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Sword of Serengeral - Chapter Two

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    October 26, 2020 1:37 PM PDT

    Chapter Two: The journey south

     

    Elkrin Tower rises from a sea of forest green on the west side of the road. They are not allowed to approach the tower, so they wait between rows of monoliths whose carvings have long since faded.

    "May I remind you," begins Nisto, his voice under tight control, "that this is my expedition?"

    "What do you expect to find in the caves of the Ripper Cult?" asks Eske'drai. He leans easily on his staff.

    "Ripper Cult? Might you have mentioned its name before?"

    "That's what it was called in the time of Avendyr. Centuries later, what might reside in such a place? I doubt our worst enemies will be boars and other beasts of the daylight."

    "This is my first treasure hunt, if that's what you're asking. But I am not unaccustomed to combat." 

    "Combat takes many forms. We are prepared for living enemies. I think perhaps we should be prepared for the unliving."

    A tall woman approaches them on the path. She wears light plate armor and a shield on her back, and at her side hangs a mace.

    A symbol is etched onto the breastplate in curved, entwined lines.

    As the paladin nears them, she raises both her hands and bows slightly to the elf.

    "Hail," says the paladin. "Hera Starnfal, a guardian of Elkrin Tower. You are Eske'drai?"

    "I am." The elf bows slightly and says something in elvish. "Happily you have received our message. Do you accept?"

    "We do. The Archive will pay the usual tithe to the Tower, and I will protect you all with my life."

    "Excellent."

    Nisto seems about to say something. Then he shakes his head and bows slightly. "Welcome and well met."

    Eske'drai nods and walks away to leave the warrior and paladin to get acquainted. He sees Crowsinger watching closely on a nearby log and walks over to sit beside her. A crow sits next to her, watching him.

    "And how do you feel about this expedition?" asks the elf.

    "I would like us to have an understanding," she says, "before we go any farther."

    "What sort of understanding?"

    "Some kinds of magic I respect. I might not understand them, but I don't fear them as many do. But there are magics that set me on edge."

    "Such as?"

    "Necromancy for one. The undead are against everything I believe, everything I was meant to protect. And another... " she sniffs the air. "Several times I think Nisto has been on the edge of anger, even rage, and then he suddenly calmed down."

    Eske'drai looks toward Nisto. "Do you believe I had something to do with that?"

    "Let's say I believe you want this expedition to go smoothly, for your own reasons."

    "That would be true."

    The halfling laughs without mirth. "But I would be very unhappy if you ever tried to calm me down in the same way."

    "It is said that halflings are highly resistant to such magics."

    Crowsinger looks up at him and says, "Then I guess we'll get along."

    The elf finds it slightly unnerving that both the halfling and the crow are staring at him with the same intensity.


     

    They keep to the road for four days, traveling through forest and field and scrub. Often Foal disappears for a time, and then they find her waiting for them on the road. She and Jalasko have an understanding. Together they scout their path ahead in their own ways.

    Aside from provisions they have brought along, Jalasko brings in game to add to their meals. He notices that the halfling avoids meat altogether.

    "I can hear them in my head sometimes," she tells him when he asks. "It would feel strange to eat someone whose cousin was joking with me just before."

    "Mmm." He tears meat off a thigh bone. "I wondered if it was a druid oath of some sort." He waves at the forest around them in the dusk. "Animals chase and eat one another all the time. sometimes with stunning cruelty. Even your friend there." He nods to the crow.

    "They do," agrees the druid. "I can feel the thrill they feel when they hunt, the fear when they flee and hide. But that's the difference between them and me." She scratches the crow under the chin. "Sometimes I can see through their eyes. All of them, hunter and hunted, the cruel and the kind."

    Jalasko tosses a bone into the fire. "I think I'm happier not knowing."

    "Take your blessings where you find them."

    Jalasko notices that the paladin keeps looking around them in the gloaming, a frown creasing her eyes. "Do you hear something, paladin?"

