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Author Topic: TwiceBorn's Crown of Shadows campaign journal  (Read 30332 times)
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TwiceBorn
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« Reply #50 on: June 10, 2012, 05:28:19 PM »

Episode 29: Initiates of the Silver Owl

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2012/06/episode-29-initiates-of-silver-owl.html


Jorg stood among the tall grasses, looking at Garn, Dag and Vargus.

“It is not like me to offer gifts to strangers I have known but briefly... yet for some reason I can’t fathom, in this instance, I feel compelled to do so.  

“I have no doubt that, had Loic survived, he would have gone with you to the ends of Aryth to complete the quest.  And know that I would like nothing more than to go in his stead, but I grow frail with age and know that my days are numbered. I would be a burden, rather than an asset, to your fellowship... Some of my companions are in the same situation, or for other reasons cannot go your way. And a larger party would be more difficult to conceal as you reach more populated lands, anyway... But if Loic cannot go with you in body, then he should be with you in spirit...”

“Master dwarf... I can tell from the brief time I have known you, that you were very close to Loic, and he to you.”  The old Dorn pulled out a tiny item tucked away somewhere in his boro hides.  It was a tiny little wooden figurine of a bald Dornish warrior wielding a halberd.  Given its size, the figurine was remarkably intricate.  The figurine had a braided red beard, and was clad in bearskin cloak over chainmail shirt and blue quilt. The woodwork also showed matching bearskin boots and two metal bracelets adorning the warrior’s muscular forearms.  Though the figure was blackened by soot, its underlying colours remained surprisingly vivid.  Jorg swallowed back his emotions as he looked at the object.  

“This is all I found in the wreckage of my homestead, after those bastard orcs razed it to the ground.   Loic spent endless hours as a child playing in the yard with this figurine that his father had sculpted for him, imagining himself the warrior fighting great battles against orcs.  That day when he would live those imaginary deeds came and went all too quickly.  I know not whether you care for such trinkets, master dwarf... but this is only one of two things of Loic’s that I have left, and it means a great deal to me... Please take it...”

The old man began to cough violently.  Dag accepted the gift solemnly, stamping the butt of his axe on the ground in honour of his fallen companion’s memory.
  
“The other memento I have left is this,” said Jorg as he removed from his neck a pendant and chain that had previously been concealed by his hides.  “There is nothing I hate more in this world than orcs... but perhaps you are not on the inside as you appear on the outside,” he said to Vargus.  “And somehow, I sense it is true that you shared a powerful bond with Loic, deeper than either of you realized... or that I will ever understand. I have worn this pendant for half a score years -- ever since Loic gave it to me.  To this day, I still don’t know how he came by it.  But today, I feel that you should have it... I think he would want you to have it... Keep it safe...”  Jorg handed the small pendant over to Vargus.  

It was made from iron and shaped  like a strange-looking helm -- a type that was not found in dwarven culture.  The pendant felt rough and well-worn, and had some patches of rust on its lower half.  The upper and lower portions of the helm were held together by an iron band and tiny rivets.  Two tiny but colourful semi-previous stones -- one red, one purple--had been inset into the helm.  The chain on which it hung had also been forged of iron, much of it now rusty.  The dworg could barely make out the figure of a dwarf crudely etched onto the upper half of one side of the helm (above the purple eye), and of a more slender, yet still brawny human warrior on the other side (above the red eye).  The pendant looked as though it were centuries old.

Vargus also stamped the butt of Woden’s axe into the dusty earth.

Jorg then addressed Garn.  “I regret not having a token from Loic to give to you.  But as the one who has bravely inherited Wendell’s mantle, it would not be right for you to depart without a gift of appreciation from my people.  You have large shoes to fill... so to speak. I must say that I hesitate to give you something that is magic, no matter how limited its power... but this is yours, if you will have it.”

The Dorn coughed, then twisted a ring off of his right hand, looked at it briefly, and showed it to the gnome.  It was a simple wooden ring, with four clouds of different shades of silver and blue intertwined upon it.  The faces of four old men, each blowing out a strand of cloud, adorned the sides of the ring. Despite Garn’s smaller hands, the ring seemed like it might be a remarkably good fit.

“The ring was made in the Windforge Chasm by Dornish shaman who remember the old ways.  Ask not where to find the chasm -- it is safer for all if such places of power remain secret and unknown. You may will the ring, no more than four times per day, to invoke a strong gust of wind that may throw your foes off balance just enough to miss when they attempt to strike you, or for their spears and arrows to fly wide. It doesn’t always work, though,” he grumbled, “so it’s no substitute for skill. Even more incredibly, it will also allow you to drift to the ground like a leaf on the wind, should you fall from a great height. Again, the powers of the ring will function no more than four times per day...”

At last, Jorg faced Weylan.

“Weylan, my boy... you are the closest thing I have now to a son, or even a grandson.  You do me great honour by accepting to guide these three strangers across the plains, by taking my grandson’s place at their side.  I have seen you struggle with the beast within, but have only seen unquestioning loyalty from you... you have been fearless, a great companion in our struggle against the Shadow.  My heart tells me that we will not meet again... I offer you this dagger in remembrance and thanks.”

The Dorn then hands the young Erenlander a worn, yet elegant cedeku -- not a Dornish weapon, but clearly one that was of value to the old man.

As the two groups bid each other farewell, Kasseem spoke.  “It is a great honour Jorg has given you, Weylan, and I am glad that you have accepted it,” said the Sarcosan.  “You truly are a man now, with a man’s destiny before you. I have taught you almost everything I know, and your skills will soon exceed my own... would that my father had passed on all he knew of the arts of the mystical Pellurian Blade Dancers that once guarded the King of Erenland with their falchions and great swords,  before he joined the Riding Host -- if he had, we both would would still have much more to learn! But I have no gift to offer you, my friend, because I believe that our paths will cross again... Until then, fare thee well! And friend Garn, it has been a pleasure...”

Jorg and his men left the companions, turning back south and vanishing around a hillside...


***

The small convoy carried on for a few more hours, until the Dunni found another sheltered pannock tree oasis, much like the one where the party had camped the night before.  There was an abundance of edible plants, bird life and small game in the area.
As always, the Dunni were quick to set up camp. The boros were tethered near a shallow pool, hide tents were erected and further camouflaged with tufts of grass, and men and women both gathered herbs, roots, and fruits from the tree.  

As dusk fell, Bright Star approached the party.  Garn, Dag and Vargus were surprised to hear the tiny old woman speaking fluently in the Trader’s Tongue; over the past few days, it seemed as though she did not speak the language at all. What other secrets had she kept from them? “The silver owl came to me last night,” spoke the old woman.  “She said that you should be initiated into our tribe. Will you become one with the Silver Owl?”  Weylan required further translation to understand what she asked.

The companions conferred among themselves, and soon replied that they would be honoured to be initiated into the tribe.

The group gathered around a small fire that generated no smoke.  Dunni women sat next to the non-Dunni, and began the painful work of carving some patterns into their wrists, using flint and bone tools.  Some of the hunters took up positions on the nearby hills, or in the upper branches of trees, keeping watch on the surrounding grasslands.

Meanwhile, Bright Star spoke, Dag and Garn taking turns translating for the benefit of Weylan.  “Every turn of the seasons, the Dunni tribes become smaller and smaller, hunted by orcs and the new threats that every year seems to bring. We run, we hide; it is the Dunni way. But it is not enough, for our brothers and sisters are killed or enslaved in ever greater numbers.  Those Dunni slaves fortunate enough to escape, often tell of the deeds of Smidge and Copper... and by telling the tale, we also remember that we must all be Smidge and Copper.  We remember that even the smallest of Dunni can be of valuable service, even to the Witch Queen herself.  

“Smidge and Copper were once slave themselves, of the eastern tribes.  They now dedicate their lives to freeing their brothers and sisters by raiding goblin slavers along the Great River.  They sneak invisible into goblin camps and break the chains of the enthralled with only a touch.  They secret away each prisoner in tiny pockets within their magic cloaks and then steal back into the trackless plains. And days later, the Shadow usually finds the goblin slavers, dead to the last, looks of terror frozen on their lifeless faces.

“These last days, it was not Dunni that came to our rescue, but humans, and a gnome, a dwarf, and even orc-blooded. This reminds us that even though our enemies are everywhere, we may also find friends and allies in the most unlikely of places. Perhaps there are more orcs like Sardric, or like this Vargus.

“I have watched you, Vargus. You are feyon fera -- Aryth favours you and heals your wounds herself.  And this human -- the boros fear him, and a leopard follows him -- while our instincts would be to shun this man and to kill the leopard that would prey on us, the Silver Owl would have him be part of our tribe.

“The gnomes have ever been friends of the Dunni, even in these dark times. They risk much to bring goods and news to help us survive, and friend Garn has again demonstrated the bravery of our river friends. And a dwarf who would journey away from the shelter of the mountains must be brave indeed.

“It is clear to the Silver Owl that Aryth has brought you together for a greater purpose.  You carry the flame of hope with you... as Smidge and Copper do... as must we all...
To Garn, leader of these brave heroes, the People of the Silver Owl would be honoured if you would wear these leathers as a gift of thanks for saving us from the orcs.”  The women presented the gnome with a perfectly sized suit of the strongest, yet most flexible deerskin leather he had ever seen. Garn was delighted with the gift, and bowed in honour.
  
Bright Star continued.  “We wish that we had time to craft personal gifts for each of our rescuers, but time has not permitted it. We are, however, happy to offer gnaw roots that the orcs did not notice among our belongings.  Chewing on these over a long period will bolster your strength, stamina -- even your will power, in some cases. Be warned, however -- biting, eating, or trying to consume them quickly will only make you very sick. I will explain to you the properties of each root before you depart on the morrow...

“I shall also impart these words of warning as you continue your journey. If you should ever stumble upon a silent Dunni camp in the dark of night, it is best to keep away until morning and see if it remains after first light.  It is said that the enemies of the Dunni who wander into the ghost tribe’s camp never get out alive--for the ghosts in the camp are the restless spirits of nomads seeking vengeance upon the Shadow.  It is also said that even those who enter the camp and bear no ill will to the Dunni are forever trapped and become part of the eternal ambush.  Brothers and sisters in other tribes tell that they have heard of people who claim to have survived a night with the ghost tribe, and say that so long as you do not speak to the Dunni therein or make eye contact with them, you will remain safe... This may or may not be true...”

Bright Star bade the heroes recite the following oath:

I shall forever conduct myself in a manner respectful of our Mother Aryth, and the spirits of the land,
I shall never harm nor betray my brothers and sisters of the Silver Owl, nor any other Dunni,
Else shall my body and soul be afflicted by the traitor’s curse
For I am one with the Silver Owl, and they with me


She also taught them the following words in the Dunni tongue, to be used as greeting when encountering other halfling nomads:

Eya sui vanna Dunni ke, anya Argereebou ke (with the ‘r’s trilled)
(I am friend of the Dunni, and one with the Silver Owl)

Later that night, the companions retreated to their hide tents, feeling the patterns left upon their inner left wrists; their skin had been raised so as to from tiny, barely noticeable bumps shaped like an owl with its wings outstretched.  The process had left them each with a stinging forearm--a reminder to meditate on and act in accordance with their oath?


***

Garn could not believe it, but his good fortunes had continued to improve since they had liberated the Dunni captives.  Not only had the gnome been able to let his guard down somewhat, but he had ridden in relative comfort in travois and sedans every day, had not had to worry about finding food while in the presence of the halflings, had been given a supposedly magic ring and perfectly fitted leather outfit of the greatest quality, had been initiated into a nomad tribe (strangers who trusted and appreciated him and who were not bloodthirsty, for a change!), and perhaps greatest gift of all... this night, he shared his hide bed with a pretty young Dunni woman! The darkness of the world had all but disappeared, and he drifted into a deep slumber...

... until he heard Weylan and the Dunni tree sentinels sound the alarm.  Above their cries, he could discern bone-chilling, unnerving laughter and howling, which clearly did not come from the throat of man, Dunni, gnome... or even orc. Heart in throat, the gnome struggled to rise from his bed and to don his new leathers in the dark. The young woman panicked, rose and fled the tent.

