Wednesday, December 26, 2018

#16: The Anaithnid

“You’ve shared a ghost story with us, Oreiron, now I’ve one to share with you.”  Once we return to the safety of the campfire, I lay out the tale of the events in Shadfeld, only this time we don’t exclude the part with Kezia and the reading.  Bonie seems surprised by the revelation, but not offended.  More taken aback by the queerness.  “We all have our secrets,” she admits.  Oreiron has never heard of anything like it, nor anything that provides any more insight into the situation, and they both seem content to try and comprehend the story and any meaning the encounter may have.

I explain the meaning of some of the cards to Selben—relating the Beast to Carcerus, the Traitor to Korvich—explaining that the rest of the cards are, as of yet, puzzles to be discovered.  I’m curious to see if he has any reaction.  Selben picks up the Necromancer card, staring at it intently and shaking of what appears to be a moment of weakness or confusion, as if he has some attachment to the card.  I quickly shuffle the cards into a pile to ease the tension.

After an awkward silence, we resume our watches, though I can’t help but shake a lingering desire to run into the woods at night in the hopes that he finds Kezia’s progeny once again.  The forest remains silent the remainder of the evening, as if nothing had happened.

When we awaken, it’s to our discovery that Bonie is no longer among us.  We call out and she returns to camp, bearing a spent torch.  “They weren’t ghosts, they were real.”  Apparently, she has been carrying out the exploration that has been nagging me all night.  Behind her, in the Lurkwood beyond to the east, a plume of smoke rises from a hill.  “Come look, it’s not far."

We crest the hill, in the same direction of our journey the previous night.  From atop the hill, the vantage point is fantastic, granting miles of visibility.  East of the hill, there appears to be a bonfire plume.  I join Bonie with Selben, looking back to Audric and Oreiron. “You coming?"

We traverse the wood towards the plume of smoke, reaching a small hill where the bonfire is not far beyond.  We decide not to split the party and continue.  Though the trees become denser, most have fallen by this point in the year and visibility is good.  Beyond, we discover a small encampment of several crude tents with figures moving about.  None appear to be obviously warriors, several are women or older folk, so we approach.

One has red hair, potentially the Kezia from the night before.  As we get closer, we get the sense that we’re being watched and discover a pair of guards or huntsmen with longbows pointed at us.  They shout something in a language we don’t understand, and I try to defuse the situation.  The men don’t seem to understand, but our shouts are heard by the red-haired woman—it is indeed Kezia.  She explains that we are friends, and bids us to enter the encampment.

There’s perhaps a half-dozen crude tents, all surrounding a large bonfire with a roasting spit, all hastily constructed and obviously signs of a nomadic community.  A large, gruff man emerges from one of the tents, approaching.  I inquire of Kezia his name, and she reveals it to be Crahdorn, leader of their tribe.  There is some disdain evident in her voice.  I ask if there’s any appropriate greeting, but she ignores the question and starts speaking to Crahdorn in the strange language.

“He feels that you have come in answer to our prayer.  We are in need of a healer.”  I explain that Audric and I are instruments of our individual faiths and ask her to lead the way.  She leads us to a crude tent wherein a man lies, one of his legs recently amputated.  He has lesions, apparently from disease as opposed to wounds.  Kezia explains that her tribe had been battling with a vicious tribe of goblinoids, bugbears, over territory in the Lurkwood.  They had been skirmishing with the bugbears throughout the fall, and those that were wounded in the fights are the ones falling victim to the sickness.  They call it maildé nor, the “black rot.”

Kezia’s tribe was split into two groups, the larger seeking the sanctuary of Griffon’s Nest, a far-off place of succor for her people.  The smaller group, Kezia’s, was too weak to catch up and they’ve been stranded in this part of the forest.  Less than a dozen of their original number remains.  The dance in the forest last night was a prayer for strength to rejoin their kin.  She reveals that her brother, leader of the tribe, is with the larger group, leaving Crahdorn as the de facto leader of the remnants.

I ask her how it is that she speaks our language, but no others do—she reveals that she can understand some languages intuitively, without study.  I inquire what her folk call themselves, and she hesitates before answering “The Anaithnid.”  If there is significance in that name, we don’t know it.  Kezia reveals that her clan venerates Uthgar, the Battlefather.  

It is a faith with which I am familiar, sharing many aspects with the parts of Malaran faith that I relate to.  Crahdorn seems anxious for an immediate response, so I challenge his authority, telling him to see to his camp and leave this situation to us.  He stands down, at least for the moment.

From the state of the ill-struck man, Kezia explains that it’s likely he’ll not live for much longer, perhaps a day.  Audric attempts to bring the healing magic provided to him by his goddess Mystra to bear—the man looks refreshed, with a renewed vigor, but it does nothing to combat the advance of the disease and the man is still clearly in pain.  I bring a different spell to bear, testing a blessing of Malar to dispel any evil that may have hold over the man.  I burn a bundle of twigs and grasses, spreading the smoke over the man’s head and lay a hand upon his forehead, but no relief is evident.  Audric attempts a divination to discover if the affect is magical in nature, and it appears that it is not.

We are a granted a day by Crahdorn to rest and recover spells, Audric willing to attempt on more prayer in the morning.  I ask Kezia if she has any more thoughts about our conversation from the previous night.  “Sometimes I have memories of people I’ve never met, and events I was never a part of.”  She reveals that we weren’t one of those memories, but she was nonetheless drawn to us last evening, and again when she saw us upon the hill today.  I feel like there’s some significance to the words but can’t piece together anything meaningful.

Audric is left alone with Kezia, who seems to have more than a passing interest in the warrior.  He asks her how she knew that he carried the ring, or at least how she knew he was in possession of a powerful artifact, but she answers his question with a question of her own, about her great-grandmother Kezia.  Audric relates the tale of our encounter, and Kezia says that her great-grandmother died on the day she was born, and that’s why she bears her name.  “That is not all of hers that I have come to bear.  My great-grandmother had an ability.  Some would call it a gift, others a curse—the gift of sight.”

Around the middle of the day, there’s a commotion in the small community.  One of the women has discovered the rash upon her arm.  Kezia doesn’t think she was wounded, but the woman discovers a small cut on her arm, revealing that she cut herself on a briar when retreating from the hill last night.  “To this point, it has been only men.”  The camp seems shaken by the discovery.