    She sets down her food and stands up, then walks to the edge of the clearing until she nearly fades into the darkness.

    Foal suddenly appears near the fire, sits down, and reaches for some meat. "There's nothing in that direction. I was just out there."

    "Nothing you could see," says Hera.

    Foal shrugs and tears into dinner. Crowsinger absently reaches into the ground, letting the earth run through her fingers. She feels nothing unusual in the forest.

    "Reports say that farms and villages down here have been peaceful this year. No raiders except the occasional orc, and we should arrive at the next fort in three days."

    "There is a watchfulness," whispers Eske'drai. His leans his chin on one hand while the other clutches the staff lying across his lap.

    "There is," echos Hera.

    "Well that," says Jalasko after a moment, "will make for easy dreams."


     

    In the village of Jerrin, Hera leads her horse into a stable and removes the saddle. Foal is already there, though Hera's previous attempts at conversation have gone nowhere. Mostly Foal stares at the world through her hair, with an occasional word when she can't communicate through stance or a shake of her head, or a soft grunt. She knows the girl can communicate, for now and then she sends forth a long wry sentence. Mostly she keeps her own council.

    Hera lifts the saddle and settles it onto a saddle stand. The cinch is worn, and she wonders if she should—

    Hera collapses on the ground with a groan. Every muscle and tendon seems to be cramping. Toes curling up, hands useless. She rolls over.

    A man in filthy clothes at the stable entrace. Staring at her, his fingers curled into a claw.

    She grunts, trying to reach for her sword, but another wave twists her muscles.

    The man steps closer, drawing a long knife with his other hand. Then he exhales sharply as Foal appears behind him and sends her dagger into his back. Not a killing blow; she seems to want him alive.

    The man turns and thrashes wildly with his knife, but Foal blocks the attack with—a steel flute?—and spins out of the way of his left hand.

    Hera feels her limbs unwind, the tension easing slowly. She stumbles to her knees, then her feet.

    Foal is trying to stay out of the way of both of the attacker's hands while slowing him down.

    Hera draws her sword and utters a Word of Power. The attacker stops moving and stares at her with a bit of fear in his eyes. Foal backs away.

    Hera steps forward, closing the distance between her and the intruder. "Who are you?" she asks. Behind her, she hears Foal playing a strange melody on the flute, but she resists the impulse to turn around.

    The man's eyes widen and drift over toward Foal. His knife falls from his hand.

    "Who are you?" Hera asks again.

    "Tovik," he whispers.

    "Who sent you?"

    "Choath."

    "Why?"

    "What's happened here?" says Nisto loudly.

    "We were attacked," Hera says. She turns to look at Nisto, and the intruder draws a blade and attacks Hera. She leaps back.

    With a yell, Nisto lunges forward and thrusts his own knife into the man's neck. He falls to the stable floor, dying.

    A stable boy appears behind Nisto and shouts. Nisto says, "A passing thief attacked my people. Call the guard."

    The warden of the guard comes quickly. He sees the poorly-dressed man dead on the ground, with a knife nearby. 

    "This seems clear," says the warden.

    "We can describe the incident," begins Hera, but the warden just shakes his head.

    "Clear. You were attacked by a ruffian. Someone will investigate the nearby farms."

    "Are you sure that’s necessary?"

    The warden spits on the ground. "People in the woods are rebels and thieves. Some of them have dealings with orcs. We’ll deal with it." He pauses and stares closely at Hera and her companions. "You should probably move on if you don’t want to get involved."

    After the warden is gone, they gather near the stable.

    "I think we should probably leave," says Nisto. "They don't seem friendly here."

    "Now?" says Jalasko. "Everything in that inn is fried. They fry the bread. They would fry the beer if they could."

    "I'm sure we can find another town that fries things, Jalasko, but I think we need to focus."

