A Bitter Choice
An incessant pounding caused an unpleasant wakefulness to return. The pounding reverberated throughout the room, steady and deep, traveling floor to bed to mat – and then rudely entered and explored each curve and cranny of the battered body. Not wanted, and indeed most unwelcome. The body ached, an impossibly painful ache that was unnatural. Unnatural to all except those who had wandered the halls of Rappan Athuk and lived to tell the tale. To those lucky few who survived even the briefest of entries into those cursed halls, the never ending ache of mind and body would become the most natural of being, as though pain and sorrow had forever replaced peace and restfulness. Life after Athuk was not the same – it could never be the same. It wore on even the mightiest of individuals both physically and mentally.
For now, it was the physical wounds that were being healed. Every type of beating and physical wounding that could be inflicted had been thrust upon these bones now prostrate upon the thin mattress. Falling and sliding down rocky slopes in utter darkness, body assaulted by all manner of weaponry – sword, maul, tooth and claw. Poison was the constant threat and companion. Arcane magic of all types were encountered – fire, cold, acid, force blasts. Magic that would strangle the mind, unnerving even the bravest of warriors. These wounds would all with time heal, could be cured with rest, leaving only a gently painful reminder to revisit the wounded when the cold of winter would cause aches to the aged – and now to the young and wounded.
But the most bitter wounds, those of evil magic, of undeath – would take much longer to heal. No common spell of healing cast by a cleric, nor draught of potion crafted by the alchemist, could fully cure the evil brought into this world by Orcus the Vile and inflicted upon those who would enter Athuk. Those were such wounds as one would be burdened with for all the rest of mortal waking days.
It would be long indeed before the mind would be strong enough again to be called healed to a state that allow one to rise from rest and function in a somewhat casual and natural form. It had been days since he and his, his, his…what could he call them. Funny, the thought had never occurred to him before. What were they called, and should they even be called anything other than ‘those adventurers of Athuk’? Certainly they had quested together for many months, and had shared in severe pain and grievous death. They had called each other by name, they had risked life and limb for each other, they had taken wounds meant for the others, and they had shared in the hard-earned rewards and treasure extracted from those whom they conquered.
Now lying on the bed, with the cursed rhythmic pounding continuing, it was this seemingly trivial matter that intruded into his wandering mind. What were they called? Individually, of the humans there was Kael the gunslinger. Abban the holy paladin bent on vengeance against the legion of Orcus. The rogue Sever. Eccial the disfigured, a mighty warrior clad in plate. Of the non-humans, Sabus the uplifting halfling poet bard. And finally himself, Mertat, the vengeful half-orc bred cleric.
Others had journeyed briefly with them during their adventures in Athuk – Lewthor the mage who had been consumed by the fires of the dragon. Sufi, that strange alchemist whose mind Athuk had consumed and warped. Raspar, the rotund clumsy wizard with the stammering speech. And there were others, others whose tale was part of their story, but whose entry was brief and often all too fatal.
But the group who now all slept, or lay awake being assaulted by the continuing cacophony and pounding at coming from the common room at Bristlebacks, though they were an cohesive unit, did not have a unique named identity.
There was a tale of another group of adventurers who recently had wandered the caverns of Athuk. In fact, they had just once again departed to delve a bit deeper into the dungeons. And they had some success, having visited the tomb several times, each time bringing forth items of magic and bags of gold. They had been celebrated in town, and had availed themselves of the fame and glory that townsfolk would bestow upon those whom they believed fought for the town – or at least who brought the town a measure of wealth and fortune. The town had named this band of adventurers the Fire Hawks. Or perhaps they had called themselves that. The name was certainly tied to their adventures, or so it was said. It was a catching name, and in its simplicity had a ring upon which the common people could cling. And certainly that identity had been useful to them, for the town of Zelkor now praised their name, using the familiarity brought by having a personal name and identity to form a closer bound of affection with the Fire Hawks.
But the companions with whom he now traveled had not assumed a name. In the eyes of Zelkor’s Ferry, they were merely a loose band of warriors and adventurers whose coming had coincided with the cursed fog now wrapping the town in its unnatural cloth. And the trade caravans, which once had regularly brought their goods and shared their wealth with the town, now they seldom arrived. And when they did, they brought tales of horror in the fog, of lost wanderings, and all too frequent attacks by the evils that now roamed the forests at will. These were the tidings that the town associated with him and his companions, and a cold shoulder had been offered when they arrived back in town – how long ago was it? Yes, it was only days, he was certain now. But it felt like weeks and months’ worth of pain had been inflicted upon his body in those few days while it healed itself of the aches. But did it really matter, for soon enough he would be summoned to continue the adventure. Now, the adventure meant rising from the bed, slipping on a boot and another, then finding and extinguishing the never ending source of this infernal racket.
The companions had certainly forged and earned their own identify with their exploits in Athuk. Destroying two temples of Orcus the Most Unwanted was an exploit upon which few could lay claim. But no name had been forthcoming from the townsfolk. So now the time had come to name their name. In a righteous and just world, the town would bestow that name. But these were unsettled times, and Rappan Athuk had no pity or care a just world. Since the town had not yet done so, they must come up with their own name. Much like their adventures in Athuk, they must depend and do for themselves alone, and count on no outside help or aid.
Standing up, Mertat curses himself for his stupidity. With his boots now on, he looks across the small room and spies his pants crumbled in a pile on the floor. Looking down, he sees indeed that only his boots he wore, and the rest was quite bare and naked. Only boots, bandages, and a multitude of Vrock pock scars now adorn his body. Cursing again, he snatches his clothes off the floor and tosses them on the bed. Taking a seat on the bed, he begins the process anew, first taking off the boots, then reaching for the pants. His mind truly needs more rest, for it was not functioning at a keen level at all.
Perhaps his other companions had similar wonderings, the same thoughts of what they should be called, and why they had no simple moniker. But they had been silent on the matter. Delving into Athuk demanded full attention of one’s wit, and left no spare time to ponder such simple pursuits. But no more. It was time to brand their deeds and glory so that there was no doubt who fought and sacrificed for the town. No doubt whose deeds performed the holding back of the great evil that was attempting to enter into the world.
But all cogent thoughts were impossible at the moment – for the cursed pounding continued. Louder it seemed to have grown, persistent, like great boulders falling far off a cliff only to slam abruptly onto hollow kegs, giving forth sounds and echoes that was impossible to ignore. Or perhaps the great poundings of a forge being busily plied in haste, working weapons in preparation for a sudden assault. It was now impossible to think any longer, or sleep, or even breathe a moment of peace. That continuing pounding must be stopped, and it must be stopped now.
Having now successfully and properly clothed himself, he steps through the door makes his way down the stairs. The busy and busty barmaid, Littlecups, is coming up the stairs with a tray full of mugs. She is a rather handsome, but otherwise unremarkable, except perhaps for the wideness of her hips. But the bit of clothing she wears is adorned with an emblem of a hawk rising from flames. It can’t be, but yes, it looks like it is.
Stopping her mid-step, Mertat asks “What in all that is holy that emblem?”
Coming to an abrupt stop, she looks up with a tired and exasperating look. “Ah, it lives. What’s that ye says? Ah, the patch. Nuthin’ more than the Fire Hawks, lovey.”
“What?” Mertat exclaims.
“Sure, sure” Littlecups continues. “Ol’ master Bristleback is a wily devel. Sho’re knows how to make an extra coin or two. The Fire Hawks came in from the dungeon last week all full of themselves as usual. Spreading coin, buyin drinks for the town, making quite the spectacle of themselves. Well, they gets to talking to Bristleback, and he convinces the Fire Hawks that what they needs is to make for themselves a bigger name. So’s they’s agree to give master Bristleback some coin, and we’s now in Bristleback’s Fire Hawks Tavern and Merchandise.”
Rubbing his great hands thru his unwieldy hair, Mertat mutters “Un-orcin’-believable”.
