Friday, December 17, 2021

#4: Deadwalk

Having sealed the deal with Iphan and having secured help from Ailthar and his comrades, we find that sleep comes easily.  When we awaken, however, it is with the business at hand in the front of our minds.  Ganor’s recounting of his encounter with the wolves is cause for concern; it’s too much to believe that this is a coincidence, there is likely some greater power at work in the High Forest.  Whether there is correlation between these occurrences and with Ailthar’s band and their pursuit of Othal remains unknown.

A bond seems to have formed between Talas and Khadhras, and the two spend much time with hands entwined over the stone.  The nature of their relationship remains uncertain, though whatever the source of their connection, it bodes well for our two parties working together in tandem.  We are not left to curiosity long, however—Khadhras shares bits of his conversation with her, and news of her apprentice Fellad and desire for him to pass on her legacy.  It’s hard for me to have an opinion on the matter, though Ged is eager to discuss the magical stone, as Talas and Pyr seem to exist on “borrowed time,” in his words.  Though the novelty and utility of the stone is not lost on me, it seems like Ailthar would be the most likely heir, should Talas and Pyr indeed succumb to their sickness.

We learn that Ganor and young Kayd are among those who will accompany the party from Aryen’s Hope.  Our preparations do not take long to complete—having just recently resupplied in Pelanor, we are well used to travel and carry most of what we need on our backs.  Iphan makes rations for our journey available, and we are pleased to see that Ganor’s men are suitably armed and equipped.  Aside from Ganor there are two other trackers that are familiar with the High Forest, and we put our faith in their talents and training.  Our patrol will take us far from Aryen’s Hope for several days, and while we are eager to begin, we are also cognizant of the potential danger that awaits.

Iphan meets us at the gate, wishing us well and shares his hopes for our safe return.  Deploying so many hunters and able men and women leaves the security of Aryen’s Hope diminished, though not without good cause.  We leave the encampment behind us, heading south under the dark canopy.  Traveling conditions are comfortable, if somewhat hindered by long shadows as the sun struggles to penetrate the heavy foliage above.  Kayd is talkative during the first part of the journey, and seems eager to prove himself after being rescued—it seems as if there may be some survivor’s guilt, and I make note to keep an eye on him should we encounter trouble.

Ailthar and his companions are quiet throughout the morning, which is not unexpected, and only communicate via the stone when necessary.  The disease that attacks Talas and Pyr, even in this short amount of time, seems to have noticeably progressed, enough so that Ganor’s men give them a wide berth, whether due to superstition or fear of contracting their malady.

After some time, we come to a high ridge and our travel is halted as the scouting party calls back that a large, shaggy brown bear has been spotted ahead.  Ganor has us lay low, seeking cover in the brush, as he watches the bear rummage through piles of dirt and deadfall.  The creature doesn’t seem agitated or to be particularly interested in our presence, and after some time it wanders away to the north.  Ganor lets several minutes pass before standing, waving us forward and indicates that we’ll take a route to hopefully avoid any encounter with the creature should we be near its den.

At several points the trail becomes rocky and treacherous, and we are forced to move slowly and carefully so as not to slip.  As the trackers lead us back to the small game trail on which we had been traveling, we manage to avoid any reencounter with the large bear.

After some time bringing up the rear of the group, paying particular attention to the endurance of Talas and Pyr, I decide to head toward Ged and Khadhras for a discussion.  “What do we do,” I ask, having trouble being polite or nuanced, “when Talas and Pyr are too weak to continue?”  The ravages of the disease being obvious, should they succumb to it to the point that they can no longer travel, it seems like we should have a plan for that eventuality.  Likewise, should one of them become wounded, to what extent should we sacrifice our own safety to save them?

We agree that this is a conversation best had with Ailthar, and that it should wait until we break for camp for the evening.  As the sun begins to descend and a defensible site is found, we help in fortifying the grounds and gathering wood for a fire.  The fatigue of Talas and Pyr is obvious, and it’s impossible not to notice sidelong, questioning glances thrown their way by other members of Ganor’s party. 

We elect Ged to pursue the conversation with Ailthar, and when dividing watches, we make sure they are assigned watch together.  When confronted with the question, Ailthar explains “Sairy’k’s curse is weakening them, gradually.  My efforts to help treat the affliction have been unsuccessful.”  While he holds out hope that they may be spared or cured, he admits that right now he does not see a clear path towards that resolution.

He explains that he has had this conversation with them already, and that Talas and Pyr have both committed to this quest willingly.  He shares that Talas has lost her ability to perform spellcraft.  “If something should happen that Talas and Pyr are unable to continue, I will accept responsibility for their care so that the rest of the group may carry on.”

“Is there anything we need to know,” Ged asks, “if we get separated or if you or your companions should meet an untimely end?”  Ailthar explains that he does not comprehend the extent of Othal’s power, but that as long as the dark spirit Sairy’k has Othal as an instrument, his power and the danger he presents is amplified.  Their ability to remain focused on the pursuit of Othal in face of their diminishing condition and plight is admirable.  The conversation, occurring at the end of a hard day of travel and being laced with heavy emotion, takes a toll on Ged.

Kayd and one of the huntresses from Aryen’s Hope, a young woman named Hinter, seem to spend a lot of time in conversation around camp, and it’s hard not to smile watching their awkward attempts at flirtation.  It is a bit of levity that helps reduce the gravity of our situation, but it does not last long as Ganor calls for the first watch and instructs the rest of us to seek our bedrolls for rest.

I share my watch with Ganor and Kayd, seated around the fire in silence.  Ganor occasionally rises to pace and patrol the camp, but the impenetrable darkness of the forest makes such a pursuit more ritual than effective.  The silence of the forest is broken, however, as we perceive distant sounds from the east.  There are squealing noises followed by the howling of wolves, and the ring of metal.  The sounds echo through the forest—not loud enough to awaken those who sleep, but impossible for us to ignore.

I look to Ganor for instruction, seeking confirmation that we will remain on guard but that we can do little more.  The proposition of investigating in the dark of night does not sit well with anyone, nor does splitting the camp seem safe.  The direction of the disturbance may lie on our path the following morning, and Ganor indicates that we should investigate it tomorrow.  I nod in agreement.  The sounds fade shortly after and do not resurface, and after some time we rouse the final watch and alert them to the situation.

Word spreads quickly over the morning fires, and we ready ourselves for whatever we may encounter on our journey this day.  Unlike the previous day, the sun is out in full force in a cloudless sky.  The temperature is warmer, and the shadows seem to recede under the sun’s warmth.  It seems a good omen, and we make good time as we follow the game trail.  A few hours into the morning, the forward trackers return with news of a blood trail ahead.  As we stop to question whether to follow it, I mutter.  “That’s what we’re here for, right?  Let’s investigate.”

The trackers reveal wolf tracks in the area, and we ready ourselves for danger as we follow them.  Within a short time, the source of the blood trail becomes apparent—we stumble into a glade that reeks of carnage, the low buzz of flies audible as they swarm mauled bodies that litter the ground.  The bodies are small, dark-skinned, and scaly.  “Goblins,” growls one of the hunters.

Their ragged wounds, rended and torn flesh, and the spread of wolf tracks and splatters of blood make it seem obvious that they fell prey to wolves.  There are enough goblin corpses, perhaps eight to ten in all, indicative of a small warband.  It could be a sign of a larger force dispatched from the Greypeaks, which is a matter of some concern for Aryen’s Hope.  There are signs that the warband was traveling from the mountains to the east, but there is no easy return trail to follow.