    "I agree that we need to move on," says Eske'drai. "But the important question is why? Why were you attacked in the stable?"

    Hera glances at Nisto. "We were trying to discover that, but Nisto killed him."

    "He broke your hold on him and attacked you. I didn't believe it was time for subtlety."

    "The point," says the elf, "is was it random, or was he striking at us for a reason?"

    Beside Hera, Foal says, "Fingers." She nods. "Fingers."

    Jalasko blinks. "And?"

    After a moment, Hera says, "Yes." She kneels on the ground next to the now-dead ruffian. "Sword calluses, but otherwise smooth, well-kept hands and fingers. Trimmed nails."

    "Noble or merchant," says Nisto, "or someone in their service."

    "Who would know about our journey?"

    Nisto scoffs. "Who doesn't know? The adventurer's inn, every brothel Iniskill visited, the birds, the city guard, flyers in every square, a plucky stable boy…"

    "Why?" Eske'drai leans on his staff and scratches one ear. "Why try to stop us from reaching our destination? Does someone else have a copy of this map?"

    "No," says Jalasko. "Other then showing it to you in the back room of the Queen's Leg, it's been here," he searches one pocket, then another, then a leather pouch in his shirt, "here the whole time." He withdraws the map from the pouch and holds it up.

    "Should we leave the road?"

    Everyone turns toward the halfling who spoke. As usual, she is sitting on a raised surface with her legs crossed—at the moment, her chair is a tree stump.

    She shrugs. "If we want them to find us again easily, we could stay on the road." She laughs. "Your call, really, I'm just here to druid."

    "Do you have the ability to look back on our path and see pursuers?"

    A crow lands on the halfling's shoulder and caws for a bit into her ear. "Yes, and there's nothing unexpected. People driving wagons between towns and villages."

    "Any one of them could be disguised," says Hera. "The man who attacked was dressed like a beggar, but he clearly wasn't." She frowns, thinking. "Choath. He was sent by someone named Choath. Does this name sound familiar?"

    They look around at each other, shaking their heads.

    "Into the forest with us today, then."


     

    A storage room on the north side of Jerrin, nearly empty. Choath sits on a crate and stirs coals in a hanging cauldron. Two guards and a footman stand nearby.

    Geevo steps into the room, followed by one of the peasants who serve as caretaker for the storage rooms and warehouses.

    "There is a problem," says Geevo.

    He seems unusually chipper, thinks Choath. Perhaps he thinks an opportunity for murder is nigh.

    "What is the problem?"

    "My lord," says the peasant, bowing. "There was an attack on the south side of town. Word is going around that any strangers should be questioned."

    Choath holds up a hand and looks to Geevo. "Report."

    "A paladin, a young knife-user hooded and cloaked, an elf with a staff—though he didn't appear to cast any spells—a man with a bow, and a halfling who seems rather friendly with the local crows. And Nisto, of course. They handled Tovik easily enough."

    "I see."

    "M… my lord," says the peasant. "About the guard. Anyone who knows anything about strangers is ordered to report to them."

    "Well, this is a delicate situation."

    "I just thought you should know, my lord. I didn’t want to…" he pauses, and his eyes dart to the side before creeping back up to look at the side of Choath’s beard. "I thought maybe you wouldn’t want me to do that."

    "You’re quite right, mister…"

    "Drum," says the man.

    "Drum, of course." Choath looks to his companions. "The people of the rural towns have such sturdy names. People of the land! Well, Drum, I feel that we can work out this unpleasant situation so that there is no trouble. Geevo?"

    Geevo nods and puts a hand into his coat, as if searching for a purse. But his hand emerges empty and strikes Drum on the chest. Choath looks away as Geevo’s hand sinks into the man’s torso and pulls out his heart, but the screaming is quite loud.

    "Kaivok, would you check the area and make certain that we’re still unobserved?"

    Kaivok nods and leaves the building. 

