Tibbiddo, in the lead looking for landmarks heard them first. He made a shushing noise and then Michael heard it, voices speaking some uncouth tongue. Soon after the others heard it as well, borne on the wind. It was a language none of the party spoke, but the brutal sound of it led Michael and Maewyn to believe it to be the the language used by the greenskins - goblins and orc - that infested the mountains.
The small halfling, thrust into acting as a scout, felt his heartbeat quicken. He did not want to go back to the sheer horror of being a captive. This harsh language was different than that of the Chaos Beastmen, but nevertheless it reeked of opposition to everything he held dear -- namely, comfort and fun.
Through scared brown eyes Tibbiddo looked to the others in a panic, then gestured that he was going to 'look ahead.' Surprising no one, he took a path which looked to be more retreat than reconnaissance.
Shortly thereafter, Tibbiddo stopped and cursed himself. Wasn't it cowardice that had gotten him captured in the first place? Surely he had learned something in the ordeal; that he had: it was better to be killed quickly than to be a prisoner of slow torture. He retraced his steps and started off silently toward the voices, just like a scout (except for the terror that gripped him).
Watching as the new halfling scouted the escape path, Rurik's quick humor got the better of his fears as he shot an amused smile at Herger ; shaking his head. Eyes still on the sturdy human, he quietly pulled his pick from his belt and thrust his chin in the direction of the voices. Message relayed, he made his way as silently as possible toward the chatty 'greenskins'.
Marri's first thoughts were that she was very glad Josef was not with them, and that the new companions, even the shaky halfling, were. Then she took a deep breath, drew the little knife she still carried, and, all senses alert, waited to see what would happen next.
Michael, after listening to ensure no other noise heralded surprises in other directions, quietly removed his crossbow from his shoulder and moved forward, ready to wind the string back and load a bolt. He moved out to the flank of the others who were advancing, so as to keep a clear field of fire and try for a good vantage point.
Tibbiddo, having mastered his fears for now, advanced on the point with Michael and Rurik moving on the flanks. Marri, Maewyn and Herger waited with the animals.
The halfling padded silently forward to a vantage point and examined the scene set before him. The path widened slightly where the turn off they were take joined it. This made it a natural camping spot. He counted ten campers, around four feet in height, a greenish grey in color, filthy and poorly armed. One, clearly the leader, stood five feet and was actually wearing a ratty mail shirt, the relic of some battle or raid. They had mounts, too, three large wolves nearly as big as horses which sprawled in pile near the fire.
They were making quite a racket, shouting at each other and apparently taking bets while two wrestled near the fire, biting and scratching while the others laughed.
Tibbiddo looked over to first Rurik and then Michael holding up both hands to signify 'ten' by his count. The ruckus created by their revelry helped cover whatever sounds they might make, and for that Tibbiddo was pleased. It also meant that they did had not detected them, and as long as the wind remained favorable they could remain hidden. He looked over to his companions for insight as to what to do next.
Maewyn waited, then looking at Marri and Herger she decided that they could handle protecting the animals so she started to creep forward towards where the others had gone. The hawk rode her shoulder as Maewyn made her way through the forest. Once she was within sight of the others and the goblins Maewyn planed to find a good place to watch and shoot the goblins from under cover if that was the plan the other decide upon.
Herger remained with the mounts and pack animals to act in a defensive, rear guard capacity. He wouldn't know what to expect until the scouts returned, or at least, one of them. If the noisemakers were at all crafty and had posted any sentries things could definitely turn sour in a hurry and someone would need to be able to lead the animals. He sat quietly in his saddle and kept a wary eye on the both side of the trail, as well as sparing a glance or two behind. From the time he had gotten to know Rurik, Herger was certain that he would return before doing anything rash.
Marri still had brief bouts of pensive brooding from time to timeand with a thought towards keeping her cheered up he made the remark, "Might want to get your skillet ready, Marri," in a quiet voice.
Marri had dismounted to keep Traveller from following the rest of the party when they moved ahead to check out the commotion. Now she glanced over at her friend, appreciation for what he was trying to do shining in her eyes. With a small, tight smile she replied quietly, "Afraid the skillet's packed old friend. I think this little knife may have to serve." With that, she took a firmer hold on Traveller's collar and refocused her attention in the direction of the noises ahead.
Michael raised one hand up, gesturing first up with his thumb and then down, and gave Rurik a questioning glance. He then pointed to his crossbow, and then to the leader in the ratty chain mail, then to his own forehead.
Tibbiddo's eyes widened at what Michael was suggesting. Oh dear, they actually meant to fight! The halfling's hands scurried under his cloak and came back holding one of his throwing knives. Delicately he fingered the blade in anticipation, realizing that he would have to fight in order to survive. Lowering himself further into the brush, Tibbiddo braced himself for what would happen next.
Catching Michael's hand signals, Rurik winced and quickly raised a hand - palm out, fingers up. This path went right through goblin territory, it would seem. These goblins didn't appear to be a great threat, but in a fight anything could happen. The odds of killing all of them were low, and the last thing this expedition needed was one or two of those dirty little bastards getting back and stirring up a hornets nest. Not relishing the idea of engaging every greenskin between here and the tomb, the Wastelander firmly placed himself in cautions' camp.
Not sure how the others wished to proceed, Rurik made a couple quick hand signals. He made an encircling motion and elongated it to encompass those back with the animals, then slid his hand smoothly away from the goblins and up the path. Pausing, he then pointed to Michael and Maewyn, brought two fingers to his eyes then pointed to the goblins. Holding up five fingers, he lowered them one at a time - starting with the thumb - before once again making the smooth sliding motion away from the goblins.
The party decided on caution for the moment at least, and one by one withdrew back to the horses where they shared what they had seen with Herger and Marri. There they could discuss their next move.
Tibbiddo, in hushed tones and faintness of breath, told Herger and Marri what they had seen. Deftly he returned the throwing knife under his cloak and offered up a detour away from the greenskins finishing with a hopeful, "No time at all, we can make it with little effort."
