Heroes of Sand Point

Part 13
Kaiju

On the whole, King Ghartok was a disappointment, to his god, to his minions, and to the relic hunters. What kind of monarch has no treasury? The Gnoll kind. The best thing the Carrion King owned was a particularly nasty whip. Unimpressed, the adventurers surveyed the dingy royal quarters. “Animals,” murmured someone with disdain. Still, there was some hope. After all, the throne room lay just beyond the large doors on the North end of the room.

A distant crash preceded a burst of stale, dusty air from the door to the tower. The adventurers took up strategic positions and waited for whatever it was that was pounding and thumping down the winding stairs. When Toska’s griffin came bounding into the room covered in cobwebs and caked in fine gray dust, the relic hunters couldn’t help but laugh. The delighted Druid quickly cleaned her companion, and thus reinforced with a powerful ally, the adventurers readied themselves to continue the search for the Pit of Screaming Ghosts.

Once more, Quarrell took the lead. Pushing one large door open just enough to peer outside, the soldier was struck not by visual splendor but a staggering stench. He winced and squinted through the wreak to spot a robed dog man pacing impatiently behind the towering structure of bone and rotting skins that supported what he could only assume was the Carrion Throne. There would probably be guards, but from Quarrell’s perspective, it looked like a cake walk. Signaling for the others to follow, he pushed open the doors and strode purposefully along the walkway toward the throne. Toska and Nicto hesitated when struck by the odor, and covered their noses as they walked after the soldier.

The robed Gnoll barked for guards the moment he spotted the relic hunters, and it’s safe to say that answering his call was the worst decision those guards ever made. Then again, the robed dog man rushed toward the trio of humans, and this too was not what those who wish to maintain union between the major portions of their anatomy consider a good idea. The Guards impeded the adventurers just long enough for Zayifid (a name the human’s would never hear) to get within striking distance. Nicto was the first to strike him. Conserving his spells, the sorcerer elected to stab with his rapier. Dismayed, the dog man held his ground and then Quarrell opened him up with a pair of neatly applied gashes. Zayifid who had drawn a scimitar realized that the up close and personal style of combat had become a less attractive option. Also, his Gnoll illusion had vanished.

A tall man with strangely canted ears, a shock of brilliant red hair, coppery skin, and clothes of no culture with which the relic hunters were familiar. As quickly as the party saw Zayifid’s true form, he vanished, appearing in the same instant at the base of the Carrion Throne. Again, there were factors in the equation that Zayifid was unaware of. Toska was airborne. Toska could summon nature’s cruelty. Zayifid found himself subjected to that cruelty. Unfortunately, Zayifid had a very unnatural ally. As Quarrell and Nicto raced around the massive circular pit filled with decaying carcasses that formed the central space of Ghartok’s throne room, Zayifid hastily called forth the Advanced Stegocentipede who lived in the pit.

From the surface of the revolting sea of bodies, the Stegocentipede launched upward, catching Toska’s griffon in its jaws. In short, order Nicto and Quarrell discovered just how poisonous the enormous arthropod happened to be. The monster’s lashing tail and thrashing spines were a dire menace to anyone in the area. With Zayifid out of their reach and the segmented horror practically surrounding them, the soldier and the sorcerer did everything in their power to harm it. Ladling damage upon foes is something those two did particularly well, and the Stegocentipede took notice. Flung from the monster’s mandibles, Toska and the griffin landed near Zayifid. The make-believe Gnoll once more readied his scimitar… then the lightning began to fall. Zayifid exploded. The Stegocentipede fried. An angry Druid is a fearsome enemy.

Battered, bitten, and poisoned, the relic hunters limped to the Carrion Throne. None of the trio were at their best, and their investigative skills must have suffered most. They searched high and low. They walked round and round. They were sure the stairwell to the Pit of Screaming Ghosts was right here. They just couldn’t find it. More Gnolls were sure to show up at any minute, and the adventurers were not exactly in fighting trim at the moment. Clumsiness saved them. Climbing down the wobbly tower of skins stretched over bones, Quarrell’s boot caught on something. He went head first into the mass of rotting meat, but by the time the others pulled him out, the throne had toppled, the cover slid aside, and the stairs leading down lay at their feet.

Steeling themselves againt the unknown, the relic hunters showed real courage in descending those spiraling stairs. Down and down they went. Light fell across the final steps, and through an ornate arched doorway, Quarrell, Toska, and Nicto found a miniature paradise. Softly glowing crystal illuminated a garden complete with a clear stream, a variety of greenery, and a circle of stone benches. Nothing about the place brought “Pit of Screaming Ghosts” to mind. Perhaps someone was just trying to keep unwelcome visitors from their private retreat? Upon entering the serene space, the relic hunters felt the feebleness inflicted by the Stegocentipede’s poison dissipate. An almond tree provided a tasty and fortifying snack. The cool stream was wondrously refreshing. After a mere hour’s rest, the relic hunters felt entirely restored. They began to look around. Nicto found what had once been a portal, but the arcane ring that had surrounded the window to another place, only circled blank stone. Four massive stone heads stood like buried sentinels along the garden’s central path. At the opposite end from the dead portal, a narrow corridor bent to the right and opened into a small room.

In the center of this room stood a bizarre mechanical device. Massive iron arms equipped with clamps for hands were raised over a central circle on the stone floor. The sorcerer discerned that the apparatus was certainly the product of the arcane, and with a little tinkering, he activated it. At the same moment, great gouts of flame spewed from the stone heads, and from the dead portal stepped four fiery Salamanders. With long handled, serpentine bladed weapons, the monsters slithered with shocking speed. They suffered not at all from the belching heads, and the relic hunters were hard pressed to keep themselves from being spitted and roasted. Nicto’s love of scorching and searing left him with a very short list of useful spells. Toska was caught in one of the initial blasts and fought on despite being badly burned. Quarrell and the griffon fought with tremendous ferocity. Little by little the human’s recovered from the surprise assault and turned the tide. Using the terrain to maximum benefit, Toska took shelter in the stream and employed her elemental powers. Nicto applied both his blade and lesser magics to aid his companions. And in the end, the relic hunters finished off their foes and made the most of the garden’s restorative properties.

When at last they returned to the room with the mechanism, the relic hunters discovered that the arms had removed the massive marble wedges that formed the central circle in the floor. Yet again, they were faced with stairs descending into gloom.

Lights cast by Toska, Nicto, and Quarrell’s bardic girlfriend glinted and dance off a sea of treasure. In the vault beneath the garden, lay truly epic wealth, an emperor’s career earnings, the hordes of half a dozen investment banker half-dragons. Naturally, the party member with the highest wisdom score was the first to spoil the moment. The Druid easily saw through the illusion and into the vile murk beneath. Quarrell was quickly persuaded when the trap was pointed out, but Nicto, trusting his companions, more than his own eyes desperately wanted a closer look but refrained. Rather than slog through the shallow lake of insidious goop, the relic hunters were ferried over on by one by Toska’s airborne taxi service.

Safe on spongy, odd smelling subterranean soil, the party faced another unwelcome scene. Hanging from the cavern ceiling, a Sand Kraken hovered suspended in a thin cocoon of translucent mineral. The irksome aberration’s many tentacled form could have crawled straight out of the hideous murals of the Troglodytes; here was a pet of Lamashtu made flesh. Nevertheless, the savvy bard and the suave sorcerer deciphered a plaque beneath the monster that called for a prayer to Rovagug. Together, the alluring pair pieced together a phonetic mash of appropriate syllables that kept The Waiting Beast in his default mode. The catacombs beyond the Sand Kraken ornamented entry way were filled peacefully desicated corpses, and the sarcophagus of Shirak was the centerpiece of the whole affair. After shoving aside the hideous lid, carved into the shape of a nine-legged spider, the relic hunters recovered the Scroll of Kakishon.

Weary and bedraggled, Quarrell, his Bard, Toska, her Griffon, and Nicto found a rear entrance to the catacombs. Following the scent of freshening air, the successful adventurers reached the mountainside and returned to the hidden canyon where Rasmus Rask, Navus Canis, and the ponies waited.

View
Part 12
The Butchers Make a Housecall

Hours later and thousands of feet higher, the weary troupe filed into a concealed canyon. At once, the fatigued ponies set to feasting on the grass that carpeted the floor of the ravine and drinking from the trickling remnant of the stream that had carved it. The adventurers settled onto the turf while Rasmus Rask produced the maps procured by Baba Magyr. Landmarks were quickly identified and approaches discussed. Rask pointed out what he believed was the grand entrance to the temple complex and explained that relics, icons, and sacred scriptures would have been displayed for arriving pilgrims. He produced a second map of the interior of the structure, indicating the alcoves for such displays. Another sheaf, revealed the small chapels dedicated to long forgotten saints of Serenrae in the basement of the building. Thus it was, that Grundmoch’s Lair, home to the Troglodyte allies of the Carrion King was chosen as the most reasonable insertion point for the treasure hunters.

After a brief rest, Rasmus Rask and his hired help made their way to the Outer Gatehouse. Relying on the dark of night and the element of surprise, (for a slow, stealthy approach was unlikely to safeguard the heavily armed and armored group) the adventurers launched a direct assault. The outer doors were not fortified, but they were guarded. After forcing their way in, the treasure hunters met a barrage poisoned javelins.

What followed was genocide. Clean. Efficient. Effective. Through once holy spaces, now desecrated with the abominable worship of immortal horrors, Quarrell, Toska, and Nicto strode like the executioners of divine a sentence. Walls that once were adorned with pious art, and later rendered anathema by the vandal congregation of beast gods, were painted anew in the black blood of Troglodytes. Even so, nothing devoted to Serenrae was located. Even in Grundomach’s own den, where vile Lamashtu’s most appalling adoration was apparent, not but trinkets valued in soulless coin could be found.

Onward and inward trekked the adventurers. According to their map, an underground corridor ran from the Outer Gatehouse into the warrens beneath the Great Dome of the central temple. Leaving no Troglodyte alive in their wake, the relic hunters set to dismantling the barricade between the domain of the lizard men and that of the dog men. Why such an edifice existed at all was a worrisome detail suitable only for those whose cerebral interests outweighed their dash and vigor. Quarrell, Toska, and certainly Nicto were not what one would call contemplative. However, Rasmus Rask was, and having witnessed the room to room bloodbath in the Outer Gatehouse, he had grave misgivings as to what might be encountered in the Carrion King’s own home.

In short order, the trio of adventurers cleared the way. The relic hunters cautiously advanced into a wide hall with large pillars along its central axis and many shadowy alcoves along the walls. As they neared the first pillar, a raging wind began to howl, coalescing into a cyclone that filled the hall with debris, extinguished the torches along the walls, and raised a tremendous noise. Scarcely were the adventurers able to engage the Air Elemental before it simply dissipated, having alerted the dog men in the barracks and the guards in surrounding area.

Rasmus Rask had witnessed his hired muscle dispatch small pockets of Trogledytes, but he had not seen them in pitched battle. Rask was not a young man, nor was he inexperienced in contests of arms, but the savagery, the terrifying bestial clamor raised by the Gnolls, their hideous teeth and murderous claws… The aging scholar groaned.

On the other hand, Quarrell, Toska, and Nicto plied their trade with the skill of true professionals. Scenes that would shatter the will of common men, they regarded with the cool eye of the craftsman. “Was that cut as clean as I wished it to be?” “Could I have burned a larger hole through that one’s torso?” “Will my griffin get sick from swallowing so much repulsive Gnoll meat?” A score of rabid dog men met their end in that subterranean hall. Though from the remains heaped about the room, it looked like armies had met, and Rasmus Rask, retching in the corner, only wished he could empty his memory as easily as his stomach.

When he had originally envisioned the mission to retrieve the Yasna, the scholar had pictured a small party of cunning, secretive men slipping unseen into the Carrion King’s domain. With immaculate stealth, they could dash from shadow to shadow, secure the ancient scrolls, and evaporate into the night with none the wiser. Never had he dreamed of facing the ferocity of monsters then using their viscera to ornament their den. Rask could bear no more, but before he could express his distress, a discovery was made.

Holding a map of the warren in his bloody gauntlet, Quarrell pointed toward a brick-sized opening just within reach on the North wall. The map showed a small room with a door where that wall stood. What’s more, the room had been marked by Rask as a promising location. Intrigued, the scholar overcame his anxiety while the adventurers pulled down the wall brick by brick and revealed a well appointed study within. In this one room, the iconography of Serenrae remained unblemished. A very old and elaborately annotated copy of The Birth of Light and Truth lay on the desk beside a journal detailing the search for the Scroll of Kakishon to be found in the Pit of Screaming Ghosts. Rask’s hands shook as he searched his maps for anything that might serve as such a pit until he found an image of a cave. But, how to reach it? The shrewd old scholar welcomed the adventures impressions, and it was discovered the stairwell down to the cave was a match for the dimensions of the Carrion King’s Maggot Throne.

Rasmus Rask recoiled. There was a short path to their goal: hidden stairs to the King’s chambers, out his royal doors, across his audience hall, and up to the throne itself. But, what rivers of blood must they ford along the way? Aggrieved by visions of what must follow, Rasmus Rask announced his retreat and was surprised to find relief in faces of the adventurers. They were not afraid for themselves, but keeping the old man in one piece could prove impossible while rousting the Carrion King from his bed and putting his most elite guards to the blade. Toska was particularly kind to the old man; she sent her griffin to guide him back to Navus Canis and the ponies.

In fact, the relic hunters were feeling rather better about the outing. They now had a clear understanding of where they meant to go, an accurate map of how to get there, and they had demonstrated that the anticipated resistance could be overcome. Things were going nicely in their opinion. “Too bad the old boy lost his nerve. Who knows, we might even find something more interesting than a moldy old scroll along the way?” Any injuries they had suffered, were quickly remedied by the hearty Druid, so the adventurers tromped ’round the corner, shifted a bit of rubble, and pried open the ancient iron door to the roots of a ruined tower. It was a short journey, no more than fifty paces, and yet, Toska witnessed an odd transition in the environment.

A small fountain, easily mistaken for a latrine due to its appalling filth, marked a boundary… no, a schism. Here the worship of Lamashtu, Mother of Monsters, ended and the adoration of Rovagug, The Great Destroyer, began. Gone was the imagery of Sarenrae entangled and abused by tentacled creatures of pure corruption. Such blasphemies were replaced by panoramas of devastation. Bas reliefs of ravaged cities, mounds of corpses, mountains split and bleeding molten stone. Among the barbarian tribes sufficiently savage to consort with Orks, Lamashtu was known well enough that Toska recognized the beast goddess’ sickening symbolism. Rovagug was another matter. She had never known the Great Destroyer as a persona, an entity engaged in mortal affairs. Each new element of knowledge surrounding the Carrion King painted an increasingly bizarre picture.

Nevertheless, the stairwell waited, and at its end, yet another iron door.

The complaint of rusty hinges drew the attention of Ghartok and his bodyguards. Lounging on a pile of rotting bearskins, the Carrion King watched with amusement as plaster cracked from the wall to reveal a door. The foolish Gnoll, mad Troglodyte, or desperate human slave who happened to come through that door was in for the surprise of his life. The Warren was riddled with abandoned passages, and the Gnoll host, as relative newcomers to the venue, were constantly stumbling upon them. Ghartok’s amusement faded as Quarrell bent back, more than forced open, the metal door. The king of the dog men was even less pleased at the site of soldier’s glaive. That this reckless human was not alone was motivation for Ghartok to order his pack forward while he retrieved his greataxe from the array of weaponry on his trophy wall.

Nicto and Toska could see next to nothing from where they stood on the steep stairs above and to the left, but they could certainly hear the frenzied snarling and barking from the room beyond. When a canine face came into view over the soldier’s shoulder, the sorcerer removed it with a scorching ray. Quarrell swiftly stepped over the headless Gnoll leaving space for Toska to join him on the threshold. Nicto made the most of his secure position, inflicting eldritch destruction with spell after spell. Ghartok’s favorites were falling fast. The flee-ridden monarch called upon his divine master and gave battle to this unforeseen enemy. Regicide was added to the tally of the adventurers’ achievements almost instantly. Each poured their own brand of malice into Ghartok: burning, blasting, slashing, and crushing, but it was Quarrell’s premium product that finished the job. He didn’t kill the king with a single slash; it took two. The first gave a deadly wound. The second severed the Carrion King’s critical link to life.

View
Part 11
Divine Appointment

Days later, the vagabond adventurers gathered on the road to Sut’kagan. Four of the alien band congregated at the edge of Lothal. Quietly, Quarrell nodded to Toska, offered Nicto an uncertain smile, and narrowed his eyes at the gray dwarf who wore Ja’s gauntlet. Navus respectfully explained that in obedience to his departed master, he would accompany the Varissian refugees.

None questioned the absence of Sam. The mysterious elf maiden had an uncanny way of showing up in odd places unexpectedly. But then, how could they know the torment of Sam’s soul? The internal agony of one compelled to commit unvarnished murder? Had her feet carried her to the assembly, the Sam who would have stood with her familiars was not the Sam they knew. The Sam of Falcon’s Hollow had writhed with each step toward Ensi Suen’s rendezvous, had fought to run and hide while Nicto beguiled the woman, and at last perished when Sam’s soul stealing sword ended a life in exchange for coin. A soulless Sam had shuffled alongside the sorcerer in flight from the scene of sealed fate.

