Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Defier of Death (#17)

After the defeat of Crahdorn, the subsequent hours are spent discussing plans for the pending journey, gathering what meager belongings the tribe possess, and carrying out the sacrifice of the diseased warrior.  Trading lives is not a fair thing, but we can’t afford to slow our travel without effectively signing the death warrants of both the man and Nurué.  Kezia translates, and the tribe decides to conduct its own sacrifice, sending him along the spiritual paths with prayers to Uthgar.

We make it clear that we will do our best to see the group to Griffon’s Nest, but that it will not necessarily be a quick or direct path, and that it will not interfere with our current plan to travel to Longsaddle.  Fortunately, there seems to be agreement that Longsaddle is our best chance at determining the cause and hopefully a cure for whatever this curse or sickness is that afflicts Nurué.  Selben is instructed to continue to pursue his relationship with the younger members of the tribe, in the hopes that his can pick up some of their language so that we don’t have to rely completely on Kezia’s translation.

Ahead on the trail, we see the shambling form of a large, crimson-furred creature, larger than a man.  It looks gaunt, weakened, and hunched over—a bugbear.  After a few moments of deliberation, considering that it may be an ambush, we decide the chance that it’s diseased is even more dire, and arrows are loosed upon it.  Several find purchase, but not enough to fell it, so I charge forward and finish it with my morning star.  We examine it for signs of disease and can’t find any, but we’re not sure if it’s for lack of symptoms or just that they’re obscured by its fur.

Unfortunately, we’re not able to make the safety of Xantharl’s Keep before sundown, and we decide to camp for the night.  Even if we finish the trip, we’re not convinced that we would be allowed entry, especially with the diseased woman.  Nurué seems to have worsened, her fingertips are blackened, and she seems very much diminished.  After some discussion, we decide that Audric or I will conjure forth mounts and send Audric, Oreiron & Nurué ahead.  Mystra or Malar, or perhaps even Uthgar are with us, and nothing ill befalls us in the night.

Well before the sun rises, Audric rouses Oreiron & Nurué with the intent to leave in the predawn.  If a cure is to be found within Xantharl’s Keep, this is our best chance to acquire it.  They arrive at the wooden, picketed walls of the keep at first light.

The remaining group travels along the road and eventually reaches Xantharl’s Keep, where we are flagged down by Audric and Oreiron, who have made a small campfire outside of town.  They were not allowed entrance and instructed that the town’s priest is away at Grunwald, a day away.  Some of the men of Xantharl’s Keep had encountered bugbears and returned yesterday, and several have been stricken with the same disease.  There is also apparently no love lost between the Anaithnid of the Lurkwood and the men of Xantharl’s Keep, but it is of no consequence as we’re all barred entry anyway.


As we contemplate options, the gates open and a middle-aged couple exit the keep approaching us carrying a small pot and a basket, and Audric greets them.  They claim to have heard that there is a sick woman among us, and it appears that they have brought food.  “My wife is an herbalist, and there is a salve that can help relieve the symptoms of the rash.”  The wife’s name is Yishma, and she started putting the salve together, having seen a similar disease twenty years ago.  Yishma takes a small tin from her basket, a mixture of lavender and chamomile as well as other herbs from the wood.  She explains that the disease is bloodborne and travels very quickly among open wounds.

Audric inquires what it may have taken in the past to cure the disease, and they claim that only strong clerical magic could produce a remedy—magic such that Klaighos, the village priest, possesses.  They ask for nothing in return, and we explain that we intend to travel immediately with the hope that we encounter the priest on the road.  They explain that the village leader wouldn’t look upon this kindly, forcing upon us a decision—stay and await the return of Klaighos in the hopes that he will tend to Nurué before she perishes, or risk the doors of Xantharl’s Keep being barred if we come between their diseased men and their priest. 

We decide to stay and await the return of the priest, and Kezia explains the situation to the tribe.  The husband explains that the disease is progressive, and that if it spreads from Nurué’s fingers to her arm, then there’s a chance it will corrupt her entire body—amputation would be our best option to delay progression of the disease, in that case.  We thank them again for their ministrations and their kindness, and they depart.