Marri felt a brief flash of sympathy for Tibbiddo, remembering what he had been though not so long ago. Keeping a firm hold on Traveller, she agreed soft voiced, that a detour did seem in order.
Micheal indicated he was ready to move on around.
Maewyn gripped her new bow in one hand as her falcon Swiftwind ruffled his feathers in a way that expressed his mistress irritation at the developments. Goblins. Why were they constantly threatened with attack. Seems that the group ws forever running from one thing or another Maewyn half longed just to do something and the other half to just escape it luckly her smarter half prevailed and she knew that going around the goblins was a smarter idea but a small though in her mind wonder if she could have actually had been able to handle that fight.
Rurik arrived back at the clearing and gathered his mount. Furrowing his brow, he walked his horse to Herger's side. "We may not be so lucky next time. We would do well to have a forward scout, and a rear guard." Leaving his horse behind, he walked to the front of the forward edge of the clearing and twisted a branch. "Can anyone read this?" he asked, just loud enough to carry to those assembled.
Rurik got nothing but blank looks.
Blinking, Rurik looked back at the others. "Anyone?" he asked one last time, hopefully. Twitching the right corner of his mouth up in an amused grimace of resignation, he shook his head and made his way back to his mount.
Tibbiddo with his sharp ears and stealthy tread and Maewyn with her knowledge of the woods moved up to take, and the Wastelander hung back and bantered softly with anyone willing.
The party circled wide around the goblin band were able to pick up the trail to the east. They rode for another hour or so, to put the goblins behind them, but saw no further sign on any hostile force. They made camp and set watch as usual.
The next day they set off early, expecting to make half the remaining distance. Travel was slower as the path was narrow and disused, even overgrown in a few places. As they travelled, they climbed into the mountains and began to feel a chill at night.
Marri fell into her old role over the next few days - making certain everyone had plenty to eat, and drink. Nodding by the fire most nights, with Traveller at her side, waking with a sleepy smile, to make certain those going on or coming off watch always had a hot drink and a bite to eat. Sitting her horse uncomfortably, and ungracefully, except when she fell off, she chattered much and complained little. She was afraid most of the time, but did not see the benefit to mentioning it. Instead she chattered almost continually it seemed: of little Josef to his uncle, of the Moot to Tibbi, of the herbs and flowers they passed to Maewyn, of her home and her family to everyone else. She was aware that some in the party thought her frivolous, perhaps even stupid; and that some, like Rurik, probably found her annoying. But she was also aware that so long as she was talking and they were eating, they probably were not thinking about the dangers they had just left behind or the ones that very likely lay ahead. "There are many ways to heal," she thought to herself. And, in truth, she was healing herself as well.
Maewyn traveled either up front when it was her turn to scout ahead or next to Marri when another of the group had the honor. She enjoyed talking to the friendly halfling. Marri was very endearing in many ways they spoke of herb and flowers and the many ways that they could be used. The effort that Marri made to hide her fear made the elf feeling deepen it was so commendable the effort she was taking to look after the welfare of the group from her bright chatter to the delicious meals she served every night. When ever she saw Marri reinforcing Travellers training the druid offer pointers on how to kep the dog training at peak efficiency as she also work Swiftwind. The hawk supplementing their store with its kills.
With Maewyn's assistance, she kept a lookout along the way they travelled for useful herbs and plants - for eating and medicinal purposes. She made sure to spend some time each day reinforcing Traveller's training, and the little dog loved the attention and the treats Marri used and seemed to respond well. She generally travelled near the back of the line as they moved. She knew that Maewyn and Tibbi were scouting ahead, and she hoped that she and Traveller could help out by being aware of what might be coming up behind them. Marri was pretty confident that, if she did not notice herself and she tried hard to be alert to what was going on around her as they moved, Traveller would let her know if anything hostile approached from the rear.
The following day, they had been on the road for a few hours when suddenly the earth moved beneath their feet - earthquake! Marri and Tibbiddo were unseated from the horses by the shifting of the ground, but fortunately neither was hurt in the fall.
A few hours later, they party rode out into the little pass of Arrak-Arras. From their first approach, they knew why the elves avoided the place. A faint charnel smell hung over the area and it seemed dark and overcast, despite the clear weather on the road. The horses were nervouse and did not want to leave the grassy verge which extended a few hundred feet in from the entrance to the pass.
This part of the pass, the battlefield, was a little over a half mile long and a quarter mile wide, narrowing at the far end to a thin path much like the one they had travelled to reach the pass. The walls were steep, rocky cliffs, and no one but Rurik or Tibbiddo though they had any chance to climb them, and those two wouldn't like to try it without good equipment. To their left, a few hundred feet up was a largish rock fall, and there were two more at the far end of the pass, roughly on either side of the exit.
From the cliff to their left, a stream broke from the cliff-wall and ran down to a pool more or less centered in the pass. Just this side of the pool were two hummocks or mounds, that Maewyn and Rurik recognized as burial mounds. The mound to the right was topped with the short, black, sickly- looking grass which covered most of the pass. The mound to the right was barren of growth and brown. Both mounds were about four feet high, and several hundred feet across. They were seperated by about eight hundred feet of open space, which on second glance appeared to be cluttered thickly with bones. To the left of the pool and across the stream, a hole or shaft, perhaps ten feet across, seemed to bore into the floor of the pass.
Tibbiddo crinkled his nose at the desolation that lay before him. "W-w-we aren't staying here for long, are we?" he stammered to the group with a shiver.
Marri did not like the canyon once they arrived *at all*! It smelled and felt... unsettled was the only word she could think of. Traveller gave a series of little yelps and pushed herself again her mistress, as if trying to tell her not to stay in this eerie place. "This place will ruin our dinner!" she burst out. "I cannot cook here! How could anyone expect me to... cook... here...?" She trailed off, a bit embarrassed. For what she really meant, but would not say, was "The evil in this place is making my small constant fear into a great overwhelming fear! And I do not want to stay here!"
Placing a hand on Marri shoulder Maewyn looked over the pass, "No one is expecting you to cook here. I am sure we will find a better place."