“Are there any dead wolves?” I ask.  When the trackers shake their heads, I can’t help but be surprised.  The assault of the wolves upon the goblins was total, though by the amount of blood, it’s hard to believe some of the wolves weren’t at least wounded.

“This one’s still alive,” we hear, as Ganor stands over a twitching goblin body.  It has been disemboweled, guts spilled onto the open earth, and the fact that it survived the night surprises everyone.  Ged approaches Talas, holding out his hand for the stone that he might communicate with the creature before it expires.  There is no resistance, and she hands it to him gently.

Ged bends over the creature, cupping its scaly hand in his own, pressing the stone between.  “Show me what happened here,” he verbalizes, focusing his thoughts on the incoherent and fleeting visions that come from the dying goblin.  The visions relate the horror of an attack by wolves in the night, and once it becomes apparent that there is no more to learn, he stands and delivers a swift killing blow to the creature, collapsing its skull with his morning star with a sickening crunch.

An item catches Ged’s interest—beneath the goblin is a broadsword, well-fashioned compared to the usual rusted steel and other improvised weapons such creatures use.  There is an amber stone in the hilt, making it noteworthy among the detritus.  The rest of the group examines the other corpses for anything useful or valuable, many harvesting small trinkets and coins.  Ged takes the sword, wrapping the hilt in cloth before sticking it in his pack.  Ganor takes notice but says nothing.

Another trail of blood leads away from the carnage of the glade.  It could have been made by wolves that were injured in the attack, though that is by no means certain.  For me, it doesn’t make sense to stop our investigation halfway—we will either overtake a wounded or dead wolf, or they will outpace us and we’ll lose the trail.  And there’s always the possibility that it’s something more sinister than wolves—either way, investigating the path to its fullest seems of best interest to Aryen’s Hope, which is our mission in the High Forest.

We form a protective circle with bows and weapons drawn, cautious against ambush or any other dangers of the forest.  Only the trackers are outside this circle, as necessary for them to follow the trail.  Signs of wolf tracks and tufts of fur are discovered, lending credence to the notion that the wounded wolves have retreated this direction.  The sun begins to wane, however, before we find any other sign of our quarry.  The shadows lengthen and the trail becomes harder to follow, the blood beginning to dry as time passes.  Ganor orders the trackers to continue so long as there are still tracks to follow.

Suddenly ahead, the trackers stop and inform us that the trail has dispersed, almost as if the pack separated.  Stranger still, while taking in our surroundings, we notice that the land formations have taken on an unnatural layout, several tall hills or mounds arranged in rows.  Khadhras starts, knowledge of the High Forest and recognition coming to mind, and he indicates that we have likely stumbled into the Deadwalk—ancient burial mounds leftover from battles between elves and evil humanoids in ages past.  Some of the barrows could be from a millennia ago, if not older.

Ganor and the trackers seem nearly as surprised as we are.  He has heard of the Deadwalk, though didn’t know that it could lie so close to Aryen’s Hope.  His own patrols seldom range more than a day from the encampment.  “How long until dark?” I ask, knowing that time is against us.  “At least we’ve found a safe place to camp,” I mutter sarcastically.  “I’m not the most superstitious,” I admit sheepishly, “but sleeping in the shadow of an elven burial mound doesn’t seem like a great idea.”

While investigating one of the nearby mounds, Hinter calls out.  Kayd rushes to her side, and we can see that the barrow appears to have been excavated, sticks and dirt littering a black opening in the earth.

There is some talk of the potential gains from looting the graves, and I shake my head.  “You do what you want, but I want nothing to do with this.”  Disturbing the dead is never a good idea.  Someone mentions that the sword found by Ged could have originated from this looted barrow.  I shake my head again.  “Nothing good can come of this.”

We don’t have long to discuss the matter, however, before Kayd cries out in alarm.  There is a look of fear in his face as he stares into the shadows—atop a nearby barrow is a wolf.  Looking around, we can see others begin to appear alongside mounds or atop others in the distance.  We are surrounded, several sets of yellow eyes following our every move.

From either flank, a pair of unnaturally still and silent wolves regard us.  Their matted hides drip with blood from ragged wounds, and their eyes burn with a supernatural hatred.  A sense of death and decay turns our stomach as we look upon them, and we recognize them for what they are—undead creatures like the one we encountered on our way to Aryen’s Hope.

Ganor orders anyone with a bow to draw arrows and fire.  Nearly a dozen wolves begin to circle around us, the exact number difficult to determine in the shadows.  Khadhras asks what our options are—in answer, I pull out my bow and set an arrow to string, giving him a grim look as I shake my head.

As I pull the bowstring to my cheek, Ged rummages in his pack, withdrawing two large flasks as he begins speaking quickly to those nearby.  Khadhras begins muttering an incantation, his hands working in intricate patterns as a spell takes form.  Ganor’s hunters release a volley of arrows, focusing fire on the flanking wolves.  Two arrows strike the creature though it issues no cry, instead slinking into the shadows of the barrow in eerie silence. 

Ailthar and Pyr draw blades, positioning themselves between two barrows to prevent flanking attacks from either side.  One of the undead wolves launches itself at young Kayd, who flails wildly with his sword to deflect the attack.  Ailthar meets the charge of the other, cutting away a large chunk of the creature’s flesh as he pushes it back.

Ged narrowly avoids an attack as he and Hinter begin to spread oil from his flasks, the substance igniting upon contact with air to form a burgeoning semicircle of fire.  Talas and Pyr attract the attention of several wolves, putting themselves in harm’s way—and they pay the price as the creatures bite and rip at their flesh.  Talas falls to the ground, her throat torn out by a trio of savage wolves.

One of Ganor’s trackers meets a similar fate, blood spraying forth before she collapses in a heap before one of the undead wolves.  I fire an arrow at the creature but miss, and when Khadhras completes his incantation an arcane missile streaks through the shadows and strikes it in the chest.  The hunters release a second volley of arrows as I send forth my own, this one sinking into the nearest wolf with a satisfying sound.

I exchange my bow for my longsword, making ready to leap to Kayd’s defense as the undead wolf turns upon him.  I do not arrive in time, however, as the wolf bears Kayd to the ground. Nearby, Ganor holds his own against a wolf, parrying the creature’s attacks, shaking off one that has bitten into his leather gauntlet.  Pyr, however, is eviscerated by the attack of several wolves, falling to the ground opposite Talas.

Ailthar swings his blade savagely, cleaving one of the undead wolves in two.  Upon its death, half the pack suddenly disperses.  One of the trackers joins the defense of Kayd, plunging his blade into the burnt fur of the undead creature, twisting until it stirs no more.  The other half of the attacking wolf pack disbands, leaving us in silence.  I immediately drop to apply pressure to Kayd’s wounds, the young warrior flitting in and out of consciousness.

Ged moves to treat Talas and Pyr.  Both have succumbed to their wounds, their eyes staring out, glassy and lifeless.  Ganor’s huntress was eviscerated by the wolf that attacked her, her entrails spilling from her midsection onto the ground.  Abandoning care for those that cannot be saved, Ged comes to my side to treat Kayd.  He stops the bleeding and stabilizes the wounds, but not before Kayd falls unconscious.  There are other minor injuries among the surviving hunters, but nothing that demands immediate attention.

The glade is dark and silent, and as the adrenaline fades we assess our situation.  Khadhras walks solemnly to Talas, honoring his promise to the sorceress as he kneels to collect her belongings.  Ailthar is quiet, stoic—his grief is evident in his eyes, but otherwise he expresses no outward emotion.  Talas and Pyr’s sacrifice for the group is evident, and there is a moment of recognition by all present what was given in defense of the hunters.  They died honorably for a cause that was not their own.  Interrupting the silence, I hack the head from one of the undead wolves.  “Can’t be too careful,” I mutter.

