Thursday, May 28, 2020

#42: Angel of Death

Satisfied with the conclusions reached regarding the talisman, its previous owner, and its selection of Lom as its new apparent master, we return the remains of the skeleton to the sarcophagus respectfully and close the chamber once again.  We are not afforded much time to recover, however, when we hear the call of a horn—a single, long note, from outside the gates.

Audric and Lom climb the stairs of one of the towers and call down that a group is gathered outside the gate.  The walls block any clearer view that allows them to ascertain the number of visitors, however, so Vonn and I, accompanied by the stalwart Tunterhorn brothers and Vonn’s hound, Holdfast, approach. 

“Who calls upon Vonn Wintershade?” I call out to our unseen visitors.

A man replies, his voice muffled by the intervening gate and walls.  “Travelers from the north, seeking shelter for the night.”

“From where do you hail, and how many are in your company?” I ask, pressing for more details.

“Eight in total, hailing from the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale,” is his reply.  I can see Bonie and Selben keeping watch from the window of the second tower.  Eight travelers, equal to our own numbers, could prove a problem if they wished us ill.

“Come in peace,” I call out, “or by Malar, you’ll leave in them.”  There is a scrape of iron and wood against stone as the Tunterhorns lift the heavy bar from its rest and the doors to the courtyard swing open.  Standing outside is a group of eight humans, most wearing chain and bearing shields, and all appear armed.  One visitor stands out, a woman.  The man who speaks for the group steps forward, planting his sword in the ground in front of him.  He looks of not so many years as me or Audric, with dark hair, and introduces himself of Sinjun of Bryn Shander.

Sinjun and his men bear no tabards, no standard, nor any symbol upon their shields that might give away any potential allegiance.  Sensing Vonn’s hesitation to allow so many armed men within the courtyard, I invite Sinjun, who has already relinquished his blade, within the outer wall to discuss potential arrangements.  The woman steps forward, grabbing his arm in apparent worry, and Sinjun turns to regard her.  There is some communication, either unspoken or too quiet for us to hear, and the woman releases her grasp upon him.

“We mean no harm to you or anyone among you,” I reassure the mysterious woman.  “So long as you act in good faith, we will act in kind.”

“Well met and agreed,” Sinjun replies.

Vonn steps forward and questions Sinjun brashly.  “You seek shelter?  You did not prepare for your journey?  Did you just assume you’d find a keep in the wilderness that would allow you to stay the night?”  His questions seem to take Sinjun by surprise.

“In truth,” he replies, “I was not expecting to find this keep inhabited.  I’ve traveled these lands before.”  Sinjun further explains that he and his associates have been tracking a frost giant, Glaumarr, that had slain his brother the previous winter.  They lost the trail after Hundlestone—Vonn knows this to be a small, secluded settlement of gnomes, dwarves and humans that serves as a gateway to Icewind Dale from the south.

Sinjun’s party ran afoul of orcs while tracking Glaumarr—the condition of Sinjun’s men lends credence to his tale.  Vonn shares his condolences over his brother, then presses Sinjun regarding his intentions.  “Do you mean to spend the night here to recuperate, then leave the next morning?”

Sinjun explains that he had hoped to stay here to regroup, gather their bearings, and determine their next course of action.  When asked if he will vouch for his men, Sinjun replies steadily.  “I’ll vouch for them personally, to the one.”

Audric and Lom join us, and formal introductions are made.  We excuse ourselves briefly so that we can have a word in private to discuss the matter.  Vonn expresses his discomfort allowing the men into the keep but seems agreeable to allowing them to stay within the courtyard.

“How came you to inhabit this keep?” Sinjun asks upon reconvening to discuss arrangements.

“I came to inhabit this keep when my former master and I slew a frost giant,” Vonn retorts.  Sinjun’s interest at mention of the frost giant is obvious, though after some explanation, it becomes clear that the giant slain by Berigaard could not possibly be Glaumarr.

