PART VII: THE GREATER GOOD
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
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
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…