be coming from behind to conceal some of their tracks, and to establish more false trails.

The intense heat was mitigated by a gentle breeze. The group mostly stuck to coulees and clefts between the scrubby hills, with scouts taking to higher ground to keep an eye out for threats, concealed by the tall yellow grass.  Allid ranged far ahead of the party, while a brooding Jorg trailed at a distance behind the pair of sedans. Garn sat in a sedan among some of the womenfolk (Bright Star among them), and Kasseem walked by the side of the sedan, complaining to himself that all this walking was an affront to his dignity. "My falchion for a horse," he muttered.

Garn's mood was uplifted by travelling without the need to actually walk. The pace and the rocking motion of the sedan reminded him of being aboard a Greatbarge vessel on the river and it returned him to the time when his heart was lighter and his mood matched it.

The gnome leavened the hours by making fun of Sarcosan. He fervently wished he, himself, had a horse right now. Haunch of horse, horse ribs, horse steaks from the flank...

Kasseem's normally jovial features clouded over the moment Garn made a jape about dreaming of eating horse flesh. The Sarcosan's hands went to the hilt of his falchion and he drew the great curved blade in one quick motion, swift as a viper--its point coming within inches of the gnome's nose. The lead boro bellowed as it came to an abrupt halt, while some of the Dunni travelling in the sedan with Garn shrieked and scrambled away; a few grabbed javelins and waved them menacingly. Bright Star held up a hand and stared coldly at the dark-skinned warrior.

"Killing a horse is a serious crime against the Sorshef, river fey," he said through gritted teeth. "You may have just ensured that the Sorshef will teach you harsh lessons in the coming days for uttering such blasphemy. The horse is the noblest and smartest of all animals and the favoured form of the Sorshef. Only the kalif and his sussars are actually allowed to own horses -- to be awarded horse rights by a true sussar is the greatest honour, a precious chance to advance from the lower castes. The honour is especially rare in these dark times, when the dark lord Jahzir has been crowned kalif of Erenland in a perversion of our traditions, and he raises despicable rump-kissing worms as false sussars... But even Jahzir, curse his name, respects the value of a horse... and the mere thought of butchering a horse for food is the lowest kind of disrespect, something I would expect only of an orc..."

The Sarcosan spat as he made that last remark, and kept the point of his blade aimed squarely between Garn's eyes. "I have lost the horse one of the true sussars who roams the plains placed in my care--this shames me greatly!" His voice nearly broke with raw emotion as he spoke. "But to hear others who know nothing make distasteful jests about eating horses is more than I can bear... You have been warned once -- now let me never hear you say such blasphemous things again..."

The Sarcosan finally sheathed the blade in one swift and graceful motion, then exhaled deeply, turning his gaze to the north. The Dunni lowered their weapons and sighed in relief... but the relief was short-lived...

As soon as the Sarcosan turned away to gaze North, Garn's hand emerged from behind his back where it had flitted during the confrontation. Anyone watching the gnome's eyes could almost see the wheels turning behind them as he plotted stealthy murder in the darkness.  Then the gnome shook his head, as if snapping out of a black spell. There was no real sign of fear but he was clearly disturbed ,possibly more by his own reaction than Kaseem's.

Further ahead, away from the commotion, Weylan signaled that he had spotted movement in the grass along a nearby hillside, to the west... and then heard the sound of a rattle.

Kasseem sighed heavily. "Forgive my outburst, friend Garn," he said with head bowed down. "The jest you made is no laughing matter to my people... but can I blame you for not knowing the ways of my people, for not knowing the parables of the Sorshef? If you are to know, then you would need a teacher..." The Sarcosan's smile was wan, not the wide toothy grin Garn was used to seeing him make.

Garn shrugged, disarmed by the Sarcosan's frankness. "We like our barges, on the rivers, but we do not have that sort of relationship with them. To lose a barge is unthinkable, of course - a gnome could not do so and become a captain ever again, but we have no sacred animal or person as your people do.

“For my part, I apologise. We have made a joke of everyone and everything else these past days, Kasseem. I thought to make a jest at your expense, not insult something sacred to you." Here Garn bent his head in a sincere apology.

The Sarcosan warrior looked Garn in the eye as the latter apologised. "I sense your words are sincere, friend Garn. One can too easily lose their sense of humour, these days... but some things are not meant to be made light of, ever. I pray the Sorshef were deaf to your jape, for one finds little laughter or humour in their parables..."

Kasseem returned his attention first to the alert Dunni, and then to the surrounding hills. "Where is your ill-favoured companion, Garn? The one you call... Vargus?"

Dag, busy trying to cover the tracks left by the convoy (including his own), lifted his head and paused momentarily as he noticed the herders bringing the convoy to a halt. He looked back, waiting for Vargus (just out of sight from the main party) to catch up, wanting to make sure that the dworg's tracks also were properly concealed. Jorg walked halfway between Dag and the convoy.

Weylan, ahead of the convoy, found his attention torn between the spot in the distance where he noticed movement, to the west, and the rattle coming from further southwest. His sharp eyes soon enabled him to detect at least a dozen nocked arrows emerging from tufts of sword grass, many of them aimed straight at him. Allid, standing another hundred or so feet to the northeast, had also halted in mid-step, long bow in one hand and reaching for an arrow from his quiver.