Outside, a pack of laughing hyenas approached the camp, at the edge of Weylan’s enhanced vision.  Soon, they rushed the camp -- half from the north, where the Erenlander stood on watch on a rocky outcrop -- the other half darting in under cover of darkness from the south and west.  Dag and Vargus--the latter who seldom deigned to sleep without his armour--promptly emerged from the tent they shared, while other frightened Dunni, primarily women, also burst out of their shelters. The three Dunni hunters perched in nearby trees loosed some arrows, as did Weylan, but the hunters‘ aim was poor and the hyenas remarkably tough. Fortunately, the darkness did not impede either the dwarf or dworg’s ability to spot their foes.  The two dwarfkin rushed to meet the predators, each with axe in hand.

There must have been more further out, as a rising chorus of frightful laughs, yips and howls sounded beyond the camp, where five hyenas were now trying to pull down their prey.  Dag found himself flanked by two and then four of the beasts, while Vargus held a third at bay some distance away.  Bright Star shepherded her people to safety, chanting some mystic words urgently, which--as she touched the foot of the outcrop from which Weylan fired arrow after arrow--opened a whole in the earth into which half of the Dunni could crawl and hide.  No sooner had the Dunni entered the hole that the ground became sealed behind them.

To their horror, Dag, Vargus and Weylan eventually noticed the source of the additional hyena-like laughter beyond the camp--taking advantage of the distraction caused by the pack, a small group of fearsome, bipedal hyena-like men charged the camp with a loping gait from east, west, and south across the creek, hurling spears.  Dag, with some aid from Weylan, had managed to take down two of the hyenas that sought to pull him down, but now one of the giggling hyena-men leaped into the fray, towering over the dwarf and raking at him with claws. The nearby boros bellowed in terror, trying to pull their tethers free. Through it all, Garn, alone in hist tent, continued to struggle with his trousers.

Bright Star managed to usher the last of her people into another of the burrows she conjured, just as one of the hyena-folk leapt at her from behind, snapped its jaws around the back of her neck, and attempted to lift her from the ground and shake her like a rag doll. In the southeast corner of the camp, a hyena-man climbed into a tree and pulled down one of the halfling hunters, to his death... while Weylan observed the previously unseen alpha male riding up the hill to the south and across the creek, astride a monstrously large hyena.  

Bright Star broke free from her assailant’s jaws while a bloodied Vargus, who after a hard struggle managed to kill his foe, was running to the aid of the halfling matron. But in the blink of an eye, the old woman vanished, a stout, broad-trunked tree materializing where she had stood.  The hyena-man’s eyes widened in shock, and the creature then fled in terror.

While Dag continued his dance of death with the two remaining hyenas and their humanoid counterpart, a large female charged out of the darkness at Vargus. Her slavering jaws nearly locked around the dworg’s neck, but he felt sudden power surge from pendant he had been given by Jorg.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could swear that he had witnessed Loic standing behind him and blocking the bipedal hyena bitch’s attack with one his urutuks.  Garn burst from his tent at that very moment and stabbed her in the lower back, and a moment later the dworg swung Woden’s thrumming mithral axe true and decapitated the raider.

The alpha male roared in rage and then barked orders in what sounded eerily like some corrupted form of Norther--mother tongue of Loic and Jorg--then turned his mount and disappeared into the night, the remaining hyena-men breaking from melee to follow their leader.  Dag and the archer in the tree above him--who had been little help during the battle--finished the last of the hyenas, putting an end to their unnerving laughs.

The Silver Owl had prevailed, with only one life lost... for now...  
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« Reply #51 on: September 05, 2012, 04:44:07 PM »

Interlude: Hunting the Hunters


Come dawn, Bright Star and the other Dunni held a brief ceremony in honour of the one hunter who died the night before. Afterwards, they thanked the heroes again for their bravery, and for saving them yet again.

"We lost our strongest warriors and all but one of our wogren during the first raid," the old matron said sadly in perfect Trader's Tongue. The woman who initially appeared not to speak the language clearly was full of surprises. "Our vulnerability shows more than ever. Caught between orc soldiers likely coming from the southeast and hyena-men, we may not last long. This area used to be relatively safe--away from the main patrol routes and beyond the range of most known hyena-men tribes, and far from any human settlement or orc camp. I wonder if some of the hyena-men have established a new warren nearby? Their numbers seem to grow quickly." She sighed disconsolately.



Not far away, Weylan seemed even more restless than usual... the coming night would bring the first night of the full moon, and he already felt the insatiable hunger within growing...

Bright Star glanced at the young man with worry in her eyes, but he did not understand her words, for she spoke to Garn, Dag and Vargus in a language the Erenlander never learned. "We were planning on heading north, but may need to change our course and head southwest for a time... hopefully we will be able to join up with the Rattlesnake tribe again... They still have many warriors, and could keep us safe until we are able to rejoin the other half of my people and your friend Spek... 

"What of you? The tracks left by the hyena-men suggest they came from the north -- if you keep going that way, you might find yourselves trapped between them and those who hunt you." Casting another wary look in Weylan's direction, she added, "and the full moon drives the hyena-men mad -- their frenzy and savagery will be especially great over the coming nights, and knowing of your presence, they may come out in greater numbers seeking vengeance. You, too, might be safer if you went west several days before turning north again... But this would push you closer to the old road and its watchtowers..."

Garn sighed. Everytime the gnome tried to make a decision and stick to it, things would go out of their way to push him aside. Grimly he made a decision. "No. We will press on whilst you turn aside, perhaps we can blunt the fury of these hyena men for you."

 He turned his head to the others, translating his thoughts into Erenlander for the benefit of Weylan after addressing the others in Trader’s.

"What do you think? We move fast and hopefully get out of the area before they're done searching it. If we run into trouble, we'll have to fight our way out of it."

"Good enough" growled an agitated Weylan. "Say your goodbyes and let's go, night will be upon us before we know it.". Weylan nodded at the old dunni woman, holding her gaze for a few moments before addressing Garn; "l'll scout on ahead for a few miles then I'll double back and report."

With a few quick strides, Weylan disappeared into the tall grass.

"Very well," said Bright Star to Garn. "Know that when you tracked us while we were captives of the orc raiders, those orcs had found a route that narrowly bypassed all settlements in the area. Going north from here, it is likely that, within a day or so's walking at a long shank's pace, you will come across the ruins of some human settlements stretched along the banks of a small but swift creek. Most have been abandoned for long years, their people having been driven out or enslaved when the Shadow first swept across these lands. While the Dunni tend to avoid those places, you might find some shelter and protection from the hyena-men within those ruins, not to mention from the elements. But beware... it is possible that others also lurk in the ruins from time to time..."



To Vargus, she said: "Feyon ferra -- please do what you can to turn the black hearts of your father's people. If their hearts can be turned, then the flame of hope shall burn all the brighter that all of Aryth's children shall live on and once again know days of peace and joy."

The leather-skinned old crone then solemnly clasped the hands of Garn, Vargus and Dag one by one (Weylan having already begun to scout ahead), with a solemn smile. "You are brave, determined, and we owe you our lives and freedom. You already do the Silver Owl proud. May you continue to be so brave, and may the Silver Owl watch over you and grant you the speed, safety and wisdom you will need to have a successful journey. "

The other Dunni watched the farewells from nearby, a few with tears in their eyes. The young girl with whom Garn had spent the night ruan to the gnome and embraced him tightly, sobbing and murmuring a few words in the Dunni tongue.

 Bright Star started to walk away, and, with a warm laugh, called out: "Friend Garn, that suit of leather we crafted for you simply looks too good on you!"

The wind picked up and whipped through the tall grass, stinging hands and faces lightly.

***

The halflings were right -- an expert tracker would have to have been blind not to find the tracks left behind by the hyena-men. Although the passing hours, blowing wind, scattered numbers, and wide strides had partially concealed their travel through the areas, Weylan promptly identified parallel swaths of trampled grass, and even the odd drop of blood or tuft of hyena fur. The raiders clearly made no effort to conceal their tracks, which headed north by northwest.

 A yawning Lyra awaited the wildlander a short distance away from the camp, out of sight of the others. When Weylan reached her, she rubbed against him and cocked her head, practically demanding that her human companion give her an ear rub.

 Weylan was not surprised to find discrete signs of other wildlife. Given that the party had camped at a pannock tree oasis, he had no doubt that animals relied on the pond and streamlet as a water source. Here and there, he found deer droppings hidden in the grass -- some of them probably less than a day old -- pretty much in every direction. While he currently saw no deer, the area seemed to be an ideal hunting ground. But he knew the game... it could take him and Lyra hours to locate and bring down prey. 

Aside from the tracks left by the hyena-men the night before, Weylan saw no signs of immediate threats. 

Eventually, Garn, Dag and Vargus joined the strange but graceful Erenlander as the latter returned from his brief scouting foray. The cat disappeared into the grass.

 As Weylan communicated his findings to Garn, he observed that Dag seemed particularly enthusiastic about hunting the hyena-men.

Vargus broke his silence, further reinforcing Dag's position. "Let's deal with the hyena things,” said the dworg in Trader’s. “If we don't, they'll tear the small ones to pieces. We can make this region safer - and we should."

Weylan had sworn to guide the group across the plains to the forests of the Witch Queen; that was his priority. Since the party was bent on negating the threat of the hyena men, he gladly obliged.

"I suspect they are headed towards Haven Creek ford,” he said in Erenlander, Garn translating on his behalf. “They are making no efforts to conceal their passage, which leads me to believe they might have reinforcements up ahead. If this is the case, they will likely double back to seek revenge. We must be advance cautiously."

As Weylan prepared to resume tracking, he turned to his companions and said, "The animal spirit inside me is restless... tonight, as the sun sets and the moon rises... it will become increasingly difficult for me to... retain control. Before this happens, likely in the late afternoon, I will leave you... I will need to hunt to satisfy the spirit. At that time, I would advise you to make camp and not expect me until morning. Keep a watch up all night, have a fire ready to burn but do not light it unless you must, and most importantly; stay together! There is safety in numbers."

The party advanced at a slow pace throughout the day -- Weylan tracking the hyena-men while Vargus and Dag kept a watchful eye on the hills behind them for any sign of pursuit, trying their best to conceal the party's tracks. For the most part, Garn was unable to see above the towering sword grass.

The day was hot and dry, even though grey clouds veiled the sky most of the day. Water sources were few and far between -- little more than little muddy puddles occasionally nestled between coulees. The party felt the heat sapping their energy and making them all sweat profusely. Fortunately, now and again they found rocky outcrops or clusters of willows where they could rest in the shade and cool down a bit. 

Come mid-afternoon, Weylan observed a tor in the distance jutting above the rolling hills. The hyena-men tracks angled slightly northwest, apparently toward the tor. Could he have been wrong about their destination? Could the party already be in the vicinity of their lair? He estimated that the party could reach the landmark by late afternoon or early evening.
« Last Edit: September 05, 2012, 09:17:53 PM by TwiceBorn » Logged
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« Reply #52 on: September 05, 2012, 04:51:07 PM »

Episode 30: Raid on the Hyena-Men - Part 1

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2012/09/episode-30-raid-on-hyena-men-part-1.html


It was evening when the party neared the tor. A few hundred yards to the east of the tor, they spotted the long abandoned, overgrown ruins of a hamlet situated on the south bank of a narrow but swift flowing creek.

Weylan was gone by the time Garn, Dag and Vargus reached the spot -- gone to deal on his own with the bestial spirit that threatened to break free at any moment.

The three companions conducted some brief reconnaissance before settling in for the night. The mound was perhaps 100’ high, its sides steep but grassy, its summit a plateau; at its base, it stretched well over 150 feet from south to north. The south side of the tor had what looked like a cavern and stakes mounted with humanoid skulls at its base -- likely the entrance to the hyena-man lair. A crumbling stone enclosure had been erected at the foot of the east flank.  A little more than halfway up the east face, there seemed to be a narrow, horizontal cleft, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet across, but only a few feet high.  A sheltered lookout?  An alternate access, perhaps, for those who might be able to climb and squeeze through?

