Veterans of the SIEGE: Birthright

A Road Less Travelled - Chapter 3
Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

PART VIII – A LEAP OF FAITH

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The pounding of hooves rolled out to the party from the darkened wood line, and panic was beginning to set in. They doubted that it would be impossible to reach the far end of the valley before the party hunting them caught up, and even if they made it they had no idea of where they could go to get home. They considered fortifying a position in the center of the ruined village, but whatever thing pursued them was preceded by an ominous roll of dark thunder clouds and malevolent energy. They had to get out, but were clueless as to how. Hamnurabi and Isael, at a loss for what else they could do, began to shoulder a ruined cart across the road to begin a make-shift barricade. The orcish child began to cry, and the thunder rolled closer and closer. Slowly, a sound reached their ears above the din. The sound of a lute; faint and intermittent at first, it became clearer and steadier as seconds passed.

The spectral form of the village bard appeared before them, seated on the cobblestone wall beside the main road. He appeared different from before. Still a transparent visage, but more wholesome and exuding a softer light. He didn’t speak again, only pausing his play for the briefest of seconds to point towards the center of the village. Turning their heads they saw phantom figures drift into view. As before, it seemed to have been a seen from the villages downfall, figures gestured and shouted soundlessly as they raced to and fro. Four figures seemed to come into focus, distinct from the rest. Two adults, a man a woman, and what appeared, at first, to be two children. As they focused on the scene they saw that one of the two smaller figures was actually the shade of a halfling. The taller of the two adults leaned down and kissed the head of the child, now visible as a young girl, and motioned towards the ruins of the largest homestead in sight.

The shades of the halfling and child set off at a run towards the ruined farmstead; and the party, at a loss for anything else to do, set off after them. The pair followed a narrow, overgrown path which was bordered on each side by four foot walls of stacked stones. As they closed in on the ruins they heard a new sound: howling. It was deep and resonant, and carried an ominously unnatural and malign timbre. They reached the farmhouse’s main door just as flitting black shadows, each of the three nearly the size of a pony, burst out of the wood line and came loping down the road. Inside the barrens ruins of the farmhouse’s main floor the two shades stopped before the hearth. The halfling seemed to lean in and kiss the cheek of the child, and then gestured for her to climb through the hearth. They thought at first that there may be a hidden passage, but instead the aura of the child disappeared completely and they notcied how dark the back of the hearth was. It seemed to absorb all of the light that fell across it, and its back wall was entirely obscured. Eliza, recalling Winifred’s words about the true home of the halfling race. She postulated to her companions that the halfling must have known there was a portal from the Shadow Realm here, and they all agreed that it seemed their best choice for escape. There was only one problem, one of the roof support timbers had fallen across the front of the hearth, and it was enormous.

As Isael and A’Sharad attempted to lift the timber, Eliza and Hamnurabi headed out to the walled path to try and buy their comrades time. Hamnurabi was anticipating a long and desparate fight, but Eliza hoped her arcane skills would buy her friends the time they needed. With a gesture she cast out a massive web of thick spider webbing across the trail just as three hulking shadow hounds rounded onto the path from the village center. Seeing them, they broke out in a sprint and unleashed hungry howls. As fearsome as such creatures are, they are not the most intelligent of beasts. The first two ran directly into the webbing and stuck fast, while the third attempted a leap which only brought him halfway across the web. Hamnarabi inched towards the edge of the webbing and waited for one to struggle close enough to present a threat. Back in the homestead Isael and A’Sharad were heaving against the massive beam in vain, and in desperation they decided to try and alternative method for dislodging it. They fastened a rope to the saddle horn of Hamnarabi’s steed, and with the best hauling to the side they lifted the beam just enough for it to finally roll free.

Shouting for their comrades they fell back on the hearth, though their escape was complicated by yet another factor: Hamnarabi’s horse. The hearth was massive, but they were doubtful that the beast would fit through. The Arayan knight, however, would not surrender his trusted steed and friend to the beasts that hounded their trail. He had trained this horse from a foal, and had taught it to do things no one thought horses capable of. After a quick series of whistled commands his comrades watched in amazement as the horse

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A Road Less Travelled - Chapter 2
Blood and Frost

PART V – THE TRAIL

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The cold assaulted them as soon as the party stepped fully through the mirror, a sharp and wicked freeze that sapped their strength and numbed their skin. They stumbled out into a clearing of bare trees and dead leaves, frost crunching beneath their feet. It took long seconds before they could shake off the shivering and muscle spasms accompanying their sudden introduction into frigid air of the shadow realm]. When they able to take stock of the strange land around them doubt crept into their hearts. It was dark, though not the pitch black dark of a cavern or cell. This was a twilight darkness, one in which the light of moon and star made shadows dance in pale light around them. A sense of unease settled on them all, as it seemed that something was always moving just out of site. Complicating this was the unnatural tendency of the moon and star to change their arrangement in the sky if not directly observed. Star constellations known and alien would form and disperse, and the moon jumped between stages from moment to moment. The shadows were incapable of hiding one thing from their gaze: the massive hoof prints which led through the sparse and bare tress.

Climbing into the saddle, Hamnarabi led his companions forward. The prints were large and deep, as a skilled equestrian the Khinasi knight knew that no mortal race of horse could be so massive. Though unsettling, it made the beast easy to track along the hard ground. Soon they came out of the bush and onto a road which twisted madly between the trees, a road which bore the telltale prints. They followed the road for no more than an hour when they rounded a bend and beheld a grisly sight. Four ogres were clustered in the road, shambling with a slow and arrhythmic gait in their direction. Grim horror accompanied the realization that the ogres were actually dead already, and reanimated by spell or the nature of the land around them. The undead creatures moaned loudly and lurched into a broken trot as the party fanned out across the road. It was a brief encounter, the slow reflexes of the brutish zombies made them easy work. The hunt continued, but after hours of walking they realized that there would be no dawn here and pulled off of the road into a draw and made camp.

In the morning, or at least what they could only assume was morning, they discussed their options. The little time they had in Nowelton had not allowed Eliza time to prepare her spells and incantations, and they would be sorely needed in the days ahead. They opted to split the party. Hamnarabi and Izael would scout ahead and then circle back, Eliza would stay at camp to memorize her spells with Ash’arad present to protect her while she meditated. Making their way along the road, the first pair wound their way for an hour through the trees until they crested a hilltop and saw a valley spread beneath them. It was marked out and divided for farmland, though no crops grew in its ruined fields. In the center of the valley a cluster of wooden buildings huddled together to either side of the road. They briefly considered scouting closer, but decided that having their companions beside them was a wiser choice. They doubled back, this time taking to the trees on their return to camp to avoid using the same path they had left on. They came very close to an encounter with a cockatrice invested in its meal, but discretion proved to be the better part of valor and they returned to camp without further incident.

PART VI – THE LORD’S TAX

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After a brief respite, during which the pair of scouts were astounded to learn that Ash’arad also came perilously close to engaging the cockatrice when it pursued its prey too close to the camp, the party pressed on. The tracks lead directly along the road into the valley and through the ruined village, it would take a full day to skirt the valley and they had already taken enough precious time by making camp. They did not know how much Winifred had. Once breaking out from the wood line they proceeded at a slow and cautious pace, with weapons at the ready. As they came closer to the road they began to glimpse phantoms appearing and disappearing in the ruined fields. Flashes of incorporeal men and women running for their lives, pursued by spectral horsemen, burst into view and disappeared just as fast. The village itself was a small cluster of no more than ten buildings, and in the surrounding fields there were no more than five. Wind howled through broken windows; timber and beams jutted outward like spears, charred and blackened by a long dead fire. And in the center of the town a bizarre landmark stood; a crude balance scale fashioned from timbers that appeared to have been torn from one of the surrounding buildings.

They gathered around the crude scale, puzzling over it. Rusted shields served as the dished, and upon one sat a squat black rock the size of a head. As they prepared to set back upon the road, a mournful sound began to swell and rise. The music of a lute, strumming a tune which moved the heart to sorrow, came to them from the surrounding buildings. Rising with it came a voice, and with the voice another phantom revealed itself to the party. It was a spectral bard, sitting upon a low stone wall across from the scale. He sang them a tale of a people struggling under the rule of a wicked lord. These people dreamed of a life free of tyranny, and in secret they stole away and journeyed through the wilds for months. The bard’s song became hopeful as he sang of a fertile land found, and new homes built free from the iron will of the despot. For years they lived lives of plenty; singing songs and tending their fields. And then, the bard sang of the lord’s return. His hunting parties had found the refugees, and herded them all into the village. Once more within his grasp, the lord gloated and promised his wayward people that he would be merciful. They would live so long as they paid him the taxes he was due. The scale was built, and the stone used for measure. All the villagers needed to do was pay their tax, in gold or flesh. The bard’s song trailed off, and released from its hypnotic grip the group noticed an assemblage of ghosts surrounding them. Dozens of them. All the villagers who had failed to pay the lord’s tax. And then the bard looked each of the adventurers in the eye and told them that they now must pay the lord’s tax as well.

They stared at him, in stunned silence. He would answer no questions, he would only stare back mournfully and then point to the scale. Eliza stepped forward to cast a spell intended to divine the nature of the assembled ghosts, but stopped when their nature was revealed to her. The closer she came to the undead bard, the more horrific his visage became. As a ghost he was incorporeal but fair to the eyes, but once approached he manifested physically as a horrible ghoul. The ghosts made no move towards the party, but there was no way to get past them without triggering the transformation. They would have to pay the tax, or sit there and die. Hamnarabi was the first to step forward, adding coin after coin to the scale. After a small fortune had been placed the scale balanced, the coins disappeared into smoke, and the bard waved for Hamanrabi to proceed. This process was repeated for each member of the party, a fortune in weapons, gems, and gold sacrificed to buy their passage. When the last coin was counted, the gathered ghosts faded back into nothingness as the bard smiled sadly at them, commenting that he was happy they could do what none of them had been able to. Eliza asked if he knew of the fate of their friend Winifred, and the bard pointed further down the road. She had been taken by the lord, he said, and the lord could be found in the fort he built beside the road with the money and lives he had stolen so many years ago. The bard cryptically referred to him as “…one of the Herlads now…”, and played on as the party hurried down the road, still following the hoof prints in the frost.

PART VIITHE HERALD

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As the bard had said, the fort lay upon the road no more than three hour’s journey further from the village. It was a blunt and ugly circle of stone surrounding a single building, sitting beside the road as a toad squats beside a pond. It’s wall was twenty feet high, and only a single gate led within. Guarding this gate was an undead hound master in a tattered uniform holding four chains, each of which was fastened to the collar of a hell hound. The beasts took note of the outsiders as they came within view, raising to their feet and snorting loudly as flames lapped outward from their gaping jaws. The hound’s handler stared ahead blankly, his black eyes peering through the assembled adventurers with blank patience. It was Isael who stepped forward and demanded to see the Herald. The zombie drew his blade, and thrust it into the ground between the links of his hound’s chains. They bristled and strained against the black iron, but held in place as their master slowly lumbered into the hold.

The stand off between the two parties drew on, the hounds hungrily salivating at the thought of fresh meat as the party considered how best to deal with such ferocious enemies. In time, the zombie shambled back into view and brusquely grasped the chains. With a vicious yank he hauled the beasts into line behind him as he set back off towards the hold behind the fort’s walls. He looked over his shoulder but once and rasped that the Herald had granted them the audience they requested. Girding themselves, they set off after him. The roadside hold was not much to speak of, even upon the day of its completion it would have been considered a thing of utility over aesthetic. The central building was a long hall whose interior walls had largely rotted out and fallen. At the far end from the door a huge crystal floated several feet above the stone floor, and beneath it a massive figure knelt. As the hound master came up beside him the figure stood up and turned.

A full eight feet tall, the undead behemoth peered down at the party from hollow sockets. He had clearly not been a man of such proportions when alive, for the skin had been stretched tight and ripped across his frame as the dark magic which had reanimated him spurred abnormal growth. From his head antlers had sprung, with sharp points flaring out like a crown of bone. As vicious a sight in death as he was vicious in spirit when alive, the Herald spread his arms wide and welcomed the party into his hall. He asked what brought them so far, begging that they sate his curiosity before he killed them for disturbing him in his hold. They demanded to know what her had done with their friend, and why he had dared to breach the barrier separating their worlds to kidnap her. After a few seconds a dark and menacing chuckle emanated from the beast’s chest, If they wanted their friend, he exclaimed, all they had to do was ask nicely. With a flourish of his rotting robe the Herald turned and walked over to a pile detritus beside the floating crystal, he pulled up a limp piles of rags and tossed it back towards them. The crumpled form of Winifred’s corpse came to rest at their feet, her dead eyes staring ahead with a mouth twisted in a final scream.

From Eliza’s perspective the world shifted into a slow parade of madness. Isael roared a cry to his war god as he pulled his blade free, Hamnarabi kicked his heels into his mount as the tip of his lance dropped, and A’Sharad threw free his cape and tensed every muscle in his considerable frame as he channeled his ki in preparation. Meanwhile, the Herald stalked forward and drew free the largest blade she had ever seen from his back as he howled with sadistic laughter. The hounds, freed of their chain by the houndsman, surged forward and bayed with maddening glee at the prospect of fresh meat. She shouted for Isael to ward her as she readied one of her newest spells, and as the hell hounds scrambled to close the gap between them, a shower of iron hard webbing trapped them fast to the floor. Hamnarabi’s initial charge brought him within inches of the Herald’s blade even as his lance found purchase in his twisted flesh, and the horned abomination’s forward progress was brought to a complete halt as a headlong sprint from A’sharad culminated in a flying knee into the dark warrior’s chest which almost overturned him.

The battle was a struggle to find balance between the savagery and skill, brute force and tactical advantage. The Herald’s strength was simply too much for a single person to match him in even combat, and the numerical threat of the hounds threatened to tip the scales if not dealt with quickly. Isael and Eliza, by way of the latter’s spell repertoire, dealt with the hounds and their decaying master. By the time they had been able to scorch their way through the magical webbing she had slain two outright, and Isael’s sword play made quick work of the others as Eliza’s azure fire brought down their foul keeper. A’Sharad and Hamnarabi played a different game with the Herald, and a dangerous one at that. A’Sharad nimbly kept the attention of the skeletal warrior fixed on him, darting in and out of the Herald’s guard and peppering him aggravating ki strikes. Hamanarbi continually wheeled in the large expanse of the hold, striking like a viper from horseback just barely out of reach of the Herald’s broad blade.

Though the Herald’s blade found purchase twice, almost extinguishing the life of Hamnarabi and A’Sharad, it became quickly apparent that without the aid of his hounds he could not prevail. All of his hideous strength availed him nothing against opponents who used coordinated techniques to rob him of the power he depended upon. Finally , under a hail of blows, the horned warrior was brought low. When the light died out from his pale eyes and a deep breath rasped loudly from his rotten lungs it seemed the chill in the air lessened, and a familiar voice called out to them from the floating crystal. It was Winifred, and her incorporeal from could barely be seen. They gathered around in amazement, which quickly turned to sorrow as she explained to them that this gem was actually a prison for her soul. Her people had originally come from the Shadow Realm, driven out generations ago by the arrival of some being called the Cold Rider. She had tried to return to reclaim artifacts from her ancestral home using the hidden pathways known only to her kind, but had been driven out before being captured by the orcs near Newcayne. The Herald, having sensed her original attempt to beach the Shadow Realm, had been stalking the gates and waiting. He found his chance when, as she thought herself safe within the confines of Nowelton’s church, she tried to open a small portal through the mirror.

She thanked her friends for coming to her aid, for daring the cold unknown of this place to try and save her. It was, alas, a fruitless endeavor. Through the crystal the Herald had the means of keeping her imprisoned in such a way that escape would never be possible. He had killed her and sealed her soul away, and sent word along to his black master that a prize awaited him. Winifred begged her friends to do the unthinkable, to shatter the crystal and destroy her soul. The Herald’s master was none other than the dark force which had driven the halfling race out of the Shadow Realm, the Cold Rider himself. And he was coming here to claim Winifred’s soul, for he had a keen interest in those who knew of the hidden doors between the worlds. He could not be allowed to harvest Winifred’s knowledge of these paths, the risk was too great. There was time for Eliza to research a means of freeing and then transporting her soul, and it was too massive for the combined efforts of them all to drag it from this place. Each member of the party said their goodbyes before A’Sharad, summoning and focusing as much internal energy as he could muster, shattered the crystal with a single strike. Tears joined the shards of crystal which rained down upon the stone beneath them, Winifred was no more.

