Wednesday, June 15, 2022

#47: Tovt

I fade in and out throughout the night, bouts of restless sleep intertwined with fits of nightmarish dreams or hallucinations.  The relentless cold has penetrated my body, the dull warmth of the flickering fire my only lifeline.

When I finally awaken, I take a few moments to gain my bearings.  It is difficult to tell how much time has passed—it is perhaps late afternoon.  Given that it is likely the beginning of the winter season and knowing the shortness of days in the Frozenfar, it is likely that I have been unconscious for nearly an entire day. 

I hear Aros crunching through the snow nearby, and I raise my head wearily to watch his approach.  He is carrying a small deer on his back, two legs wrapped around either shoulder.  He throws it to the ground near the fire and starts the process of breaking down the animal, the tinge of iron from the deer’s lifeblood permeating the air.  It raises memories of past hunts and kills, and I have to shake myself out of the brief reverie.

“Good morning,” I say feebly, earning a raised brow and a stoic nod in return.  I crawl towards him with my knife in hand, gesturing and offering to help with his skinning and butchering of the animal.  Though weak, I want to prove myself to this warrior, show him that I can be of some worth.  He raises a brow again but tosses me a haunch, and I do my best not to spoil the meat or bit of hide as I prepare it for the fire.  The smell of roasting game awakens a deep hunger—I don’t even know how long it has been since my last meal, and my mouth waters.

When we finally settle into the meal, I start slowly; even the ritual of breaking my fast seems foreign, and it takes a long time to fill my stomach.  The nourishment starts to restore some of my energy.  Aros takes a long pull from a large clay jug and offers it to me.  It is filled with cold water, and I refresh myself.  Aros seems content to let me continue to rest, busying himself with tasks about the campsite.  Not knowing what he plans, not knowing where we are, I pull myself to my feet and settle into a ritual, struggling to coordinate mind and body.  I start with a lot of stretching—my limbs are yet weak from lack of nourishment, muscles bunched from lack of activity.  Once satisfied, having earned myself a sheen of sweat, I find a nearby rock and sit quietly, letting my spirit reach out once again to Nobanion.  I ask nothing of my patron, still feeling that I have not yet earned that honor, pleased enough to simply feel a connection again.  By the time the ritual is complete, I am nearly spent—recovering, but not yet recovered.  Aros is not the most vocal of companions, but I get the impression that he’s satisfied with my presence and with the silence.  I spend a long time gazing out over the barren horizon.  Eventually, I lose the battle against fatigue and fall asleep once again. 

When I next awaken, it is from a restful, dreamless sleep.  Whether a gift from Nobanion or the natural progression of my slow recovery, I give him silent thanks nonetheless.  The sky is dark and overcast, no light from the moon visible except for the faintest illumination of covering clouds.  I am rested enough that I don’t feel the need to sleep any more, and I use the energy to explore the camp, careful not to disturb Aros in his sleep, though I doubt that the warrior is truly ignorant of my presence.  Escape is the farthest thing from my mind—I am still weakened, completely without resources, and despite our current relationship as companions, I don’t even know if he would let me get away.

The way Aros arranges the camp shows he’s a skilled woodsman and hunter, able to care for himself in the bleak Frozenfar wastes.  I eye his weapon, lying on the ground nearby.  It appears to be manufactured, though crudely, a blade of unworked steel nested into a long wooden shaft to form a crude axe or bladed mace.  He wears around his neck a token, a small amulet made of sticks, bones, feathers and strings of cartilage.  It stirs neither memory of Malar nor worry, not being recognizable as a symbol of any particular faith.

I return to my seat near the fire, content to let Aros rest.  Thoughts of the encounter with heucuva troubles me—both the nature of the deceptive creature as well as how it was repelled by my body when I threw myself between it and Aros.  Was this Nobanion’s doing, or some other mystery?  I am left unsatisfied, with no answer clear.   I mind the fire quietly for the remainder of the evening, keeping watch, until morning arrives and Aros stirs to wakefulness.

After eating, Aros smothers out the fire.  Taking this as a signal that we are about to leave, I take the hide from the deer and throw it over my shoulders.  It is still bloody and somewhat sticky on the inside but will provide warmth in the harsh environment.  Aros seems satisfied with the decision.  “Where are we off to?” I ask, expecting no response.

This time, surprisingly, he speaks.  Tovt.”  What that means I cannot possibly discern, so I gesture for him to lead and follow along as best I can.  Fortunately, he walks closer to my pace than his own, and though it is sometimes a struggle I am able to keep up.

We head in the direction of the rising sun.  Though nominally heading east, the terrain makes a direct route impossible.  Before long we come upon a stream that joins our path, and we follow our way along it eastward.  The sky is overcast and prevents the sun from shining through, but I track its passage in the clouds until nearly highsun.  We climb atop a low ridge that appears to have a valley beyond, and once we reach the crest, we are rewarded with a view of several huts and bonfires on the valley floor.  Aros is unsurprised, and we are clearly in lands he knows.  “Tovt,he repeats again, taking long strides forward as he enters the valley.  I repeat the word softly, “Tovt, smiling briefly, and follow.

The small village is reminiscent of Crahdorn’s gathering of tents, though Aros’ folk—assuming that this is indeed his village—gather here in greater number.  Other figures are seen about the village, also tall and muscular, though few quite so much as Aros.  Their race is clearly of human lineage, though of a stock I don’t recognize.  They are, however, to a person, of intimidating stature.  A crowd gathers and people begin to approach, forming a small audience for our arrival.

An older man, taller than me though still not as large as Aros, approaches.  His hair is long and dark brown mixed with strands of grey, and he is adorned with many fetishes of gut string and bone.  While unrecognizable, this man carries with him the air of a chieftain or leader.  He narrows his eyes, almost stalking me as he nears, muttering lowly under his breath.  He stops before me and utters a single word, “Frode, its meaning lost on me.  Aros begins to speak in his language, communicating with his elder.  After a time, he says my name, “Zeb,” and gestures towards me.

