PART V – THE TRAIL
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
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 VII – THE HERALD
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…