Later that day, another figure leaves the gates flanked by a pair of soldiers, this man armed with a pair of swords and leathers.  He carries a barrel under his arms, and Oreiron explains that this is Helder Mornstone, leader of Xantharl’s Keep.  We gather Bonie and Oreiron, and Helder greets us, inquiring after our afflicted and her condition.  Upon seeing Nurué, he explains that she may be the worse off, but that he must prioritize his own men before outsiders.  He asks how we came to travel with “barbarians,” which sets my blood boiling.

I spit on the ground in front of him.  “It’s a foolish man that claims to direct the will of the gods, to ‘prioritize’ who is to receive their blessings.”  From his collar he withdraws a token, the head of a unicorn, a symbol of Mielikki.  “A foolish man, indeed.”

Hackles rising, I ask if our tribe is unwelcome outside his walls.  “If you were, you would not be here, I assure you,” he replies grimly.  He deposits the barrel, explaining that it is full of dried meats and cheeses, enough so sustain our group for a few days.

I thank the man, dryly.  “I’ll be sure to spread word of the hospitality of Xantharl’s Keep.” Helder does not reply to the statement but produces an offer that may ameliorate the situation.  Accompany his men into the Lurkwood to deal with the bugbear threat, and he will take Nurué’s diminishing condition into consideration when Klaighos returns.

“Done.”  I hold out my hand, to seal the bargain.  Before Helder can respond, Kezia grabs me and pulls me aside.  “You will not force us to work for this man, for this village.” 

“Do you want to save Nurué, or not?  She’ll likely die waiting for this man to expand his generosity to include her when the priest eventually returns.”

Kezia storms off, speaking to the men of the tribe rapidly.  We’re not able to comprehend the words, ere she spits a reluctant compromise.  “Do as you will.”  It is a cold response, and hints at more conversation to follow later.

We send Helder away, letting him know that we’ll produce an answer in an hour’s time, giving us a chance to deliberate.  After discussing the decision with Kezia further, she explains vehemently that the tribe is to be consulted first on matters of such import, especially those that entail dealing with villages outside the Lurkwood.  Coming to a realization, I think I may have discovered the source of her anger.  “So you want the opportunity to be mad at me about it, but you want me to do it anyway?”

“Yes,” is her reply in a surprisingly sultry tone, leaning into me.  Her reply, and the response her physical proximity elicits, leaves me speechless.  I decide to leave the decision to Audric, since he is admittedly the most sensible of the group.  His answer is surprising, that he intends to accompany me on the hunt.  “So you wanted the opportunity to be mad at me about it, but you want me to do it anyway?”  It’s not clear that Audric wants to join the hunt, or that we should be involved with it at all, but he reluctantly agrees.

Both Bonie and Oreiron are on board with the hunt, each for their own reasons.  Loyalty, duty, guilt—whatever the motivations, they are not important, and we are glad to have their aid.  Bonie has proven herself a stalwart ally.  Selben is to be left with the Anaithnid, as he would be too much a liability on such a deadly venture.  Audric sends word of our acceptance to Xantharl’s Keep.

The next morning arrives a small contingent of men accompanied by a withered old man, eyes white from blindness, and we assume that he is Klaighos, the priest.  He is brought to Nurué’s side, Kezia seated nearby, and the man examines Nurué’s arm.  He begins chanting in preparation for a spell, utilizing a fetish, a pair of hands bound together with rope.  At first it appears as if they are wooden, but upon more careful inspection, they may be actual withered hands.  In either case, they are a symbol of Ilmater, the Suffering.

He stares at Kezia with a piercing gaze, as if seeing through the blindness.  He utters something in an unknown language directly at her, “Mortem disfidare,” before returning to the incantation and finishing the spell.  “It will take time for the ailment to subside,”  he explains, returning to his usual demeanor.  He lays a hand on her forehead.  “However, she is saved.  Ilmater has smiled upon you this day.”