The older man circles as he inspects me, reminiscent of a panther advancing on its prey.  “Hota!” he calls, and though the commanding tone is clear, I have no idea what directive he has given.  There is an air of suspicion in the tone, perhaps.  I draw my blade slowly, flipping it so that the blade is in my hand, offering him the hilt.  He looks at it skeptically before Aros interjects, explaining something more.  The only word I recognize is “heucuva,” which elicits a rare reaction of surprise from the elder as well as from those gathered.

He eyes me carefully, quickly snatching the knife.  He examines it briefly before tucking it into his belt.  Aros hands the pouch he took from the stone circle to the older man, who seems pleased.  He issues a few more commands to those gathered, and the circle begins to disperse.  “What now?” I ask Aros, shrugging my shoulders.  Unsurprisingly, Aros provides no response.  Instead, he grabs me firmly, not necessarily intending to be forceful, pushing me towards the edge of the encampment to a small bonfire.  He motions for me to stay there, and sits across from me silently.  I ponder Aros and his folk—their skin is slightly tanned compared to the fair-skinned barbarians of the North, but they share a similar square jaw and physique.  Related perhaps to tribes I know, though likely not directly.  

One individual stands out among the crowd, however—a woman, young compared even to Aros, her skin much darker than the others with long, black hair.  She strikes me as foreign, clearly not a blood relative to this tribe, though she wears their clothing and is adorned with similar fetishes.  It does, however, appear that she has scars—marks on her arms and face, a lattice of raised skin.

Aros doesn’t seem particularly talkative, but I decide to probe the matter.  I use pantomime and verbal cues to ask the elder’s name, thumping my chest and voicing the word “Zeb” before pointing to the elder in the village center.

Frode,” responds Aros, though whether that is his name or a title I am yet unsure.  Confident in my ability to communicate, albeit crudely, I ask after the raven-haired woman’s name.  “Vargmenni” is his response.  Satisfied, I sit still and quiet, awaiting whatever judgment or sentence may come.  Hours pass.

Finally, people begin to congregate once again.  Whereas before it was a couple dozen, now it appears as nearly the whole village has gathered.  As the sun starts to set and twilight approaches, I watch as they meet around a large bonfire.  The elder man, Frode, seats himself on a log near the fire, and motions for Aros to bring me forward.  The situation reminds me of the keravela tribes near Dagger’s Deep, Odesia’s kin, where Kezia revealed her reading.  I shake my head to rid myself of that particular memory.

Frode, draws my knife from his belt, setting it down on the ground.  He begins to speak, repeating the word “Hota.  After he says the word, I notice small pieces of bone laid before him and he begins to utter words I discern as magical in nature—primitive and unorthodox, but clearly recognizable.  He very suddenly reaches out his left hand and grabs my forearm.

Hota!” he repeats again, this time pantomiming speech with his hand.

“You want to speak?” I ask, regretting my slow-witted response.  “Hota” is the response again, though this time he nods.

“Are you able to understand what I’m saying?” I ask, and he nods again.

“My apprentice possessed similar magic,” I admit, gesturing to his grid of bone slivers, “and I am familiar with its use.”  No reaction is elicited.

I pause for several moments, constructing my response to this man.  “I climbed from my death and escaped the darkness, only to encounter this warrior Aros, who saved me from the frozen wastes.”  He continues to stare at me, and I pause in my story, waiting for reaction.

He turns to speak to Aros, the only word I recognize being the woman’s name, “Vargmenni.

“The woman with the scars,” I state quietly.  He repeats her name again.  The man’s face is unreadable.

“Have you any knowledge of a nearby town called Fireshear?” I ask, not expecting him to have ever heard of it.  “A village on the sea, larger than your own, with tents made of stone.” 

He attempts to speak the word “Fireshear” clumsily, then shakes his head.  No.

“I seek my wife and my child, though it may be many miles and many years before I can ever hope to find them.”  He continues to regard me without expression, except perhaps the slightest of nods.

“Aros saved me,” I continue, “and I owe him a debt.  And you have sheltered me, and for that I owe you a debt.”  At that, he picks my knife up off the ground, stands, and backs from the circle.  Aros grabs me again, pulling me away.  Frode begins to speak to his people, addressing the circle.  He takes the pouch in one hand and my knife in the other.  Their attention to his words is absolute.  More than once I hear the word “heucuva” again, each time eliciting sharp intakes of breath, the word clearly disturbing the villagers.

He returns my blade to his belt for a moment, reaching into the pouch to withdraw a small stone.  I’m unable to make out much detail, but it is small, no larger than a pebble.  He draws my knife again, slowly raises it to his lips, then suddenly Frode puts the blade into his mouth, twisting it and cutting into his gums.  Frode withdraws a tooth in a fountain of blood.  There is an air of seriousness, though none of the villagers move or issue anything more than a gasp.  All eyes are locked onto Frode as he inserts the stone into his mouth, replacing the tooth.  I can’t help but stare at the ritual in shock and amazement.  Before I can ask Aros what is going on, Frode reaches into the pouch, withdrawing another small stone—this one different, appearing red in color.

To my dismay he repeats the ritual, drawing my knife again and exchanging another freshly-extracted tooth with the stone.  Both bloody teeth are dropped onto the ground near the fire, Frode’s chest a curtain of dark blood.  He walks towards me and offers me my bloody blade, then closes the pouch and puts it onto his belt before retreating wordlessly to a nearby tent.

When Frode departs, the rest of the crowd begins to disperse.  I watch the them, curious to see if Vargmenni is in attendance.  I find her standing near the fire and approach, curious if any will bar my way or if she will avoid me.  None stop me, though several eye me carefully, and though she seems wary, she remains, giving me a cautious stare.