Long moments passed, no one could bring themselves to be the first to move or speak in the wake of this tragedy. It was the half-orc child, still strapped securely to Eliza’s back, which broke the silence with a thin wail that echoed his caretaker’s grief. Isael slammed his sword back into its scabbard forcefully and called for his friends to explore what they could within the next few moments , if the Cold Rider was still coming her they needed to put as much distance between themselves and this place as they could. In a back room of the keep they found bags of gold and gems, and a small collection of weapons and armor. The “tax” the Herald had placed on the ruined village, they realized grimly. They bundled what they could to the pack mule outside the main gate and set their feet back upon the road the way they had come. Their march was slow but purposeful until a chill wind blew up from behind them as they reentered the ruins of the village. Looking back they saw an ominous gathering of black clouds many miles away, it followed the line of the road with unsettling accuracy and inhuman speed. Somewhere in the distance a peal of thunder could be heard, and it sounded to each of them like the rolling of hooves. The Cold Rider was coming…

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A Road Less Travelled - Chapter 1
The Bard and the Mirror

PART I – THE ROSE OF THE WESTERN COAST

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It took close to a week to cross the kingdom of Talinie. From the mountainous province of Lindholme the road crept through dense forests for days, only emerging into rolling fields within a day of the coastal city of Nowelton. A ring of hills surrounded the capitol, which lay nestled beneath their gaze against the swell and crash of the Sea of Storms. The party followed the highway, now clearly marked and well kept, down from between the hills and through a pair of gates, constructed from the trunks of trees almost too massive to comprehend, which were carved with elaborate floral designs. Nowelton was famous for its gardens, just as it’s land was famous for an abundance of fertile crops and valuable timber. As the group wound through the wide streets of the city it was obvious that the “Rose of the Western Coast” was not a title the city had been awarded frivolously.

The vibrant beauty of the capitol would have to wait, however. There was still somber and grim business to attend to. While his compatriots booked lodging for the night, Isael set out to find a temple to his fiery god. Talinie was a land fervently devoted to Haelyn, though Cuiracean’s status as the deity’s son meant his worshipers were treated well. Near the outskirts of the central market Isael found a single, circular stone church whose door bore the distinctive sword and lightning bolt of his faith. Within, he found two senior brothers of his order. He relayed the tale of his journey to Newcayne, and implored them to travel to the frontier town. The priest of Haelyn who had ministered to the settlement had fled the onslaught of the orcs, quite against the tenants of his religion. There was a spiritual void in amongst the people, a void Isael should be filled by advocates for a god who would provide strength and courage to a people who clung to life on the fringes of human society. His brothers agreed with Isael’s assessment, assuring him they would depart immediately to see that the word of their god was spread to willing ears. Satisfied, Isael returned to the inn and joined his comrades in the comfort of a hot meal and a warm bed.

After a restful night, as dawn gave way to midday, the group made their way to the temple of Haelyn. It was a majestic and sprawling complex of white granite and marble, built in the old Anuirean style with massive pillars, arches, and domes. Their abnormal appearance and composition almost resulted in their expulsion when approached by temple priests, it was only after Isael produced the holy reliquary they had recovered from the watery dark so far away that they were granted entrance. Shepherded into one of the temple’s larger prayer chambers they were soon greeted by none other than the high priest, Bishop Briar. With awe and patience he heard the party give full account of their exploits in the West. The plight of the Lansings, the recovery of the sword, their defense of Newcayne, the recovery of the reliquary, the deaths of the Warmother and Hamnarabi, and the unique case of the half-orc child. They held nothing back. The high priest, so great was the depth of his gratitude that one of his faith’s lost reliquaries had been returned, consented to the cleansing of the Lansing blade and the resurrection of their fallen Khinasi friend. He was troubled by the half-orc, but promised that once the other affairs were settled he would attempt to divine the nature of whatever thing hid within the boy’s soul. For now, the party would be honored guests of the temple.

PART II – OF DAWN’S LIGHT AND DEEP SHADOWS

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The following morning, as dawn’s light bathed the city in hues of red and gold, the long procession of ceremonies began. It started with the sword, the Lansing family blade which had been cursed through its misuse in black ceremonies in crypts where Haelyn’s light could not reach. A marble baptismal pool had been prepared, it’s cool waters blessed, and the blade finally removed from the sealed chest which had been its home since it had attempted to seize control of Hamnarabi’s mind. A young priest, murmuring a litany beneath his breath to keep focus and defend himself against the blade’s will, drew it out and walked slowly into the clear water. When the water reached his waist he stopped and held the sword aloft, and stared up into the narrow oculus in the center of the dome above them. He waited there, minute after agonizing minute, until the rays of the sun finally began to stream down and touch the now still waters around him. The gathered priests took up a chant, and as they sang the young priest brought the blade downward. The water began to shimmer and glow, illuminating the entire chamber. As the cold steel touched the water it guttered and hissed as if drawn straight from the forge. Fully submerged, a roil of boiling steam erupted outward and wreathed the priest. Mercifully it was a brief affair, and when held aloft in the light of Haeyln the blade shined now that is was free of the taint which had tarnished its proud steel.

The ceremony to bring Hamanrabi back would not be so easy, or so quick. In another part of the temple an elaborate ritual had begun hours before dawn had begun to illuminate the eastern horizon. Atop a tiered platform in the center of large chantry a closed silver casket lay surrounded by dozens of prayer candles. Within it the high priest had lain the finger Eliza had brought back from the mountains, Hamnarabi’s last earthly remains. A dozen other priests, all among the highest rank within the church, ringed the coffin and were immersed in slow prayer. Bishop Briar himself, armed with the power of the recovered reliquary, lead the ceremony. It took the entire circuit of the sun, from dawn to dusk, before they were complete. When the last echo of prayer faded from the room in time to the last ray of dusk’s dwindling, the head priest stepped froward to the casket and placed his hand upon the lid. He pulled upward and then then paused to smile at the bewildered eyes of the Khinasi knight who lay within.

The reunion was joyful and exuberant. Eliza especially rejoiced the the return of her beloved cousin, hugging him so tightly he feared he may return to grave before he had even grown accustomed to life again. Dressed, fed, and sufficiently reoriented, Hamnarabi joined his compatriots in the private chambers of Bishop Briar. Though exhausted, he intended to follow up on his word to assess what threat may lay within the half-orc child. As those gathered held their breath and watched, the kind old priest knelt before the boy and stared long and hard with eyes that had suddenly become golden globes. The priest, despite his power and experience, was drained from the day’s exertions. He broke his gaze and looked upon his guests with a disappointed frown. The child itself was not possessed by any entity or creature that he could discern. There was a taint of some darkness there, but the Bishop suspected that he may serve as some sort of anchor between another world and this one. He was not possessed, but the risk would be ever present. The day was spent, and Bishop Briar took his leave as the party was escorted back to the chambers they had been given to stay in during their time in Nowelton. They could decide where their journey would lead them tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Only Hamnarabi had trouble drifting into slumber, he had slept enough for one lifetime already…

PART IIISTRANGE REFLECTIONS

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The conversation concerning the child lasted well past the midnight bell. While Bishop Briar had given SOME insight into the matter, it was not nearly as decisive or informative as anyone had hoped. And if HIS power could not give them a definitive answer, it was doubtful anyone else could. The problem was maddening, made more so by the affection each party member had developed over the preceding weeks. Only Hamnarabi could truly render an objective opinion, as he had already been in death’s embrace by the time the child had been liberated. The question was no longer IF the child would live, none of them could end the life of the child they had grown to know in good conscience. No matter how real the threat he might pose. Instead, the question became WHERE. Where could they take the child? Where could he be watched and not simply imprisoned? Where could he be taught control, not just kept in ignorance? Bishop Briar had offered the services of his church’s orphanage, but the party doubted that any Anuirean establishment could ever see the boy as more than the orcish side of his heritage. It was Ash’s option which the group finally settled upon. The boy would be taken to the monastery where he had been raised, amongst men and women who saw beyond race and color. A life of martial discipline could harden him against the curse he bore, and if he failed he would be surrounded by those more than capable of dealing with whatever threat he posed.

With the matter settled, the party settled down for a long night’s rest. They would make plans for the long journey back to the Khinasi kingdom of Ariya in the morning, though by what route they knew not. Morning came, sooner than hoped for, and the party gathered in one of the temple’s courtyards to begin planning, but someone was missing. Winifred, the bard, was running well behind her compatriots. In fact, no one had even seen her since they had ended their discussions the night before. Curious, Isael and Ash made their way back to the rooms which had been offered to them. Her’s was locked, and she did not answer their calls. Ash peered through the keyhole, and his jaw clenched at the sight he beheld. He leaped back from the door, spun, and launched a kick powerful into the center of the door powerful enough to blast the heavy oak of the hinges. He roared for help as Isael drew steel and followed him into the room. It was completely destroyed. Furniture had been overturned or shattered, and blood stained the torn rug in the center of the floor. Upon closer inspection they saw that the window was intact and still bolted shut, as had been the door. As the rest of the party arrived at a sprint, a dark realization came upon them. There were rents in the rug that looked as if someone had tried to use a dagger to gain purchase as they were drug along the floor. And the tears lead directly to the only object in the room which had not been utterly destroyed.

The mirror upon the wall.

Bishop Briar arrived, followed by a flock of outraged priests. Someone had defiled their holy sanctum, and they would have answers. However, when his eyes beheld the sight before him Briar sternly called for silence. In a grave voice he ordered the mirror to be shrouded, taken to an inner sanctum, and guarded carefully. He then turned to the party and drilled them with sharp questions. When was the last time she was seen? Had anyone heard anything through the night? Did she have any enemies she had spoken to them about? Were there any strange objects or trophies which they had brought with them from the mountains? As the group denied each of his questions his face became more set and grim, with a deep sigh he waved away those priests closest to the door so that he might have privacy. Alone with the party, he revealed to them his suspicion. Something had taken Winifred through the mirror, but WHAT had taken her was not nearly as important as WHERE it had taken her. The shadow realm. He spoke the words almost too quietly to hear, and a stunned silence followed.

PART IV – INTO THE DARK

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Once safely locked behind the doors of Bishop Briar’s study, the old man cautiously began to explain what he knew of the shadow realm. It was a strange plan of existence, which reflected the world as they knew it in even stranger ways. The terrain was almost a perfect match, and many of the landmarks of the mortal races existed there as well. In fact, it was mainly natural landmarks shared by both realms where gates between the two naturally formed, though such gates rarely opened to the same place more than once. Yet, in places there are memorials and landmarks which do not exist in the regular world, and other places where they SHOULD be and are conspicuously missing. Some cities stand which were ruined centuries ago, and some stand which were never built in the land as it is known today. An eternal twilight shrouds the land, and the ceaseless dark has been known to drive some of the realm’s few explorers mad when time becomes a blur. Though known tom only a few, the realm has been tentatively explored by a handful of brave adventurers and mages. Records, scarce though they be, indicate that the realm was once a place of mystery more than a place of danger. That changed however, not long after the fateful Battle of Mount Deismaar. Around this time the shadow realm became an inhospitable plane of frigid cold, with hordes of undead swarming across it. Few will chance the journey between the realms now, and those who know of its existence are loathe to discuss it.

Briar was convinced that something had reached out from the shadow realm into their own and stolen Winifred through the mirror. It was the only logical explanation for how something had so mysteriously breached the magical wards of the church, many of which he had crafted himself. The queen’s court wizard, a man with an interest in the gates between realms, owed Briar favors. He would call upon the man to open a gate if it was what the party wished. He left the group to converse, though it did not take them long to reach a conclusion. They would follow Winifred if they could, and save their friend from whatever foul thing had breached the barrier between worlds to steal away their companion. The REAL question was what they would do with the child. None of them were comfortable leaving the boy in the care of the church, but they were unsure if they would be able to make it back out from the shadow realm by the same gate they used to enter it. They settled on bringing the child, hoping that an emphasis on speed and surprise would minimize the risk. They told Briar, and as he left to summon the wizard and arrange for the ritual the group split to prepare for their journey.

In the scant few hours that followed they stormed through Nowelton in a frenzy, buying supplies and having their equipment mended. They had hoped for a few days rest, dared to dream of more, but were forced by fate to make good use of what little time they had. Weapons and armor were bought and sold, potions brewed, and rations prepared. By the time they gathered again in the courtyard in early evening they were equally exhausted to any of their days on the journey from Newcayne. With a fresh mule to haul their equipment, they followed a young monk through the marble halls of the church of Haelyn while acolytes stared in amazement at the unusual sight. Finally, they reached the sanctum where Briar had arranged for the gate ritual to be performed. The mirror from Winifred’s room stood in the center of the wide and circular area with a domed ceiling. It was surrounded by candles, each of which had been placed at a juncture between intricate lines of colored chalk, salt, and sand which formed a dizzying array of geometric patterns on the floor. Beside the mirror a middle aged mage directed his apprentices at a fevered pace in the completion of the diagrams. His excitement at the prospect of opening a gate to the shadow realm was palpable.

When the ritual was ready, Briar attempted to introduce the party to the obsessive wizard so that he might understand the gravity of their task. He brushed them aside. He was only concerned with the success of this endeavor, if they reached the other side and returned he only asked they send word of their return to him as payment. The arts of opening a gate between the shadow realm and this one was a skill known only to a few, and by demonstrating it he would ascend greatly in the eyes of his peers. The wizard knelt before a book which had been laid open on the floor for him. He did not need to view the pages however, he had dreamed of this spell long enough that each word and syllable were engraved upon his mind. His voice rose and fell in pitch and tone, pace and rhythm. His arms and fingers curled and gesticulated madly as he wove intricate somatic forms of arcane power before him. Minutes stretched out, and many of those assembled began to question if what the wizard claimed was possible. And in that moment the glass of the mirror shattered outwards.

Thousands of shining shards propelled outwards at breakneck speed, forcing everyone in the room except the wizard to cover their face and recoil backwards. It was a miracle that Hamnarabi and Ash could keep hold of the horse and mule. Yet as quickly as they were propelled outward the shards froze in the air, mere inches from tender flesh in some cases. The hall stood in astounded silence as the glittering cloud of glass twinkled and tumbled in slow motion, hanging in the air. The mirror’s frame now contained a swirling mass of black, out of which a deep cold emanated. Breath could be seen hanging in the air, and frost began to creep out from the base of the mirror and along the floor. The wizard, perspiration spotting his forehead from the force of his concentration, shouted at them to enter the portal. He could not hold it long, and even as he spoke singular shards of the mirror began to slowly drift back towards the frame. In a line with Hamnarabi at the front, the party shuffled through the swirling vortex and stepped into the shadow realm.

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Beneath the Shadow of the Five Peaks - Chapter 5
The Head of the Serpent

PART XIVTHE RIVER RUNS WILD

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Ash’arad stirred slowly, his mind struggling to understand what had befallen him. The taste of murky water and mud came first, and then the pain. Fiery and sharp, his joints and muscles raged against him as he began to stir. His eyes began to focus, taking in the dim light of dusk which illuminated the river bank upon which he found himself. Flashes of his fall into darkness came back to him. The mailed fists and sharp teeth of the orc beating against him and scoring his flesh as they tumbled down. Little else came to him other than jumbled recollections of rigid water and impenetrable darkness, fighting for air and clawing for purchase on slick stone. As he crawled on hands and knees further up the bank he found the tattered remnants of his orc nemesis’ cloak and wound it tightly around him against the cold. Though damp, it would help to stave off the impending cold if he could find some place to start a fire and warm himself. When he had finally summoned the will to stand against the protest of his body he made his way into the darkening woods.

It was not long before he found himself on a small game trail, and evidence that he was not the only one using it. Heavy boot prints marked the path, fresh and deep. Pulling the cloak’s hood low over his face he doubled his pace. Ahead of him in the gloom he made a shuffling form, stooped and stumbling through the underbrush with low curses in orcish. A scout! He considered, briefly, the merits of dispatching the creature before it was aware of him. The thought of another struggle in his miserable condition seemed bleak, and he chose instead to turn away. However, before he could make his way back down the trail the scout began to snuff and snort violently. It spun with a snarl and came jogging back the trail, its keen senses had caught his scent. Ash’arad planted his feet and braced for what would come. The orc hammered around the last bend between himself and the bedraggled monk with spear at the ready, but stopped short as he caught sight of him. He peered warily across the trail and then barked a harsh laugh, greeting him in orcish and commenting on how the hunt for the defilers must have gone awry. The scout thought he was part of the hunting party! With few options, Ash’arad grunted in response and set out behind the orc as it waved him to follow.

As the unlikely pair wound slowly through the trees the scout plied him for information about what had gone wrong, and how he had gotten separated from the others. Ash’arad, wisely, kept his answers as short and guttural as possible. Orcs were not verbose or cunning linguists, and luckily the scout was willing to accept his noncommittal responses. The orc himself was more than willing to divulge a wealth of information, thinking that he was bringing a companion up to speed on recent events in the war effort. The main army had made camp barely a day from the wretched human’s walls, though fighting between the tribes had intensified the closer they were brought together. The disparate forces of the army, it seemed, were bound by the will and influence of someone he called “Warmother” and her children. The orc spit and lamented the loss of their scout captain, one of the Warmother’s children; his giant was too unpredictable to be kept with the rest of the war party and he had foolishly chosen to stay with it in the eastern caves. With his death, the Warmother had retreated with her other children to something called “The Watcher” to complete some dark ritual which would give her the power to finally destroy the lowland scum.