Always quick with a glib comment, Rurik shot a warm smile in Marri's direction. "Nonsense!" he chuckles "Marri, you could be hidden away in a fetid swamp-bog and still create meals fit for emperors!" His voice was clear and bright, but it couldn't completely hide the tension mirrored in his eyes.
Marri nodded at Maewyn and Rurik, smiling a little at the opposing views they expressed in trying to comfort her. Not trusting herself to speak, she walked to the edge of the grass as far as she could get from the barrows, and began to set up camp with determined efficiency.
Herger had done his share of the work during the journey without complaint and had tried to spend most of his spare time in conversation with one or the other of the party. In the past day or so he had been getting to know their new companions and found that they were good enough company. Now, it seemed, he did not have much to say as he looked upon the shadowy smear of the world that was Arrak-Arras. He knew they would have a difficult time getting the mounts and pack animals to venture onto the old battleground. He said, "I think we should make camp here tonight. It's getting dark and we've been travelling for eight or nine hours already. Horrible place to travel into in the dark, I feel. We may have to leave the horses tethered behind while we proceed. Or give them free rein and hope to collect them later."
Michael agreed wholeheartedly with Herger's assessment of moving into the battlefield so close to the fall of night. He even went so far as to say that a short withdrawal back down the pass away from the field might be prudent. "For look you, the very openness of a place such as this lends itself to our downfall in an ambush...were we close in to walls of stone, which may not fall upon us as easily as the things which skulk in the night, we may find more ease of rest."
It was plain that his discomfort stems from the many areas of likely danger before the party, and from the relative lack of cover out upon the field itself. Even as the party stands at the mouth of the field, he watches constantly the various features of the bleak scene before them, eyes moving from point to point.
Herger dismounted and made his way to Rurik in order to give voice to some premonatory feelings he was having. The armour he now wore jingled as he approached. He said, "I plan on giving up many prayers to Sigmar and Morr this evening and on the morrow. I hope that you will ask for pardon from any Powers that you hold dear, as well. For tomorrow we will be treading on the graves of many, and I fear that we may find some of the ancient warriors restless in their beds."
On the ground beside his horse, Rurik listened to his new friend. His lighthearted countenance dropped momentarily as Herger spoke of Gods and Graves. He scanned the pass with distant eyes, only half listening to the man's words. There was something about the Wastelander's demeanor that hinted at a level of comfort with the present surroundings. No... Not comfort. His eyes moved too quickly from place to place for that. Perhaps familiarity... Whatever the frame of mind, he didn't appear particularly overwrought by the spectre of ancient dead. Snapping from his revere, Rurik looked at Herger and nodded, "sound advice".
He sighed and once again eyed the sides of the pass. He continued, "That's not what worries me the most either. This pass looks to make a mighty fine box for anyone that happens to be in it when those rocks fall," he indicated the three groupings along the pass, "and I wonder if there are more greenskins about. They may be watching this pass for just such a group as ours. If this were a trap we would have no choice but to withdraw into that hole of darkness there in the pass. I've heard that the filthy green kin have night eyes with which to see in the darkness. Do you know the truth of it? If we were in the tunnel it would give them a powerful advantage."
"Dangers aside, there is also the question of where to look for that which we seek. What do you make of all of this?"
Steeling back his good nature, Rurik winked knowingly and spoke from practiced memory, "Learn from the bones of the fools who proceeded you, and leave clues with your lives for those who would follow. For in the afterlife, here we shall all reside until the prize is claimed."
With only a slight pause, he continued, "Our fates and fortune aren't in our hands in this business. It is likely that the item we seek is not here, and even more likely that it never was." Then, smiling broadly, he slapped Herger an the shoulder. "But, you couldn't keep me away with a mountain full of rabid goblins ravenous for Northland blood!"
Tibbiddo shrank back at the display of bravery which filled the air. All this talk of bones teaching and ambushes did little to comfort him. But there was something that brightened his spirits, oh it wasn't the consenus of opinion to take care and avoid danger; that was uplifting -- it was the prospect of riches. After all, where there were dead there were artifacts; certainly the horrid greenskins wouldn't (and couldn't) recognize the vast wealth that a few mere trinkets could bring one such as Tibbiddo Stoutwaddle. A smile broadened upon his face, "Then we make camp and eat," he said adding, "I could give the battlefield a quick once over."
"I will come with you. I would not wish for you to violate the barrow by mistake. Druids are very protective of their resting places and although these may not be the barrows of ancient druids we can not risk any harm coming to you. I advise that we all stay clear of the mounds the treasure they may hold will not be of use to us and the wraith we will earn is something we should avoid. Do I make myself clear!"
Maewyn look each member of the party staring into their eyes until each gives her some indication that they would do what she wished. Her look made it absolute that she would deal firmly and lethally with anyone one who even considers violating the barrows that she was willing to give her life over this matter and that she was not going to back down.
Marri had looked up from unpacking when Tibbi began to speak. Unsurprised by the sentiment he expressed, she was shaking her head at the foolishness of men of all heights and about to go back to trying to figure out what spectacular thing she could make for dinner to take all their minds off this horrid place, when Maewyn directed a stare in her direction. She was quite taken aback by the lethal look directed at her by the elf maiden she had begun to consider her friend. And not at all amused.
The greedy halfling Tibbiddo looked on in shock with an open mouth. Closing it, he shook his head hoping to clear up what he just heard and then shook his head in incredulity. He had been threatened before, predominantly in ways not so subtle, but who did this longear think they were? After all, hadn't they been the ones who talked about retrieving some such sword which surely belonged to *someone,* probably dead as well. What about that wrath? that sacred barrow? sure, when it was beneficial to one's own pocket it was ok, for someone else? Bah.
"As you wish," he responded sweetly with a deep bow. "We would not want to anger the departed, would we? After you."
Being of similar mind as Tibbiddo in his desire to scour the battlefield, Rurik was no less surprised by the normally mild elf's proclamation. Just moments earlier during his discussion with Herger did he feel the tinge of guilt for giving the Gods short-shrift most of his life, but now he remembered why.