She is slight of frame, exotic in nature, and younger perhaps than I imagined before.  “Are you able to explain what just happened?” I ask, curious if she will comprehend or respond if she does.  She looks surprised, pausing for a moment before responding.  Her reply is in broken speech, though recognizable as the basest form common, often used among traders.  “You travel far,” she says awkwardly, taking me a few moments to piece together the meaning through her heavy accent.

“Yes,” I respond.  I point to the sky, continuing, “To the heavens and back.”  She nods.  “Good night,” I finish, and return to Aros aside our small fire.  With nothing more to do or say, I withdraw the deer hide from my shoulders and start to treat it, scraping it clean and burning away the bits of flesh to make a more proper hide garment.  Frode’s bloody ritual is heavy in my thoughts, though I’m not able to discern any meaning from it. 

Once that task is complete, I find a flat rock and a few bits of bone or sticks lying in the dirt, none more than a finger in length.  Closing my eyes, I contemplate the arrangement laid down by Frode when casting his spell, for indeed a spell it was.  That in itself is surprising, but the nature of the spell prepared is also surprising—it was not a ward against enemies or the elements as you’d expect from a barbarian shaman, but something more nuanced.  Though the method was completely foreign, arcane sigils bear enough resemblance that I set my mind and hands to recreating the matrix, piece by piece. 

Once satisfied, I leave it on the rock, curious to see if Frode will recognize my recreation.  I busy myself about the fire in silence for a few more moments until fatigue overtakes me, and I pull the skin over my torso as I lay on the ground, staring up at the starless sky.  For some reason Vargmenni comes to mind, and I am haunted by a phrase from the past.  Mortem disfidare.

Monday, June 6, 2022

#46: Rebirth

I find myself at the top of the ledge alone, standing in the dark, breathing heavily from exertion.  It is the first moment that I’m able to pause and take stock of my situation, my physical condition, and the weight of my predicament threatens to crush me.  The air is cold, and early symptoms of hypothermia and exhaustion begin to settle in.  Beyond that, I am alive with knife in hand.  I need to start moving.

I sink to my knees, half from exhaustion and half from a desire to construct a reality.  Mental images of what I might find, what I hope or perhaps fear to find, cloud my judgment.  Remembering the ledge as it was before my death, instead of feeling my way in the black towards the cave exit as I should, I crawl in the opposite direction to where the bridge should exist.  Curiosity and desperation threaten to guide my movements.  Long minutes pass, my chest pressed against the cold stone of the cavern floor, arms out feeling for the ledge, for any sign of danger.  Despite my efforts, I learn nothing more about my environment, swimming in a black, featureless sea of rocks.

Not allowing desperation to overtake me, I pause for several breaths, grounding myself.  Survival instincts begin settle in, and I rely on my other senses, heightened by my lack of sight, to get a feel for my environment, seeking any familiar or unfamiliar scents, sounds, or flow of air.  The low slap of water against stone at the base of the cavern is all I can hear, and nothing registers to my other senses.  I need to keep moving.

Using the rim of the ledge as my guide, I turn around and crawl the other direction, seeking exit from the cavern.  The darkness is disorienting, even crawling on my stomach, but my heart nearly leaps when I discover the flat cavern wall and nearby, a cramped crawlspace.  It is perhaps small compared to what I expected to find but losing my ability to control myself I begin to scramble quickly, desperate for signs of light or exit to the cave.  My memories of the shaft are unclear, clouded by all that has happened.

Yes, it’s a word.
It is a struggle to get through the shaft, and I must will myself forward, arms and legs straining to win a few inches of progress at a time.  Several minutes pass, my progress slow and arduous.  Despite the chill of the cavern, I am dripping with sweat from exertion.  My escape is interrupted by a protruding stalagnate in the middle of the shaft spanning the full height of the crawlspace, blocking my way as prison bars would.  There is not enough room to flip to my back to attempt to kick through the obstruction, and I try to hold off panic as I evaluate my options.

I search desperately for a stone to try and bludgeon the pillar, not wanting to risk the hilt of my knife, but the rocks I use crumble against the obstacle.  I throw an arm and shoulder through the gap, desperate to fit through an opening too small for my upper body.  My shoulders are simply too large to fit, but I try push through anyway, too stubborn and too desperate to give up.  I exhale sharply to collapse my lungs, pushing and pulling with all my might.  I scream out in pain as my joints threaten to dislocate and as my flesh is rent by the rough stone.  With one final push, the largest part of my torso slips through and I nearly pass out from the effort.

It takes a while to shake off the daze before I return to the fight for my freedom, not knowing if freedom even lies beyond the pillar of stone.  I pull the lower half of my body through and return to crawling on my chest.  Minutes pass—how many, it is impossible to tell.  The darkness seems to distort time.  Finally, I emerge into another cave. 

There is dim light ahead, not bright but enough to provide definition where there should be nothing but black.  Refusing to entertain that it’s a hallucination, I crawl forward.  My crawl turns to a crouch as the cavern expands, then to an awkward gait until I’m finally able to stand at full height.  Natural light is perceptible at the end of the cave, but it is dark—either twilight or early dawn, and though desperate to learn more of my surroundings I compose myself, controlling my breaths before walking forward quietly.

My senses perceive no threat, no hint of woodsmoke on the wind from a nearby campfire or noise from a potential enemy.  Only a chill wind carrying a light dusting of snow.  Peering outside, I find the natural ledge of rock I expect to find, confirming with a high degree of likelihood that this is the cave where I died—though where I am in respect to time is yet a mystery.

If I am correct and my memory sound, it is two day’s travel to Fireshear.  With no supplies other than water provided by melting snow, I evaluate my resources and options available.  Whether Nobanion will answer appeals for divine magic is as of yet untested, and I had hoped not to rely on it so soon.  Lacking proper clothing to prevent exposure, I step out into the cold, fall to my knees, and appeal to Nobanion for aid.