The trio spotted neither hyena-men nor other signs of life in or around the tor, nor any sign of life in the hamlet.  For the most part, walls and roofs seemed to have been burned or to have caved in many years ago, and tall grass and weeds had since swallowed the remains of the settlement.  Garn, Dag and Vargus camped in the shell of what they surmised must once have been a farmhouse, with only half a brick foundation wall left standing to provide them concealment from any who might inhabit the tor. The companions suspected that the hyena-men would emerge from their lair with nightfall, and they hoped that they would not stumble upon their spoor.  The party’s scent was nearly impossible to conceal. If luck was on their side, much of the lair might empty out with moonrise as the pack left to hunt, leaving the lair largely undefended.  

Likewise, they hoped they would not have to confront a hungry Weylan in beast-form in the middle of the night.

Garn inspected the remains of the hamlet as went down to the creek to collect some water. Though he had an uneasy feeling that something was watching him, he saw nothing other than the odd cobweb among the ruins. Returning to the camp, Garn and the dwarfkin quietly ate the fruits, nuts and roots that Bright Star’s people had foraged for them the night before.

Within moments of meal’s end, Dag was asleep and snoring loudly to the music of chirping crickets, apparently unworried by their proximity to the lair of the hyena-men.

As twilight descended, Vargus and Garn observed activity outside the south entrance to the tor.  A group of humanoids was making its way north, along the east face of the tor... heading for the creek...

The two nudged Dag awake, and then the companions tried to make their way quietly through the tall grass to get a closer look at the humanoids, who numbered ten to twelve.

As they drew closer, they saw that two of the group were spear-wielding hyena-men, while the remainder were human men and women balancing buckets on wooden beams  across their shoulders.  The ragged slaves were filling the buckets with creek water, struggling to lift their heavy burdens onto their shoulders once again.  One of the hyena-men sniffed at the air and perked his ears, then barked at his kin, pointing in the direction from which Garn, Vargus and Dag were coming.  Despite their best efforts, the three had failed in their efforts to be stealthy, stumbling on uneven ground and swishing loudly through the high grass...

The first hyena-man hurled his spear at Dag, who was first to arrive creekside, but fell short of his mark.  The other howled at the top of its lungs, then snarled at the slaves and herded them back toward the tor.     

The dwarf duelled with the first of the beast-men, pitting war axe against claws and fangs.  Within seconds, the Kurgun lopped his foe’s head off.  At the same moment, a great cat leaped from the bushes maybe twenty feet away, pouncing on one of the straggling humans just as Vargus and Garn reached the site.  This unexpected attack clearly caught the second hyena-man off guard, but he kept herding the rest of the now screaming slaves, some of whom were dropping their loads.  The leopard viciously tore out the man’s throat. He was dead before he knew what hit him. 

As Garn looked in terror at the leopard -- which reputedly counted halflings among their favourite prey, and therefore might be just as happy devouring a gnome -- the river fey hesitated; should he fend off the cat before it could turn on them, or go after the fleeing hyena-man? He hesitated even more as he began to wonder whether the feline might be Weylan, or his animal companion... The cat began to drag its prey back into the bushes.

Dag acted more decisively, hurling an urutuk into the back of the fleeing hyena-man, who was almost out of reach.  The loping creature crashed to the ground and rolled in the high grass, dead. Slaves scattered in all directions.   

Garn and the dwarfkin let the leopard be, seeking instead to locate some of the escaped slaves.  With their darkvision and tracking skills, Dag and Vargus were quickly able to catch up with one of the humans, who had hurt his ankle and fallen.  The emaciated man, confronted by a savage-looking mountain fey with mohawk and a rune tattooed on his face and a stocky warrior with an orc helm and battle axe, was terrified.  His body and spirit had been broken by the hyena-men, and with freedom so close he could taste it, he would now be tortured by these other marauders.   

Garn soon caught up to Dag and Vargus. The man was just as bewildered to find a gnome in these parts, but the latter managed to calm him just enough to get some basic information out of him.  How many hyena-men were in the tor? Two dozen at least. Were there other slaves? Yes, mostly halflings and some human women. Dag tried to treat the man’s ankle, but unintentionally seemed to do more harm than good.  The man cried in agony, thinking that the dwarf was torturing him. Garn advised him that he could seek shelter among the ruins of the hamlet, while their party would infiltrate the lair of the hyena-men.

As the three companions made their way along the east side of the tor, they heard the faint sound of wild drumming and howling coming from inside.  Skirting along the crumbling stone wall, they also found a sturdy yet weathered wooden door hidden in shadow at the base of the mound.  They listened carefully, and beamed with joy when they heard a goat bleating within.

If they survived the night and successfully neutralized the threat of the hyena-men, fresh goat meat would be their reward... 
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« Reply #53 on: September 09, 2012, 07:22:45 PM »

Episode 31: Raid on the Hyena-Men - Part II

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2012/09/episode-31-raid-on-hyena-men-part-ii.html



Two hyena-men had been slain, and a half-score slaves would not be returning to the lair with their water buckets.  It would only be a matter of time until their masters noted their absence and came looking for them.  Hence, Garn, Dag and Vargus thought they had best take the initiative and investigate the entrance to the tor before hyena-men came looking for them.

As the three companions skulked along the east flank of the tor in the fading light and rounded a bend leading towards the south entrance, they heard sniffing and growling.  A pair of hyena emerged from the darkness between rows of skull-topped stakes.  Vargus projected his will onto the beasts, making them cower in fear.  As Garn crept past the dworg with the intention of slitting the animals’ throats, a third hyena lunged from the cavern.  With heart in throat, the gnome just barely managed to evade the predator’s slavering jaws.  A split second later, Dag swung his axe true, ensuring that the hyena would not have a second chance to maul the river fey or to raise the alarm. The shaken gnome and dwarf then proceeded to cut the throats of the other two hyenas that still cowered nearby, unable to break free from Vargus’s power.  The bloody carcasses were then dragged a short distance into the tall grass beyond the entrance.  Inside, whimpering hyena pups scampered deeper into the darkness.

The wild drumming and bestial howls were much louder here.  Garn was dismayed to find that his keen vision was not sharp enough to penetrate the shadows beyond the entrance, which only heightened his apprehension about entering the cave.  The others reminded the gnome that he had declared to Bright Star that the party would “blunt the fury of the hyena-men.”  The reluctant ‘leader’ swallowed hard and kept a hand on Vargus’s arm, trusting the dworg to lead him in the darkness. Unseen and unheard, a leopard paced outside, above the entrance to the cave.

The lair reeked of hyena urine and feces.  Aside from hyena droppings, the dwarfkin spotted a rickety rope ladder leading approximately thirty feet up and through the rocky ceiling, as well as a heavy wooden trapdoor in the floor with a bar across it. The trio suspected that slaves might be kept below, and decided that it would be more prudent to scout the lair and the enemy forces before trying to set prisoners free.

Dag and Vargus noted that the lair branched into a number of passages, most of them natural.  They headed further towards what they assumed to be the heart of the complex. The drumming, howling and growling kept growing in volume and intensity as the trio advanced.

In one recess, Dag spotted a pair of hyena-folk -- one an especially large and muscular male -- mating in a particularly violent manner.  Most of their grunts and snarls were barely audible over the cacophony coming from elsewhere in the lair.  Dag took the opportunity presented and charged at it the preoccupied hyena-man, but the latter shifted his position at the last moment and deflected the worst of the blow from the axe.  Still, the hyena-man howled in pain and fury as he extricated himself from his partner, trying to ward off additional axe swings from the dwarf.  The beast-man was surprisingly strong, sustaining blow after blow without falling.  He tried to overbear the dwarf with tooth and nail, but soon found himself flanked by Vargus.  The female tried to squeeze by the combatants and escape along a cavern wall, but soon fell dead with an axe lodged in her back.  A short distance away, the blind gnome--unsure what was going on and where his guide went--fearfully waved his daggers this way and that, moving hesitantly in the direction of the melee.

Dwarf and dworg continued to struggle against the naked, berserk hyena-man.  The feral warrior inflicted vicious wounds on Vargus, but the dwarfkin finally brought down their foe. They listened to determine whether the battle had given them away, but whatever ceremony was going on nearby continued without interruption. The dwarfkin rejoined Garn, who had noticed what seemed like a faint glow coming from ahead... were his eyes playing tricks on him?

The trio walked past another trapdoor in the floor, again with a bar across it.  Both the flickering orange glow and the loudness of the drumming grew in intensity the further the companions advanced. As the companions rounded a bend in the complex, Garn could see again... but wished he could not...

The companions looked into a vast chamber, where the silhouettes of at least two dozen hyena-men--warriors as well as a smaller number of females and juveniles--danced about in a frenzy, barely thirty feet away.  Beyond them rose a high rock shelf upon which stood the largest hyena-man they had ever seen--almost as big as an ogre--surrounded by a harem of four females, and, a short distance to the right near the foot of the shelf, a gigantic and demonic-looking hyena.  The shelf and the area before it were brightly illuminated by flickering torches. The heroes recognized the pack leader and his mount, for they were part of the previous night’s raid on the camp they had shared with Bright Star and the Silver Owl splinter group.  One of the beast-men beat a drum with ever increasing fervor on a natural stair that linked the ground to the stone shelf, on the right side of the cave.  Many of the hyena folk nearest the stone shelf looked like they were looking down at something.

The companions despaired... they would never be able to defeat this many hyena-folk...      

Despair grew to horror when the heroes noticed the Dunni tied to a stake on the shelf, a short distance behind and to the left of the pack leader.  The hyena-folk roared their approval as their leader tore off one of the halfling’s arms, waived it in the air, then began to gnaw on it.  Blood spurted out of the now-unconscious halfling’s arm socket, pooling on the rock at his feet.

The gnome and the dwarfkin had seen and enough... and it was too late to save the Dunni.  There was nothing they could do for him.  As they traced their way back towards the entrance to the cavern, they noticed the leopard feasting on the remains of the warrior and female they had slain but a few moments ago.  The cat took no interest in them, and Vargus wondered whether the frenzy of the hyena-men would make them overlook the scent of gnome and dwarfkin when they finally emerged from their ceremonial chamber.  

Night had fallen, and the three sensed that the fury of the hyena-men--spurred on by the increasingly frenetic drumming--would soon reach a crescendo... and then who knew what would happen...

The companions climbed the rope ladder near the cavern entrance, and found a deserted south-facing lookout position over the main entry with a good supply of crude javelins and piled stones.  Clearly, all the hyena-folk were preoccupied with the ceremony and felt there were no other threats in their territory. The trio pulled up the rope ladder, and Garn kept watch while Vargus and Dag investigated a low, narrow passage that led deeper into this upper level of the tor.  They found two other side passages leading to smaller but also unoccupied viewpoints looking east and west, and eventually followed the tunnel to its end -- to a natural stone balcony overlooking the ceremonial chamber.  

There, they stumbled upon five hyena-women--possibly prizes for contests among warriors that might be taking place below? Though these females were clearly surprised and frightened by the appearance of the axe-wielding dwarfkin, they snarled and bared their teeth as the latter advanced.  They were beyond the glow of the firelight below... but could the hyena-men see these females in the darkness from where they stood? The females screamed, but could they be heard above the din coming from the ceremonial chamber?

The first one fell to Dag’s axe, her limp corpse tumbling over the edge of the balcony.  The dwarf cursed at his bad luck.  There was no turning back now, he and Vargus had to finish what they had started... though the dworg clearly had a dislike for slaughtering females, one by one they fell, but not without inflicting wounds of their own on Vargus...

Down below, someone eventually noticed the corpse of the female that had fallen from the balcony in the dark beyond the glow of the firelight...

And then, the first silver beams of the full moon rising above the horizon began to shine into the lair...

And then, the collective primal rage of the hyena-folk reached its apex, and now had a tangible target... a target that was within striking distance, that had violated the sanctity of their lair and taken the lives of several of their females.

The leopard stalked out of the lair, hyena-man cub in its jaws, then began to ascend one side of the grassy tor...

The hyena-men rushed out of the ceremonial chamber, a howling wave of fury...

Above, Vargus and Dag rushed to rejoin with Garn... the siege was about to begin...