He glanced at the halfling and noticed his features responded in similar fashion with his own emotions. How ironic that the elf set off on a quest to recover an artifact from an ancient battlefield only to arrive and vow to defend the 'sanctity' of a sect of the long dead with her very life. Did she plan this all along? It's an odd ethic to place the hollow corpses of fellow guildsmen above the lives of her companions.
The usually chipper Northerner spoke with his usual charm, but there was an undercurrent of ice. "We seek the sword of a warrior, so unless the druids built barrows on the remains of others, there is nothing to fear." Adjusting his pick, he wondered pointedly to himself if he'd ever mind his tongue. That's what got him here in the first place.
To Tibbiddo he intones brightly, "Shall we away, then?"
Though she had no desire to go anywhere near the barrows, being quite irritated by what she took to be Maewyn's insinuation that she was some sort of graverobber, Marri piped up, "Yes Maewyn, where exactly did you expect to find the sword of a dead warrior?"
Herger completed the royal flush in surprise that was expressed by the others in the group. He noted that even little Traveler cocked her head to the side as Maewyn allowed her peculiarly violent nature to surface. He had been about to drape his cloak over his saddle and stood frozen in mid motion with one hand on the horse's bridle and the other hanging in mid-air as if he were trying to flag down a passing coach. He thought to himself, Someone has issues, and turned his attention back to preparing for camp.
When Marri turned her attention to questioning the Elf's motives Herger took over where she left off in setting up a suitable camping location. As he began breaking out the pewter and blankets and looking for acceptable fire ring stones (if a fire was feasible in these most likely hostile conditions) he reflected privately on his own feelings about the possibility of "loot." He agreed that stealing from the dead was wrong. After all, he had been against taking the slaver's money even though the man had tried to drug and sell them, even kill them. But then it came down to the fine details that could pass hours of rhetorical debate if one got into such a conversation. Which was a good reason to remain quiet on the matter.
For instance, what constituted stealing from the dead? Simply taking something that is on their corpse such as rings and necklaces, or would it include things like mounds of gold and jewels piled in the corner or in chests that the departed obviously were not using? He could only see taking something directly from a body in one particular instance, and that was their current quest. If they found this sword and it was held in the skeletal grasp of the last warrior to possess it, then it would have to be claimed from the dead. After all, they weren't going to sell it for money, or anything. They were planning on using the powerful artefact to vanquish evil and Chaotic creatures. They were saving the world. Or rather, he was. The others were along as companions. He really had no desire for the blade himself, but thought it would help them much more in the practiced hands of a warrior like Rurik. If his fellow travelers could turn a crown's profit while they were on their journey so much the better. He wouldn't mind some well earned capital for himself to take home to his nearly impoverished family. Didn't he deserve some kind of reward for helping to save everyone? He supposed that the only way to find out was to keep on with his appointed task. Whatever came to him he would accept, but he would keep his values to the end.
He finished up with the fire ring and began looking out for some good kindling and fuel for the cook fire. He listened to the others as he worked, waiting to hear what kind of response Maewyn contrived.
Rurik, Tibbiddo and Maewyn began an exploration of the battlefield. Maewyn commented that the rock fall looked recent, perhaps the result of the recent earthquake. From the rock fall they made their way through the strangely oppresive atmosphere over to the burial mounds. They were completely sealed, with no doors or tunnels, so even if Maewyn would let them enter, they would have to dig. They did not venture on top, but made a circuit of each mound.
They looked at the field of bones between the two mounds and quickly realized that all the bones seemed to be of animals, not of elves or humans. They tentatively identified horses, boars and wolves - the latter two of exceptionally large size.
Maewyn began to look more concerned when they did not see evidence that the weapon would be on the field. She felt as if she was being torn in two hoping the other would not wish to go into the barrow but fearing that they may. Maewyn knew that her words were more bluff than truth she could not harm the others but she could not take the chance. It looked as if she may have to fight and that she did not wish to do. She was so busy considering this the size of the boars and wolves do not even make an impression on her.
"If this is a battle where are the fighter who fought here the elves and human? Look, the skeletons are only animals even if the dead where taken away would not the losing sides' dead be here? Who carts off the bodies of their enemy."
Passing by the pool, they remarked on the shocking clarity of the water. They could see straignt to the stony bottom with nothing to impede their vision. Passing around it to the right, they decided that the rock falls at this end also looked recent.
Moving toward the shaft or hole, they hurried their steps a little as it was beginning to fall dark. There was some rubble around the edge of this hole, too, as if the entrance had been sealed and collapsed recently. The shaft was about ten feet wide and headed down at angle, dissappearing into darkness after only a few feet.
Since Maeyn had no problem allowing someone on the mound, Tibbiddo mounted the westernmost mound, the one that was barren and brown. As soon as he set foot on the mound, there was a shivering of the ground directly in front of him, and then a decaying hand thrust through the surface of the mound, followed by another and another. Three pairs of hands clawed the dirt free to allow three rotting heads and shoulders to appear. A horrible graveyard stench came from the pits out which they were crawling. The little halfling froze in terror at their appearance, while Maewyn and Rurik a few steps behind were perhaps better prepared after their experience with Pietr in the Blackfire Pass.
Well, Hell! So THAT's where they put the dead warriors; under the mounds, of course. Rurik was more than happy to let the Halfer test the hill just for this sort of thing, but now that something actually DID happen, he was less than thrilled with the results. At least there was still SOME light left.
Not wishing to step on the mound and awaken more of these abominations, Rurik attempted to hook the halfling's belt or clothing with the pointy end of the pick and pull him back. [If that becomes to problematic, Rurik will just grab him and pull him back.] While so doing, he calls to the elf, "See if you can slow them down. I'll grab Tibbs and we'll retreat back to the others. Agreed?"
Herger looked up from the stick of whittling he was passing the time with and peered out into the valley. He muttered, "Was that an animal, or one of our companions?" He set the wood down and climbed to his feet, brushing off the dirt. He looked at Michael, "I think one of us should go check it out. We shouldn't leave the camp unguarded." Everyone could tell that when he said 'the camp' he really meant 'Marri.'