“Are you proper lords of the keep, or merely squatters?” Sinjun asks.  Sinjun’s questions are forthright and abrupt, revealing a lack of grace in social interactions.  Vonn seems to share this quality.

“Proper lords,” Vonn responds immediately.

“Entitled by whom?” Sinjun asks.

“Entitled by that pile of frost giant remains in the courtyard,” Vonn replies sharply.  There seems to be some misunderstanding between the two men, and it makes me and Audric wary.

Sinjun replies plainly.  “My company is in need of shelter.  We have as much—or as little—claim to this keep as you, seemingly.  We come in peace, and mean no harm to you or your allies.”

Vonn dismisses Sinjun to allow us a chance to convene properly, and Sinjun complies.  Vonn’s agitation at Sinjun’s presumption of rights is obvious, though Audric tries to calm the heightened emotions, explaining how deeds to the keep and titles to the land upon which it resides likely function.

“I understand the finer points of politics,” Vonn replies sharply.  Vonn’s distaste for Sinjun is plain, but we are able to persuade him to allow the visitors access to the courtyard, though not to the inner keep itself, with the exception of Sinjun and whoever his female companion might be.  The invitation is well received, and Sinjun’s company is allowed entry, where more introductions are made.

One of the Northmen is reminiscent of Wyardt, lean and blond.  His name is Faolan, a trusted friend of Sinjun and brother to Dabria, the woman.  One of the armored guards is Bellok, and the remainder are men-at-arms under his command.  “Welcome to our keep,” Vonn replies.

“We would hate to see you all sleep outside the walls.  You will be granted access to the courtyard for the night, and Sinjun and Dabria may join us inside.”  Sinjun disperses commands to his company, and the men start setting up camp amid the grounds.  “Your hospitality will not be forgotten,” he says.

“Come, Angel,” Sinjun calls to Dabria, and the woman leaves her brother’s side and approaches.  The meaning of the endearment is unclear, but it bears a formality or an intimacy that seems worth some consideration.  We gather in the main chamber of the keep, having dragged Berigaard’s heavy table into the center.

Sinjun begins the conversation with a series of questions regarding Glaumarr, asking if we have seen signs of the frost giant’s passage, as well as how long we’ve been residents here.  I explain that the keep has been inhabited for a year, careful to conceal the details of the habitation, but that we haven’t traveled the lands much beyond occasional trips to Fireshear, and that we’ve encountered no signs of his quarry.

“What threats have you encountered?” he asks, and makes mention of the Somber Vale, an old battle site near a rocky area called the Crags, a half-day’s journey east, where orcs and men have fought and slain each other for centuries.

“Trying to defend a place such as this is a fool’s errand,” he says bluntly.  It’s evident that he lacks a filter and is unused to intimate conversations.  “How do you come to be here?” he asks.

I explain that many of us are yet new to the Frozenfar, having recently arrived by way of Mirabar and through the fallen city of Illusk.  “Mirabar is far away,” he states flatly.  “Why come to a land as remote as this?”  The woman, Dabria, sits quietly at his side.  She makes no reactions to the conversations, but rather sits still and is awkwardly silent.

“Do you know of what has befallen Illusk” I ask, “and do you know the route of which I speak?”

He admits that he knows little, except that Illusk is no longer inhabited by men.  I confirm that it is indeed overrun by orcs and greater evils, and that we pushed through that fell city to arrive in Fireshear.

“Well met,” he says nodding, with what I take for approval in his voice.

“Well met,” I reply, though the atmosphere of the room remains tense.

“Have you any practitioners of the Art in your company?” he asks brazenly.  “For myself, I regret that I’m not possessed of such abilities.”

“Nearly all of us,” I reply, giving him a steady, warning glance.  “What of your company?”

“Among us, only my Angel,” he replies, nodding to Dabria.  “She has the favor of a great and powerful deity,” expressing some pride on the matter.

I’m unable to contain a derisive snort.  Knowing what might follow, Audric asks with more delicacy, addressing Dabria directly, “Which deity would that be?”