At last the scout led Ash’arad over the crest of a large hill, below them a massive war camp squatted in a wide clearing. Ragged hide tents and raging fires, with black figures dancing and fighting between them. Far in the distance the wooden watch tower of Newcayne could be seen in the twilight. The orcs were done hiding, and so was Ash’arad. His disguise might have served on a shadowed trail, but would quickly fall apart once within the encampment. He grabbed each side of the scout’s head and with one vicious twist broke its neck. He followed the crest of the hill as far as possible and struck out to circle the war camp and make towards Newcayne. His pain seemed forgotten in his haste to reach the town and give them warning of the inevitable assault.

PART XV – ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

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The rest of the party, weary and recovering from a host of wounds themselves, had spent the better part of three days making their way back to Newcayne from the guild mine. They had healed most of their wounds, but the unrelenting stress of the last week, alongside the uncertain fate of their comrade, had stretched them thin. Thoughts of a warm bed and hot food wormed into even the most determined mind, and the sight of the palisade brought a palpable sense of relief to them. Yet, as they entered the gates an air of anxiety thick enough to cut with a blade hung upon the town. Renly, the innkeeper, pushed his way through the terrified townsfolk to give them the news. Ash’arad lived, but had brought terrible news of an impending attack. The orcish host was camped not far from the town’s walls, and were on the precipice of their final attack. He led them to their lost friend, recuperating from his wounds at the inn, who filled them in on the events after his fall into darkness. As he finished, a messenger from Warden Ghant arrived to ask them all to attend a council in the fortress. They consented, but had a stop to make first.

With Ash’arad limping alongside them they entered the guild hall and approached Kelbor about his promised payment for their efforts at the mine. The miserly dwarf was ecstatic to see them return, but his amiability was not shared by the party after they watched him shrug off the news of his miner’s horrible fate. The miserly dwarf simply shrugged off their deaths as the cost of doing business, and then had the gall to dispute the agreed upon terms of their investigation. It took the coordinated efforts of all involved to hold him to his word, and as they left the guild hall and proceeded to the hill fort in the center of the town they tried to work the sour taste of their dealings with the ruthless merchant from their mouths.

Within the council hall of the fort they gathered with Kira, Ghant, and the Rjurik hunter Ernjir to discuss the bleak situation before them. Defense of the town was possible, but with no help coming from the surrounding nobles and communication with the capitol severed the outlook was not good. If they could hold the walls they had supplies for only a handful of days, the influx of refugees had depleted the town’s stores faster than anyone had anticipated. Their only hope, it seemed, was to strike at the one thing holding the hostile tribes of the war band together. The Warmother. The party agreed, but had no idea where the Watcher was that the orc scout had mentioned. They poured through old tomes and scrolls, and dug deep into their collective knowledge. It seemed fruitless, but suddenly Ernjir’s eyes lit up, he knew where the Watcher could be found. It had been during his first summer hunting in the south, over thirty years ago, when it was safer to push east towards the base of the Five Peaks. A massive watchtower, carved in the likeness of the first Anuirean emperor, facing the untamed wilds of the mountains. Dozens of them had been built, but only this last tower remained on its lonely vigil.

All that remained was the trek back out into the wilds, a perilous journey for a group already wounded and tired. They would eat their fill, rest as they could, and strike out under cover of darkness shortly before dawn. Despite their fatigue, rest was slow in coming and too short in duration. With aching muscles and heavy hearts they crept through the shadows and back out into the forest, but they were not alone. Ernjir had chosen to accompany them, being possibly the only human alive who could lead them to the old tower. He would be of little use to them in combat, despite his prowess with a bow, but his company was most welcome. In order to avoid the war camp and possible patrols they struck south and reached the river, and spent the remainder of the day following it east. In the morning, confident they were well behind the enemy’s lines, they struck northeast through abandoned farmlands and fields towards the mountains.

Around noon they heard a terrible commotion in the next glen, and cautiously peering through the trees caught sight of an errant hill giant pillaging a farm. No doubt it had wandered down from the foothills, and with no border guard to deter it the beast was free to pillage to its heart’s content. The farm was abandoned, but the beast would certainly demolish it utterly if they did not intervene. They considered interceding, but ultimately choice the path of discretion over valor. They were on a vital mission, and could not spare the time or energy to confront such a formidable creature without risking it. Striking back through towards the peaks they arrived in the foothills of the Five Peaks as the sun set in the distance.

On the final day of their forced march the began to wind their way higher and higher into the mountains. Forested hills gave way to rocky embankments and narrow paths, soon they were at the highest edge of the wood line and could see the rolling green of Lindholme below them. Far off on the horizon they could barely make out the town of Newcayne, there were no fires or smoke indicative of the impending siege yet. They still had time, and doubled their pace despite the treacherous footing. They paused once in a high alpine grove to eat and rest their feet, when a shadow passed above them and a piercing cry shook the stones around them. Winging across the cliff faces a young dragon spread it’s wings and banked back towards them. Dragons were rare, and their young rarer still. Like the giant, however, they could spare no time to hunt the beast or attempt to find its lair. They hunkered low until the winged terror swung back towards the heart of the mountains and disappeared.

They pressed onwards, and finally rounded the side of a tall cliff and saw the Watcher for themselves. In the center of a wide saddle leading down from the mountains into the foothill it was fashioned in the old Anuirean style, grandiose and imposing. A hundred feet tall, it had been built in the shape on the armored emperor with his sword held in both hands before him. A wide glacial stream ran down the saddle and snaked around its base. Hand and footholds had been carved up its back so that soldiers could crouch atop his crown. At the base of the tower the ruins of an old hold could be seen, huge sections of the roof and walls had collapsed. Like most of the old border forts of Anuire it was a single structure built in a long rectangle and supported by massive columns. Nothing could be seen moving within the gaping holes, but a sense of dread descended upon them nonetheless. The tower had been defiled, the face of the emperor chiseled off by force.

They approached as near as they dared, but hoped to get a closer look that a fully armed group would complicate. Winnifred, as the smallest of the group and skilled in remaining unseen, volunteered to scout the old hold. She crept noiselessly over stone and boulder for what seemed like an eternity. The gates to the keep had long since collapsed, and the flicker of candles could be vaguely discerned within. She crawled to a wide hole in the wall, and attempted to peer within. A loose brick gave way beneath her hand and toppled to the ground with a loud clatter. Scrambling back from the hole she made her way back to her friends, cursing her rotten luck for having gotten so close and yet not seeing anything worth noting. Few choices were left, without more information to formulate a plan the group decided upon a frontal assault. Within this keep, one way or the other, their struggle against the Warmother would end.

PART XVITHE WARMOTHER

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Standing side by side the party steeled themselves for whatever lie in the shadows beyond the keeps broken doors. With Isael and Hamnurabi leading the pushed their way inside. It took a scant few seconds for their eyes to adjust to the darkness within. Though sections of the roof and walls had given way the gloom within seemed to dampen the beams of light that penetrated into its depths. Heaps of rubble were strewn and piled high through the open space of the main hall, and lighting the way down a central aisle cleared of debris were macabre candle holders fashioned from the skeletons of the Warmother’s enemies. At the far end of the large open hall, upon a raised dais, a single figure rose from her knees and turned to face those who dared to disturb her ritual. With a sneer highlighting her prominent tusks the Warmother slowly made her way down the steps of the dais and placed a single hand upon a large pile of bone at its base. To the adventurer’s shock the bones stirred and stood to a towering height, but it was no undead menace they faced. A single orc of enormous size, armored in bones and menacing them with baleful eyes, hefted a fire blackened dwarven maul and began to stride down the center of the hall towards them with resounding footfalls as it pulled a long draft of some hideous concoction from a hide skin at its side. As he did so, a venomous whisper from the dark priestess brought each of the skeletal pillars trembling, in a flash they were reassembling themselves into vague mockeries of the forms they held in life.

Winifred let fly with a well aimed arrow which struck the towering brute in the neck, and then harmlessly fell away. Isael, his holy wrath stirred by abominations like the undead before them , called out to his patron god. The deity heard his prayer, and all of the light streaming into the building flared brilliantly for an instant and set the undead fleeing in terror from the power of the cleric’s holy symbol. Hamnarabi, sensing a chance to strike using the momentum of his steed, set his stirrups hard into his steed’s flanks and charged directly for the towering orc. His blade struck hard against the titan’s arm even as it’s massive maul, brutal but slow, rushed through the air only inches from his face. Eliza and Ernjir rushed atop the strewn rubble to give themselves vantages from which they could deploy their bows, darts, and magic to good effect. Isael rushed in against the orc as Hamnarabi spun about, throwing himself fully into a deep lunge which buried half the length of his longsword into the orc’s thigh. It brought its other knee crashing up into the cleric’s chest, driving the air from his lungs as the blow pushed him backwards and forcibly pulled his blade from the orc’s leg.

For a moment they despaired of bringing the barbarian low, it seemed to stoically shrug off every blow and injury. Yet, in almost imperceptible increments, it was slowing. As the Warmother afflicted them with crippling pain and conjured spells of protection to shield her from Winifred’s arrows, the tide had seemed to turn. Until a slender shadow fell from the rafters directly above Hamnarabi. An orcish assassin, lithe like a serpent, landed behind him atop his steed and buried two hooked daggers fashioned from the tips of a wyvern tails into his flanks. The injury alone was grievous, but the fiery poison which then flowed forth from the wounds brought darkness upon the brave Khinasi. He tumbled like a sack from atop his horse even as the assassin flipped from it’s back with coiled grace. In her hurry to strike such a deadly blow and win her mother’s favor by slaying a powerful foe the assassin had made a grievous error in exposing herself to Eliza. As she saw her kin fall to the wicked blades the mage called for a terrible barrage of azure bolts which tore into the assassin’s chest and flung her backwards against the broken base of a pillar. An arrow from Ernjir took her in the leg, and a final one from Winifred buried itself into the murderer’s chest and stilled her bloodlust forever.

The party’s focused efforts had quickly struck down the second of the Warmother’s children, but the first was still very much alive. It lashed out struck a blow to Isael’s flank which his shield just barely missed, crushing into his ribs with audible cracking. The monstrosity lifted his maul on high to deliver the coup de grace upon their cleric, but was stopped short by another barrage of arcane blasts which peppered it’s upper torso and burned away half of its face. Ash’arad unleashed a flurry of blows which attempted to force the giant back, to no avail. Knowing their arrows were having no effect on the barbarian, Winifred and Ernjir focused their arrow fire on the priestess, disrupting her attempts to summon noxious cloud of gas around her eldest spawn. Despite the pain the orc barbarian brought the maul crashing down, but not before Isael had rolled to the side. Having exposed its neck during the mighty blow Isael accepted the orc’s invitation and sent his sword as guest of honor. The orc, instead of recoiling in horror or bellowing a death cry, seemed perplexed when his muscles began to fail his commands. Twice it attempted to stand with Isael’s blade buried in its neck; and when it crashed to its knees, with dark blood pouring across its chest, it appeared for all the world that it was merely staring ahead resolutely even as the fire of hatred left its eyes forever.

Eliza ran to her cousin’s side, ragged and shallow breaths slowly came from his otherwise still form. He lived, but they could not stop their assault now to tend his wounds. The party quickly reassembled upon Isael’s command as the Warmother screamed her grief and outrage, facing her they proceeded towards the dais in pursuit of her as she backpedaled in a frantic attempt to find some way of escaping. They flung spell and arrow, and Isael’s blade bit deeper and deeper into the dark shield surrounding her as Ash’arad’s fists caught her at every turn. The realization of her fate dawned upon her, but the Warmother was a servant of Baal and would not depart from this world without one final atrocity. She summoned forth a weapon forged of dark spiritual magic, a black scythe which devoured the light around it, and sent it spinning through the air in a final act of vengeance. The unholy weapon did not strike at any opponent facing her, however. It was sent for Hamnarabi’s crumpled form, and even as Eliza screamed in protest it buried itself between his shoulder blades and struck the last trace of life from him. Eliza unleashed the last vestiges of power she had, funneling them through her all the hate and fury she could muster and sent a wave of azure force into the defiler who had slain her blood, yet even as her sorcery burned through the shell which contained her dark soul the Warmother laughed at having claimed one last victim.

The dark priestess and her spawn were dead, at last. This victory however, was bitter and hard won. Eliza wept openly as she held the still form of her fallen kin, winding his cloak tightly about him. The rest took stock of their situation and began to search for clues as to the nature of the ritual the Warmother had been undertaking. Isael could sense the foul taint of dark magic in the stones around them, fouling the air itself and leaving a sour taste in the mouth. He could feel the residual effects of a summoning ritual, the Warmother had brought something into this world from the demonic planes. What that thing was, however, was unknown. A sudden, piercing sound emanated from a stairwell behind the dais. The party snapped back into action, with blades drawn and bows readied. When no creature presented itself, they proceeded to investigate the stairwell. The sound reached them again as they stepped into the old storerooms of the outpost. Chests of pillaged loot lay scattered about, but the party was more interested in a stirring pile of straw. They approached with their sense sharp and their weapons ready to find…a child.

From underneath a ragged blanket atop the straw a child, no more than a year old, crawled out and stared back at them. This was no ordinary child, though. The hue of it’s skin was slightly green, and the tips of two white tusks protruded from it’s lower lip. Ash’arad pulled the cloak aside, and his heart broke at what he saw. The wasted frame of a human woman, starved and rail thin, lie dead upon the straw. A thick length of chain ran from a support beam to her ankle. In one hand she held a tiny locket of silver adorned with crossed swords over a tree, the same symbol which hung from an old wooden sign above the blacksmith’s shop in Newcayne. They had found Gil and Isa’s missing daughter, abducted when the orc and goblin tribes first came pouring down from the mountains. The child crawled atop her, baring its teeth and hissing in defiant protection of its mother. They stared in stunned silence, stricken by the gravity of the Warmother’s crimes. It was Isael who acted first, kneeling down and grasping the child in his hands as he called upon his god in order to discern if some evil presence had taken hold.

The child stared back into his eyes, strangely tranquil in the grasp of the hulking cleric. Isael’s forehead began to sweat, yet no clear answer came to him. The sensations and visions which usually allowed him to determine the nature of things eluded him. He felt the nature of the child, innocent and hopeful; but he also felt….something else. Like something seen in the corner of the eye which vanishes when looked at directly, this second nature refused to reveal itself. Finally, he set the child down. If it was possible to clearly determine if some evil force resided in the child, the power to do so was beyond him. Isael stood slowly and unsheathed his sword. If the Warmother’s ritual had planted some seed of darkness into the infant…it must die, lest it one day claim the child fully in pursuit of untold evil. His companions sensed the struggle within him, each loudly demanding that he put down the sword. There had to be another way, they insisted; but Isael was not sure. His god demanded that he confront and slay evil, he was compelled by that command to end the child’s life here and now. But his god also favored the destruction of evil in BATTLE; and this would not be a glorious victory in war, it would be an execution. It was Ash’arad that provided the solution. In secret they would take the child to Newcayne, and from there to the capital city of Nowelton. The high priests would determine the child’s fate.

PART XVIIOUT OF THE SHADOW

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With the child tightly swaddled, and the hold thoroughly searched for loot, the party departed for Newcayne. They had wrapped and tied Hamnarabi’s corpse tightly in his cloak and lain him across the saddle of his steed, and Eliza had further removed one of his fingers and placed it into a small wooden box she carried for spell components. She had heard that certain priests and mages were capable of feats of reincarnation, and was hoping she could find one capable of bringing her kin back to her. Still, despite her hope, the loss pained her heart. She found solace in an unlikely place, the half-orc child had bonded to her quickly. Over the course of the three day journey back to Newcayne she found solace in the innocent eyes and inane babble. The rest of the group, except Isael, found themselves equally drawn to the child. Despite the circumstances by which he had been born, and the risk of the thing which may lay within him, he was bright light in an otherwise dark time. Only Isael remained detached, forcing himself to consider the risk the child presented before the child himself.

After a torturous return journey evading fearsome creatures and orc scouts, the party broke through the trees surrounding Newcayne and rushed towards the gate, but not before Isael strode across the open field between the wooden walls the dark eaves of the forest where the rustling shadows of orc watchers could be seen. There he planted three stakes, and affixed the heads of the Warmother and her children there as a mighty cry went up from human guards upon the wall. The shadows broke into a frenzy of motion, several black arrows streaked into the sky only to impact the ground a dozen feet from the defiant cleric. None dared cross the threshold and expose themselves to the wrath of the armored one for a clear shot, and soon the shadows ceased stirring as the orcs rushed back to their war camp. Confident that their message had been received, the party made their way through the gates to a raucous welcome.

