BK
01
CH
09
SC
12

The Annals of Pelor
Slave Labour

…continues from Book #01, Chapter #09, Scene #11

Synopsis

The 30th Day of Ches in the Year of the Sudden Journey
In the dead of night the group have heard the trundle of a wagon, laid in wait to ambush it, and have slain a troop of hobgoblins.

For a chapter summary please see Chapter #09 Summary.

Cast List

Khalin Grundokri

7th Level Male Dwarven Marshal (Warlord)

Kireth Majere

7th Level Male Half-Elven Arcanist (Wizard)

Tradden Aversward

7th Level Male Human Weaponmaster (Fighter)

Zero Uhlit

7th Level Male Human Scoundrel (Rogue)

Beltak Ancaron

Scribe of Pelor (NPC)

Scene Length

This scene starts on Tuesday 19th March 2013 and is expected to be completed by the end of Friday 20th April 2013.

Players are expected to be able to post at least once a day.

Storyline
The Pineforest

A silence fell over the forest as the last of the hobgoblins went still, broken only by the patter of the light rain on the pine needles of the forest floor and the sounds of ragged breathing.

Zero slowly pulled himself up from the floor, looking over at the boar to make sure it wasn’t in too bad a shape to cook and smiling at Tradden beside him and starting a small joke about pork.

Khalin immediately ‘shushed’ them, though, with a scowl, listening intently to the sounds out in the forest. There it came again, a soft moan, as though someone was in pain.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

‘The cart! The hobgoblin was doing something back there!’ shouted Tradden.

And then he ran off in that direction without a further thought.

The scene when he arrived at the rear of the wagon was not pretty. The wagon was a bamboo affair, poles erected around the side of the cart like a cage. A simple door at the rear was wide open, the clumsy bamboo lock broken.

At the foot of the cart were a number of bodies, red and bloodied, cut down as they tried to escape by the sentry. Tradden thought there might be half or dozen, perhaps more, a mixture of humans and dwarves.

Then, at the far side of the macabre pile he spotted movement and heard a soft moan.

Rushing across he saw a young girl in a bloodied red sack-cloth, her hair long and white and streaked with the mud from the road. He rolled her over and to his relief saw she was still alive, her vivid red lips parched murmuring in stark contrast to her pale white skin.

‘Beltak! Beltak!’ the young fighter cried as he lifted her slightly and cradled her within his arms. ‘Get over here, there’s one still alive!’

He tried to think of some noble phrase to utter, but was lost for words when her eyes flickered open and his gaze met her startling violet eyes. As he held her, mesmerised, the light from Kireth’s spell began to fade, leaving the forest in a cold, damp darkness.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

As Beltak rushed towards Tradden’s side the warlord followed, breathing heavily from the wounds he had taken in battle. The scribe was already knelt down next to the young fighter when Khalin got there, softly calling for Pelor to aid the girl.

Questions ran through his mind in rapid succession, but for now he held his tongue until Beltak declared she was going to be alright. Instead he turned his attention to the wagon, hoisting himself up onto the rear and looking about the bamboo cage for any other survivors.

To his dismay there were none. It looked as though the prisoners had taken their chance when the hobgoblins had been ambushed, managed to smash the lock, and make a run for it. None of them had gotten very far, the sentry had seen to that.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Khalin sniffed the air. It was not that long after midnight he surmised, but some hours from dawn, and the drizzle and cold air would certainly not help the girl.

‘We need to get her dry and warm,’ he offered to Beltak. ‘Can she be moved? To one of the shelters, perhaps?’

Beltak nodded and Tradden picked her up easily, carrying her through the trees with care towards their makeshift camp. She was thin and light, perhaps only ten years old, but the grip on Tradden’s arm as he went was strong and firm. Not for one moment did she take her violet eyes from the young fighter’s face.

Tradden took the girl to his own shelter, which he hadn’t been sharing, so had a little more room for the girl and the scribe. She didn’t seem to want Tradden to leave her, gripping his arm ever tighter, so the young fighter sat cross-legged at the end of the shelter, his head banging against the wooden roof, as the girl laid herself down and Beltak covered her with a blanket.

Beltak continued to mumble softly, kneeling at the entrance to the shelter, and after a few minutes indicated to Khalin that the girl would survive.