Ged performs rites for the dead according to his own faith, not knowing where the souls of the departed are bound.  As he completes the act, he notices a pair of ephemeral boots before him—raising his gaze, he makes out the translucent form of a lithe, feminine figure—a ghostly elf, standing before her barrow.

Friday, November 12, 2021

#3: The Three

Intrigued by our new friends and their situation but unable to effectively communicate, I try my best to pantomime basic concepts, hoping for some insight as to their history.  Where are they from?  How did they get here, and how do they sustain themselves?  What danger lurks in the forest?  And, without wanting to appear rude, what is the nature of the putrefying disease that afflicts two of them?  Talas and Pyr remain silent throughout, occasionally swatting at small insects that try to land in the patches of putrefying flesh on their faces.

My pantomime produces little in the way of results, but it does incite them to have a conversation amongst themselves in their unknown language.  The discussion is heated, apparently some disagreement separating the three, but eventually Ailthar returns.  He approaches Ged, holding in his hand a deep turquoise stone with veins of copper.  He seats himself upon the ground in front of Ged, cross-legged, and gestures to Ged to do the same.  With a shrug, Ged looks to us and then takes a seat across from the warrior.

There is a moment of awkward silence between the two, Ailthar focused and Ged with a skeptical look on his face, before Ged suddenly twitches and locks eyes with the man.  The stone seems to create an empathic link between the two, allowing basic communication.  “We have connected,” Ged says.  “He says his name is Ailthar of Kamynder, and that they hail from the city of Fahl.”  Khadhras, despite his studies of the forest and its history, has never heard of the city.

“My companions and I traveled here through a forest cave.  The cave’s entry was cursed by an evil spirit.”  There is no tone or inflection in the responses Ged receives—communicating telepathically, the nuances of conversation are lost.  Ged asks if the spirit is a god, prying for a deeper understanding, remembering that one word we were able to understand previously was the name of one of the elder gods of nature, “Silvanus”.

“It is known to us as Sairy’k, death’s harbinger.”  Khadhras shrugs again, unfamiliar with the name.

Ged asks if they know where they are, trying to determine if they are from a remote barbarian tribe that Khadhras may be unaware of, or if there is something more to the story of how they arrived in these lands, suspecting magic.

“No, aside from the area we’ve explored over several days.”

Ged looks to us, asking if we have other questions to ask.  I point to Talas’ face, suggesting that Ged ask them if she is cursed.  The question seems pointed and potentially inflammatory, but for me, cutting straight to the heart of the issue seems most important.

“The curse was bestowed by the god of the one we seek amid this forest.”  Khadhras suggests that Ged ask whom they seek.

“My companions and I pursue a wichlar, a forest-druid, who severed ranks from his kin, slaying many in his wake.  This foe, Othal, took on the name ‘Silvanus’…we believe he was led here for a purpose that we do not yet understand…by someone, or something…embraced by the power of fell spirits. A dangerous adversary.”

I snort.  “It might be worth pointing out that here, Silvanus is a god.  Do they feel up to that task?”

“Is this Silvanus a god or a man?” Ged asks.  “The Silvanus we know is a god, but it sounds as if you speak of a man.”

Their reply is confusing, contrary to what little we know of Silvanus in our realm.  “He is a man, but is perhaps being led, or empowered, by something much stronger.  Before we entered the Maw of Shadow’s Breach, local druids spoke of a healer who transcended to a higher realm through this forest.”

“And how do you expect to defeat such a foe?” I suggest Ged ask.

“We have no choice.  The druids of our realm believe that Othal is gathering forces to usurp their power.”

I snort again.  “What does any of this have to do with us?” I ask.  “Either we join them in a hopeless cause, or we leave them here to rot.”  I point at the woman again.  “Aryen’s Hope will not open its doors to them, not in this condition.”  Khadhras seems to agree to an extent but doesn’t seem keen on leaving them to their fates.  Ged continues his silent conversation.

“We understand that you have no choice, but we do.  To battle a foe of this magnitude is a fool’s errand.  What do you hope to accomplish?”

“While Othal may conquer our land, he may well enact great destruction here first.”

“So what have you been doing on this rock for a week?” I ask derisively.  “If it’s praying for heroes to arrive, they’re going to be deeply disappointed.”

“Do they even know how to find this Othal?” Khadhras asks.

Ged relays our doubts, adding, “How do you expect us to help?”

“We lost Othal’s trail in the wake of the curse afflicted upon Talas and Pyr.  We seek signs of his passage, but are wary of your settlement to the south.”

“As you should be,” I say under my breath.

Ged explains, “The settlement to the south is of no concern to you.  The people there are good and honest folk.”

“Would Iphan even grant them an audience?” I ask, honestly not knowing what to do with the information we’ve been provided and growing slightly frustrated.  Khadhras seems to think Iphan may at least hear them out, but he’s unsure what the point of such a conversation would even be.

“What about the bear?” Khadhras provides a line of questions, through Ged, that seem to imply that the feral bear we encountered may have something to do with this Othal.  “Could Othal be behind such evil magic?”

Bear pun!
“It is possible.  Othal is an agent of unnatural power.  We will proceed with our hunt without encroaching upon your village.  Beware should Othal bring his power to bear upon you first.”

“So…what do we do?” I ask the others, unclear how to proceed.

“What impacts them is going to impact us,” Ged shares, indicating his desire to escort them to Aryen’s Hope to meet Iphan.  I have my doubts, but it seems like the only reasonable plan.

Ailthar stares at Ged, communicating more with the priest.  “In our realm, the Maw of Shadow’s Breach is located near an ancient battleground.  The power of the dead stirs within its darkness.  Are there any such places here?”

“The High Forest in general is littered with such places, having been home to elves and other races for millennia,” Khadhras explains.  Though no specific knowledge jumps to mind, there are myriad possibilities.

“Then it is settled,” Ged replies.  “Come back with us to speak with the leader of our settlement.  You are no match for Othal alone and your friends are weak.  You need to recover, and if what you say is true, then this is an issue that impacts us all.”

“Agreed,” Ailthar concedes.  “Lead, and we will follow.”

“Great,” I say, with little care for my sarcasm, worried about the attention a larger group traveling through the forest might attract.  “Can any of them fight?”  Ged nods, pulling himself to his feet.  Communication via the stone apparently requires contact, so as we walk, Ged and Ailthar remain close.  

“Anything within a dozen miles will have seen these fires and will be drawn here,” I say.  “We have a couple hours; we should put as much distance as we can between us and this ridge.”

Bear pun!
They gather their meager belongings and weapons, and we carefully pick our way back along the ridge, descending to the familiar forest paths.  Khadhras takes over responsibility of communicating with the stone with Talas, leaving Ailthar, Ged and I free to bear arms should we encounter any enemies.  

The first couple hours of our return to Aryen’s Hope go easily.  Fauna abounds, which is a reassuring signal that no threats lurk in the forest’s shadows.  We retread our steps to the extent that we are able to find and follow the paths we used before, but when that fails, we are able to use the river to reorient ourselves.

As we travel, there are pauses where it seems that Khadhras pauses to communicate with Talas, but I am more focused on the forest and avoiding any potential dangers.  We come upon a convenient bend in the river that provides some measure of defense while we camp and decide to stay there instead of pushing on further.  We use the extra time to prepare a bonfire and whittle points on a few large branches to use as stakes should the need arise.  We split into pairs to keep watch, one from their party and one from ours, and the night passes uneventfully. 