News had spread quickly from the walls to the town and a throng was quickly gathering along the main road towards the central green. The celebration became somewhat muted at the sight of the lifeless knight’s body strapped to his horse, but hope had finally returned to the people’s hearts and there was an outpouring on congratulations. As they neared the green, Lady Kiya and Warden Ghant could be seen striding towards them, relief evident on their faces. Ghant had visibly lost many of the wrinkles which had creased his brow over the last year, and walked as if he had finally set down a great burden. Kiya embraced her Eliza, but even as she asked where Hamnarabi was her eyes fell upon the body of her kin and a sorrowful cry escaped her lips. This war had now cost her two of the people she loved most dearly in the world. The beloved matron of Newcayne bade her guards to take the body to the temple for burial preparations, and insisted the others follow her to the keep to brief her on the what had transpired. The conversation was brief, only becoming involved and heated when the half-orc child was revealed. After some time, it was agreed that the party’s plan was in the best interest of all involved. The Tanner’s would be informed of their daughter’s fate but would not be told of the existence of their grandchild, who would be taken to the capital of Talinie for the priests. Ghant volunteered to inform the family, insisting that the adventurers had born a heavy enough load in the recent days.

Exhausted, the party finally left the fort and made their way back to the inn. Kiya ordered a retinue of guards to escort them there, as the townsfolk had become fevered in their celebrations. Music and laughter filled the air as casks of ale were opened, each voice raised in praise for the brave souls who had spared them all from orcish blades. Within the inn a side room was set under guard where the party could finally rest. Rich food and ale were plentiful, and against the muffled sound of drums and pipes each person in turn fell into a deep and well earned sleep. Their burdens might be set aside for a moment, but all too soon the dawn would come. And with it came the burial of their friend.

The central green was still littered with detritus from the past night’s festivities, but the morning watch had done what they could to make it presentable even as they constructed a tall pyre of thick logs. As the sun began to pierce the grey of morning the Khinasi knight’s body was brought out on a litter and placed atop the pyre as townsfolk bleary from drink and song began to gather. As the throng finally began to settle, Kiya asked Isael to give her cousin his last rites. The Khinasi typically prayed to Avani, the goddess of light; but as no representative of that faith, or any other, was present the duty fell to the war god’s servant. He praised his comrades valor, giving a full account of his heroism and leadership. A proud and fiery timbre backed the cleric’s looming presence, and souls usually sworn to Haelyn found themselves moved. As the prayer concluded, he took a torch held by one of the guards and thrust it into the timbers. A stillness settled over the watching crowd as the fire flickered and then roared into life. Smoke and shes lifted into the air, caught by a strong wind which bore them east where they may one day come to rest upon the arid desert plains of the soldier’s home.

Gathered again inside the keep, the party made known their plans to depart that afternoon. They discussed it over dinner the previous night, and considered it the best course of action. The curse upon the Lansing blade and the matter of the orc child were still to be settled, and if a ceremony was possible which could bring Hamnarabi back from the cold grip of death it needed to be soon. Kiya lamented that they could not stay longer in case some force of goblinoids still remained, though Ghant’s scouts had found the remains of the war camp and reported that the force had dispersed after obvious signs of fighting had broken out between the disparate tribes. She offered what little the stores of the keep had remaining to aid them in their journey, and had Ghant arrange a force of guards to escort them to her province’s borders. As they prepared mounts and packed bags they said their good byes to those they had met in their time in Newcayne. Ernjir and Ghant, the Tanners and the Felds, each came and bid them safe journeys. They would always have a home in Newcayne. The ride through the countryside lifted their spirits, the sun shone brighter and the wind smelled cleaner as spring gave way to summer. The road to Nowelton stretched before them as they rode out from beneath the shadow of the Five Peaks.

Thus concludes the first tale of their journeys, but many strange roads remain before their ballad is finished…

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Beneath the Shadow of the Five Peaks - Chapter 4
The Skin of the Teeth

PART X – HUNTED

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The giant was dead, and his orc rider was captured. Victory, however, had almost cost the party dearly. Isael lay broken and near death, the last victim of the mangled giant. Quick thinking by Eliza had been all that saved the cleric from joining his deity in the beyond, and it would take time for one of the groups strongest combatants to be fit for action again. He could heal himself, but needed rest before it was possible. Rest which would be hard to come by so far out in the wilds, surrounded by hostile enemies. The cave, as yet, had not been cleared. A’Sharad and Hamnarabi, leaving Eliza to guard their fallen comrade, set out into the remaining unexplored passages. A rhythmic tapping, almost musical in nature, began to echo off of the rough stone walls. Preparing themselves for battle, the two strode bravely into an adjacent cavern.

It was the sleeping quarters of the goblin force. Bed rolls lay strewn haphazardly around the cave, with crude torches shoved into cracks in the walls. There were no foes, but the rhythmic tapping continued, emanating from a sunken pit at the back end of the room. Peering over the edge they find the source of the strange tapping, a filthy and starved halfling using an old bone to tap out a call for help. Pulling the distraught prisoner free of the pit, they give her water and bring her back to Eliza. She thanked them with a cracked and hoarse voice, her advanced dehydration had left her almost voiceless. Questions about how she had come to be captured would have to wait, there was still one chamber which needed to be cleared before they could breath easy.

In the last chamber, the orc lieutenant’s quarters, A’Sharad and Hamnarabi finally found what they had sought. On a rough wooden table were rolled piles of skins with rough maps and orcish writing scrawled across them. They bound these together in a sack to bring back to Newcayne. On the opposite side of the chamber a pile of sacks and crates, booty from the orc’s expeditions, beckoned. Most of it was food stuffs or other provisions, but some armor and weapons of hapless victims was also found. One item in particular, a locked chest, drew Hamnarabi’s attention. He flipped it open, but in his haste did not check to see if the wily orc had take precautions to ensure his greedy servants did not nose where they were not welcome. A small dart sprung out from within the chest and pierced the side of the knight’s neck, flooding his system with burning poison which left him fevered and weak.

His fever clouding his judgement, he cast his eyes upon a small alter built against the last wall of the cavern. A rough hewn pedestal atop of which a small totem of bone was built, topped with a human skull. At its base, like the crypt of the Lansing family, a brass bowl with charred blood and burnt offerings sat grimly. Anger flooded the noble knight, and before consulting their cleric he lashed out with his mace and shattered the totem, knocking the sacrificial bowl to the ground and spilling its nauseating contents across the floor. A deep growl, felt more than heard, crept through the tunnels of the cavern. Something knew that Hamnarabi had defiled the altar, and it was not happy.

Come what may from the altar, there were more immediate concerns. They needed shelter and rest after their battle, and they were far from the timber walls of Newcayne. Isael was clinging to life, but his magic was spent and he needed rest in order to commune with his god and be capable of healing himself. And then there was the orc, it was still unclear if the information they sought was contained within the collected skins or within the mind of their captive. An argument arose between the members of the party, centered squarely upon the fate of invader. Eliza, fearing that the orc would be too much for them to handle if he broke his bonds while the party was weak, and Winifred, still outraged at her treatment at the orcs hands, were in favor of executing him and being finished with the affair. Hamnarabi, bound by his code, and A’Sharad were more concerned that they ensure that the needed intelligence about the orc’s leader was retrieved. Isael, weak and pained, could scarcely decide.

They argued for hours, and the morning dawn had fled before the bright sky of high noon. Time was short, a decision needed to be made. Eliza attempted to force the orc to talk, slamming he staff down upon his bound form. Hamnrabi pushed her away, and demanded he answer their questions. The orc, in the halting manner of creatures unused to the common tongue, laughed and derisively asked about the stains upon Hamnarabi’s mace. When the Khinasi noble admitted he had destroyed the altar, the orc told them that they were all dead already. A’Sharad, furious at the delay and the intransigent prisoner, lashed out. He struck harder than he intended; the orc, already weakened from their battle, breathed his last. Isael’s discontent at staying at the cave, as well as Winifred’s refusal to stay any longer at the site of her imprisonment, finally decided the matter. They would strike north and find a place to rest.

They journeyed until an hour before dusk, desperately seeking some feature of the terrain which they could use to camp. They found in a niche carved into the side of the cliff wall they had followed, just across the river and up a winding crack in the cliff face. It was just spacious enough to suit their need, and allowed them a high vantage from which they could keep watch. They made camp, allowing Eliza and Isael to rest in order to ensure the mystics could call upon their abilities sooner than later. As Winifred kept watch, however, her heart sank. Through the darkness of night, along the same path they had traveled, she made out a group of torches winding through the trees. They were being hunted, and they had less than half an hour before their pursuers would reach the point where they branched off to their shelter.

PART XI – A DESPERATE DIVERSION

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Isael and Eliza’s magic was still exhausted, and cleric clung to life by the barest of margins. Hamnarabi, though willing to draw off their pursuers, was weak from injury and poison. A head-on defense against the orcs seemed to offer slim chances. After briefly discussing their options the party settled on a different tactic: diversion. A’Sharad and their new companion, Winifred, would try to draw the orcs off by planting a false trail. Though he was loathe to part with his steed, Hamnarabi consented to allow the pair to bring his steed. The orcs may not take the bait if they did not see the hoof prints that marked the trail upon until that point. Winifred was hesitant to put herself at such peril, but her so far out in the wilds was dependent upon these people. They had freed her from her captivity, and they needed her help now. The pair led the Khinasi steed down from the their hidden camp and back across the river, and led the horse up a ridge line away from the path to the cliff where the remainder of the party stayed. They took care to disturb the ground and branches as much as possible in an effort to make the diversion believable.

The pair were not hunters or rangers, their skill at laying and disguising trails was limited. They watched from just below the crown of a hilltop where the ride ended as the rocs came across their trail. Though they could make out little from this distance, the huddled group of torches seemed clustered around a central figure. They stayed there, for what seemed an eternity, arguing over which trail to follow. Eventually, the orc group split. Four of them began to follow the false trail west, while the others continued upon the party’s original path towards the cliff. Hope faded, as the four orcs headed for the cliff side would be an impossible challenge for Hamnarabi as he stood a solemn vigil over his exhausted and wounded friends. A’Sharad and Winifred settled upon a more direct plan of action, they would ambush the orcs heading their way and draw the rest off directly. If they could draw out the confrontation it would buy their companions time.

They set the horse galloping off into the woods, and when the party tracking them came within range the pair began to loose a steady stream of arrows down the hill towards them. The dark of night complicated their aim, and few of the missiles struck home, but it was enough to launch the first group into a headlong charge up the hill. The clash came quickly, but the fight drew out at an uncomfortable length. These were not the lower order soldiers of the orc invasion that they had faced until now. These were hardened veterans from the mountain, members of the elite who had been sent hastily to the cave when the altar to their black god had been disturbed. By the time A’Sharad had struck the final blow against their leader he was drenched in blood, and his clothing and armor hung in tatters. Winifred had fared better, using her diminutive size to evade blows and turtle herself under her shield, but she too would bear scars of the orcs savage proficiency. The diversion was successful though, the remaining orcs were quickly scrambling back up the ridge, drawn by the sounds of their comrades engaged in battle. Their plan had worked, but they would not likely survive a second skirmish if it played out as the first had. They set out as fast as they could run through the woods, blindly hoping to lose their hunters in the rugged brush and trees.

From their camp within the cliff face Hamnarabi watched as the torches dwindled into the distance, the faint shouts and clamor of battle faded into an eerie silence. For long hours he stood watch, hoping against hope that his friends would reappear. They didn’t. When dawn finally arrived, creeping slowly over the treeline, he woke Eliza and Isael. The rest had been fitful, but sufficient for them to regain their abilities. Eliza meditated and Isael prayed, both now capable of employing their arcane skills. Isael’s magic sealed his wounds, and forced broken bones back into place. As soon as they were able the trio set out on the trail left by the orcs chasing their friends, the haste with which the vile brigands had cut through the forest made their path clear even to the most unskilled of trackers. An hour passed, and then two, but still there was no sign. In a large clearing they found Hamnarabi’s horse, exhausted and covered in a lather of sweat. A single orcish arrow protruded from the leather of the saddle, but there was still no sign of A’Sharad or Winifred. A deep apprehension filled them, which deepened into despair when they found the chasm.

It was the remains of a tributary which had branched from the river, and for centuries it had gouged a deep rift into the forest floor. It ran for miles in each direction, a full fifty feet in width and more in depth. A huge spruce tree was toppled across the gap, directly over a yawning black pit, a portal into an underground cavern into which the creek had cut. A’Sharad’s distinctive broadsword, it’s spine fixed with multiple rings of bronze, was buried in the trunk of the fallen giant midway down its length. Blood stained the trunk, but on the other side the trail continued. Leading Hamanrabi’s steed carefully over, they took their comrade’s weapon and pressed on. They did not have far to go, they had made better time by daylight following the clear trail by daylight than the orcs had in their wanton pursuit. They came upon the edge of a wide clearing, in the center of which a lone oak stood, gigantic and towering. Around the base of this old sentinel three orcs were busy stacking wood for a fire whose smoked curled through the branches above. And in those branches a small figure could be seen, desperately struggling to reach a branch where the noxious smoke did not fill her lungs. It was Winifred.

The three advanced quickly across the clearing, fighting the urge not to charge headlong recklessly. The orcs, occupied with their fire and the meal they anticipated soon, did not notice the solemn advance upon their rear until it was too late. Led by Hamnarabi upon his horse, the charge took them completely unawares. The first orc died instantly as the steel tip of the knight’s spear pierced him through both lungs. The second feel beneath the cold steel of the enraged cleric, even as one of Eliza’s darts took in the throat. The last, sensing the disadvantage he was in, attempted to take flight. Hamnarabi ran him down and pinning his leg to the ground with a well placed spear thrust. Eliza gestured articulately, and with a murmured incantation the flames around the base of the tree dwindled and died. A much relieved Winifred dropped down into Isael’s arms, the and the party gathered around their new captive. Winifred quickly explained how she and A’Sharad had vainly tried to elude their captors, but as night wore on towards dawn they knew their wounds were slowing them too much. A’Sharad, upon finding the fallen tree across the pit, had told Winifred to run and and hide. She was loathe to do so, but had pressed on until she found the tree. The orcs had found her, though there was one less in their party than had been previously hunting them.

Through broken common and gestures they tried to question the orc, who mimed a figure plummeting down into a hole. A’Sharad had fallen; though the orc could not, or would not, say if he had been dead before his fall. The orc knew it’s chance at escape had been in vain, and now, facing death, he gestured for his sword. If he was to die, he wanted it to be in battle. Eliza and Winifred wanted to finish the creature and be done with it, but Isael was a servant to the god of war. If battle was what the orc desired, battle would be what the orc got. He pulled the spear out of its leg and tossed it back to Hamnarabi, dropping down onto one knee to make the fight fair for the orc. It wasted little time, lunging and slashing desperately in an effort to kill the Anuirean. Isael granted it the death by combat it so desired, thrusting the tip of his blade through the orc’s chest as it wildly swung. The hunt was over, but the question of their monk companion remained. They hastily trekked back to the fallen tree and contemplated how they would search for sign of their friend in the yawning darkness below.

PART XIIWATER AND STONE

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After making a hasty camp, the group probed the length of the chasm for sign of their friend, but slowly came to the resigned realization that the pit was the only place he could have fallen. If they wanted to find sign of their friend, they would have to explore its depths. The mouth of the pit was twenty feet in circumference, and it’s depth could not been seen by the sunlight filtering through the trees above them. Hamnarabi dropped a stone from the middle of the fallen tree into the pit, and after several uncomfortably long seconds heard the faintest of splashes. With careful enough focus the sound of rushing water could be detected emanating from within.

They opted to send one of the party down by rope to scout. Winifred, despite her misgivings about the situation, was the obvious choice given her small size and natural ability to see within the darkness. They tied the base of the rope off around the trunk of the fallen tree, and slowly dropped her down into the darkness. The walls of the pit were slick, and the sunlight played off of the slick surface. When she had passed beyond the pit and into the narrow cavern below it she saw that it was a rapidly flowing river cutting through a tunnel a mere ten feet in diameter in the stone beneath the forest floor. A series of rocks and boulders provided a viable, if difficult, path which she and her friends could use to make their way further into the dark. If A’Sharad had fallen into this river it would have swept him down into the black beyond.