The rest of the day is tense and somewhat sobering.  The camp is very poorly rationed, so I share Maglarosh’s magic spoon, providing plain but filling and healthful sustenance for all in the camp.  Crahdorn seems extremely tense, and focuses his intent on Bonie, regarding her with a sneer.  He says something crude, obviously offensive, in his tongue, and we compel Kezia to translate.  “He told two of his men to bring her to his tent shortly.”

Weapons are drawn hastily, Audric and I but a moment behind Bonie’s own blade, and Crahdorn exits his tent.  Kezia confronts him, saying something incomprehensible and perhaps mystical.  Unsure whether it’s a spell or some other form of compulsion, we ask Kezia for an explanation.  She replies that “Crahdorn says he will not lay a finger on any of our group this night.”  Not convinced at all of Crahdorn’s integrity, I cast what protections I can upon our camp as well as outside Crahdorn’s should his intentions prove contrary to his vow.  Fortunately for all, nothing untoward happens throughout the night.  Audric prepares Mystra’s blessing, one of the most powerful yet the warrior has brought to bear, and we all wait, tense.  The entire camp shares our anxiety and anticipation.

When the spell is cast, there is no visible effect.  Kezia asks what happened, sensing our disappointment, and Audric explains that we’ve done all that we’re capable of doing.  Crahdorn overhears and becomes enraged, barking out more orders, presumably angry at the inefficacy of our help.  He gestures again towards Bonie.  Kezia translates, saying that he demands a sacrifice for our failure, and that we’re to be detained.  We stand, ready to defend ourselves, but two of Crahdorn’s men intervene with bows.

Audric and I immediately bring the wrath of our respective gods to bear.  Not wanting to slay the entire encampment, I inform Kezia that anyone who interferes will die. Whatever Crahdorn’s intentions, they will not come to pass this day.  A wave of rats is summoned forth to attack Crahdorn, gnawing at the exposed part of his lower body.  I freeze the air around his limbs, paralyzing him amid the tumult of voracious rats.  The bowmen, shocked by what’s happening, fire two awkward arrows but they are far from their mark, as if the men are almost afraid to fire.  

We try to calm the rest of the men of the camp, letting them know that we have no desire to hurt anyone else.  “Crahdorn demanded a sacrifice,” we explain, gesturing towards the fallen leader.  I step forward to end Crahdorn’s life, and none bar my way.  I shove a knife through his jaw into his skull, and he crumples immediately.  I reach down and cut a trophy from his belt.  There’s a tense moment of silence as we decide what to do, knowing that the next words carry great importance. “How soon can you be ready to travel?” I ask Kezia, meaning the whole camp.  “We leave to find help for those sick among you.”

“There is still time to save Nurué,” referring to the diseased woman.  “We must hurry.”  Others in camp begin to speak, and Kezia translates.  “They say that you defeated Crahdorn… the tribe is yours now.  You must help me find my brother, in Griffon’s Nest.”

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Map of the lands north of Longsaddle

The villages of Xantharl's Keep and Grunwald lay betwixt the city of Mirabar and the hamlet known as Longsaddle. The safe haven called Griffon's Nest lay somewhere beyond the Lurkwood.

Click to enlarge

Friday, November 30, 2018

#15: Minstrel's Glade

Our rest, thankfully, is undisturbed.  The shadows of Peryton Pass loom behind us, and though we managed to shake the goblins, we are assailed by doubts.  Will Westtower survive the winter without the caravan?  Will authorities in Mirabar hear our tale, and will they react appropriately?  Ultimately, we tend to the matters at hand—caring for Jent’s wounds, seeing to the order of the camp and morale of Erathmar’s men, and planning for our arrival in Mirabar.

Morning, however, presents itself as a shroud of dark, grey clouds in the distance—a sure sign of a coming storm.  Gabrielle is cold and miserable, as is her crying child.  We make what arrangements we can, though when the rain comes, everyone is miserable.  The wagons struggle through muddy patches on the road, and our pace is not great.  Wet blankets do little to warm the men or their spirits.

Ahead, the trail begins to decline, enough that the wagons and men slip and struggle to keep their footing.  Erathmar raises concerns over the condition of the road—should a wagon slide from the road, it could be disastrous—and we are presented with a decision.  Forge ahead with risk, or wait it out in the hopes that the rains will relent.  With no sign of relief from the rain, we decide to risk the first wagon descending.  We all sigh a breath of relief when the driver of the first wagon signals safe passage.

At Audric’s direction, we send everyone down the slope to meet the first wagon before Erathmar and one of his men attempt the second wagon.  For a few long seconds, we hold our breath as the wagon begins to slide in the mud, but over the course of several yards the horses regain their footing and its course is righted, the wagon descending safely.  We decide to press on through the night, and around midnight the terrain begins to level, easing everyone’s labors.

The sun begins to rise on the horizon, and while the rain has let up a bit, it’s still cold, wet and miserable.  I spare a moment to cast a blessing upon Jent’s child, protecting it from the cold and elements for a few hours.  It’s not much, but the blessing of Malar quiets the babe.  Our journey, while hard, is uncontested, and after several hours we reach the tall, imposing stone walls of Mirabar.

We’re hailed by a group of guards who question Erathmar about his business in Mirabar and the group’s travels.  We reveal the fate of the caravan bound to Westtower, and after sharing other news we are granted access to the city.  We find ourselves upon the road leading to Undercity Square, the heart of the citadel.  I ask the guards if there is an authority we should report to regarding the caravan; instead, they let us know that a guard captain will seek us out.  We share our intent to seek accommodations in Undercity Square and make haste to find succor in a warm inn.

The populace is of many races, and the sight of so many dwarves, so many people, and so much bustling energy is a shock after the rustic surroundings of the past several weeks.  Bonie reveals that she has a cottage in the city, left to her by her late parents, and invites us to join her at her home.  We accept our invitation.

Erathmar stays us before we depart, letting us know that our safe arrival is a reasonable conclusion to our arrangement.  Surprisingly, he hands us both a small pouch that contains several chips of gems, bits of ore and other valuable materials as payment for our services.  Audric and I accept, with plans to discuss the distribution of the unexpected windfall later, and part ways with Erathmar and his men, at least for now.  He reveals that they’ll be staying at The Folded Tabard, and we promise to meet up with them again soon.

We arrive at Bonie’s cottage and find it in disrepair.  She laments the condition, letting us know that it will need to be prepared for the winter.  We are surprised by a call of “Bonie!” from across the street, where a young woman emerges and embraces her in a hug.  It’s a side of Bonie we have yet to encounter, and in their greeting the woman’s name is revealed to be Eliza.  They are clearly friends, and though Eliza apparently has business at the moment, they make plans to meet up again later.