We awaken the following morning refreshed.  It feels reassuring to have the river at our side, and I toss a few sticks into it, watching them drift downriver towards Aryen’s Hope.  Assuming today’s travel goes as well as the previous day’s, we should arrive back before nightfall.

There is a pause in our travels however, as Talas uses the stone to communicate with Khadhras.  He explains, sharing her comments.  “She does not believe Othal has traveled through this part of the forest.  We should be safe from his influence here.”

“Why do you believe he has not been here?” Khadhras asks in reply.

“And what about creatures under his influence?” I add, knowing that the feral bear lurks somewhere in the forest ahead.

“Othal walks in the shadow of Sairy’k, death’s harbinger,” she replies, mimicking Ailthar’s response from earlier.  “There are no signs of such passage near the river.”

“Good enough for me,” I snort in reply.  We continue, though Khadhras retains his connection with Talas as we walk.

I spare a few moments to discuss potential threats with the group, and planned courses of action should we encounter the bear or any other threat.  To the credit of our new companions, while the ravages of their disease are obvious, at least externally, it seems to provide little deficiency to their physicality.  Both Ailthar and Pyr seem ready to fight, should the need arise.  Meanwhile, Talas and Khadhras seem to be deep in conversation, though the content of their discussion concerns me little.

As the sun passes its zenith, we ascend a wooded hill, and ahead we spot a silhouette near a tree—perhaps a huntsman of Aryen’s Hope, though the possibility that it could be some other creature or even an elf of the High Forest, however unlikely that may be, exists.  There being no chance that a group our size passes unnoticed, I gesture for everyone in our group to take cover as well while Khadhras hails the shadow.

“State your destination,” is the stoic reply.

“Aryen’s Hope,” Khadhras call, and we hear rustling in the brush ahead.  A man steps forward cautiously, and when he gets closer, he calls out to us.

“You’re from the party that set out seeking the lights,” he states, though clearly meaning it as a question.

We confirm his suspicions.  “How far to Aryen’s Hope?” I ask.  “We should be close.”

“Less than two miles,” is his reply, but he follows it with a question.  “Where is the rest of your group?”

Khadhras gestures and we leave our cover to greet the man, keeping Pyr and Talas to the rear to the extent that I can without being able to communicate with them directly.  The man introduces himself as Ganor, indicating that he was absent from Aryen’s Hope when we first arrived, and asked what news.

“We found…” Khadhras begins, before I cut him off abruptly.

“Our news is for Iphan first,” I say, speaking over Khadhras unapologetically.  We do, however, acquiesce to share our encounter with the wild bear.  “If you see it,” I warn, “shoot first and ask questions later.”

Ganor has a story of his own to share with us.  While abroad in the forest with a hunting companion, they ran afoul a small pack of wolves.  Most of the wolves fled, but one seemed particularly aggressive, so much so that even after its packmates turned tail, it attacked the hunters.  Its body was not completely natural—Ganor’s description matches that of the undead creature we encountered while traveling to Aryen’s Hope.

“It was traveling with the other wolves?” I ask, incredulous.

Ganor confirms the story, explaining the creature attacked after the rest of the pack fled.

“Did you kill it?” I ask.  Ganor nods.  Having suffered the attack from such a beast, I acknowledge the feat.  “We will heed your warning, and we thank you for this knowledge.”

Before long, we spot Aryen’s Hope ahead and ask if Ganor will send message to Iphan for him to meet us here, not willing to take Pyr and Talas into the settlement without sharing what we know of their condition first.  Nearly an hour passes before we see Iphan and Janna, priestess of Lathander, approach.

“This should be interesting,” I mutter.  As they draw near, I gesture for Ailthar to join us with the stone.

“What news?” Iphan asks, his curiosity obvious as he eyes our new companions.

We share what few details we understand of their story, and both Iphan and Janna look concerned.   “Does this enemy have anything to do with the fact that our scouts have encountered unnatural creatures of the forest, wolves, these past weeks?  If so, it seems that there may be much more to discuss.”  The possible connection seems clear, and with little hesitancy, Iphan extends welcome to the newcomers, granting them sanctuary in Aryen’s Hope.

“About that,” I interject, explaining what little we know of the disease that has ravaged Talas and Pyr.

“Will you see to them?” Iphan asks Janna, and the priestess of the Morninglord nods.  She approaches carefully, locking eyes with Talas, spending time looking at her festering wounds without touching them.  It appears as if she is muttering prayers during her inspection, though whether she brings any powers of the Morninglord to bear is unclear.

“This is a magical affliction,” she explains finally, “and I lack the power to remedy it.  But I do not think that it is a sickness that can be passed on as a plague.  It would take powerful magic to impart such a condition.”

“That’s good to hear,” I say, relieved, having spent the last two days in close company with them.

“Nevertheless,” Iphan admits, “they will remain isolated for the safety of all, though they are welcome in Aryen’s Hope.”  By the time we arrive, the sun has set.  Janna returns to her tent and Iphan leads the newcomers to one of the more remote parts of the settlement.  Despite the fact that we weren’t able to explain our conversation with Iphan as it occurred, it seems that Ailthar and the others have picked up on Iphan’s intent and Janna’s concern, and for now seem content to be led.

Once settled, waiting seems to be our only course of action.  I raise the question as to whether we should act as intermediaries between Ailthar and Iphan or let them communicate directly, and we agree that perhaps it will be best if Ailthar, Talas and Pyr speak for themselves.

Before long, Iphan returns alone, ready to speak with the newcomers by whatever means may make that possible.  Talas hands the stone to Ailthar, who speaks for their group.  He clasps hands with Iphan over the stone, and a long time passes as they share their unspoken exchange.  We can see the occasional passer-by hovering near the tents with curiosity as Iphan stands with Ailthar in silence. 

When their embrace ends, Ailthar hands the stone back to Talas.  “Ailthar and his friends may sleep here tonight.  I have matters to think on, and I wish to speak to you in the morning.”  Ged presses for payment, our task complete, and Iphan waves off the demand, indicating he’ll settle those matters on the morrow.

Our sleep is restless, with the fate of Ailthar and the others undetermined.  Iphan’s stoicism on the matter is not unexpected but doesn’t grant any comfort.  And for us, besides Iphan requesting our company at dawn, our lack of direction is also a concern.  We eventually find rest, however, and when we rise, we make ready to meet with Iphan.

When we see Iphan, he hands us each a roll of platinum coins, satisfying the payment promised for seeking out the source of the lights.  Iphan explains that he isn’t sure what to make of Ailthar’s story but based on our testimony of the wolf and bear encounters, and our stories coinciding with those of Ganor and the other hunters, there’s clearly a potential serious threat to Aryen’s Hope.

Iphan voices his intention to assemble a scout team to investigate a larger part of the forest than his hunters would typically range and asks if we wish to be involved.  Interested, I ask, “If we commit to do this and Ailthar and the others wish to join us, would you be opposed to it?” 

The question lingers for a moment before Iphan responds.  “No,” he relents.  “I would not oppose it.”

It seems to me that such a mission could potentially overlap with Ailthar’s hunt for Othal—whether this is all connected somehow or not remains unknown, but it remains a clear possibility.  It would provide us the freedom to explore the High Forest, deepen our purse a bit, and perhaps even help Ailthar and his companions in their quest.