On the barmaid continues “So nows all the help wears these spes’al patches, and we have the mugs all remade with the Fire Hawk emblem upon them. They’s for sale, they’s is. An’ the locals, they been buying it up like crazy. Who would of thunk it, eh? Ol’ Master Bristleback – he’s a true bus’ness man. Can smell a way to earn a coin from across a field, he can.”
“Oh bother. Let me pass – I can’t take much more of this. Bristleback’s Fire Hawk Tavern. Unbelievable!” and Mertat brushes past the barmaid and enters the common room.
And here he finds the source of his distress. The incessant and rhythmic pounding emanates from here, and Mertat is not at all surprised, or pleased, of its source. On a small stage against the far wall, quite near the entry door, Sabus is pounding out a beat upon a large drum. Wearing his finest bard clothes, black below the waist, above a mix of red and yellow stripes, Sabus stands out quite clearly is all his silks. And he has evidently drawn quite the crowd, for the room is rather full for so early in the day. Though the crowd is large, they seemed enthralled for the moment, listening to Sabus as he continues his tale.
‘…and so ages long pass as the servant waits
Chained by magic, far from his master, yet near.
Against his will, held, helpless is he,
Unable to bring succor to he whom he’s bound.
But the heroes have opened the doors to the cell
The key their wit, their strength, and persistence their garb.
The great slab is moved, the servant breaks free
And rushes to his master, who for long he has missed.
Sabus continues pounding out the beat, and the echoes of the drum meld and blend with the melody of his voice.
And on wispy knee the servant prostrates
Begging forgiveness for leaving duty, his charge.
But the master, so wise, sees no fault is due
Not willingly was the servant exiled as such.
But rather by evil, that of Athuk, the crypts now defiled
Kept him from duty, as sworn, a deed most vile.
The master reaches down, stands him erect
And grants his pardon for sins not intended.
For Rappan Athuk though strong, cannot conquer all
Such fealty and love breaks the bounds of Orcus most vile,
And accepts the servant in return to his service as intended.’
Beating the drums to an intense flurry, he strikes a series of blows upon the drum and then raises his hands as in victory as the sound travels outside, and for the briefest of moments, the fog seems to have lifted as the tale takes wing from the tavern, etching its deeds and words of hope in the heart of all.
“The tale of the Titans,” Sabus concludes with a bow. “Offered as such by a member of the Halfling Titans!”
The tavern bursts into applause, and coins are tossed at Sabus which he gratefully accepts. Calls for more ale ring out, and the barmaid who earlier he had met on the stairs now is busy scurrying about and collecting mugs, adorned with the Fire Hawk, for refilling.
“The Halfling Titans, Sabus?” he asks, then declares with certainty, “I think not. Keep trying, though. For I can’t abide to hear any more about those clever and devilish Fire Hawks.”
Sabus nods his acceptance. “Agreed. The Halfling Titans is a weak attempt, I can do better.”
He nods. Looking about the room, he sees his other companions at a long table full of mugs, bowls, and trenchers. Though Sabus has stopped the pounding, his head continues pounding, now caught in the rhythm of the tale just told. Perhaps a bit of a bite and a quaff from those pitchers would ease the pounding.
Grabbing Sabus, he crosses the room and plops down on a chair with his friends.
“Looks like the cure of a drab of liquor is necessary for you, my fair friar” greets Kael. Pushing across a pair of empty mugs, Sabus quickly reaches out and fills them both. Keeping one for himself, he offering the second to Mertat, which is gratefully accepted.
“But the Halfling Titans, Sabus?” questions Kael. “My thinkings say no.”
“I know, I know” Sabus admits. “But never before have I been so stumped. And such a simple task this should be, should it not?”
“Simple indeed, oh shrewd yet befuddled bard” Kael agrees. “Apply some thought and allow some time, and the naming will come to you.”
As the mugs were filled, then drained, then filled again, the companions began to discuss their next course.
“It is no good, these townsfolk cursing our names behind our back” stated Sever. “I’ve been about, and they blame us for this rat-puss fog.”
“I’ve heard the same, Sever” confirmed Abban. “We must do something about it, but the origin of the mists, we are unclear. Though we all must assume the source is Athuk.”
“An easy guess, Athuk the cause” Sever retorts. “But it brings us no closer to solving the dung dropping mystery, does it.”
“That’s enough, Sever” intoned Abban. “Take heed to the lessons I’m providing. They are not for the occasional use.”
Rebutted, Sever drops his glaze into his cup, now sadly, at a poor deficit-filled position.
Sabus has once again gone to the stage, but this time is playing a few lively tunes. The tunes are all well-known, of a tavern sort of fair. Soon, some of the patrons begin bolting out snatches of songs that had been meted to the melodies. As the tavern becomes more lively, Odo Bristleback ventures over to the companions from his station behind the bar.
“Well, fine folk” he proclaims “seems like ye’ve done it again. Brought out some pretty treasures from Athuk, you have.”
“Trivial” declares Abban. “But if it aids us in the cleansing of that foul place, then it serves it purpose well.”
“It has certainly served me well. Since you’ve been about, business ha’ been quite good. Even now, what wit’ this cursed fog and caravans being interrupted.”
“Caravans interrupted?” asks Mertat. “I thought they were moving fine now. We certainly have done our part in curtailing the dragon and defeating other evils in the countryside. I’m surprised to hear there are more troubles.”
“Troubles indeed, and doubled” Odo confirms. “Argh, in fact, just a day yonder a new traveler came here and spoke about how the caravan he was traveling with was beset by unknown evils.”
“Do you know this travelers name” asks Mertat.
“No. He weren’t much in the shape for conversation when he arrived. But now that ye mention it, I do believe he did mention travels with a relative of yours, Master Mertat.”
“What?” exclaims Mertat. “You wait till now to reveal this to me?”
“A thousand pardons, sir” Bristleback pleas. “Wit’ business the way it be, there seems to be no time for thinking straight. Ach, I do hope I aren’t caused you much distress.”
“Distressed I am” Mertat scolds. “I’ve been expecting word from my kinsfolk, and this very well may be such.”
Mertat rubs his head, the pain still not fully gone. “Cut it out, Sabus!” he shouts.
Sabus had been having quite a merry time, and had been leading the folk in a number of songs, each one louder than the next. But what was worse, he had traded in his guitar for this blasted drum again.
Sabus looks at Mertat a bit confused, but seeing how the group was talking with Bristleback, he begs off the request for a new song and rejoins the companions.
“Sorry, Mertat” Sabus says. “Here, have a bit of this to drink.”
Handing Mertat a small vial, he continues “It will help ease the pounding between your ears.”
Mertat takes the draught and takes a small sip, turning an unexpected pleasant look to Sabus “Why, this is quite tasty stuff, Sabus.”
Sabus continues the instruction “You don’t think a potion I would concoct would taste nasty, now do you. That would be a disservice to my halfling heritage. Drink it all up, it will help.”
Mertat complies, finishing the vial and handing the empty back to Sabus. “Now, Bristleback, forgive my hastiness and anger, but tell me more of this traveler.”
Odo seems genuinely distressed, “Again, a gross of scores of pardons. But ye can find out more direct from the source, so they says. The gentle traveler is still wit’ us, and is now taking his rest in his room. I’m sure he’ll be down this evening for sup.”
“No time to wait” Mertat proclaims, standing up. “Which room?”
“Why, the first at the top of the stairs. Not me best room – I reserve those for you, good master. But he left strict instructions to not be disturbed. I’m sure he will be down directly. Ye know how I endeavor to ensure the rest of all my patrons.”
“Let’s go” Mertat tells the companions. Moving toward the stairs, the rest of the companions begin to follow. Poor Bristleback is left behind wringing his hands, calls to Littlecups ordering food and wine to be delivered to the stranger’s room. Perhaps that will buy a measure of forgiveness from his newest guest.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Mertat tries to open the door only to find it locked.
“Sever” he says “you have five seconds to open this or I’m using the halfling to bust it down!”
“Now that would be something to see” grins Sever. Sabus strategically repositions himself a few steps down the stairs. “Ok, ok, move to the side. I’ll need but three of those seconds you so kindly offered.