Marri is grateful for Herger's concern, although she thinks that she may be safer with her frying pan by the fire than the others will be out there in the dark. She glances at Michael and hopes he doesn't mind staying to guard the "camp", since Herger is already bustling about preparing to leave. She grabs Traveller's collar when she notes that the little dog is preparing to follow Herger.
As he donned his cloak and grabbed up his mace he murmured, "'Going onto the battlefield in the dark is a bad idea,' I said. 'Oh, we all agree,' they said. So, it's getting dark and what happens?"
Shaking her head, and grinning a tight little grin, Marri says, " We're on a quest! In a graveyard! At night! Of course its a bad idea! Now get going!" In the meanwhile, she has rummaged about in one of her packs and come up with a handful of candles and a lantern. She hands the lantern to Herger, and then begins to set some flatish rocks in a circle a bit out from the fire. She lights the candles and sits them on the rocks.
He took the lantern from Marri. Holding it off to one side so he wasn't blinded by his own light he walked off into the deepening gloom, his own little bubble of illumination around him.
Despite her attempt at levity, Marri was scared and unhappy to see her friend walk off toward danger. Knowing there was nothing she more she could do for him, she spends a moment hoping for Beneficient Esmeralda's bounty to rule this night. Then she takes some sweet smelling herbs from her bag, and tosses them into the fire. Settling down between the fire and her circle of candles, with her skillet grasped firmly in one hand, and Traveller's collar in the other, she looks up at Michael, shrugs and says, "It can't hurt! Surely light and sweetness cannot hurt!"
Michael, standing with his back to the lights looking out into the gloom, gives a wry face aand then a grin. "I think there's always a good place for light and sweetness, and it's thoughtful of you to provide it". He paces around the small campsite, still looking out into the darkness and not towards the light so as to not impair his evening vision.
With Maewyn taking the rear guard and Rurik half-carrying and half-dragging the terrified halfing, the scouts fell back toward camp. Ahead of them, they saw a torch and made for it. The creatures, rotting dead things all, were not the corpses of human it seemed, but rather of orcs or maybe something less wholesome still.
Maewyn was easily able to outpace them, though, and even with his burden Rurik maintained distance. After a minute or so, Tibbo recovered himself enough to start running as well and the met Herger with his torch at about the halfway point. Herger got his first view of the creatures and froze in shock at their horrible appearance.
"What magic is this?" Tibbiddo forced out of his mouth. "How can we kill what is already dead?" he questioned while backing away from the advancing adversaries and withdrawing a throwing knife.
Maewyn looks back over her shoulder and hollers back, <93>Type evil of the worse sort of course, and you kill them by hitting them again and again until they go down and then you burn what left so they do not get up again. This is not the first time we have to face this and it will not be the last.<94>
Maewyn continued to run thinking to herself well that was the truth the second time is not exactly the first but less then her statement seemed to imply. With that thought in mind Maewyn yells loud enough for the camp to hear her, <93>Enemies behind us the dead are leaving their barrows and attacking.<94>
With an admonishment to Marri to watch the other side of the camp, Michael will move to the limit of the circle of candles closest to the retreating party and exhort them to do the smart thing and fall back to the camp, where they will have flame to assist them in their struggle. He will also ready his sword and prepare to defend.
Herger stands and gibbers, helplessly watching as the events unfold.
As the undead horrors closed in, Herger shook himself and joined his companions as they fell back toward the fire.
On the verge, they turned to face the foe and as they watched, the two on the left staggered, then collapsed, the faint remains of their flesh running off the bones into an unwholesome puddle leaving only white bone shining in the light of their fire. The third continued toward them oblivious of the fate of his companions.
From where she was squatting near the fire, Marri glanced over to see if there was a stick of wood in the fire she could grab. She found one she liked, and grabbed it up. "Back up!" she said loudly "Back up! Perhaps if you are far enough away, that one will melt away too!"
"Fair enough!" Rurik called out. "Angle it away from the horses!" he suggests as he continued to back away from the animated corpse.
Herger followed along with Rurik, his mace held at the ready.
The corpse thing kept moving toward the camp, as Rurik and Herger tried to draw it away and Tibbiddo circled behind it. It closed on Marri and Michael. Marri faced again with such horror froze in shock. Unwilling to abandon her, Michael engaged and the others leapt to help.
The creature was not quick to strike, but Michael watched in horror as his blows struck dead flesh with little effect. Herger's mace, which smashed into the creature from behind a second later had more effect smashing the spine and effectively snapping the creature in two. It fell to the ground in two pieces and twitched for a moment until Marri snapped out of her paralysis and thrust at it again and again with her flaming brand until the smell of burning flesh replaced the stench of rotting meat and the pieces were still.
Once she was sure the creature was burning, Marri collapsed on the ground, and, eyes still fixed on the creature, began to cry: long shuddering sobs, but without sound.
Maewyn walked over to Marri knenlt in front of her, saying softly, "It all right Marri we al understand." She sat next to Mari with her hand on her arm.
Softly she said in a sad voice, "Before I just wanted to say I am sorry but the thought of maybe desecrating a Druid's resting barrow make me sick to my stomach. I may have overreacted. I was so afraid of what would happen if I did not do my duty to the druids if well it hard to explain but my fear made me speak harsher than I should have."
Herger placed a friendly hand on Marri's shoulder and asked if she was all right. He then says to all, "We can wait until morning, then. Come sit around the fire and get some food. You can tell us what happened to you on the field so we can watch for it on the morrow. We could use the rest."
He turned back to the campfire and began doffing his weighty armour.
Tibbiddo re-entered the ring of firelight and began to kick the smouldering hunk outside their living area. At first he reluctantly poked at it with his foot, fearful that it could spring to life again; then satisfied that it would move no more he quickly dispatched it far away. As he returned, he joined in recounting what had transpired.
"I approached the mound with great bravery and began to climb it to survey the battlefield," the halfling began acting out the approach. Tibbiddo drew out his dagger and strode forth to punctuate his reenactment, "Then, as I set foot upon what I thought to be the *final* resting place, these creatures returned to claim more foes. I, however, was not an easy prey as I alerted the party to the danger and then we dropped back to offer protection to the fair Marri." His presentation complete, Tibbiddo bowed deeply and deposited his throwing knife back underneath his cloak and smiled.