And what of Nicto? A morally sensitive individual might well wonder how the dashing spellcaster’s soul stood in the light of his recent introduction to assassination, but if you ponder this at all, then you spend more time contemplating such things than Nicto. His golden hair gleamed in Serenrae’s glory. Shapely girls giggled and blushed at the mere sight of him, and his coin bag hung heavily against his hip. It seemed like a nice day for a potentially profitable adventure; how could the events of yesterday cast a shadow upon a Ganymede in the making?

Thus it was that a quartet of infidels set out to join a supremely pious devotee of the sun goddess in order to retrieve her most sacred relic. Appropriately, the day was bright and hot. A steady stream of carts, litters, and members of every cast mingled on the dusty track. And yet, upon rounding a corner, Quarrell, Nicto, Toska, and Navus Kanus found the road entirely empty save for a lone figure squatting amidst the stones off to one side. He was startled by their sudden appearance and quickly stood, covering his spotted, wizened shanks with a shabby robe. Hastily tying his sash, the haggard Ensi Sargon began to yammer and rage at the uneasy spectators until foam flecked his lips and his frail frame trembled with hatred. “Foreign swine! Offal eating whore spawn! You have ruined me with your demonic trickery! Now, you will know my pain!” At the word “Pain”, bad things started to happen.

Toska’s Druids Vestments erupted in a mass of black tentacles, slithering about her, binding her, crushing her. Worse still, her Ring of Freedom of Movement cast a silence spell over her. Quarrell’s belt of might burst into a net that engulfed him while his Animated Shield began to strobe with blinding flashes. Nicto’s substantial Spellcraft skills revealed that his Winged boots were somehow concealing the attacker, his Ring of Protection was turning him into a tree, and his Amulet of Natural Armor was producing deafening claps of thunder.

Navus Canis alone was unaffected by Ensi Sargon’s treachery. Sagely, the Duergar cast Hold Person on the vengeful wizard. In the blink of an eye, Sargon’s plan fell apart. Though his lips were frozen, the venerable conjurer cursed the insightful sorcerer as Nicto stripped away the offending accessories. Sargon watched in impotent outrange as the soldier tore free of the net and destroyed his traitor shield. The bitter spellcaster’s eyes could not shed the tears of despair appropriate for the moment that Toska escaped engulfing tentacles and lent her force to his destruction. A teleportation spell lay frozen on his immobile tongue until death’s darkness shielded him from further repercussions.

Among the Stained Clouds

At the base of the Pale Mountain range, the charred remains of a village sent dwindling spires of smoke up into the sky. Rasmus Rask led a column of sure footed ponies into what used to be Kelmarane. He pointed out once familiar buildings and explained that the fast flowing Pale River descended from the mountains to provide weary caravans with welcome water. While Rask spoke, Toska spied a Gnoll. With the efficiency of hardened veterans, the adventurers set upon the eight Gnolls who lingered at the scene of the Carion King’s crime. The Gnolls who stood and fought fell in mere moments before Quarrell’s whistling glaive, Nicto’s beams of eldritch wrath, and Navus’ unholy Dwarven condemnation. Those who fled took refuge in the network of tunnels beneath the blackened bones of the village. Among the adventurers, wiser heads prevailed and pursuit ended at the tunnel’s opening.

They made camp some miles to the East of ruined Kelmaraine. Watches were set and faithfully served throughout the hours of darkness. When at last Serenrae resumed her throne, Toska took to the sky as well. Her eagle eyes surveyed the Pale River’s route as the gleaming ribbon wound upwards and eastward through channels carved in mountain stone. The canyons along various tributaries provided the Gnoll host of the Carion King with great cities of networked caves. From a comfortable altitude, the Druid witnessed the daily duties of dogmen in their thousands. Narrow and steep was the way that followed the river’s true course, but if the relic hunters wished to avoid close combat with the entire Gnoll horde, it was the only choice.

View
Part 10
The Price of Gifts

Baba Durana

Quarrell and Baba Magyr arrived at Baba Durana’s palace, which was less opulent than Baba Magyr’s, and his coterie of slaves had obviously been chosen by his wife. Durana greeted his guests warmly and led them through the main house straight out the back. Forge smoke lent the air an iron tinge well before the neatly arranged dual rows of open fronted sheds came into view. As Quarrell drew near, he could plainly see the broad, sweaty features of a dozen dedicated Duergar smiths lit by the fierce red glow of heated metal.

Durana ushered his guests into one of the sheds and, speaking loudly over the incessant ring of hammers, he asked the exotic adventurer to show the smith a sample of his craftsmanship. Awkwardly, Quarrell explained that none of his work was available at the moment.

Doubt and skepticism reconfigured Durana’s features. The squat, swarthy arms merchant asked, “You know of long swords, great swords, and flails, yes? These are the barbarous implements of your depraved and benighted homeland, no?” Baba Durana wanted to know if Quarrell had ever forged these weapons, or had he rejected them entirely. “What sort of weapon might a competent warrior wield, if such could be found, beyond the lands over which blessed Serenrae reigns?” inquired Durana, hoping the alien might prove useful in some fashion and that his day would not be entirely wasted.

Piqued by the Parthian’s derision, Quarrell produced his longbow and requested a series of targets at increasing distances. Then, the soldier performed prodigies of marksmanship, a truly once in a lifetime performance that awed merchants and slave smiths alike. What’s more, Quarrell explained, the bow was not his forte, and should Durana be willing to lend him smiths and workspace he would produce samples of the requested weaponry.

The merchant gladly agreed and assigned his chief smith to aid the strange and magnificent warrior. Over the next few days, Quarrell and the smith turned out an excellent set of arms. Pleased once more, Baba Durana made the adventurer a splendid offer. If Quarrell could train a trio of gladiators with his abominable weaponry and if those fighters could win in the arena, then Quarrell could keep the prize money and become a full partner in Durana’s business. As supplier all of the weapons to the local Civil Militia, arms for all of the retainers of the local Ensi houses, and product for many shops across Parthia, Baba Durana was offering an alliance worth 5,000gp a month. Quarrell accepted.

Tyche Smiles

Meanwhile, the packages began to arrive from Ensi Sargon. Beautiful and powerful items were eagerly unwrapped and gleefully donned by the vagabond adventurers. The fruits of their fortune were wondrous indeed, and each was well pleased with their winnings. Throughout the following weeks, such packages arrived daily, eliciting great joy.

As might be expected, Quarrell applied all of his industry to labors with smiths and gladiators while Ja became the toast of the town. Lauded at a banquet held in his honor, the monstrous barbarian circulated with a girl on each arm. Nani and Meski, clad in scandalous togas and dripping jewels, accompanied the barbarian, serving as minders, translators, and those who must see a drunken demi-Titan home in the wake of a truly epic revel.

Fridays were sacred to Serenrae, thus at dawn on Friday, the pious of Lothal gathered at the central temple, a massive ziggurat draped in greenery. After the proclamation of the Haptanghaiti and the pronouncement of fortune for each sign of the zodiac, the masses migrated to the race track. Friday’s races were special. No chariots, no teams, no violence. Horse and rider ran beneath Serenae’s blazing eye for the prestige of victory and the glory of triumph… and the tremendous prize money.

Nicto, Sam, and Toska insinuated their own newly bought racing stock into the daylong event with varying success. Sam’s filly won early on in the preliminaries but could not maintain her pace in the finals. Alas, Nicto’s magnificent Loins of Treasure was all shine and no show. The impressive stallion lost focus in the home stretch. Toska’s fillies proved formidable, earning the witch a gleaming heap of prize money. Nevertheless, it was a pair of terrible falls, a tragedy common to the races, that won Toska the most glory. The Druid’s healing skills and undetected magic spared the lives of two fleet-footed racers. In the days to come, demand for her gifts would make Toska rich.

As the sun set, the crowds dissipated and the foreign trio strolled along with their slave girls, grooms, and weary horses heading back to Baba Magyr’s stables. Shadows lengthened in the narrow twisting streets. The odors of food preparation drifted on the air as families gathered to speak the Haptanghaiti over their evening meal. Suddenly, three men stepped out to block the adventurer’s path. The ensuing conflict was shockingly brief and spectacularly fatal to the gladiator slaves sent to take from the revolting barbarians what so rightfully belonged to true sons of Parthia. In the short time prior to their demise, the assailants spoke in signs because their tongues were cut out, leaving the adventures to guess at who might have sent them.

Meeting with Rasmus Rask

On the following morning, yet another glorious day dawned in Lothal. When they awoke, the guests of Baba Magyr were informed that their host had invited them to breakfast so that they might meet someone.

“Welcome, Friends,” beamed Baba Magyr as the adventurers entered a tree shaded garden. The swarthy little man’s dark eyes gleamed with a restrained giddiness that the foreigners had not seen before. “I have the honor to introduce to you one of the Empire’s most esteemed scholars, Amar-sin Rasmus Rask.” Magyr gestured to the bald man in red robes seated next to him. But here was no librarian. Amar-sin Rasmus Rask was too tall to be Parthian, and his sharp angular features marked him as a man of the North in spite of his deeply tanned and leathery skin.

“Please, you will call me Rasmus Rask. The titles of our castes mean nothing to you and are of no consequence to me either,” he said with a smile and stood to shake hands. “Magyr tells me that you are experienced adventurers, great travelers, and skilled warriors.”

“As you see, I am not so young or so hardy as I once was, and it grieves me to find that so late in life am I come to the task for which I was born. You see, Magyr was on an errand for me on this most recent, most unfortunate voyage. Nevertheless, by the mercy of Serenrae…”

Baba Magyr habitually interjected, “Praise be Serenrae, the munificent! There is no Majesty and there is no…”

But a cold glare from Rasmus Rask cut him off. “These people and their infernal yammering,” murmured the scholar. “But you see, Magyr returned with a map, a map I have long desired and yet am desolated to hold. I seek the Yasna, the original tablets of the Primary Liturgy. Alas, according to this map, they lie in an ancient temple high in the White Mountains, and I dare not travel there alone.”

Baba Magyr groaned, “There are Giant Kin of every kind in those mountains. Worse still, the temple in question is now known as the House of the Beast. A Gnoll warlord holds court there. His revolting pack regularly descends to raid the caravan route. They call him the Carrion King, and his power in recent years has grown great indeed.”

“So, you see,” resumed Rasmus Rask, “I covet the aid of bold and resolute companions. I hope to depart in three weeks. Naturally, I shall provide for the journey, thus you need bring only such personal effects as you desire to my home in Sut’kagan. From there, we will follow the river North, and turning away from the caravan route, wend our way to the temple.”

Three more weeks in Lothal sounded most agreeable to the assembly. Several had “irons in the fire”, so to speak, but only one of their number was contemplating abandoning the adventurer’s path.

Reconciliation of Ja

At sunset, Ja’s Duergar slave (whose name is Navus Canis) approached his barbarous master. The gray Dwarf’s head was shaved and his beard braided. Clad in a leather apron, a loincloth, and stout boots, he carried an identical, though much larger, outfit for Ja into which the pair wrestled the demi-Titan. Given their relative heights, the scene was comic.

“Come, Thomniel, chosen of Droskar,” the Duergar solemnly urged then led his master to a newly erected forge complete with an assortment of smithing tools, an anvil, a bellows, and a bed of red hot coals.

“As three is the number of completeness, so 4 is the number of Droskar, for he endures,” intoned Navus Canis. In a bass chant, the Duergar began to recite the 1st Dogma of Droskar and gestured for Ja to repeat after him.

Strike Hard to split the stone
Strike Hard to forge war gear
Strike Hard to crush the foe
Strike Again

The hour long repetition of the 1st Dogma gave Ja time to think. The barbarian had come less and less to care for his new life, his elevated calling, and the nature of the world in which he found himself. People, places, and his destiny were strange… confusing. Worse still, he was being used by one deity, loathed by another, and protected by a force of nature solely for spite. Ja was not happy. Ja interrupted Navus.

The grim Dwarf listened patiently to his master and obediently accepted Ja’s instructions. Navus Canus would take the Grasp of Droskar. Navus Canus would assume the mantle of Redeemer of the Temple Made Forge. Navus Canus would stand before the god of his people and lead the Duergar against the ancient foes.

Navus raised a sacred implement and called to his master’s Master, “Great and mighty Droskar, will you hear me?” When a celestial messenger erupted from the earth, Navus was agog, terrified, and speechless.

“Hail Thomniel the Redeemer! I am Tarkus messenger of Tireless Droskar. What is your petition?” demanded the messenger.

Clumsily, the barbarian explained that Navus was Droskar’s tool now and that he had other things to do.

Perceiving that such news what not what Tarkus wished to hear, Navus Canis swiftly intervened.

“What my master means to say, O’ diligent Emissary of Enduring Droskar, is that he is grateful for the abundant resources you have granted to him, for the enslaved guide who will direct his dutiful steps, and for victory over giant kin, the ancient enemy of our race.”

“What is your master’s desire, Navus Canis, favored tool of the Lord of Toil?”

Carefully and discretely, the Duergar explained that Ja felt himself unsuited for the role of Redeemer and that, in obedience to his master, Navus would serve in his stead.

Relief filled the face of Tarkus. Cheerfully, he pulled the gauntlet from Ja’s hand and held it for Navus to assume.

Before the sun rose again, the barbarian collected his things, left his home, and set out alone to meet his fate in the harsh lands far to the North and West.

Assassination

On the same night, Nicto and Sam were engaged in other affairs. The dashing sorcerer dressed carefully for a rendezvous with Ensi Suen while the comely assassin donned the garb of a favored slave and disguised her Elven features. Together, they made their way through the evening crowds to a shadowed gate where the Ensi awaited her paramour. Naturally, the aristocrat urged stealth as she led her guests through the gardens to her quarters. What’s more, she promised Nicto a most suggestive surprise.

Sadly, the wide-eyed and ill-trained slave girl proved to be quite an irritant to Ensi Suen. When instructed to nip across the way and retrieve Nicto’s surprise from the nearby bungalow, the silly creature meandered about as though lost. Suen grew impatient. She turned her impatience on Nicto who did his best to calm the woman down with rapidly diminishing returns for his efforts. At length, he went in search of Sam… and found her hiding in the bath. After applying a new disguise, she emerged as a different slave girl who was promptly sent after the first.

Eventually, Sam came to the conclusion that perhaps she should simply do as she was told. She knocked on the door of the bungalow across the way. When the door opened, there stood Amar-sin Shulgi in nothing but a towel. Perhaps it was shock, perhaps assassination was against her nature, perhaps she just wanted to see Nicto’s face when he met his surprise, it’s hard to say. Sam didn’t kill her target then and there; she took him directly to Ensi Suen’s boudoir.

Nicto was indeed surprised. Not so much by the fact that Shulgi was certainly not a eunuch, but that because Sam brought her target into the room, Ensi Suen must die as well. Worse still, Nicto must do the killing himself. Scorching Rays leapt from the sorcerers hands leaving a cauterized hole through the middle of Amar-sin Shulgi’s chest and a second in Suen’s abdomen. Finally, Sam realized that her mission was in fact occurring around her and promptly finished the woman with a sword thrust through the cranium.

Thinking quickly, Nicto wrapped the Ensi’s fountaining head in clothes from the wardrobe then orchestrated the extraction of the bodies to the alley. After stealing a small two wheeled cart, the sorcerer hauled off and disposed of the bodies.

In the morning, Nicto led the shaken assassin to Ensi Kubau’s palace to collect the remainder of their fee. Kubau was content and paid happily.

In the Arena

The Arena of Lothal was of traditional construction. Row upon row of stone seats ringed the fighting floor. The crowd at the arena was rougher and louder than that of the race track. The rabble of Lothal came to the arena for blood. Naturally, sections were set aside for members of the Baba and Ensi castes. Above the arena, the sky was bluer. In the stands, the togas were brighter. The air tasted sweeter, and every sensation was more intense at the crossroads of life and death.

Quarrell, Toska, and Nicto joined Baba Durana in his box, and the program was what they expected: bear baiting, a farcical reenactment of a famous historical battle conducted by midgets, a few heretics fed to exotic toothsome predators, and then the melee.

Four gates along the wall of the fighting floor opened, and twelve armed and bloodthirsty warriors spilled forth. Chaotic combat of the most vicious sort ensued. Quarrell’s trio entered the affray cautiously. They appeared comfortable with their exotic longsword, greatsword, and glaive, but despite adequate tactics and superior weaponry, all three gladiators ended the day in the dirt. Triumph went to others, and the promising partnership of Quarrell and Baba Durana evaporated.

View
Part 9
Vagabonds Abroad

With the anchor chain wrapped round his waist, Ja marched across the becalmed sea. Each stride drew the survivors closer to a mysterious vessel on the horizon. This strange ship, little more than half the size of Row Ander’s beleaguered boat, sat high in the water bobbing erratically with the merest hint of a wave. It was an oddly constructed craft with oar locks high on the sides and a single, massively thick mast.

The ship was obviously of foreign make, but so foreign as to appear absurd. The sail hung from an un-raised spar, draping much of the deck. Small rowers benches sat on the deck, their shackles empty. The tiller was a pole long enough for a dozen men to clap onto. Along the center of the deck, large iron rings were mounted on cunningly crafted covers concealing the hold below. One of these had been slid aside just enough for a man to descend into the belly of the ship.