Pulling a slender rod from his sleeve, he inserts it deftly into the keyhole. A quick twist, the door opens, with Sever striding directly in.
Lying on the bed in the small room, a startled young male elf was rudely disturbed from his rest. Jumping up and demanding to know what was going on, he was quickly interrupted, then interrogated by the companions.
Realizing he has little choice, he begins to relay his tale. His name is Jeru, and he has come to Zelkor’s Ferry on a mission from his guild. He is a member of the College of Arcane Secrets. He has been assigned by the College to investigate the mystery of the fog surrounding the countryside. He has made some limited progress, believing there is some other dimensional attachment about the fog. He relates how the caravan he was with traveled for days and days, much longer than the five days expected to arrive at Zelkor’s Ferry. Then the caravan was beset by monstrous creatures, and he was able to flee, eventually wandering alone into town.
“Do you know anything of who the caravan belonged to. Was there any carrying the name of Septim along?” Mertat asks.
“Yes, yes indeed” the elf replies. “In fact the caravan was of the Septim clan, who were traveling here to establish a new shop. What with the new prosperity about, they felt they could do quite well.”
“Quite well, indeed” muses Mertat. And then to himself “but no regular merchant shop or business are we.”
“Who was in command of the caravan, elf” Mertat asks.
“The name again is Jeru. And I will answer your question. Yes, I know the person in command of the caravan, and we spoke quite often. His name was Septim. Septim Sertat, in fact. Do you know him?”
“Yes. He is my brother. Now again, where is he?”
“Lost at the caravan, I’m afraid. But he was alive when I last saw him. The caravan was overrun, and everyone scattered. I still am amazed I’m here to tell the tale.”
“Amazed, for sure” Sever says. Looking intently at Jeru, Sever continues “Quite fortunate that you escaped with even little injury.”
“Hold on there, good sir” Jeru defends. “I am not defenseless, and can take quite good care of myself. Unfortunately, when the caravan scattered, the fog was thick and I soon lost contact with them. Movement thru the fog is, unusual. Let me expand.”
“First, let me tell you a bit about what has made Zelkor’s Ferry so interesting to the College. You see, we are quite the active guild, and use as our base in the great elven city of ldara in Kyonin. We are in action one of the greatest suppliers of magical items for Golarion. But our main interest is the exploration of magic and magical events across Golarion. So it was that we have recently been drawn to the area around Rappan Athuk.
“You see, we have always keep watch over the area, watching that the evil that persists here does not spread. Evil like good needs an outlet, and as long as the evil is contained, that is fine. But of late, it seems that unnatural things have been happening. It started with a surge of magic items being pulled from the dungeon. It is not unusual that this area is littered with magic items, for so many adventurers have attempted, and often failed, to try their hand at the Dungeon. But what was unusual that many powerful items were being brought forth. That could only happen when one reaches deep into the bowels of Athuk. That has not happened in many lives of humans.
“So we sent our embassies and agents here to Zelkor’s Ferry, and heard of a great group of adventurers that had met with some success in the dungeon. With the demand for more powerful magicks being asked, and the availability of gold now seemingly more abundant, the College place Zelkor’s Ferry on its regular visit list.
“Of course, we have ways to instantly transport ourselves and goods across the whole of Golarion. And on each visit to Zelkor’s Ferry, we heard more and more of the adventurers of Athuk. During one such visit, one of our traders met with the Fire Hawks, who laid much claim to the successful adventures.”
Mertat grumbled at this. “Fire Hawks! Fire Hawks! It wasn’t they with the success. We’ve had much more success in Athuk. The Fire Hawks are but a needle prick on a gnome’s backside.”
“No cause to be offended” the elf continued. “I’ll be sure and hear your entire tale of adventures, then will gladly take the same back to the College. What is your band’s name?”
Mertat glared at Sabus, who shrugged. Moving across to the table upon which the barmaid had silently set a tray with a pitcher and several mugs, Mertat filled a mug and drank deeply.
After a few awkward moments of silence, Jeru clears his throat “Um, let me see. Let’s continue. Ah yes, Zelkor’s Ferry.”
“As the wealth of Zelkor’s Ferry increase, so too did our visits increase. But we began to notice a fog begin to settle on the area. It was light at first, and in truth we thought nothing of it. Being so close to the lake, it seemed at first wholly natural. But it started to become harder to transport directly to the town using our magic. Our magicians would cast the magic, and would feel certain that they were accurate in the castings. But we would end up landing well far away from the intended location. And when one such trip ended up in the river, with the resultant loss of our goods being transported, it drew much more attention from the College leaders.
“So we delved a bit deeper and had several casters involved for a while. But soon, it became impossible to land anywhere near Zelkor’s Ferry, or even Rappan Athuk. It seems as a barrier has been laid upon the area stopping magicks from the outside to enter the area. So I was sent to investigate. I was able to be brought to the town to the west – whose name seems to escape me right now. But no matter, while I was there I met Sertat, your brother, Mertat. They agreed to allow me to join their caravan, as they thought I could lend some to their defense. For you see, Sertat expressed concern about their safety, for the road to Zelkor’s Ferry had become quite treacherous.
“Now I am getting close to the end of my tale. We expected to arrive at Bristleback’s in about four or five days. But after a week traveling along the road in the fog, we became a bit concerned – what was taking us so long. After a few more days of travel, we knew that something unnatural was happening. I attempted to learn more about the fog, but my delvings were unsuccessful. There was nothing to it but to continue on the road. For indeed, we were sure we were on the correct road. As our foodstuffs began to dwindle, we began to push on day, if such it could be called in the heavy fog, and night.
“It was one such night that we were beset upon by creatures. I didn’t get a good look at them, for I had gone a bit ahead of the caravan. But I heard the cries and sound of battle. As I tried to get back to the caravan, I found my path obstructed. Dodging sudden attacks by dark creatures, in the dim light I fled down the road, pursued for some time. But after a distance, the pursuit stopped, and I continued on my way. And after goodly distance, perhaps stumbling for five hours or so, no more, I found myself here at Zelkor’s Ferry.
“Old Odo was quite kind to put me up, and I’ve been here a few days resting and recovering. I’ve tried to contact my College, but there seems to be something blocking my efforts. Well, I’ve rested enough. And since it seems like the prospect of further uninterrupted rest is quite impossible for anyways” with that, he turned his eye to Sever who had been keep himself busy by polishing and cleaning his various lockpicks and tools, “I believe I’ll get back down to the business that brought me here.”
“Ok. So now we’ve heard his tale,” Abban states. “What are we to do, though?”
“Well” Mertat grumped. “First, an apology. Jeru, please accept our apologies for the abrupt intrusion. We were in haste, and in fear for my brother, so for a moment not acting properly.”
“No, no, that’s quite alright” Jeru accepting the apology. “If it was my brother I was seeking, I would be just as, abrupt, as you in getting answers. But come, have a drink.”
With a wave of his hand, Jeru gestures towards the tray with the mugs and pitcher. With a few motions, the cups line up in the air, and the pitcher proceeds to fill each with an equal pour of Bristleback’s finest.
“A prestidigitator!” Sabus exclaims. “Since we lost our brave yet impetuous Lewthor, we sure could use talents like yours with our group.”
“Hold on a moment. Are you the Fire Hawks?” Jeru asks. With a grimace, Mertat shakes his head and turns once more to his mug.
“Well, no bother. I’ve been meaning to seek them out and see if I could join them for an adventure or two. They seem to have a fine grasp on this Rappan Athuk – certainly the college has been very impressed with all the deeds accomplished. They may also know more about this fog as well. Plus, they’ve got quite the following, sturdy fine lads if only half the tale I hear is true.”
“More likely only a quarter of a portion of the half is true…” begins Mertat when suddenly a loud commotion is heard from down stairs. “What in Orcus’ nose hairs is going on down there?” Mertat turns and heads down the stairs.
Sever shakes his head, a bit surprised at the roughness of Mertat’s language. But he follows along with the rest of the group, Jeru included. As they re-enter the common room, there is a middle-aged man in obvious distress, quite distraught.