I settle into a meditative state, seeking the familiar contact I expect to find from my deity, unsure how it may differ from my prayers to Malar.  Trying to consciously avoid thinking of Malar brings him to mind nonetheless, and I struggle to clear my head and focus on my new pronouncement of faith to the King of Beasts.  An unfamiliar sensation washes over me, that of shedding spiritual soil as I separate myself from Malar, and a new presence is felt.  It is bestial, though in a purer, less malevolent form, and when my trance breaks, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  Nevertheless, I resign not to test Nobanion’s grace, and to rely on my own strength as long as I am able.  “What is faith, if I don’t test it?” I grumble to myself, starting to climb down the ledge into the elements, into the cold night, committing everything to Nobanion’s will.  Only when I am not physically able to go forward any more on my own endurance will I reach out for his strength.

I examine the ledge for anything that might aid in my descent, ropes or ladders leading to the ledge, but find nothing.  I recall mine carts that were on the ground below, but if they ever existed, there is no sign of them now.  There are no clear paths down, but after climbing up from my death below the cave, I will not let this descent be the end of my story.  Despite the dark and wet conditions, abundant handholds are present and I’m able to scramble to the bottom of the ledge with only a few bumps or bruises.  With little more than a vague indication of what direction Fireshear lies, I begin my journey.

There is but a single trail, if it can be called that, that is traversable at all.  I am given hope by the sun peaking over the horizon to the east, heralding the dawn.  The sun’s warmth will be a welcome boon, though there is still much danger of exposure in this rugged environment.  I’ve been in this situation before, when first cast out from the beast cults, and survived, and that at least is comforting.

Little of my environment is familiar.  When last I traversed these paths it was in the company of a guide and large group of people.  I head south and east as best I can, following what paths present themselves.  That I continue to sweat is encouraging, and I stop only to grab handfuls of snow to keep hydrated.  I descend into a primal state, relying on instinct to remain on target.

A set of deer tracks converge on my path, perhaps a game trail, as the terrain begins to level and slopes fade into open land.  Snow has collected on the ground, not enough to slow my travel, though enough to reveal signs of nature or any recent passage.  Encouraged by this, I continue to follow the tracks.  The trail bends several times, following what appears to be the easiest path through inconsistent terrain.  There are moments of caution when I need to cut through brush, but no other obstacles present as I press through the chill towards my goal.

After some time, I catch glimpse of a shadow ahead, a large form that disappears before I can determine more detail.  I give the potential threat a wide berth, unwilling to risk an encounter that may lead to injury.  I cut across terrain, hoping that I’ll be able to pick up my path again later.  Though I see no signs of the creature, when I near the area where I last saw it cross, it emerges swiftly from cover and starts rushing towards me.  The creature is bipedal, perhaps a man or ogre, much larger than me, and raises a large, bladed weapon as it charges.

In a panic I examine my surroundings, looking for a path that will be more traversable by someone of my size in hopes that I can delay it and escape.  I dart ahead, changing directions seeking favorable paths, but the creature takes a single stride for each two of mine and closes the distance quickly.  My attempts to evade it fail.  In brief glances stolen over my shoulder, it seems more a man than an ogre or giant. 

The leafless trees and rocky terrain provide little in the way of advantage, though ahead I see a pair of boulders that narrow into a funnel, which seems like my best chance at a defensible position.  As expected, he closes distance fast but not before I reach the boulders and draw my knife.  “One of our lives does not have to end here,” I shout in an attempt to parley and avoid combat.

The large man stops suddenly, holding his bladed cudgel in front of him in a defensive, warding gesture.  His eyes are gray, the color of the sky, and he wears layered hides suitable for the environment.  He is hardly breathing heavily where I am nearly ready to collapse from exhaustion.

“I am not your enemy, but you will not take me easily.”  I pause for a reaction, clearly overmatched, desperate to avoid a fight.  He makes no sign of recognition, instead holding his cudgel out and pointing it silently in the direction I was headed.  I make a few cautious steps in that direction, lowering my blade, in the hopes that my life will be spared.

“Are you letting me go?” I ask suspiciously, backing away from him and heading in the way he is pointing.  He follows me, step for step, uncomfortably close.  Curious, I ask his name, not knowing if he comprehends or has the ability to respond.  It seems clear he can hear me, but voices no response.

On a hunch, I utter a few words that I recall from the language of the barbarian Anaithnid.  Whether or not he comprehends I am unsure, but he elicits a few guttural words in response that are unintelligible.  He points again with his club, so I continue in that direction, always keeping him in front of me or to my side.

He makes an expression I could almost mistake for a smirk.  I accept his smugness or derision, letting him guide the way, careful not to turn my back to him.  We proceed along the trail in silence, and I can’t help but feel slightly emasculated by the immense warrior.  The effects of cold and hunger begin to set in fully, and even at my new companion’s normal walking pace I have to strain to keep up.  We wind through unfamiliar terrain for nearly an hour before finally he stops.

I put a few more steps between us cautiously as he looks to the ground—more deer tracks are present, and these are erratic, the snow making them easy to see and follow.  It is as if the deer were feeding or gathering before separating in different directions, as if they ran off in a panic.  The man looks up at me, pointing his cudgel between the forked tracks.

“Are you coming with me?” I ask, not expecting an answer.  His unwavering stare is his only response.  I make a few cautious steps in that direction, and he makes to follow.

“Hope you know where we’re going, because even if you don’t kill me, this cold eventually will.”  I eye his layered hides enviously, but decide to press ahead without another word, continuing my travel with the stranger.

The sun starts to set, the day seeming to pass too quickly, hinting that the winter season might be coming or already upon us.  With the night will come deeper cold, and without shelter it is unlikely I will make it through.  We approach a small ridge, and beyond it is visible a cluster of boulders or menhirs in a small circle at the top of the hill.