Quarrell led the way down into the narrow maze formed by stacks and bales of cargo. Unable to follow, Ja waited, watching from above while Toska and Nicto joined the soldier below. Scarcely had the trio reached the floor of the hold and produced a light against the dense gloom when the sound of rapidly approaching webbed feet reached their ears. Quarrell was staggered by the hideous visage of the Sea Hag, but Ja kept his head and directed the others as best he might from his superior vantage. Toska helped Quarrell recover, and with a few earnest thrusts, the fighter dispatched the monster.

While searching the hold, the survivors found a miniature fortress hastily constructed by someone alone and desperate. Walled by boxes, sacks, and artfully crafted furniture the squat edifice retained its inhabitant. A man called out greetings in a dozen languages before “Hello?” in accented common was clearly heard by all.

With great courtesy and a gentle tone, Quarrell coaxed a short, swarthy man in bedraggled robes to crawl out of a concealed opening in the rear of the makeshift fortress. “Praise be Serenrae, the munificent!” cried the filthy little man as he rose to his feet. “There is no Majesty and there is no Might save in Serenrae, the Glorious, the Great!” The man’s coif was a wild nest of wiry black hair. His eyebrows were dense and connected above a bold, rounded nose. He was an inch or two over five feet tall.

“I, Baba Magyr, am a merchant, a trader upon the seas and your servant,” announced the survivor. “Let us abase ourselves to Serenrae for the provenance of your arrival, for there is neither conscience nor good faith left among men, and yet, yours is the hour of deliverance!” At that Baba Magyr prostrated himself and began a sing-song litany that rambled on and on until as one, the survivors stopped him.

When asked how he came to be there and what happened to the ship, Magyr explained, “Know, O fortuitous strangers, that when I had been awhile on shore after my last voyage; and when, in my comfort and pleasures and merry-makings and in my rejoicing over large gains and profits, I had forgotten all I had endured of perils and sufferings, the carnal man was again seized with the longing to travel and to see foreign countries and islands. Accordingly I bought costly merchandise suited to my purpose and, making it up into bales, repaired to the docks, where I walked about the quay ‘til I found a fine tall ship, newly built, with gear unused and fitted ready for seafaring. She pleased me so that I bought her and, embarking my goods in her, hired a master and crew, over whom I set certain of my slaves and servants as inspectors. A number of merchants also brought their outfits and paid me freight and passage-money; then, after reciting the Haptanghaiti…”

“Praise to Serenrae, the Bounteous and Immortal!” “Great is the practice and diffusion of the true worship” “To Serenrae and the Fire!” “To Serenrae, high above all, the Prosperer of the Just” “To the earth and the sacred waters” “To the soul of the Urus, his meats are propitious” “To the Lillend Azatas, their forked tongues, and their correcting swords” “To Volgash, Commander of the Faithful, the King, the Life, and the Rewarder.”

… we set sail over Serenrae’s pool in all joy and cheer, promising ourselves a prosperous voyage and much profit.”

After a lengthy narrative, the survivors gathered that Magyr’s ship had suffered contrary winds, an irresistible current, and baffling astrology until they were becalmed then assaulted by an entire coven of Sea Hags. Magyr hid himself him while everyone else was butchered.

With the survivors’ help, the enormous sail was set, a cable was affixed to Row Ander’s galley, and the long tiller was manned. An easterly wind picked up. Even the professional sailors were amazed how well the foreign vessel behaved before the wind. In a night and a day, they reached the port of Lothal in the Harap’an province of the Parthian empire.

The unexpected appearance of Baba Magyr’s ship was a spectacle at the busy docks. Long boats were rowed out to tug to the vessels into births. Row’s ship was easily the largest in the port. The quays were thronged with dark, mono-browed faces, gesturing and gibbering. Magyr, in turn, shrieked and flailed with the best of them. The survivors picked out “Serenrae” about every third word.

Eventually, litters were shoved through the mass of ululating humanity, and the entire party was born away to Baba Magyr’s palace where walls of bleached stone ringed fountained gardens, lush with exotic and fragrant flora. The palace itself was nothing short of a work of art. Colonnaded walkways lead to broad, arched doorways. Intricately carved lattices opened onto hanging gardens.

After a sumptuous dinner, each of the survivors was assigned to a lovely slave girl and sent off to luxurious quarters. As a display of respect and gratitude, female members of the party were treated in all ways like men. The slave girls were fair skinned with glossy black hair.

For the valiant Quarrell, there was Entemina, a shapely creature, with a dancer’s grace and suppleness.

For the resilient Toska, there was Argandea, petite and doll-like. Her voice was lyrical, and she sang quietly as she cheerfully performed the duties of a hostess.

For the handsome Nicto, Kushana was attentive; she was never out of reach and more often than not much closer.

For the dangerous and exotic Sam, Hadanish had beautiful eyes, large and dark. Her face was exceptionally lovely.

For the swashbuckling Row Ander, Keshin wore a mysterious smile. Her lips were coral, and her laughter melodic.

For the monstrous Ja, only tall girls would serve. At nearly five and a half feet in height, Nani and Meski towered over many of the men one might see in the street.

A breakfast of strong coffee and fresh fruit was served when each of the survivors awoke in their separate apartments. Those who required meat, enjoyed a delicious dish of Urus (something between a cow and a wildebeest) marinated in oil, garlic, and peppers. Baba Magyr returned to the palace around mid-morning. His head was shaved, his beard oiled and bound in a net of jeweled silver. He was in high spirits and greeted the survivors with:

“Praise be Serenrae, the munificent! There is no Majesty and there is no Might save in Serenrae, the Glorious, the Great!” “Praise to Serenrae, the Bounteous and Immortal!” “Great is the practice and diffusion of the true worship” “To Serenrae and the Fire!” “To Serenrae, high above all, the Prosperer the Just” “To the earth and the sacred waters” “To the soul of the Urus, his meats are propitious” “To the Lillend Azatas, their forked tongues, and their correcting swords” “To Volgash, Commander of the Faithful, the King, the Life, and the Rewarder.”

“Today, Serenrae generously shines upon you. You are made men of rare and wondrous wealth. In the markets this morning, I, Baba Magyr, labored on your behalf, and my work was not in vain. Come and see.” He led the companions to the rear of the palace where a broad courtyard of hard-packed dirt was walled by stables with a barn anchoring each corner. Ox drawn wagon after ox drawn wagon rolled through the far gate, each loaded with iron bound chests. “One hundred thousand Dinars… gold pieces, yes?… for each of you! Praise be Serenrae, the munificent! There is no Majesty and there is no Might save in Serenrae, the Glorious, the Great! …” Magyr launched once more into the Haptanghaiti, and more than one of the survivors joined in, compensating for mangled litany with sincerity of adulation.

“Shall I show you the fabled Bazaar of Lothal?” offered Baba Magyr.

Trade routes from the lands of Shun and Hind terminated in Lothal. Mountains from the north bent down to the coast in row after row of formidable ranges. Further north lay the brutal wastes of the Sea of Sand, thus caravans from the east sold their goods in Lothal, and the local merchants shipped their wares on to Uruk, the Imperial Port.

The narrow, winding corridors of the covered market were the soul of Lothal, offering excellent shopping: beautiful Parthian carpets, glazed tiles and pottery, copper and brassware, alabaster, and ivory. The air was filled with the fragrance of the exotic East. Spices, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, lokum and other alien edibles filled entire shops.

Taylors also provided the services of armorers, working in exquisite painted and dyed silks, fine linen, and rarities like damask and muslin. Most marvelous of all to the survivors were under things (for men and women), luxuries available nowhere on their native continent. Baba Magy first introduced Lalan Kalibun, a quiet, unassuming, fastidious older man, who wore spectacles and tended to mumble to himself. Each of the survivors ordered a wardrobe to their own personal taste.

Lalan Puanum’s shop was the next stop. The loud, energetic, heavyset woman, constantly touched whomever she happened to be addressing, while shouting orders to half a dozen scrambling shop girls. Jewelry was her specialty, and the survivors proved to be profitable customers.

As to weaponry, the formidably armed companions were as shrewd and discerning as any expert might hope to be. The selection to be found in Lothal was limited to scimitars, spears, short bows, falchions, and small wooden shields. The survivors were not impressed with their options or with Baba Wang Ho, a thin man with a reedy voice, who wrung his hands and never took his suspicious gaze from them. His weapons were gaudy and poorly made from low quality steel.

Baba Durana, on the other hand, was a muscular fellow in a short leather jacket, baggy pants, and low heeled boots, who enthusiastically demonstrated his wares. Everything in his shop was masterfully crafted from exotic Wootz steel. He and Quarrell at once sensed common interests. Through Baba Magyr, a meeting was arranged for later.

The survivors were pleased to find that the local apothecaries produced a panoply of potions… and poisons. The first they encountered was Baba Arwium, a pockmarked man, aged beyond his years, who spoke in a raspy voice. Conditioned as they were to the ready availability of divine magic to be found in their native land, the companions showed little interest in Arwium’s wares.

This surprised Baba Magyr, for by now, he knew well that his saviors were bold adventurers and that such was dangerous work. He questioned them on the way to the next stop. After enduring an account of their corrupt, heretical, and utterly vile homeland, Baba Magyr patiently explained that in Parthia, the aristocracy performed the ritual duties to Serenrae, the Great and the Glorious, the Munificent, the Bounteous and Immortal. Prophets occasionally arose along the margins of society, but sensible folk avoided fanaticism of that sort. Thus, for the maintenance of body and soul, apothecaries provided an essential service.

“And look, here is Baba Etana’s booth. Shall we look in?” proposed Baba Magyr.

Baba Etana was a particularly swarthy man with moles dotting his face and bags under his yellow eyes. He moved grudgingly about his little shop, collecting a large list of urgently needed unguents.

Suddenly, a ringing blast of brass horns pierced the ambient roar of hawkers and bargainers. Along the central corridor, a pair of heralds led a procession. Three men of the merchant cast followed the trumpeters, and in their wake tramped a hundred muscular men in chains, a score of comely maidens in linked manacles of gold, a dozen spirited horses, and last of all, a covered cage that filled the back of an ox cart.

Ja indifferently observed the spectacle until his attention fixed on a Dwarf, a strange Dwarf with dark gray skin and red hair. The crossed hammer and pick were branded into his flesh on shoulders and thighs, on chest and back. A nimbus of flame radiated from him. After a moment, Ja realized the he could see as well through his missing eye as through his good one.

So much was new, strange, and wonderful to Quarrell. His catalog of experiences had grown with staggering rapidity. He watched the procession with open curiosity. In the line of slave girls, he saw a number of Nubians, Shunese, and Nordics, but it was seeing the fair skinned, dark-maned Parthians pass that recalled infatuations from his youth. But, Quarrell had been a dutiful, focused boy with no time for skirt chasing. Regret and curiosity formed an alloy of intent within him. He wanted a closer look. Chestnut hair, ivory skin, and emerald eyes captured his attention. There was a girl with classically Varisian features. When she looked up, an expression of surprise and recognition rendered her face lovelier still. She stopped, and was about to speak when she was jerked forward by the momentum of the procession.

Slaves failed to interest Toska. The horses looked promising, but it was something unusual about the covered cage that intrigued her. The Druid’s sharp ears caught the irregular breathing of a wounded cat, but the scent was wrong. Feathers? Perhaps some sideshow charlatan had concocted a homemade chimera. Toska had seen that sort of thing before… and then she heard a groan to Erastil, a prayer for a quick and clean death.

Between winking at the giggling girls and married women who should’ve known better, Nicto lent the procession an occasional glance. He considered the usefulness of purchasing a steward to maintain and transport his newly purchased wardrobe. A girl might be nice too… but why should he pay for girls? They came free and in quantity if you played your cards right. But the string of horses! Such a string of horses! There were truly rare and wonderful specimens among the horseflesh on display. Deep-chested, long legged creatures. Fast runners that could maintain a wondrous pace for mile after mile. Nicto’s fortune clipped along in that queue.

Thus it was that the survivors joined the buyers trailing the procession.

Nubian water bearers preceded the auctioneers into the circle of the Sook; using aspersers of palmetto leaves, the dark men sprinkled the ground and laid the dust against the tramp of slaves and buyers. When they finished, the Chief Auctioneer stretched out his hands as though to catch a blessing and intoned the commencement.

“In the name of Serenrae, the Pitying and the Pitiful, who created man from clots of blood! All that is in the Heavens and upon the earth grovels beneath she who is Mighty, the Wisest of the wise. Her kingdom is the arc of the firmament. Serenrae maketh alive and killeth.”

The assembly shouted, “Great is the Light!”

“The blessings of Serenrae and Volgash the Auspicious be upon this market and all who buy and sell herein, and may Serenrae increase their wealth and grant them length of days.”

The assembly shouted, “Great is the Light!”

Amidst the ritual, the ignorant foreigners stood awkwardly glancing at each other, exchanging shrugs, and receiving poisoned glares from the faithful. The Sook was a place for the prominent, the wealthy, the significant, not alien vagabonds.

The Chief Auctioneer beat his hands together, and the curtains were drawn aside revealing the slaves in their pens. A junior auctioneer stepped forward, bowed to his master, and gestured grandly for the sale to begin. First on the block were a stout pair of Tanjungs from the islands of southern Shin. Wide as they were tall, the dull-eyed islanders were guided around the ring. Those who would, stepped forward to check their teeth or to feel the soundness of trunk and limbs. Spirited bidding ensued.

After a dozen or so slaves, the Duergar was brought into the ring. Renowned for their craftsmanship and deft handiwork, the dusky Dwarfs of the deep were much prized in Parthia. Nevertheless, Ja heeded the will of Droskar and paid no small price for his piety. As the God of Toil had requested, Ja acquired the appropriate Dwarf.

After all of the male slaves were sold, the first female was brought into the ring. A busty blonde with ice blue eyes and the figure of an Olympian was paraded around the circle. Few hands reached out to test her qualities as she passed, and those that dared to do so were met with a dangerous glare. Here was a 6’ 8” Amazon from the steppes beyond the Sea of Sand, a dangerous creature, but no more dangerous that Row’s other mistress. The ship-less captain paid an impressive amount, outbidding Baba Durana, Ensi Tural, and Ensi Gudea for her.

A trio of statuesque Nubians followed in quick succession. One was touted as a peerless cook, one a matchless weaver, the third proclaimed to be of a guaranteed producer of sons. Ja thought a moment and realized that he would like to have a cook, a weaver, and many sons. When he made his bid, the other buyers counted their coins and contemplated alternate investments.

After the Nubians, a trained courtesan of Goguryo took her turn. With willowy grace, the alabaster skinned Shunese stoically endured the abundance of eager hands that left pale pink prints on her delicate form. To his surprise, Nicto found himself nudging Baba Magyr to bid and bid again. He wanted this girl. If he must buy her, then so be it, but she would belong to him alone.

Eventually, a green-eyed Varisian girl was brought out. Her beauty was haunting, her bearing proud. She moved slowly around the ring, ignoring the groping throng, while she scanned the faces in the crowd as though she expected to find a certain countenance. The bidding began. Baba Rimash, Ensi Marma, and Baba Puzer bid furiously at first driving the price to 5,000gp. Baba Kubaba, Ensi Gudea, and Quarrell took it to 10,000gp.

“An outrageous sum for any slave girl,” murmured more than one of the buyers, bitter that they had not the coin to swim in those waters.

When the bidding flagged, the Chief Auctioneer leaned in to whisper something to the girl. Gathering herself, She broke out into the Varisian analogue of Edelweiss with Julie Andrews-esque power and emotional content. Midway through the first verse, the auctioneer silenced her with a sharp slap, bloodying her lip.

“Serenrae pardon her infidel tongue! Yet, who among the devout would fail to bring her to the True Faith? Imagine the glories of Gathic Hymns from such a songbird!” urged the auctioneer, and the bidding resumed with renewed vigor. Eventually, Quarrell found but one obstacle in his path. Only Amar-sin Shulgi, a hairless, portly eunuch charged with procuring for the Emperor’s guest palaces carried the bidding to 20,000gp, but Quarrell would not yield. His was a costly victory with a precious prize.

The Chief Auctioneer stepped forward once more and raised his hands. “In the name of Serenrae, the Great and the Glorious, who created the first horse from souls of the four winds! Let all who walk the earth marvel at her handiwork!”

The assembly shouted, “Great is the Light!” And the sale of horses began. The more perceptive of the party recognized at once that the rare and marvelous animals before them were vastly superior to the horses they had known. Speed and endurance were inscribed into every magnificent dimension of the racing stock presented at the Sook. To the dismay of the locals, only one of these extraordinary beasts escaped the clutches of the newcomers.

Almost apologetically, the third auctioneer stepped forward. From his youth and nervousness, it was apparent that he was an apprentice. His voice cracked as he explained, “Hear, O’ hear, Blessed of Serenrae! There remain some… oddities for your… um… consideration?” He looked uncertainly to the Chief Auctioneer who nodded encouragingly. “Behold!” cried the boy with a grand gesture.

A spectacularly wretched Hindi peasant rode into the ring on a saddled and bridled Northern White Rhino. Laughter erupted on all sides, and the apprentice auctioneer’s face reddened with embarrassment. Ja was not laughing, though an unsightly smile did spread across his face. Here was a creature that could serve him as a mount. He bought it for next to nothing.