The three companions watched from above as the alpha male charged out of the lair on his demonic hyena mount, followed by a half-score warriors on foot, all silhouetted against the rising full moon.  The vanguard soon discovered the corpses of the three other hyenas that Vargus, Dag and Garn had disposed of in the grass near the entrance when they had first ventured into the tor. The alpha male turned his mount to face the tor, looking up towards the sheltered viewpoint above the entrance where the companions hid. He swung his morning star above his head, flexed his muscles, and barked out orders to the warriors that followed.

While a half-dozen warriors started to scramble up the tor, out of sight of the companions, the alpha male seemed to challenge the companions to come out of hiding  and face him in single combat.  Clearly, he did not fear the companions, and was eager to reaffirm his might before his people.  Seeing the hyena-man leader alone, Dag thought the opportunity too good to pass up, leapt from cover and started to make his way down the steep slope... and as he did so, Vargus channeled a spell recently imparted to him by the spirits that enabled him to imbue the dwarf with great speed.  

As Dag found himself darting as fast as a lightning bolt, another four hyena-men emerged from the entrance to the tor and attacked him, cutting the dwarf off from their leader.  His enhanced speed enable him to strike twice as frequently at his opponents, but they stood their ground.  The alpha male watched the unfolding melee and kept barking at his subordinates, prepared to charge should the dwarf emerge victorious against the four hyena-men that flanked him. Vargus and Garn then broke from cover to aid Dag.  At the same time, two leopards emerged, preying on and driving back the females and juveniles that were emerging from the base of the tor to encourage the warriors.

The three companions eventually eliminated the four hyena-men that had swarmed Dag.  As soon as the dwarf was clear, the alpha male charged Dag with his savage mount.  The Kurgun swung at the leader again and again, but the latter fixed the dwarf with a stare that shook his nerves.  The alpha male’s eyes were a deep blue, and betrayed a surprising range of emotion... they seemed more human than animal.  

Many of Dag’s blows struck true, but the alpha male was a skilled combatant with exceptional endurance and ferocity.  He turned many of the blows that struck him in such a way as to reduce their lethality; others were blunted by the thick boro hides he wore.  

The group of hyena men that had scrambled up around the side of the tor finally arrived above the site where the companions had originally hidden, only to find that their enemies had shifted position and were now locked in battle with their melee, below.  They hurled their spears, one of them wounding and nearly killing Garn.  They then prepared to skirt their way around the guard post and back down.  Vargus channeled some of his spirit-granted powers, catching several of the warriors in a massive spider web.

The alpha male’s mount prepared to snap its jaws around Garn, but one of the leopards leapt out of the air and tore out its throat, knocking its rider to the ground.  The alpha male saw that the battle had abruptly turned and was now lost, but he also realized that running would be futile... and he would take some of his foes down, or die trying.  Although he had managed to wound Dag, the dwarf seemed a much more capable warrior than the dworg. The hyena-man got up, and nearly gutted an already bloodied Vargus with his claws.  Dag arrived just in time to deal the pack leader a fatal blow from behind with his war axe, taking his head off clean.  

The remaining hyena-men warriors that were descending the tor froze in their tracks, just as Dag tossed the leader’s severed head at them.  Their leader and his formidable mount had both been slain, as had four of their brethren.  The invading trio somehow had mastery over wild cats, and had yet to suffer any casualties.  One of them even manifested sorcerous powers.  Their women and young were still at risk, and killing these wanderers was not worth the likely loss of their own lives.  Their moon-induced frenzy subsided.

The surviving hyena-men warriors slunk back into the tor, trying their best to herd and defend their women and young in case of further attack from the trio and their cats.  They allowed the companions to liberate the half-score human and halfling slaves that remained penned in an enclosure off to the side of the main ceremonial chamber, as well as the scrawny goats that had been kept on the lower level.

The three wounded companions debated whether they should keep on fighting, or return the next day to exterminate their surviving foes.  So long as they lived, the hyena men would continue to pose a threat to the Dunni of the Eastern Hills... but they figured that they had inflicted sufficient casualties upon them so as to severely limit their ability to hunt the halfling nomads.  It would take a while for a new leader to assert his dominance, and for the tribe to rebuild.  

Of even greater weight in their decision-making was the fear that Shadow forces could be closing in on them any day... the more time they spent dealing with peripheral threats, and risking further injury and even death, the greater the likelihood that they would be caught... Their oath to Woden had to remain their first priority...  
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« Reply #54 on: September 10, 2012, 12:15:40 AM »

Episode 32: Big Sky Country

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2012/09/episode-32-big-sky-country.html



Garn, Dag and Vargus lead the liberated slaves back to the shell of the farmstead where the former had sheltered prior to the raid on the lair of the hyena-men.  The surviving hyena-men kept quiet in their caves for the remainder of the night.  The slaves--eight Dunni and two human women--were in bad shape, both physically and emotionally. The Dunni huddled together, apart from the human women.  The Dunni seemed to speak neither Erenlander or the Traders’ Tongue, which did not help matters. While initially fearful of their rescuers--especially the one who looked like an orc--the Dunni eventually showed a little more trust when Garn and the dwarfkin showed them the Silver Owl markings on their wrists. 

Come dawn, Weylan returned to camp, face and hands caked with blood and a glazed look in his eyes. This increased the discomfort and fear in all... even Garn, Dag and Vargus had some reservations when they saw the man’s state, and remembering what they had seen the night before. The dworg discretely channeled energy into the man in order to restore his vitality--his nocturnal transformation seemed to have left him completely exhausted.

The human women were even more mistrustful of their liberators than the Dunni--all of them were fey or orc-blooded, save for the feral man!  What would these strangers do with them? Keep them as their own prize? Rape them? Sell them to smugglers for their own gain? Use them to enslave or steal from their own people? The fey asked the women where they were from, and offered to take them home, if their homes were in the area. Leading fey to their village could be disastrous... but what choice did they have? They were weak and would never be able to escape and outrun their new captors. The only thing they wanted was to be back with their loved ones...

The other captives--those who had escaped the night before when they were out collecting water when the companions killed their hyena-man escort--had disappeared into the night, likely in different directions.   

The companions killed the goats they had acquired in the previous night’s raid, stewing some using Garn’s copper pot and the elf stone, and cooking some to carry for the coming days’ journey. Although the goats had been scrawny and underfed, they provided plenty of food for everyone, and boosted morale and trust somewhat.  The lack of utensils was an inconvenience, but certainly not an insurmountable obstacle. 

The party spent the morning recuperating from the ordeals of the previous night and cooking.  To the astonishment of the slaves, Vargus’s wounds practically healed before their very eyes... by noon, few of his wounds were still visible.

One of the women had eventually disclosed that their village lay two to three days walk west, following the nearby creek.  To the frustration of the companions, it took the party nearly a week before they actually reached the settlement, slowed as they were by the short legs and weakened state of the Dunni. The slower pace enabled Dag and Vargus to devote significant time to foraging and counter-tracking; the party was never short on food.  For the first two nights, Weylan would leave the group late in the afternoon, always returning near dawn with face covered in blood... though clearly not from wounds of his own.  Those nights, Garn, Dag and Vargus were extra vigilant... just in case. The former slaves were all fearful of the Erenlander and of the leopard that seemed to stalk the party for days on end, though none ever said anything out loud concerning Weylan. Only the dworg’s powers enabled the exhausted wildlander to keep pushing through the day...

Night was always more worrisome, as alarming sounds would carry on the breeze, including those of nearby beasts devouring prey. Yet to the relief of all, the week passed without any encounters.  Near the end, Weylan had spotted signs that a wandering Dunni tribe were nearby; the liberated halflings  were confident they could find and join these kinsfolk, and so left the group. 

By the next day, the party had reached the village from which the two women had come.  A ragged band of townsfolk rang an alarm bell and watched the group approach from behind a low earthen rampart, with crude spears and clubs in hand.  The roofs of their huts were visible just over the ramparts; the homes were laid out in a circular pattern, close together with the back of the structures forming a barrier.  The companions guessed that no more than a few hundred people might reside therein. They also wondered how such a vulnerable settlement in the middle of nowhere could still exist, given the orcs, Fell, slavers, hyena-men and shadow beasts that prowled the land.  The women had apparently been taken when they were tending sheep beyond the ramparts.

Dag and Vargus kept out of sight, but Garn and Weylan showed themselves and let the women run to the crude gate that barred the entrance to the settlement.  The father of one of the women was the town sheriff, and was overjoyed that his daughter had returned alive, against all odds.  Other townsfolk were broken-hearted, for their loved ones were not among those coming home.  From a distance, the sheriff declared his gratefulness to the companions for leading the two women home.  He was intrigued by the presence of a gnome in so remote a part of the plains, far from all waterways and trade routes... but the villagers clearly were nervous not about strangers in their midst--likely outlaws without travel authorizations.

The heroes went on their way without entering the village or asking anything of the villagers, content to have accomplished a good deed and returned both the Dunni and human women to their respective peoples.  Who knows what fate they would meet in the days, months and years ahead... but in the meantime, the party’s good deeds had brought these folks some good, some happiness, in an otherwise grim and joyless existence.       

Garn, Dag and Vargus were a little more at ease now that Weylan was back to being his ‘normal self’... though the man remained a distant enigma who communicated only when absolutely necessary, and then only via Garn due to his lack of fluency in the Trader’s Tongue. In many ways, the Erenlander remained an outsider in the otherwise non-human group.


Yet Weylan never failed to prove his worth.  He led the party unerringly, and always seemed to spot the presence of other creatures or threats long before those might notice the party.  On one day, the party travelled through an area where crude spear-traps had been rigged in a lightly wooded stretch of their route -- apparently by hyena-men, if the tracks in the area were to be trusted.  Garn disarmed those with little trouble.  On another day, Weylan spotted a small herd of boro... near which were lifelike stone statues of spear-throwing hyena-men; some of the statues were missing arms, even their torsos and heads.  While the companions would have liked nothing better than to bring down a boro and feed on its meet for a few days, the presence of the statues on the plain were perplexing. Weylan had a bad feeling.  The party watched their potential prey from a low hill top for some time, concealed among the tall grasses.  After a while, one of the boro started to lick and then bite the hands and arms off a statue, grinding the stone in its mouth.  Upon closer inspection, this stone-eating boro--though superficially like the others in appearance--had a smooth hide rather than a shaggy one.  Weylan had never seen anything like it.  The companions all agreed that they should make a wide detour to avoid a confrontation with the strange boro, and moving stealthily, were able to do so.

Over the week that followed the return of the women to their village (to which they had never learned the name), Weylan led the party north by northeast in the direction of Haven Creek.  For the most part, the weather remained hot and dry--barely tolerable to the dwarfkin.  The tall grass, though it provided good concealment, also potentially hid threats of its own and made travel tedious, especially for Garn. Indeed, at one point the party found itself in an area with a high concentration of rattlesnakes.  Taking great care, all made it through without incident.

The gnome and the dwarfkin had lost track of how long they had been wandering the sea of grass since escaping the Barren Forest -- it must have been well over an arc now.  It felt as though they weren’t making any progress at all, and the empty land and vast, unsupported sky seemed to go on forever... but at least they had faced few real threats since their raid on the hyena-men--no sign of Shadow trackers so far--so they knew they should not complain.

Despite the dryness and general infertility of the area, the companions always found more than enough food to sustain them... whether through Weylan’s hunting skills, Vargus’s power to stun animals, the occasional gift from Lyra to her human companion, or luck finding edible roots, fruit, nuts and herbs. 

Near the end of the week after leaving the hyena-man lair, Weylan and Garn were traveling a short distance ahead of the dwarfkin, when the Erenlander looked over his shoulder and saw a dust cloud moving rapidly in their direction.  He called out to Dag and Vargus, at the foot of a hill, to take cover.  They tried, but in vain.  A few moments after the party members had taken cover where they could, dozens of humanoids on horses rode into the valley, and promptly encircled the dwarf and dworg and pointing their lances at them. 

