PART XIV – THE RIVER RUNS WILD
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
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 XVI – THE WARMOTHER
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 XVII – OUT OF THE SHADOW
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…