“…gone, I tells ye. They be gone, and I knows they be in trouble” he cries out. “Won’t a one of you mighty warriors be willing to help?” Heads turn briefly to the man’s pleas, but then turn away. Many are the woes of the world, and not all of them can be cured, and fewer still are those who be found willing to the task.
Odo has stepped forward and lay on hand on the distraught man “Ease thyself, Gimbor. Come, sit down by the fire and tell me more.” Leading the man to a table, Odo looks up at Mertat with a beseeching look. Mertat heads over to the table. With a groan, Sever shakes his head and follows the rest of the companions to hear yet another tale of woe. Looks like the rest he had been expecting in town will be shortened considerably.
Odo has seated the man, who now is drinking from a mug the server has brought over. A sloth of foam pours down the side of the mug as he drinks, briefly fouling and obscuring the Fire Hawk emblem.
“Well, that’s a minor relief anyway” thinks Mertat as he takes a seat next to Gimbor. “What ails you, friend? You seem to be in much distress.”
Looking up at Mertat, then to the others gathered around the table, Gimbor folds his hands and pleads with them “Please, kind masters. You must help me. Me poor wife, my little child. Lost they are. Gone. The fog has them. Please can you help me?”
Mertat takes the man’s hands, and says a brief prayer. Gimbor seems to calm a bit. “Now, start over. Tell us exactly what happened to your kin.”
“They’s gone. Gone! Into the fog. Me wife and I, we’z lived here in Zelkor’s for many years. I helps with the dock, I do. Good work, and plenty of it, especially of late as more people been coming to town since you folk showed up and ventured into Rappan Athuk. But of late, traffic has slowed, it did. This blasted fog had settled on the land, and it make this no good place to visit no more.”
“Me wife, she becomes afraid. We all hear the tales of the beasts. In the woods, in the air, in the water. She’s be afraid them finally may come into town. Me pour little child, she so defenseless. So me’s wife, she’s had enough. Takes the child early this morning and up and leaves. Back to her family she goes. By themselves they do. I was working the docks, and didn’t know until I comes home and finds them gone. A note they leaves, telling me that since I won’t leave, they must. It’s my fault – we should ‘ad left afore now. Now I’m alone. And they’re alone. I’m fearful afraid for them, I is. The monsters ‘ill get em, I’m sure. Please, can you help find them?”
Mertat looks at Gimbor sadly. If they’ve left hours ago and entered the fog alone, Mertat knows most likely they have already met their fate.
“We have other duties to attend to, Gimbor. The fog is indeed nasty, but we are leaving this evening to seek out my brother and kin who also are lost in the fog. They were coming in the caravan recently waylaid on the West road. We need go immediately, and unfortunately have not enough time to look for your wife.”
“But please, kind master” Gimbor pleads again. “The West road is the road me wife must ‘ave took. That’s the shortest way to her kinfolk, it is. She’s a petite thing, and with me little girl she be. If West road you go, can’t you also seek them out?”
Mertat looks to the group, who by now know it is to the west they go this time. Though Sever is scowling, he nods his head in acceptance. The others agree as well, with Eccial giving his consent with a series of grunts and noises.
“I must stay here and continue my studies, Mertat” Abban explains. “You know we left behind some unpleasantness in Athuk, and need to discover the best way to fully cleanse the rest of the second Temple soon. Else all our efforts will be in vain, and the dead will rise again for us to only fight once more.”
“Agreed. You and Kael should continue your work. We’ll need to go back soon and continue our journey in Athuk. But I cannot leave my brother in the fog without seeking him out. And it seems like we have yet another task we’ll need to be about.”
“Fine. I’ll continue my studies. There are a few more manuscripts I’d like to review which should the answers we seek. Go, find your brother, and when you return, we’ll continue back to Athuk.”
Turning to the group, Mertat asks “When shall we go?”
“If we’re going to go on your errand, let’s be off and done with it” Sever declares. “No need to wait for the bell to sound to give advance warning to our enemies. Let’s leave right now – we’ve all had a bit of a rest, so now’s as good a time as any.”
“All right. Gimbor,” Mertat turns to the man “we’ll go and look for your woman and child. But know that the fog is thick, and if they’ve wandered off the road, it will be nigh impossible to find them. But we will do our best.”
“Thank you, kind sirs” Gimbor cries. “Ye are truly mightily brave. Please bring me back my wifes and me kid. But what shall I calls ye. You’re not the Fire Hawks. Do you ‘ave a name?”
Grimacing yet again, Mertat stands up from the table and turns to Odo “Looks like our brief rest is done here for now. We’ll be off immediately.” Odo wishes them luck, and then turns back to consoling Gimbor, who now seems at least bit more at ease.
A short while later, fully garbed, the companions gather outside Bristleback’s Tavern. Jeru is also there.
“May I join your outing?” he asks. “I believe I can lead you to where the caravan was attacked. Plus I would like another chance to get a closer inspection of the area. I’ve tried a few spells as you gathered your gear, and am greatly concerned. It seems the fog gripping the town has grown stronger. Perhaps if I get a distance away from town, I’ll be able to divine a clue as to from where the fog is coming.”
“Oh, you’re coming along, all right” declares Mertat. “Now, lead the way, and start your tale again at the beginning, and tell me every detail about your ordeal and my brother again.”
The group heads out down the west road as Jeru retells his tale. The fog has indeed grown thicker than the last time they ventured through the forest. It seems to have grown thicker as nightfall has approached. Jeru confirms that this is how the fog works. It is greatest and thickest at night. Night is also the time of greatest danger, for as the caravan traveled, they could feel the presence of other creatures stalking their passage most clearly at night.
The dirt road has been well traveled through the years. Hard pack earth provides a sturdy foundation for the caravans that pass along this road, to and from Zelkor’s Ferry and destinations beyond. But there are a few signs of disrepair the further from town they travel. Areas that have been partially washed away in rains, hastily repaired by wagoneers more interested in getting their goods moved than an enduring repair.
The forest is close along this stretch of road. Traveling along, there are no houses or dwellings – the forest is still quite untamed in this area. From time to time, a fallen tree partially obstructs the path, but not enough to stop wagons from passing. At each of these fallen obstacles, the party slows and moves carefully forward. There is a watchfulness in the forest, which seems to close in on the party as night deepens. Torches are brought out to help light the way, but they illumine only a small area. The lights seem muted in the fog, much as sound. Though the ground is hard-packed, their feet stride silently onward, even through the occasional drift of leaves scattered along their way.
After only about two hours, the companions stumble across a series of wagons abandoned along the road. Carrying torches, Sever and Mertat move forward quickly through the wagons and see no sign of life.
There are four wagons lined up in the road, and only a few dead horses that teamed the wagons were found. The wagons are large, the type that merchants use to haul large loads of goods. Each wagon would be pulled by a team of six to eight horses, but only a few dead horses lie on the ground. Examining the reigns, it is apparent that for the horses missing, the reigns were cut free. There are hoof prints and drag marks leading north off the path, leaving a trail of dried blood behind.
Moving through the area and giving it a closer examination, Sever discovers that there are great piles of stickiness scattered about. Touching the substance, Sever fears that he knows the source. These are spider webs, or rather webs of some creature greater than any spider he has ever encountered. The webs are scattered all about, and even in some of the wagons the webs can be found.
Mertat points out scratch marks down the sides of several of the wagons. Looking closer, the marks appear to be very recent – fresh exposure of the wood is apparent. The marks themselves do not appear to have been made by any type of weapon – neither sword nor axe. Rather, they appear to be some type of claw or maul marks.
The rest of the group has moved up and begin searching the wagons and the nearby woods for signs of life. But all is still, and besides the few dead horses, there is no other sign of either the caravan party or the attackers.
Moving through one of the wagons, Sever sees that the wagon’s goods were hardly touched. There are chests and bags of goods stacked, virtually untouched. Standard merchant fare – cloth and fabric is mostly within this wagon. No fancy silks, rather just sturdy cloth that those who work hard, and who have a bit of success, would wear.