Ged asks for more details, specifically how many others Iphan intends to send out.  Iphan explains that he is limited in the extent to which he can risk the security of Aryen’s Hope at any given time but pledges a force of perhaps a half-dozen trained hunters to the task.

After explaining the mission details with Ailthar, he meets with the others and the three of them approach us.  They are agreeable to assisting with Iphan’s cause, and we begin to discuss details of the potential arrangement.

Friday, October 15, 2021

#2: Aryen's Hope

Weary from our endeavors in the High Forest and our encounter with the rotting wolf, we are glad to have been accepted into Aryen’s Hope.  Its tall wooden palisade and many bonfires give us comfort, and it is good indeed to hear voices and be among men and women again.

Iphan and those under his command are welcoming, and after a brief respite, he comes looking for news—and we are eager to share.  We make brief introductions before I ask if other visitors preceded our arrival, survivors from the wagon bound for Aryen’s Hope.  He informs us, sadly, that no others have arrived, and explains that he seldom knows details of shipments from Pelanor.  Deliveries, however, have been more or less regular, and he and the other villagers had begun, as had Sere, to worry that the time elapsed since the last delivery was sign of some problem or danger in the forest.

We share our tale, explaining how we found the wagon and its goods more or less intact, though we only found one of the guards slain among the wreckage; we had hopes that others may have made their way to Aryen’s Hope.  We show him the weapons we salvaged from the wagon, and he says that he can dispatch a team in the morning to seek out the remaining supplies.

After some conversation, Iphan leads us to the tent of a young woman, wearing what looks to be priestly robes.  She is introduced as Janna, the “Arm of the Morninglord,” and shares that she might be able to tend my wounds.  We exchange greetings warmly.  “It would please me much to receive such care.”  Her powers bring great relief, nearly completely stitching the ragged wound that Ged had done his best to poultice.  When finished, Ged steps forward to speak to Janna, asking if she has become aware of any “unholiness on the wind.”  He shares details of our encounter with the wolf, and with the queer witch we witnessed in Pelanor.

She seems concerned at our recounting of the encounter with the undead wolf, though knows little of such things.  Of the witch, however, she seems to know more, informing us that she is known to offer her “prayers” for coin or other favors, though doubts whether her abilities are of truly divine origin.  Though unsure of the nature of any abilities she may possess, she doesn’t consider her a malevolent force, merely a questionable one.

Our conversation is interrupted by calls from the northernmost border of Aryen’s Hope.  “The lights have returned!” is the cry, and a small gathering of people heads towards the ridge.  There is no wall here, the steep slope and jagged ridges providing adequate security.  Peering into the darkness, we’re surprised by the view—indeed, were it light, we could see for miles.  In the distance are small, flickering lights, though it’s impossible to discern any detail as they could be as far as a day’s travel from the camp.

“We’ve been seeing this for the last few nights,” says one of the residents of Aryen’s Hope.

“There’s something out there,” interrupts another.  It is clearly a source of great curiosity and some concern.

“Have the lights moved or come any closer?” I ask.  They shake their heads, indicating they have not.  Khadhras, standing nearby, peers carefully into the night, hoping to see details that may have eluded me, but seems disappointed in his efforts.

After initial excitement over the far-off lights fades, we excuse ourselves to discuss potential plans.  Escorting Iphan’s men back to the wagon seems like a convenient way to make our presence and purpose in the camp felt, and the following morning we seek out Iphan to inform him of our plans.

I let him know that I am greatly improved due to Janna’s ministrations, and that we are ready to assist Iphan and Aryen’s Hope in whatever way we may.  He relates tales of other recent troubles, chief among them the queer lights at night and a feral bear encountered to the northeast that mauled one of the residents, a ranger, and killed another—seemingly without cause.

Knowing how the wagon and its contents were left, we explain to Iphan that it might be of help for us to accompany his team, if nothing else to provide protection and to confirm that the belongings have not been disturbed.  Ged also points out that there are missing members of the caravan, and that a larger group might have better hopes of finding them.

We are introduced to a scrawny looking man, a teamster named Lenk.  There are two others with him, and their job is to handle the beast of burden and to repair the wagon if needed while we act as guard.  They carry bows and swords as well, which we are glad to see.  As we leave Aryen’s Hope and begin our trek, we explain the goods that we hope to find, the condition of the wagon, and answer any other questions they might have.  Our confidence this morning is high.

Our return to the wagon is much easier than our trip the previous night.  Tired, dark, wounded, burdened by the goods we hoped to salvage—indeed, our return trip is almost pleasant in comparison.  That is, of course, until we hear a rustling in the brush ahead, when our romp through the High Forest is brought to an abrupt halt.

In Bungo’s absence, I offer to scout ahead and investigate, but Ged suggests that perhaps we toss a rock instead.  Khadhras slings a stone into the underbrush, eliciting an entirely human shout of surprise or pain.

“Come out,” I command, shouting ahead, “and with your arms to the sky.”  A man emerges from the wood, following our instructions, and Ged begins to question him.

“I was on my way from Pelanor to Aryen’s Hope when I was attacked,” he explains, and Ged presses for more information without sharing what we already know in case this is some bandit or trap.  His answers seem reasonable, though—he describes the cart, the donkey and his companion.

“Who sent you from Pelanor?” Ged asks.

“Sere, the field marshal,” is his reply.  “And my father, Kayd.”

There is a mutual sense of relief as we invite him to join us.  He explains that he fell and injured his leg during the attack on the wagon, and that nearly a full day passed before he came to and could start to try and find his way to Aryen’s Hope.  His wounds are mostly superficial, dehydration being the greatest danger, though he seems both able and willing to accompany us in our quest, glad to have stumbled into us.

“Lord Iphan will probably want to speak with you,” Lenk injects, a clear sign that we should not tarry and be on our way.

“What actually attacked the wagon?” I ask, realizing we hadn’t broached the topic.  Kayd’s son, who is also named Kayd, explains that the wagon was overturned rather suddenly and without warning, unsure whether it was because of the terrain or some other force.  He remembers his companion shouting about wolves, they both ran, and that’s the last thing he remembers.

We provide Kayd the Younger what food and water we have to spare as we continue along the trail.  After the initial excitement and dialogue, we fall once again into a tense silence.

“What happened to the man I was with?” Kayd asks, his voice shaky as he realizes that we’re getting closer to the wagon.

Lacking nuance, Khadhras and I explain in rather blunt terms.  “He was killed, mauled by wolves.”  Blood drains from Kayd’s face.

Before long, we return to the site of the attack, and see the wagon ahead.  The stench of carrion persists, assuredly that of the corpse we left undisturbed.  The wagon remains overturned, supplies strewn about, and as far as we can tell, things are more or less as we left them.  We instruct Kayd to remain close to Lenk and his team, so as not to stumble upon the corpse of his friend in the forest nearby.

The crew heads forward to inspect the wagon, the glade eerily quiet.  Thankfully, there are no signs of threat.  Lenk asks for help in turning the wagon right, and with our combined efforts, we’re able to complete the task easily.  The wagon is, unfortunately, damaged and needs repair, so we make plans to watch over the area while they go about their work.

Khadhras proves a surprisingly able assistant, having some knowledge of engineering and the mechanics of such vehicles, and together they are able to expedite the repairs.  “We’re ready to return,” Lenk announces, asking if we have any further business.

Ged wants to check the body one last time, which seems to remind Kayd of his companion.  He asks, his voice shaking again, “We’re going to take him with us, right?”