“One last… er… thing, Brothers of the True Faith…” The apprentice auctioneer was cut off by an ear splitting roar as twelve men dragged a living griffon into the Sook. The crowd fell back against the walls while the mythical creature writhed and thrashed in its chains. The beast was clearly wounded and starved. Its eyes rolled wildly, and foam flecked its lips while its sides heaved.

Panic seized the close-packed crowd. Escape meant passing through the exit, and a great many bodies jammed the opening. Toska, more concerned for the creature than her own safety, approached it cautiously, murmuring soothing words with each step. The griffon’s white-ringed eyes focused on the Druid. It understood her words and sensed the sincerity with which they were spoken. The beast’s mind settled, its body relaxed, and at Toska’s touch, the griffon collapsed into quiet slumber. For the price of five gold coins, the Druid claimed the ill-used monster.

In the wake of the uncharacteristically eventful Sook, Baba Magyr swept his guests out of the bazaar and off to a more refined area of the city. On the way to the home of Ensi Jendit, the swarthy merchant explained that only members of the aristocracy possessed magical powers; there were no common arcane spellcasters Parthia. The very idea of such made him shiver, but he knew his saviors to be barbarians, beset by all manner of offensive forms of ignorance, so Baba Magyr made an effort to take nothing for granted.

“Wizards are men, and sorceresses are women as Serenrae, the Great and the Glorious, intended,” he stated with a sidelong look at Nicto. “And no Ensi will stoop to selling empowered items like a lowly merchant or base tradesman. No, these rare treasures are treated as heirlooms and must be gambled for, thus the will of Serenrae, the Munificent and the Immortal, is manifested. You will provide gold and the item you desire to be enhanced then cast the dice. If Serenrae, the Pitying and the Pitiful, gives you victory, yours is the gold and the empowered object. If she who is Mighty, the Wisest of the wise, wills your downfall, the gold and your item go to the Ensi.”

Ensi Jedit proved to be a gifted young mage, arrogant, handsome, and devil may care… until Ja, triggered perhaps by the absence of the smell of dung or the uncomfortably appealing finery surrounding him, chose a stream of death threats as his reply to a cordial introduction. Swiftly, Baba Magyr hustled his companions out of Ensi Jedit’s home while the terrified wizard did his best to collect himself.

Ensi Sargon, a paranoid, neurotic, palsied, and inhospitable old man was blessed with silence from Ja. Sadly, the venerable wizard was neither favored nor pitied by Serenrae. The guests of Baba Magyr spun the dice like archfiends, leaving Ensi Sargon nigh penniless and his store of magics ransacked. It was a broken old man who at last bid a hostile farewell to the foreigners.

• Dice Game: • 1st cast: sets the Point, a 7 or an 11 wins, 2,3, or 12 loses • 2nd cast: Point wins, 11 wins, 2,3, or 12 loses, 7 ends your roll • Side bets: Pass = roller wins or passes the point without losing; Don’t Pass = roller loses or rolls under the Point

It must be said that Baba Magyr was relieved to have contented the shopping avarice of his guests before he conducted them to the home of his good friend, Ensi Kubau. The short, stout aristocrat greeted his friend with open arms and welcomed Magyr’s saviors with genuine gratitude.

As the heat and dust mounted with the climbing sun, Baba Magyr escorted his guests once more to his palace. Toska headed for the stables to tend her griffon, and Ja, who had won a mansion off of the unfortunate Ensi Sargon, led his newly purchased household to explore their domain. Row Ander retired to his quarters in the company of his Nordic gladiatrix.

Thus it was, that Quarrell, Nicto, and Sam sat drinking chilled wine while Baba Magyr shared about the loneliness he endured in his struggle with bachelorhood. “What sorrow, what affliction of spirit a man must endure without a wife to share the burdens of life, no? How long must I travail without a mate? Alas, in so many of my affairs, Serenrae is abundant in her generosity, but in this one, most vital…”

Baba Magyr’s tale of woe was interrupted by the arrival of Bazzi, the loveliest of his comely host of slave girls, with trays of ripe fruits and savory Urus. The favorite of and personal mistress to her master, rolled her beautiful eyes at the repetition of this frequent refrain and sat down on the arm of Baba Magyrs chair. From her bodice, Bazzi plucked a folded note and handed it to her master.

“Ah, friend Quarrell, Baba Durana invites us to his home. He would see more of your bizarre and unwieldy foreign weaponry and witness both the construction and application thereof, if you would be so kind as to share knowledge of that nature with him,” explained Baba Magyr as he passed the soldier a note that he could not hope to read. Quarrell eagerly assented, and the pair rose to depart.

Kushana, Nicto’s attendant, proposed a day at the races. Hadanish, Sam’s girl, thought it a wonderful idea, and the quartet retired to dress for a public appearance then gathered once more to depart.

The races at Lothal were the city’s grandest spectacle. Chariot teams charged around a mile long oval accompanied by the cheers and tears of spectators. There were booths for bookies, but in the covered Merchants Section, wagers were made among the patrons. Kushana and Hadanish led Sam and Nicto to Baba Magyr’s private box where scantily clad hostesses brought drinks and delicacies. Given that it was a market day, the Merchants Section was practically empty, but the adjacent Ensi Section was quite full. The foreigners even recognized a few faces.

Kushana pointed out Baba Etana who sat grumbling and scribbling furiously whether he won or lost. “Don’t ask him about his system!” urged the attentive slave girl. “And that’s Ensi Dumzid. He owns several of the teams in contention. Listen how he rails about cheating then shrieks for his driver to ‘Whip him across the face!’ and ‘Break his axle!’”, said Kushana with a little snicker. “There’s Ensi Kubau. I don’t understand why he comes to the races. He shrugs when he loses and shrugs when he wins. Oh, he’s waving. I must go.” Kushana walked quickly to the Ensi’s booth and returned to speak with Hadanish.

Hadanish led Sam to speak with the even keeled aristocrat. Ensi Kubau sipped his wine and gestured for the halfelf to take a seat next to him on the vermillion draped bench. He didn’t look at her as he spoke, rather he stared at nothing in particular. “There is a man, an inconvenient, presumptuous man in the home of my daughter. One day, I mean to make my son in law my heir, but this ‘guest’ is from the Imperial Court and feels that he may take what he wishes from whomever he wishes in these ‘hinterlands’. I would see this man removed permanently. Have you an agent with whom I might discuss the terms of such an arrangement?”

The perceptive Kubau had recognized Sam for what she truly was and, while assassination was perfectly legal in Parthia, making a contract with a woman was not. He would make no agreement with Sam. “Perhaps that man…” he nodded toward Nicto “would be willing to speak to me of these things?”

The ladies in the Ensi booth had noticed Nicto as well. They knew what he was and assumed he was a number of other things as well. Exchanging salacious whispers, the bolder among them openly appraised the handsome sorcerers more appealing attributes. The boldest, in an embarrassingly shear toga summoned Kushana with the pretense of a wager. Finding himself in familiar waters, Nicto casually strode over to Ensi Suen and, through the slave girl, enacted a flawlessly executed seduction. The young spellcaster may have lost a bet, but before all was said and done, he would have it back many times over.

Wearing a mask of neutrality, Sam was waiting for him. Sadly, the sorcerer was not nearly as observant as Ensi Kubau. Sam preferred to be circumspect about her occupation, but nothing short of a blunt statement of her shadowy profession could generate the essential realization she required. Again, Nicto was pleased to find that an atmosphere of cultured vice permeated Lothal. No novice to shady dealings, he assured the assassin that negations of this sort were no problem. Motioning for Kushana to lead the way, he made for Ensi Kubau’s box.

“You are sorceress, yes? Man sorceress?” Kubau sighed and shook his head in an “it takes all kinds” type of gesture. “You have met Ensi Suen?”

Nicto replied that he had.

“Ensi Suen travels with a man that I wish Lalan Sam to eliminate. Were you to catch Suen’s eye, you might win an invitation to her lodgings. That would be fortuitous for Lalan Sam. The price for such services normally would be 500gp, but I desire discretion as the affair must take place in my daughter’s home. For discretion, I will pay an additional 2,000gp upon satisfactory completion. Do not leave bodies in the home, you understand?”

To see that the deal was conducted properly, Nicto bargained the discretion fee to 2,500gp and called it good.

“The man is Amar-sin Shulgi; do you know him?”

Nicto thought a long moment. Memory was not his strength, but eventually he recalled the doughy eunuch from the Sook, who bid against Quarrell for the Varisian girl.

“Perhaps, you should have words with Ensi Suen,” suggests Kubau, signaling that the interview was over.

Meanwhile, three Nubians chatted and sang as they stood scrubbing Ja’s bulk in the pool-sized Roman bath of the barbarian’s estate. The girls were ecstatic to land in such an outstanding situation. To be sure, their new master was more monster than man, but his monstrosity was on the outside, whereas others hid theirs within. The trio were already hashing out plans to furnish the palace with recommendations from Nani and Meski. It was the latter pair who flanked Bazzi when Baba Magyrs mistress rushed into Ja’s bath.

“Come quick! Ogres are ransacking the plantation!”, cried Nani. “Oh, hurry, Ja!”, urged Meski. Scarcely wasting a moment to wrap a towel around his waist, the demi-titan snatched up his axe and followed Bazzi while Nani and Meski ran off to find the rest of the party and Baba Magyr.

Ja came upon the Ogres in a large pasture. One carried an urus under each arm; the other had slung a prime specimen of the breed over his shoulder and was squeezing a second with his great paw to judge the creature’s qualities. At Ja’s approach, they shared a glance and the nearest lifted the questionable urus from the ground and flung it at the oncoming barbarian. Ja was less stunned by the verbal abuse hurtling through the air alongside the livestock than by the fact that he understood every word of it. Even so, the opportunity for conversation was but fleeting. Once Ja closed the distance, his axe spoke volumes on the disparity between his powers and those of the ogres. In a magnificent display of what a truly motivated barbarian can accomplish under ideal circumstances, Ja wrought a horrific orgy violence upon his distant kin.

As viscera, gray matter, and liberated limbs rained down upon the close cropped verdure, the hastily mustered civil militia of Lothal gaped in open wonder at the nightmare scene of their deliverance from certain doom. None would sleep well for months, but all would return to their homes that day thanks to the foreign dog of an infidel. The Ensi in charge stepped forward cautiously and through Bazzi expressed his gratitude and that of the town. What’s more, he requested, “would the savage infidel be willing to aid the Most Pius and Devout Defenders of Parthian Lothal should similar situations arise in the future?”

Ja agreed so long as his friends might do so as well. The Ensi gave a “whatever” sort of shrug and had the guards remove their insignia and hand them over to the barbarian. Bazzi, leading Ja back to his mansion, urged the demi-Titan to have the patches sewn onto his clothing so that people in the town would understand that, in spite of his frightful and wicked appearance, he was not so awful as he looked.

View
Part 8
Duality of the Tide

Rather than mount up and rashly pursue the elusive Seibei Kreed, the Heroes of Sand Point sagely returned to Mama Crandal’s cafe for food and rest. Wounds were tended, stomachs filled, and plans contemplated. Row Ander, Nicto, Starsha, and Edgrin would ride out on Jabb’s timber wagons, bound directly for the port while Quarrell, Toska, and Ja (forewarned of the man’s connections) set out to kill Kreed wherever they happened to find him.

At sunset, Ja took a moment to contemplate his relationship with Droskar. Making the most of his barbarous insight, the demi-Titan, raised the Grasp of Droskar and hailed the Dwarfen God of Endless Toil. Sadly, Ja’s Ork-flavored lexicon lent an unsavory coarseness to his salute. The earth before him opened, and an emissary of the deity climbed out. Avitus, one time slain paladin now probationary messenger, pummeled the ill-mannered messiah into a confused lump of bruises.

“Hail Thomniel the Redeemer! I am Avitus messenger of Tireless Droskar. What is your petition?” intoned the emissary.

The much drubbed Ja had not the presence of mind to request spells, nor did he possess the perception to judge that the Dwarfen nature of his deity prohibited the embrace of alternative races. And yet, he did manage to express gratitude for the miraculous transformation of the gisarme into a glaive. As a kindly response, Avitus warned Ja about his sloth and urged him to procure a smith’s hammer, a pick, or an anvil.

And that’s when Ja introduced Quarrell as a potential acolyte. “Are you mad?!” barked Avitus. He laughed and then realized that the barbarian was not joking. “That is not a Dwarf, Thomniel,” pointed out the messenger in the tone reserved for addressing particularly dim witted children. Even so, a glance at Ja revealed the sincerity of his interest. Avitus circled Quarrell, frowning and mumbling, obviously conflicted. At last, Avitus looks at Ja and shrugged. “Very well, I will convey your desire to the Master.” The earth opened and swallowed him.

In the same instant, Droskar stood before his Chosen One. The Dwarfen God of Toil wore a form different than his previous incarnations. His copper hair was bound back with a ring of onyx, another gathered his beard. His skin was platinum, his eyes were flashing ruby spheres. He wore black enameled armor with trim of red gold.

“Avitus brings me strange news. I wonder if he is worth keeping as a messenger,” grumbled the deity. “Tell me, what is it exactly that you want.”

Quarrell watched Ja stammer and fumble for words, but when he made to speak on his own behalf, his armor went instantly rigid, and his chinstrap tightened to the point that his jaw could not open.

“Is he your slave?” demanded Droskar.

Ja sensed the deity’s displeasure and had the sense not to lie. He stated clearly that no, the man was not his slave but that he seemed to possess qualities suited to the God of Toil’s world view. As he spoke, the demi-Titan could not ignore the withering aura of fury emanating from his master. Maybe an iron-hearted Dwarf god did not wish to number humans of any stripe among his followers. Maybe a supreme being who dedicated himself to a particular race for a particular cause would employ rather inflexible criteria to those lesser beings he chose to call his own. Mumbling a barely intelligible apology, Ja expressed an ill-defined measure of regret for his actions.

“This is a man,” pointed out Droskar. “What do I care for men? The heretics you slew were corrupted by men.” He looked hard at Ja. “You have eyes, but you do not see. I will limit your confusion.” Droskar took Ja’s left eye, and over the hole, he placed a Mithral plate adorned with the crossed hammer and pick in red gold. “When your vision is clearer, you may have this back,” said Droskar, bouncing Ja’s eyeball on his palm. “There is a Dwarf you will procure for me. You will know him when you see him, so keep an eye out, eh?” Droskar’s laughter rang in Ja’s ears, but he had vanished.

In the morning, the Heroes rode out with Jabb’s wagons, parting company when they met Sam on the roadside. The ranger had followed Kreed to Sand Point, even to the Lord Mayor’s home. She reported that after Kreed’s arrival, the Sherriff was summoned. When he left, the Sherriff didn’t look happy. Kreed was still at the house when guards began to arrive. Sam left before anyone spotted her.

At the Northern gate of Sand Point, the Heroes found Sherriff Hemlock awaiting their arrival. As they approached, a downcast Belar walked out to meet them. He knew that the Heroes could turn Sand Point into a bloodbath, and he had warned them not to get involved in Falcons Hollow politics. He just wanted to resolve the situation with the least violence possible. When guardsmen began to follow him, the Sherriff waved them away. Belar didn’t like his orders. He read the warrant aloud and then handed it over for the Heroes to read themselves.

“For the crimes of banditry, arson, murder, and willful defiance of ordained authority, the persons acting under the names of ‘Ja’, ‘Sam’, ‘Toska’, and ‘Quarrell’ will remand themselves to custody of Sherriff Belar Hemlocke forthwith.”

Hemlocke knew the Heroes, and the story he’d been told made no sense. He couldn’t fight the Heroes, and he had no desire to do so. The Sherriff asked for their version of the story and listened attentively. It was Ja who was most concerned about the fate of Kitani Eaveswalker, possibly because the seamstress still owed him a shirt, but when the barbarian mentioned the abducted woman, Belar interjected with questions. Hemlocke was the personal friend of Yojii Eaveswalker, Kitani’s lost husband, and even Kimi’s godfather. Animated by the unwelcome news, Hemlocke hurried the Heroes to the Lord Mayor’s home, dismissing all but a pair of his most trusted officers.

Upon discovering the most wanted band of murderous brigands in his domain standing in his parlor, Lord Grobaras was wary. He made no sudden moves and was careful not to raise his voice. He asked Hemlocke, “To what do I owe the honor of meeting our guests?” then invited the Heroes to sit down. The more perceptive members of the party could tell that the nobleman was likely to say anything to get these people out of his home. “What ransom do they require for Jurin?” said Grobaras, spotting his nephew among the outlaws.

Jurin was urged to join his uncle, and explanations followed. It took a while, but eventually Grobaras recognized Quarrell and Toska from the boar hunt to which he had treated them. He asked Hemlocke, “Are these the ‘monsters’ that Seibei was raving about?” Refreshments were brought, and Grobaras shared Kreed’s account of affairs in Falcons Hollow.

The Heroes told the tale of the raid on the Kobold lair to free the children, and Grobaras expressed genuine gratitude; Jurin was his only nephew and heir. Seibei’s elder son was the product of the man’s first marriage and bore all of his father’s faults. The beating of Sam and the abduction of Kitani were described, and Grobaras summoned his steward. At the retelling of the attack on Jabb’s lot, Grobaras demanded, “His men openly attacked Colbin Jabb?”