Rhasgar, Sorrow, and the rest of the Talons slowly joined them, declaring that the rest of the hobgoblin party had been slain and that no-one was badly injured.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

The warlord breathed a sigh of relief and stroked his beard. The wound on his side ached from the sentry’s sword thrust and the bruises from the guard’s spear would be purple and yellow by the time the sun was up, but at least he was alive and well as were his comrades. This poor girl might have lost her family for all he knew. However, he needed answers — were there more hobgoblins, for instance?

He knelt down next to Beltak, trying to think how best to approach questioning such a young and probably frightened girl. However, it just came out in a stream.

‘What do you remember? Are there any others? Where have you come from? Where were they taking you? Do you know of Kiris Dahn?’ he spluttered, the questions tumbling one after the other.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Kireth scowled from the rear of the group. The dwarf was fierce in battle, but his diplomacy could do with some polishing, he thought. He stalked back towards his own shelter, clicking his fingers to alight the torches in the centre of the camp. He would rest and meditate and find his own answers in the morning. Besides, he could listen to the girl’s replies more clearly away from the rabble in the comfort of his own bedroll.

Zero, although concerned over the plight of the girl, had decided that between the others they would be more than able to take care of her. He had always been nervous around children, not really sure what to do with them, so had convinced Aukan to head back to the road with him to retrieve the carcass of the boar. No sense in wasting it, he thought.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

The girl gingerly pushed her white hair from her face, taking her eyes from Tradden and stared at Khalin. The dwarf felt a rush of blood to his cheeks as the violet eyes bore into his own. She seemed fragile and small, but there was a strength within.

‘We were been taken to the west,’ she croaked, ‘though to where or why I’m not sure. A keep, I think. The rest are dead, aren’t they, I saw them killed?’

Khalin nodded slowly, unsure of what to say. The girl seemed sad, but not distraught, perhaps none of the others were close to her. ‘We will give them a proper burial in the morning,’ was all that the dwarf could think of to say.

‘I am from Kiris Dahn, or was,’ she continued. ‘At least until the goblins took over. It was peaceful before they came, just me and the ruins, and now they lay waste, searching for whatever it is they look for, bringing slaves to help them look.’

Her brows furrowed and she tried her best to look fierce, but the combination of her strange eyes and white eyebrows did not have a stern effect. ‘They found me and then made me look for things in the ruins. They must have found some of what they were looking for as they began to send some of us west, as gifts I think. My home, my beautiful home, riddled with these filthy beasts.’

At that she closed her eyes as tears began to form and lay her head down, clutching onto Tradden’s arm with a tightening grip.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Khalin reached out an arm to hold the girl’s arm in an attempt to comfort her, but withdrew it quickly as he glimpsed the blood still running freely down his fingers.

‘I’m sorry for the hardships you’ve suffered. You’re safe now.’ He looked up at Tradden. ‘But it’s important that we know more so that we can protect you.’

The girl nodded softly and opened her eyes once more. They were rimmed with tears and she looked tired and frail. Khalin turned, searching out Aukan or Zero, spotting the pair closer to the centre of the camp around the carcass of the boar. ‘Zero, Aukan!’ he called, ‘Can we have some food for the lady over here? And water?’

The rogue shrugged his shoulders at the goliath as Aukan strode over to the wagon to grab some rations. With a waterskin and some of the dried fruits and cheeses the girl seemed to relax and Khalin cautiously continued his questioning.

‘I know you’re tired,’ the warlord began, looking around at the gathered group, ragged and bloody, ‘Moradin’s Hammer we all are, but we need to know how we proceed from here, how best to get to the Vale and keep you safe.’

Rubbing her side she sat up and set a brave face and began to tell her story.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

The girl’s name was Iolanthe and she had been living in the ruins of Kiris Dahn for nearly a year on her own since her parents had been killed in a fire on their farm towards the southwestern corner of the Vale.

She didn’t want to talk about her parents much, which seemed obvious to Tradden, or why she had chosen to live in such ruins rather than seek refuge at another farm, or in one of the larger towns. She’d managed a meagre existence within the crumbled walls of the Shrine of the Moon, towards the centre of the city, living off what food she could find and rabbits she could catch.