I inquire if there’s a place of business to purchase some warm food and drinks, and she sends me and Selben to a nearby purveyor.  We bring back armloads of food, and try to settle in.  The cottage is nothing extraordinary, but it is adorned with several pieces of fine leatherwork.  Bonie tells us that her father was a leatherworker, and apparently one of some talent.  We share a meal and start to discuss plans for the coming days.

We rest like the dead, having spent the last day and a half awake and traveling.  We wake late but meet Bonie with intention to meet her employer, Abbé Lira.  She takes us across town to an aged cottage with a steeply pitched roof where Bonie raps upon a heavy wooden door.  We are greeted by an exotically beautiful woman dressed in lavish robes—Bonie greets her as Kintara.

“I see you have returned,” Kintara says.  “My master will be pleased to know.  Please enter.”  We are led through an antechamber where we wait for Kintara to return.  She leads us into the main chamber with a roaring hearth, where we meet who we presume to be Abbé Lira, though his face is hidden by the cowl of a heavy robe.  We sit, and Bonie begins to relate our tale to Abbé.  After hearing an abbreviated version, from Westtower on from Bonie’s perspective, he asks how he can be of service, and Audric fills in the pieces of Bonie’s story, stretching the history back to Shadfeld, our encounter with Carcerus and the cultists in Carrock, and events since.  Audric goes into a surprising amount of detail, even relating the events surrounding the ring.  At that, Abbé asks to see it, and Audric passes it to him.  Abbé pulls back his cowl, revealing that he’s less than a middle-aged man (likely of Northern bloodline)—surprising, as I expected someone older.  He takes measure of the ring and hands it back to Audric.

“Without fail, your path should lead you to Longsaddle.”  He explains that Audric will find a line of magi there who make study of such items, a family, and that they are the best equipped to help in this endeavor.  Audric questions the integrity of this family of mages, and Abbé provides an explanation that seems to quell any fears of treachery.  The family is called the Harpells—the lands they own comprise the bulk of Longsaddle, which is slightly larger than Carrock.  He instructs Audric to seek out Malchor Harpell, offering to provide us a guide that we might make haste.  Abbé Lira seems rather intent on Audric pursuing this journey soon.

Audric explains Jent’s situation as well, asking if Abbé Lira has some employment or placement for the warrior.  Abbé says he’ll see what he can do.  I take the opportunity to question him—who he is, what his motivations might be.  His answers are cryptic—touching on “helping the citizenry” and pursuing righteous causes, and when pressed, eludes any further explanation.  He seems a maverick, though his disposition towards Bonie and Jent, as well as his seeming forthrightness with Audric make me tend to believe most of what he says regarding his purpose.

The line of questioning seems to make Bonie anxious, and I resist the urge to press Abbé further, so I instead ask her simply if he can be trusted.  Bonie nods, responding “With all my heart, absolutely.”  That’s good enough for me.  We commit to making the journey, but not before Selben’s studies have concluded, and not before I have been able to pursue my own.

Selben and I spend the week cloistered at the inn, studying and copying furiously.  At the end of the endeavor, Selben has remastered the ability to translate the most basic magic, and I have added several potent spells to my arsenal, though not without disappointment as a few spells escape my understanding for now.  The ability to immerse myself in the arcane is a welcome relief from weeks of stress spent worrying about Korvich, Carcerus, and Kezia’s cryptic reading.

We are greeted halfway through our studies by Oreiron, a sturdy dwarf who reveals himself as our guide to Longsaddle, sent by Abbé Lira.  We make plans to leave in the coming days, and Audric pursues business about town.  Bonie reaches out to us a few days before our departure, explaining that Mirabar holds little interest for her—she offers to accompany us, and we are glad to have her sword and company in our troupe once again.

On the day of our departure, we gather in Undercity Square and make our final preparations.  Our confidence is high—the days of rest, study and preparation have instilled a positive vibe, and we are excited to leave for Longsaddle.  I hope that Audric can find peace among the Harpells, and that we find solutions to the mystery of the ring.

The first day of our trip is uneventful; the travel is easy compared to Peryton Pass.  We make camp for the night, splitting shifts, and Oreiron offers to tell us a tale of the “Minstrel’s Glade”:

“‘Twas named after a minstrel travelin' this same road. Went missin from ‘is friends an’ turned up along the trail a week later, killed by spirits: hanged from mid-air without ropes... with his ‘ands burned off ‘an ‘is balls ripped out. Not a vision for the faint o’ heart, my apologies, lass. ...I was but a wee dwarf when they coined the place, nearly a hunnerd years ago now. ‘Tis on dark, cold nights like this that ye hear the witches’ wailing oer the chill o the wind...

I take the opportunity after his tale to get to know Oreiron a bit.  While he is an employee of Abbé Lira, he also shares Abbé’s care for the community, and seems to like serving as a guide for causes he deems worthwhile.

After Audric awakens me for my watch, while the warrior is still awake, we are disturbed by a lulling, melancholy tune that drifts through the darkness of the woods beyond.  My instinct—after determining that it’s not a joke being played by Audric—is to immediately wake the others.  Oreiron, upon hearing the melody, immediately believes it to be the witches from his tale.  For someone who didn’t seem spiritual a few moments earlier, he seems legitimately fearful now.

Audric seems interested in examining the source of the melody, curious that it might be related to his situation with Mystra but doesn’t seem completely convinced.  He explains that he’s hearing voices in his head compelling him to come.  As I can certainly relate to fickle gods using questionable methods to prove a point, we decide to investigate, especially since Bonie seems eager to investigate it herself.  Oreiron reluctantly agrees to follow.

We push through the light woods in the dark and come upon a series of lights in the distance, questioning the intelligence of our pursuit, but ultimately it is Bonie’s curiosity that wins out, and we decide to continue.  When we get closer, the lights are revealed to be a group of humanoid women in luminous silks—clearly inappropriate garb for the temperature—and Bonie says that they’re not witches, but druids.”  I cast a blessing on Audric, who volunteers to go ahead in answer to the voices in his head, and when he approaches the song stops abruptly.

“We weren’t meant to see this,” Oreiron mutters behind us.  The forms disperse, all except for one of them that appears just ahead of us, brandishing a burning torch.  Her hair is red, deepened by the light cast from her torch, and her eyes blue.  Her face bears a striking resemblance to Kezia, even if everything else seems out of place.