The riders were men, clad for the most part in loose fitting black clothes, head wraps, and scarves covering their mouths; most of them were armed with an assortment of scimitars, shortbows, lances and cedukus. Sarcosans.  The men who had found Dag and Vargus hiding in the sword grass called out in an unfamiliar language.  A man who evidently was their leader came closer and barked out a command, and the horsemen separated and isolated the two companions from one another. Dworg and dwarf were each surrounded by a tight ring of horses and lances; boros notwithstanding, they had never seen such huge beasts before.  One rider used his mount to trip Vargus.  The dworg dropped Woden’s axe and curled up in the fetal position, worried that he was about to be trampled.  In a desperate effort to protect himself, Vargus discretely channeled his spiritual gift in such a manner that the closest horses froze in fear, and no longer threatened to trample him.

The leader proclaimed in heavily accented Trader’s that orcs--here referring to Vargus--and those who travelled with them would be sentenced immediately to death for defiling the free lands. Dag held his axe out defensively, unable to see what had happened to Vargus. The dwarf barely restrained himself from going berserk.

Before the riders could execute the dwarfkin, Garn and Weylan emerged from cover on a nearby hillock.  Weylan called out in Erenlander that they were not the enemy, and that they were part of Jorg’s band, hoping that the resistance fighter’s name would be known to the leader. The leader and his men turned in surprise, some advancing cautiously in the direction of the gnome and Erenlander, knocking arrows to bows as they did so.  The leader apparently understood Erenlander, but denied knowing this “Jorg.”  He reiterated that any found traveling in the company of orcs may as well be orcs themselves, and their treason is punishable by death.

Garn then called out in a booming voice that he and his companions were on a quest to reach elf lands in the far west, and that the dwarf and dworg were risking much to accomplish this quest... and the riders must know that the dwarves are mortal enemies of the orcs.  He recommended that the Sarcosans take a close look at Vargus--for he was a dworg and not an orc. Clearly they could see that he had dwarven as well as orcish blood... and no dwarf would ever willingly mate with an orc; the dworg had been raised among dwarves. Garn also asked the leader whether he had ever heard of halflings being in league with the Shadow, instead of being hunted by the Shadow? And at this, he informed that everyone in their group--including the dworg--had a mark on their wrists identifying them as friends of the Dunni. 

The leader called out an order in the riders‘ tongue, and one of the riders jumped from his saddle with ceduku in hand, knelt by a still cowering Vargus, yanked the dworg’s wrist, and confirmed the feint markings upon it.

The leader remained suspicious, and clearly resented being challenged by a little gnome with a big, authoritative voice.  He demanded to know what a gnome was doing so far from the river lands and how he had come to be in the company of the dwarf and dworg.  Garn told the tale of their adventures thus far, omitting key details; if the riders were enemies of the Shadow, then it would be in their best interest to allow the group to pass unharmed. In the end, the Sarcosan relented, and offered some insights of his own.  Orc patrols normally were few and far between in the Eastern Hills, he claimed.  Most tended to be active around the perimeter of the district, at the foot of the mountains, likely to keep watch and prepare to assault mountain fey strongholds.  Yet over the last arc, he had witnessed in increase in the number and size of the patrols further in the interior -- perhaps these additional squads were searching for the gnome and his companions?

The leader ended the exchange by telling Garn and Weylan in Erenlander that they were fools, that there was no way the dwarf and dworg would make it to Erethor alive.  But he would not stop them from trying.  He called his men off, riding southwest...

The companions were impressed with Garn’s bravery, eloquence, and self-assurance... never had he manifested leadership qualities to the extent he had in the encounter with the Sarcosan riders, and those skills might just have saved the lives of his companions... and the quest itself...

The next day, Weylan spied the Haven Creek valley, as well as some farmers’ fields and villages--a few inhabited, others ruins. Higher up, there were herders‘ huts.  The wildlander decided not to lead the party back to the place where they had first forded the creek while in pursuit of the orcs that had captured the Silver Owl, for he feared it would be watched; and reaching that ford would entail a few more days travel, backtracking east.  No, he would risk a deeper, swifter crossing, and would avoid all settlements, regardless of size and whether or not they were inhabited.  Shadow forces could be waiting to ambush them anywhere. 

The party crept stealthily across the countryside until they reached a spot along the creek bank that was invisible to the nearest settlements.  En route, Weylan spotted hobnailed boot tracks along a nearby wagon trail.  The wildlander successfully crossed the daunting whitewater with a length of rope to ease the crossing for the others. 

Once across, the companions could escape the prying eyes of civilization again, every day bringing them closer to their goal...

That is, assuming they wouldn’t be ambushed.  This crossing point would be the perfect spot for an ambush, especially with the group divided by the raging torrent...  Weylan and the others heightened their vigilance and prayed for good fortune...   
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« Reply #55 on: April 13, 2013, 07:46:33 PM »

Episode 33: Part 1 - The Crossing

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/04/chapter-33-part-1-crossing.html

It was almost dusk by the time Weylan had found a section of creek that was out of sight of local settlements. He lead the others through wheat fields and then across a rough wagon track that ran parallel to the creek on a low bench overlooking the water, and in which were visible the prints left by hobnailed boots. From there, the group dashed 20’ or so down a grassy slope to the edge of the creek. The grass there was shoulder high on a human, but thick, luscious green and cool, as opposed to the less dense, dull yellow-brown on the plains.  A few willow trees lined the creek bank, their leafy branches drooping into the water. The sun was dipping low in the west. Weylan also sensed something in the air... a storm was brewing... possibly a precursor to the infamous dust storms of Zimra...

To the dismay of Vargus in particular, who could not swim and was not particularly agile, the creek at this point was about 40’ wide, swift and deep, its whitewater breaking against scattered, slick boulders. With the grace of a cat, Weylan carefully leaped from boulder to boulder with a length of rope, reaching the north bank effortlessly, and then tied his end of the rope around a tree trunk. Dag, like Vargus, had his own worries... over the past few weeks, he had noticed his vision weakening at an alarming rate... to the point that Weylan was barely perceptible as a blur once he had reached the north bank.

As on the south bank, the north bank was covered in shoulder high green grass and sloped up fairly steeply to a bench maybe 30’ up or so. As Garn began to cross, shimmying along the horizontal rope while Dag and Vargus held the rope taut on the south bank, Weylan noticed something rustling in the grass, over his shoulder. Whatever made the rustling began to race up the slope, the wereling immediately giving chase.

Within seconds, Weylan’s lightning strides allowed him to catch up with a scrawny, dark-haired boy of maybe 7 summers in threadbare grey woolen shirt and trousers who was desperately trying to beat his way back up the slope. There were gashes in the back of his shirt, through which Weylan glimpsed angry red lash wounds. The boy looked over his shoulder at the boro-helmed wildlander, eyes wide with terror. He opened his mouth, ready to scream... but Weylan tripped him with his bow and pounced on his chest, putting a hand over his mouth. Weylan ordered the boy to be silent on pain of death, then dragged him to the creek bank just as Garn completed his crossing. There, the gnome took charge of the boy--making it clear, with dagger in hand, that it would be foolish and likely fatal for the slightly taller human child to underestimate the river fey-- while Weylan prepared to assist the dwarfkin across the creek if necessary.

Dag was balancing on a slippery boulder halfway across the wild creek when Vargus began to cross... but soon lost his balance as well as his grip on the rope, then found himself getting swept downstream by the white water. Weylan let out an involuntary cry of anguish... shortly afterwards, he thought he saw a figure dart out of sight near the top of the slope, behind him. The dworg resurfaced, slammed hard against a boulder, then sputtering and frantically clinging on to the rock while trying to avoid getting dragged further by the current. Dag was able to throw Vargus the free end of the rope, and from there the shaken dworg, with Weylan’s aid, eventually managed to pull himself from the frigid waters to the creek’s north bank.

Seldom had Vargus ever experienced a full-immersion bath, and he had emerged looking and smelling like a wet dog rinsed of a few layers of grime. The dworg took a few moments to pull himself together, shivering in his wet rags and coughing up water, but ultimately grateful that he appeared to have lost nothing during the ordeal.  Closing his eyes and weaving invisible patterns in the air with his hands, he began to chant ancient words... and soon grinned a toothy smile, his clothes as dry as if he had never fallen in the creek.

The companions interrogated the frightened boy, who said his name was Karl. He had already received lashes earlier in the day, and he informed the insurgents that if he did not return right away, he and his family would face further consequences. A preacher, Father Zoran, and his followers, including several orcs, had gathered the farmers in the fields just beyond the crest of the grassy slope.

The companions debated whether they should lay low and try stealthily creep out of the area in order to stay out of the enemy’s sights and to minimize the hardship that their presence might bring the farmers. But they also knew that there was a risk that the boy would betray them, if the patrol was not already aware of their presence, and that the peasants likely would suffer harm whether the insurgents left the area unseen or whether they rose against the oppressors. In the end, the opportunity to neutralize an isolated group of foes, and the sweet taste of bloody retribution, convinced them to move toward the enemy for a closer look rather than run...
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« Reply #56 on: April 14, 2013, 04:47:28 PM »

Episode 33: Part 2 - Preacher of Shadow

Link to illustrated blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/04/episode-33-part-2-preacher-of-shadow.html

As the companions tried to clamber up the grassy hill discretely with Karl, they heard a booming voice coming from just ahead, out of sight. The man had a resonant and intimidating voice that reached far, but only Weylan, Garn and Karl understood the words he spoke in Erenlander:

“Good tillers of this land, join me in giving praise to our Lord Izrador for His stern but unfailing love, for the bounty of past harvests, and for the protection and stability His armies provide against the lawlessness and banditry that otherwise would prevail. For remember, good folk, that freedom and true happiness come out of voluntary submission and sacrifice to our Lord. The people of Eredane are blessed, for the one god lives among us, in our earthly realm... and you have witnessed the miraculous gifts He has granted those who become His devout servants!  He rewards those who are faithful to Him!

“Remember also, good people, that to deny our Lord, is to betray our Lord... and to allow others to deny and resist the will of our Lord, makes one complicit in His betrayal. I therefore call upon you to be vigilant, as always, for insurgents--for I have been told that elf-friends, and maybe even those filthy mountain fey who dwell in holes under rocks!--may journey across your lands as I speak, tainting your crops and jeopardizing your ability to meet our Lord’s righteous tithe, and hence to feed your families!

“These traitors and enemies of humankind bear forbidden arms, and have even raised them against our lord Izrador’s armies. Fortunately, our Lord’s well-trained soldiers were able to repel the assault without casualties to their own. The insurgents fled into the hills like the cowardly dogs they are! They threaten your safety and prosperity, and that of your wives and children! They must be brought to justice! Anyone who has information about their whereabouts, or who knows someone they have cause to believe knows about their whereabouts, must share such information with me--and only me. In the coming weeks, you will find Legate Jael and his detachments patrolling the area with increasing frequency, hunting for a particular group of race traitors and subhuman filth--again, as a sign of our Lord’s concern for your protection and safety! I assure you, our Lord’s hand has been light in these parts -- do not disappoint him! It would be rather unfortunate if we had to leave a permanent garrison here. Remember -- to turn your back on insurgency, is to be a part of it, and to collaborate with the fey or aid fugitives, is punishable by death! Our Lord is stern, but fair... do you not agree?”

The companions heard murmurs of agreement from what might be a few dozen people.   The sun had begun to dip below the horizon. The voice of the preacher rang out again.

“Now join hands and kneel, humble people, and join me in the singing of... Just a moment... Jonas Farmer... where is your son? He was here earlier... why is he not with us now, to be reminded of his duties and to join us in singing the praises of our Lord?”

Another voice answered feebly: “I know not, father. He was helping me in the fields until just a few moments ago. I think he went to relieve himself in the grass... and he easily gets distracted... he’s just a child, father... please, have mercy...”

The preacher’s response was cold. “Spare the whip, spoil the child, Jonas Farmer... and consider yourself lucky that Legate Jael is not here in my stead, for he is even less merciful than I, thanks to the elf-friends that elude him and which he believes to be in these parts. This is the second time today the boy will have faced the lash... He seems to be a slow learner... The child’s lack of discipline reflects poorly on you and your wife... Now I will count to 10... If he is not here by the end of my count, someone else--maybe Wilfred’s daughter and Albert’s son?--will have to pay for his insolence...”