Winifred swung to a wide ledge beside the river and tugged twice to inform her comrades above that it was safe to descend. When they had all managed to wind their way down they lit torches and prepared to follow the water’s flow. Winifred, again elected for her light weight and dextrous nature, leaped from stone to stone and created a series of rope bridges the others could tie off to and safely traverse the slick stone. After several hundred feet they found that the river emptied into a huge cavern filled with a cold lake. Dimly lit by bioluminescent fungi growing across the ceiling of the cavern, they could see the faint outline of a small island of stone in the center of the lake. Unless A’Sharad’s body sunk in the black depths, it would have washed onto the island’s shore. It would be a long swim though, one which they would never make in armor without benefit of a raft they currently did not possess.

They stripped to their bare necessities, each only opting to take a single weapon and whatever other items could be strapped to them. The water was frigid, born of the glacial snows of the mountains, and it shocked the breath from them as they entered. The swim was brisk, their pace quick to fight off the cold. Struggling to keep their muscles moving as they stood upon the shore, they drew weapons and fanned out to search the island. Only a few steps in, they heard a sound which froze them in their tracks. A deep, rumbling croak which echoed off of the ceiling above them. A gigantic toad, easily the size of a horse, lept atop one of the outcroppings of rock on the island. A leg hung from its mouth, which quickly disappeared down the gullet of the abomination. It was joined by first one, and then another giant toad.

The group sprung into action as the toads crawled forward. Their massive tongues, the ends of which were barbed and as thick as the head of a club, lashed out but found no purchase. At least, not initially. As the the first toad was brought low beneath Winifred’s arrows and Hamanrabi’s mace, a second managed to tangle Isael’s legs in its tongue and begin to drag him inexorably towards its gaping maw. Eliza’s magic kept the third from joining in the feast, but before he could finally drive his sword home into its mouth the toad had swallowed him from the waste down. It’s bile burned him, but a quick roll into the lake washed the ichor from him before it could lasting harm. The last fell under a flurry of missile and magic, even as it attempted to flee into the dark depths of the lake.

They slit the belly of the first dead toad open, but within its grisly bowels they did not find A’Sharad’s remains. It was the orc which had fallen with him off of the tree and down into the chasm. A brief reconnoiter of the island yielded interesting results, but no sign of their friend. The toads had taken residence here due to the same pit that had them down here. Passing animals, even people, attempting to cross the chasm would often fall. The river would wash them into the lake, and they would feast on easy prey killed in the fall or too weak to fight them off. The island was littered with bones and refuse of such unfortunates. There were some items of value found in the remains, but only one truly stood out. A reliquary! In a palm sized disc of silver a bright golden sun was inlaid. Within the sun a finger bone, wrapped in silver that was shaped to resemble a sword. It was a symbol of Haelyn, the righteous god of kings and justice, and father of Isael’s chosen deity Cuiracean. Its gold value was substantial, its religious value was incalculable.

There were no options left for finding their companion, the lake ended in stone walls with no visible outlets. If their monk had been carried further, it had been by another tunnel beneath the surface of the lake. If that were the case, the chances of his survival were slim to none. The group swam back to the shore, hastily donned their clothing, and made their way back to the surface. Despondent, cold, and hurt, the group made camp for the night to discuss their options and plans. They wanted to keep looking for their friend, but had no idea where to start if he was not in the caverns below. They needed to get their collected intelligence back to Newcayne, but had promised Kelbor they would try to investigate his mine. No matter where their path took them, they needed sleep.

PART XIII – A BALANCE OF RISK AND REWARD

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The mine. The conversation kept coming back to the mine as the party stretched their tired muscles and gingerly winced at their healing wounds. Would they chance the mine? The monetary reward promised to be substantial, but the gold was not the most important thing that had brought them into the wild. Should they keep looking for A’Sharad? He was lost somewhere in the darkness below, but they had no idea where to even begin looking. If he was dead they would run a graver risk stumbling in black tunnels than braving the solitary mine. Should they return to Newcayne? The intelligence they had gathered from the orc’s cave could be vital to the town’s survival, but if it proved less than hoped for they would need the assistance of the trade guilds or they would not survive the next wave of goblinoid attacks. Ultimately, after hours of debate, they settled on striking north for the mine. It was a day’s hard travel, but it promised the best chance for both profit and security for the town.

The journey through the woods drug on for an abysmally long stretch of time. Sore, bruised, and exhausted the group seemed to run afoul of every thorn, bush, and low hanging branch on the trail. By the time they finally came within view of the mining camp they were as tired as they had been after pitched battle with their mountain-born foes. The camp was a small thing, but well built. Before selling the mine to Kelbor the mine’s owner had constructed a small stone and thatch cabin, the dwarf’s overseer had hastily reinforced it and added a rough timber watchtower to the side. Two more buildings, a barracks and a smithy to smelt and process the mined ore, had been built inside of a hasty wooden palisade. The miner’s had taken some precautions for security, and from the look of things the wall and buildings were in perfect condition. If something had befallen the miners, it did not come from outside of the camp. After clearing the area, the party gathered near the mouth of the mine itself.

It yawned darkly before them, and a grisly sign spoke darkly of the miner’s fate. An orcish spear had been thrust into the ground, and an orc’s skull had been driven partly down the shaft. No other sign of orcish attack was found. The cabins were unburnt, the wall was intact, and there had been no looting of the belongings inside the camp. It was as if the entire camp had gone in to work and simply vanished. Only this solitary sign stood testament that something was dreadfully wrong in the mine. Winifred stared long at the skull, the sight of it had brought the melody of an old dwarven drinking song into her head. Something she had heard years ago, but had forgotten. The lyrics danced just outside of her grasp. The placement of this spear was no accident, but she could not remember what it meant. They rested briefly, ate, and left their horse and gear in the camp, carefully hiding the orcish plans inside the cabin in case anything stumbled across them while they were in the depths of the mine. Steeling themselves for anything they might find, they set out into the mine.

The main entrance had been dug out from between the massive boulders of the tor which crowned the hill the camp had been built on. It crept back and down a hundred feet before the hewn rock gave way to a natural cave. In the center of this chamber a timber crane and winch had been built over a natural pit. A thick length of chain hung down the wide mouth of the pit, but no sound came up from the depths. Hamnarabi worked the winch and the gears clanged and rattled loudly as the elevator car at the other end of the chain came back toward the surface. Climbing aboard, they found another winch inside the iron elevator to reverse the car’s direction. Slowly, they descended down into the black of the mine. It was difficult to tell how deep they had gone, but it took several moments before the first access tunnel off of the main shaft was found. They pressed inwards, but at first could not find anything of note. The miners had obviously been working in this section of the tunnels, but their tools were strewn about as if they had dropped them suddenly and left. Winifred, her eyes keen in the darkness, noticed something strange about one of the pits beside the tunnel.

A miner’s pick was near the bottom of the shallow pit, which was as broad and deep as she was tall and filled with still water. Her eye had initially been drawn by the reflected light from the gold vein the miner had been toiling over, but it was the pick that puzzled her. It seemed to hang motionless a foot above the stone floor. The others gathered around her, perplexed by the strange sight. Winifred reached out for the pick, and the thing that been the doom of the miner sensed a fresh meal at hand. The “water” was not liquid at all, it was a gelatinous cube! A thick tendril of ooze snapped out and tried to drag her down into the mass of the cube. Its acidic touch ate her clothing away, and set her flesh to burning. Isael encircled a broad arm around her waist and heaved backwards, tearing her away from its grasp and flat onto their backs at the other side of the tunnel as her companions scrambled away from the pits edge. The cube swelled and lurched up from its hiding place, thick tendrils probing out hungrily. A torrent of arcane power and mace blows seemed to slow the mindless predator, but it wasn’t until it had almost claimed Hamnarabi as well that their assault brought it low. Their blows at first seemed ineffectual, but each one degraded the consistency of the cube little by little. When it died, it slumped into itself and liquified.

It was no longer a mystery why there had been no other sign of the miners; the cube had eaten away every bit of flesh, bone, and clothing on them. Yet, this was only one side tunnel; where were the rest of the miners? Returning to the elevator, they descended to the bottom the mine. A tunnel led to either side of the elevator when it came to rest, they took the first and found further evidence of a hasty retreat by the miners. They also found a large steel and wood chest, filled to the brim with gold ore and rough gems, at the end of the access tunnel. It was the ore shipment that Kelbor had been anticipating, the product of his overseer’s initial prospecting run at the mine. The vital deed to the mine, what Kelbor had truly sent them to find, was missing. Wherever the overseer was, they would likely find the deed. They left the chest where it was, for now, and pressed back down the other tunnel entrance. Fifty feet further and the tunnel split; one branch lead upwards, the other down. They followed the upper branch and found the original mine shaft. The mine’s first own had stumbled into a natural drop shaft, and a faint stream of light trickled down from above. The wooden platforms and ladders at the base had all been rotted out, or digested, and there was no longer a way back up. From the scattered fragments of bone and cloth scattered about it was obvious that a few miners had tried this route and found, to their doom, that this was the case.

Only one tunnel remained, but halfway down they found that it had been blocked by a hasty barricade of stones. It took time to dismantle the heavy blocks, and they feared the noise would bring the attention of anything else that may be stalking the tunnels. What they had to fear was not from without, it was from within. Once they had cleared the stones away and pushed onward they beheld the grisly fate of the mining company. Close to twenty men had taken shelter in this last tunnel shaft, throwing up the stones in a desperate bid to keep the gelatinous horrors at bay. It had been in vain; such beasts, given enough time, can seep through even the slightest of cracks. The end of the tunnel was a carnival of terror, suspended corpses in various stages of digestion hung limply in a gelatinous blob whose mass filled the entire tunnel. It was easily four times the size of the first cube they had encountered, and it still hungered for more flesh. It lurched towards them, and they soon found themselves fighting for their lives.

No matter how many times they struck, the cube kept coming. It had grown enormous by feasting on the bounty that had conveniently cornered itself in the mine tunnel. Scorched by magic and bit by steel, it still crept forward. Such creatures had no sense of self regard beside the inexorable hunger which drove them with pitiless momentum. It was pained by their assault, but whatever damage they did could be repaired after digesting their soft flesh. Its touch did not just burn, it paralyzed. Soon both Hamnarabi and Isael were struggling to keep on their feet after the beast’s poison began to sap their strength. Desperation set in, for if twenty fit miners could not best this creature, what hope did they have? Isael fell, and the creature began to drag his limp body into itself to appease its hunger. Hamnarabi, holding his friend with one hand even as he lashed out with his mace in the other, struggled to keep the noble cleric from such a ghastly fate. It was Eliza that finally struck the fatal blow. With her last spell she sent a lance of azure light deep into the center of the gelatinous evil, and the last vestige of its strength faded. The tunnel floor flooded with liquifying gel and digested corpses, Isael was pulled free and back into the main mine tunnel.

He lived, but just barely. As in the orc’s cavern he had been brought to the edge of death, the weight of the injuries he had accumulated over days protracted fighting had finally overcome his prodigious strength. While he was not at risk of dying without medical care, it would take more than a night of rest to restore his strength. While Eliza and Winifred drug the cleric back towards the elevator, Hamnarabi quickly scoured the fetid mass of corpses looking for the deed. He found it within a sealed bronze tube tangled in the ragged remnants of a cloak, and quickly made his way back to his friends. They drug the heavy chest over, and the knight cranked the elevator towards the surface. Safely back under the light of the sun, they washed the ichor from the cube off in the water sluice the miners had erected and then retreated into the overseer’s cabin. They placed Isael, still unconscious and breathing shallowly, onto the narrow bed within. They bolted the doors and windows, and Hamnarabi took first watch in the wooden tower as the sun set over the horizon. Winifred finally recalled the lyrics of the old dwarven song, and was humming it faintly as she wet Isael’s lips with a damp cloth. Orcs place the skulls of their enemies on spears to warn other races to keep away, they place the skulls of their OWN on spears to warn other orcs to keep away.

They had survived the mine, but it was again an uncomfortably close encounter which had almost cost a member of their party dearly. They would rest as long as they could, but it was vital that they return to Newcayne to deliver the chest and orc’s missives. Burdened and wounded, it was promising to be a difficult journey.

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Beneath the Shadow of the Five Peaks - Chapter 3
Into the Wilds

PART VII: THE GREATER GOOD

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Aemon Lansing was dead, his last fitful breath spent as Hamnrabi struggled to overcome the curse which dark magic had laid upon Aemon’s ancestral blade. Though now safely locked away, the knowledge of the taint now upon the sword had been too much for his weakened state. Kira, wracked with grief, had called for an assemblage of the citizenry of Newcayne in the town center. It was time to bid farewell to the lord who had protected them and given his life in the defense of their community. There was a palpable air of grief and doubt which hung in the air. These were frontier folk, hardy and disciplined. Yet it seemed now that, for the first time, they were realizing that this was not just another time of troubles which they would endure as they always had. Aemon’s unlikely survival against the lethal plague for so long seemed an analogy for their own suffering. If such evil could claim even him, it could claim them all. Hope was fading.

In his finest armor and clothing, the pale form of the young lord was laid atop a large pile of timber. Kira climbed atop it, and addressed the host which now depended solely upon her, a foreign princess who knew nothing of life on the edge of the untamed wild, for survival in their darkest hour. Despite her sorrow, she called forth a courage befitting her noble ancestry and promised her people that these were not their final hours. The goblin tide would be pushed back into the mountains, the farms would grow, the mills would turn, and life would come again to these lands just as new flowers bloom in the warmth of spring. A winter of sorrow was upon them, but even the longest winter ends. She would guide them, she would rebuild the town and her husband’s manor, and they would all live to see the day when his son would take his rightful place among them. Kira called Isael forth to give last rites; Cuiraécen was not Aemon’s patron deity, but without a priest of Haelyn was available a cleric of the righteous god’s son would have to suffice.

With his prayer completed, Isael stepped aside as Kira threw the first torch upon the base of the timber pyre. One by one the notable citizens of Newcayne followed suit. Hundreds of people watched as the fire roared into life and climbed the pyre, a pillar of smoke began rising up to the heavens. Cremation was not the burial tradition of Anuireans, or followers of Haelyn, but the circumstances of Aemon’s death and the tragic state of his family’s crypt left Kira with few choices. With tears staining her veil she turned silently, her confused son in her arms, and was escorted by her guard back to the timber fortress. Ghant, grimly struggling to keep control of himself reminded the adventurers that there was much work left to be done. One of his last remaining scouts had located a cave he suspected a lieutenant of the goblin force to be occupying. He did not have the men to assault it himself, and provided the party with a map of its location in the foothills at the eastern edge of the province. Kill or capture the lieutenant, and bring back any information which could reveal the headquarters of whatever damned creature was leading the attacks. The goblins were too numerous to be beaten head on, but if the head of the serpent was cut off they would fall to bickering and tribal conflicts.

As the party began to walk off the green to prepare for the journey the innkeeper, Henly Feld, grabbed Isael’s arm and asked that he bring his friends to the Forest’s Edge. He needed their help with a pressing issue. As Henly hurried off towards the inn another, less dignified, figure approached A’Sharad. It was one of the trade guild’s hired muscle, a grim and scarred man, who opened the conversation by tossing a small bag of coin into the monk’s hand. His employer had a job for the party, one which they would be rewarded handsomely for. They could keep the gold in the purse regardless, all he was asking for was a moment of their time. Briefly weighing their options, the party chose to consult with the trade guild’s master first, and strode across the town’s central green and up onto the steps of the enormous trade hall. More men like the first mercenary were lounging upon its steps, and eyed the group with warily.

Within the hall itself were even more men, an impressive force of grim knifers and sellswords. They were drinking, gambling, and throwing knives into the ornately carved beams and walls of the hall. Some stared cautiously, others ignored them, and a few of the more rapacious even dared to whistle luridly at Eliza. The firm grip Hamnarabi placed upon the hilt of his blade, coupled with the magical flare which sprang from his sister’s eyes, stilled their tongues, but it did little to stifle the insolence in their eyes. At the back of the hall two gilded doors were swung open to the main office of the guild’s master, and the party was led in to see a fat, greying dwarf in livery fit for a noble of any court greedily feasting upon a plate of fine delicacies. Food was running low in the town, but apparently this was not an inconvenience within the guild hall. When he saw them he grunted, pushed the plate aside, wiped his hands on a silken cloth, and smiled widely at his guests. He introduced himself as Kelbor Howt, and had need of their services.

Kelbor knew, somehow, that Ghant had asked them to venture into the hinterlands in search of the orc lieutenant. And he had a task that needed attending to if the party was going to be out nearby anyway. He had been sent here from Talinie’s capital, Nowelton, to oversee the guild’s commercial interests in the region. Despite what he insists were well intentioned and generous offers of assistance and funding to the ruling family, he has had his attempts to initiate large scale mining and lumber operations stonewalled. The Lansing family was among the oldest ruling families in the region, and had long ago agreed to maintain the woodlands to ensure peace with the elves of Tuarhievel. Mining and forestry were not outlawed, but they were carefully controlled . Kelbor was openly skeptical of this choice, insisting that such ancient customs had no place in a time of desperation and want. He had the men to ensure the town’s immediate survival, the political connections to bring the attention of the province and kingdom to the goblin problem, and the money to usher in a new age of prosperity for Newcayne’s people. All he asked was for was a fair trade: access to the resources Newcayne had in abundance.