She grasps at her tunic, as if clutching at a holy symbol that might lie beneath her robes.  “Kelemvor, Lord of the Dead and Judge of the Damned,” she replies, her voice quavering.  It seems that Dabria, as well, lacks social grace or experience communicating such matters.  I nod with approval.

“What do you mean when you call her ‘Angel’,” Vonn asks directly.

Sinjun replies apologetically.  “It is but a pet name.  You see, the name ‘Dabria’ translates in the old language to ‘angel of death’.”  She seems embarrassed and wilts under the scrutiny and attention.

“You’ll find no prejudice here,” I assure her.  I pull out my string of fetishes, clearly displaying the symbol of Malar.

Her eyes go wide, and she seems shaken.  I bid her to remain calm.  “All is not as it might seem at first glance,” I explain, and the conversation turns towards Sinjun’s men.  Vonn invites Sinjun and Dabria to pass the night within the keep’s walls.

“The weather is quite fair; we will remain with our company outside.  It might take us some time to determine our next course—we would not encroach upon your hospitality, but if you find it amenable to share the use of the courtyard for the coming days, we would be most grateful and share in any efforts or toils that need attending.”

I share an apologetic look with both Sinjun and Dabria before moving the conversation to an uncomfortable place.  Her admission of worship to Kelemvor troubles me, and I cannot leave these words unspoken.  “Do your powers deal with the creation of the walking dead?  If so, they are not welcome within the walls of this keep.”

She jumps back unexpectedly, shooting me a fierce glare reminiscent of those Kezia used to give me.  Her voice raises in ire.  “Abhorrent!  Death is to be respected, not desecrated!  That way lies the path to evil.”  It is the most animated we have seen her.  It is an answer, however, that is relieving on many levels.  The conversation drifts to other topics before the discussion ends noncommittally, and Sinjun and Dabria take their leave of us to rejoin their company.

Before settling in for the night, I set wards upon the entry to the inner keep and the door to Berigaard’s chamber, and we separate into watches, with Selben and Vonn taking refuge in the two towers.  The night passes quietly, with nothing more threatening than men taking leave of their bonfire occasionally to piss.  There is muffled conversation that can be heard over the crackling of their fire, but Sinjun and his company are otherwise serene.  We can see Dabria sleeping close to Sinjun, which continues to confuse any potential relationship between the two.  Morning arrives.

I am approached by Sinjun while doing errands about the courtyard the following morning.  He lets us know that his company rested well, then the discussion turns to business.  He has the inclination to guide a few members of his party into the Somber Vale to hunt for food as well as explore the site for any signs of Glaumarr.  He seems to have more knowledge than we of these lands from his youth and asks if any among us would wish to accompany them.  Vonn is somewhat familiar with the area, having venture there to collect bones and components for spells and the like in his service to Berigaard.

I take the offer back to Audric and the others so that we might discuss it.  I am keen to leave the keep and learn more about our surrounds, and while Audric does not seem interested, Lom is, and we recruit Vonn to the party with Holdfast as well.  It seems like a good opportunity to establish trust between our respective parties.

Before we leave, Bonie pulls me aside, grasping my arm.  “Be careful,” she says. 

“I won’t do anything that Audric wouldn’t do,” I tell her jokingly.  She smiles, satisfied, and we are joined by Sinjun, Bellok, and one of Bellok’s men, Gorrish.

As we turn to depart, Dabria rushes forward and grasps Sinjun’s arm in a protective manner, not unlike Bonie, a few moments earlier.  “I will protect you!” she pleads, imploring Sinjun to let her come along.

“No, Angel, remain with Faolan. Your safety matters more than does my own,” he commands.  We leave the keep behind and set forth, finding the weather fair.  On our way, Sinjun shares what he knows of the Crags, a rocky badland with a history of death and violence.

“Do you know the name of the keep that you now inhabit?” he inquires.  When we fail to answer, he reveals it to be Fort Nechar.  “These lands could never be kept clear of evil denizens,”  he says, reiterating his concern that trying to hold the keep is a treacherous.