As he rummages through one of the sacks, Sever hears a noise coming from one of the chests. Very faint, but distinct, a slight scraping noise. Gesturing to Sabus who was himself close by examining some of the webs on the ground, Sever moves over to the large chest. The chest, like the others in the wagon, appears unlocked. Drawing out a dagger, Sever quickly flips open the lid and shines a torch high aloft.
A screech comes from the chest, apparently full of clothes. Sever digs in the chest and locates a small girl, now quite lively and loud, crying and calling for help from her mommy.
The girl is no more than eight or nine years of age, and is dressed in common workers garb. Her dark hair is quite disheveled, and tear are now freely falling leaving trail marks on her dirty cheeks.
Sabus jumps up into the wagon and goes to the girl. Sever, who has now lifted off the ground with one hand by the scruff of her dress, motions to Sabus for help. Sabus admonishes Sever to place the girl on the floor, which he does, and then backs up a bit to ease his ears from the screams.
Sabus kneels down and speaks to the child “Hush, hush, little one. No one is here to hurt you, you be assured of that. All is fine – they can’t get you anymore.”
As soon as Sever released the girl, she scurried back as far as she could in the wagon and has stopped screaming. But she continues to whimper and cry, and Sabus’ heart goes out to the forlorn one.
“Here now, sweet little child. There is nothing to be afraid of. Look, my name is Sabus. I’ll take care of you.”
The child looks at Sabus, and then past him to Sever who has picked up his dagger again.
“Sever, but away the weapon. There’s no need for that.”
Sabus turns back to the child. “You’ll be fine, child. No one’s going to hurt you – I promise.”
“Really” the child cries. “I’m so afraid.” The child gives a shake she stops the crying, but tears still drip from her eyes. “My mommy told me to stay here in the chest and hid. Let me go back in the chest so when she comes back she’ll find me.”
“Of course, if you want to, you can get back in the chest. But you’re safe now us. I’m with some other brave warriors, and you’ll be fine.” Mertat has now looked in to see what the commotion is.
“The Fire Hawks?” she asks. “Oh, my pa and ma have told me everything about you. You’re so brave. Everyone knows about you!”
Sabus takes a breath before continuing, waving his hand at Sever who is snickering behind him. Looking behind him, he sees Mertat shaking his head and walking away grumbling to himself.
“No, we’re not the Fire Hawks. But we know them. We just came from Zelkor’s Ferry, where they live, and we know how brave the Fire Hawks are.”
“That’s where I live to. Are you their friends?” she asks.
“Well, yes. Anybody who is fighting evil like the Fire Hawks are our friends. In fact, we were just about to go and meet the Fire Hawks on their adventure.”
The girl now creeps forward. “I like you, Sabus. I can trust you, can’t I?”
“Of course. And I like you too. You know my name. What’s your name?”
“I’m Emilily. My mommy and me are going to grandmommies house. Can you take me there?”
“Emilily – such a pretty name. Your mommy must love you very much. Do you know where your mommy is? Or your daddy?” Sabus asks.
“My daddy is back home. Mommy says he has to work some more at the boats, and he’ll be coming soon. But my mommy – she told me to hide in this chest when noises started coming from the forest. Then I hid, and then I heard a lot of screaming, and I was afraid. Then, there was no more screaming. But I did like mommy told me. I hid in the chest until you found me.”
“Ok. Well, we haven’t seen your mommy. Can you come out with me and we can talk with my other friends? And we’ll see if we can find your mommy.”
The girl wraps herself around the leg of Sabus as they climb down out of the wagon. The rest of the others gather about.
“Well, there are two trails leading into the forest, one to the north, the other south” Jeru says.
“Bad web” utters Eccial. Pulling out his sword, it suddenly blazes with fire along its entire length. Waving it through a swatch of the webs using this flaming sword, they quickly incinerate in a whoosh. “It ev’ry’ere. Be bad.’
“Careful with that, Eccial” Mertat admonishes. “We don’t know what lighting up that web may bring.”
Jeru continues “I found this little trinket along the path leading southward.” Pulling out a thin silver necklace, the girl squeals in delight “That’s my mommies. Daddy gave it to her at summer feast. Did you find her, is she here?”
Jeru looks questioningly at the girl “No, child. I’m afraid not. But I’m pretty sure she went into the woods. There’s a nice small trail leading off that way. We’ll be able to find her.”
“What about the north trail?” Sever asks.
“A much larger trail. It seems most of the beasts of burdens were either taken or drug off that way. Also, there seem to be bits of discarded clothing going that way. Whatever went that way, they did not go willingly.”
Eccial has turned his attention once again to the webs. As he touches one blob of webs with this fire sword, a dark shape suddenly drops from the trees. Other dark shapes drop from the trees and come scurrying out from the brush and attack the party.
The creatures that attacked were monstrous sized spiders. Their bodies were covered in dark mottled black hair. The size of a large mastiff, they lashed out with long hairy legs, pinchers on their end snapping with loud clicks. With the legs included, the spiders’ size was more than doubled, provided an excellent natural protection to its body. Large domed eyes also sat atop their body, giving them a view all around, while their large fanged mouths opened wide, dripping a nasty bubbly viscous substance.
Eccial had been the first attacked, and soon found himself bound in a huge tangled mass of webs that one of the spiders launched from its underside. Soon, other spiders began tossing about the webs, and Sever also found himself stuck in the mess.
Fighting through the webs, both Eccial and Sever manage to break free, as Sabus has grabbed the girl and backed up against the wagon. Lashing out with his whip, Sabus attacks the nearest spiders trying to trip them. But the spiders are nimble on their many legs, dodge the whip lash and moving in delivering several nasty bite wounds upon Sabus. Soon, Sabus finds himself also stuck in the webs. But he somehow manages to persist with his whip attacks, protecting the girl from the nasty creatures.
Now freed from the webs, Eccial and Sever begin to attack with furor, avoiding the clicking and grasping claws on the legs of the spiders. But Jeru is not so lucky. Bitten by one of the foul creatures, he slips to his knee as he fights off a wave of sickness. Thus exposed, he is attacked and bitten again. Mertat then leaps in and bashes several of the spiders, who dodge back out of the way giving Jeru a bit of respite.
Eccial and Sever had joined forces, and now several of the spiders have been killed. With the flames of Eccial’s sword burning brightly, the spiders find this party is not so easy prey as they had expected. One by one, the spiders begin to slink away. Soon the party is alone to heal their wounds.
Mertat goes to tend to Jeru, offering several potions to re-invigorate the elf. Sever also requires aid as he has taken a number of wounds. While Mertat deals out his aid, Eccial goes moves about the abandoned caravan burning the last remnants of the webs in the area.
“We mus’ go” Eccial manages to croak. “Go.. now.”
The party then gathers around and considers their options.
“It’s no good choice laid before us” Jeru speaks. It appears the mother of this poor child has been taken southward, where the majority of the spiders have retreated. But to the north, the caravan members have been taken, likely along with Mertat’s brother.”
“No choice at all” Mertat declares. “The mother chose her own fate, but my brother was taken. We need to go and try and find my brother immediately. Who knows what evils may befall him.”
“But you promised” squeals the girl. “Sabus, don’t let these mean people leave my mommy. I want my mommy, please save her. You promised.”
Sabus turns to Emi “We’ll do our best. Don’t worry, we’ll bring back your mother safe and sound.” Turning to the party, he continues “We have a duty here. Mertat, your brother must survive on his own for a while. It appears he was taken with the rest of the caravan. We can only hope that buys us a bit of time. But the girl’s mother – she’s been taken off alone, and has no help at all. We must go to her first.”
Mertat bows his head “Flaming pig puss!” Sever looks up surprised at Mertat’s curse. “This is no good choice – abandon my brother, or abandon this poor girl’s mother. I fear whomever to try and rescue first, will only lead to vileness bestowed upon the other.”
“I know – neither option is good. Seems like we’ve had many of these situations of late. But you know which we must attempt first.”
“You’re right, of course, Sabus. But if we’re to be about it, let’s go right away with all speed.”