“Karl, we know you are there, and that there are others, strangers, with you! Show yourselves, travelers... or Sasha and Zane will pay the price for your cowardice! I know you are in there!”

The preacher began to count. “One.”

Jonas Farmer started calling out frantically for his boy. “Karl! Karl! Please come out!”

“Two.”

The heroes were now close enough to steal glimpses of the scene that was unfolding beyond the tall, thick grass. The preacher was a stout and severe-looking man, apparently of Erenlander stock, with a bushy black beard hanging down past his neck. He wore a dark woolen cloak and broad-brimmed hat, and was mounted on a chestnut riding horse. He was flanked by two other riders standing several feet away to either side of him -- one a grim Dorn with braided beard and moustache clad in chainmail, the other an attractive woman with short black hair garbed in red leather armour, who might have been an Erenlander or perhaps even Sarcosan. A pale young boy sat in front of the woman in the saddle, like a human shield, and she held a dagger to his throat.

A group of about two dozen farmers, men and women and even a few children, were assembled in a trail-side clearing close to where their fields began, facing the still-hidden party’s general direction. The peasants, bearing crude scythes, hoes and hayforks, stood between the three riders behind them to the north, and the grassy slope where the companions presently hid, to the south. A half-dozen heavily armoured orcish foot soldiers also stood along the periphery, between the riders and peasants. Most of the orcs also held their vardatches to the throats of children. Peasants, orcs, and riders all continued to look expectantly toward the grassy slope.

“Three,” counted the preacher.

Weylan crept east through the grass, hoping to get an opportunity to move into sniping position behind a row of trees that rose just beyond the gathering of riders, orcs and peasants. A distraction would be helpful...

Jonas Farmer pleaded again.

“Four,” counted the preacher.

Then, doing as he was bid to do by Garn, a frightened Karl emerged from the tall grass and into the clearing, taking a few nervous steps forward that placed him between the peasants and the still-concealed gnome and dwarf-kin.

All eyes were momentarily on the boy. A short distance away, Weylan dashed from the grass and across the rutted trail and into a copse of trees.

“Well done, Karl,” crowed the preacher. “Where are the others who were down by the creek, Karl?”

The boy quickly glanced over his shoulder at the thick grass. All eyes followed his glance.

“Show yourselves, strangers!” boomed the preacher again in Erenlander.

To the east, Weylan crept closer to the riders and loosed an arrow that went clean through the throat of the woman in red leather. She fell from the saddle, one foot caught in a stirrup, while her horse reared and bucked off the boy she had held hostage.

The preacher, the Dorn and all others assembled in the clearing turned, shocked at what had just happened.

The preacher screamed at the peasants, ordering that they take up arms against the unseen insurgents who threatened the lives of their children and earn the lord Izrador’s favour... while the orcs kept their vardatches to their children’s throats.      
 
Karl stood paralyzed between the heroes, on the one hand, and the peasants and Shadow forces on the other.

Dag and Vargus broke from cover, the dwarf charging an orc who stood a short distance in front of Karl, the dworg conjuring a massive spider’s web from thin air that snared the preacher and his surviving henchman, as well as the majority of the peasants and orcs.
Servants of Shadow and peasants alike gaped in fear and shock as they witnessed the unexpected display of sorcery as well as the three fey-blooded insurgents who charged out of the grass.

Dag and Garn flanked and quickly took down the commanding orc, while Weylan adjusted his position and loosed more arrows at the ensnared preacher. Both the preacher and the Dornish warrior struggled to free themselves and their mounts from the web, unsuccessfully. The preacher commanded those peasants not trapped by the webs to do their duty and attack the fey, who posed a threat to their lands and the lives of the children.  

A half-dozen or so villagers closed nervously around Garn and Vargus, brandishing their farm implements menacingly.  The diminutive gnome addressed the farmers in an imperative voice in Erenlander, trying to dissuade them from attacking. But with their children’s lives in the balance and fear of Izrador outweighing their fear of the fey and their sorcery for the moment, they continued to close in...

Vargus buried Woden’s mithril axe in the helm of an orc who held a child hostage on the periphery of the web, allowing Dag to turn his focus to the preacher. The latter, still struggling in vain to free himself, panicked at the sight of the approaching dwarf and stuttered his way ineptly through some sinister prayer. Dag cleaved the man in half at the waist before he could complete his prayer, blood and guts spraying the dwarf while the imprisoned horse neighed in fright. The preacher’s severed upper half hung suspended in the web, its innards dripping out...

The orcs in the web then tried to slit the throats of their hostages, but the webs prevented them from even doing this. Weylan continued to pepper them with arrows, while Dag prepared to attack the Dornish warrior. Just as the dwarf came within striking distance, the rider managed to pull his mount free and galloped at full speed away from the battlefield, vowing that the heroes would pay for what they had done.

Dag, Weylan and Vargus eliminated the last of the orcs caught in the web before they could harm their captives. One orc managed to escape the web unseen with a hostage in tow, but Lyra, who had crossed the creek at a some other point and had remained out of sight, stalked and killed the last soldier before he could get away.

It was the most one-sided victory the companions had ever achieved. Not only had they slain all of their foes but one, who escaped, but not one of them or even one of the peasants, included the hostage children, had been wounded. So why did the victory feel  hollow?
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« Reply #57 on: April 14, 2013, 05:51:25 PM »

Episode 33: Part 3 - Aftermath

Link to blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/04/episode-33-part-3-aftermath.html

The preacher and his cohort slain save for the one Dornish warrior who escaped on horseback, and their children all unharmed, the fearful peasants backed away from the companions. Vargus released those that were still trapped in his web. But the commoners were far from grateful for the companions’ heroic deeds. They complained that the Shadow would come and exact revenge and might even burn them out of their village... that the outlanders should not have attacked the preacher and the orcs, for now their situation would be worse. The fey had cursed them.

Garn recommended that the farmers pack what belongings they could and flee to the hills, but they replied that that was just as much a death sentence. Out in the wilderness, they would be even more vulnerable to the walking dead, slavers and Shadow creatures, and many would not survive the dust storms of autumn and subsequent winter.

Despite their anger and hatred for their fey “rescuers,” the peasant mob quickly dispersed and ran away over a hillock and out of sight, presumably toward their settlement to prepare in whatever way they deemed best for the retribution they knew was coming.

Jonas Farmer stayed behind briefly with his son Karl, thanking the companions for saving his son and apologizing for the ungratefulness of his neighbours. He knew the party were brave and well-intentioned. They could see helpless rage and frustration burning in the man’s eyes... and perhaps even a hint of inspiration, given the heroic deeds he had just witnessed? Jonas advised the companions that a man the peasants called the Shepherd roamed the wilds in the area, discretely providing medicines and aid to them and striving to ensure their safety. Whether the Shepherd could shield the peasants from the Shadow’s wrath remained to be seen...

Before he left the area, Jonas hesitantly asked Garn more questions. Were there many mountain fey left? And why would they come down and risk death in the lowlands? Looking fearfully at Vargus, he asked the gnome whether all orcs did not support the Shadow. The gnome explained that Vargus was not an orc but a dworg, born of tragic circumstances, but otherwise kept his responses short and vague

Jonas also enquired about news from beyond Varranion, to the east, and Brindol, to the west. He had heart reports that the woodland fey had unleashed a dragon that had turned the farmland beyond Brindol to ash. Weylan was the only one who had even heard of those towns. Garn and the others were quite suspicious of this news, which had been unknown to them.

The companions looted the bodies of the dead, finding the following of interest...

On the body of the preacher:

. golden signet ring
. wax
. pouch with 3 copper stars and one bronze star
. book
. chalice
. wine skin
. silver holy symbol
. breastplate
. cloak
. belt pouch
. morning star
. a wicked looking dagger

On the woman in red leather armour:

. silver star
. dagger (master work)
. light crossbow + bolts

Dag took the woman’s crossbow bolts, Weylan the preacher’s dagger, and Garn the legate’s pouch with the metal stars, a strange rectangular object consisting of two worn leather flaps binding what seemed like leaves with bizarre inscriptions on them (the gnome called it a “book”) , a signet ring and vial of wax, as well as the woman’s silver star upon which had been affixed a wax seal. Given the scarcity of metal  goods, the companions suspected the different stars to be of some import. Garn believed they might be used as travel authorization badges in the district. The gnome did not understand the language in which the book was written... he suspected it might be Erenlander.

Believing that the nearest Shadow garrison would be quite a distance away, the companions also spent some time butchering the preacher’s horse and that of the woman who had accompanied him, eager to have some fresh meat to supplement their meager diet. They decided to wrap the meat in the preacher’s cloak. They offered some to Jonas, who hesitated to accept... but hunger and the promise of food ensured he did not think too long before taking what was offered. The peasant also eyed some of the orcs’ weapons, armour and personal effects with interest, but refrained from taking anything... at least while the outlanders were present.

Dusk would soon fall upon the heroes, and Weylan was certain that a dust storm also would be upon them soon. The companions would have to force march to put as much distance as they could between the site of the battle and their camp.

Jonas asked whether they would be staying in the area and where they were headed... but Garn’s responses were evasive. Despite the insurgents having saved the man’s son and provided them with fresh meat, they wondered whether he might not betray them to the preacher’s surviving henchman or to the next patrol. Whether well-intentioned or not, the less Jonas Farmer knew, the better. He and Karl disappeared over a rise to the east--the same direction in which the other villagers had fled--before the companions resumed their travel north, beyond the farmers‘ wheat and corn fields and back into the rolling grasslands... 
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« Reply #58 on: April 21, 2013, 11:56:43 PM »

Episode 34: Part 1 - Horror in the Swordgrass

Link to blog: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/04/episode-34-part-1-horror-in-grass.html

Having finished looting their foes and butchering the carcasses of the horses that had belonged to the preacher and the woman in red leather armour, the companions set off again, trying to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the battle field.  The sun, already veiled by heavy clouds, would set within a few hours... and judging by the strange light and rising winds that were blowing through the wheat and corn fields, Weylan suspected that it would not be long before a dust storm hit...

There were so many unanswered questions. The peasants evidently had to have come from a nearby, presently unseen settlement... but how far was it? And who was the woman in the red leather armour whose life they had taken, and who was the Dornish rider who got away? Garn could not tell with any certainty if the two had belonged to a particular order, but he knew it was not uncommon for legates to travel the countryside escorted by human mercenaries. Yet the questions that weighed most on the party’s mind were how far away might the next Shadow garrison or patrol be, how numerous might they be, and how soon would they give chase? A short distance away, a wolf howled ominously...

The companions continued to march well past sundown. The wind rose dramatically in the hour after the party had crossed the creek, whipping up clouds of dust that affected their breathing, slowed their advancement, and limited even Dag and Vargus’s ability to see in darkness. Weylan and Garn walked virtually blind. The blowing swordgrass tips in particular stung exposed or poorly protected skin. Weylan had experienced the dust storms of Zimra before, and knew that things could still get much worse... for the arc of Zimra had not yet begun. The ground was uneven in many places, punctured with small holes, bumps and dips concealed by the tall grass.

Although Weylan continued to lead blindly, he also was the first to feel fatigue take its toll, despite having the longest legs and being best adapted to the climate and weather. Just when the party thought they could go no further, Vargus, peering through the swirling dust, spotted what appeared to be a crude herder’s hut and pen maybe 40’ or so away from the narrow path, beside a small pond.  All appeared dark and silent within, and the companions heard neither the bleating of goats or sheep... but they did hear a faint rattle on the wind... likely made by rattlesnakes, Weylan informed Garn, who translated the information into the Trader’s tongue for the benefit of the others.

The hut was tiny, perhaps 10’ by 10’, with stone walls punctured with holes, a slanted thatch roof, a small wooden door with wide uneven cracks between the boards, and one shuttered window on the side.  The sword grass immediately around the hut and pen seemed to have been cleared, else cut short. The dimness and blowing debris made it difficult to distinguish much more. The companions heard a strange, barely audible moan on the howling wind... and even feel its resonance in their guts...