Audric shares a blessing from Mystra as Klaighos departs, to which the priest nods in acceptance.  “And that of Malar, as well,” I shout, not to be outdone.  Klaighos snarls in response but makes no other gesture, instead turning his back on us as he returns to Xantharl’s Keep.

Audric asks Kezia what it was that the blind priest said.  She replies softly, “It means ‘Defier of Death.’”

12 comments:

  1. Zeb breathes in the smoke and warmth of the party's campfire as Bonie tends the flame. The others are several yards away, though somehow they feel more distant. "She's stirrin' her own fire in ye, the 'defier of death,' is she no'? She's a pretty one, I'll give ye that."

    Before Zeb can answer, the girl takes to her feet, nimble as a cat (or perhaps a mountain lion), and presses the hilt of a hunting knife against Zeb's chest: his own. "Ye dropped this," she muses. "Make no mistake, bugbears are wicked foes, diseased or not. We need to be well prepared, this time. Not like in the Shadfeld ruins."

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  2. Zeb takes the knife, slamming it home in its sheath. "It is NOT like that," he grumbles as she walks away.

    Frustrating though Bonie's words may have been, the warrior has a point. It won't due to run off or be reckless as he was in Shadfeld.

    Once Bonie is gone and his privacy restored, Zeb returns to what he was doing. He pulls out a thin wooden slat and retrieves his other knife from under his thigh, where he had quickly hid it upon Bonie's approach.

    The new image he has been carving and burning into the card's surface is starting to take shape, that of a lone woman standing in the forest. Kezia.

    No matter how hard he tries, however, he can't get the forest to look like anything other than flames, and the finished result bears a too-striking resemblance to another card in his collection...that of the Necromancer, one of the cards from Kezia's original reading.

    Dissatisfied with the result, he tosses it into the fire, watching it begin to burn around the edges before finally catching flame. Zeb pulls out another blank card and begins the process again.

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  3. The next night passes uneventfully, in the relative safety outside the Keep's palisade wall. The hunt is expected to depart sometime during the day, and in the early morning hours, Kezia approaches Zeb and Audric, accompanied by Nurué, the latter's condition having improved greatly since the cleric administered his spell.

    Kezia's dark eyes bore into the pair, her fiery hair against the brooding glow of dawn reminding Zeb eerily of the effigy he burned the day before for its likeness to the Necromancer. "I dreamed of you last night," she says to him softly, her supple lips pulsing rhythmically with her breath. "And of you," she says to Audric, "and the girl," she adds, indicating the spot near the campfire where Bonie sits idly, staring into its depths. "You were corpses, all. I watched your bodies wither and pale as the dim life faded from your sullen flesh and the Earthmother claimed you for her own."

    She lowers her eyes and exhales, as though exhausted from, or relieved by, the recounting. Nurué tugs at Kezia's woolen shawl, speaking to her in their native tongue, then turns back to Zeb and Audric and bows her head. "She wishes to give you her thanks," Kezia translates, a smile crossing her face as her gaze rests upon her friend. "In case you die."

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  4. Zeb laughs, though the gesture is cold and without humor. "She can have my flesh, but your Earthmother is going to have to get in line if it's my soul she intends to claim. I've pissed off more than one god, including my own, and if they can't have me yet, either can she."

    He returns to checking the straps on his knives, having given over the nonessential equipment to Selben. He sees the young man with several of younger Anaithnid, and turns once again to Kezia after the seer's dark words. "If that should come to pass, take care of the kid," he says, clearly referring to Selben. Not having the words or desire to say much else to Kezia, he gives Nurue a nod and stalks off to wait for the hunt.

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  5. Kezia returns to the campfire and begins speaking to her remaining people, mostly women. At first, the words are tempered, but her voice soon grows animated and forceful, pointing in turn to Zeb, Audric, and the Lurkwood. The tribesfolk listen intently, their faces resolute, offering occasional nods and murmurs of assent.

    Further away but still well within view, Audric and Zeb spy Selben conversing quietly with the native boy by way of mixing simple words and gestures. Throughout Kezia's address, the pair glance intermittently at the fire, and those seated around it.