Michael, who was still shaking his head at his sword's inaability to turn the rotting thiing, turned sharply to Tibbiddo with a derisive laugh. "The story may have gone that way indeed...but I say it all would have been unnecessary, and that this fine woman would not now be distraught if you'd had a little sense and waited until the light of day had been on your side. And I think your "protection" was not quite the staunch and valiant display you suggest it to be here." Again Michael snorted and finished wiping the last of the rubbery flesh off his sword.
He turned to Herger and holds out his hand. "I am grateful for your strong mace here with me, else I fear I may not have been enough to turn this foe. Well struck. I will begin a watch and mayhap we will rest peacefully this night." He then turned and walked to the side of the fire closest to the old battlefield. Using his cloak for a pad, he sat resting his sword bare across his knees.
Rurik could still feel the ringing in his ears and the strain in his arms and shoulders inflicted on him by the enthusiastically heroic halfling. Rubbing some of the stiffness from his right shoulder, he smiled to himself as if at some personal joke. Always one to share, the Wastelander quickly formed his thoughts and watched as Tibbs pantomimed a particularly harrowing part of his brave adventure. Quite unexpectedly, Rurik felt a wave of... Sympathy? Pity? Concern?... Understanding, perhaps... wash over him. Just as he, himself, embraced humor to cover his fears, so too did Tibbiddo fold himself comfortably into storytelling. By the time Rurik opened his mouth to share his thoughts, naught but a yawn emerged; and for perhaps the first time in his life, the sharp-tongued man from Marienburg said nothing at all.
The night passed uneasily but quietly. A chill dawn touched the pass and Marri built up the fire and made breakfast as the others prepared themselves to face the day. The horses were a little less nervous than the day before, although they clustered together in the southern region of the grassy verge and would not venture off it into the blasted battlefield.
Tibbiddo looked into his tiny knife blade to straighten his floppy hat, and content with his appearance spoke. "I see no sign of a sword here. It appears to be merely a legend, and not a good one at that!" For as Tibbiddo knew, a good legend offered itself up to extravagant profit when told a certain way. The scary encounter the previous evening had convinced him that danger far outweighed the potential of riches.
Hoisting his backpack up the halfling concluded, "I can lead us around this desolated place."
Herger had taken the final watch, so he was already up and about when the others awoke. He gave a small cough when he heard Tibbiddo's declaration, "We have not yet begun to plunder the secrets of this valley, my beknighted halfling friend." He finished packing up his bedding and loading his equipment on his horse, a beautiful chestnut mare with a flare of white along her nose. As he sat for breakfast, thanking the cook, he said, "You say there is shaft leading into the cliff? That may be where we must needs be searching. I admit that the prospect is daunting, but if was recently revealed by the tremor we felt within these past days it may be that noone else has ever ventured inside and may be where the sword may be found."
As an aside, he asked of Marri, "Would you like to come with us, or stay here in the camp? I think it would be better to have you along, if you're willing."
Tibbido's posture slumped as he muttered something about another tremor burying them all underneath the surface with all the beasties. But nevertheless, the idea of untouched plunder did cause a surge of bravery (or was it greed?) to course through his veins.
After breakfast the troupe moved to investigate the shaft. They waded through the shcokingly clear water of the stream, and approached the hole. After a short discussion they agreed that the hole looked to be fairly new, probably caused by the earthquake. It was about ten feet wide and curved gently off the right some twenty or thirty feet down.
They arranged themselves into a loose marching order with Tibbiddo scouting ahead, Maewyn and Marri in the middle, Herger and Rurik in front of them, and Michael in the rear. Rurik carried Marri's lantern.
Just after the turn, the tunnel widened into a cavern forty feet across. They found Tibbo at the entrance looking at a few bones with fear etched on his face. The bones were distorted and mutated, but appeared to be of Chaos Beastmen - or so Tibbo told them, the others having never seen such horrors. Two of the skeletons looked to have been cloven in twain while still alive, one had both of its skulls split, the last had no obvious sign of why it had died.
By the light of the lantern, they could see two tunnels leading out of the cavern, one almost directly across the way, and one a little to the left of the first. In the opening of that one was another skeleton, dressed in the rags of armour; from this distance it looked like a goblin. In the cave itself, they saw only footprints, a few stains that looked like blood, and a broken spear.
Herger spoke in a low murmur, "Not exactly ill omens, one would think. As they say, the enemy of my enemy could well be my friend." He nudged one of the chaos skeletons with the toe of his boot, making sure it wasn't going to hop up all of a sudden.
He indicated the lefthand passage and asked, "What say we follow the corpses?"
Tibbiddo acknowledged that he was all for coming across as many unmoving corpses as they could find. Inwardly he hoped that whatever was producing them would be sufficiently tired by the time they came across it. Slowly he took a step toward the left passage and looked back at the party.
A tunnel was a tunnel as far as Maewyn was concerned and it did not mater which one they entered. Maewyn nodded her head willing to follow she held her quarterstaff in a white knuckled fist and smiled over at Marri, "I guess I am as ready as I am going to be how about you?"
They moved across the room, remarking on other signs of violence as they passed. The left hand passage was well marked with skeletons of goblins, orcs, beast-men and the like. It went on for thirty feet or so then widened again into smaller cave with a little nook at the back. The passage then continued on, curving around to the right.
In the nook, with skeletons of the foul creatures piled around him, was the skeleton of an elf. The bones bore the marks of great violence, clearly the elf had been injured many times before he finally fell. A naked scabbard was still strapped to his waist with a rotting belt, and on his head was a helmet, bearing the crest of Ryo-Aldenar, with which they had all become familiar during their stay at Lin-Adelle.
Exasperated, Tibbo broke the silence "Where's the sword?" with a whisper. With his eyes flitting about the area looking for anything out of the ordinary he approached carefully, stopping within an arm's length.