The snake rattle doubled in intensity...
« Last Edit: June 09, 2012, 07:55:55 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged

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« Reply #49 on: June 09, 2012, 08:17:12 PM »

Interlude - Part 4: A Tale of Shame

As Weylan and Allid pondered their next move, most of the other companions apparently oblivious to the presence of the archers in the grass, Bright Star stood carefully in the sedan in which Garn was travelling, with the help of a Dunni lass. The old woman then started to hoot like an owl; her hoots were so convincing that Weylan would have been fooled into thinking they had come from a real owl. She waved her hands, and then called something out in the Dunni tongue.

The rattle responded to the east, and then a nasal voice.

Eventually, Bright Star was helped down from the sedan and escorted by two of her warriors into the grass to the east. Tense moments passed, as arrows remained knocked and trained primarily on their non-Dunni targets. One false move, and Weylan and Allid, at the very least, could become pincushions. Soon, Garn, Dag, Kasseem and Jorg also noticed the threat in the grass.

Vargus at last came into view at the rear, hands in the air... evidently being directed forward at arrow and spear or javelin-point.

After what seemed like a long time, a male voice called out, and the arrows, spears and javelins were lowered cautiously... save for those urging Vargus forward.

Bright Star and her warriors re-emerged from the tall grass, unharmed. The old woman seemed content. After being helped back into the sedan, she uttered a strange cry that sounded like a ululating hoot. The sedan convoy resumed its steady march through the tall grasses.

Weylan caught glimpses of what he assumed must be other camouflaged Dunni disappearing among the grasses around him--some apparently having attached tufts of grass to their leathers. They appeared to be moving east -- perhaps having also been enlisted by Bright Star to further confuse their trails?

The dworg heard some nervous chatter behind him... and an instant later, his 'escort' vanished completely.


The weather shifted constantly as the day progressed, alternating between hot and windless, to overcast with strong gusts of wind. At times, it looked as though it might rain (and the parched land looked like it could use the moisture), but the dark clouds passed on without releasing anything.

Weylan and Allid continued to scout ahead, wondering what other surprises may lie in wait in the tall grass. Some patches were as tall as they were.

Vargus had little luck finding food, and the Dunni seemed more concerned about covering distance than foraging. Some of the women in the sedans were busy altering or stitching together some of the leather garments and scraps that they salvaged from the orc camp -- Garn did not understand how they could possibly do their meticulous work in the rocking sedans. Watching them made him feel queasy.


Come mid-afternoon, after a period spent marching in silence, Kasseem addressed Garn once again. "Since you and your companions know so little of the ways of my people, there is another... source of shame you should know about. You must be aware that the Night King Jahzir, the Sword of Shadow, once was a Sarcosan man. My father--may his soul be at peace--said that the Night King once was one of the most celebrated warriors in all Erenland. In his youth, he learned his craft fighting orcs along the Fortress Wall, in the north. So skilled a warrior, so brilliant a tactician, and so great a leader of men was he, and so impeccable was his honour and so staunch his loyalty, that in the closing years of the Third Age, the last Kalif--or High King, if you prefer--made him the Lord General over all the armies of Erenland. This came as no surprise, for he was considered the hallmark of Sarcosan nobility.

"My father--blessed be his soul--said that the greatest shock came when the hand of the Kalif's daughter was offered to another, to a Dornish prince, for what many deemed were political reasons. This was a great affront to Lord Jahzir's honour. After being shamed in this way, Jahzir rode north and sailed across the Pelluria to fight in civil wars against some Dornish houses who had rebelled against the High King. It is said that he fought these renegades for more than a year. One day, it is not known why, he stole from his quarters, mounted his horse, and rode alone further north.

"When the Shadow's armies swept out of the north at the end of the Third Age, Jahzir rode at their head. His form had become frightening to behold -- he was now clad in the blackest and most sinister of plate armour, and it is said that he had somehow become bigger. We Sarcosans tend to be slight of build, and even so great man as Jahzir was smaller than most Dorns in physical stature -- yet when he rode out of the north as Lord Master of the Armies of the Shadow, mounted on a massive demonic horse that spews flames from its nostrils, it is said that he was larger than even the burliest of Dorns. It is also said that his monstrous armour cannot be overcome by mortal blades, and that he wields an enchanted sword that makes him alone more than a match for an army of war mages and hardened soldiers. None could stop him when he charged through the Fortress Wall at the head of the Armies of Shadow. It is believed that he cannot be killed... And hence, Lord Jahzir currently rules as High King over all Erenland, unchallenged...

"All this to say, there is great shame in the knowledge that one of our own became the Shadow's Lord General. And though many false sussars have tried to gain the favour of the Sword of Shadow in order to amass power and standing, the free sussars and their followers, including myself, see both Lord Jahzir and the false sussars as a dark stain on the honour of our people... Best not to jest about such things, or even to invoke the name of the Night King, if you would rather not draw unwanted attention to yourselves... I know that the people of Alvedara rest more easily knowing that he spends most of his time attending matters in the north, across the Pelluria... or so it is said..."

Just as Kasseem concluded his tale, Jorg called out for a halt.

"Garn, this is where Kasseem, Allid and I will part ways with you. We will stay in the area over the next few days to keep confusing the trail, and will harry or divert any pursuers we may come across. Weylan will guide you onward across the grasslands..."
« Last Edit: June 09, 2012, 08:21:53 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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