Shortly, the steward returned to the room with Seibei Kreed. Immediately, the portly villain flew into a rage. Spitting criminal accusations as fast as his lips could flap, Seibei worked himself into a lather. He was in mid-harangue when Kitani Eaveswalker was led into the room. Kreed was silent for a moment. Changing tack, he reminded the Lord Mayor of their kinship, of their profitable venture, and lastly made the ultimate mistake of denouncing, by name, the war criminal hiding out in Falcon’s Hollow.

Grobaras looked to Hemlocke. The Sherriff motioned to his men. Kreed’s outrage echoed down the hallway as he was removed from the room. When his cries abruptly ended, so did the life of Seibei Kreed.

In the wake of such unpleasantness, the Lord Mayor invited the Heroes to be his guests for the evening. The Heroes enjoyed a marvelous dinner, and afterward enjoyed a relaxing evening. Quarrell went to bed early, as was his wont. Sam, who had not enjoyed a quiet night at Momma Crandal’s, took advantage of a bath, clean linens, and her own chambers for deep sleep. Ja was careful to avoid bungling Vespers as he had the previous evening. In fact, he was so careful as to avoid any propitiation whatsoever. Taking to the woods, the barbarian sought a quite copse and laid himself down.

Only Toska made the most of her return to the town she had earlier befriended. She was enthusiastically greeted in the streets and cheered in the taverns. On an epic pub crawl, the witch drained tankard after tankard until, with the dawn, she stumbled down to the docks and heedlessly boarded Row’s ship with Talla in tow.

Ja was already there as were the slumbering Sam and Quarrell. Even in her inebriated state, Toska realized that when the sun was up, the ever industrious Quarrell should be on his feet. To find that he had slumbered through the night and the cart ride from the Lord Mayor’s home planted seeds of suspicion in Toska’s mind. She asked questions. Only vague answers were given by crewman apparently too busy to be bothered. Even so, the Druid’s ale soaked mind recognized that she and her companions were being whisked out of town. Someone didn’t want them hanging around Sand Point.

The open sea lay before the Heroes, and the cool air filled their lungs with the fragrance of freedom. Ahead, the world of promise rose and fell to the rhythm of the waves. Troubles and entanglements seemed land bound creatures, and the Heroes were afloat on an ocean of promise… as was the Cheliax Navy. A thousand-oar galleon bobbed to the south. A trio of smaller vessels bore down from the north. Westward, into deep water was the only avenue of escape.

The Stroke Master pounded out a ferocious pace, and the slaves heaved with all their might. Even so, the westernmost of the small craft came along side. Cheliax Marines leapt from deck to deck. Glaive in hand, Quarrell checked their advance. Toska called forth a flaming orb with which she cunningly crafted a blazing wall along the enemy’s rail. Ja hurtled onto the Cheliax deck and rushed the row of crossbowmen. While the boarders, stabbed and chopped Quarrell at their powerful Sergeant’s command, their comrades battled flames and carved generous portions of barbarian. Deadly was the fire and deadlier the flashing steel. Only a desperate gamble carried Ja once more to Row’s ship while the Cheliax pyre cast the ashes of her crew to the heavens.

Well beyond sight of land, Row Ander signaled a halt, and the Stroke Master bellowed fore and aft relaying the order to the slaves. Exhausted, many of the rowers simply collapsed over their oars.

Row turned to the Heroes. “Give them a few minutes then go pull the dead ones out. We’ll have to do some shuffling, but we should have plenty left to keep us moving. I’m going to get the sail up. It won’t do much, but it might make the difference until we catch another ship.”

After the bodies were dumped and the canvas set, the galley began to move once more. The breeze was out of the North East, and Row was content to run before it. The galley held course through the night and well into the following day. Even so, when Row made his noon observations, he was not pleased. The ship was much further South than he wished. At his command, the Stroke Master roused the slaves, and the captain furled his sail. After correcting his heading, Row bound the tiller and retired to his cabin for a rest.

When the first stars appeared above the horizon, Nicto pointed out the planet Gylippus… in the wrong quarter of the sky. Night overtook day, and the Captain’s mood darkened. The stars gave him bad news. Noon the following day was no better. Rowers began to die that evening. Charts, compasses, instruments of every kind failed Row. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Without Toska’s sustaining magic, none would have survived; as was foretold, Talla did not.

Upon the sweltering surface, the survivors saw… something. A dolphin leap into the air? A mermaid straight out of a fairy tale? As she drew near, all beheld a woman walking through ankle deep water. Her hair was long and black, her skin tanned. A net draped her shoulder.

To Ja, she spoke, “Come to me, nameless bastard.” The barbarian gazed upon soft flesh, gentle eyes, and a creature desirable above all others. He eagerly heeded her summons with no idea that he trod upon water. Closer to the figure, Ja’s one good eye feasted upon a tall woman of rare beauty. Her body was strong and graceful. She was worthy of his attention. Only when he was too close to flee did Ja see a goddess in her power, terrible and wondrous beyond description.

She asked, “How do you call yourself?”

Ja uttered his name. The goddess considered a moment, puzzled, and then laughed as though she were in on the joke and he was not. Setting her mirth aside, she told the barbarian that her name was Ran or Tethys, if he preferred, but in this aspect, “Ran” was most common.

Ja could recall only that “Ran” meant thief or robber in his native tongue, but Toska knew much more. Ran was the Ship Stealer. In her net, she captured ships that plied the deep waters. Her captives perished in the unknown wastes of the ocean, far from hearth and kin. Ran was both sister and wife to AEgir/Okeanos, Titan of the World Ocean, son of Uranus and Gaia. Their progeny were 3,000 Oceanids (sea nymphs) and the spirits of every river. Worse still, Ran ruled the constellations. She and Okeanos were the only Titans to survive the Titanomachy. Here was a merciless primal force from the dawn of creation.

Ran asked Ja why would he ever be so foolish as to venture out on the open sea. His answer was the muddled collage of random impressions that Ja’s closest companions had come to expect. While the barbarian struggled to compose a coherent answer, Ran decided that her question was meant to be rhetorical and injected a more direct inquiry into the conversation, “Do you know who I am?”

Ja briefly revealed his limited knowledge, and Ran informed him of the details previously known only to Toska. It took a lot of words, and Ja’s mind began to wander. She had called him nameless bastard earlier. That had the ring of a pejorative. The barbarian wanted to know why such a hurtful term had been applied to him.

Ran replied, “Because that is what you are. The unwanted spawn of an unfaithful husband who only wishes to hide his shame. He mounted that Rhime Thurs bitch like a rutting swine, and you are the product of their infamy. AEgir, my husband, raped a Frost Giant maiden named Gydir. Gydir’s father is King of the Jotunn. He discretely hid you away in his cave on the island of Hlesey. You were given no name so that you should have no Skane of Fate, no destiny.”

Ran pondered aloud, “Should I tell you how you came to be called ‘Ja’?”

Ja nodded.

“Orks raided Gymer’s cave when the sea ice reached the Hlesey. You were taken along with the Jotunn’s treasures in hopes that you could be ransomed. No emissary ever returned from Hlesey. In the end, you were adopted by the Orks and dubbed ‘Ja’ for ‘Jotunn’ as a man might be called ‘Hu’ for Human,” explained the Titan.

A flare of insight illuminated the cobwebbed corners of the barbarian’s mind. Ran had arranged for the sea ice and the disappearance of the emissaries. He owed her his life and his freedom.

“But you are named ‘Thomniel’ now by a lord of soil and stone,” Ran observed. “Will you tell me what you know of him?”

Ja related what he knew of Droskar without troubling the Titan with theology, philosophy, or even the most rudimentary outline of doctrine.

“Is he a generous master?” asked Ran.

The glaive given to Quarrell leapt to Ja’s mind and out his mouth. His own splendid girdle, mighty gantlet, and ornate eye patch did not.

“A divided future lies before you.” Ran cocked her head and hung her net on Ja’s right shoulder. His arm grew cold as the Northern sea while the shadow of the net was inscribed on his flesh. “So long as you bear this mark, you cannot be submerged. Beware the Children of Okeanos; they are many thousands. All of them will know what you are and hate you for it. I have chosen two mates for you. Fenja and Menja, with them alone, you will find safety. Seek out King Frodi when you desire them.”

Slowly Ja’s arm warmed and returned to normal. He asked where Frodi reigned, and the answer was Lejre, a term with no meaning whatsoever to the barbarian.

Sensing that the interview with her companion had ended, Toska called out to the Titan. Ran recognized the druid’s special link with the natural world. She listened patiently to questions about the proximity and direction of land. Her answers were vague but meant to be encouraging. What’s more, the Titan gave Toska an amulet and these instructions, “When you find yourself in the presence of the divine, and you wish to speak with them, hold this in your hand.”

Ran sank into the sea, leaving the ship to its current driven course. On the following day, the survivors spotted a ship.

View
Part 7
Showdown in the Street

The Heroes stood perplexed with three dead Dwarfs cooling quietly on the ground. A crow cawed. They followed his coarse cry to the source. Ominously, the black bird perched on the peak of a roof, leering at the lovely corpses. The crow was joined by a cousin and then another. Quarrell squatted and set to unbuckling armor. Quality stuff. Masterful craftsmanship and dutifully maintained by Dwarfs who understood the importance of good armor. Ja collected weapons. A pair of urgroshes, a trio of crossbows, an earthbreaker, and something special.

Only the day before, the barbarian cleric had pumped the bellows while his industrious friend shaped steel into an implement of war. The experience struck a chord. Unnatural dreams dominated Ja’s sleep. Taking a page from Lewis Carrol, Ja lived a guided tour through “The Dummy’s Guide to Forging Glaives”. However, in the brilliant light of day, Ja held something like a glaive, but it wasn’t quite right. The blade at the end was too short and hooked. Thomniel, Chosen of Droskar, Redeemer of the Temple Made Forge furrowed his thick brow. “A glaive’s blade is long and straight,” mumbled the Bastion of Orthodoxy, and it was so. Pope Ja performed his first miracle. And Quarrell noticed.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” inquired the amateur armorer.

“A gift from Droskar,” is almost certainly what Ja meant to say and was exactly what Quarrell heard. In short order, Thomniel followed his first miracle with an act of proselytization. Should Quarrell agree to attend vespers with Ja, his piety would certainly earn Divine Favor in the form of a +2 Vicious Glaive. Longing to dedicate himself to the Dwarf God of Endless Toil, Quarrell enthusiastically accepted the invitation and claimed the incentive.

Meanwhile, Sam stood to the side, her gaze fixed on the home of Seibei Kreed and her mind calculating factors of delay, cowardice, and wealth to reach an unwelcome conclusion. “Why would he wait, trapped in there, while we gear up, heal up, and plan his downfall?” she pondered. “He wouldn’t.” She scowled. From Quarrell’s descriptions of the dead men buried under Jabb’s coral, the ranger knew vengeance had been dealt in full on her earlier attackers. Still, it was Seibei who gave the order. A quick check indicated the preoccupation of her companions. Sam slipped away.

With a sigh, Starsha cast her last healing spell and wiped her brow. “I have done for you what I may,” stated the elf. “Three dooms have I helped evade, but I will not participate in your battle against Jurin’s father. Mr. Jabb has generously offered a place on his wagons for Jurin and me. My debt to you is paid; no more aid will I grant. Have a care when next we meet.” Starsha began to walk away but paused after a few steps. Her shoulders slumped, and she spoke, “It seems that I must remind you that Falcons Hollow has an apothecary.” Her final message given, the Oracle returned to Momma Crandal’s and the boy waiting there.

Spirits lifted at the recollection of potions and their marvelous qualities. Whereas the last two mornings were marked by unwelcome delays, the promise of an insulating agent, a means of lowering the price of vigilantism, put the band in a cheerful mood. Liquid magic would guaranty triumph over the aged Seibei Kreed, his squad of emaciated cowards, and the women who compromised his household. Bold was the stride of the Heroes in opposite direction of their goal.

The door to Vade’s Apothecary hung crookedly from its one good hinge. As the Heroes approached, a potent chemical odor filled the air. Once inside the small shop, shattered glass crunched under foot. Shavaros emerged from the back. His lips were split and bloody; an eye was swollen shut. In his austere manner, the man explained that Jinjo Kreed had brought a handful of strangers around. Seibei’s son demanded potions, and his rough friends had stripped the shelves, pocketing anything that looked useful and smashing the rest. Wearily, Shavaros reached for a broom then Savram entered. In his thin arms, the boy clutched a dozen bottles of various sizes. Blood trickled from a fresh cut across his scalp. His jaw was clenched and rage danced in his dark eyes.

“I’ve been expecting you,” Savram growled.

While potions were passed around, Toska noted just how thin Savram and Shavaros were. She looked once more at the empty shelves. The Druid’s discerning eyes recognized the recipe for starvation. The shop had only just kept the pair alive. With their inventory slowly seeping through the floorboards, these two would be dead by Spring. Quietly, Toska took Quarrell aside. Before leaving, the fighter pressed a plump purse into Savram’s reluctant hands.

One errand led to others. More suits of armor were deposited at Colbin Jabb’s lot. Savram and Shavaros were escorted to Mama Crandal’s for a much needed meal. The Glyntaxe brothers were stacked on the coffin maker’s doorstep with the assumption that the gold in their teeth would be adequate payment for proper burial. It was during the course of these inconvenient, though necessary, activities that Toska noticed Sam’s absence. She commented on the fact, but neither Quarrell nor Ja had seen the ranger leave.

Thus, it was a trio of grimly determined Heroes that set out a third time to enact frontier justice upon Seibei Kreed. As they approached the den of their quarry, warning calls sounded from voice to voice within. Feet stamped. Doors banged. Dozens of men snatched up gear and scrambled to appointed positions. When the cacophony died, the iron bound front door swung open, and a line of people strode out. A strikingly beautiful woman in a fashionable robe led the way. Behind her came a massively muscled man in exotic armor, and four bald, supremely athletic younger men followed him. From the roof of Kreed’s fortress, a lean figure in expensive leathers looked down on the Heroes. He sneered and asked, “Can I help you?”

A throng of Kreed’s goons spilled from the gap in the wall of buildings left by the burning of the Red House. Ja looked around. His personal store of numbers was exhausted long before he assigned one to each of the foes looking back at him. Annoyed by the disparity, the barbarian did his best to rectify the situation. With a blood chilling, bone shaking roar, Ja vented his dismay. A particularly feeble fellow in the rear ranks collapsed stone dead, clutching at his overtaxed heart. Several of his neighbors sidled away and kept sidling right out of the street. Others who could not so easily slip away suffered the indignity of fright-induced incontinence.

It was Quarrell who answered the man’s question with the directness and clarity of purpose that typified his nature. “We’re here to kill Seibei Kreed and anyone who fights for him. The rest of you should leave now.”

Amused, the rogue on the roof smirked. “That’s going to be a problem. You see, I’m Jinjo Kreed, and my guests here have come a long way to enjoy my father’s hospitality. I’d like to say that you two can leave town. That’d be the gallant thing. But you can’t,” he told Quarrell and Ja then he looked at Toska. “We’re down to two whores though, so you don’t have to die in the street like these two,” he offered with a wink.

Quarrell attacked. The sweep of his glaive left a line of crimson from Procas’s shoulder to the opposite hip. The fight had begun, and fighting is what Amycus did best. In sizing up the trio of vigilantes, the pit fighter took special note of the Varisian in armor. The giant might be a problem, but he doubted it. Oversized barbarians tend to have glass jaws. But give a soldier the chance to manage a battle, and things could go downhill fast. Amycus charged. He had learned that a good soldier fights with his mind. A smile curled the corner of the big man’s lips as his overhand right connected solidly with Quarrell’s temple; the soldier’s mind wobbled.

Four monks, apprentices that Amycus personally selected for skill and aggression, found themselves facing a Titan towering in wrath. Atys and Copys launched precise attacks at nerve centers, seeking to stun the inhuman mountain of muscle before them. Their efforts were fruitless. Wounded though he was, Procas launched a barrage, planting his shin in the meat of Ja’ thigh, his fist in the barbarian’s kidneys, and his elbow in the monster’s ribs. Aventius struck with a kick to the inner thigh and another to the liver. Ja was no stranger to such abuse. What worried him profoundly was the sight of Quarrell pinned against a wall eating hammer fist after hammer fist until his head lolled and his body sagged to the ground. A berserker’s fury propelled the barbarian’s axe into the joint of Amycus’s neck and shoulder. The blade parted sinew and spine. The pit fighter fell with his back to the foe.

It was the Grasp of Droskar that crushed Capys’s orbital socket. The monk left his feet and landed with every muscle in his body rigid, arms outstretched, knees locked. Somewhere in the red haze that filled Ja’s remaining moments of consciousness, the wounded Procas fell, and the enemies lay side by side in the dust.

The combat survivor is an unusual creature. What critical combination of courage and self-preservation, what magical balance of prowess and evasion, what trick of timing, what unerring sense of the moment sets the survivor apart? In the days of myth and legend, Odysseus and Diamedes were the heralded favorites of Athena. Wisdom illuminated their path, guided their hands, and glorified their names. Toska was not without wisdom.

The witch’s discerning eye marked the mercenary sorceress for the true threat and put her most valuable asset to work on the problem. Talla wove through the melee on a mission to mangle a mage. While the cat hunted, the prey was wielding light as a weapon. Blistering rays shot from Medea’s outstretched hands to lance both Quarrell and Ja before the lioness reached her. But the menace of Talla’s fangs and claws kept the powerful sorceress from working greater destruction.