While Kiya and Aemon may not have been willing to grant him what he sought, he HAD been able to convince many of the land holders that already owned lumber mills and mines to sell their property to him. Property which he had only just begun to fully evaluate when the goblin scourge had descended. He had lost contact recently with his most profitable mine; worse yet, his representative at this mine had been in possession of the newly purchased deed necessary to formalize his ownership. He COULD send his own men, but they were expensive; if the party, which had proven itself capable at the Lansing manor, was going to be there anyway it seemed logical to employ their services. The last communique he had received spoke of a large quantity of gold and gems which were awaiting transport, and he offered a considerable percentage of their value in return for the party bringing them, and the deed, back to him. And if this reward were not sufficient, he assured them that word of their aid to the guild would spread quickly. It was an organization with influence and friends, people who could be THEIR friends if they did this for him. He did not wait for an answer, as he was a dwarf who was used to his offers being taken, and with a wave of his hand he dismissed the group and continued his meal.

Back upon the green, the party contemplated Kelbor’s offer as they made their way to the Forest’s Edge Inn. A’Sharad and Eliza were openly dubious of Kelbor’s intentions, while Hamnarabi and Isael considered the dwarf’s methods greedy but still well intentioned. He DID offer aid, just at a price. He was not a noble, he had no oath to compel his assistance to someone in need. Arriving at the inn, Henly and Thea beckoned them to the back of the main hall and sat them down at a table with fresh ale and a hearty meal. Over food and drink they explained that the situation in Newcayne was teetering on the brink of disaster. The town was equipped to handle refugees from the surrounding farms for a short time, but the prolonged nature of this assault was exhausting supplies. One in particular was vital to the health of the people: Bloodsap. So named for its crimson color, the sap was harvested from groves of special red aspens which grew in the misty valleys of mountains. Mountains like the Five Peaks. It had antiseptic and restorative properties, but was particularly useful for its ability to fortify the immune system and constitution of the consumer. Drafts and elixirs made from it could help stave off infection, disease, and plague. It was part of the reason Aemon Lansing had lasted as long as he did, and it had helped to avert the diseases common to cramped sieges.

The stockpile of bloodsap which Henly and Thea had been using to aid the refugees was almost depleted. It took a very specialized skill set to find and harvest the sap in the dangerous places where the red aspen grew. Their most reliable source for the valuable sap was a Rjurik hunter named Ernjir, who lived in a longhouse in the foothills which he and other hunters used in the summer months before making the long trek back to the Rjurik Highlands for winter. He had been due for a new shipment for over a month, and the innkeepers feared the worse. They had little to pay the party with, but would share their secret for distilling the sap if they could bring back word from Ernjir, and preferably the sap he was supposed to deliver. When asked about Kelbor, the siblings darkly warned against involvement with the dwarf and the guild. Kelbor cared about profit, not people. He had been slowly buying off influential members of the community to grow support for his cause and force the Lansing’s hand. And there would consequences for guild involvement in local affairs. The elves may well resume the Wild Hunt which had plagued settlers before the Lansing family promised to protect the forest. And where the guild went gambling, prostitution, and thievery followed. The innkeepers were insistent that the guild’s help would come at the cost of the personal freedom which the people of Newcayne valued so deeply.

While Isael and A’Sharad attended to the preparations for the journey into the hinterlands, Eliza and Hamnarabi sought out their cousin Kiya. They were loathe to disturb her in her time of mourning, but if they were to involve themselves in affairs which could effect her rule they felt it necessary to get her opinion. She reiterated that she would honor her husband’s family’s oaths and do everything she could to maintain the peace with their elven neighbors. However, she also knew that her rule in Newcayne depended upon the support of the notable citizenry, and if she were to rule efficiently she would need their allegiance. She may well have to cede to Kelbor’s terms if he grew powerful enough in local politics, or risk open revolt or displacement. She could not think clearly enough through her grief to tell her cousins what course of action to take, relying instead upon their judgement on the best way to handle the guild master’s request.

With what preparations they could manage before nightfall, the party struck out and began their journey into the wild lands east of Newcayne. They debated their goals hotly, but eventually settled on a plan of action. They would see to the issue of the bloodsap first, and then press north to the lieutenant’s encampment. If they survived and were successful in those endeavors, they may try to address the issue of the mine if it were feasible.

PART VIII: OF WOLF AND MAN

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Three days of wearying journey into the wooded foothills of the Five Peaks passed before the Rjurik longhouse marked on Ghant’s map came into view, sitting near the crest of a ridge line. The steep draw separating the party from their destination was rough terrain, and they contemplated camping for the night as the sun was quickly making is way towards the horizon. They were anxious for word of the northern hunters, and ultimately decided that they were bested served attempting to make their way in the oncoming dusk. Leading horse and mule by hand they wound first down, and then back up through the thick pine which blanketed the hills. Finally passing the edge of the wood line into a clearing a scant two hundred meters from the longhouse they breathed a sigh of relief, a sigh which froze upon their lips as a chorus of howls erupted from the woods behind them.

Looking back, the swift grey shadows of a pack of timber wolves could be seen weaving up their trail. They broke into a run, trying desperately to reach the door of the ominously quiet longhouse before the pack could close. It was no use, they were too tired from their arduous trek through the wild to outpace creatures born of these woods. Instead of exhausting themselves, they drew together and faced off as the wolves split into three smaller bands of four and circled them in a half moon. They snarled and snapped from afar, but seemed hesitant to take action. Perhaps they had anticipated a less resolute foe, or perhaps they were unsure of their chances. Whatever their misgivings, the wolves stilled when their warg pack leader muscled through the edge of the trees, snapping smaller trees under its weight. It tilted its head back and let loose a thunderous roar which shook snow from the branches around him. The signal was given, and the wolves closed.

Hamnarabi quickly called commands to his fellows. A’sharad would take the southern group of wolves, Isael the north, and he would charge into the center pack. Eliza would support her comrades with missile fire and magic as the situation developed. He kicked his horse into a full charge and leveled his spear, catching a wolf fully in the chest and pinning it to the ground before wheeling his swift Khinasi steed back toward the group. The group held fast against the first few passes by the beasts. Hamanrabi’s spear and steed waded through the fray, Isael’s sword bit deep, and A’Sharad’s fists and feet broke bone and fang alike. Eliza’s carefully aimed darts whistled through the air and kept the more devious of the shaggy marauders at bay. The warg held back, it was not as mindless as its cousins. A black cunning gleamed in its eyes as it circled the fight and waited for the right moment to strike.

The warg’s moment came when Hamnarabi, finally having a clear line towards the massive creature, set into a full charge. His aim was true, but the warg had dealt with spears before. In the instant before the steel tip would have pierced its heart it lunged to the side and clamped its jaws firmly upon the haft, twisting quickly and jerking the knight free from his saddle. Though he absorbed the impact of his fall as he had been trained, he suddenly found himself weaponless with the warg separating him from his comrades. It sensed its advantage and seemed to grin as it bit down and snapped the spear haft in its maw in two as it stalked forward. Eliza, seeing the plight of her brother, let loose her sorcery and blast of searing light burned the warg down to its ribs and set it snarling in pain. It turned and began to jog towards the gap in the party’s line which Hamnarabi had held, a gap which led directly to the wizardess who had dared to injure it.

I was a tense moment. Hamnarabi could not draw a weapon and close the distance before the warg reached his sister, and neither Isael or A’Sharad could disengage the wolves they held at bay to assist without exposing themselves to attack by the same. Eliza let fly again, this time searing half of the warg’s face off. Its advance slowed, but did not stop. Isael and A’Sharad, realizing that their mage stood no chance against such a foe in melee range, commited themselves to her defense. It cost them both, and they suffered under the gnashing fangs of the wolves in order to close the gap. It was not a tactic the warg had anticipated, such selflessness was not known among its kind. As with the boar, A’Sharad’s ki strike stunned the beast from the flank and allowed Isael the perfect opportunity to strike. He drove the tip of his longsword into the opposite flank, sinking the cold steel deep. It wobbled, obviously weakened, but refused to fall. It lifted its head to call for aid from its pack, and as it opened its jaws the dark flash of an arrow slammed into its left eye. The beast fell limp, its howl cut short.

The remaining wolves, seeing their leader fall, broke and ran for the woods. Three more were cut down by Hamnarabi and Isael as they fled, but soon all that remained of the pack were still shaggy forms in the snow, steam rising from the wounds which had bled out their life. They turned, and saw the skinny form of an old man clutching a bow slumped against the doorway of the longhouse. They had found Ernjir, and he beckoned them inside to mend their wounds and gain shelter from the coming night. They set foot into the longhouse as the last rays of red light dimmed into early twilight, exhausted and bloody. The longhouse, like most things of Rjurik make, was sturdy and utilitarian. Unlike the clan houses in the north, this place was a temporary shelter and bore none of the elaborate carvings or knot work which were among the few adornments found in Rjurik dwellings. A small fire was roaring in the central firepit, and Ernjir collapsed down next to it. He had sunken cheeks, and a haunted look was in his eye.

After they had dressed their wounds, Ernjir explained what had delayed his bloodsap shipment for so long. Several months earlier they had come down with the first thaw to prepare for the hunting season. Things had gone as planned for the first few weeks, but then the wolves came. Led by a pair of wargs, a pack numbering close to fifty had taken advantage of the recent lapse in border patrols to expand their hunting ground down from the mountains into the foothills around the longhouse. There had been eight men with Ernjir; three died in the first attack, the others had died after attempting to outrun the wolves when the food stores in the longhouse had been depleted. The wargs had known it was wise to keep the humans penned, they made for an easy meal and a quick hunt. Ernjir himself had been only a day or two from attempting the run himself, having exhausted the last of the rations he and his fellows had brought. If the group had waited to find him, surely he would be dead.

Ernjir, grateful for the hearty meal of trail rations the party offered him, agreed to take his shipment of bloodsap into Newcayne using the party’s mule. He would rest and eat for another day, and then strike east towards the town. The adventurers contemplated accompanying him, but their mission to find the orc lieutenant had already been postponed too long. The old hunter, knowing these woods better than any other thing moving upon two legs, gave them precise directions for finding the cave. He knew the place they sought, and had actually made his hunter’s mark upon a trail which would lead them there several years earlier. It would make the journey to the cave far easier, and to help them on their way he gave each of them a small supply of bloodsap to fortify their health for the march. In the early morning they bid farewell to the Rjurik and set themselves upon his trail. They had hoped to rest longer, but the risk was too great to delay any longer.

PART IX: ASTRIDE THE ABOMINATION

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Two more days of travel along Ernjir’s carefully hidden hunting trails brought the party to the towering rock face which stood over the cave mouth like a sentinel. The flat stone cliff, running for half of a mile in either direction, had been carved out by the river running at its base over the span of countless ages. The river had shrunk in recent years, a mere thirty feet across, and now hugged the rock wall closely. It had left a wide, barren field of boulders and stones between the cave mouth and the forest. Three goblins and a hulking hobgoblin stood guard at the foot of a heavy wooden bridge made of tree trunks lashed together which spanned the width of the river to the cave mouth. They were still unaware of the threat facing them, and a hasty plan was hatched to try and make the approach undetected by creeping low from boulder to boulder.

With agonizing patience the party crept forward; sometimes dashing, sometimes crawling. Hamnarabi, though uncomfortable with the notion of engaging without his horse, came on foot. There would be no way to approach in silence with his steed in tow. When they had come withing bow shot they huddled together. Eliza cast a glimmer upon A’Sharad to help him appear more feral, the hope being that he could fool the guards into thinking he was a scout long enough to cut off any runner who might attempt to cross the bridge when the assault began. With a deep breath he broke cover and strode forward, the goblins started and rushed forward with spears while the hob shouldered a heavy axe and peered warily at this strange orc he had never seen before. The goblins seemed easily fooled when A’Sharad said he brought orders, but the hob would not be taken in so easily. When A’Sharad failed to give him the proper code in answer he knew something was afoot.

At a sharp bark from the hob one of the goblins broke for the cave mouth as the others cut off A’Sharad. Hamnrabi and Eliza climbed atop the boulder and let fly with darts and arrows, though their first shots flew wide and did little more than to startle their foes. Isael rushed towards the hob as A’Sharad deftly turned spears aside and lashed out with his broadsword in ringing arcs. Eliza, determined not to let the element of surprise elude them, sent a flare of magical energy arcing into the fleeing goblin’s back and laid him low a mere yard from the mouth of the cave. Isael and A’Sharad, supported by Hamnarabi’s bow fire, dispatched the remaining goblins. The hob would not be intimidated though, and struck a fierce blow with his axe that bit into Isael’s flank even as the cleric’s blade buried itself into the demi-human’s gut. It did not die easily, but fought on with primal rage until a rain of blows finally struck the life from it. Clutching his side, Isael waved off his comrades and pointed to the cave mouth. He was loathe to use his healing magic so early in the fight, but if he did not mend his wound he may not survive another encounter.

The cave mouth was wide and dark, the tunnel leading into its depths was wide enough for two abreast, and tall enough that Hamnarabi was actually able to mount his horse. It appeared that the goblins had hewn out rock to increase the tunnel’s diameter, though for what purpose they could not say. They proceed with caution, taking care not to let their own footfalls or those of the horse betray their approach. When the last twist finally brought them into a new cavern they saw a small band of five goblins huddled around a fire pit. They were busy squabbling over the enigmatic meat skewered above the flames, and did not appear to notice the party’s arrival. A’Sharad hoped to capitalize on their ignorance, and made to flank them using the shadows along the cave wall. Though dextrous, he was no thief. One of the goblins caught sight of him as he crept, and cried a warning to the others.

The party lunged out from the mouth of the tunnel, clashing head on with the goblins around the fire pit as they scrambled for their spears and curved swords. The goblins had clearly not anticipated that someone might ride a horse INTO their cave, and were caught quite unawares as the Khinasi lunged the tip of his spear, repaired the day before by Eliza’s magic, forward like a venomous serpent. Isael, waded into them like a juggernaut, his armor and shield turning feeble blows aside as he answered them with cleaving strikes of his own. A’Sharad and Eliza barely had the chance to engage before the goblins were dead, it had been an efficient and brutal attack. However, it had also been a noisy one. From the far end of the cavern they saw their target appear, a lean and evil looking orc with a barbed whip on one hip and black blade on the other. He broke down a side passage at a full sprint before the adventurers could act to stop him. They gave chase, winding still further down the oddly large tunnels in pursuit of the orc’s echoing footsteps. They broke out into another wide cavern, ringed with torches, and saw their quarry standing beside a large wooden gate set into the wall. The wide smile on his face did not bode well.

With a sharp yank on a large lever the wooden gate fell forward and a hideous creature lumbered out from behind it. A hill giant, but one that had been horribly mangled and deformed. It’s hands and feet had been amputated, in their place large balls of studded black iron had been riveted into the flesh. It crept upon all fours now, like a beast. Half of it’s head was sunken and bore strange scars, evidence of the lobotomy which had turned it from a creature of middling intelligence into a mindless automaton of destruction. The orc leaped atop its back, grabbed it’s matted hair like the reins of a horse, and cracked it’s menacing whip. The giant lunged forward with a pitiful howl, charging on all fours in an awkward gait. The party spread out, each knowing that to be caught in the path of the lumbering monstrosity was certain doom.

They shouted a hasty plan to each other; stay mobile, focus on the giant. The true threat was from the orc’s mount, not the orc. At least, that was what they thought. One crack of the barbed whip sent a surge of electrical shock through A’Sharad, almost locking his muscles in spasms and contractions. Despite this revelation, they stayed the course and whittled away at the crippled monster with slow determination. It swung slow and wild, most of it’s blows were easily avoided or mitigated. Their plan was proving effective; the giant did not know who to focus its attacks on, and by spreading out they kept it guessing and spinning. The orc’s whip was a menace, but did little to slow their progress. However, even the best plan can fall apart in the heat of combat. A surge of rage took the creature as it’s wounds began to accumulate. It lashed out with one last, mighty swipe of it’s crushing prosthesis and caught Isael full in the chest. The strike was of such power that it sent the cleric flying through the air into the hard stone of the cavern wall, the front of his breastplate crushed inward and restricting his ability to breath as he crumpled to the ground.