Khalin had pressed about Kiris Dahn itself but the poor girl was too young to understand much of what he asked. It wasn’t dwarven, of that the warlord became sure, but more likely and old human settlement. It had been overrun by goblins many years ago, a long time before Iolanthe had been born, and had eventually been left desolate, ripe for the weeds and underbrush of the countryside to try to reclaim it.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

At the end of last summer, though, it seemed Kiris Dahn was invaded once more, with tribes of kobolds and goblins pouring into the ruined city. From the safety of the shrine and slipping through the shadows of the roads Iolanthe discovered that the kobolds and goblins seemed to be looking for something in particular and their numbers grew the longer the search took.

Captured slaves, humans and dwarves mostly, were brought in, joined by troops of hobgoblins. The slaves were worked mercilessly, almost to starvation. When their energy was spent they were sent out somewhere to the west in bamboo wagons pulled by all manner of beasts. To what end Iolanthe wasn’t sure.

The hobgoblins brought a sense of order to the search and it hadn’t been too long before Iolanthe had been found herself and put to work as a slave as part of the search. She learnt the hobgoblins were part of the Sundered Gate clan, but did not find out what they were searching for, she was just told to look for anything that had been left in the ruins that wasn’t stone or weed and bring it back to the rubbled masonry of the old manor house to the northeast of the city.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Then, three or four tendays ago a dragon arrived, terrifying most of the slaves and even some of the goblins. It seemed to direct the searching in particular areas and was soon joined by a band of orcs. These orcs were cruel and vicious, prefering to torture the spent slaves rather than sending them away to the west. It was easy to tell which slaves had been tortured by them, a brand was placed upon them, a symbol of a slit eye across their face, often leaving one of their own eyes useless. Whether they lived afterwards did not seem to matter to the orcs, a tribe that called themselves the Severed Eyes.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

A few days ago something seemed to change. Rumours were abound that the goblins and orcs had found what they were looking for. The orcs were let loose by the dragon and had set to slaughtering anything in their path. Goblins and kobolds scattered before them and the humans and dwarves were struck down where they stood. The hobgoblins, although a little fearful of the orcs, picked several of the healthier slaves, including Iolanthe, and packed them into the bamboo wagon that now lay just along the Old Road. With speed they were ushered out of the city and to the west.

As they had been ridden out of the ruins she had overheard some of the hobgoblins talking about the offerings being sent to The Mouth of the Sleeper, but she didn’t hear much more than that other than one of the offerings was some sort of ‘standard’.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Kiris Dahn is still riddled with kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs as far as Iolanthe knows. It’s a terrible place now, not the serene and calm ruin of only months ago. There are now hundreds of them holed up in there and it should be a place to avoid. The goblins have called it Gorizbadd and as far as she knows they are there to stay.

Even the dragon remained, lurking in its lair near the old baths. Whether they have found everything they sought she does not know, but they seemed to have no need for the slaves any more.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Content with the amount of information the girl had managed to give them, Khalin bade everyone get some rest. ‘Let Iolanthe sleep,’ he had ordered, ‘Tradden, you take care of her, watch she comes to no harm.’

The comment was more for the girl than it was for Tradden. Khalin hoped it would make her feel safer during the night.

‘Dawn will not be long,’ the dwarf continued, looking up at the sky, half expecting to see the open wings of a dragon. ‘We should keep watches, though. Get some food if you need it and off to sleep — we can worry about our plans in the morning. We‘ll wait until noon until we leave, but no later.’

Thoughts of how the group would now get into the Nentir Vale began to run through the warlord’s mind — if Kiris Dahn was unsafe, what other way could they find. Or, could they risk running the gauntlet of skirting the city with the wagon and all?

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Mechanics
Extended Rest

Healing Surges and Hit Points
Healing Surges are regained.
[Khalin has 9 healing surges and is now on 56/56 hit points]
[Kireth has 8 healing surges and is now on 48/48 hit points]
[Tradden has 10 healing surges and is now on 63/63 hit points]
[Zero has 7 healing surges and is now on 55/55 hit points]

Encounter and Daily Powers
All encounter and daily powers are recharged.

Milestones
No Milestones achieved. Action Points reset to 1.

30th Day of Ches | Mid-Morning | Cloudy, Cool, Light Easterly Breeze | go to latest… | back to top…

Storyline
The Pineforest

The rest of the night passed without major incident, the rain abating at dawn and the wind dying in sympathy. Clouds still covered the sky, but at least it brought a glimmer of warmth and the prospect of a dry day.