“Who are you?” she asks Audric, to which the holy warrior stutters out his name in reply.  She circles us, almost out of curiosity, taking Audric by the hand, the hand which bears the magical ring.  She warns Audric:

Zeb's Marionette
“You harbor a powerful, dark magic! He wishes you to fight, nay, to kill, that he may return! He will possess you, body and soul!”  On a hunch, I reveal my crude Tarrokka deck, holding up the Marionette card, wondering if the elusive “he” she is referring to may trigger some recognition.  It seems to register, but not clearly, and when I start to lay out the rest of Kezia’s reading it becomes clear that I’m not making any sense.

She speaks to Audric, “What you are seeking eludes you, even as you search.  Your eyes are blind to its passage.”  

“To what’s passage?” Audric asks, but the question goes unanswered.

She turns one last time to look at me, a wistful look in her eye.  “My great-grandmother once used cards like the ones that you have.  She died many years ago.”

“Kezia?” I ask.

“That is my name,” she replies inquisitively.  “How did you know?  I was named after her.”

One of the other figures rushes forth and grasps Kezia’s arm, pulling her into the woods.  I cry out, “Wait, we met Kezia.  We met your great-grandmother!”  Kezia is forced away, and they disappear into the woods.  I rush to follow, but Audric holds me back, throwing words that were said to him early that day back into my face.  “You shouldn’t rush off into he woods alone at night, it’s dangerous.  There might be bears.”  I fail to find the humor in it this time, however, more curious than ever about the nature of Kezia, her reading, and now her apparent great-granddaughter who bears the same name.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

#14: Peryton Pass

We awaken in the morning to find frost on the rooftops of Westtower.  The weather is chill, but not unseasonably so—it punctuates, however, our desire to leave the wildlands and arrive in Mirabar.  Bonie’s revelations are no comfort; several options lie before us, but Falinor somehow discovering our plan seems almost a foregone conclusion.  As such, my prayers to the Beastlord have a tone of urgency.

We share our potential options with Erathmar.  The merchant, to his credit, is on board with Jent’s desire to leave Westtower, and is supportive of what we all think is the just and right course of action.  We determine that smuggling Jent, his wife, and their child is the safest way to proceed; at least in that case, there’s a chance that Jent’s absence goes unnoticed and we depart without conflict, for we are all agreed that Falinor will surely resist if we pursue our plan openly.

We plan to depart the next morning, trying as hard as possible to emulate a normal departure.  Erathmar lets us know that he would usually leave before the sun rises, so we make arrangements for Bonie to meet Jent and his family, and to smuggle them into the wagons while we make preparations, hoping that the general chaos of our departure screens their approach.

On our last day in Westtower, Audric stops to see Shandar to thank him for what help he was able to provide, and the priest of Lathander asks that, if we see the last caravan due to arrive from Mirabar, we share the town’s dire need for supplies.  We consent to do so, and part in peace.  As a last matter of business, we decide to share our plans to depart with Falinor and catch up with him the previous night.

“Twenty-seven.  That is the number of men that have died here since the beast men attacked.  Your aid at the waterfall was certainly very much appreciated.  We could use a few more able bodies like yourselves throughout the winter.  Will you not consider extending your stay?”  Audric responds, saying that he answers Mystra’s calling, and that it renders our desires in the matter moot.  Inside, I applaud Audric’s ability to deceive without overt duplicity.  We offer to deliver a message to Mirabar, but his reply—odd, and somewhat ominous—is that his own manner of communication is sufficient.  We leave the discussion at that, with Falinor seemingly disappointed in our decision.

Bonie shares that she also harbored fears that Falinor may have tried to detain her, as well.  Though her contract with Falinor is over, she still worries that he would try to keep her here, given the town’s dire circumstances.

The night passes restlessly, as anticipation of the morning’s plan weighs heavy on my thoughts.  Jent and his family are smuggled into the wagons successfully, Jent’s wife working to keep her infant quiet.  According to the plan, I draw upon Malar’s blessing to curtain the wagon in silence, and our escape from Westtower—at least so far—is uncontested.

Once we put some distance between us and Westtower, we give Jent consent to rejoin his wife and child.  His wife’s name is Gabrielle, and their child Einin.  They share their thanks, and for the moment at least, there is a lightness and joy to the group that has not been felt for some time.

The trail is hard but not overly so, the weather chill but not punishing.  We travel a hard day, nearly twelve hours, eventually reaching the foothills.  We decide to break for camp, and the conversation turns to Peryton Pass and how we plan to make our passage.  We share what knowledge we know of the Pass’s namesake.  Peryton are intelligent, malicious creatures that are known to attack men and feast upon their hearts.  They operate in the daylight, which seems odd for such a creature, and sometimes in small packs.  The most prudent path, assuming that the moon and weather allow, is to travel as much as we can during the night, in hopes that a confrontation can be avoided.

We prepare our camp, placing defenses both along the path we came—in the case that Falinor sends men after us—as well as further along the road, in the case of some enemy from that direction.  One of the watches is disrupted by a scream in the night—perhaps the cry of an animal or some other beast, but far off, a mile or more—but besides raising the collected hairs on the backs of our necks, nothing else occurs.

We decide to split our second day of travel, half during the day, then resting until sundown and continuing our ascent into the night in the hopes that we avoid peryton and other threats.  The incline is unforgiving, and by the time we break for the morning, we are all exhausted.  As we wait for nightfall, Audric uses the opportunity to get to know Jent.  Jent doesn’t have solid long-term plans, but he doesn’t see himself pursuing the life of a soldier.  Perhaps he’ll find work as a smithy’s apprentice or some such but caring for his family is his primary goal.  Bonie feels sympathy for the man’s decisions and desire to care for his own, and shares that she may have a contact that can help Jent out.

I seize the opportunity to push Bonie on her contact, as we have left the matter untouched until now.  She reveals that he is the Abbé Lira, an abbot who keeps residence in Mirabar.  He is not a political figure or member of any known organization, he’s more an independent operator.  Audric questions his title of abbot and asks what his fealty may be, wondering if he is associated with a church or priesthood but she reveals that she doesn’t actually know.  His intentions, however, seem to lean towards good more than all else, helping those that need helped, so she and Larimo never had need to question his motivations.  Their trust in Abbé Lira is enough for me, and Bonie agrees to arrange a meeting for me and Audric.

We pick up our journey at sundown, preparing for a vigorous ascent.  We wind around mountain trails, blessed by a strong moon to illuminate our path.  It reveals a mangled heap ahead, perhaps twenty feet from the trail.  As we approach, the scent nearly overwhelms us, and we begin to make out horrifying details—a wrecked wagon, slaughtered horses, and what appears to be a mangled corpse.  Almost certainly, this is the caravan bound for Westtower.