How far Tibbo had come to consider dead elven heroes in a pile of chaos creature bones "ordinary!" However, although there was rotten armour in abundance and rusty weapons clenched in the fists of many of the dead monsters, there did not appear to be anything remotely resembling the sword for which they sought.
The look Rurik shot the halfling in no way masked his annoyance at the hushed 'outburst'. Careful not to disturb the remains of the long-dispached 'foes', Rurik gingerly stepped towards the elf and kneeled down to examine the corpse more carefully. With a deft, practiced hand, he went through the elf's belongings looking for personal effects and possible clues as to what brought this individual to his fate. That complete, he carefully removed the helm - all the while disturbing the remains as little as possible.
Rurik concluded several things from his examination. The elf had been fighting hard and had slain many foes, the enemy had been left where they had fallen. The position of the elf's skeleton didn't look natural. The right arm was outflung and several fingers were broken, as if something had been grasped in it and wrenched brutally free. There was little else, time had worked on the perishable items and destroyed them fully, and even the metals had suffered.
Marri took a deep breath, drew herself up and nodded at Maewyn. "Indeed. One hole in the ground is much the same as another! Let's get on with it!" Traveller gave a little yelp in agreement, and started down the tunnel after Tibbi.
Marri's whole body tensed as Rurik began to examine the body, and Traveller, sensing her unease, pressed close to her. "Let us hope he's finding his swim in Esmeralda's Cauldron pleasant," she thought to herself, falling back on images she'd been taught as a child to deal with death. "Though perhaps after all this time, She's ladeled him out again, and his soul walks the land, dressed in some other bit of the Cosmic Cook's dough." The simple images brought a slight smile to her face, though she remained uneasy as Rurik continued his examination. While her mind, in a vain effort at distraction, continued to wrestle with essential questions like whether or not elves actually went back to a cosmic cauldron they probably didn't believe in when they died, her eyes were focused, darting around the room, waiting for *something* to move!
Inspection complete, Rurik carefully removed the helm - all the while disturbing the remains as little as possible.
Never one to be tied down to any particular dogma of the various realms, the Wastelander did, however, follow his own home-brew spiritual beliefs - born from his encounters with the ancient dead. In many ways, he felt a connection with the lonely vagabonds forever forgotten in the cracks and crevices of the earth - a seeker of lost souls simply wanting to be found; their stories to be told.
Helm in both hands, slightly extended toward the elf, Rurik looked into the vacant eye sockets of the Ryo-Aldanari and intoned ever so softly in his native tongue, "Across the ages, we are brothers tied past and present to the events of this domain. Guide me, brother, to help you finish your task and to bring you safely home." He placed the helm on his own head.
Finished with his ritual with the Elven hero, Rurik turned to the others with a faint look of surprise, like he had forgotten they were with him. The look was quickly replaced by an easy calm as he shared his findings. "Judging by the damage to his right arm," he whispered "his sword... or something... was ripped from his hand with great force - like a bully snatching a toy from a small child." Glancing again at the elf-wrought carnage, Rurik shuddered.
With Rurik leading the way in his battered elf-helm, the companions move along the passage. After fifteen feet, it split. The right-hand passsage the quickly determined led back to the first chamber. They then returned to the remaining passage and descended. It widened out and dead-ended after another twenty feet or so. Clustered at the far was another jumble of skeletons, human this time it appeared. They, their gear and and the walls were scorched and blackened as though riven with fire long years past. Bits of armour and weaponry lay mixed in with the bones. After a few moments examination, they turned up a few pieces which still had visible badges on them. Herger recognized the arms as that of a mage called Likar, who had dwelt in Nuln during the incursions of Chaos.
Herger shared his discovery with the others and peered about the chamber. He said, "I suppose we could search the place for some kind of secret passage, or chamber."
"Yes. It does seem odd that the passage should just stop here." Rurik stated flatly. Standing and looking around, he looked for a likely spot to hide a passageway before taking a closer look in earnest.
Marri thought that Herger and Rurik were probably correct. She smiled down at Traveller and said "Make yourself useful, little friend. Find us a door!" Then she took out a candle, lit it and held it up to see if the flickering of the flame would give them any indication of an opening.
Maewyn tried but no secret passage was found nor tunnel. Throwing up her hands in disgust she went back to the body seeing if she could find a trail that lead away from the corpse - maybe the could track the path of the thief if her luck was with her and the gods looked down with favor on their quest.
Maewyn examined the floor and the walls carefully. The shaft must have been sealed soon after the fight, since the tracks and signs were clear and nearly undisturbed except by their own passage. As the others watched, she moved and back forth through the caves reconstructing the movements of the various parties.
What she concluded was this: the elf, Ryo-Aldenar presumably, entered the shaft then stopped at the first entrance. There the beastmen were slain, probably by the elf himself. He fled further pursued by the remaining evil creatures. He fought his way back to the corner were he could best defend himself, but was slain. The survivors it seemed moved down to the other cavern area, where they were all slain against the wall. All save one. One set of footprints left by way of the other passage back to the first cave and then out - although the entrance shaft was much damaged first by whatever sealed the shaft and then by the earthquake which reopened it.
Maewyn smiled seems that our prize is not in here nor was it taken deeper into the cave but back out the front door by the sole survivor of this fight. I say we go back and see if we can try to track this individual and may our dieties grant us the luck of the gods for we may need it.
Tibbiddo was fully supportive of this course of action. Although, the choice between the dead (and unmoving) and the outside world where more of those abhorrent greenskins abounded made things less clear. "I concur, we should leave this horrible place quickly and find our quarry before night falls," he said optimistically.
The party took one more look around to see if they had missed anything, but Maewyn was confident she had read the whole story of the tracks. They retired back to their camp to plan their next move.
Tibbiddo brushed off his clothing as if to remove the last vestiges of the underground tomb before stating with confidence. "Well, even a scout with my considerable skills cannot track someone from so long ago. Where now?" The little halfling continued to gripe about his soiled garments, which belied his city upbringing and dislike for the outdoors thus casting his scouting skills into doubt.