Reaching into his bag, he produces a number of new torches and hands them out to the party. Quickly lighting the torches, he says “Sabus, looks like the child has taken a liking to your leg – keep that little girl close to you. She’s your responsibility.”
With Mertat leading the party south from the trail, they soon find themselves in a tangled dark and moist brush. Shortly a stream is crossed, whose muddy bottom makes the footing slippery and treacherous. High overhead, the trees tower, their heights obscured by the dark fog. The torches prove to be of little benefit, giving forth the barest of light, just scarcely enough to keep the party in touch as they move farther and farther south.
Within a few hundred yards, the party begins to encounter sticky web masses streaming down from the trees. Continuing further, the webs seem to multiple, slowing the forward progress of the party as they struggle through the sticky masses.
Sniffling, Emilily weaves and clings ever more tightly to Sabus, as an uneasy feeling begins to settle on the group. Sensing the fear and an approaching presence, the party stops and gathers close to themselves. Casting the light about as much as possible, Sever notices large man-sized bundles hanging high up in the trees in the still wind of the forest. Like flies wrapped in web, each awaits its turn to be sucked dry and consumed at the leisure of the spider. Pointing out the bundles, they consider the poor possibility of climbing the trees, heavy hung with webs, to investigate. But the feeling of uneasiness increases, and from the darkness, loud noises surge toward them from all around.
Looking about, the torchlight reflects off numerous sets of shining green eyes. Totally surrounded, the party spreads out a bit to seek out better positions. Sabus grabs Emilily and moves to the center of the party, hoping to protect her as much as possible. A song to lift the party’s spirits is raised by the bard, and the spiders spring to the attack.
For spiders they were. The encounter at the caravan was just a mild pre-cursor, a limited raid by a few spiders hoping to find some easy prey to drag back to their nest. But now, the party had intruded into the domain of the spiders, into their very home site and lair. Enraged at the intrusion, and yet delighted for the morsels of food being so easily delivered, they begin the attack.
Soon, the spiders are swarming all over the adventurers, who begin to fight back and squish the soft creatures. Eccial continues the successes he had when the spiders attacked at the caravan, swinging and striking with deadly efficiency. Sever maneuvers to use Eccial as flanking support, basing a number of the spiders to the side. But Jeru is once again finding difficulties with his spells. Using magic to enhance his swords, he finds he is too distracted by the swarming spiders to actually hit any of them. Vainly he continues to attack, but he has at least distracted a number of spiders from those who are doing the most damage.
But soon, the party becomes aware of a greater menace. From the trees nearest to Sever, two huge gargantuan spiders rumble forward. The oldest of spiders, these two had for many long years delved and cast webs in the forest. Fattened by the many offerings they had received from travelers along the forest road, they had brought forth many spawnings, all who now moved in the attack.
Even before the arrival of the two great spiders, the party had struggled fending off the smaller spiders just due to their overwhelming numbers. While the spiders find it difficult to penetrate the armor and defensive enchantments laid upon the party, sheer numbers are beginning to have affect. Several of the spiders have been able to deliver their poison upon the party, sickening to varying degrees Sever and Jeru and Mertat. Even Sabus, fending off the spiders to protect Emilily as much as possible, has been bitten and feels weakened.
With the number of spiders now swarming all about, Sever realizes that facing the two great spiders would be too much for the party to handle. Suffering from a bite wound of his own, Sever in desperation pulls out a potion and quaffs it quickly as he retreats back towards the party trying to get the party to form a tighter defensive circle. But it won’t be enough. Seeing the huge spiders advance, Sever understands he must slow down or stop their progress if they are to have enough time to deal with the smaller spiders before having to fend off the looming menace of the great spiders.. So he reaches into a pouch and pulls out a gem that he had just purchased a day ago at Zelkor’s Ferry.
Casting the yellow gem at the large spiders, a clap of thunder, and a rumble of earth shakes the ground. Great clogs of soil erupt from the earth, tossing branches and small trees up into the air. Erupting from the soil, a huge mass of earth grows, quickly forming a huge creature made of earth and rock, standing level with the two great spiders.
Moving forward, the mass swings large meaty dirt clogs of fists, striking out at the spiders. Delivering massive blows with his fists of earth, the spiders take massive wounds. The earth elemental moves with unnatural speed, forcing the great spiders to focus their attention on the new threat and intrusion to their den.
The great spiders focus their attacks upon the elemental, and climb over the elemental delivering massive bites, tearing great chunks of earth from the elemental. But the poison that the spiders’ spittle delivers proves to be ineffective against the unnatural creature. The elemental continues to swing its meaty appendages, causing more and more damage upon the spiders. But the elemental is over matched, and the two great spiders renew the attack with furor. With a few final massive bites, and claw bites from their many legs, the elemental is burst asunder, collapses into a great mound of inert earth, and is dissolved. But it has performed its duty, and has given the party the time it needs to gain the upper hand in the melee.
Taking advantage of the delay, Eccial and Sever have continued to deliver great blows upon the smaller spiders, greatly reducing their ranks. Mertat has slipped in and out of combat delivering blows, and healing the hurts of the warriors to keep them at their most efficient killing form. And Sabus has maintained protection for Emilily while casting aid to assist his companions.
With the demise of the earth elemental, the two great spiders now leap and advance upon the party. Scanning the scene, they see many of their young offspring spiders have been demolished and destroyed. Many long years have they nursed their young ones, and to see them now so callously discarded and killed enrages the beasts. They charge straight into combat and grasp both Jeru and Sever in their maws, delivering their deadly poison into their veins.
Eccial discards his last small spider, and sees the assault of the two large spiders. Himself full of rage, he charges directly into the great spiders, delivering great and powerful cuts upon the beasts, dark and bubbly blood spraying from their deep and massive wounds. Mertat also senses the moment of desperation and need, and charges in, holding aloft a magical gem which beams a painful searing light into the eyes of the beasts.
Taken by surprise by the fury of the party’s attack, the great spiders reconsider their assault, and slowly attempt to withdraw. For long years they have lived, and they have fought many foes. They now understood the power of the party they face, and understood even more the danger of permanent death. But Eccial will not allow the retreat. He follows the beasts as they attempt to back away, and cuts off several limbs thus dropping them to the ground. The spiders attempt one last time to scurry away. But Eccial pursues, and with the rest of the party now wholly focused on the great spiders, delivers the final killing blows upon the beasts.
As both great spiders succumb and curl up in death, the last few remaining smaller spiders flee into the trees. With their masters destroyed, they must now protect themselves so that their clan will not be totally destroyed. They will lie in wait, like their sires before them, lying in wait while rebuilding their strength – until they can come forward once again and exact their revenge upon humankind.. But for now, it is to the deep caverns beneath the earth they will hide. Plenty of sustenance is available in the caverns, vermin and rats and other small cave dwelling creatures – though none as sweet and delicious as the humans upon which they are accustomed to feeding upon. But for now, their forest lair is left to Eccial’s mighty sword and the rest of his companions.
With the last of the spiders either destroyed or dispersed, the party quickly gathers together to assess their health. Mertat turns once again to his potions to aid Sever and Jeru, and begins calling upon his gods to heal the combat wounds incurred during the combat. Soon, though, the party feels healthy enough to look around.
Up in the trees, they now see over twenty cocoons that the spiders had hung, cocoons from which the spiders had feasted. Now refreshed, Sever climbs up into the trees and begins to cut down the cocoons, dropping them down to Eccial who cuts open each in the hope they is life within some. But bones of humans and elves tumble out, both adult and child, as one after another cocoon reveals nothing but a painful and terrifying death by the victim so encased. But in one cocoon, a woman, barely breathing, tumbles free. Quickly administering a healing spell on the woman, Mertat lifts the woman’s head to deliver a bit of water.
Watching with decreasing hope as each bundle is opened, only to reveal another horror, Emilily stays clinging to Sabus, who is stroking the girls hair in a vain attempt to sooth the child. But seeing the lady now freed from the cocoon, a joy of recognition spreads across her face. Emilily leaps from Sabus embrace, rushing forward crying in tears for her mother. Mertat checks on the woman once more, who has reached out and embraced the child, crying tired tears of joy upon being reunited with her daughter, and the party withdraws a bit to grant the mother and daughter a moment for their private embrace and reunion.