The corpse is revealed to be that of a dwarf.  Scattered about are blankets, hides, tools—and to the best of our ability, we determine that the wagon toppled from the path above.  Erathmar and his men spare a few precious minutes to load what can be salvaged onto his wagons, and we continue our ascent.  We get to the ridge where we believe the wagon may have fallen from—there we find mounds of loose dirt, and around them are drawn the symbol of an anvil and hammer.  We assume these to be dwarven graves, which hint at a potential survivor or survivors.

Besides the grave, there is only one area perhaps fifty feet from the trail where a cave or alcove may lie.  We spur the wagons on while Audric and I investigate.  It is indeed a shallow alcove and lying in the back of it are several unmoving forms.  There are two more dwarven corpses, one of which has a recently amputated leg.  The other is mutilated, but both seem to have been cared for, their wounds mended.  We leave the alcove, but before we can rejoin the caravan, we hear screams.  On the rock faces, we can see several attackers—goblinoids with eyes that glow in the moonlight.

With sword, spell, and arrow we seek to drive off the foes, but they approach from several angles, dividing our response.  I am able to buy some time against one of the groups of goblins, but not before Jent is felled by several of the creatures.  Fortunately, Audric brings one of his conjurations to bear, resulting in an opposing pack of hobgoblins—larger, meaner kin to the smaller goblins—that fights on our side.

While Erathmar and his men see that the horses don’t bolt, we rally and manage to drive the foes off into the night.  Bonie shares that goblins are not known to inhabit the pass—given how strategic the placement of this pass is, and that the other caravan was also attacked by goblins, she thinks this could be a bigger strategic move to isolate the Khedrun Valley.  Whether this is pure speculation or if it has some root in truth we know not, but Mirabar needs to know, in any case, as the goblins we’ve encountered so far seem to possess more intelligence than usually evidenced by such creatures.  We travel the rest of the night safely until sunrise, where we break for a rest.

DM's note: The goblins bear the following mark upon their foreheads, drawn in a primitive war paint. The symbol is unfamiliar.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Secret Travelers

It was a cold morning in West Tower, though the frost coating the rooftops would vanish well before highsun. Bonie's nimble feet padded silently from the lodge where she'd slept, finding Audric and Zeb alone in the village, the pair having just convened with Erathmar to ensure that preparations to depart remained on schedule.

The girl wore her customary dark leathers and roan overcloak. Her blond hair, as always, was tied back, her longsword sheathed at her side. Sapphire eyes bore into her companions with urgency. She spoke to them in whispers.

"Jent and his family must accompany us to Mirabar: the man, his wife, and their babe, an infant. No one but the merchant can know."

In-character replies are welcome.

Friday, October 26, 2018

#13: West Tower

Departing Shadfeld, we travel for the better part of a day under reasonable weather towards Westtower.  We estimate the trip will take 3-4 days of cautious travel, for caution—being far enough away now from Carrock that an expeditious return isn’t possible—is now our primary goal.

Several mountain passes lie between us and our goal, making travel treacherous at times, and at times the road, such that it is, leads us far away from the guidance of the River Mirar.  Bonie, on her trip from Westtower to Shadfeld, encountered no trouble with Larimo—we hope to share their luck on this return leg of the journey.  At the end of our first day, we find a place to camp and go about the routine of breaking down the wagons and preparing for first watch.  Fortunately, the night passes uneventfully.

Our routine continues through the next morning, though near the end of morning we hear a very large crack towards the rear of the train. Perhaps even more ominous than any threat from goblins or cultists, we witness the shattered wheel of one of our wagons, having struck a large rock in the road.  A decision point has been reached—abandon the wagon, or come up with a more creative, constructive plan.  Erathmar seems unhappy about the prospect of abandoning the wagon, so we scavenge to see what tools we have at our disposal.

Ultimately, the decision is made to try and salvage the wagon.  Weight is redistributed to reduce the burden on the broken wagon, some of Erathmar’s men consent to walking as opposed to riding full time, and we try to move one of the good front wheels to the rear, hoping that three will be enough to carry the lightened load.  Selben, for the short term, will abandon his daily studies to make room available on the remaining good wagon so that everyone can rotate in as a rider.  We lose half a day dealing with the fallout of the broken wheel, but the repair seems reasonable, and our pace is only slightly slowed.

Another night passes uneventfully, and the wagons fortunately seem to be holding up.  Travel continues such throughout our fifth day since departing Carrock, and upon reassessing our goods, we recognize that the slowed pace has taken its toll upon our rations.  We believe this to be our last day upon the road, and prepare for Westtower.

Westtower itself is small—perhaps a dozen structures in total, guarded by a tall watchpost.  The rest are small huts and dwellings, and one of these serves as an unnamed inn.  Several dozen died in the attack by Carcerus and his men, perhaps as many as a third of the total population, so we’re not sure what kind of welcome to expect or what hospitality we’ll find.  Westtower’s leader is a militant type, a half-elf named Falinor Daggercross, and upon questioning Bonie about the town and its inhabitants, she reveals that we should seek out the resident cleric, named Shandar Evensbane, a priest of the Morninglord Lathander, who we learn was friendly with Larimo.

Falinor was installed by Mirabar to head the remote outpost, having been the founder and operator of a mercenary group called the Free Company.  He bears a wicked scar on his face, the source of which is not spoken about by those in town.

As dusk approaches, we see the beacon of Westtower’s watchpost in the distance.  We cautiously light torches and lanterns so that our approach will be noticed, not wanting to test Westtower’s defenses after so recent a devastating attack.  We can see townsfolk in the distance, which is a welcome relief.  At a quarter mile distance, we hear a horn call, and we see Falinor approach us, surprisingly unaccompanied by other guards.“We sent two men out to follow your departure,” Falinor tells Bonie, “and none returned.  What news?”  We share our story, of finding the two men, and of the creatures that killed them in Shadfeld.  He claims that he has goblinkin problems of his own, and after a brief exchange of news and corroboration of timelines, Falinor invites us to stay in the village.

As we get closer, we can see burn marks, decimated structures, and other reminders of what happened here.  He takes us to one of the largest structures, which resembles a large kitchen, taproom, and hunting lodge.  Perhaps a dozen villagers frequent the establishment, and added to those we see in the streets, we estimate the current population to be less than a hundred.  In a quiet moment, I return the purse of coin harvested from Westtower’s men, letting Falinor know that they were found slain, and that he and his town are certainly in more desperate need of it than us.