I elbow Ged, asking him under my breath to say something about disease, but Ged has the situation well in hand, explaining that it’s impossible.  Ged heads over on his own, finding much what he expects—a three-day old, decayed body, rotting and surrounded by flies.  Having found nothing otherwise out of the ordinary, we depart and make our way back to Aryen’s Hope.

Once again we are reminded how different and difficult the conditions of our first trip were—the return trip to Aryen’s Hope is easy, and before long we are greeted by the gate guards, then by Iphan himself.  We linger to overhear Iphan’s conversation with Kayd—it doesn’t seem as if they know one another. 

That evening, we find time to speak with Iphan privately, explaining our intentions to help Aryen’s Hope, and indicating that salvaging the wagon was an effort done in good faith to show him our talents and prove that we’re honorable.  Iphan seems amenable to the arrangement, explaining that he could perhaps put us on a stipend to work directly for the camp, or pursue other agreements that would allow us more flexibility.

Unwilling and unwanting to give such control over our actions to anyone, Ged speaks for our group.  “If you have special needs, if you have something interesting for us and are willing to compensate us for our efforts, we are your men…but we are no one’s man.”

He seems to understand our intentions and is satisfied with Ged’s reply.  He explains that the ridge to the north and the mysterious lights are of special interest to him, enough to warrant a reward of 50 gold pieces for each of us if we can return with news of any potential threat.  We negotiate to include mundane supplies as part of the deal—rations, ammunition, and the like—as long as we’re working on behalf of the camp, he agrees to see that we’re well supplied.

Khadhras asks if there are any who know the territory, and we are introduced to Ureth, who was the man mauled by the bear.  Ureth is of an age with Ged, with shaved head and graying beard, and comes across as gruff but knowledgeable.  He explains that there are game trails that cross the territory and informs us of the various forms of natural predator that we should keep an eye out for.

“What special precautions can we take at night to avoid unwanted encounters with these predators?” I ask.  He shares that fire is both friend and foe—while it will keep away most natural predators, it also risks drawing the attention of any intelligent denizens of the wood.

“Don’t make assumptions about the natural wildlife,” he says grimly, fingering the scars on his face and neck.  “Something had that bear on edge like I’ve not seen before.”

With something on my mind, I ask to the group to humor me as we track down Janna.  Having told her of the undead wolf that attacked us, I say that I’ve heard tales that priests are possessed of the power to make water holy that it might be used against such foes, should we encounter them again in the wood.  “And are you possessed of such power?” I ask her directly.

She admits that she knows of the craft, though has not conducted it herself.  Knowing of Ged’s devotion to Shaundakul, she offers that the two of them might be able to accomplish the task together.  After giving it some thought, Ged agrees to lend his divine services to the effort.  The following morning, they disappear into Janna’s tent.  We wait outside but soon become bored as the minutes and hours pass. 

Meanwhile, Khadhras seeks out anyone possessed of arcane knowledge in Aryen’s Hope, though is disappointed in his efforts.  I do my best to assist with mundane tasks about the camp to pass the time, but make no meaningful contacts.

We are rewarded for their efforts, however, and Janna presents us with three vials of holy water with the warning that she can’t be completely sure that it will be effective.  Thankful nonetheless, we take the vials and store them away against future danger.

Ged looks to the skies, informing us that the weather should be relatively clear and cooperative in the coming days, so we make preparations to depart the following morning.

The beginning of our journey proves difficult—the ridge is complicated to navigate, so our going is slow.  There’s a light rain early in the morning and a chill rides the early spring wind—otherwise, though, conditions are reasonably good.  Getting lost in the wilderness is a real fear—fortunately, Ged has some skill in keeping us pointed in the right direction, and landmarks are plentiful enough that we are confident we can find our way.

Despite our best intentions and Ged’s skills however, we find ourselves on a meandering path through the woods that inevitably leads us back to the River Delimbiyr.  Fortunately, we find no sign of threat, natural or otherwise, and by the time we’ve passed our midday meal, we find what seems to be a good trail and follow it into the afternoon.

As with our trip to the wagon, we hear rustling in the brush ahead and come to an abrupt stop.  And as we did before, Khadhras launches a stone into the brush, though no further sound or movement is elicited by the action.  The woods are thick, and our path leads us right towards the source of the sound.

Swapping out my bow for my sword and shield, I decide to head forward cautiously.  Before I do, however, Ged stops me and works through a prayer, bestowing a blessing of Shaundakul upon us.  I don’t make it more than a few yards before a large black shape emerges from the brush—a black bear, standing on its hind legs and growling.  It is clearly disturbed by our presence.

I know little of such beasts, but having seen Ureth’s scars, I want nothing to do with a conflict.  I throw my shield over a shoulder and start digging in my pack with the intention of throwing rations towards it.   If it reacts naturally and investigates the food, we intend to escape towards the river.  If not, we ready ourselves to brace for combat.

It takes a few steps towards us as I hold out an armful of rations, hurling them as far as I can.  There’s a moment of apparent mental anguish or confusion as the bear stops to sniff the air.  Confronted by its options, it nonetheless ignores the food and closes most of the distance between us, it’s violent intents clear.

I stare down the bear—it stares down me—and I take off into the forest towards the river, away from the bear and the thrown rations.  I’m hopeful that it chooses food over a chase.  Khadhras and Ged move to follow.  Luckily, we seize initiative and the brush proves more an obstacle to the bear than a hindrance to us, and we are able to outrun the creature.

We keep up a rapid pace until we come either to the game trail once again or the river, stopping periodically to listen for sounds of a bear crashing through woods behind us.  We are hopeful we have left the threat behind.  We slow our pace to a more cautious speed so that we can have better awareness of our surroundings, and hear nothing of our would-be foe.

We manage to cover quite a distance over the course of the day as the sun begins to set.  Before it gets too dark, I look for a tree with limbs that look like they might support my weight to try and gain better vantage.  I find one and easily ascend to the lower branches where I am afforded a clearer view.  I’m not able to clearly make out the ridge, our destination, but I can make out where the land rises, and we determine that to be our best direction come the morning.

We camp with our backs to the river, building a bonfire for warmth.  We split into watches, and fortunately encounter no threat in the night.

The following morning, we discover several small game trails that head in what is seemingly the correct direction.  Most of the morning passes as we stalk quietly through the High Forest, and eventually are rewarded with a slight incline.  At midday, we find ourselves ascending a small ledge or ridge, and ahead we catch sight of an armored man with a bow.  It seems as if we caught sight of him as he us, and for the moment, his weapon remains at rest.

Keeping my bow out but not drawn, Ged raises a hand in greeting—the man returns the gesture.  We decide to approach slowly, Ged keeping his hand raised as a sign of trust.  We approach within a dozen yards, seeing no one else as we ascend towards him.

Ged makes a brief introduction, even going so far as to share news of the bear.  The conversation is one-sided, the man listening as Ged speaks.  The man is thin, athletic, and has the appearance of a woodsman.

When he finally replies, it’s in a language completely incomprehensible to us.  I slowly shoulder my bow, and from my pouch I withdraw a chunk of chalk.  On a nearby stone, I draw an exaggerated, angry bear, muttering the word to look for some recognition.

He replies with a different word, but otherwise seems unimpressed with my drawing.  The man tries uttering words in other languages, some of them seemingly a trade tongue, and we get the impression that he’s trying to express a single word—“lost”.

I draw a crude house and bonfire, pointing back towards Aryen’s Hope and in the other direction, my best guess towards the ridge where we seek the lights.  He either doesn’t understand or is unaware, instead seeming to communicate that he requires our help—or that he has friends that may need it.