The smell of slowly roasting boar wafted across the camp, raising many from their bedrolls, and most took to cleaning themselves from the gore of the previous night’s battle.

The remains of the hobgoblins were where they had left them, slowly putrifying in the muddy road, some having been nibbled or gnawed during the night. Nothing had come near the carrion crawler, though, the giant creature already starting to belch nauseous gases as it rotted quickly.

Further up the road stood the wagon and behind that the bodies of the captives, struck down where they tried to escape. Rhasgar had already started to dig a pit alongside the road ready for them to be buried.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Tradden was already awake by the time that Iolanthe stirred from her sleep. He had been expecting her to have a troubled night, what with everything she had been through recently, but either he had slept through it or she had slept soundly.

‘Hey, there… good morning!’ he said softly as she squeezed on his arm. Tradden decided to try and deflect away from more questioning — Khalin had hit her with the questions pretty hard last night. ‘I think we will be moving on soon,’ he started, nodding towards the cart, ‘but I can make sure there is space for you on there if you like. It’s a bit bumpy but beats walking!’ He grinned. ‘Breakfast first of course! I have a friend, Aukan, who can whip you up something nice, I dare say.’ The goliath was attending to the boar with clinical focus. ‘If you are hungry of course…’

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Iolanthe had nodded, she was hungry. Famished, in fact. The gentle aroma of the cooking boar made everyone’s stomachs rumble in anticipation. From the cart Miri had found some clothes and furs and been able to dress the girl in something more respectable than the bloody sack-cloth she had been wearing, and sat down to talk at her side. Beltak’s healing powers had worked wonders, and although the girl would bear a scar for a while on her side, it would fade with time. In fact Beltak remarked how lucky she had been to survive.

Leaving the girl in the middle of the camp, Tradden headed off to help Rhasgar with the shallow grave for the victims of the sentry’s slaughter. Rangrim and Lee-da-Gaar had started to pull the remains of the hobgoblins off of the road and into the trees to the north. There would be no burial for them, the forest creatures would see to them.

Borik had gone to feed the oxen and make sure they were watered, checking their hooves and legs for sores, and fitting their harnesses for the day’s march ahead. With Aukan busy with the fire and the cooking, Beltak took it upon himself to dissemble the camp as best he could, and loading what he thought correct onto the wagon with the diminuitive help of Bekio.

Khalin stayed with Sorrow in the camp, stretching out their maps and scrolls of the land over a fallen tree, determining what course to take next. Kireth sat to one side, poring over scrolls of his own with a furrowed brow, half listening to Khalin and Sorrow’s conversation, half concentrating on his own thoughts.

Only Zero remained with no major role to play, so the rogue slowly padded over towards the bamboo wagon, with the thoughts to push it somewhere off of the road so their own wagon would easily pass by.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

The harness for the dead carrion crawler was still attached to the front of the wagon and lay only a few feet away from the rotting corpse of the giant wormlike creature. Zero didn’t fancy getting too close to the thing but his curiosity was piqued on how the wagon was driven. There did not seem to be any footplates or bench for anyone to sit and take any reins, so he surmised that the hobgoblins simply walked alongside and controlled the beast in some other way.

[Perception Check: 1d20+11: 27] - success!

He did, however, notice a small strongbox, crafted into the front of the wagon, that certainly took his interest, and he carefully stepped around to examine it more thoroughly, tracing the outline of the front of the wagon with his finger.

The strongbox — or at least what he had assumed was such — was simply a rectangular bulge at one side of the front of the wagon. However, the tell-tale iron of banding straps and a gaping hole longing for a key gave the game away to the rogue. With grace he was up to it in a moment, examining it with a rapidly rising heartbeat.

[Perception Check - Find Traps: 1d20+11+2: 15] - failure!

He felt confident that the strongbox did not contain any traps so quickly pulled out his tools and set to work to open the lock.

[Thievery Check - Open Locks: 1d20+11+2: 27] - success!

With a gentle click the lid of the strongbox felt loose and a broad grin spread across the rogue’s face. With a flourish he sprang open the lid, anticipating jewels and gold inside.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Disappointment struck Zero at first glance. Bundles of jerked meat and a couple of wineskins were all that greeted him, other than a crowbar and a copper kettle. The food and drink, he decided, might be unsafe to touch, he wasn’t sure what the hobgoblins ate. The only other thing in the strongbox were three thin candles which smelt quite acrid.