After a while, a robed man who we presume to be Shandar approaches, and we share introductions.  We tell him of our dealings with Carcerus, and of all the events surrounding Carrock.  He shares troubles of his own—that the stream that feeds Westtower has unseasonably dried up, heralding trouble for the winter.  He also tells us of a trio of scouts that were dispatched within the past few days.  Only one returned, and at a site named Rolling Death Falls two of the scouts were killed by goblins, after discovering the demise of a treant—Oakenbramble, a protector of the area.  Since the attack on Westtower, everything seems to be turning for the worse.  No one has yet been sent to Mirabar to relay the news, though one last supply caravan is expected from Mirabar with supplies for the winter.

He is not able to cast light upon any of our questions regarding the goblinoid creatures of the night we encountered several times, the strange symbols upon them or the cavern walls we found, nor does he seem surprised when I reveal that the treant’s death seems to align with similar attacks on Damyca in Shadfeld or Maglarosh in Carrock.  The events of the past few weeks, coupled with the mostly dire news we bring, seems to take a toll on the priest’s optimism.

Erathmar returns with news that resupply and repairs should take no more than a day or two, leaving us with time to explore the area should we wish.  After a brief discussion, Audric & I agree to approach Falinor regarding a potential exploration of Rolling Death Falls, and to learn what more he may know about the goblins.  Falinor reveals that the area doesn’t have any recent history with orcs or goblins but has heard that a goblin tribe named the “Spawn of Kreeth” led by a champion named Bolregs has been active around the Spine of the World, and that there may be some relation to the attack on his scouts.  The tribe likely numbers in the hundreds—Falinor doesn’t know if it is this tribe, an offshoot of it, or perhaps an unrelated band, but it seems likely that the Spawn of Kreeth may be rooted in what’s going on around Westtower.

He seems amenable to us exploring the falls and agrees to assign us a guide.  I tell Shandar a little bit about Selben’s history, giving few details but relating the young man’s history of violence and death, and Shandar agrees to watch over him while Audric and I explore the falls.  Bonie agrees to accompany us as well, and we welcome her company.

In the morning, we are met by Falinor and another man, this one bearing a blade, light armor and a bow.  The guide is named Jent, and that he knows the area well.  I let Jent know that I hope he won’t need to rely on his blade or bow—our intent is for a quick and hopefully quiet exploration of the area surrounding Rolling Death Falls.  On the way we share a basic overview of our experiences, lending some credence to our desire to investigate. 

We make our way upstream, navigating the dense surrounding foliage and rocky areas.  When we finally catch sight of Rolling Death Falls, we are somewhat underwhelmed.  Though it’s perhaps 50 feet high, the water flow is poor, and the riverbed is not nearly as deep as it should be at the foot of such a waterfall.  We approach the fall itself—it’s not an easy passage, but it’s not treacherous either, and we are able to traverse the climb fairly easily.  Bonie seems quite nimble on the rocks and offers to ascend first to see what she can find.  We agree, and she quickly returns with news that we should come see something she discovered in the river at the top of the falls.

We see that several trees and logs have been piled to block the river.  The construction is crude, conceivably a construction of the goblins.  The full 20’ width of the river is obstructed, showing that some work was put into the placement of the blockage.  We take cover, hopeful that our approach was unnoticed should there be any guards, and we are rewarded by overhearing goblins nearby in the brush—and apparently, they are searching for us.

6% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Audric distracts one group with a swarm of summoned rats, while Jent, Bonie and I assault a pair of charging goblins with arrow and spell.  We retreat the way we came, leaving what we believe to be at least a half dozen goblins chasing us, though we believe our retreat to be successful.  After several hours, we arrive back in Westtower, a little bruised but intact.

We share news of our findings—the crudely-constructed dam, the goblins operating in the daylight to guard over it—with Falinor and Shandar.  When we retire for the evening, we are faced with a decision—extend our stay in Westtower to further investigate the goblins and their plan, or continue our journey to Mirabar.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The art of preparing to run a session

As a disclaimer, this post is as much for my own future reference as it is for anyone who might be reading (but don't let that stop you...).

Sean and I talk about this topic quite a bit, particularly since he's still relatively new to DMing. How to prepare for a D&D session is something you learn and refine through practice and experience over years of running campaigns. There's no magic formula, and what works for one person may not work for anybody else. It's like studying for an exam in that everyone's brain processes and retains information differently, so you have to figure out through experimentation what works best for you. That said, while there aren't any empirical rules, I can still share and document my approach.

Two axes: geographical and temporal

As the prospective DM, whether you're kicking off the inaugural session of a new campaign or continuing to run a party with many notches in its belt, the idea of being accountable to an entire fantasy world can feel extremely daunting. Where do you begin? Do you start by fleshing out local governments, agencies, or dungeons that exist across the countryside, or notable NPCs throughout the region? If you're running a homebrew world, the climb can seem particularly steep, but even in an established setting with a wealth of published material like Forgotten Realms, you may feel like the game world holds you to an impossible standard. (In that case, the first thing to realize is that using a published world should never hurt you more than it helps, and if that's happening you may do well to reconsider your choice. Further musings on that here.)

To the question of where to begin your prep work, my unequivocal answer is "Here and now." The first thing I need to do when faced with a massive decision tree is prune away as many branches as possible to get to what I care about. No one realistically has time to detail every last person, building, and statistic in a game world, so focus on those that carry the most imminent importance. To wit: I don't need to know what will happen in the party's current location six months from now; I also don't need to know what will happen a hundred miles away tomorrow.

These simple assertions drastically reduce the complexity of the problem. I'm not running a campaign where the long-term outcome is already determined, so events unrelated to the party's current time frame or location are of little concern to my next several hours of DMing. This doesn't mean that I completely eschew what may be happening in other areas, but that I need only have a vague notion of those details, and shouldn't make them the focus of my attention since they're unlikely to impact the party over the short term. Having the PCs overhear in a crowded taproom that trolls have begun encroaching on the north border and nearby villages are petitioning for aid is likely to be enough. It's conceivable that the party could take interest in this hook, so I definitely need to be able to convey anything else the local citizenry might know, in addition to accommodating an initiative by the party to set out for the border. That said, I shouldn't prioritize fleshing out this region unless I fully expect the players to take the lead and arrive at the destination. More likely, I'll end up doing this planning several sessions down the road, if ever.