As Dag advanced cautiously in the direction of the hut and paused a few feet away from its threshold, the ground immediately before him exploded in a shower of earth as long tendrils of grass lashed out at him. The ground itself rose up, and an alien horror with earthy skin, over a dozen eyes and a gaping maw filled with thin needle-like teeth attempted to wrap itself around the dwarf!

Vargus tried to illuminate the area for the benefit of Weylan and Garn by conjuring the forge’s breath into the palm of his hand; he  hurled the ball of flame at the bizarre creature. The dworg’s aim was off, and instead of hitting its target, the ball of flame landed on the hut’s thatched roof.

Garn dove for cover into the empty goat pen, followed by Lyra, who eyed the gnome hungrily. With the roof of the hutch catching fire, Weylan was able to see what Dag was facing. Erenlander and dwarf drew axe and sword and attempted to slay the grass horror. The creature was surprisingly swift and elusive -- on several occasions, the warriors were certain they had struck the monster, yet it appeared unwounded. It was as if it could trick the eye into believing it was in one place when it actually was in another.

Vargus threw another ball of fire at the horror, this time hitting his mark. The creature moaned, lashed out at Dag with one of its whip-like stalks but missed, then engulfed Weylan and sunk its teeth into the enveloped Erenlander’s torso. Dag swung his axe and this time he felt his blade bite into the thing’s body. Weylan also cried out in pain -- whether due to the ongoing constriction or because the dwarf’s axe had injured man as well as beast, Dag could not tell.

The winds continued to fan the flames on the roof of the hut, and Vargus worried that a full fledged grass fire might soon start. The horror buzzed, and Dag felt a wave of terror wash over him. He ran as fast as he could past Vargus and into the tall grass, narrowly avoiding being bitten by a startled rattler. Weylan managed to extricate himself from the horror’s embrace, but shortly afterward he too felt himself overcome by panic and ran for his life blindly into the swordgrass.

By the time Weylan and Dag regained control of their emotions and found the nerve to return, the thing was nowhere to be found. Vargus conjured blood from a stone, dousing the burning roof in water and trying to prevent the fire from spreading to the prairie. Yet he was unable to put out the fire before the roof of the hut collapsed. Still, the companions felt that upon clearing the charred debris, the hut’s stone walls still offered better protection from the dust storm than anything else they were likely to find on the grasslands in the dark.

Weylan collapsed in a corner of the ruin, his wounds and fatigue more than he could bear. Lyra curled up by her master, yet kept her gaze on Garn. The gnome kept his distance from the leopard, and he and the dwarf-kin promptly set to boiling the horse meat (and throwing the occasional chunk of raw meat to the cat), heating the river fey’s copper pot over the elven hearthstone.   
 
Dag was on first watch when, to his surprise, a gruff voice called out in the Trader’s Tongue from beyond the walls of the hut. “I have witnessed your deeds near the creek today... Like you, I am a traveller in need of shelter... I know there are mountain fey among you, and I mean you no harm...”
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« Reply #59 on: April 30, 2013, 11:40:16 PM »

Episode 34: Part 2 - The Shepherd

Blog link: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/04/episode-34-part-ii-shepherd.html

Dag roused the others from sleep, and all scrambled for their arms and prepared for the worst, half of the party still blind in the darkness. As the dwarf peered outside the hut, where the dust storm continued to rage, a quick glance suggested that the man was armed only with a wooden staff. He was clad in worn woolen robes, had a scarf wrapped around his head and mouth, and shouldered a pack. He seemed to be alone.

A few tense moments passed as the companions and stranger gauged one another. The companions were reluctant to let the stranger in, and they pondered whether they should kill him. He claimed to be a shepherd, and that the least the companions could do was offer him shelter, given that they had burned down the roof of his hut.

The party eventually relented, if reluctantly, and allowed the man to join them behind the walls of the hut. He unwound his head scarf from his face, and in the darkness, only Vargus and Dag could tell that the man appeared to be a middle-aged human, likely of Erenlander stock. Dag asked the man his name, and he replied that people called him the Shepherd. He walked with an assured step, as though the darkness did not hinder him in the least.

The man leaned his staff against a wall and reached for something in his unslung pack; and the move was met with several blades threatening to gut or behead him. The companions commanded that the Shepherd hand over his pack for inspection before pulling anything out of it. Dag eventually determined that the man only carried a little bit of food, some herbs, a blanket, and waterskin in his pack. The stranger proposed to share a loaf of hard bread with the companions, but all refused his offer. He proceeded to break off a few chunks and to eat the bread by himself.

Under aggressive questioning from the companions, the Shepherd divulged the following information:

. he had first spotted the party when they crossed Haven Creek and confronted the Preacher and his retinue;
. he had stayed behind to see whether the villagers would face immediate retribution, and whether any would require his immediate aid;
. he claimed that the land had foretold that the party would make its way through his territory, and that he wanted to know more about the outlanders who would openly defy the Shadow;
. he hinted that there were other shepherds like him that roamed the wilds on the periphery of Haven Creek, doing their best to watch over the safety of the villagers.

The Shepherd was critical of the companions’ decision to openly attack the Preacher and his retinue, for hardship would surely befall the poor farmers the insurgents thought they were aiding. “Would it not have been better to let that one child get the lash, than to risk a whole village?” he asked. The companions provided their best justifications for their actions, but the stranger continued to believe that their actions would cause more harm than good. Still, he seemed to appreciate the intentions behind the attack, as well as the bravery or foolhardiness shown especially by the dwarf who was so far from home and subject to immediate execution if caught by Shadow forces.

The Shepherd asked more questions of the “heroes”:

. What news of the world did they have? What hope and good tidings did they carry with them?
. Was Dag one of the dwarves who would leave weapons in the concealed tunnels at the old mine near Red Rock for the rebels? It had been almost a Great Arc since they had left anything... much longer than usual... The Shepherd feared that something had befallen them... He claimed that he had left them food, medicines, and other goods in exchange for their weapons.
. How fared the mountain folk?
. Were there many more orcs who would side with dwarf and man in this war? he asked while nodding towards Vargus.

The companions were generally elusive in their responses.

Vargus was most inclined to trust the man, Dag the least. Might the Shepherd be a cleverly disguised agent of Shadow sent to earn their trust and gather information about the companions, wondered the dwarf? And what was that thing that had guarded the threshold of the hut and attacked the companions earlier in the evening, asked Dag, suspecting that the abomination served the stranger? The Shepherd claimed to have no idea what the dwarf was talking about, and seemed alarmed by what the Kurgun described. He stated that every Great Arc, stranger and increasingly numerous horrors, Shadowspawn, prowled the countryside. He had never seen or heard of anything that looked like the horror that Dag had described, and was concerned that such a monster had lain in ambush, unseen at the very entrance to his hut. The dwarf still had his doubts.

The Shepherd also mentioned the following:

About free men: “Beware the lands between Haven Creek and the Carina River... many desperate men seek shelter in the hills and grasslands... Some have good hearts, but most are hard men made harder by their harsh lives... and most would not think twice about killing you for your boot laces... Some hide in fortified homesteads, others roam about and establish semi-permanent camps... Most are not to be trusted...”

About supplies: “If you are in desperate need of supplies, have something of value to trade, and are willing to check your morals at the door, then Eldgrimr’s Sanctuary may be the place you’re looking for... It’s a semi-permanent tent village where free riders, slavers, refugees, wildlanders, gnome smugglers, and brave or foolish Dunni trade... and steal... from one another... at the pleasure of Eldgrimr Stonefist (a Dorn) and his henchmen... The pickings may be slim...”

Weylan was familiar with Eldgrimr’s Sanctuary, though when he had last been there years ago, it was further south and west... and if the stories were true, Jorg, Kassim, and Allid had met at Eldgrimr’s Sanctuary many years ago.  The Shepherd indicated that, recent reports suggested that the Sanctuary had been sighted one day southwest of the great bend in the Carina River in the badlands, perhaps 4-5 days walk northwest of the group’s present location.

Shadow activity: “These lands and their people tend to be largely forgotten, even by the Shadow. The territory is vast, the folk clustered in small, isolated farm villages -- no threat to anyone. The soil and crops tend to be poor, but still, even the orcs recognize the importance of preserving agricultural lands and farm labour. It has been over a decade since this region has seen much trouble at the hands of orcs or the scattered hobgoblin garrisons... Seldom do we see more than the traveling preachers, tithe collectors, and the occasional patrol passing through the villages that line the waterways... Slavers, Fell, and Shadowspawn, on the other hand, are constant threats... But over the last few weeks, the Shadow patrols have increased noticeably, even more so than at harvest time when they come to collect the tithe... and they seem unusually agitated... clearly, they are looking for something... or someone... But both slavers and orcs will scale back their efforts when the dust storms of Zimra strike at their full force...”

***

The Shepherd shared these last thoughts before he and the party sought what rest they could for the remainder of the night

He sensed a change in the land.  “Though still rare, I have found an increasing number of glades where there is a scent of health about the trees, and found pure water in still ponds... In some places, the land has recovered from the damaging footstep of orc armies... The land itself resists the Shadow, it is trying to tell us that all is not lost...  And the very fact that mountain fey cross the grasslands and dare to confront the Shadow... that man, gnome, dwarf and even one of orc blood journey together in brotherhood across the plains... tells me that something of crucial importance is about to happen... And we all have a part to play in bringing hope and strength back to the people of Erenland...”

***

Some time later, after the storm had subsided and most of the companions save the one on watch (Dag or Garn?) did their best to sleep, the Shepherd stood up abruptly and urged everyone to wake up, fear in his voice.

“They are coming! We must leave now!”

A surly Dag responded with suspicion. Who was coming in the middle of the night, right after a dust storm? How did the Shepherd know someone was coming? Was he trying to lead them into an ambush?

“Demon servants of legates drawn to magic!” hissed the Shepherd. “And listen... do you not hear it? A large force on the march...”

And sure enough, as the companions strained to listen over their wildly beating hearts, they too heard the distant sounds of a large patrol coming closer. How could orcs have already caught up to them, wondered a still weakened Weylan aloud? Their garrison must have been located not far from the area where the party attacked the Preacher and his retinue.

How could the Shepherd sense astiraxes, Dag demanded to know.

“No time for explanations or to argue!” replied the Shepherd. “We must run now!”

Paranoid, still tired if not fatigued, and half the party blind, Shepherd and companions gathered their belongings and rushed out of the ruined hut and into the night.

With two members of the party practically blind due to the overcast night sky, the party stumbled slowly across the uneven grasslands... scared that a force--consisting of possibly dozens of orcs with night vision and apparently closing in on them quickly along different trajectories to the south--would catch up to them soon...

***

Eventually, reaching the crest of a low hill to the north of the hut, the companions witnessed the flickering glow of firelight coming from what looked like a campsite concealed in the grass at the foot of the hill, perhaps 60 feet away. They thought they saw some diminutive figures huddled around smokeless fires, and clusters of hide tents, except for Dag, who saw little more than feint blurry glow on the periphery of his vision.

As the companions surveyed the camp, they were surprised at how deathly silent it was. Those were clearly Dunni huddled around campfires, yet they were utterly silent... asleep where they sat, maybe? Even their fires seemed strangely muted.

A thought came to Weylan, which he shared with Garn, the gnome in turn translating for the others in the Traders’ Tongue. The wildlander had remembered a warning that Bright Star, spiritual mother of the Silver Owl, had told them when they parted ways:

“If you should ever stumble upon a silent Dunni camp in the dark of night, it is best to keep away until morning and see if it remains after first light.  It is said that the enemies of the Dunni who wander into the ghost tribe’s camp never get out alive--for the ghosts in the camp are the restless spirits of nomads seeking vengeance upon the Shadow.  It is also said that even those who enter the camp and bear no ill will to the Dunni are forever trapped and become part of the eternal ambush.  Brothers and sisters in other tribes tell that they have heard of people who claim to have survived a night with the ghost tribe, and say that so long as you do not speak to the Dunni therein or make eye contact with them, you will remain safe... This may or may not be true...”