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  6. Once the activity quiets down, Zeb will call Selben over. "What was all that about?"

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    1. Selben bows slightly. "They seem to feel it likely that the hunting party will not return, leaving the tribespeople without a leader, strong men to bolster their ranks, or the means to make the journey to Griffon's Nest. Kezia further stated that the tribe would not seek help from any human settlement, especially Grunwald."

      The boy shakes his head. "I didn't hear everything, and most of what I did was conveyed to me through gesture. I may be mistaken on some of it, if not all."

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  7. "Enough of this," Zeb snarls, clearly done with Kezia's antics. "Selben, with me."

    Zeb reaches down and grabs the pack of goods he had intended to leave with Selben. It's not much, but it contains all of Zeb's worldly possessions, at least those that won't be of any immediate use on the hunt.

    Zeb marches with Selben to the small gathering of Anaithnid, ignoring Kezia and instead walking to stand in front of Nurue. He lays the pack down at her feet amidst a sea of confused stares. "Selben, translate please. Tell Nurue to guard my possessions until I return." Even if Zeb's words won't necessarily be understood, he hopes that his commanding tone will speak for itself. "And I WILL return."

    He doesn't wait for a response, leaving Selben to piece together a translation for the group. It's a difficult situation he's left the young man in, but Zeb's convinced that Selben can handle himself. Avoiding any encounter with Kezia, he returns to Audric, Bonie and Oreiron.

    "Let's get this over with." His tone with the small group is much more mellow, even apologetic. Zeb spares a glance for Audric, adding "We need to get to Longsaddle."

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    1. Audric watches the events with Zeb transpire. He had been speaking with his Goddess, thanking her again for the blessing of the healing, and asking for guidance for the path ahead. Zeb's actions rip him out of his prayers. And he rises to his feet to go speak with the man.

      He approaches, and grabs Zeb's shoulder to stop him. He says, "Calm my friend. It will not do to be all worked up before leaving. We have work ahead of us, and make no mistake, we must treat this as work. We go out, and exterminate any bugbears that we run across. We will take care of our party and return to continue our journey. Show her your conviction by returning, not with these childish outbursts."

      He continues, "Have faith that we will return. While I may have questions for Her, I still trust that my Goddess' hand is guiding my path. If this hunt is the appointed time for my service to end, then I accept that. However, that does not mean I will go down without a fight."

      Audric heads back to the spot where he was sitting and meditating. He closes his eyes, but speaks loudly enough for Zeb, Bonie, and Oreiron to hear, "I intend to start this journey with a clear and calm mind, and I recommend you all do the same."

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    2. As if on cue upon hearing Audric's words, Bonie rises from her spot near the fire and quickly shambles off into the woods. Though she moves out of sight, Zeb and Audric can hear that she is sickly, and vomiting. She returns after several minutes, her face pale, devoid of the luster and mettle typically rife in her expression.

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  8. "There is wisdom in your words, Audric. I don't intend to go down without a fight either. If Malar wants my soul, he can damn well come down here and get it himself."

    Leaving Audric to his preparations, he finds a large stone nearby and settles in front of it. Over his shoulder, he speaks once again to Audric. "When it comes to the Hunt, however, you and I have a very different outlook. Now is not the time for calm, now is the time for rage."

    Withdrawing one of his knives, he cuts a long, shallow gash into his forearm. The skin wells instantly with bright red blood, and Zeb lets it run into a depression in the large stone. Using his fingers, he paints a pattern of hatches over his eyes and mouth, tasting the iron in his own blood.

    Zeb notices Bonie stumble out of woods, pale and sickly. He looks up at her, blood trickling from his arm and fingers. "Will you accept the blessing of the Beastlord?," Zeb offers, "Let him take your fear. There is no place for it on this Hunt."

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    1. "I'll be fine," the girl replies tersely, whether from physical pain or revulsion of Zeb's blood ritual. With some effort, she distances herself from the others and lies down upon a sprawled blanket on the cold ground, eyes skyward.

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