    Geevo is holding his hand over Drum's corpse and muttering something. Choath is torn between looking away and staring, fascinated. If Geevo can create an assistant out of the body, that could be useful.

    Kaivok returns. "I believe we are clear, my lord."

    "Good. Geevo, I was wondering."

    "My lord?"

    "Is it only their hearts you can remove?"

    "Oh no, the heart is conveniently quick if need be. The throat works for that as well."

    "So you could, in fact, remove the spleen or entrails if you wished to extend the process?"

    "Of course, my lord."

    Choath nods thoughtfully. "I shall keep that in mind."


     

    They travel south through forests near the mountains, trusting to Jalasko to lead them in the right direction. They stop for rest at Krondol Fort, which is filled with soldiers in Thronefast livery. Nisto is able to convince the soldiers to replenish their supplies and obtain news of the region.

    "Orc activity has been picking up for the last couple of weeks," Nisto tells his group over breakfast. "They've doubled patrol sizes."

    "Are the orcs usually quiet here?" asks Hera.

    "Not quiet, no. There are always skirmishes. But something has changed." His eyes flick to the door of the room. "They did ask why we are heading west from here. They had some stern words about 'reckless adventurers' and the like."

    "I think we qualify," says Foal, and the halfling laughs.

    "In any case, we're on our own when we leave here. There are no other human settlements or forts between here and the mountains."


     

    The attack comes two nights later as they are setting up camp. Hera suddenly stands up from the ground and shouts, drawing her sword.

    Ghostly spirits writhe through the leaves and into the clearing, drifting sinuously through the air above them. They look like the ghosts of upper torsos ripped from bodies, claws reaching, eyes glowing a simmering blue.

    Nisto draws his sword. "Eske'drai?" He looks around and doesn't see the elf in the clearing. He curses and runs up to join the paladin.

    Crows gather around the edge of the clearing. Behind Crowsinger, the ranger shouts, "What should I be shooting at?"

    "They're not wraiths," says the druid, "but they're close enough. I'm going for torsos."

    "Works for me." An arrow flies unerringly toward where one of the creatures' hearts should be, and passes through it without slowing. "Doesn't work for me at all, Crow."

    Crowsinger looks down at her decidedly non-magical club, then hums a question to her friends watching from the branches.

    "There should be a charm at the base of the neck!" she shouts.

    The four specters are about to reach the front line when they suddenly stop, shivering. 

    "That should hold them for a few seconds," says the elf.

    "I had a feeling that tree was you," says Crowsinger.

    Hera leaps forward, thrusting her sword straight into what looks like the neck of the creature. It screams, then dissipates like mist.

    Jalasko fires another arrow, barely missing the neck of another.

    Suddenly the creature on the left lunges for Nisto, while the other two sail over the party and head straight toward the ranger.

    "Um," says Jalasko, "I haven't even hit you yet!"

    Nisto is engaged with one creature, swinging his sword across its neck while ghostly claws swipe at his head. Hera turns and runs after the other two.

    Eske'drai chants a word, and one of the creatures stops as if it hits a wall. The other continues through the air toward Jalasko. Crowsinger tries a jump, but the club isn't high enough to reach the neck of the flying creature. She gasps as her hand passes through it.

    "They wiggle too much," Jalasko says, throwing down his bow. He reaches for a long blade and swings. He misses the charm, but the thing screams when his blade sweeps through what should be its head.

    Spectral claws pass through his arm, and a numbness sweeps through him. He drops the sword.

    It's pulling back to swipe again when it stops, trembling. Hera stands behind it, her hand in the air, chanting something. She swings her blade the the creature dissolves.

    Jalasko crumples to the ground, breathing heavily. Hera places a hand on his right shoulder, and a warmth removes the numbness from his arm. It grows even warmer in the clearing, and he looks up to see a new tree spreading glowing green branches above them. Singing leaves rain down around him. Next to the trunk of the tree sits the druid.