With a sigh he prodded the kettle, thinking it might be of use to Aukan, and was rewarded with a small tinkle. Opening the lid he at last found what he was looking for. The copper pot contained a small pouch full of coins — small silver ones, rough and stained — and his heart leapt for joy. Finally, he was beginning his road to riches in this godsforsaken land.

With a stifled laugh Zero pocketed the coins somewhere about his person and wandered around to the back of the wagon, content now to fulfil his original thoughts of getting the thing off the road.

The wagon was surprisingly light, much to the amusement of the rogue. As he pushed it into the undergrowth he made a show of the heavy work, straining against a false weight to try to impress anyone around. With a jolt the wagon came off the road and bounced up the bank and under the trees. With a final shove the rogue’s work was done and the wagon was more or less hidden from casual view.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

As Khalin studied the map alongside Sorrow, he considered the options before them. If Kiris Dahn was indeed at the southern tip of the mountains then that would present a considerable problem. It would be right on the road to their destination.

The dwarf traced the route with a finger as he spoke to the tiefling. ‘How far is Kiris Dahn from Winterhaven?’ he asked. ‘Are there any other routes we could use to detour round it?’ he continued hopefully, mindful that the map seemed to indicate a bottleneck approach to the town — mountains to the west, downs to the right.

Sorrow looked across at the dwarf, thinking. ‘It’s about a dozen leagues, over the lowest of the Gardbury Downs, I would think. Probably a couple of days travel with the wagon. There is a road, perhaps even an extension of this one, but it isn’t well travelled — not many people, if any at all, travel that way.

She thought for a moment, staring at their meagre maps. ‘There aren’t too many other options, though. We could keep south and then try going up over the Ogrefist Hills, but there’s no road and I’m not sure how the wagon would take it. The hills have their own defences, too. The other option would be to head to the Nentir River and try to find passage up from there, but I’ve never known anyone that has returned from the Witchlight Fens, and I’sve no idea how to build a boat. Going over the Cairngorms at this time of year would be suicide, even if you could find a way that the wagon could follow.

Slowly, she shook her head.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

‘We need to gather the others together before we leave,’ Khalin mused. ‘Time for a Plan B, I fear.’ The tiefling nodded elegantly, and perhaps for the first time the dwarf was struck by her striking beauty — no wonder Tradden and Zero had been falling over themselves for the scarlet-skinned bard. Strange I’d not noticed before thought the warlord, realising how much the constant pressure of the journey and attack at any time had perhaps been muddying his thoughts.

With that in mind, Khalin returned to the fire where the boar had been cooking to collect some seconds from Aukan and meditate some more on the night’s revelations. As he chewed he considered Iolanthe’s words after the battle, running through the girl’s account in his head once more. Orcs, hobgoblins, a dragon — Kiris Dahn would clearly no longer make a sensible waypoint — but what had they been up to?

This Mouth of the Sleeper she had mentioned  — what could it be? And why were they taking it offerings? Humans, dwarves, a standard…

The thought cut the dwarf short.

‘A standard,’ he muttered. A standard? With that he was on his feet in a flash, wiping the grease from his hands while immediately making a beeline for the girl once more.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

He fixed his most affable smile as he crouched next to the youngster, who herself had just finished breaking her fast.

‘How are you feeling this morning, child?’ he offered. ‘A good breakfast I hope? Aukan is a fine chef.’

As the girl nodded Khalin was quickly speaking once more.

‘Last night you mentioned offerings to something you said was called the “Mouth of the Sleeper”?‘ The girl nodded once more, her brow furrowing somewhat at Khalin‘s somewhat excited demeanour.

‘And you said the hobgoblins and what-have-you were talking about offerings being sent there. You mentioned a standard. Is there anything more you know about this? What it might have been? Why it was important to them?’

Iolanthe looked wide-eyed at Khalin, the dwarf held captive by her violet eyes. ‘I’m not really sure,’ she began. ‘There seemed to be quite a commotion at one point, in fact a few of the slaves tried to escape whilst the goblins were distracted, they certainly seemed to be excited about something. The searching stopped not much later and that’s when we started hearing the rumours. I‘m afraid I don’t know much more about it, I’ve never heard of this ‘mouth’, but all of the hobgoblins seemed to know.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

‘Then hobgoblin it is,’ said the mage rising from his position, which most had assumed was out of earshot. ‘Think on what you need to know,’ he nodded towards his companions as he moved away from them.