“Tell us more about Fort Nechar,” Vonn asks, though Sinjun admits that he knows little else.  He traveled these lands in his youth with his father and brother, both now deceased.  They had visited the keep once in the past, over a decade ago, and found it uninhabited at that time.  “These wastes of the Frozenfar outside the villages harbor all manner of dangers: goblins, orcs, giants and other foul creatures.”

“You know more of the land than we, and we’ll heed your advice, even if it’s a decade old,” I tell him.  He alludes to the frost giant Glaumarr several times in our conversation, and his desire to avenge his brother is clear.  I ask about Bellok, whether he is merely a hired man or if there’s some existing relationship.  Sinjun calls him a trusted ally, and I get the sense that it’s more of a business arrangement.

“And what of Faolan and Dabria?” I continue.  “What is your relation to them?”  He explains that Faolan is his closest friend and pauses before revealing more about Dabria.

“Is she your lover?” I intercede intrusively, eager to understand their dynamic.

“She is…exceptional,” he replies with some hesitation.  “Dabria is a caring and passionate woman, however she has largely devoted her life to her faith,” he admits after some time.

“How did she come to be a priest of Kelemvor?” I press, curious to learn more.  Kelemvor is not widely worshiped in the North, and he explains that it was an inherited responsibility, passed down through her family.

After some time, we find ourselves approaching rocky slopes on the horizon until we are walking among them.  There are inclines of scattered rock, ledges and small hills that interrupt our path.  Forest cover is light.  As the terrain becomes more treacherous, I silence my inquisition of Sinjun and start paying more attention to our surroundings.

We break for a meal, resting at the foot of a high ridge.  The position is defensible, allowing a broad range of visibility with the ridge at our backs.  During our repast, however, we are interrupted by sounds from higher up—perhaps the skittering of a rock or branch breaking, but it is abrupt enough that it draws our immediate attention.  Lom, looking yon, sees some fleeting movement halfway up the ridge, unable to discern more than a fleeting shadow.

I offer to investigate, confident with Lom’s bow guarding my back, as well as the various powers Vonn might bring to bear.  Sinjun and his mean draw out their own bows as I pad along the bottom of the ridge to have a closer look.  I find nothing, though from side opposite our small camp, Vonn indicates the approach of a fearsome creature.  Nearly the size of a horse, we have been stalked by an abomination—at first glance, it appears to be a jet-black mountain lion, except for its size and the presence of a pair of sinewy tentacles protruding from its back, the ends covered in wicked barbs.

I begin to chant, calling upon Malar to bless my allies so that their arrows might find their mark.  Bellok’s first strikes true, though all others miss, their shafts skittering along the rocks.  A pair of arcane bolts manifest from Vonn’s hands and assail the creature as well as it pounced into the cluster of men below, its tentacles waving wildly.  It attacks Vonn with ferocity, who throws up his arms in defense.  Thin lines of blood are drawn from wounds along his arms.

The creature continues its assault, battering the wizard as it stalks among the warriors who form a circle around the beast.  From atop the ridge, another creature manifests and leaps down upon me in ambush, spoiling the abjuration I had hoped to aid the group.  I give up my spell and prepare for the creature’s attack.

Vonn yells for Holdfast and the dog leaps at the creature while Sinjun and his men hack at it with their weapons.  Lom attacks with axe and sword, the axe seeming to pass through where the creature should be—he would later swear that he should have landed that strike—though he is satisfied when his shortsword finds purchase, slipping between the ribs of the massive panther and drawing blood.

Sinjun pierces the creature’s flank with his longsword and a burst of blood spurts from the wound, covering Sinjun.  The panther yowls in response, severely wounded as Bellok and Gorrish press their fight.

A fan of vibrant energy spreads forth from Vonn’s fingertips toward the creature, though his vision is perplexed by some displacing property of the beast.  Vonn manages to catch it in the wave of colors, and it cowers for a moment, allowing Sinjun to step forth and lay into the creature again, slashing at its exposed neck.  It collapses to the rocky ground in a spill of blood.