Hamnrabi finally ended the giant’s pitiful suffering with a sure thrust into the side of its neck. As its life blood poured out it collapsed onto its side and threw the orc flat onto his face on the stone before A’Sharad’s feet. As it struggled to get up the monk drove the orc’s face back into the stone with a thunderous crack, leaving the sadist senseless upon the ground. Victory, though bought at a steep price. Isael was not dead, but he would surely die soon if his wounds were not healed. Eliza, thinking quickly, used her magic to mend the front of his armor. As it pulled back into place a deep breath sucked into Isael’s lungs. He tried to thank her, but his words were lost within a closing tunnel of darkness that rendered him unconscious. Wounded and alone in the heart of their enemy’s territory, the party worked feverishly to keep their friend alive. Would he survive the night? Were there more terrors within the twisting tunnels? Would they find the intelligence they sought from the orc? All their hopes hung upon the edge of a knife…

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Beneath the Shadow of the Five Peaks - Chapter 2
The Lansing Manor

PART IV: UNTO THE BREACH

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Despite their victory against the boar, a sense of unease began to grow amongst the party as they struck camp in the gorge and followed Saiya back into the wilds. The Lansing manor had been abandoned for a year, but according to Ghant’s reports the goblin raiders were not using the manor as a staging point for their incursions. It was obvious that, due to the disappearance of all the scouts that the dwarf had sent to investigate the ruins, something had taken residence; but the question of exactly what that was gnawed at the group. Each step through the recalcitrant brush seemed to deepen their apprehension. Saiya called for a halt as the sun began to sink behind the horizon; they had reached the crown of a large hill overlooking the vale which the manor occupied. Though venturing within for the sword was best left for daybreak, the last light of day gave the adventurers a glimpse of what awaited them.

The manor was almost a fortress unto itself. Unlike the timber walls of the fortifications around Newcayne, the walls of this place were made of sturdy stone brought down from the mountains during the days of peace after the Empire had briefly tamed this wild country. It bore the signature style of imperial architecture, thick and practical walls and arched gateways. Despite the quality of its initial construction, it was obvious that the years of warfare and lawlessness after the death of Michael Roele, the last emperor, had taken their toll. Entire sections of the wall had been damaged and then rebuilt with far less impressive workmanship. And it was through several of these points that the goblins had breached the manor, at least two massive sections had been collapsed on the western edge facing the hill. The manor itself was a burnt husk; the second story of the three wings, constructed of timber, had collapsed in the inferno of the building’s destruction. Several more breaches through the walls of the manor itself were barely visible in the vanishing light. Unsettlingly they noted that nothing moved within the grounds; no goblin guards stood watch, no wolves or beasts prowled the wreckage, not even the flitter of small game in the long grass surrounding the outer wall could be discerned.

Speaking in hushed whispers the party discussed their options. They had no choice but to venture within, but despite their brief reconnoiter of the vale from atop the hill they had scant information to prepare themselves. They decided to leave their excess gear atop the hill, with Saiya standing guard. The better to move swiftly should they need to retreat. Saiya agreed, but warned the small band that if they did not return from within the manor in two night’s time she would assume they had died and resume her journey back to her home in the elven kingdom of Tuarhievel. As his companions settled down for fitful rest, A’Sharad sat beside Saiya and questioned her again about her origins. Having proven himself worthy of trust after aiding her hunt, Saiya spoke with him at length about her upbringing as a half-elf amongst her father’s people. Unlike the stigma a half-orc faced in the realms of human and orcs, elves were far more accepting of mixed race offspring. If the child, upon reaching a sufficient age to understand the choice, chose to live among the elves they were accepted whole heartedly. There were some who did not welcome their presence, but they were a rare exception usually reserved for the elders who still nursed painful memories of human expansion into their lands.

Dawn came quickly, though it did not bring the welcome light of the sun. A grey pall of clouds obscured its warm light, and a thick mist had rolled down from the mountains and clung to floor of the vale. Only the walls of the manor stood above this fog, like the bones of a beast left to rot long after its flesh had been devoured. Finally climbing down to see their quest through, the party slowly made their way across the wide field of long grasses towards the breaches in the western wall. As they approached, they found that the closer they came to the manor the more the land seemed blighted. Flowers hung withered from their stems, and the grass itself had a sickly yellow hue. Upon reaching the wall they opted to stay together and climb over the rubble of the largest hole. Hamnarabi, leading his mount, went beside A’Sharad, with Isael keeping a watchful eye upon Eliza. A cold feeling of hate swept over them as they crossed breach; black runes scrawled upon rubble had gone unnoticed, and the dark magic of their inscriber was triggered. Still atop the collapsed section of the wall, Isael and Eliza were the first to notice several patches of earth begin to bulge as the party entered the inner grounds. Five zombies, the sad remains of the manor’s defenders from the look of their tattered armor, heaved and clambered their way free their impromptu graves.

Hamnarabi, unable to mount, whistled commands sharply to his steed and closed against the two undead which set upon them from the north. A’Sharad turned towards the two from the south, and Isael held the breach in order to keep the last from reaching the Eliza. Hamnarabi, flail in hand, leapt forward and struck valiantly. Pushing the assault of the first away with his shield, his mount toppled the abomination and brought its hooves down upon its skull. The second however, was not so easily undone. It lashed out with a fist like a mace and gave the knight a blow which would have killed him outright if not the strength of his helm. A’Sharad deftly cleaved the skull of one with his broadsword, barely bringing the blade back around in time to keep the other at bay as it lunged to grapple him. Isael prayed to his god to drive the black creatures away, but the power of their dark creator was too powerful for his plea to reach the heavens. Eliza needed no god to summon forth her magic, and demonstrated as much by incinerating half of the head of the advancing zombie. Though gravely wounded, it fell forward and began to crawl its way up the rubble towards them.

A’Sharad, struggling to keep back the gnashing teeth of the zombie locked with him, saw a moment of opportunity. Using its prodigious strength against it, he shifted his weight and threw it expertly across his shoulder and atop the undead crawling the rubble heap. Isael was enraged that his prayer had been stifled, he cried out Cuiracéan’s name and thrust the point of his blade down into the two zombies. A sudden break in the clouds allowed a single shaft of light to fall upon his sword, and as it did the steel flamed as if fresh from the forge. The heat of the war god’s fury incinerated the vile things in the space of a single heartbeat. Fate was not as kind to Hamnarabi. As he lashed out again with his flail the zombie brought an arm up and entangled its chain. With a great heave it broke the link closest to the handle and sent the head of the flail tumbling through the air. Eliza, however, was well versed in her craft and spoke a brief incantation of mending. A serpentine line of green light sprang from her fingertips to the broken handle, and then out to the airborne chain. The chain flew back and fused in its original position almost as quickly as it had been broken.

Dazed, Hamnarabi tried again to attack, but his blow was turned aside by the rusted breastplate hanging from the rotten thing’s shoulders. As Eliza and Isael climbed down through the ash and stone to aid him, A’Sharad began a headlong charge towards the beleaguered Khinasi. With a dexterous leap he flew over the man’s head and shot both of his legs into the zombie’s chest. The blow was incredibly powerful, launching the creature off its feet and onto its back. As it landed its head splattered upon an exposed cobblestone. Thought the immediate threat had been dealt with, the party grimly realized why no man had ever returned from Lansing manor. A dark incantation had transformed it into a massive trap, a hive of slumbering undead who had been awaiting the approach of the living. This did not bode well for what they might encounter in the crypt beneath them.

PART V : A DESECRATION MOST FOUL

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In order to take stock of their odds A’Sharad and Isael peered through cracked windows as Hamnarabi climbed atop his steed and quickly galloped a circuit within the inner walls at break-neck speed, if more undead were waiting outside they would not have time to attack before he was headed back to his compatriots. No further dark surprises awaited them outside the wall, but it had been difficult for Hamnarabi to ascertain what was within the walls through shattered doors and broken stone. Though he had not seen anything within the exposed sections, the front greeting hall had been shut tight. Isael and A’Sharad found it even more conspicuous from their vantage that the chains which secured its charred doors were placed from the outside, not from within as if to withstand an assault. They had also found the stairwell leading to the crypt beneath a gaping window frame, its stained glass littering the sill and grass. It was a long drop, but if someone let a rope down it would be easy enough. The party chose to forgo the greeting hall; it was a risk they were not willing to take unless they found that the object of their quest was not within the crypt.

Sliding down a rope as silently as they could, the group found themselves staring at an intricately wrought gate which, like the greeting hall, had been chained from the outside. Isael and Eliza, now aware that the dark arts were at play, carefully examine the floor and walls around the gate for further sign of magical triggers. They did not search in vain, and found scrawled incantations in glistening black. It was a foreign tongue to all but A’Sharad, who had been trained in the orcish tongue by his masters at the temple in order to educate him on his past. They were black writings invoking the power of Baphomet, a demonic power often worshipped by the orcs. Isael, hoping to avert their misfortune at the wall, blessed a vial of water and sprinkled it upon the hateful runes whilst reciting a litany against the dark powers. His faith was affirmed as the trap sputtered and dissolved beneath the cleansing liquid. They quietly unclasped the chain and pushed the gate open.

The dark within was absolute. A’Sharad, by virtue of his orcish heritage, had eyes better acquainted to the black than his friends. And while he was no thief, his light armor and training gave him a better chance to enter the crypt without announcing their presence. Though it was a close thing he was able to make his way far enough to find another group of zombies standing like statues within a small alcove, awaiting anyone foolhardy enough to chance the tombs beneath the manor. These zombies were different, however; they were the reanimated corpses of the manor’s assailants. A gnoll and two goblins, their deaths in the manor assault had been rewarded with eternal enslavement to a dark power by whatever force had led them. Possessing the element of surprise, the companions quickly devised a plan of attack. Eliza enchanted a stone to shine like a torch, and upon an agreed upon command cast it within the center of the zombies. Within seconds they had struck the creatures down for the second time in their pitiful existence, the speed of the assault was too much for the reanimated corpses’ slowed responses. It was a fittingly brutal end, and had spared the party another protracted engagement.

At last they stood in the faint light of Eliza’s magical stone before the final gate separating them from the primary internment chamber of the crypt. Like the last gate it had been chained from the outside and enchanted with black incantations. Though he was loath to part with the last of it, Isael again dissolved the wicked runes with his holy water. Carefully pulling the chains free, they prepared to enter the wide circular chamber which yawned before them in the darkness. Something had been built in the center, tall and irregular, but its details were too faint in the low light to discern more. The air of the crypt was stale and cold, and had seemed to deepen in the gloom. Dark arts were at play, and the beating heart of this sorcery was now before them. Eliza held back at the gate, she would cast her light stone into the heart of the chamber while her comrades entered abreast.

Their caution was not unwarranted. As the enchanted stone clattered across the floor it came to rest at the foot a hideous spectacle. The manor’s assailants, after their conquest, had emptied the tombs of every Lansing descendant interred there. Ornate tombs lay shattered and broken, their contents ransacked. They had then taken these remains and tied them together in a towering totem of bone and flesh. Below this gruesome display the horde had lit a pyre in worship of Baphomet; burnt offerings of flesh, blood, and gold for his aid in their victory were piled around the blackened corpse of the manor’s last defender. He had been left alive until this moment; the family blade which the party sought had been driven through his heart as the fire was lit. Isael especially was aghast; such depravity was rare even for the goblin tribes of the Five Peaks, it did not bode well for whatever wicked thing led them down from the mountains.

A rasping hiss snapped the party out of their shocked silence. Three emaciated forms detached from the totem and dropped to the floor. Ghouls, trapped within the crypt and forced to feed upon already dead flesh, had finally been delivered a fresh meal. They bared their teeth and snarled, and a scant second of tension passed before their ravenous hunger propelled them into long strides across the stone floor. The party had not been caught completely by surprise; the malign traps leading to the crypt had prepared them for such an ambush. The first two of the ghouls leapt against Hamnarabi and Isael’s shields, their claws and gnashing teeth glancing off to little effect. A’Sharad’s blade sang through the air and bit deep into the shoulder of the third, but the vile creature pulled itself free. The monk’s honed reflexes were all that saved him from its serpentine blows. The following seconds drew out agonizingly as the part desperately sought to slay their foes, and the tide began to turn against them.

Hamnarabi, struggling to reach the blade he had been sent to recover, had tried to push his way past his opponent to reach it. His plan, prior to now, had been to have Eliza use her magic to pull the blade across the floor and into his reach. And while the mage had been able to snare the blade and drag it free, she had been unable to bring it within his reach. A he tried to shove the beast away it crawled atop his shield and sunk its teeth deeply into his shoulder. A frigid poison set into his muscles, and despite his valor he was brought to his knees as it leeched into his body. Isael again called upon Cuiracéan, but his lord could not hear his plea from within the dark confines of the crypt. He was set upon viciously; and while he avoided the poisoned fangs of his nemesis, its lashing talons found the hole in his helm and gouged deeply into his eye. A’Sharad fared better, bringing the first of the three creatures low with a powerful slash. Eliza, exhausting the last reserves of her mystical energy, unleashed a bolt of energy which seared the ghoul atop Hamnarabi to the bone.

A’Sharad hurried to the stricken knight’s aid, dropping his sword and focusing his internal powers into a targeted nerve strike which seized the ghoul’s muscles and sent it toppling to the floor. Eliza, her powers spent, brought her staff down relentlessly in a desperate effort to buy Isael and A’Sharad time. Isael, furious from pain, lunged forward and drove the point of his blade deeply into the second ghoul’s chest, it clawed futilely at his armor for purchase even as it finally collapsed into the cold arms of death. He and A’Sharad made short work of the last beast, refusing to give it time to regain its senses and renew its assault. Isael collapsed to his knees and clutched his face, struggling to determine if the beast had torn his eye free, or if he could not see due to the blood which flowed freely down his face. Eliza ran to her brother, holding him upright until the poison of the ghoul’s bite had finally dissipated. Though grievously injured, they had prevailed.

PART VI: TAINTED STEEL

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Once their wounds had been bandaged, the solemn task to dismantling the grisly totem began. It was a risk to stay within the confines of the crypt, but the solemn vows of honor which bound Isael and Hamnarabi would not allow them to leave such a desecration in place. While they worked to undo the evil shrine, Eliza and A’Sharad investigated the room for evidence of what thing might have been capable of such perversions. Evidence was scant, though they were able to find a finely wrought spearhead and blackened map within the sacrificial brazier, along with a paltry amount of blackened coin. Isael presided over a cleansing ceremony, sanctifying the remains once again in the hopes that the dead might rest in peace on more. While he could never completely undo the dishonor inflicted upon this place, he could shatter Baphomet’s hold and keep the dark god from working more evil within the walls of the manor. Hamnarabi, at long last, clutched the blade he had been sent across the world to secure. With it firmly clasped to his belt, the party clambered up from the shadows and back into the first floor of the manor.

It was immediately clear that the destruction of the totem had begun to have effects. Sunlight shone through cracked walls, the strange fog had lifted, and a cool breeze from the mountains had finally begun to sweep the stench of death from the shattered cobblestones. Though they strongly considered leaving immediately, Isael could not walk away from the sealed front hall. They had initially bypassed it in order to focus on obtaining the blade; but if any undead were left within their curse would surely undo his cleansing rituals. They broke the chain and cast wide the doors, and their hearts dropped. Due to the destruction of the dark shrine the remains within the room would pose no threat to them, but that did little to relieve their sense of disgust at what they found. A large pile of scorched bone sat in the center of the front hall, the remains of all the other survivors of the goblin attack. They had been bound and sealed within this room, perishing horribly when the manor was set ablaze. Any sense of pride at their victory was gone, and with dark spirits the adventurers departed the ancestral home of the Lansing’s.

The two day journey back to Newcayne was solemn. Saiya had briefly inquired about the events within the manor’s walls, but was left with few answers. Eliza was preoccupied with her brother, wondering if the ghoul’s poison had lingered beyond the shadows of the crypt. Hamnarabi had become sullen and withdrawn, clutching the Lansing sword in his sleep and murmuring beneath his breath. Isael’s wound had become inflamed, and though his eye remained intact the veil of blood which had blinded it seemed as if it would never lift. He had been trained to battle such evils, but the stark difference between reality and training had been driven home painfully. It had been a humbling lesson in the true nature of his enemy’s for a proud warrior and faithful cleric. A’Sharad did his best to keep his new friend’s spirits aloft, but spent the majority of their return beside Saiya. While it may never be reciprocated, a deep fondness for the half-elf had grown in him during their brief time together. Sadly, at the edge of the clearing before Newcayne she bid them farewell. Her purpose in Lindholme had been fulfilled, and her debt to the party paid. With a final kiss upon A’Sharad’s cheek she vanished back into the woods to begin the long journey back to her home.