They watched the half-elf move away from the group and head towards the bodies of the fallen enemies that had not yet been cleared by Rangrim and Lee-da-Gaar. He moved methodically from body to body, poking some with his staff, bending down and rolling others over to inspect them better. For what reason? Some of the companions feared they knew the answer.

Then the mage chuckled, ‘Hmm, yes. It was destined to be you, was it not?’ Watching with macabre fascination the others observed the mage, with some effort, pull the fat warcaster away from the other bodies and lay him out, arms folded across his chest. He pulled a small globe from his bag, placed it on the floor and clicked his fingers. A small spark shot from his fingers and into the globe. Within a few moments, even from this distance, the companions could smell the scent of burning incense.

Kireth paused. Pulling back his hood he turned and looked over. Catching Zero’s eye he smiled and curled his bony finger, beckoning him over.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

The others sat back for a moment, unsure if the answer they had in their mind was the truth. Though what Zero might have to do with the mage’s plans was a mystery. Slowly, the rogue walked over, his eyes refusing to meet Kireth’s and remained fixed on the prostrate hobgoblin.

‘The coins,’ Kireth simply said when Zero arrived next to him. ‘The silver coins you found. We have need of them.’ The rogue’s hand involuntarily went to the belt pouch where he’d safely stowed the coins he had found in the copper kettle. ‘I know you have some,’ Kireth kept prodding. ‘Their use here will be of utmost importance.’ Kireth simply waited for the rogue to comply. It would not be long.

Zero hesitated for a moment, looking across the camp towards some of the others before handing over the pouch with a resigned shrug. Easy come, easy go.

Kireth took the pouch and began to mumble under his breath. Taking two of the coins from the bag he carefully placed them over the hobgoblin’s closed eyes. The rest of the pouch he continued to chant over and with a flourish he crushed the leather and coins within it in a white, bony grip.

Pulling apart the drawstring of the pouch he opened up the hobgoblin’s mouth and poured a silvery powder, presumably the remnants of Zero’s prize, down the creature’s gullet. The mage stepped back with a small look of triumph.

[Speak With Dead]

[Kireth Religion Check: 1d20+7+5: 21] - success!

[Kireth may ask hobgoblin corpse two questions]

The coins on the hobgoblin’s eyes melted away, silver cascading down its cheeks like tears. It burnt away the eyelids leaving the dead eyes staring out into nothingness at the skyline above.

Kireth’s smile grew, but there was a murmur from the back of the camp. It was Beltak. ‘I shall have nothing to do with this!’ stated the priest indignantly. Kireth merely shrugged.

‘Two questions,’ he smiled at Khalin. ‘Choose wisely.’

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Storyline
The Pineforest

Khalin looked a little uncomfortable with Kireth’s methods, but could see the necessity within them. Zero had already moved back and appeared to be reluctant to take part with anything that involved the dead. Tradden was fascinated and was already whispering questions to Khalin, bringing a furrowed brow to the warlord. Rhasgar looked reticent, but the rest of the Talons looked on inquisitively, Rangrim particularly so, suggesting several crude questions to ask the hobgoblin about its hygiene. Kireth waited patiently, the smile remaining on his lips, his own questions whirling through his mind.

With advice from Sorrow and a brief discussion with Kireth the warlord’s mind was made up. They would seek an answer to a single question first, before deciding upon the second. Kireth moved back in front of the dead hobgoblin.

Its eyes continued to stare silently into the skies above as Kireth decided upon the correct phrases to use. From his learnings he knew that the dead would not lie, but neither would they offer additional information. More importantly, they would answer the question literally.

With a voice louder than necessary, perhaps for a little dramatic effect, the mage intoned the question to the corpse.

‘Tell me, in language and terms I will understand, what “The Mouth of the Sleeper” is.’

There was no noise or movement from the hobgoblin but Kireth paled and blinked hard. When the mage spoke, it was softly and deliberately. ‘It says “One of Skauril’s portals”.’ The mage was then silent.