Before anyone can feel relief at defeating the foe, however, a third panther can be seen stalking the group.  I bring my maul to bear upon my own foe, warding off the creature’s claws only to be struck by its barbed tentacles, drawing blood upon my arms and shoulder.  I growl at the creature, a bestial smile on my face. 

Gorrish is laid low by the third panther as it rushes to attack him, dragging him to the ground with its claws as the spiked tentacles whip in fury.  Lom joins me in combat with my enemy, cutting deeply across the muscles of its back, correcting his strike for whatever displacement effect obfuscates it.

Bellok swings at his foe with his flail, crushing the creature’s side.  Nearby, Vonn scrambles to safety, seeking shelter in the lower branches of a tree.  He brachiates with a grace that seems unlikely for a man of his age.  Holdfast, meanwhile, circles the panther engaged with Bellok, growling and waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Lom and I are thwarted as we swipe at the creature, neither of us able to mount an effective attack.  Unable to rely upon our eyes, we use our other senses to try and isolate the panther’s location.  Too slow, however, as I am battered again by the creature’s tentacles.  Nearby, Bellok is wounded by the other panther, the rocks splattered with blood of panther and ally both.  Sinjun steps to Bellok’s aid, able to see through the creature’s own defenses as he pierces its chest, driving his sword into the wound.  There is the sound of ribs crunching and flesh tearing, and the warrior whirls in a second deadly arc, beheading the beast.

The final panther growls at me, and I snarl back in return.  It goes berserk, lashing out with claws, teeth, and tentacle, mauling me as it rips a chunk of flesh from my side, blood pouring from the wound.  I lay down a retaliatory strike with my maul, crushing one of its back hips.  Blood bubbles from its mouth.  It bares its teeth and leaps at me, blood spurting out to splash my face and body as a pair of Vonn’s arcane missiles collide with it, killing it before it can do me more harm.  I nod to Vonn in thanks.

With no other threats apparent, I rush to Gorrish, and call upon Malar to heal his wounds.  Thankfully, the man’s soul has not yet departed, and by virtue of my magic, he spits up blood and phlegm and pulls himself to his feet.  Gorrish is weakened, though alive.

Lom asks if we think the creature’s flesh can be eaten.  Sinjun reveals that they’re mostly muscle but that it’s conceivable—knowing that we’ll be slowed by Gorrish on our return trip, we settle on hauling one of the carcasses back with us, choosing the panther slain by Vonn.

Our trek, under our myriad burdens, passes by in a blur.  We are forced to stop often to catch our breath and allow Gorrish time to recover his strength.  Sinjun remarks that we fought well.

“Thank us when we get back,” I respond, though he expresses that he was honored to fight among us.

Meanwhile, back at the keep, anxiety over our delayed return begins to mount.  Bonie expresses her usual amount of concern over my safety to Audric, who shares her feelings, though both have grown somewhat accustomed to my recklessness by now.  Dabria, however, is irritable, snapping at Faolan as they converse throughout the eve, creating a palpable sense of agitation and distrust between the two groups.

Fortunately, the worry is dispelled as, late into the night, we make our return hauling the enormous cat carcass and wounded Gorrish.  We collapse in the courtyard, weary from our travails, and Dabria rushes forward to embrace Sinjun, her panic fading.  “Be still, my Angel,” he reassures her, and the tension that was rising before seems to melt away.

Sinjun informs us that Dabria is able to tend to Gorrish and Bellok’s injuries.  It is a welcome revelation, as we were unsure whether to offer our own services to our visitors.  Audric addresses my wounds as well as Vonn’s, though mine will likely take several days to mend, even with the assistance of magical healing.

Audric reveals that he can consecrate the carcass such that its meat can be eaten, extending our meager supplies of food.  I remove the panther’s incisors, picking bits of my own flesh from its teeth, intending to keep them as trophies.  It is worth examining the pelt to see if it can be preserved—it would make a fine cloak for Lom or Vonn.  After sharing the details of our trip, we break into our separate camps for the night, glad to have returned safely.

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