We do our best to introduce ourselves by name, asking him what his name may be.  He replies, “Ailthar.”  Again using the chalk, I draw a figure and ask to the best of my knowledge how many others may seek our help.  He indicates that there are two others, and Ged asks their names.

“Ailthar, Pyr, Talas.”  We sense no duplicity in the man and are faced with a decision.  He points in the direction we were headed anyway, so our course seems easy to determine.  He leads the way up the ledge, and we follow behind.

As we walk, he keeps talking in a broken form of the common tongue, almost as if sharing a story.  We catch a few words in the otherwise unintelligible language—chief among them “Silvanus”, whom Ged knows to be a deity of nature.  We reach the summit of the ascent, and get the sense that there may be additional people ahead.  He holds his hands up as if we should stop, and gestures ahead of us as if communicating with others before beckoning us forward slowly.

Two figures emerge from the brush, one man and one woman—and both bear horrible scarring.  Half of the skin on the woman’s face is blackened as if burned or rotted, and one of her hands bears the same.  The man also has hideous visible scars, though neither seem as if they are in great pain.

“Help,” Ged says, pointing towards the woman’s scarring.  “Silvanus,” he says, hoping to make it clear that he wants to examine their scars so that he might ascertain their source.

The man points to himself, making a gesture with his hands reminiscent of a prayer.  He holds them towards the woman’s face, trying to convey something that we don’t fully understand.  Looking about, we see the remnants of numerous bonfires—and we realize that these are likely the source of the lights seen from a distance in Aryen’s Hope.

Whoever they may be, and whatever the cause of their scars, we have nonetheless completed part of our mission.  We are rewarded, however, with more questions than answers.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

XP awards for session 1

Here are XP awards for the inaugural session, since Bungo may be taking some time off and I’d like to ensure we have a clean division.

  • Slaying the undead wolf - 100
  • Story award for sending news back to Pelanor - 1,000
Initial party totals are as follows:
  • Khadhras - 275
  • Phelan - 275
  • Ged - 303
  • Bungo - 303
The sidebar is updated accordingly. Please keep in mind that these awards, while small, are only for one session, wherein much time was spent on introductions.

Friday, September 3, 2021

#1: Stirrings

Throughout history, the Greypeaks have been home to all manner of creatures—goblinoids, orcs, giants and worse.  And throughout history, these creatures have struck out against encroaching towns and villages; sometimes these attacks are repelled, and the creatures sent back to their mountain lairs.  Sometimes, however, these onslaughts are successful and villagers are forced to either uproot and seek sanctuary elsewhere or die by the fangs, claws and swords of those that would do them harm.  The High Forest is littered with the remains of such battles, the soil fertilized by the blood of man, skeletons of abandoned huts and houses overgrown and consumed by the waxing and waning borders of the High Forest. 

The bustling camps, homesteads and buildings of Pelanor form one such village, and it is here where our tale begins.  Pelanor is not large enough to demand a proper inn—we are given area in the common mustering grounds east of the village where we can set up our tents and build our fires.  There are perhaps a dozen other tents, though not all are currently occupied—most are used by transients passing through, mostly tradesmen and travelers. 

As we arrive in Pelanor, the environment is tense with rumors of evil humanoids and creatures seen along forest paths or viewed from afar in the mountains, and the remote villages along the River Delimbiyr have become relatively crowded by the comings and goings of those seeking fame, wealth, and adventure.  We are one such band, and as I look to my companions, I am hopeful that we will make a reputation for ourselves in this harsh, unforgiving land.

Ged of Arabel is a priest, a Windwalker in service of his god Shaundakul.  He is the seniormost member of our company, older than me or Khadhras by nearly a decade.  More so than fame or wealth, this wandering priest seeks converts among the rough folk of the Delimbiyr Vale and seems most comfortable when out under the open skies.

Bungo Proudfoot is a halfling whose skill and agility belies his short, pudgy frame.  He is accompanied by his faithful hound, Furryfeet.  Little more is known of this halfling or his past, but I’d wager that we’ve run in similar circles.

Contrary to Ged, who seems at home in the wilderness, Khadhras is a traveling wizard and academic who appears completely out of his element.  Similar in age to me, he is well learned in the arcane arts and a historian of some sort, knowledgeable of the High Forest and its history.  Such knowledge and power could prove invaluable as we enter uncharted lands.

Our goal is to push through to the forest camp of Aryen’s Hope, established a year past, which lies a hard day’s travel through forest and hilly terrain north of Pelanor, along the River Delimbiyr.  The trails leading from Pelanor are rough, though should be easy for us to follow as long as we keep the river within earshot to our west.  The leader of Aryen’s Hope bears the title Lord Forester, and it is he with whom we seek audience.  Trade and travel through this dangerous terrain demands guardians with special skills, and we intend to perhaps apply ourselves profitably to such efforts.

Our preparations for camp are interrupted as Bungo tugs at my arm, pointing to a curious exchange occurring amid the village.  A tall, aging man stands near a bedraggled woman in filthy robes.  He passes something to her with a few words, perhaps a coin, and we watch as she draws a small knife and runs it across the flesh of her arm.  It has the trappings of some kind of occult ritual, and we look to Ged for enlightenment.  Ged shakes his head though, unfamiliar with rite—it is likely either a local custom, or something completely foreign to his knowledge.  Khadhras mutters something about “a backwards custom of an uncivilized village.”  The man takes his leave, and we return to our duties.

I ask those in the mustering grounds if other bands of adventurers or soldiers have been through Pelanor, either heading towards Aryen’s Hope or back from it.  A tanner is willing to share words with us, recognizing that we are new.  He shares the recent village news that a supply cart was sent north to the forest camp several days ago with two armed guards, and no one has yet returned.  This is longer than typical for traffic between the settlements, considering that there are no known human settlements beyond, and concern is rising.

As we are finishing our preparations, we witness a pair approaching our small camp with purpose.  We recognize one of them as the man from the ritual—he wears a broadsword at his hip, perhaps nearing fifty, though otherwise dressed in plainclothes.  His companion is a female, garbed in a suit of chain and armed, younger than the man—perhaps soon encroaching on middle age.  She carries herself with the air of confidence of an experienced warrior.

The woman introduces herself as Sere, field marshal of Pelanor.  The position is nominally in charge of security and safety of Pelanor, and her companion is Kayd, the village horsemaster.  We can tell that they are interested in hearing our business in town and they welcome us.  She reiterates the tanner’s news of the lost supply cart and asks if we might return word of any findings.  “The village would be in your debt,” she explains.

Speaking for the group, Bungo says that we will do our best.  With our destination obvious, I ask if there are any other services we can provide, perhaps other goods to deliver.

“One of the men guarding the supply cart was my son,” the older man reveals, “and I would like to see him returned to safety.”  The cart was carrying tools, dry goods, rations and a small assortment of arms.  We empathize with him, and with that knowledge, we convene as a group to discuss our plans.

Ged asks if there is anything we should be aware of, knowing the forest and region to be dangerous.  Sere explains that nothing outside of the ordinary has been reported.  “There are always going to be dangers,” she replies, but has no specific leads.

I ask if they would send a runner with us—we’re not likely to turn back if we find something just to report news, so having a runner seems a smart course of action.  She is amenable to the plan.  When asked about compensation for our efforts, the man steps forward.

“You may come and go as you please through our village,” he explains.  “We ask nothing of those passing through, and grant shelter and what services we can.  If you return my son safely, you will always have a place at my table.”  It seems reasonable given the meager wealth of this small village.