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Storyline
The Pineforest

‘Wait — didn’t we kill Skauril?’ blurted out Tradden.

Kireth’s eyes flickered for a second as he readied to ask the second question.

‘The second question. You blithering idiot!’ roared Khalin. ‘Now we will never know about the standard!’ The dwarf looked round at the rest of the group one by one. ‘The standard!?’ he asked them, as one, imploringly.

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The Pineforest

Kireth ignored the outburst from Tradden, keeping his eyes on Khalin and how the warlord was marshalling the rest of the group. The mage had his own questions, but for now they would wait. This worthless corpse of shaman would not know the truth to tell him in any case.

The young fighter had calmed down, and was actually coming out with some good suggestions, although worded very poorly for Kireth’s taste. The corpse would hardly be able to answer, or would provide something so vague it would be worthless. Khalin was starting to dither, contemplating searching the wagon again, or looking over the other corpses — Kireth reminded him that time was of the essence should the ritual expire.

With Tradden’s help Khalin finally offered a well-structured question. Kireth only half-ignored this one, asking the question that had sprung to his own mind in the first place after the answer to the first.

Turning back to the corpse he uttered the second and final question. ‘Tell me, in language and terms I understand, where I can find the nearest portal, associated with Skauril, that is not located at Caulkin Keep.’

Again there was a short silent pause, only the corner of Kireth’s mouth rising to betray any sense of action. But before Kireth uttered the final words of the reply, the hobgoblin began to stir.

[Kireth loses 2 Healing Surges]

A stiff and lurching movement, one that would likely not be possible when the hobgoblin was alive, brought it to its feet. Its staring eyes looked straight ahead, past the mage, further down the road where Zero stood to one side.

With an awkward start it roughly pushed past the mage, knocking him off his feet easily, and with a stumble was upon the rogue in a moment. It reached out with locked arms and seized him around the shoulders in a brutal clasp, staring with those wide unfocused eyes through Zero’s head. A silvery foam began to build up around its mouth and the stench of death and decay began to overwhelm the rogue.

The foam and spittle amassed around its mouth and then its whole body started to convulse, shaking and twisting as the grip tightened on the rogue’s shoulders all of the time.

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The Pineforest

‘What the…’ Khalin began, motionless with shock at the speed of the turn of events. Tradden, however, was already running towards Zero.

With a gurgle and then a retch the hobgoblin’s mouth bloated wide and nausea overcame the rogue. Trying to move his arms up to protect his face Zero began to wriggle to pull himself free, forgetting the necklace around his neck that would teleport him away with ease.

Then the hobgoblin locked stiff, toppling forwards, and the weight of the thing bore Zero over, the wind knocked out of the rogue as the lifeless thing crushed him to the floor. The grip on his shoulders melted away, but there was no escape, its body too heavy for him to move alone and the face so close to his making him squirm with fear.

With a final shudder the corpse seemed to relax and issued a bubbling wave of silvery foam, cascading over Zero’s face. All went dark when two large, silver coins slid out of the hobgoblin’s mouth and over his eyes.

Zero gave a scream, before Tradden reached him and pushed the corpse over and away from the rogue, its lifeless open eyes staring at Zero as the heavy coins slid from his face.

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The Pineforest

If Khalin had appeared uncomfortable before the ritual he looked in shock now. Taking in the aftermath of the grotesque turn of events the dwarf surmised Zero was okay and finally turned and offered a hand to Kireth to haul the mage back up.

‘What in Clangeddin’s name just happened?’ he demanded.

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The Pineforest

‘Fascinating, quite fascinating,’ said the mage, accepting the hand up. ‘That,’ he nodded towards the dead, again, hobgoblin, should not have happened.

‘What did you do?’ he smirked with mock accusation, knowing full well the rogue had no idea. ‘It specifically wanted you, Master Zero. Random, or because of something you have? I would think about that.’ The mage looked down at the coins before turning and beginning to ready himself.

‘Erm…’ began Tradden, rolling over onto his back.

‘Yes?’

‘The answer, man, what answer did it give?’ queried the dwarf, beating the young fighter to the quesiton.

‘Ah, well,’ Kireth continued to gather his things. ‘That’s for me to know isn’t it?’

The others stared at him.

‘Relax, I’m joking. You guys really need to lighten up you know.’ He looked at Khalin. ‘Stress is a killer.’ He turned back away from them. ‘The portal is eight leagues north of us, in the “Coilwood”.’