There are no lights ahead or hint of smoke on the wind, but it looks as though there may be a person outfitted in traveling clothes and leathers standing among the stones.  “Friend of yours?” I ask, not expecting an answer.  There is a scattering of debris on the ground within the stone circle where even the snow seems unable to penetrate.  My large companion gazes ahead, poking his cudgel the direction of the man, uttering “heucuva.”

It’s the first time that anything resembling speech comes from my new friend, and for the first time since my rebirth, I smile.  “So now you’re talkative.  Let’s go introduce ourselves.” I stumble up the rocky hill as best I can.

The figure stands idly as we approach, motionless and expressionless.  There’s no reason any of this should be here, and I’m curious to understand what’s going on.  The faces of the ringed stones are etched with glyphs or runes, but I can’t make much of it.  It is then that I notice the ground surrounding the stones is barren of snow, littered instead with rocks, sticks and other debris.  I peer at the stones, trying to make some magical sense of them.

The runes are etched clearly and deeply in the stone, reminiscent of runes used by the dwarves of Mirabar.  I search the runes for signs of similarity to those discovered in Moonglow Cave or Oldkeep, though if there is any resemblance, it is slim.

“Is it safe to enter?” I ask the new stranger, curious to see if he’ll understand or respond.  My large companion strides forward into the circle, raising his cudgel toward the new stranger repeating the word “heucuva,” this time in a seemingly more serious stone.  The stranger makes no response.

The debris on the ground, upon closer inspection, appears to be shards of bone—when I look up at the new stranger to discern more about him, his appearance is changed.  A hooded figure with a skeletal visage has replaced the stranger, and lunges at the barbarian.

In an instant, I throw myself at the creature, attempting to foul its charge.  I am faster, interposing myself between the creature and the barbarian.  No contact is made, and instead the creature stumbles backwards hissing and clawing, almost as if it’s repelled by my presence.  I hold my knife in front of me, keeping myself between it and the barbarian.  I steal a glance to see the barbarian’s surprise—whatever he expected to happen, it was clearly not this.

When it’s evident that the creature won’t approach me, for whatever reason, my companion stoops to the ground and starts picking through the bones.  He grabs a leather pouch from the morbid debris, mutters “heucuva” again, this time with disgust in his tone, and begins to slowly withdraw from the circle.  I keep myself between him and the creature, slowly backing away.

While we escape the circle, the undead creature remains, seemingly trapped within the ring of stones.  My companion begins walking back the way we came, gesturing for me to follow.  We distance ourselves from the circle, only pausing for the barbarian to sneer one last time and repeat the word “heucuva” disdainfully.  My exhaustion is apparent, and I am on the brink of unconsciousness from exposure.  Unsure if my new companion acknowledges this or cares, I follow in the dark by instinct alone, putting one frozen boot in front of the other in silence, my breaths becoming shallow, my steps unsteady.

We reach a plateau, and the man begins to gather wood for a fire.  I am too weak to even offer help.  He looks me in the eyes, thumping his chest and uttering a single word, “Aros.”  It appears to be this massive barbarian’s name.

On the brink of collapse, I weakly pound my own chest, responding “Zeb” before letting darkness and cold overtake me.

Paths diverged (the future of D&D)

A few years back, I wrote about my long-term vision for D&D in this post. As I reimmerse myself in the game after some time away, and after having spent many, many hours reflecting on settings, homebrew vs. published worlds, and previous campaigns prior to launching with Phelan, Khadhras, and Ged, I finally feel a true framework for my future DM endeavors beginning to unfold.

For months (even years), I’ve been at odds with the ideas of building out my own world vs. giving up the massive investments I’ve made (and continue to make) in Forgotten Realms (and, to a lesser extent, Ravenloft). Though it’s early, I’ve started to bridge these opposing forces in the High Forest campaign, while also stirring the longevity cauldron by forging a path with Jason to further Zeb’s legacy. I don’t want these efforts to be mutually exclusive, nor do I want either of them to prevent me from executing on other D&D initiatives that I’ve placed on the backburner for so long.

In short, just because I’m actively working on a particular D&D project doesn’t mean that other campaigns should retire, will retire, aren’t “canon” within the space I run, or won’t be allowed to come to fruition. This isn’t a complex idea, but it’s something I’ve had difficulty believing and coming to terms with. Kicking off the latest 1:1 track with Zeb* has been an essential catalyst: our content is too good, too deep, too historied to not continue on with for as long as we want it to go. But neither should the greatness of Zeb’s story preclude other arcs from being played, nor other worlds from being developed for the long term.

The missing piece that I’ve talked about for years is a gritty, in-person AD&D game in the spirit of “halflings vs. ogres” (maybe even using Basic Fantasy!) that pulls hard on the simulationist strings. This would almost certainly not be in Realms, and when the time is right for such a game to begin, I’m not going to defer it because it would spell the end for Zeb, Phelan, Khadhras, or Ged... because it won’t.

Rather, what I see myself doing is having a few separate, ongoing DM tracks. They may not all move quickly, and each may wax and wane based on real-world happenings and where I’m most keen to invest at a given time. We’re all adults with families, jobs, and responsibilities, after all. In truth, I’ve already started down this road, but I think it’s important to disclaim it going forward, lest any players start to feel that their current campaign is in its death throes or that there won’t be additional opportunities to get involved in games I decide to run.

This post is little more than an introspective exercise for me to look back on later. When I think about D&D games that have been running for 40 years, the work of Erikson/Esslemont, Alexis Smolensk, and others, the value in history, consistency, richness, and depth is abundantly clear, and something I want to continue to strive for over time. It won’t be achieved by throwing away my last 20 years of DMing and starting from scratch, nor by failing to forge new paths into new endeavors and even new worlds for fear of losing all that's come before. The key is for it all to be interconnected in some way, even if subtle—as this is what will enable the web of time and space within and between campaigns to expand as the years go on.