The party gathers to consider their next move. It is clear to all that the rescued mother and child need returning to Zelkor’s Ferry as soon as possible. In their weakened state, they certainly will be unable to travel any great distances. But there is a feeling of urgency to follow the other trail from the ransacked caravan and attempt to locate Mertat’s brother as soon as possible. So the decision is made for Mertat and Sever to escort mother and daughter back to town with the use of a spell of teleportation. That would be the quickest means. They could then use the spell to quickly return back to the party and then continue on their second mission.
But Sever feels that they must finish business here first with the spiders. There are many bodies, the spiders’ victims, which have been freed from the cocoons. They deserve to be laid to rest in a sign of respect of their life, rather than leave their bones lying on the ground for the creatures of the forest to further defile.
Mertat is in angst over the decision, for he feels that time is of the essence. But he understands the need to respect the corpses. So while the mother and daughter rest, taking comfort in each other’s arms, a trench is dug from where the earth elemental had erupted from the earth. The bodies are laid in the trench, and then covered with the earthen remains of the elemental which had fought to defeat the victims’ bane. Covering the bones with earth, Mertat completes the brief ceremony. Speaking prayers over the pit so that these bones thus enshrined will lay undisturbed from disturbance, he casts forth a prayer so that the spirits thus released may rest in their proper peacefulness.
The deed thus completed, Mertat explains to the mother what must now be done, who understands and quickly agreeing to return to Zelkor’s Ferry.
Emilily rushes over to Sabus and delivers him a great hug. “Thank you again, my brave warrior. Please come back to town soon to see me. My daddy will be so happy.” Reaching up on her toes, she delivers a quick kiss upon Sabus cheek as he rubs her hair.
‘Go on along now with you mommy. And be sure to tell your friends who helped rescue you and your mother.”
Rushing over to Mertat, she holds hands in a circle with her mother and Sever, as Mertat casts the spell to transport back to town. And just as their bodies begin to shimmer, Emilily shouts out “Thanks again, Fire Hawks. I’ll never forget you.”
Sabus opens his mouth to correct the girl, but is too late as they are whisked away back to town. Eccial begins to cackle as Sabus grinds his hands together in frustration, marching back through the woods and back to the caravan to await Mertat and Sever’s return.
Several hours go by, and Eccial, Sabus and Jeru begin to wonder where Mertat and Sever are. It should have only taken a short time to deliver the child and return, but hours have passed. During those hours, they did rummage thru the caravan and managed to push them off to the side of the road. As this caravan belonged to Mertat’s family, perhaps he would want to try and arrange the bringing of the wagons into town.
Time was also spent reviewing the few trinkets they had discovered among the spider’s webs. Several small bags of coins. A small shield, very light but which glowed with magic was also discovered, as were a number of potions and a necklace.
As they waiting, they huddled together over a small fire they had managed in the middle of the road. The small flames gave off a meager light and even less heat in the cold foggy night. Finally, just as thoughts of adopting an alternate course were being considered, Mertat and Sever pop up in the road a short distance away.
Coming over to the others, Mertat says “Well, that was quick indeed. The father was quite grateful for our efforts. And the rest of the townsfolk were quite happy with this good deed as well. It seems we may now even be making a small name for ourselves.”
“Quick?” exclaims Jeru, ignoring the constant preoccupation with this group’s concern over their slow spreading fame. “It’s been hours since you’ve left. Did you visit the tavern and have a turn in one of the beds?”
“Indeed not” protests Mertat. “Surely we were only gone a short time, no more than thirty minutes.”
“More like a dozen thirty minutes. Interesting, though. Are you sure of the time you spent in the town?”
“Of course. We did not dawdle at all. And why would I, in particular. Especially when my brother is out there likely needing urgent help. And we being the only source to provide that help. Of course, Sever may not have felt the same of urgency as I. In fact he likely felt new urges during our brief visit – for it seems a new lady escort, of half-orc descent no less, has arrived at Bristlebacks.”
Looking at Sever, Mertat continues “You’ve got a sickness, boy. Myself, being of the half-orc breed, understand all too well the dangers of tangling with the like of the female half-bred variety. Proceed with caution, young rogue.”
Sever puts on a smug look “Caution is not in my nature. It is the lovies who should approach with prudence when encountering me. For once I have pierced there lovely, lovely hearts, they are slow and loathe to turn away from the gifts I so generously offer.”
“Then why did your last, um, acquaintance, determine to leave Zelkor’s Ferry so quickly?”
“Most likely she had simply received her full of coin. Or perhaps our joinings had given her an unexpected present, as so it goes sometimes. But in truth, I was becoming weary of her manipulations. I need new challenges and conquests, so was glad to see her gain some rest for herself for a while. But she’ll have difficulty dismissing me from her regard, she will. She will not find it easy to replace my particular, …ministrations…, and coin will not last half as long as what my methods have impressed upon her, shall it.”
Shaking his head, Sabus interrupts “Not sure if Abban would approve of this talk, Sever. Or are you so soon straying.”
“Nothing wrong with reaping a bit of rest and reward after our struggles with evil. No, I make sure my ladies are willfully compliant, and well compensated indeed, and not just in coin.”
Considering this conversation at its conclusion, Sever walks over to the fire and kneels down, trying to gain a bit of warmth from the poor source. Ah, if only they had stayed at Bristlebacks for just a few short hours, now that would have warmed him to sufficiency.
“Well” Jeru interjects “it seems that there are baneful auras intruding upon Golarion. Some extra-dimensional time and plane shifting involved here. Mertat and Sever were surely gone at least a half-dozen hours, and yet feel they were only away for less than half of one hour. There seems to be some overlapping of sundry planes occurring here. If we could perhaps locate the nexus of the overlapping, that would help the College understand the challenge. Divining that and bringing that knowledge to the college, I am sure they could offer an understanding, and perhaps even offer a solution the malaise.”
“True that may be. But the college and their investigations are not the primary concern right now. My brother is out there, in the fog. We’re together again, and we’re rested to a degree, so shall we go seek him immediately?
“Yes, of course. So much is happening in this world. But yes, finding your brother must now be the focus. Are all ready?”
After a brief exchange, it is decided to rest for a few short minutes so that Mertat and Sever can recover to their full strength, with a few more potions and prayers of healing delivered. Mertat moves off to pray, while Jeru also enters a meditative stance. After a short time, the party is ready to continue, and moves off, now northward from the path following the highly visible trail that the caravan raiders left behind.
The trail is easy to follow, and after a short distance, the spider webs that were so prevalent near the road, thin out. It is evident that the spiders’ principle territory was to the south of the road. And yet as the party marched northward, the relief they expected once they moved away from the spider’s lair was not discovered. Instead, a greater unpleasant presence was slowly being perceived.
While the spiders’ lair exuded a feeling of great unease and terror, as they move forward, a greater unease which is intertwined with certain evil begins to creep over the party. Looking at each other, a series of nods was all it took for each to confirm their uneasy feelings.
The torches they carried, while still dim, burned a bit brighter now that they had made their way away the webs. But little air moved through the trees, and still the fog hung heavy in the trees. The darkness was now at its apex during the night hours, and the party proceeded with caution.
Soon, it seemed the passage of time could no longer be easily measured. Though the party moved forward, as they walked, it seemed that they truly moved forward little at all. Their exertions were only rewarded with a tiredness that felt unnatural settling into their bones. Each tree they passed seemed a clone of the previous, and the small streams they crossed all blended together and felt as one.
Their clothes, moistened and damp from the webs, were now becoming much splattered with mud, and began to weigh ever more heavy upon the party. After some time, Mertat pulled out new torches, lighting and passing them to the others. As the spent torches were tossed to the side, they instantly became dark and cold, as if they had hours before spent the last of their fuel.