Reading the skies, Ged informs us that the weather ahead will be clear.  With that in mind, we agree to the terms of the arrangement, and we alert Sere that we intend to leave the next morning.  “Well met,” she agrees, and thanks us before turning away with Kayd to return to Pelanor.

* * *

We awaken early the next morning and head towards the northern edge of the village.  There waiting is Sere, accompanied by a younger man, perhaps three years my junior.  He is outfitted with a small blade on his hip and some ill-fitting leather armor.  He is introduced as Nulwen—he knows the paths near Pelanor and is knowledgeable of the forest but obviously green when it comes to combat.  She trusts our judgment in directing Nulwen and seeing to his well-being.  “We will take good care of him,” I tell her. 

“Don’t worry about me,” he chides Sere sheepishly.  She wishes us well, and we head north from the village towards Aryen’s Hope.  As the sun rises, we pass through the outlying farmsteads quietly, hugging the River Delimbiyr as we travel throughout the morning.  As we approach midday, the woods become thicker and the path more treacherous—the rising sun becomes obscured by the dense tree cover.  The difficulty of traversing this path with a small cart or wagon becomes apparent, and we keep a careful eye for any signs of recent passage, Ged surveying the path carefully at varying intervals.  Nulwen proves an able companion, if a bit shy in our presence.

I take point as we travel, with Khadhras and Nulwen behind me.  Ged follows them, and Bungo with brave Furryfeet guards our rear.  All is well until we descend a small, tree-covered hill.  Ahead, we see an overturned cart with a mule standing peacefully nearby, tail swatting at flies.  We’re not close enough to make out much more detail from this distance.  Bungo and I take point, relying on Furryfeet’s keen senses to alert us of any danger, and the others follow several paces behind.

The cart is tipped on its side, one of its wheels entangled in some large tree roots that cross the broken path.  Supplies are strewn about, racks of tools and small barrels.  Furryfeet’s ears lie back as the scent of death wafts towards us, and ahead we see a bloated body covered in flies.  Bungo & Furryfeet approach the corpse as I watch over the area—scavengers have done their work on the decaying body, but it does appear as if the skin is torn by claw or blade.  We call the rest of the group forward, asking if Nulwen can identify the body of the deceased as Kayd’s son.

Nulwen pales at the sight of the corpse.  “No,” he replies.  “It’s not his son, but the second guard.”  It doesn’t look like the goods or rations have been picked over, nor any of the weapons.  The mule, largely oblivious to our presence, is still bound to the cart and is wobbly with fatigue or malnourishment.  It looks like it has been stuck in the same spot for days.  Khadhras moves forward to cut the mule loose and care for it, trying to give it food and water from the mess of supplies available.

While he does, I scan the area for any signs of prints, especially any leading away from the cart towards Aryen’s Hope but am disappointed to find no discernable tracks.  As we are perhaps halfway or more to our destination, there’s as good a chance as any that any survivors may have continued ahead.

Ged speaks with Nulwen about returning to Pelanor, and Nulwen responds that he will do as we ask.  As he can likely make it out of the forest before nightfall, we decide to send him back to Pelanor with news of the cart and the corpse, in the case that Sere desires to reclaim the goods.  Nulwen pauses to express that he doesn’t have any news of Kayd’s son.

“Kayd’s son is secondary to the news that the cart has been found and one of its guards slain,” I explain.  “We will continue our search and send what news we can.”  He nods, and we send him on his way.

I take a few minutes to bind some of the weapons found, bows and swords, knowing their value and not wanting them to fall into the wrong hands.  Others do the same, and we decide to press on, wanting to arrive at Aryen’s Hope before nightfall.

Our pace is slowed somewhat by our burdens and by the mule, which Khadhras has seemingly adopted.  The forest feels like it’s getting darker as the afternoon wanes, but after several hours alone, we can’t help but jump at shadows and personify what’s likely the natural occurrence of the setting sun.  We trudge on until suddenly Furryfeet stands rigid, hackles raised, and even the mule seems to sense something unnatural, and I start to regret dismissing the darkening wood.

Bungo slips into some nearby brush while the rest of us form a circle, standing silently as we wait for any sign of threat.  Furryfeet seems focused on one of our flanks towards a nearby ridge, and in the shadows we see the silhouette of a large four-legged creature, perhaps the size of a wolf, that moves with an unnatural gait or limp.  I raise my bow, knowing of no benevolent creature that fits such a description.  Before firing, I send a questioning gaze to the others in the group, but Khadhras shakes his head.

He begins to chant, his hands making the complicated gestures of an enchantment as we wait patiently.  The air fills with the scent of ozone as he finishes the spell, but it seemingly has no effect.  Not wanting to let it approach, Bungo and I loose a pair of arrows, each one finding their mark.  The creature lets out no sound, neither cry nor growl—only the dull thud of arrows striking their target.  It begins to approach in earnest, silhouette more clearly now that of a wolf, as Bungo and I send another pair of arrows over the creature, missing their mark.  The others brace for its attack.

I put myself in the path of the creature as it rushes forward, Bungo letting loose another arrow and Khadhras slinging a heavy stone which crunches into the creature.  As it pierces the shadows of the forest, charging towards us, we see that one of its front legs is hanging impossibly by a few lengths of tendon, the bone shattered.  Its hide is ragged from open and decaying wounds, and there is an odor of death not dissimilar to the corpse we found at the cart, its eye sockets empty, but jaws full of sharp, gnashing teeth.

I swing out wildly with my sword but miss as it bears down on me, jaws tearing through flesh and armor as it nearly brings me down.  Ged flails at it with his mace, unable to land a telling blow.  Desperate to escape lest I suffer another attack, I spin around and bring my sword level, cleaving the creature in two, cutting through spine, hide and flesh to spill its guts on the forest floor.

Mule Lives Matter
While the others scan for other threats, Ged rushes forward to tend my wound, offering some slight relief.  The creature is a true horror, having defied a normal death, and lest there be other creatures like it in the shadows of the forest, we decide to continue hastily on.  There is some discussion over whether to leave the mule and what supplies we have gathered behind, but deciding their value outweighs the danger posed, we press on with our burden.

Eager to put the horror of the encounter behind us, we move as quickly as seems safe, eating our evening meal on our feet so as not to lose any more time.  The welcome sound of the Delimbiyr gives us comfort that we are still on the correct path, but the remaining sun quickly fades and before long, we are forced to pull out supplemental light sources.  Ged, calling upon Shaundakul, conjures a globe of divine light.  Perhaps by virtue of the light or even the presence of Ged’s deity, the forest seems less shadowed than before, and once again we can hear the natural sounds of the forest.

After an hour, the light from Ged’s spell fades and I pull out a torch and strike a small flame.  It is then, however, that we notice the scent of a campfire on the wind, though no light from such a fire is visible through the dense forest cover.  Bungo examines the nearby trees, choosing one to scale up nimbly, hoping that the increased height will grant him a vantage we are denied.

Over the next ridge, Bungo sees what appears to be a roaring bonfire behind a wooden palisade.  Having no reason to doubt that this is Aryen’s Hope, we press on as quickly as the light from my torch allows.  We discover the ridge that Bungo spotted and ascend, and once atop it we are able to discern multiple bonfires, tents, and lean-tos, and can hear the sound of voices and activity from within the walls.

We approach and hail those that guard the palisade, and are granted access to our destination.  A dark-haired and bearded man approaches us, sword at his hip and bow slung across his back.  He introduces himself as Iphan, Lord Forester.  We exchange his greeting eagerly, glad to be behind the walls of Aryen’s Hope.