When Toska breathed a summons to the wind, a spirit of air obeyed. Atop his father’s roof, Jinjo Kreed surveyed the battle from safety, taking pot shots at his leisure… until the elemental marred his aim. Reduced to trading barbs with the Druid, Jinjo’s fury mounted to comical proportions. However, the collapse of Quarrell ended Toska’s option to avoid close combat. She rushed to her comrade’s side, and at last, Jinjo’s bolts found their mark. Atys and Aventius dashed across the body strewn street to interdict Toska’s healing mission. Pierced and pounded, the Druid fought on.

Two strangers entered the town and spotted the trouble brewing at the far end of the street. With an exchange of glances, the pair headed in the opposite direction. Row Ander had come to meet a legend, the hero of fireside tales recounted by his grandfather. Three generations of Riddleport Anders worshiped the Final Defender of Varisia, and Row was moments away from seeing with his own eyes and hearing with his own ears none other than General Hoodrun Belle.

“Nicto” knew none of that. The rakish sorcerer understood well the commerce of piracy. What’s more, he understood that smuggling was lucrative and in no way impinged on piratical opportunities. Nicto wasn’t especially excited about the backwater of Falcons Hollow, but he trusted Row’s unerring nose for gold coins and high adventure.

Had you arrived at your local bookstore to find Homer autographing copies of the Illiad, you could understand how Ronaldo Vitrix Ander XIII felt when he beheld the truncated limbs and hawk like eye of Colbin Jabb.

“Leftenant Ander,” roared the General, spotting a face he had not seen in forty hears. “Take your man…” Belle hobbled hurriedly forward to join the “Leftenant” at the gate. Raising his crutch, he pointed to the rising dust beyond the wall of ragged backs. “We have allies in that fracas. They need your help. One’s appointed in plate. He’s a good fighter, reliable. And there’s a big fellow. Wears rotting furs. Not too bright. Watch out for him. A savage is with them too. Her name’s Toska. A capable creature. Now, get down there!” he ordered, hurrying the startled sailors into action.

We use the term star-struck in the age of media, but that is precisely what reduced one of the most cunning pirates of the Lost Coast to a green junior officer in the service of phantom general. Scimitar in hand, Row ran with a smile on his face straight toward twenty armed men. Now, even a casual observer could discern that the wall of goons wished only to be spectators, but still, the newcomers were an unknown element.

Did I mention that “Nicto” was a sorcerer? That’s a really important fact about him, a fact that Nicto forgot when he tried to skirt the band of idle ruffians. One of the goons stepped into an impressive backswing that brought his club into contact with the sorcerer’s head. Encouraged by the demonstration, another goon clubbed Nicto as well. By the time, the part-time mage made it into the battle proper, where combatants were bleeding and dying, so was he. Staggering steps carried him to where Toska stood. The sharp-eyed Druid did not slay her battered ally; instead the pair stood back to back with a wall guarding their left side.

Row had other, though related, problems. The clubbing of Nicto had broken the ice for the bystanding goon squad. None of Kreed’s men cared to tangle with the interlopers from Sand Point, but the newcomers were a different story. They rushed Row Ander in their ignorance and paid dearly for the mistake. The bright edge of the pirate’s scimitar separated arms from shoulders, severed legs at the knee, and divided the quick from the dead.

Perhaps the moment that wisdom has the greatest impact on survival is when the time comes to risk all. Bleeding from bolt wounds and bruised from powerful blows, Toska faced a pair of skilled strikers eager to test her toughness with their fists. The Druid had but one healing spell left. Murmuring her petition to the life giving forces of nature, Toska crouched and laid a hand on Quarrell’s shoulder. Life flowed into the soldier. Up he rose. With the hand axe he still gripped, Quarrell chopped. Atys fell. Aventius looked at his crumpling companion, but what he saw was Ja standing upright, lifting a potion to his mouth and draining the bottle. In the span of a blink, the monk realized that he was alone against enemies that grew stronger by the moment. Aventius turned to run. Row’s blade clove him from crown to pelvis.

Quarrell admired the deft stroke, and introduced himself. Row explained the circumstances of his presence… then a sixteen foot tall barbarian ran past them and climbed to the roof.

Jinjo Kreed was terrified by the monster mounting his perch. It was the correct emotion to employ. Ja was on the rogue at once. Massive arms encircled Jinjo as the barbarian bore him to the ground. The years spent among the Orks had presented Ja with an encyclopedic knowledge of shocking social conduct. He chose to draw upon this reference material and reenact a particularly offensive spectacle. Baring his huge teeth, the barbarian took a bite of Jinjo Kreed, followed by another and another. How can one quantify the hysteria that overcame Jinjo? A man he had not known that morning was chewing and swallowing his flesh. Being eaten is too rare an experience for an adequate lexicon to have been developed for it. This was horrific madness. An hour earlier, Ja was only marginally aware of the Jinjo Kreed’s existence; he hadn’t even heard the name.

What made the barbarian end his revolting meal, who can say? But rather than finish his grisly repast, Ja lifted, upended, and leaping, drove Jinjo through the roof and second story of the dwelling below. An intervening bed spared the plummeting pair much of the expected damage. Stumbling about in the dust and debris, the scion of house Kreed headed for the door. Ja’s dagger, enlarged to the size of a broadsword, took his foot off at the ankle. The stump would not support Jinjo’s weight. He toppled, never to rise again.

A scream from the basement drew the Heroes in from the street. In the gloom below, five ragged ruffians who had abandoned the fight in the street held Ralla, Hollis, and the other whore from the Red House. Quarrell and Row were on them in a flash. The deadly duo made swift work of the goons, painting the walls with arterial. Toska hurried downstairs to tend wounds and give what comfort she might.

Nicto’s hand shook as he downed potion after potion. His life had passed before his eyes, and the young sorcerer was confident that he wanted a good deal more life than he had. Cautiously, he too entered the Kreed home. He heard footsteps upstairs, and Quarrell went to investigate. A last, desperate minion was pillaging his master’s hoard. Quarrell offered the human cockroach a way of escape, but he could not bear to abandon his loot. It cost him his life.

During the affray in the street, Talla had driven Medea from the battle. The dismayed spellcaster retreated into the house, but she was not to be found there. In fact, in the course of his search, Row passed the front door. Something was wrong in the street. Only one mercenary’s corpse remained with the bodies of the goons. It would seem that the enemy had fled to fight another day. Worse still, Seibei Kreed was nowhere to be found.

By the time Colbin Jabb and his men arrived, frustration led Quarrell to borrow some of Ja’s temperament. The fighter and the barbarian were pulling down the remaining roof timbers. Creaking preceded crashing. Debris burst from the front door peppering the novice demolishers.

“Well, I guess you didn’t take him alive,” surmised Jabb.

“He escaped, and he still has Kitani Eaveswalker,” replied Quarrell. “Ralla says he fled last night with a wagon load of valuables and a large chest that the goons had trouble manipulating.”

Belle caught Quarrell’s arm and led him away from the others. “Look, Son, you know things that will get you killed by people with the best intentions. You must be extremely careful what you say and to whom. you’re life isn’t the only one at stake.”

“Kreed has connections that can make trouble. I’ve kept my operation small to avoid attracting attention, but Kreed made a great deal of money for people. The mill owners in Magnimar will not be pleased to see him gone, not to mention the Lord who owns these lands.”

The General hesitated before continuing. “Seibei is Lord Grobaras’s brother in law.”

The name was familiar to Quarrell. “Grobaras is the Lord Mayor of Sand Point.”

Belle nodded. “The Lady Precious Grobaras Kreed never steps foot out of Korvosa, but she does bind the Lord Mayor to Kreed. If Seibei is seeking protection, he’ll go to Grobaras.”

Quarrell was silent, but the General read the set of his jaw and the tension in his posture. “You should know that Grabaros is an honorable man and the real power in Sand Point no matter who the popularly elected mayor happens to be. You know Sherriff Hemlocke, correct? Hemlocke is Grabaros’s man; he’s honest and loyal to the death. If you pursue Seibei to Sand Point, keep your head. They have law there. Security. It’s a peaceful town, and people want to keep it that way.”

“Now, these two fellas…” he nods toward Row and Nicto “they’ve got a ship waiting at the docks. We’ll be carting the timber to the ship. They’ll take it to Korvosa. Korvosa is big enough for you to get rid of all that armor piling up in my lot without attracting too much attention. And, if you care to head that way, I could use your help. A bladesmith has a saw for me, and I’ve secured a buyer for the timber. Someone needs to take the money from one to the other and bring that blade back here without the millers in Magnamar knowing it. My men are capable but not well travelled, and none handle themselves as well as you and your companions. With that saw, I can cart lumber, finished lumber, to Sand Point and ship it anywhere on the Lost Coast. Grabaras wouldn’t need Kreed for money, and the revenue we generate could fund training, arms, and armor. Falcons Hollow is so isolated, we could have an army ready to meet Cheliax the moment those bastards cross the border.”

“Can you do this for me?” Belle looked into Quarrell’s face with all the gravity of legend.

View
Part 6
Questions and Dead Dwarfs

As the Heroes broke their fast at Mama Crandal’s, Starsha came to each of them in turn. She had a haunted look, and the long slender fingers of her left hand twitched in a series of intricate gestures, as though communicating in a coded language. What’s more, some of the Heroes noticed that the elf was armed and appareled in far greater finery than she wore when they left her at Seibei Kreed’s house. A quick glance at Jurin revealed that he too was dressed in expensive travelling clothes and that the boy was sticking close to his and Starsha’s backpacks.

When asked, Starsha explained that her gear and Jurin’s came from Kreed’s personal treasure trove. She was taking the boy to Korvosa for a proper education at the Temple of Iomedae. When Kreed’s goons left to attack Jabb’s warehouse, Starsha and Jurin quickly gathered whatever seemed useful for a journey to Korvosa.

Starsha approached Ja and said, “I am sorry for how I treated you before. I was not prepared to see what it is that you are. Will you hear what I may tell you?” She extended her hands to Ja, resting her right hand on the Grasp of Droskar, and her left in the barbarian’s enormous palm. Starsha closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the left was a window into blue-green water, the right was an orb of gold with an iris of lapis lazuli.

“You are drowning. Trapped below the surface, your arm pinned by boulders. A silver man plunges into the water from high above. He strikes your arm with an iron fist. Seven more silver men follow, each striking your arm until flesh and bone are rent and ruined. You are maimed yet free in an expanding cloud of your own blood. Abominations of the deep swarm and consume you utterly.”

“Your corpse lies upon an anvil, but the ring of the hammer is drowned by the thunderous crash of waves. Even so, each blow of the hammer reshapes you. With steady, patient pounding, your steel skin is forged. Your copper beard and brows gleam in the forge light as you rise renewed. But, sea water is rising about you. Rust forms about your ankles and climbs with the brine.”

“Great chunks of ice float amidst towering breakers. In the heart of an iceberg, you rest for ages to come. When the sun dies, and the waves are an ancient memory, you roam a lifeless rock contending with the unwanted yet immortal”.

Starsha closed her eyes and released Ja’s hands.

The elf moved to Toska. “Your hands, please,” she requested while holding out her own. Ja walks up, drawing Starsha’s attention. The newly appointed priest, extended his hands in imitation of the elf’s procedure. “Do you think this is a joke, you clod?!” snaps Starsha.

Ignoring the oaf, she took the Druid’s hands and closed her eyes. When she opened them, it was with cat’s eyes that she looked at Toska.

“I see a bird of impossible size, a bird of distant deserts. In her talons, she carries an ettin, a centaur, and a giant scorpion. Upon reaching her nest, the bird sets her prizes down among her eggs. The monsters destroy four, but from the fifth egg bursts a flock of crows.”

“O’ unwanted race, despised of the gods, what hospitality will you show a divine guest? With what wretched savagery will you win grace? When you meet with the supreme, avert your eyes and hang your head. Gods care not for wastelands and the two legged vermin that creep upon them. And yet, the God of Varisia you must find. The divine defies division, unites the disparate, preserves the doomed. Find a patron for your nation or watch the fiends feast on Shoanti corpses.”

“Your lion will give birth to seven cubs, an auspicious number, in eighty-four days. Do not take her upon the sea.”

Starsha closed her eyes and withdrew her hands. She moved to Quarrell. She would not look at him, and tears began to roll down her cheeks even before she reached out.

“Wreathed in laurel, you walk through a field of tombstones that stretches from horizon to horizon. A nimbus radiates from your crown and with each step you take, flowers spring from the earth into full bloom.”

“Beware the godspawn. Their blood is poison to you, and their wrath no mortal can bear. The stranger’s wall will not protect you, and all of his mountain of gold cannot purchase the corpse he loves. Flee the bulls hide shield when you wake to fire.”

“Two lie in wait to kill you in the street; even three will take from you what is theirs.”

She pulled her hands away and wiped her tears.

Starsha held her hands in her lap when she approached Sam. She closed her eyes and said:

“I cannot see you. Your silhouette is perfectly black as though your form were blotted from the fabric of reality. Yet, against the sea of stars, I mark your path. As your empty shape moves, passing points of light, the stars become droplets of blood, falling like rain from the heavens.”

Starsha opened her eyes to reveal scarlet orbs.

“You stand bound by a collar to a throne I will not look upon. Your skin is a glistening red, your eyes are black and wet like pools of pitch. An ebony scythe is in your right hand and in your left, the skull of the last Mieranie elf.”

Starsha blinked, and her eyes are polished onyx.

“I see your amber eyes shining in the dark, growing larger and more brilliant as you approach an arched opening. In human form, you emerge into daylight. Your flesh is burnished brass. Luminous white wings unfurl from your back. A golden scythe rests in your left hand as you raise aloft the severed head of the last Mierani oracle.”

Starsha balled a fist in her own hair and pulled upward as though to lift her own head from her shoulders. The motion was wrong. The joints flexed in an unnatural way. The affect was extremely disconcerting. A long, eerie moment passed before she released her grip and settled once more into the persona familiar to the Heroes.

Edgrin came last. Rather than engage the halfling, Starsha shot out a hand, a quivering finger aimed at his heart.

“Death stands at your door, Edgrin. Today, you are judged.”

Edgrin laughed nervously. “You put on a good show, Starsha. I’ll give you that. And in the Kobold cages, when you told me a centipede’s bite would be my downfall, I’ll admit, it shook me up. But, death on the doorstep and judgment day? Those are prophet territory, not really fortune teller material. Still, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get an eye thing too.” With a shrug, he casually walked to the door of the Cafe and shoved it open. The door swung wide revealing an empty street. With a shrug, he turned to the Heroes and said, “So much for prophecy.” A gauntleted hand jerked Edgrin outside, and the door slammed shut.

Ja was on his feet and out the door in the span of a heartbeat. In the street, the barbarian saw a circle of armored figures surrounding Edgrin while one of them steadily beat the halfling and demanded the whereabouts of “The Tome”. In his inimitable style, Ja leapt into the center of this circle of iron. What he would do upon surrounding himself by a ring of Dwarfs inclined to violence, Ja had not considered.

Quarrell, Toska, and Sam made their way out of the cafe more cautiously. What they saw in the street was eight well-appointed paladins in full plate masterfully engraved with the crossed hammer and pick motif of Droskar. While the less reactionary Heroes were taking this in, the militant arm of the Reformed Temple Made Forge were scrutinizing the left hand of the interloper in their midst.

The paladins demanded that Ja give them the glove. The barbarian explained that the gauntlet was permanently attached, because he was the new High Priest of Droskar. This statement effectively ended the discussion. Hammers became the paladins’ primary negotiation tool from that point. Calling upon Droskar, Ja set forth his position with axe and fist.

To his credit, the barbarian performed a spectacular Great Cleave, and thanks to Starsha’s healing powers, Ja stayed upright for several whole rounds. He had even managed to reach the edge of the circle of death before an episode of chronic density overcame his newfound wisdom. Rather than escape to a position where he might lend support to and receive support from his allies, the accidental redeemer preferred to go the opposite direction. His reward was the rare experience of tasting his own gray matter when a warhammer provided a direct thoroughfare from his cranial cavity to his pallet.

With the blasphemer subdued, the Order of the Hammer began recovering their most holy relic. One held Ja’s arm out while a comrade drew his dagger and commenced surgery. The other six formed a defensive barrier.

Sam had emerged from her evening with Ivratham only just alive. Her tete a tete with Starsha had disinclined the oracle to provide the greatest enemy of her race and her personal executioner with aid and comfort (i.e., Sam stepped into the street with 1 hit point). Even so, assuming the Angel of Death was evil, Starsha did not omit Sam from the bursts of healing energy with which she helped Ja deliver Edgrin. Fortified with unintended well being, Sam drew her bow and let fly at the pious Sir Dravian.

Quarrell engaged much earlier. The bold fighter set his feet and plied his glaive, working ruin upon any Dwarf in reach, and his reach was long. Sir Tarkus and Sir Avitus fell while hacking away at the lobotomized Ja. Sir Neilius and Sir Calcus formed a wall with Sir Crisius against Toska and Talla while Sir Cyrus supported them with the laying on of hands. The wall was effective against the Druid and her cat, but Quarrell enfiladed the formation and slew Calcus and Crisius.

It was Starsha who temporarily brought Sir Neilius down. Armed with a rapier from Seibei’s trove, the elf mystic witnessed the charge of Sir Dravian upon Sam and read his intentions for Edgrin who stood within reach. In temporary alliance, Sam and Starsha ended Dravian’s days.