    He looks over and sees Nisto on his knees, leaning on his sword. A white fox runs around him and he nods.

    Hera kneels next to Jalasko and picks up what remains of the charm: a torn shred of paper with writing on it.

    "Can we light a fire now?" asks Foal.

    "I for one don't feel up to looking for kindling, do you?" asks Jalasko.

    Nisto sheathes his sword and stands. "What was that?"

    "Four spectral creatures of some kind. Undead?"

    "Yes," says Hera absently, studying the charm. The elf walks over to join her.

    "Summoned by orcs," he says. 

    "Orcs," says Nisto quietly.

    There is a sound of wings, and several dozen crows fly into the clearing, each bearing a small stick or twig. Crowsinger points to a spot on the ground, and the crows drop their burdens and fly up to the branches around.

    "We have kindling," says Foal, and begins to work on a fire.

    Crowsinger says, "Someone is following us from the city, and now someone ahead knows we're coming?"

    "Or is this random," mutters Nisto.

    "It is not," says Eske'drai. He and Hera look up at Jalasko.

    "...what," he says.

    "I think it's time we knew more about our situation. How, exactly, did you acquire that map from the orcs?"

    Jalasko sneaks a look at Nisto, who won't meet his eyes. "Well… I traced rumors, bought information from neutral orcs, followed signs… tracker things, you know."

    "You said you killed several orcs," says Foal. "Could they be angry?"

    "Of course they're angry! I killed a shaman."

    Someone laughs. They turn and see that the halfling is smiling. The smile fades. "That wasn't a joke. It was very..." she frowns, "sad."

    Foal has a small fire going. "I find that when I kill people," she says, "someone is usually upset about it."

    "Let's talk about this," says Eske'drai. "You killed several of the local orcs, including a spiritual leader of some kind, to obtain a map that is, perhaps, a sacred artifact for them. In retaliation, they are sending monsters to kill us. Fair enough. And they know we are coming, of course, because why else would we steal the map except to use it?"

    "Where exactly," says Hera, "are these orcs?"

    Jalasko pulls out the map and walks over to the fire for light. After looking closely for a bit, he points to a spot near the foothills and says, "We are here." Then he points to a place almost directly south of their position. "There are pallisaded orc villages in this area."

    "Chances are good there are orcs closer than that," says Nisto.

    "I agree," says Eske'drai, "which leads to my second question."

    "Good," says Crowsinger, "because I think I know what you're going to ask."

    "You do?"

    She shrugs. "When I look for something, it's because I already know it exists."

    "Yes, that." The elf turns to Nisto. "You started this expedition. You hired Jalasko to find the map. How did you know of its existence when even the Archive did not?"

    "Should I begin cooking some meat," said Foal, "or wait for this conversation to end?"

    "Cook the meat," says Jalasko.

    "I used to be stationed in Krondol Fort," says Nisto with a sigh.

    "That explains why they were so friendly, and free with supplies," says Hera.

    "There were rumors of the cave, and the treasures within. Old legends from the time of Avendyr. No one could ever find it, and believe me, we tried. Then one day we found an orc who wore a gold necklace of human design, but obviously very old. Under interrogation, the orc revealed that the artifact had come from a sacred cave."

    There is silence for several seconds. Then the elf says, "At no point during our conversation in the Queen's Leg did it occur to you to warn us that we might be facing an army of orcs disgruntled that we intend to raid their sacred cave?"

    "It did occur to me, yes. Then Foal stabbed an eavesdropper, and for some reason I kept forgetting what I was about to say." Nisto looked up at the elf as if he suspected why that might be.

    "We eat," says the paladin, "we spend the night with two awake per watch, and then we move as quickly as we can into the mountains."


     

    continued in chapter three:

    https://seforums.pantheonmmo.com/content/forums/topic/12487/sword-of-serengeral-chapter-three

     

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at February 5, 2021 3:46 AM PST