As they exhausted group made their way through Newcayne towards the fort a small entourage seemed to gather in their wake. Astonished voices called to them for news of the manor, others lauded them for daring to venture into a place from which no others had yet returned. Ghant greeted them upon the road through the center of town, but knew with a glance at their wounded bodies and haunted eyes that congratulations were best kept for another day. In silence they entered the fort, and at the command of Lady Kiya were brought directly to Aemon Lansing’s chambers. At the foot of the ailing lord’s bed, she inquired about their quest. Though reluctant, they spared no details. Sorrow weighed her voice as she thanked them for retrieving the blade and for purging her former home of the curse which had been laid upon it. A whisper from the curtained bed brought her ear down to her husband’s cracked lips, and she turned back to Hamnarabi and asked for the blade. Aemon wished to hold it again, for one last time.

A strange sensation of repugnance swept through the Khinasi noble, and his hand unconsciously gripped the hilt of the treasured blade tightly. Why should he deliver it to this feeble man? It was promised to the Crown Prince of Ariya, and Hamnarabi had almost died retrieving it because Aemon had failed to protect it from capture in the first place. He did not deserve the blade, none of them did. Kiya, aghast, demanded that he explain himself. His companions implored him to hand over the blade, wondering at the strange curtain that had fallen over their friend’s eyes. His only response was to draw the blade and back himself against a wall. No one would separate him from his prize; he had earned it in the crypt. It was his now. Guards drew weapons, placing themselves between the bed and fevered knight. Violence seemed inevitable, swift action was needed. A’Sharad closed from the knight’s flank; and while he was loath to use his skills against an ally, he knew that it was necessary to avoid bloodshed. He slammed his open palm stiffly into Hamnarabi’s flank, and waves of kinetic energy crashed within him like waves against a cliff. With his muscles paralyzed, he collapsed to the floor still clutching the blade. A stiff kick from the monk sent the blade spinning across the floor as two guards leapt atop the knight. Isael shouted for no one to touch it, realizing that some taint of black magic must still cling to it after its use in dark rituals.

Hamnarabi struggled violently against the guards atop him; it was not until a thin wail pierced the air that the curse’s hold on him was broken. All the heads in the room turned towards the source of this cry to find Kiya collapsed on the floor, clutching Aemon’s cold hand. The strain of witnessing the struggle over his family sword had been too much, and the young lord’s heart had finally stilled. Those assembled watched in mournful silence as Kiya placed her husband’s hand back upon his breast, and bid farewell to her husband with a single kiss upon his pale forehead. Though tears stained her veil, the look within her eyes was determined as she looked back upon her cousin. Hamnarabi stammered an apology, guilt and shame at his actions washing over him. Kiya came to him, and helped him to his feet with gentle hands. She understood that he had not been himself, but her sorrow was too deep for her to forgive him yet. She ordered Ghant to remove those assembled from the room, and to seal the Lansing sword within an iron chest. There were many tasks still before them, between the goblin threat and the curse upon the blade, but they would have to wait. For now, they had a lord to bury and wounds to heal.

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Beneath the Shadow of the Five Peaks - Chapter 1
Trouble in Newcayne

PART I: THE FORLORN GATE

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Grey sheets of rain turned the dirt of the winding road into Newcayne into a veritable river of mud. Ever since debarking at the conspicuously abandoned dock on the Black River, south of the frontier settlement, torrential rains had dogged the steps of the Khinasi who had traveled across half of the known world from the arid plains of their origin. Under command of Hamnarabi and Eliza of the House of El-Arrasi, siblings to each other and distant cousins to the ruling Prince, the caravan was bearing the final portion of the dowry promised by Crown Prince Gerad to Aemon Lansing, the local lord, for the hand of his daughter Kiya in marriage. Hired as a guard for the caravan in its long journey was A’sharad, a half orc monk seeking the truth of his heritage and identity beyond the sheltered walls of the monastery he was raised in as an orphan. Rain was not completely unknown in the sun baked lands of their home, but it seemed that the green hills they had found themselves in were veritably plagued with precipitation. Though exhausted and soaked to the bone, a welcome sense of relief flooded through them as the muddy road from the dock finally cleared the tree line and revealed the town of Newcayne before them.

The log and thatch buildings sat huddled around the base of a large rock outcropping, at the top of which stood the ancient timber fortress erected here to guard against goblin raids out of the neighboring Five Peaks during the northward expansion of the Anuirean Empire hundreds of years before. Like the people of Newcayne, the buildings here were weather worn and built to last; they had endured the harsh environment and the depredations of hostile forces in equal measure. There was growing evidence that all was not well in Newcayne, however. The unguarded dock and the ill kept road from it were the first signs of trouble; signs which now included a palisade in desperate need of repair, woefully undermanned by old men or young boys in poorly mended armor. As the caravan approached the front gates they were delayed by a greying watchman who demanded that they hold until his commander arrived to question them. Another figure loomed beside the gate, waiting impatiently for the watch commander’s arrival. Heavily armored, his shield brightly emblazoned with the sword and lightning of the war god Cuiraécen, the cleric Isael had traveled north from his temple in the imperial city of Anuire on his first pilgrimage. It was the duty of his faith to represent their fiery god wherever sword clashed with shield, and word had spread south of the hostilities plaguing Newcayne.

Before the commander could arrive to permit the bedraggled travelers entry, the peal of a horn blared from the woods. Driven by a hulking hobgoblin, a dozen goblins charged towards the gate hooting and clashing spears against their wooden shields. Four more goblins, flanking the savage hob, began to fire barbed arrows towards the caravan in a show of force. Panic overtook the wall guards, who immediately withdrew behind the palisade and began to heave the wooden gates shut. Hamnarabi, trained in the ways of command, quickly spurred his horse between the doors of the gate and commanded that they bring the caravan within the walls before securing the village. His heritage and training lent his voice an aura of command which stopped the inexperienced militia in their tracks. Isael, relishing the opportunity at long last to prove his commitment to his faith, quickly took position between the caravan and goblins. He called for the caravan guards to form a shield wall with him against the closing enemy front and smiled as the distance between the ranks closed. Eliza and A’Sharrad held back, preparing spells and bow respectively to aid in the defense.

Hamnarabi, satisfied that the caravan he was charged to protect would be safe, spurred his mount back down the road in an effort to circle around the goblin flank and single out their leader. The goblins, realizing their prey was not easily startled into submission, began to visibly slow their advance as doubt crept into their hearts. They had rushed the charge in their reckless greed over the caravan’s contents. And now they wondered if they had arrived too late to do more than die at the outskirts of the cursed human settlements. The harsh threats of their commander were barely enough to contain their rising panic. The gap between the shield wall and the goblins rapidly diminished, while the goblin missiles feel harmlessly against the defender’s shields the flash of azure magic, arcing out from behind the line, struck one goblin dead and crippled another as Eliza called upon the arcane. A’Sharad, having never been forced to employ his prodigious strength in the heat of true battle before, over pulled his bow and snapped its string. Throwing it aside he drew the enigmatic nine-ring broadsword from his back, this matter would have to be settled in person.

When the two sides finally met in a clash of shields the conflict was swift and brutal. These goblins understood little of tactical war craft; they were used to fighting poorly armed woodsmen, not trained soldiers and guards. Rallying behind Isael the Khinasi guards pushed their attackers back step by step as flashes of brilliant light streaked from Eliza’s hands and smote the rabble before them. Hamnarabi, swinging back towards the flank of the goblins, called upon his peerless cavalry skills and struck upon the flank of the goblin archers, spearing one and scattering the others as he drove his mount towards to hobgoblin. A shadow passed over Isael as A’Sharad acrobatically leapt into the fray, his sword ringing ominously as it arced through the monk’s foes. The goblins, already hesitant, broke formation and began a hasty retreat towards the wood line just as Hamnarabi brought the snarling hobgoblin low with a thrust through its black heart. Isael, unsatisfied that he had slain the due share of the war god’s opponents, took chase and struck down two more goblins before the remainder fled from his reach. The defense had been decisive, and would surely stand as a warning against others who would attempt such a reckless assault.

Arriving as the last of the goblins disappeared back into the safety of the darkened woods the militia commander, a gruff dwarf known as Warden Ghant, pushed the gates back open and demanded an explanation. After being debriefed to his liking, he tersely thanked his town’s saviors and apologized for his tardiness. He invited them up to the keep, where the Lady Kiya could properly welcome her kin and extend her gratitude for their efforts on behalf of the settlement. As he led the caravan through the drenched streets of Newcayne shadowed faces watched with guarded caution from doorways and windows the strange procession. Few had ever seen a Khinasi apart from their lord’s bride, and a retinue such as this was unheard of. Finally arriving atop the rocky knoll upon which Fort Newcayne had been built, they were brought within to the welcoming heat of a roaring fire pit. Seated at the far end of the main hall a young Khinasi woman with a veiled face rose in greeting, extending her arms to either side in a gesture of good will.

PART II: THE FALLEN LORD

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The Lady Kiya of the House of El-Arrasi, wife of Lord Aemon Lansing presided over a brief ceremony wherein she thanked her town’s defenders, saluting their bravery and quick thinking. Sanctuary within the walls of Newcayne, and warm beds at the inn, were offered and brief introductions were made. With the proper forms of etiquette satisfied she warmly greeted her cousins, Eliza and Hamnarabi. They were the first familiar faces she had seen in the three years since she left her birthplace to join Aemon in this remote place. Over mulled wine and a hearty meal she explained to the others assembled how she had come to be betrothed to an Anuirean noble, how his father had sought a union outside of the typical arrangements of the Western Coast which perpetuated a cycle of political dependency and intrigue. The Lansing family was more concerned with the wellbeing of their people and their duty to guard against the Five Peaks then they were with the struggles for power in the south. The promised gold from Kiya’s dowry, in exchange for a magical blade originally belonging to the founder of the House, would help to keep the family removed from dependency on the throne and allow them to bolster their settlement’s defenses. Kiya’s father had many daughters, and an alliance with an ancient Anuirean line would serve his trading interests in the West.

At first the union had been a happy one, Kiya quickly coming to love her husband once she saw his devotion his people. She bore him a son and heir, and their future seemed a bright one. This happiness would be short lived, however. Another village to the north sent word that a strange plague had swept through the town, one which was surely the mark of the demonic awnsegh known as The Apocalypse. Aemon rallied a relief force from the finest knights and warriors he had under his command and led a caravan with stocks of food and medicine north. It would prove futile, the village was already doomed and the beast had not yet left. It turned its dark plague upon the company under Aemon’s command. Only the young lord, growing weaker by the day, made it back to Newcayne. The nature of The Apocalypse’s affliction did not allow the plague to spread once Aemon had left its presence, but it did not stop the ravages of the disease once it had taken seed within the body. To add further to the tragedy of the Lansing family, a raiding force of goblins poured down from the Five Peaks one word of Newcayne’s troubles reached their spies. They burned the family manor, and have laid siege to the countryside ever since. Aemon appealed to the Count of Lindholme and the Queen of Talinie for help, but, with their forces committed to support of a looming war in the south over the vacant throne of the empire, there would be no assistance for some time.

Hamnarabi and Eliza had been sworn to return to Ariya with the promised blade, and now understood why both it and word of the Lady Kiya had not come back to their uncle for so long. They were bound by oath to retrieve it, but promised to assist Kiya in dealing with the goblin threat once they knew the blade was safe. A’Sharrad and Isael quickly volunteered their aid, each hoping to prove their worth and aid the province in its time of need. When questioned about the whereabouts of the blade, Lady Kiya shook her head. The blade was kept in the family’s crypt beneath the manor, and no one had yet returned from it since the dark day of its burning. If they were bound to retrieve the blade, they would have to chance the dangers of the manor to retrieve it. The journey was only a day along an old road leading north from the town, but the forest had become wild and goblin ambushes were sure to be lay in wait if they took the road. Warden Ghant could provide them with a map which might help to guide them through the back country, but the terrain here grew difficult so close to the mountains. He recommended they seek out the assistance of a half-elf ranger who had taken up residence at the local inn. She cared little for the affairs of the settlement, but had hinted that she was here for some reason she would not divulge to Ghant. Kiya begged the assemblage to forgive her, but her husband was near death on his bed within the fortress, and she dare not leave his side for too long.

PART III: THE THING IN THE GORGE

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Departing the keep, the group made its way to the Forest’s Edge, the three story timber and thatch inn which dominated the center of the town. Therein they were greeted by the inn’s proprietors, Henly and Thea Feld, who had received word that their lodging would be at the expense of the Lansing family. When questioned about the mysterious ranger who taken residence, they shrugged and pointed to a shadowed corner at the end of the tavern. A slight, barely discernable figure could be made out within the gloom; when the party approached her, Saiya Ayat leaned forward and cast a piercing gaze at them. When questioned about her ability to guide them to the manor she scoffed. She could lead them anywhere they needed to go, but she had no care for the fate of the Lansings. These had been elven forests once, and she had not travelled from her home in Tuarhievel to keep these usurpers safe upon their hill. She had come here in search of a very special creature, and remarked that should the party assist her in bringing the beast low she would lead them to the manor free of charge. If they refused, she would still lead them; but only for a very lofty price.

Seeing no real choice, the small band agreed. After a few brief but rejuvenating hours of rest at the inn, Saiya led them out of the main gates before dawn, using the grey mist from the mountains to cover their departure. She spurned the roads, and immediately took them by hunting paths and deer trails deep into the heart of the woods. It was torturous travel for those unaccustomed to frontier travel, and while Saiya tracked the creature a full day passed. As night fell and camp was struck Saiya described the beast they were hunting. It was boar of immense size and ferocity which was said to be the offspring of the Great Boar of Thuringode, who had been tainted by the blood of a dark god after slaying on of its scions. The creature was an abomination to the natural order, and was the ideal prey for a skilled huntress dedicated to the balance of the living world. They were near its den, and in the morning they would face the creature and destroy it utterly. A’Sharrad was curious of how Saiya had been raised, as she was also of mixed ancestry, and pressed her for details of her upbringing. She discouraged such small talk, opting instead to take the first watch while the party rested. She needed to focus on the task at hand.

The morning sun was muted by dense clouds hanging over the forest, casting a grey pall which increased the sense of foreboding that marked the party’s departure from camp. As Saiya led them inexorably closer to the boar’s den sign of the beast began to appear more frequently. Young trees had been uprooted and gouged deeply by immense tusks, undergrowth which had been trampled flat, a musky stench of questionable origin hung thick about everything. Soon, they had arrived. The boar had taken refuge at the far end of a deep gorge, carved from the thick granite by a river which had gone dry decades before. It cut through the hills and gradually narrowed, the stench of decaying flesh filled the air as they passed the half eaten remains of countless game which had been unable to escape the ravenous abomination’s hunger. Watching from above on the ledge of the gorge, Saiya signaled with a low whistle that they were near, slowly notching an arrow to her bow. At the end of the gorge a shallow cave sat low in the rock wall, hewn from the stone by thousands of years of water pouring down from above. And from within this cave, a guttural grunting could be heard.

As the beast lumbered into view it became evident why Saiya thought it to be spawned of a demon. It was covered in coarse hide, mottled and grey, with sparse tufts of wiry hair. Hulking shoulders the height of a war horse, and powerful legs which ended in cloven hooves. Its maw was wide, tusks as long as daggers thrust up beside jagged rows of yellowing teeth which could grind the bones of an ox into dust. Set deep within hollow sockets of its skull a pair of small, baleful black eyes seethed with rage. It regarded its hunters but for a second before lowering its head and launching into a reckless charge. A howl of primal hunger issued from the boar’s throat in anticipation of the kill, and the feast which would follow. Saiya lodged three arrows into its leathery back while it came forward, but the beast took no notice.

Isael, A’Sharad, and Hamnarabi had advanced abreast in order to keep the creature from fleeing (a tactic which now seemed excessive given its violent disposition), and the boar set his sights upon A’Sharad. The monk’s years of diligent training served him well as he leapt gracefully from the boar’s path, and with a thunderous crash it slammed into a rotten tree stump. Hamnarabi spurred his mount to take advantage of their foe’s disorientation after its thunderous charge, thrusting his spear into its hindquarters. The beast spun, only to be caught full in the face by a flare of magical energy which had shot from between Eliza’s hands. Isael, crying out in the name of his god lashed out with his sword, but found the beast’s hide too thick for his steel to cut. Sensing a need to keep the boar stunned A’Sharad called upon his mastery of internal energies to strike at a nerve point behind the ear, rendering the boar paralyzed while Hamnarabi pierced its leg again in hopes of crippling the behemoth. Isael, sensing the moment of opportunity, braced the flat of his blade upon the edge of his shield to aid his aim as he thrust the full length of his weapon through the boar’s eye and deep into its brain. With a last shiver of defiance against the encroaching grip of death, the beast slumped to its side and died. The engagement may have been brief, but it was obvious that it surely would have turned against the party had they not skillfully worked together.

Camp was struck, and the party prepared themselves for the next day’s journey. There was still the matter of the Lansing sword, waiting for them somewhere in the crypt beneath the ruins of the manor…

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