Edgrin, wavering between flight and hatred, carefully kept the bodies of allies between himself and the justice of the forge. It took some time before he felt secure enough to inspire his defenders with a song. But, Dwarfs are neither blind nor deaf; Sir Leitus witnessed Dravian’s demise and charged to make amends. His hammer found both Edgrin and Sam agreeable targets.

When Toska downed the beleaguered Neilius, none remained of the noble mission to recover the Tome of the Everburning Forge. The fate of their sacred book, their most precious relic, and the Recovery Committee would be a mystery to Korvosa’s Temple Made Forge… for the moment at least.

Ja stood next to Droskar, looking down on the scene. Ja could tell that the deity was not entirely pleased, perhaps it was Droskar’s first question that gave the barbarian this impression. “Boy, do you have a brain in your head?” asked the divine Dwarf. Ja was certain that he had a brain; much of it still filled his mouth. “See those?” Droskar pointed to the broad silver buckles bearing each dead Dwarf’s personal crest. “Bring them to me.” Ja took the buckle from each corpse and returned to Droskar. The deity laid a hand on his Chosen One’s shoulder and turned him away from the scene.

They stood at the god’s anvil. “Hold that there,” ordered Droskar setting a red hot buckle on the anvil. Ja reached out with his gauntleted hand, his fingers free, and did as the ultimate smith commanded. Droskar paused a moment, noting the Act of Faith. He smiled and joined buckle to buckle in a single stroke. “This should help,” stated the deity when he finished. “Thomniel, this girdle is my gift to you. A helmet might serve you better, but it would lessen the likelihood of sense being knocked into you.” Droskar chuckled as he held up the eight buckles cunningly crafted into a single article. “Now, please excuse me, I have other business to tend to,” said the god, dismissing Ja as the eight paladins entered the room.

No one had escaped the paladins uninjured. Stress and strain from the sudden, unexpected battle dampened the Heroes’ desire to punish Kreed for the assault on Jabb’s lot, for the beating given to Sam, and for the abduction of Kitani Eaveswalker. The Heroes returned to their still cooling breakfasts. Wounds were tended, destinies contemplated. At length, Quarrell rose and made his way to the blacksmith’s shop. Ja, with great and unexpected satisfaction, worked the bellows as the soldier began forging a new glaive.

The belongings of the paladins were collected, and the coffin maker paid. Eight suits of Dwarf sized, masterwork plate armor were stored at Jabb’s lot, where the stalwart lumberjacks still stood guard. Bell briefly tried to dissuade Quarrell from assaulting Kreed’s mini-keep. And thus, a quiet day followed violent morning.

On the following morning, their resolve restored and their purpose clear, the Heroes set out again. The street was deathly quiet as they passed barred doors and shuttered windows. Even the industrious coffin maker had set aside his tools. Quarrell suspected that if the ghoul was aware of Kreed’s men sleeping beneath the soil of Jabb’s lot, he’d be facing an armed and angry carpenter. A vision of the scrawny coffin maker in ill-fitting plate and swinging a saw brought a smile to the fighter’s face. The snap of crossbows and the whistle of bolts wiped that smile away.

Undaunted, Quarrell pressed on. The bolts were doubtless sped by the remnants of Kreed’s outlaw army. The fighter would not be sidetracked. He spoke to Starsha, and the mystic summoned a barrier of wind to end the threat of hidden enemies. A Dwarf stepped into the street.

The adventurers had come to recognize a threat when they saw one… everyone but Ja, that is. The axe wielding High Priest approached the scarred and battle hardened Dwarf and asked how he felt about Droskar. The Dwarf said that he thought Droskar was a fine fellow and then he chopped Ja with his urgrosh.

When another pair of Glyntaxe brothers, for such they were, emerged from the abandoned building, it was Edgrin who met the threat with shrewd military acumen. Laying down a sheet of grease, the bard won the battle in a moment, where blades might have lost the conflict entirely. Like turtles tipped onto their backs, Minesthius and Polypides struggled in vain to right themselves. Standing alone, Juranius doled out generous portions of grief, but, in the end, neither he nor his kin claimed Quarrell’s armor.

Weary and perturbed, the Heroes stood over three more Dwarf corpses. How many more lurked in the town? How many more were on their way? Were there more Glyntaxe Brothers? An entire Glyntaxe Clan? If the Temple Made Forge had eight uniformed paladins, might they not have more? And what of Kreed? Did the villain yet lurk in his domestic fortress? Was Kitani there? Questions and dead Dwarfs, they had in plentiful supply.

View
Part 5
Lost and Alone

From the Kobold King’s ruined realm, the Heroes emerged onto the Eastern slope of Droskar’s Crag. To the South, the dense Darkwood Forest lines the banks of a tributary of the Foam River. One can clearly see that the source of the tributary is an underground river, emerging explosively to the surface. Beyond the woods and the river lies Falcons Hollow. As the rested Heroes survey the scene, wings beat above them.

Whereas once a lone gargoyle did nearly take the lives of two comrades in arms, it would seem that a pair of such predators would work much mischief upon the recently roused company. But, this was not so. With forged and honed battle prowess, the Heroes surrounded and brutalized the presumptuous monsters. Flapping and struggling in their death throws, the creatures reached their nest just as they expired.

Toska was delighted to find Sklaveni, legendary weapon of mythic Shoanti shaman, Krilatec amidst the debris. A Headband of Inspired Wisdom was allotted Ja in hopes that something might be done for his decision making challenges. A Bag of Holding, boots, bracers, tools, and a variety of other valuable items soon lined the Heroes’ pockets and packs.

After recovering the gargoyles’ trove, the Heroes set out at a leisurely pace. Accompanied by the delivered children, the chatty halfling, and the lithesome elf maiden, they descended the mountain and struck upon a game trail through the forest. Late in the afternoon, Mikra Jabb began to recognize the area, and he led the party to his father’s logging camp. The Foreman, Crocker, and muscular, broad-shouldered fellow despite his advancing age was beside himself with joy and relief at the sight of Mikra. A meal was served, and the shadows grew long while the Heroes recounted their adventures for the enthusiastic loggers. Crocker informed the group that Colbin Jabb and a troupe of loggers had to take several wagon loads of Darkwood timber to the warehouse in Falcons Hollow, because Kreed’s men were guarding the mouth of the tributary.

Jurin Kreed sighed, “That sounds like my Dad.” Starsha, seated next him, pulled the boys head to her shoulder and tenderly stroked his golden hair.

The Heroes spent the night at Crocker’s camp. Quarrell, with magical aid from Toska, made repairs to the Glyntaxe armor he recovered from the Gelatinous Cube. On the morrow, all arose, and Sam led the way into town without incident.

A dusty wind whined down the lone street of Falcons Hollow. A dog was the only soul in sight. In his mouth, the beast carried a severed human hand as he passed the piles of ash and charred stone that once were the Red House.

As the Heroes stood staring at the remains of the Red House, someone said, “Kimi, bring your friends inside. you all look like you could use a bite to eat.”

The Heroes turned to see a wiry old woman with bright blue eyes. She wiped her hands on her threadbare apron and motioned everyone into the cafe. No two pieces of furniture in the room matched, but every chair was comfortable, every table clean.

“Have a seat,” ordered the old woman as she headed for the kitchen. Moments later, she returned with fresh bread, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. She brought a bucket of ale, a pitcher of beer, and a skin of wine to the table.

“Ya’ did good, bringing the children home,” said to the old woman with an approving nod to the Heroes. “But, I’m not sure Falcons Hollow is much safer than wherever it was they were. There’ve been killings and more’s to come, I’d say. Kreed’s and Jabb’s boys came to blows the other night and burned the Red House down. From what I hear, ol’ Red Eyes’ (Kabran Bloodeye) shipment from Sand Point was stolen by “bandits”, leaving the Red House stocked with nothing but the rotgut from Kreed’s stills.” She made a disgusted face. “Terrible stuff, boil’t from wood pulp mostly. Even so, the real problem was that some of Kreed’s goons were at the bar when Jabb’s boys showed up. I suppose a ruckus was inevitable, but that hooch Kreed cooked up burned something fierce. It’s a miracle more folks weren’t kill’t. You’ll be wondering where your horses and your gear are; some was carried off by Kreed’s men, and some by Jabb’s. When you take the children home, you might ask about your stuff. If you manage to recover anything, bring it back here. Falcons Hollow doesn’t have much in the way of accommodations, but you’re welcome to stay with Mama Crandal as long as you like.”

Kimi urged the Heroes to take Hollin to his sister first then Savram then herself then Mikra.

Seibei Kreed’s home was a fortress. Above the stone walls of the ground floor, the wooden second story was regularly dotted with shielded windows. As the Heroes approached, the iron bound main door swung open and five rough, dirty men rushed out into the street to face them.

“What d’you want?” growled one of them. Another tugged at his sleeve and pointed to Jarin. “The old man don’t care much for that one, but you’ll hand him over just the same. Say, you lot look like you come by some treasure. Best you pass that along too.” He signaled to his companions, and they moved to surround the Heroes.

Better choices have been made by more foolish men. With little effort, Quarrell swept the head from one of the men, but in his enthusiasm, the fighter missed batting the airborne head into another of the vermin’s arms. Several more dimwits tasted the dust before Seibei Kreed managed to halt the massacre.

Seibei Kreed was a short, potbellied man, bald on top with a fringe of thin, gray hair and bushy side whiskers. He wore an intricately embroidered silk robe, marked by food stains upon his breast and prominent stomach. “Jurin, my boy, it’s good to see you,” hailed Seibei with false enthusiasm. “And here’s Hollin! He;ll be wanting to see his sister. I had to take the girl in after that unfortunate business at the Red House.” Seibei shook his head regretfully. “But, won’t you come in?”

Once inside, Hollin spotted his sister. They ran together hugging and crying. The Heroes were surprised to see the boy show such emotion.

“Ralla, bring Hollin up to my study. Perhaps our guests will regale us with the tale of the rescue?” suggested Seibei

“Yes, of course, Mr. Kreed,” Ralla answered automatically while wiping her eyes and clinging to her brother.

Seibei’s study was lavish but not large. Gaudy tapestries featuring exotic animals hung on the walls. Bulky, carved furniture crowded the room, and particularly tasteless erotic bronzes stood wherever there was space. (Most featured nubile females in various states of embrace with cephalopods.) Finding seats for everyone took some shuffling.

After the Heroes told their tale, Seibei magnanimously pulled out a large money bag and carefully counted out five gold coins for Quarrell, Ja, and Toska. Upon reaching Sam, he hesitated, frowned, and slapped down five more coins. The Heroes could clearly see that the bag bore a tag on which was printed “1,000gp. The more perceptive of them suspected that there were several more such bags in the chest beneath the man’s table.

“So,” continued Seibei with a smile, “What are your plans now? Will you return to Sand Point or pursue opportunities here in Falcons Hollow? Life out here is always risky, and brave, capable adventurers such as yourselves could be a real asset to an operation like mine. I lose several loggers a month in those accursed woods. And, there’s the distillery. You’ll not be surprised the hear that liquor requires no less safe guarding than gold in these parts. Why, you could line your pockets and enjoy a bit of the ‘firewater’ yourself” he winked at Toska “now and again.”

In a display of diplomacy, the Heroes urged the return of all of their gear “or there’ll be Hell to pay”. Seibei harangued his minions into instant obedience, and in moments the Heroes’ horses and tack were assembled.

Starsha stayed with Jurin.

When the Heroes entered the apothecary’s shop, Savram coldly called out, “Sharvarose”, summoning the desiccated black man. “Why did you not provide these people with antitoxin?” demanded the boy angrily. “The big one there must have been poisoned a dozen times. Is this how you aid your master’s rescuers?”

“My apologies, Master Vade,” answered the man with no trace of emotion in his dry voice. “Welcome home.”

As the Heroes approached the seamstress’s cottage, Kimi rushed ahead, flung open the door, and darted inside. The Heroes could hear her calling excitedly for her mother, but after a few moments, Kimi emerged without Kitani.

“Her washing things are gone. Looks like she went down to the stream to do laundry,” said the girl with a disappointed shrug. “Please, come back later. I know she’ll want to see you.”

At the end of the street was a lot fenced by walls of scavenged stone. The improvised gate hung loosely to the side. Less than a dozen men were hanging about in front of small tents or the quartet of timber loaded wagons grouped in the center of the lot.

At first sight, the Heroes knew that whatever his current trade might be, Collin Jabb was no common man. Even leaning on his crutch, he appeared to tower over those around him. He presence commanded attention to the exclusion of all else. As he hobbled toward them, they noticed his right leg was missing below the knee and his left sleeve was empty. With the gold flecked eyes of an eagle, he sized the Heroes up even as he hugged his son.

“I haven’t the words to thank you properly,” he said in an emotionally charged bass. “Mikra is all I have left in the world…”

“You… You’re Hoodrun Bell!” stammered Edgrin, pointing a shaking finger at Jabb. “He’s Hoodrun Bell, the Final Defender. He..”

“Hush, little one,” Jabb commanded in a firm but kindly tone. The silence that followed was intense. Jabb’s men stared daggers at Edgrin; every one of them was Varisian.

“Sam,” said Jabb. “There are provisions for the camp at the General Store. Please take them out to Crocker as quickly as possible.”

He turns to Toska. “I am afraid I must ask you a favor Miss…?”

“Toska,” answered the Shoanti Druid.

“A band of the Bear Clan has made camp at the edge of the forest about two miles North and East of town. Were you to serve as our ambassador, you might spare a good many lives. The Mayor has already come around once asking for men for a party to go destroy the camp before they can launch a raid against us,” requests Jabb.

The General’s eyes narrowed as they fall on Quarrell. “Might we have a word alone, son? There are things I would discuss with you in private.”

“Um, I’ll be at Mama Crandal’s if anybody needs me,” announced Edgrin then he swiftly made his exit.

“My friend,” Jabb said to Ja. “A feast is in order, but I fear we are short of fresh meat. Game is abundant in the Darkwood; anything you bring down, we will spit and put to the flames.”

Ja had been plagued by the restless urge to do something productive all day. Hammer something? Dig something? Hunting was Ja’s profession. Hunting was useful work. As he exited the main gate of Falcons Hollow, the barbarian found himself contemplating the stonework of the twelve foot high wall. The stones themselves were dwarf-cut, but the masonry was appallingly clumsy. It makes Ja angry. His mood darkened until he rounded the corner and headed North.

From the moment Ja entered the forest, he found signs of bear. They were smaller creatures than those of the icy wastes to which he was accustomed, but bear nonetheless. Ja followed a trail until he heard a rustling in the bushes ahead. Out stepped the Forge Spurned. He locked eyes with Ja. He spotted the gauntlet on Ja’s left hand. With a roar of infernal wrath, he spat his vile Forge Breath”. Smoke, ashes, and cinders swirlled about the barbarian… but he was unaffected.

Ja hacked the Forge Spurned with his axe then swung the Grasp of Joskar with fatal intent. The Forge Spurned howled in a manner unique to the damned. He sought to grab the barbarian and pierce Ja’s mortal flesh with the burning hooks that tormented the Forge Spurned every moment of awareness. But, Ja had other plans. His axe carved great chunks from the animated cadaver. His fist crushed lifeless bone. Under the barbarian’s onslaught, the Forge Spurned collapsed.

“Well done! Well, done indeed!” bellowed merry voice that rang in Ja’s ears, resonating with his soul until everything about him hummed. “Labfisk was an insufferable offense to his office,” declared Droskar who suddenly stood beside Ja, clad in a leather smock, thick gloves, and stout boots. He roared a great laugh down at the fallen Forge Spurned. “Even tormenting the laggard has been a chore.” Laughter set the barbarian’s skull ringing once more. “A chore, see?” chuckled Droskar, “A chore for the God of Toil.” He slapped Ja on the back, nearly knocking him over as he laughed once more at his own joke.

“But, seriously,” wiping his eyes, Droskar continued, “I’ve had enough of Labfisk.” With his hammer, the deity smote the corpse of the Forge Spurned. It shattered like glass; the shards caught fire, burned, and vanished. “Let his soul wander in search of a master he might serve better,” grumbled Droskar then he turned fully to Ja. His hair was made of iron, his skin, brass; his eyes were lapis lazuli set in spheres of gold.

“Thomniel, I name you. Remember it, for that is your true name. You are the redeemer that I send into the world to cleanse my cult of heresy and restore devout worship to Dwarfkind,” declared the deity. “I know, I know. But, you’re not a Dwarf,” he dismissively preempted the barbarian’s protests. “We may rectify that yet. Even so, you are the Chosen of Droskar. Let the Dwarf who fails to heed you do so at his peril!” proclaimed Droskar. “And peril is exactly what I mean for you to inflict on some heretics who are even now on their way to your location. Make them dead. Take tokens from their corpses, and carry these with you as a sign to their errant brethren. Can you do that for me, Thomniel?” A clap of thunder cut off any answer Ja might have given and the deity was gone. Though he lay unconscious on the ground, Ja had not merely passed initiation in the Cult of Droskar, he had become its High Priest, Chief Inquisitor, and sole cleric to the true doctrine of the Forge Made Temple.