As the other looked back to see if they had missed anything, Maewyn did not, secure in her belief that she had already seen all that she needed to see. With a laugh Maewyn teased lightly, "That is why I said we need the luck of the gods to find out where he went for only they will be able to tell us all other traces have long since vanished beyong all recall. Now the thing is if I was a thief running from here where would I go what would be my plan or path?"
Tibbiddo, who felt highly qualified to speak on behalf of thieves everywhere, "Well, if it were a common thief then one might try to sell it at the nearest town. A better thief would seek out to whom it belonged and ransom it back, after having made a duplicate of course. Now if she were hired to retrieve such a prize, then it could be anywhere among the powerful and wealthy." The halfling sniffed the air, "greed doesn't have a stench that lasts over the years though."
Marri's knowledge of thieves being happily somewhat limited, she listened to the others but made no comment on that subject. Instead she said "Will we be moving on right now or will there be time for me to make us a bite to eat? We might all plan better on a full stomach, but I'm not sure if we wish to tarry here long enough for a meal." Traveller yelped happily at the word meal, making Marri smile, but she waited to hear what the others would say.
Herger wiped absently at a spot on his chain shirt as he considered everything that was discovered in the passage. He vividly recalled the words of the Elven lord from Lin-Adelle telling them what the seers had read in the signs. The time of the Sword's return was at hand, or near enough, and he and his companions may be the ones to find it. He rubbed his chin while in thought. There appeared to be two answers to this riddle and he said as much, "While it is possible that some vile greenskin or abomination of the Dark Powers wrenched the sword from our Elven hero, I think that if that were the case we would have more ancient history to lead us on. It certainly would have been used by some powerful chieftain to carve into the kingdoms of the good folk of the Empire and stories and tales would have been gathered. At least by the Elves, I feel. The same could be said of any thief who thought to sell the blade for a profit. The sword would have been 'seen again' and the legend says that it is not so. I propose the following theory, and suggest that we might follow up on it if we fail to uncover any more clues... The Human skeletons that we found in the fire blackened dead-end passage bore the arms of the sorcerer Likar, of Nuln. He may have finished off the Chaos creatures with a final blast of power which was the cause of the charring and left himself the sole survivor. He made his way back to the place where the hero fell and relieved him of his starmetal sword seeing opportunity for himself. He kept the wepon with him for some wizardly purpose and secret-ed it away, hordeing it to himself as an ancient and powerful artefact. Being the sole survivor, there would be none to spread the tale of Ryo-Aldenar and his sword but him, and wanting to keep it for himself he refused to speak of it."
"Perhaps," conceded Tibbiddo, "yet that still does not get us any closer to finding the sword. Maybe whoever took the sword exited the shaft and was struck dead, and the sword lies there!" Tibbiddo pointed to the mounds optimistically. He was at a loss, for the sword could be anywhere and he had to agree with Herger that legends were scarce as to its whereabouts.
Rurik frowned. The explanation Herger presented made sense, but Nuln is a long way to go to test a theory - not to mention it being in the complete WRONG direction. If only he had this information when he passed through Nuln the first time... No use dwelling on that.
"Herger." Rurik asked, "This Likar... Does it mention how or where he met his end, and did he have some sort of 'summer home' or workshop reasonably close by?"
Herger didn't know the answer and said so.
"So, our options appear to be three," mused Michael. "We can return the way we came, which may set us upon the right track...but will cost time. We might strike out for the closest settlement and inquire there about local legends or the like. Or, we can do as Tibbido suggests and dig into the mounds, fully aware of what might return from the graves of years past and do us some mischief. Have I missed anything?"
Marri had been sitting on the ground, absently petting Traveller, listening intently to everyone. Finally she spoke up. "Excuse me. It seems to me that no one of us really knows what direction we should go to search for the sword from here. I think... we need to find some concrete information pointing us in one direction or another - not just wander off chasing theories - no matter how plausible they might be. I'm sure none of us have forgotten we do have a bit of a time limit!"
This made sense to everyone, and they determined to head back to Lin-Adelle regardless of their eventual destination. They pbroke camp and began to move back toward the elves. It was a late start, but all were happier to be out of the cursed valley. The next day they approached the cross-roads and the scouts reported the goblins had left, leaving behind only trash, refuse, offal and two of their own, slain by their comrades for some reason.
After another day or so they arrived at Lin-Adelle. Another council was called and the companions told the elves what they had learned. The helmet was indeed that of Ryo-Aldenar, and the elves were greatly interested to learn of his fate.
The elves were able to add a little to their knowledge. Likar was a name they knew. He was a mage of Nuln, who fought in the battles. They were surprised to hear of signs that he had been at Arrak-Arras, for Ryo-Aldenar had travelled only with elves and they had been massacred to a man, it was believed.
They knew little else of Likar, save that he returned to Nuln after the Chaos tide was stemmed. No one had seen him in these lands after that time.
The elves also took it as a sign that their prognostications were coming true; the stories made no mention of Likar, the remains of Ryo-Aldenar or a shaft like the one the party found. The fact that the earthquake opened the shaft a mere day before the party's arrival at Arrak-Arras lent credence to their beliefs.
Marri was glad to be back with the elves, as was Traveller. Marri immediately settled back into studies with the elven healer Liallan, regaling her with stories of, and questions about, the plants she had seen along the way. She spoke little of the *things* they had fought, and Liallan wisely did not press her to. Traveller, for her part, as she was fed and made much of by everyone, was more than content. And both the little beings were extremely pleased to see Josef, who seemed equally pleased to see them. Marri still didn't find the thought of the sword as exciting as that of a well made lemon tart, but she had decided, more than once on this trip actually, to hope the gods were leading Herger, and she was determined to continue in that hope, and to continue to follow where he led. She sometimes wondered if she were really very useful to the company, but she contented herself with the thought that at least they would be well fed when they were torn apart by ... well... whatever horrid thing finally suceeding in tearing them apart. And perhaps she might even be able to put at least some of the pieces back together... if she were allowed to continue her studies long enough. So settled was her mind that Marri spent little time wondering about where or when they would go. She simply ate, slept, studied, and played with Josef and Traveller... and waited.