The party endeavored forward, and still the dark of the night stayed at its apex – no closer approach of day was felt. Time had seemed to stop, and yet the party continued their exertions moving thru the forest. True, even if the sun was at its highest point overhead, here deep in the forest and heavy unnatural fog, it would bring little effect, as the sunlight would show little purchase in these environs.
And so it was that after what seemed like days, or was it perhaps only a few hours, the party felt their struggle forward was being slowly rewarded with a measure of forward progress. The trees before them began to appear of a shorter stature. The tops of some of the trees could even be seen just below the ever present fog, just within the range of the dim light their torches provided. The trees seemed to be continued to thin out a bit, and underfoot. And instead of the sporadic deep drift of leaves, and more frequent patches of bare ground, infrequent tufts of grass and short ferns were now more common.
The torches now burned a bit brighter. But the feeling of disquiet increased, increasing to a great unease. Even lacking Abban the paladin, the party knew they were entering a domain of great evil. So even as they now were certain they were making forward progress, that forward progress now came with great reluctance. Unseen before them, a resistance against goodly creatures was slowly yet surely pushing against the group, the resistance increasing with each additional step forward.
Emerging from the woods into a wide clearing, an ancient stone building looms before them. Twenty paces wide, and but ten feet or so tall, torches burn along sconces embedded at intervals around what appears to be certainly a long abandoned crypt. But as they approach, the great iron double doors open in the center of the structure. A half-dozen figures emerge, spreading out to each side of the building. These figures are darkly clothed, heavy cloaks trailing behind. Each wears a symbol of Orcus about their neck. They bear no common weapons, but rather display their sharp teeth for tearing of flesh, and pointed fingernails for the rending. Taking position about ten paces from the doors, they halt and assume a stony stance.
“This is a poor augur for the future. Servants of Orcus emerging openly from their deep underground lairs and coming forth freely to the surface,” Mertat whispers to his companions.
Drawing their weapons, the party slowly closes the distance between the two groups. As they move closer, Mertat groans in recognition “Vampyr. Undead. Avoid their touch if at all possible, for they are imbued with negative energy.”
From the iron doors, two more figures now emerge. The first appears to be the leader of the coven, for this vampire is robed in cleric attire. Several unholy symbols of Orcus adorn the creature about its neck, and he wields a great carved staff. The staff is of a dull and dark wood, shod with steel on the bottom, with a great iron skull affixed to its tip. He stops just outside the entrance, and waves forward the second vampire.
This last vampire projects a aura of power easily discernible to the party, that of a great fighter full of unholy purpose. He is garbed in similar fashion to the other vampires, though for his weapon he wields a great black blade. This creature moves with a fluid grace that exposes his familiarity and certain deadly skill with the blade.
But now Mertat has stopped cold. Mouth agape, he looks closer at the warrior vampire, and then moans in despair.
“Why hello, brother” the vampire speaks with coy. “And what took you so long to fetch me? One would think I was not worthy of your attentions.”
Mertat’s shoulders slump in sorrow, for the fear that he would come too late to save his brother is realized. “My poor brother, Sertat. What have they done to you?” Mertat cries.
“Nothing that I did not choose. Once I was captured, there were few good choices. One to be consumed and removed forever from this world. Or one to evolve as a greater being, one that bestows immortality upon oneself.
“This second choice is the one I favored, and one I chose. For it allows me to continue to walk this world. Though I will no longer be afforded the pleasure of the sun, in these days the prospect of a long night is strong indeed. Orcus the Great Evil is now close to entering into this world, and all who do not bend their knee to his summons will be destroyed.”
“So you see the choice was quite easy. Join me as well, Mertat. Together, we brothers will be mighty forces for the Evil One.”
Taking a deep breath, Mertat raises his eyes and looks directly at the thing which once was his brother “Nay, creature of death. The corruption of the body is done in absence of the true person. This body is no longer of my brother. His true self has been totally consumed. For I must believe he would never willingly chose such a path. No, you are not my brother. Only a false servant of evil. And one, though it pains me to know that who once the vehicle was, which must be destroyed.”
Raising his hand, Mertat calls forth a burst of positive energy, sending a glowing wave of force to swarm over the evil vampires. Screeching in great pain, the minions are released from their stance. With howls, they leap forward and the party meets their challenge and in turn charge forward.. The vampire that once was the brother, charges at Mertat, who raises his staff to accept the challenge.
While Sabus begins to cast a spell to support the party, Sever and Eccial surge into the vampire minions. Though the vampires attack with vigor, swinging and slashing with unnatural quickness their nasty claws at the pair, they find it difficult to connect for damage. But Sever and Eccial have no such trials, and soon several of the minion vampires are destroyed.
Jeru, who as an elf shows little fear of the undead, charges alone into a group of the minions. Quickly he attacks with his blade, and in a flurry of strikes destroys in his turn several of the minions. Thus freed from the smaller threats, Jeru then charges the undead priest, and begins a struggle with the vampire. The vampire directs a series of spells at Jeru, who shrugs off the evil effects cast at him. Thus unaffected and free to act, Jeru himself speaks and calls forth his own magical enchantments into his sword, and delivers a series of painful wounds upon the cleric with his enhanced blade.
Mertat and his former brother have locked in combat, and Mertat finds himself sorely challenged. The vampire strikes several times, causing grievous cuts into Mertat. In addition, with each strike Mertat feels his life force drained from his body. He attempts to maneuver about and strike back at the creature, but it nimbly moves with Mertat with ease, as in a well-known dance long practiced. The vampire then delivers another flourish of blows, causing another series of brutal rips and slashes across Mertat’s body. In a too short time, Mertat is dropped to the ground and slain.
At that instant, with Mertat’s body still falling lifeless to the ground, Sabus leaps forward and uses his whip, tripping the creature to the ground. Having destroyed and now freed from their struggles with the last of the minor vampires, Sever and Eccial also charge forward in a posthumous defense of Mertat, saving his body from further defilement. Placed at a disadvantage as he is tripped to the ground, the vampire is struck over and over again by Eccial’s sword and Sever’s maces.
Jeru continues his struggle alone with the cleric. Back and forth they maneuver, and Jeru is persistent with his attacks. The cleric howls in frustration, as its efforts to either cast deadly spells or to attack Jeru meet with little success.
Soon, the combined attacks of Eccial and Sever upon the form which was Mertat’s brother are overwhelming. With Sabus constantly putting the evil thing at disadvantage by tangling it to the ground, the vampire is destroyed. That threat now no more, the entire party now focuses their full efforts onto the cleric.
Assailed from all sides, the vampire turns itself into a vaporous mist. As a misty form, it is unaffected by the further weapon swings of Jeru, Eccial, and Sever. The mist rises up, and then moves with an unnatural speed to a position behind Sabus. Sabus has positioned himself a short distance away from the rest of the companions, looking for an opportunity to use his whip. Now singled out by the cleric, Sabus turns toward the mist just as it reforms into the corporal. But the party responds alertly, and quickly falls upon the now solid-form cleric. Delivering a flurry of quick blows upon the evil cleric, they destroy the last threat now facing them.
The vampires are slain after but a short fight, but the wounds the party has taken are deep. For once again, Mertat lays unmoving and unbreathing on the ground, summoned to task before his gods to account for his efforts in this world.
Gathering around the body of their fallen friend, the party ponders their misfortune and recent decisions. Two poor choices did they have after discovering the ransacked caravan upon the road. They chose to follow first the path to the mother of Emilily. Though rescued and now returned safely back to Zelkor’s Ferry, those actions had delayed Mertat’s personal quest to rescue his brother. And that selfless delay by Mertat has now cost him dearly, with that of his own life and that of his brother. The fog that covers the land must surely be an extension of Rappan Athuk. For in that place, neither benevolent choice nor good deed goes unpunished – just as their decision to save the woman has led to their current misfortune.
But for now, the immediate threat has been dispelled. So they scout the area surrounding the crypt quickly, and determine there are no more foes in the area. With a wisp of daylight now vainly trying to force its way thru the clouds, the party ponders their next moves. Likely the decision they make will be punished once again by the evil now surging across the countryside from Rappan Athuk.