Rather than dive into rabbit holes that may consume hours of planning that I won't use, I want to concern myself most with happenings around the party in an immediate sense, geographically and temporally. If the session is set to open in a town, castle, or dungeon, I need to be well-versed in the ecology of the site: what individuals or populations reside there, how they interact, what sustains/motivates them, and any pressing urgencies to which they're attending. Ecology feels like a greatly undervalued concept in preparing a game; often, too much focus is given to drawing up specific scenes or encounters envisioned in the mind of the DM. While there are instances where this is useful or appropriate, if I truly understand the ecology of the actors in the game world, I should be reasonably well-equipped to adjudicate any situation that arises during the session, even if I need to ad-lib a few names or stop to roll an NPC's hit points or ability scores. If there are individuals for which I suspect these numbers will be needed, I'll roll them up ahead of time.

The further you look down the party's intended path, the fewer details you need to know. If the PCs are embarking on a journey that leads them through a series of towns and villages, I should know the ecology of each settlement at least at a macro level, but I definitely need to more thoroughly immerse myself in the locations the party will spend time in first. Any substantial event, encounter, or distraction has the possibility, based on decisions by the players and whims of the dice, to sidetrack or significantly delay the party's course. I might put a great deal of work into readying myself to run the first village along the road, but the further out I look, the hazier my view becomes. While I might be able to make a confident assumption that the party will arrive in the first village and take part in its dealings, my confidence wanes considerably with each subsequent hop along the journey. The foggier my take on the party's future, the fewer specifics I prepare. This approach serves me in multiple ways: first, I avoid putting time and effort into preparation that has a higher chance of not being needed, and second, because I haven't invested this effort, I feel less compelled, consciously or otherwise, to force the PCs down a path I prepared, giving them more freedom of choice and control over their destiny. When it comes to actually running the game, I want to be the unbiased referee, not the puppet master pulling the strings. Had I spent hours writing up details on the north border region with the trolls, I'd be more likely to artificially steer to party toward taking the hook, when they may not have any real interest in pursuing.

Predetermined vs. triggered events

In addition to interactions between people and locations, I make sure to plan through any predetermined events that I've "scheduled" to occur irrespective of the party's actions. Ideally, these events have been logically derived from the ecology of the area. For example, if I know that orcs are plotting an assault against a local village, I should determine, before the session begins, when the attack will occur, how many orcs are invading, what the attackers' entry points and strategy will be, and so forth. The date and time can be chosen outright or be assigned a degree of variance (e.g., 1d4 nights after the next full moon, when the orc chieftain gathers his forces on the mountainside). Wherever the PCs happen to be at this time, the raid will be executed, unless they do something in the interim to subvert the orcs. Preparing for events and allowing them to play out regardless of the party's actions helps create realism in the campaign world. Not everything needs to specifically revolve around the characters, even though I might only plan in detail the events in their vicinity.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are "triggered" events, which are common in published modules, especially in manipulative settings like Ravenloft. Triggered events should be used sparingly in any game that doesn't want to predestine the characters' path; examples are akin to "The innkeeper is kidnapped the night after the PCs investigate the cemetery," or "Whenever the PCs walk past the town constable, they overhear him negotiating the assassination of the mayor." These types of events can be exciting, but they also make assumptions about how the characters must act in order to fulfill the DM's narrative. This approach to running a game isn't strictly right or wrong, but comes with strings attached that steer the campaign toward an outcome largely not determined by the players, and this isn't something that's desirable for every group.

Not exactly "points of light"

Finally, trimming decision tree branches and preparing in less detail the further out you go is similar to, but not the same as, the idea of "points of light" (formalized as a setting concept in D&D 4e), which asserts that there exists a collection of known, civilized areas and that everything in between is mostly uncharted or "dark." While the planning approach I've outlined tends to evoke the feel that the party's immediate surroundings are a "point of light" amid the darkness, this is only necessarily true in terms of your own planning as DM. The regions and timelines outside your short-term scope of interest may be extremely well defined in source material or to the inhabitants of the game world. It's only that you, the DM, don't need to concern yourself with details beyond what's relevant to the party given its present course.

I think I'll end here for now, as this post is lengthening and mostly a result of stream of consciousness writing. Happy to read anyone's comments.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

#12: The Road from Carrock

After nearly a week of waiting, we finally get a chance to meet with both Bonie and Larimo to discuss plans for the future.  He has been long in recovery, and it is our hope to persuade them both to accompany us back to Mirabar.  Larimo expresses thanks to Audric for aiding in his healing, but eventually confides that he feels too old to make the trip, though he hopes that we’ll take care of Bonie.  We learn that he is a cleric of Garl Glittergold.

Bonie seems as surprised as we are at first, though quickly conceals it behind her typical stoicism.  Despite her attempts to persuade him, he stands resolute in his decision to remain in Carrock.  Bonie lets us know of her desire to head first to Westtower to reestablish contact with her employer there, then eventually back to Mirabar.

We all—Erathmar and his men, Bonie and her pony Elseba, Audric, Selben and I—are eager to depart Carrock, and plans are put into motion to leave within the next couple days.

On the eighth day since the defeat of Carcerus, we are seen off by Drachus and those few other early risers of Carrock, most still abed, sleeping off the lingering effects of the previous evening’s festivities.  We settle upon a leisurely pace, Selben studying within one of the wagons, the rest of us taking turns on point.  Travel is uneventful through the first day, and we arrange for a three-part watch, splitting it among us and Erathmar’s men.

Despite the lingering fear of wolves attacking in the night, result of several weeks of stress anticipating an attack by Carcerus, the night passes uneventfully.  The next morning, we crest a hill and catch our first view of the ruins of Shadfeld since our flight weeks ago.  We decide that I, Audric and Bonie will scout ahead, make sure the road is clear for Erathmar’s wagons, and investigate the ruined village.

We make our approach, leaving the sounds of the rolling wagons behind us.  Only our own footsteps on the dirt trail break the eerie silence of the day.  Once we reach Shadfeld, perhaps it’s a trick of the mind, but it suddenly seems as if the sun is not as bright, the horizon darker than it was a moment or two ago.

The village appears much as we left it—abandoned.  Audric and Bonie head back to wave Erathmar through.  On a whim, I leave the road to investigate the house where we met Kezia, but before getting that far, I encounter a pair of corpses ahead on the road.  They appear to have been armed, but their throats and lower jaws have been ravaged and torn open—immediately, memories of the creatures that attacked in Carrock spring to mind.  The kills are recent…within the last 48 hours at most, with few other clues as to what happened.  As the men are in no need of worldly possessions, I cut a pair of belt purses from the corpses and considers my options.