* By the way, I know I wrote in the “Longevity” post that “If a PC dies based on dice rolls, I’m not going to intervene.” And, to be fair, I didn’t. The TPK happened and we moved on, started a new campaign arc with different characters. The party and campaign as we knew them were no more. In a high fantasy setting, though, with gods, magic, and other preternatural forces directly involved, I don’t feel in the wrong for having left a door open for Jason (or Sean, though he elected to close it). Zeb’s “rebirth” has come at great personal cost (both story and mechanical) and allows us to continue chronicling an epic character in an organic and nondisruptive way. Know that I didn’t take this decision lightly, and nothing short of the monumental set of circumstances surrounding these events would have allowed it to occur. If anyone believes otherwise, feel free to throw your current character in front of a raging orc horde and see what happens. :) 

Friday, June 3, 2022

The Hunted

The Beastlord stalked amid the ocean of departed souls, seeking his prize. Wading in the tide of spiritual essence, unfathomably powerful claws sifted through that which once was, and that which had yet to be. 

Malar found his quarry, feebly bound to the former champion of Mystra, the tethers loosening, dissipating to nothingness.

As if they’d never been.

The Black-Blooded One bore down upon his subject, the Beastlord’s closeness demanding fealty, submission, acquiescence.

What it found was… betrayal.

“The Hunter becomes the Hunted,” a guttural call resonated behind him. The Beastlord turned to face his adversary, his near-equal in stature and power, whose primal utterance crescendoed to a godly roar.

Malar was not amused.

“A priest, abandoned his god at the hour of death—”

Nobanion’s voice was calm, baiting. The Beastlord spat.

“I know well what he would become!”

“A soul that serves no master,” Nobanion continued. “The most wasteful of wastes, what before us you have sown.”

Malar snarled, bearing enormous fangs that glistened with the lifeblood of a thousand worlds, poisoned by the Beastlord’s unyielding malice over a thousand eons. Sentience swirled around them, goading a battle fought thousands of times before, and yet to be waged as many times and more again.

“Claim the soul, then, Firemane.”

All awaited Nobanion’s reply.

“It is claimed.”

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Ascent

The handholds were slick, wet with moss and algae. It took several attempts to find his grip, then he managed to hoist himself upward, muscular arms and legs unburdened by the heavy pack he was used to carrying. Though his eyes had adjusted to the near-pitch blackness, the rock wall demanded naught but his sense of touch to aid his climb.

His senses left him entirely, ere he became innately aware of a wolf. Circling. Then another. Another. Silent paws padding across that which was neither earth nor air. Eyes of bright yellow fading to deep crimson.


Zeb came to, one-third of the way up the steep ascent, feeling weightless. Hands and feet continued to move without instruction, fingers clutching the rocks like claws.

Seven wolves in all, circling him in the darkness. But they were not alone. Bipedal figures stalked their footfalls, hooded and robed in shadow. Each brandished the hilt of a rusted knife, the blades outstretched and closing in on their quarry. A wraith to every wolf...


Zeb lulled as he found himself closer to the top of the cliff. The air was thick, stagnant, penetrating his eyes, nose, and throat. Somehow, his limbs continued to climb. He closed his eyes.

The wraiths overtook the wolves in perfect synchronicity. Seven pairs of forms each melded into one, black dissipating into blackness. They were gone and, for a moment, Zeb’s mind was empty. Then, from oblivion emerged a lithe figure with raven hair, adorned with fetishes of feather and bone. She drew forward, her image mirrored on either side. Three women, matching stride for stride, pervading the very depths of Zeb’s soul. Behold. Your destiny dawns.


Zeb awoke, climbing with all his might, feeling again his wet hands and boots as they overcame the impossible, jagged ledge. He crested the top, bringing himself to stand before the trio of keravela witches that he knew haunted his every movement.

And saw nothing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

XP awards for sessions 2-5

Sorry for the long delay in getting this posted. Not a ton of minutiae to review, but a couple key milestones worthy of acknowledging:

  • Eluding the forest bear - 175
  • Escorting “the three” to Aryen’s Hope - 1,000
  • Wolf attack amid the barrows - 650
  • News/company returned from the Deadwalk - 2,000
In total, 3,825 points divided three ways makes for 1,278 each, with Ged also receiving a 10% prime requisite bonus (128 additional points, 1,406 in total). Updated party totals:
  • Khadhras - 1,553
  • Phelan - 1,553
  • Ged - 1,709
With these additions, Ged crosses the threshold for 2nd level and may ascend upon training for two dedicated (in-game) days. Even if we don’t end up playing soon, I didn’t want to let this go any longer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Wolf Dreams

Phelan woke, startled, his hair damp with sweat despite the evening chill.  His heart was racing, his skin cold and clammy—the aftereffects of an adrenaline rush, not unlike that found in battle.  

The dream had followed him ever since that night at the Deadwalk—sanguine, glowing eyes piercing the night, dim though somehow penetrating—an enemy poised to strike, to tear out his throat as it had Pyr’s.  It was stalking his dreams, getting ever closer.  It was hard for Phelan not to worry.  Sleep found Phelan again eventually, though it was fitful, restless.  Time passed.

Phelan startled again, this time nearly waking the mage Khadhras, though no one else seemed disturbed by Phelan’s sudden spasm into wakefulness.  Again he was sweating...but this time the dream was different.  His skin was not cold or clammy—this time he was warm, as if having just finished a run.  

The wolf had once again found his dreams...but this time it was different.  Eyes of clear amber, reflecting the night of the moon—this was not the undead monstrosity that had awakened him each night, this time his companion was natural.  Phelan felt not hunted, but guarded.  His mind was tired, and sleep overtook him again quickly.