Yet fearing that they may soon be caught by an overwhelming number of orcs that they were in no condition to fight, Weylan preferred to take his chances with what he assumed was the Dunni ghost tribe. The wildlander strode down the grassy hill, raised his sleeves to expose the mark of the Silver Owl that had been etched into this wrist, and made his way into the camp intent on joining a group at one of the fires, while keeping his eyes downcast...
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« Reply #60 on: October 28, 2013, 03:47:09 PM »

After a long hiatus due to various personal issues (this session was actually played last May!), I'm hoping to get my campaign back on track… ***crosses fingers***

Link to blog post: http://calgary-d20midnight.blogspot.ca/2013/10/episode-35-ghost-tribe.html

Episode 35: The Ghost Tribe

“They’re coming!” cried the mysterious grizzled Erenlander who called himself the Shepherd as the party rested in the shell of a hut he claimed as his own. The thatched roof of the mud-walled hut had been burned down but hours earlier by the party as they fought some strange horror made of earth and grass that threatened to envelop and swallow them upon the threshold of the shelter, a horror that, even though wounded, had disappeared without a trace...

Due to a raging dust storm, the night had been especially dark, so dark that neither moon nor stars, nor the sharp senses of Garn and Weylan could pierce the gloom. But by the time the Shepherd had raised the alarm, the worst of the storm had passed. Suspicious of the stranger and not sure how he could have known that a threat was nearing, the companions reacted hesitantly. What was coming? How did he know? 

“Demon servants of legates drawn to magic... No time to waste - we must flee!”

Listening closely, the companions were dismayed that above the wind and their wildly beating hearts, they could faintly hear the sounds of a large number of armoured troops drawing near.

Could they trust the Shepherd - or was he leading them into danger?

Moon and stars remained veiled, and the heroes stumbled with the Shepherd into the darkness and tried to escape their pursuers, but moved slowly due to Garn and Weylan’s impeded vision. Yet they had not gone more than a few hundred feet when they noted a faint flicker of light coming from beyond a low hill. Looking down the other side, the companions spotted a small encampment at the foot of the knoll, perhaps 60’ away. Small figures huddled around smokeless fires, and the silhouettes of hide tents were visible beyond the fire light.

Dunni!

The insurgents were not in good shape -- Weylan had become fatigued as a result of the previous day’s forced march, Vargus had expended some of his own arcane reserves the previous day, some of the companions had been wounded by the grass horror, and none had had sufficient rest to recover.

Not a sound came from the Dunni camp, but it seemed as though the pursuers were quickly gaining ground.

A thought came to Weylan, which he shared with Garn, the gnome in turn translating for the others in the Traders’ Tongue. The wildlander had remembered a warning that Bright Star, spiritual mother of the Silver Owl, had told them when they parted ways:

“If you should ever stumble upon a silent Dunni camp in the dark of night, it is best to keep away until morning and see if it remains after first light.  It is said that the enemies of the Dunni who wander into the ghost tribe’s camp never get out alive--for the ghosts in the camp are the restless spirits of nomads seeking vengeance upon the Shadow.  It is also said that even those who enter the camp and bear no ill will to the Dunni are forever trapped and become part of the eternal ambush.  Brothers and sisters in other tribes tell that they have heard of people who claim to have survived a night with the ghost tribe, and say that so long as you do not speak to the Dunni therein or make eye contact with them, you will remain safe... This may or may not be true...”

Yet fearing that they may soon be caught by an overwhelming number of orcs that they were in no condition to fight, Weylan preferred to take his chances with what he assumed was the Dunni ghost tribe. The wildlander strode down the grassy hill, raised his sleeves to expose the mark of the Silver Owl that had been etched into this wrist, and made his way into the camp intent on joining a group at one of the fires, while keeping his eyes downcast.

The air was noticeably chillier in the camp.

A wogren rose and growled as the wildlander entered camp upwind from the animal...

Dunni turned to the intruder and whispered among themselves, reaching for spears and bows and most rising from their seated positions around smokeless fires...

The others had followed Weylan down the hill, but now stood on the periphery of the camp with bated breath, not sure what to expect...

Weylan’s leopard, Lyra, growled and bristled several feet behind her master, hesitating to follow him into the camp...

The patrol would catch up soon, and Garn, like Weylan, was still as good as blind in the darkness...

A trio of Dunni set their spears before Weylan, blocking his path, while the snarling wogren flanked him. The other warriors kept their eyes on the periphery of the camp.

The Dunni stared silently at the mark on Weylan’s arm, and then, after a few tense moments, let him pass, some eventually parting to grant him a place to sit at the largest, central fire. On all sides, Dunni murmured in their language and crowded around him, their faces pressing up close on his left and right. The Erenlander kept his  gaze fixed on the flames and spoke not a word. He noticed out of the corner of his right eye that there appeared to be another human seated at the word, and this other had also kept completely quiet. An unwitting soul doomed to become one with the Ghost Tribe?

Lyra continued to growl, eventually bolting into the tall grasses and disappearing into darkness.

Vargus and Dag gave the camp a wide berth and made their way to a rock situated beyond the camp, and hoped that the camp would provide a buffer when the Shadow patrol finally arrived.

Garn and the Shepherd hesitated. At last, Garn followed Weylan and also revealed the mark on his wrist before sitting amongst Dunni by the same fire where the human had seated himself. The Shepherd likewise walked into the camp, but instead of shielding his eyes and keeping silent as he had been advised by Garn, the man advised the Dunni sentries that they were in great danger, that they must flee or prepare defenses as Shadow forces would soon besiege the camp. The sentries did not respond, nor did they seemed concerned in the least by the things the Shepherd had told them, but they stared blankly at the grizzled human, and then gestured for him to go to the fire.

At the fire, Weylan avoided answering questions that had been asked of him in the Traders‘ Tongue, keeping focused on the smokeless flames before him. Eventually, he felt something probing in his mind. It was an alarming and uncomfortable sensation, but he forced himself to not resist. The same voice he had initially heard speaking to him aloud in the Traders‘ Tongue now spoke inside his mind. What is your name? How came you by the Mark of the Silver Owl? What is your purpose? Why did you come here? Have you shed orc blood?

As Weylan struggled with the mental interrogation -- worrying that responding via thoughts would be akin to speaking, while trying to keep his mind blank and to block the probing would be construed as defiance -- the same questions were asked aloud of Garn and the Shepherd. The companions all provided the same answers to the questions -- Weylan mentally, Garn and the Shepherd verbally.

More Dunni, including women and small children and even a few other humans, peered out of the surrounding hide tents or went to sit at other fires. The ringing of metal armour and weapons and heavy foot steps grew nearer.

An intricately carved bone pipe stuffed with a fragrant tobacco was handed to Weylan. He hesitated, now worried about the implications should he take a puff or refuse to do so... was he being tested? Would something bad happen if he made the wrong choice? The Erenlander decided to go with what he had learned of Dunni culture while with the Silver Owl clan, and took a few puffs before passing the pipe along, still careful not to lock eyes with anyone. Garn and the Shepherd also partook in the ritual.

“Stay with us... will you stay with us... forever?... forever... forever...” whispered the voices around the companions.

The pipe came around a second time. In turn, Weylan, the Shepherd and Garn took another few pulls, and this time noticed that their hands were becoming translucent. They found themselves dwelling on thoughts of loved ones who had passed on, wanting to join them...

“They killed our children... they took our lives... now vengeance is ours... vengeance is yours... stay with us...”

The Shepherd was suddenly overcome by panic. He saw blood seeping from the ground, into his clothes, onto his hands... a carrion stench assailed his senses... worms and insects emerged from the ground, crawling all over him... but he found himself paralyzed with fear, unable to brush away the insects.

The pipe came around a few more times, and the approaching enemy was now just beyond the rise. The voices continued to whisper of vengeance, and entreated the companions to stay with them. Vargus and Dag, unable to hear, watched the unfolding scene in tense silence from their vantage point. The Shepherd remained caught in his stupor for several long moments, until at last, he calmed down again. When he spoke again, it was in a voice that was not his own. “Alive... alive!” he hissed with a twisted expression. “Vengeance will be mine... The orc butchers come...”

And come they did...

The ringing of steel and iron reached a crescendo nearby in the darkness at the top of the hillock, and in the tall grass surrounding the camp -- and then all went abruptly silent.

A thin, distant, rasping voice hissed in the darkness from the direction of the hilltop. “The hour is late... The power is great... Near at hand... Insurgents make their final stand?”

Then, what most probably was a human voice with a hint of a Sarcosan accent boomed out from the same direction...

“KILL THE HALFLINGS! TAKE THE OTHERS ALIVE! AND BEWARE THEIR MAGIC... THERE IS SOMEONE--OR SOMETHING--WITH GREAT POWER IN THE CAMP! A REWARD TO THE MIGHTY WARRIOR WHO BRINGS IT TO ME! FOR THE GLORY OF IZRADOR!!!!”
 
Dozens, if not scores of unseen orcs beat their shields and roared with bloodlust, charging from the darkness...

The Dunni in the camp screamed in panic, warriors rising to take defensive positions, women scrambling for their children and running back to the tents... Chaos and terror reigned... Volleys of arrows and javelins rained on the camp, wounding or killing several halflings...

It was a horribly lopsided battle. Wave after wave of orcs charged from out of the darkness, supported by their commander’s black magic, decimating their diminutive foes. A handful of orcs emerged out of the swordgrass to engage Dag and Vargus, while Weylan and Garn did what they could to hold their own. The being that had until recently been the Shepherd leapt into the heart of the fray. Yet the companions were at a loss... was this not the Dunni Ghost Tribe? If so, why was the tribe not fighting back? The heroes feared that their gamble had been a horrible miscalculation, and that they would all pay the price for it...

Brief moments passed that seemed to stretch on forever. The ground was now soaking with halfling blood. Wherever the companions turned their eyes, they witnessed orcs in a frenzy, howling with fury... Yet all the heroes heard was nothing... deafening silence... Wherever their eyes gazed, they witnessed atrocities... Dozens of halfling warriors and their handful of wogren mounts lay dead or dying, their bodies being hacked to pieces, their organs torn out and devoured by the Shadow’s butchers...

Halfling women trying to flee only to be thrown down by orcish soldiers, raped by spears, or forced to watch their children ripped apart and eaten alive by the brutes...

All the heroes saw was... hell on Aryth...

Companions either fallen, or making their last stand...

More orcs stepped out of the darkness and into the fading fire light, sensing that victory was at hand. They were too numerous, the halflings too few... the strength of the companions faltering...

The orcs that closed in leered and mouthed unheard commands, insults or challenges... They were all jagged teeth and hateful, bloodshot eyes in grey-green faces, helms with grim designs... 

Then, when all seemed lost, the halflings and wogren began to rise from the ground... Scarred, maimed, disembowled, disfigured... like so many of the hungry dead the companions had encountered in their travels... except that they were not getting up and standing... Rather, the ravaged corpses now seemed to be shimmering and translucent, and floated off the ground to the height of the orcs, feet not touching the earth...

The orcs stood paralyzed in their tracks, sadistic expressions now showing terror...

The spectral halflings scanned the battlefield, faces contorting with silent howls...

A sliver of light illuminated the clouds on the eastern horizon...

The Ghost Tribe had its vengeance.

All orcs within the camp that yet lived, died where they stood. Those beyond its periphery ran for their lives. But the spectral halflings did not limit their targets to the minions of Shadow. With luck that only a gnome could possess, Garn somehow managed to sneak out of the melee and beyond the camp unnoticed. Vargus, hasted by magic, had momentarily rushed into the camp to aid a wounded Weylan... when some of the spectral dead turned their attention toward the dworg and the Erenlander, and nearly killed them with the fear and corruption generated by their frightful, disfigured visages and soul-chilling touches.

Dag yelled for the others to flee. Garn came to the dwarf’s side, but Vargus and Weylan found themselves unable to leave the periphery of the camp. The first rays of the sun shone over the eastern horizon. The dworg and the Erenlander felt themselves unable to move forward... they felt as thought they were fading into the grey mist that was rising from the bloody ground and swirling around them...

Frantically, Vargus reached into his pack and tossed Woden’s case to Garn... It would be his burden now...

And then, only Garn and Dag were left standing on a battlefield that now contained but the corpses of orcs...

Weylan, Vargus and the Shepherd had vanished without a trace... 
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