I decide to continue towards Kezia’s house, but before I can take a step I see a fleeting shadow between two buildings.  Bringing up a ward against paralysis, should it indeed be one of those creatures, I foolishly decide to investigate.  In the distance, I hear the rolling approach of the wagons.

From the shadow of a nearby half-wall, one of the horrible creatures rakes its claws across my shoulder, then ferociously launches a flurry of attacks, clawing and biting, and it gets its hands around my neck.  Its intention—tearing out my throat—is apparent, and I raise my knife in defense, hoping that my friends heard my muffled scream.

Bonie rushes forward pell-mell but is nearly brought to a full stop when she witnesses the creature ravaging me.  Audric taps into untested depths of his powers and conjures forth a pair of snarling goblins.  Bonie and one of the goblins attack the creature as it continues to maul me, shattering Audric’s protective spells and ignoring the other defenders, intent on ending my life.

Unable to ward off the attacks, it sinks its maw into my throat, tearing out chunks of flesh.  Blood wells immediately fill the void, spurting onto the ground nearby.  The last things I see as my vision darkens, as numbness beings to take over, is Audric struggling against one of the creatures, bright blood flashing from several wounds, then Selben rushing forward, then collapsing suddenly by some unseen power.  Then, all is black.

When I awaken, I find myself once again within the confines of Carrock.  Audric is near, and I learn that he also fell during the attack—it was only by the bravery of Bonie, Erathmar, and Erathmar’s men that we were saved.  After the encounter with the creatures concluded, the company gathered our bodies and rushed back to Carrock; fortunately, Larimo was able to call upon the blessings of his deity to speed our recovery.

My mood is dark, and the atmosphere in Carrock seems grim once the news of the encounter spreads.  There is some talk of options, but both Bonie and Erathmar seem resolute in their description to accompany us, so we abandon any other option and quickly plan for a second attempt. Larimo, moved to action by the recounting of our encounter and subsequent fall at the claws of the unknown creatures, reveals plans to accompany our group.  It is determined, however, that such a plan would leave Carrock without the resources it needs would such an attack occur and is thus dissuaded.  We leave the following morning, and our return trip to grim Shadfeld is uneventful.

Going through Shadfeld a second time feels like a funeral march.  Bonie clings to Elseba, all of the men are eagle-eyed atop the wagons looking for any signs of movement, anything that would signal danger.  The corpses of the fiends that attacked us are where they were left on the road, heads removed, bodies bloated.  The procession pushes through, eventually reaching the opposite side.  We push on a little further, then decide to camp for the night.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Wolf and the Lion

A nearby fire crackles, the only disturbance of an otherwise quiet night.  Though it has been several days since the encounter with Carcerus and Zeb's ultimate retribution of Korvich, Zeb's sleep has been elusive, fitful when managed, and many late nights have been spent sitting, starting at the flame.

This night, arranged before Zeb are the grim trophies of the last few weeks.  Crude tokens, symbols of Malar carved from bone worn by the cultists Ignish and Tesk, made impure by Korvich's corruption of the faith.

Korvich's own fetish, this one decorated with the priest's trophies of notable kills, an assortment of teeth and talons.  Within the tangled mess is a beaten piece of metal, onto which is engraved the Claw of Malar, almost an afterthought to the other trophies.  Korvich clearly had a warped sense of priorities.

Next to the fetish is a shriveled, hard piece of dried flesh, which still reeks of the smoke and fire used to cure the meat.  Now unrecognizable, it nevertheless makes Zeb grin when he sees it--the tongue of Korvich, cut out by Zeb's own hand in retribution for the priest's foolish pride and false vorishnaad.

There is one last trophy, of a sort.  The carved, wooden symbol of Nobanion, the self-proclaimed "King of Beasts".  It's not really a trophy--Zeb didn't kill Maglarosh, after all, nor did he necessarily desire the man's death--but it has caused Zeb consternation since he first set his eyes upon it, and he didn't know what else to do with it.

The dislike between the two cults is long-established, distilled--at its simplest--to a difference in perspective, and perhaps in execution.  Both faiths venerate the beast, but it's Nobanion's naive notions of community, compassion, and dignity that highlight his weakness.  When missionaries of Nobanion brave the wastes in search of converts among the beast cults, they are confronted by the harsh realities of that cold, barren land, and of the singular mindset--survival at all costs--that it takes to avoid becoming prey.

A branch snaps in the woods behind Zeb, and in one, fluid motion, Zeb rolls to the side while drawing one of his knives, crouched and ready to pounce.  Zeb's helm and mantle--the skull of Carcerus--casts a frightful shadow, playing tricks with the firelight.  A pale, ghostly face, clearly terrified, confronts Zeb--Selben.  The young man stutters apologetically, stepping out of the shadow.  "S-s-sorry, Zeb.  I couldn't sleep, and saw the fire.  I f-figured it was yours.  Y-y-you...for a moment, you looked more like a wolf than a man.  Sorry to interrupt you."

Zeb stands, sheathing the knife, then returns to his place by the fire, gesturing for Selben to join him.  They had spent the last few days cloistered together in Ethelenda's workroom beneath the Tower of Carrock, and Zeb found that Selben's company--as well as the young man's eagerness to relearn his lost arcane talents--was comforting.

"What's that?" asks Selben, bending over to pick up the talisman to Nobanion.  Zeb loops the other trophies back onto his belt, then steps forward, taking the crude wooden symbol from Selben.  "This?" Zeb says, holding the token in his palm.  "Nothing.  Nothing important, in any case."  Zeb tosses it into the nearby fire, pauses for a moment to watch it ignite, then turns to look at Selben, seemingly satisfied.

"This, however," Zeb says, withdrawing something from one of his numerous pouches, "is for you.  I meant to give it to you earlier."  Zeb gestures for Selben to step forward, and Zeb hangs a leather thong around the young man's neck.  From it dangles an hourglass-shaped piece of bone, harvested from the tail of Carcerus' slain form.  Both men take seats near the fire.  "What's it for?" Selben asks.

"Protection, Selben," replies Zeb quietly.  Silence lingers for several heartbeats, only disturbed by the pop of the fire.  "For protection," he mutters again, more to himself than anyone else.  Selben seems satisfied by that, holding the bone between his thumb and forefinger, and the remainder of the night passes with the two men sitting together in silence.