Another dream followed, though this time it was a fragmented memory, a scene from Phelan’s past.  No wolf haunted this dream, and Phelan’s surroundings were familiar—the village circle where he grew up, and across from him was his uncle, his breath heavy after a bout of swordplay with his young nephew where Phelan had nearly seized the upper hand.  His uncle looked happy, though his brow was furrowed with recognizable stress, worry.  The moment did not last long.

Nearby, Phelan’s mother emerged from her tent.  Her hair was bedraggled, her skin pale and sickly.  She had been drinking again, this time heavily.  She stumbled into the daylight, ignoring concerned looks of neighbors and passers by.  The doeskin tunic his uncle had made for her was dirty, hanging loose on her where once lithe muscles and curves had filled it.  She did not look well.  She pitched forward, nearly falling, and when she caught herself, she began to meander towards Phelan and his uncle.

Phelan stood, throwing back his sweat-soaked hair, which he had let grow to nearly shoulder length, emulating his uncle.  His mother did not seem impressed.  When she approached, she reeked of alcohol.  Her cheekbones were prominent, her hair dirty.

“You look like your father,” she cursed, the vehemence of her statement catching Phelan off guard and ruining any chance of a pleasant conversation.  His uncle winced, stepping forward to intercede, reaching out an arm to offer her support.

“Don’t you touch me,” she nearly spat, drawing glares from women tending pots and beating rugs in front of their tents nearby.  “Don’t...touch me.”  She reeled from his outstretched arm, giving Phelan one more cold, unapologetic glare before turning away and lurching towards the river to wash herself.

There was silence between Phelan and his uncle then, long and uncomfortable.  Phelan let it linger before speaking.  “She lose a baby again?”

His uncle tensed, taking a step away from Phelan and turning to face him.  “What?” he asked, dumfounded.  “How did you...”

“Everyone knows, don’t be an idiot,” Phelan replied perhaps a little too harshly.  “Everyone knows when you’re arguing.  And everyone knows when you’re not.  It’s a small village.  Most don’t care, the rest were actually hopeful this time that it would happen, that perhaps it would help things.”

Another long silence before his uncle replied.  “And you?  What do you think?”

“It’s none of my business,” Phelan replied, unsure how to respond.  He honestly hadn’t given it much thought.  “Another round?” he asked, hoping to break the tension.

“No,” his uncle said after thinking on it.  “No...I should go see to her.  Perhaps you should...”

“Take a walk?  Disappear for a while?” Phelan interrupted.  “Don’t worry, I had planned on it.”  His uncle was obviously concerned, searching for hurt on Phelan’s face apologetically, and finding none, he smiled—if only a little.

“She’s wrong, you know.”  A pause, and then his uncle continued.  “You’re nothing like your father.”  The lie was evident on his uncle’s face though, and Phelan knew not what to make of it.

* * *

When next Phelan woke, there was no wolf—whether that was for good or ill, Phelan did not know.  Memory of the dream began to fade quickly, as dreams do, but the eyes—brilliant amber in the blackest night—Phelan could not shake the way they made him feel.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Index of the High Forest

Following are links to each session recap from the campaign. Access this post quickly using the “~index” label on the right, or use the “session recaps” label for all recap posts.

#5: The False Prophet

Phelan's rather
"Two sisters, tethered by blood. A poison flows within the vein, borne by the worshipper of a false prophet. Sever the mortal chain to cripple he who would wreak destruction over this forest... and disturbs our eternal rest."

“Nothing good will come of this.”  That comment continues to resonate as Ged communes with the ghostly elven figure.  “And now prophecies and demands,” I mutter to myself quietly, trying hard to feign disinterest.  The heaviness of the surrounding darkness is lost on none as our flickering torches struggle to hold it at bay.  As the elven apparition imparts its final words, it dissipates, solidifying the sense of dread that had started to form in my bowels. 

Ged seems frustrated by the exchange with the spirit, having been provided more questions where we sought answers.  Khadhras seems at a loss for words as well, but there is recognition that we have now stepped fully into something bigger than ourselves, something deeper than perhaps we had meant to become entangled.  The silence is broken by Ailthar, who stands over the bodies of his fallen comrades and begins chanting—the dialect is unfamiliar even compared to his normal, foreign tongue.  While he conducts his rituals, I lend my strength to seeing to the treatment of Ganor’s fallen tracker.  Though leaving our dead in this disturbed glade is perhaps not ideal, we feel it important to provide an honorable ceremony and begin construction of a pyre, assuming that Ailthar will let us knows if he feels it inappropriate for his own fallen friends.

There is a brief exchange between Khadhras and Ailthar, aided by use of the stone, regarding the belongings of Talas.  There is recognition of the arrangement between the two mages, and the gear that Khadhras does not claim is taken by Ailthar.  Ailthar pockets the folded letter along with the bone-hilted dagger and chain, indicating that he’ll return them to Khadhras if the request his made.  Both appear to want to honor Talas’ bequest.

Before separating, Ailthar peers at Khadhras seriously, imparting a final statement.  “In our realm exist sects devoted to Llathlu, the Pale Hand.  These are… impostor priests…”  There is more to the cryptic message, but its meaning is lost on me.  In this land, apparently, Llathlu is referred to as the “false prophet.”  We recall a similar, if indeed not the same name invoked by the witch on the outskirts of Pelanor.  Reference to this being by the elven spirit is too convenient to be coincidence, and already the gears in our heads start turning as we consider an eventual return trip to Pelanor.

“As much as I hate this,” I admit, “this is as good a place as any to set up camp for the night.”  The presence of elven spirits and the burial mounds is unsettling, but perhaps there is some measure of protection provided by them now that we’ve been committed—voluntarily or no—by those very spirits.  The protection, if it exists, is likely not absolute, as the wolves were able to pierce it, but it seems as reasonable as any place to seek rest in the dark forest. 