Favram and his daughter Higa ran the General Store with military discipline. Every, item in the place was in perfect geometric alignment with every other item. The floors were scrubbed daily, and no speck of dust was to be found anywhere. The proprietor and his sturdy progeny alternated shifts; one always cleaning while the other manned the register. A pale scar crossed Favram’s face where his right eye should have been, and the arm on that side ended in a hook. His daughter, well into her 40’s, was no less formidable in appearance. She wore a kerchief and an apron. Her meaty hands looked like they could crush a man’s throat.

Favram handed Sam a single relatively small sack when she asked for the provisions. Uncertainly, Sam examined the sack. A faded crest was emblazoned on one side, a bunch of swords bound together like a sheaf of wheat, with the motto, “The Undying Legion Faithfully Awaits Your Call”. When she opened the mouth, Sam realized that this was a Bag of Holding. Favram glared at her. His good left hand drifted toward the hilt of a broad bladed dagger. Sam suspected that it was time to be about her own business.

After leaving the store, Sam passed through a small postern gate on the North wall and wound her way along a familiar trail into the woods. As she passed between a pair of enormous boulders, a man stepped out into the path, blocking her way. Sam recognized the bald head, low brow, and lantern jaw of Payden “Pay Day” Teedum, Kreed’s foreman and chief head knocker. Behind Sam, two even burlier thugs Harry and Burt, Teedum’s thugs in training stepped out of their hiding places to bar her retreat.

“It’s good to see you made it back,” Pay Day rumbled. “But, maybe you shoulda’ stayed gone.” He nodded to Harry and Burt, and the pair seized the ranger’s arms. She struggled, but the brutes were much too strong for her. They put Sam’s back to a bolder and lifted her off her feet. Teedum moved in and began to pummel the halfelf with blows to the ribs, stomach, and face. Sam lashed out with her feet, bloodying the bald man’s nose. His abuse only intensified until the ranger went limp.

“Aren’t you going to finish her?” asked Burt, letting Sam thump to the ground.

“Nope,” grunted Pay Day. “Boss just wants to send a message. Says he gave her five gold coins. Wants us to take them back.”

Harry knelt and began rifling the unconscious halfelf. “Lot’s more than five gold here,” noted the thug with a whistle.

“Get our five out. Leave the rest,” said Teedum in a low, menacing tone.

“Okay, okay,” replied Harry shoving the coin purse roughly down Sam’s shirt.

Somewhere in an Unknown Nether Hell, Sam stood before a massive, ebony throne formed by the entwined bodies of a thousand elves; each visible face was frozen in a moment of agony. Only the rush of enormous wings drew her attention from this monument of torment. As she looked upward, wind spilled from bat-like wings, and a red giant dropped to the ground. The impact nearly toppled Sam.

“Young Seremla, I had not expected you so soon,” stated the fiend as he folded his wings and crossed to his throne on cloven hooves. Just as he was about to sit, his eyes, like glistening pools of ink, fixed on the halfelf. “Wait a moment…” He stood upright, his gaze never leaving her. The fiend approached Sam, and with every stride his stature diminished until she found yourself standing face to face and eye to eye with a fragment of eternal evil. “Someone… Vraymesh has been tampering with my handiwork.” He extended a hand, pressing it against Sam’s chest.

A stream of memories flooded into her. Sam’s life, her true life, was re-lived in an instant. She recalled her mother and her father, their happiness eroding into fear. The flight from the Mierani Forests, the terror in the night. The site of their corpses lingered in her vision just before Sam’s eyes closed in death. She remembered standing before that horrid throne. She heard once more the bargain that she had made. If Sam could exact vengeance, her soul would be reborn to live the life stolen from her.

When Ivratham lifted his hand from Sam’s chest, she knew his name. What’s more, she realized the changes in yourself. He had restored to her the seductive shape inherited from her mother, her Drow mother.

“Now,” said Ivratham, “let us talk plainly…”

From most of a mile out, Toska could smell the cook fires of the Bear Clan camp. At a quarter of a mile, she spotted the sentries well before they were aware of her. When Toska approach one, he reeked of alcohol. He seemed startled and unsure; he flinched when she gestured too close to him. He led Toska deeper into the woods towards the camp. As she went, other sentries abandoned their posts to follow until dirty wigwams scattered beneath the trees came into view. As she passed between them, Toska heard coughing and sneezing, evidence of minor illnesses that any shaman with a will to do so might cure. Everyone stood and stared as the Druid passed. Many held labeled bottles of quality spirits. By the time Toska reached the Shaman’s wigwam, the entire tribe had assembled: 10 braves, 3 squaws, and no children.

Her guide stepped forward to open the flap, and a wave of stench broke over Toska. Someone seemed to have mistaken the dwelling for a latrine. A stooped and disheveled man scrambled to his feet, shrieking and blabbering in faux-Druidic. When Toska’s guide informed him that an apprentice from the Hawk clan awaited his pleasure, the Shaman dashed forward, tripping over the lip of the opening to tumble in the dust. He was up at once, still yammering in something that sounded like Druidic but wasn’t.

In the light, Toska could see that he was adorned in all of his ceremonial finery, and if appearances were to be trusted, he hadn’t removed any of it in months. Soiled, bent feathers, matted furs, and a necklace of bones from which most of the bones were missing ornamented the medicine man. The Shaman gestured spastically. His right eye was full of blood, all red where there should be white. His knobby legs were naked, and he never stood fully erect. Twitching excitedly, he looked Toska over with alternating expressions of lust and revulsion.

“She might do. Yes, yes…” he mumbled as he circled her. “Clean limbs, clear eyes, not too old. Yes, a fine apprentice.” The Shaman hummed appreciatively to himself and then he came upon Talla. “But that! THAT must stay outside the camp! Yes, away!” he screamed at the lioness and raised his staff to strike.

Talla snatched the man’s arm. Her grip, strengthened by the trial of her adventures, squeezed spongy flesh until she felt bones. Before she could warn the shaman against assaulting the lion, he swatted at her with his staff. Frowning, Toska shoved the mad man away. In his folly, the shaman called upon his power over the elements. The well travelled Druid easily evaded his orb of fire and opened a great gash across the shaman’s sunken belly. Talla was on him in a heartbeat. Her fangs sank into a misshapen skull, her foreclaws dug into narrow shoulders, and her hindclaws spilled putrid bowels upon the earth. Writhing in a pool of his own vital fluids, the shaman gasped his last.

A cheer rose from the assembly. Women came forward to spit into the corpse’s opened cavity. An especially tall though sadly wasted warrior approached Toska. He introduced himself as Zadok and hailed Toska as the tribe’s deliverer. The savages eagerly made oaths of debt for themselves, their children, and their children’s children. And should she wish to do so, when she finished her journey of discovery, the Druid would be welcomed as the tribes shaman. Toska would always find a refuge in the wigwams of Zadok.

Quarrell met with General Hoodrun Bell, and Bell remembered Quarrell’s grandfather of the same name (they wear the same face); he was a veteran officer when Bell was just a promising squad commander. Bell gave Quarrell a history lesson, “Fifty years ago…”

Cheliax invaded Varisia. The Varisians put up a fierce resistance. They knew the terrain and exploited every advantage. They were losing ground, but the Chalaxians paid dearly for every inch. Summer was drawing to a close, and the Cheliax supply lines were long. Their troops ravaged the countryside just to feed themselves. The invasion had stalled, and the invading force was dangerously overextended. Bell had his army in position to sever those supply lines permanently, thus cutting off the invasion force deep in hostile territory.

That’s when the Shoanti rose up. Unified by Chelaxian agents with impossible promises of wealth and freedom from civilized law wherever they chose to roam. The Shoanti left a trail of slaughter, rape, and destruction through the very heart of Varisia. It took months to put down the uprising, and when Bell returned triumphant from the campaign, he discovered the weak willed king had surrendered to Cheliax due to nothing more than fear of the emissaries sent to him from the Imperial court.

Bell quickly disbanded his men, sending them home with their arms and armor. “Bury your gear and your identity until I summon you,” he told them. Zealously, the army went underground, vanishing into the populace. Then the unexpected happened; Cheliax abandoned Varisia entirely. They simply pulled out their forces and went home. Varisia wasn’t even worth occupying.

The rival city states of Magnimar (the old capital) and Korvosa (the new, Cheliax-friendly capital) are all that remain of Old Varisia. The so-called King, resides in Korvosa where the Lords of the City hold him a virtual prisoner, employing the crown and the trappings thereof to their own ends.

But now…

Following a bloodless conclusion to a lengthy civil war, the new Magestrix of Cheliax has an oversized, underpaid army growing bored within her own domain. She has neither lands nor titles to offer these men. Thus, forward units are arranging base camps on the border, and the Chelaxian host is on the move.

While the General spoke, one of his men came rushing in. Kreed’s thugs were attacking the warehouse to steal or burn Jabb’s timber. Bell couldn’t afford another loss. It would have broken him, and Kreed would possess the entire town. The General asked Quarrell to join Camlo and Chaine holding the South-West corner of the lot.

Wielding his trusty glaive, the fighter led Jabb’s loggers in one corner of the lot after another until at the gate he faced Payden “Pay Day” Teedum. Many of Quarrell’s Varisian axe-men were wounded by the time they reached the gate, and only one or two still stood when the fighter slew Kreed’s foreman. The hearty jacks had swung the tools of their trade with strength and spirit. None shirked from the melee, and thanks to the timely arrival of Toska, not one of their number perished. Deivon & Durriken, Jal & Jubrayl, Lel & Mandraiv, Camlo and Chaine followed Quarrell’s commands to put dozens of Kreed’s goons in a shallow grave.

Back at Mama Crandal’s, a tearful Kimi was sitting with Starsha, Edgrin, and Jurin Kreed. Kitani didn’t come home from the stream. A search was commenced. A stone stiff Ja was found next to the carcass of bear. A spasming Sam, in the throes of glossolalia, was also discovered and born back to the cafe.

View
Part Four
2nd Chance to Die

The Lower Elevator Chamber is designed to be a slaughter pit. Defenders attack from multiple sides. Invaders must navigate difficult terrain to escape. The Heroes of Sand Point weren’t content to hold this poor position against its customary defenders. Oh no. No, their plan was to split up the party (leaving the their one and only healer to stand in the bottom all by herself) and invite the entire Kobold horde to descend upon them en masse. With deliberation, the soldier, the witch, the huntress, and the demi-Titan beckoned the lizard army to muddy the sandy floor with vital fluids a second time.

A brief scout of the Ambush Room revealed its purpose to the Heroes. Warily, they avoided the area, sending Ja to explore the narrow tunnels alone. No guest was ever so offensive as was the noisy, abusive, and hostile barbarian. Even so, the Kobolds held their peace. None so much as showed its scaly face while Ja stamped about banging the walls and howling. He bellowed challenges, flung corpses, and vandalized the decor to no avail.

At last, the barbarian stumbled into The Crossroads. Dragon Scale Hunters burst from concealment, and a Slurk-mounted Bloodscale Warrior charged from another room. Poisoned javelins needed the merest prick to insinuate their insidious payload into Ja’s flesh. Nevertheless, barbarian might ended one Hunter’s days before Ja took to his heels, executing the previously arranged plan.

A pair of Hunters pursued the demi-Titan with feasting in their cold blooded hearts. Ja, on the other hand, appeared content to shed great quantities of ichor. Wounded and wounded again, he fled down narrow, twisting tunnels, harried at every step until he reached Toska’s side in the pit.

Leaving the hunting to the Dragon Scales, their Slurk riding officer sped to the great Kobold den where more than a score of his kin lay in wait for the Heroes. Scaly warriors headed his call, and in a body, the army rose to defend their home against invasion.

Kobolds flooded the tunnels on either side of Quarrell and Sam. Together, the ranger and the fighter backed up into an opening in the rock until their heels found a drop off. With their backs to the open air of the Lower Elevator Chamber, the pair plied bows, blades, and fists to hold their ground.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the Kobold horde was pouring down the slide to surround Toska and Ja. Cleverly, the pair of savages climbed into the cauldron cum elevator and heaved themselves out of the lizards’ reach… or so they thought. Kobold engineering is primitive at best, and the mechanical apparatus holding the Druid and the barbarian aloft could not withstand the forces brought to bear upon it. Dragon Scales snagged the lip with their Flying Talon grapnels and pulled. Amidst groans and pops, the cauldron tipped. The occupants sagely vacated the vehicle before it broke free, fell to earth, and rolled off into a corner.

Talla was guarding the re-purposed Centipede pen wherein Edgrin and the children were hiding. When a Bloodscale Warrior spotted her, he was given a brief lesson on the dangers of combining curiosity and cats. Inspired by the lioness’s display of violence, Edgrin seized the opportunity to pitch in. Armored in crusty leathers and swinging the recently departed Slave Master’s pick (whence Ja’s blood still dripped), the diminutive bard took on a deadly Kobold ranger and lived to tell the tale.

Javelins from the room below clattered on the ceiling above Quarrell and Sam. Javelins from the swarm of lizards crowding into their tunnel clattered on the walls about them. But, fist, sword, and glaive created a pile of corpses. Still, the deadly pair were not so coordinated as they might have been. Compressed as they were, Sam took an elbow to the mouth, suffering more from her comrade in arms than the ill intentions of the Kobold throng.

A throng in the tunnels and a throng in the Chamber. Agility and sturdy armor preserved Toska while she poured life into the flailing mass of barbarian beside her. Heal and heal again was the relentless need of the moment. Javelins, daggers, even grapnels found easy purchase in the meaty Ja. And yet, the barbarian’s axe was instant death for any who blocked its path. Eventually, the horde ran out of javelins; the tide had turned.

Slaughter ensued. Quarrell played the diligent butcher among the packed tunnels. Ja flung, chopped, and dismembered the scaly horde with no thought for his carnal continuity. Toska steadfastly managed the barbarian’s wounds-received to damage-dealt ratio. Sam simply maimed lizard after lizard.

And shall I tell you about that Champion of Bards, Edgrin the Ill-conceived? Swinging a purloined pick with greater zeal than accuracy, the halfling took on Grugakrug, the Slurk Wrangler. Now, Grugakrug was no novice; only King Merlokrep himself was more feared in the tunnels of the Centipede clan. Grugakrug wielded a magic crossbow and faced his enemies in a suit of eldritch infused leather armor. None of this was known to Edgrin, all the bard saw was a lizard so shaken by his fearsome battle mien that the reptile couldn’t keep the bolt in his weapon. Twice Grugakrug fumbled before he managed to put a shaft into Edgrin’s paunch. Certainly, the halfling was surprised, but no less so than the Slurk Wrangler when Ja’s axe clove the lizard’s skull.

It was in the deserted Ambush Room that Ja met Droskar. That gauntlet in Sam’s pack was the subject of Edgrin’s every word to the demi-Titan. A token of power, strength to the wearer, death to those who opposed him. Strength and power, power and strength. Who knew the combination best? Who alone could unite the two so effortlessly? On went the gauntlet, and Ja’s left hand knotted in crippling pain as it turned to stone. Power, strength, and a chat with Droskar, Dwarven god of Eternal Toil made the pause in the Ambush Room something the barbarian would remember until the end of time. As a boon, the deity revealed unto his new high priest the exact location of the captive children. Ja then informed his allies… in an dialect of Dwarf unspoken for a millennium. It took a moment of concentration to translate his thoughts into Common, but eventually Ja managed.

Following the divinely revealed path, the Heroes navigated a series of tunnels to reach the Great Kobold Den. Not a single reptile remained in the cavern, but in the King’s Hall beyond, an aged, scaly shaman chanted over the traditional elf maiden bound to a stone alter. Ceremonial guards rushed to intercept the intruders while the King awaited the conclusion of the blood rites atop his thrown.

The Heroes of Sand Point are not like other noble of champions of virtue or defenders of the innocent. Rather than isolate and destroy individual elements of the opposing force, these Heroes prefer to provoke every resource in the enemy’s arsenal from the start. Hence, the witch and the warrior engaged the guards, while the huntress and the soldier rushed past to test the Kobold King and his particularly potent priest. Endowed with newfound prowess, Ja pulped guards with the Grasp of Droskar, shouting praise to the Dwarven deity with each fatal blow. Talla and Toska dispatched guards as well, though without the same degree of piety. Sam, suddenly embracing the archers art, plagued the wizened shaman with well aimed arrows, and Quarrell began to carve up the man-sized reptile monarch with the cool professionalism of a meatpacker. The ultimate battle of the mission lasted mere moments. Bodies dropped like overripe fruit from an especially weary tree, the Heroes collected their spoils, and the nubile elf maiden was freed.

The Kreed boy and Ralla’s brother were caged close by. The difference between the captives was striking. Young Jurin is athletic, blonde, animated. He rattled the pen and cheered for his deliverers. The orphan scarcely looked up to notice his salvation; he is listless, solemn, and silent.

After releasing the boys, the Heroes discover yet another room, the Kobold hatchery. Here lay, in egg form, the future of the Centipede clan. A venerable nursemaid tended the clutch with the nurturing spirit familiar to all who are entrusted with new life. The Heroes hesitate here. In this room are planted the poisoned seeds of death for the lost and the unlucky, and yet, their very vulnerability stands like a guardian, promising the eternal curse of conscience upon any who would harm its charges. The Heroes turned away, leaving a challenge for future champions.

Trekking back along empty corridors, the Heroes found a secret exit to the mountain side beyond. Travelling this tunnel, they encountered the remains of the many treasure hunters who found eternal repose in the Realm of the Kobold King.

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.