We set guard nonetheless and do our best to settle in despite our surroundings.  We discuss potential paths forward—revelation of the possible connection between Ailthar, the witch from Pelanor and the elven spirit changes little, at least as far as our patrol of the High Forest is concerned.  Ganor feels it critical that everything transpired this last day is relayed back to Aryen’s Hope, and we are in agreement.

The night passes slowly, passage of time marked by the dwindling crackle of the pyre.  All who are able to achieve sleep do so fitfully and without much in the way of rejuvenation, but our anxiety proves unfounded as the night passes without interruption.  The sun rises, and we hastily break camp and prepare to continue our journey.  Ganor provides the suggestion that we head north, hoping to come upon a game trail that will lead us back to Aryen’s Hope.  The woods are dense as we are far from established trails, and before long we would not easily be able to find our way back to the Deadwalk, let alone Aryen’s Hope.  Fortunately, we have Ged’s keen sense of direction and Ganor’s experience to lean upon.  Ganor, for his part, bears the burden of his fallen comrades, and it affects him visibly as the day wears on.  The others maintain reasonably high spirits.

By late morning the sky is overcast, creating long shadows in the forest.  I stay to the front of our group, doing my best not to interfere with Ganor, but fearful of getting lost should anything befall the tracker.  We encounter no passable trails, struggling for every quarter mile gained.  Our march is halted suddenly as we hear rustling to the east, its source hidden by the shadows.

“Bear?” I whisper, crouching along with the rest of the party, drawing an arrow to my cheek.  As we stop, however, so too does the sound.  I signal for those with bows to remain in what cover they can find, offering myself as volunteer to investigate.  After a few dozen yards, there is another sudden burst of rustling, indicative of someone…or something…fleeing.  Despite the distinct possibility that it’s multiple somethings, even potentially an ambush, I rush into the forest after it, hoping to catch a glimpse of what may have been following us.  In an instant, I have left Ganor and the others behind.

Whatever it is I have given chase to is nearly as fast as I, but I apparently gain a little ground and catch sight of a humanoid figure at the edge of my vision.  Having gotten what I wanted and not wanting to risk my safety any more than I already have, I pursue my quarry no more and turn back to the group.  I encounter Ged, who followed me, and spare a few breaths to explain the situation before we trot back and share the tale.  Ganor grunts, sharing the opinion that we should proceed on high alert.

Ged suggests that we should track our followers, and surprisingly Ganor calls a halt to the group awaiting our disposition on the matter.  The discussion is short, however, before we decide to continue.  We march throughout the rest of the day, passing through a few hilly areas before eventually finding a game trail the trackers feel is recognizable, one that might take us back to Aryen’s Hope.

We decide to camp for the night, taking the time to add a few extra layers of protection to our camp.  We set tripwires to our front and back across the trail, Khadhras supplementing these with caltrops.  Ged stages a tent near one of the tripwires as well, which we plan to leave abandoned throughout the night, hoping that it might draw any attention and give us some awareness of any potential threat.

The first watch is interrupted by the sounds of animal noises in the distance, loud enough to awaken several others from their sleep.  We are already on high alert, so there isn’t much more we can do in the way of preparation, and by the time we have discussed the matter, the noises have subsided.  The watches continue and the remainder of the night passes without incident.

When morning comes, we reclaim the supplies used in our traps and break camp quickly.  Not long after we set off, it begins to rain, and a fatigue both physical and mental begins to set in.  Though the weather hides noise of our passage, so too does it obscure any signs of our followers and of any potential ambush ahead.   Fortunately, by noon the rain begins to subside, though by then we are weary and soaked to the bone.  It is therefore with great relief that we catch sight of Aryen’s Hope.

There is an expected level of commotion as our party returns.  We learn quickly that Aryen’s Hope is safe with no news, and Iphan meets us in the center of camp, eager to hear our tale.  Recognition that we are short multiple companions comes quickly, and his brow furrows in concern.  We describe everything that happened in full, only omitting the potential connection between Llathlu and the strange witch in Pelanor.  Ganor goes so far as to share some of the elven spirit’s words, maintaining the spirit of the words imparted if not full accuracy.  Iphan does not seem to have any revelations on the queer prophecy, though it does nothing to diminish his concern.  We share our intention to return to Pelanor, and Iphan seems to recognize that we may have some purpose and seeks to learn of it.  “Do you plan to return?” he asks.  “And is Ailthar to accompany you?”

Ged is vague and explains that we have unfinished business, but we share our intentions to return once settled.  “We made a promise to Kayd as well,” Ged explains, “and responsibility of it weighs heavily upon us.”  Whether Kayd the younger intends to return to his father is yet undetermined.  When confronted on the matter, Kayd replies, “I truly owe you my life, but can I ask one more favor?  Tell my father that his son is well and that I will return before long.”  We do not ask his motivations—whether it is some affinity or sense of responsibility towards the camp, or by virtue of his relationship with Hinter, both are honorable pursuits.

Iphan’s concern grows—it is as if each piece of news, each occurrence, adds to the grimness of the situation, and the fate of Aryen’s Hope.  “Travel safely and return quickly,” is his eventual stoic response.

When our conversation with Iphan concludes, we ask Ailthar his thoughts.  “I am here to defeat Othal,” he responds, “and prevent an evil incursion upon this land.”  He is resolute in his attention to accompany us to Pelanor.  Ged asks Ailthar about the “Llathlu healer” and the event we witnessed.  He shares what he knows, that they are more a plague than a blessing, forming sects in the lands they travel to leech upon those who buy into their fanatical teachings.  “They are a scourge that my world cannot cleanse itself of,” explaining that they are an insidious nuisance at best, and at worst, wont to influence the populace or politics of an area and foment conflict.

That there could be others aside from Othal himself in this realm was not a topic discussed between Ailthar, Talas, and Pyr—and we are all curious to learn more about this Llathlu healer’s presence, and how she came to be here as well.

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.