Finishing his work he rose. ‘Your adulation is unnecessary, but appreciated.’

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The Pineforest

Khalin strode purposefully back towards Zero. What had started as a mercifully peaceful morning after the hellish night before was quickly moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. Khalin addressed the startled rogue, looking at the slowly dissipating foam and spittle and the shining silver by his head. ‘Care to shed any light on this?’

The dwarf’s dour visage made it clear he’d had enough nonsense.

He waited for a moment without a reply. Perhaps he’d been too harsh on the lad.

Khalin turned and stroked his beard thoughtfully as he considered the information Kireth had imparted. ‘Well one thing’s for certain,’ he announced, ‘we need a meeting.’ The warlord nodded to Rhasgar and Sorrow nearby, ‘Time to assemble the troops methinks, we have a lot to consider here.’

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The Pineforest

As he mused, the warlord offered Zero a hand, scowling sonewhat as the goo covering the rogue dripped onto the dwarf.

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The Pineforest

Tradden, still lying on his back on the ground, looked sideways at the warlord helping up the rogue.

‘Fine thanks. No, honestly, I will be alright,’ he muttered, sarcastically.

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The Pineforest

Khalin’s eyes rose to the heavens as he offered his other hand to the tall human and soon both he and the rogue stood together before the warlord.

‘Are ye alright, lad — that was a strange old thing to happen to anyone?’

Zero stared at Khalin as he pocketed the two coins. It was a strange look which suggested the man was worried but the dwarf also saw a stone-cold conviction he had rarely seen in anyone, not least the happy-go-lucky noble’s son.

‘As much as I would like to just walk away and forget about all this stuff — I can’t. Something extremely bad is going to happen if someone doesn’t intercede, and sharpish.’ Zero seemed to be speaking to the whole group and exuded an unusual authority. Most of the convoy was now crowded around the scene. ‘I will be going north to scout this “Coilwood”.’

There was a hushed silence. The first one to react was Tradden, who shuffled closer to his friend and brushed an imaginary speck from his shoulder. ‘Can’t let Z go alone — his hip threads would end up ruined if I wasn’t there to keep folk off his back.’

Khalin smiled despite himself. The only difficult one would be the mage. As it happened, his fear was entirely unfounded.

‘It appears that the, ah, Krakens, are heading to Coilwood,’ piped up Kireth with mock enthusiasm, before stalking away and sitting on a nearby log.

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The Pineforest

‘Right,’ continued Khalin, ‘well, in that case… it seems as though we might have a temporary parting of the ways.’ He addressed the loose assembly of Talons primarily. ‘If this other portal is anything like Skauril’s then we all already know that it cannot remain unchecked. At the same time the convoy to Winterhaven cannot wait.’

The dwarf looked at Rhasgar. ’Therefore, I suggest we head north whilst the Talons and the rest of the convoy find another way. Though, with the eastward road blocked by a dragon and its goblinoid horde, the route south through haunted fens, and mountains blocking the other path, I’m not sure how this puzzle will be solved. We cannot take the wagon with us north through the pines and the route to the east and around may take at least another day if not two.

Khalin began to stroke his beard with thought as silence crossed the camp.

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The Pineforest

It was the older dwarf, Borik, that broke the silence. His gruff voice was quiet behind his white beard, but the gleam in his eyes above those faded tattoos showed he was sincere. ‘There is perhaps another way, suitable for the wagon, but may contain its own dangers,’ he began, catching both Khalin and Rhasgar in his glare.

Such was the shock that the dwarf had spoken up that the silence of the camp continued. Tradden itched to fill the void, but an icy look from Kireth in his direction stopped the young fighter in his tracks. Fortunately, Borik continued his thoughts.

‘If we cannot go south of the mountains, then perhaps we can go to the north? The Cairngorms stretch but a score of leagues before the pass. Through there it is only a day’s travel to Timbervale and another to Winterhaven beyond.’

‘Sticking close to the foothills of the mountains as we travel north we may avoid the worst of any creatures from The Stonemarch and remain hidden within the scrubs, although the going will be slow. After all, if you,’ he nodded at Khalin, ‘are heading north, perhaps we should too?’

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The Pineforest

‘Twenty leagues would take us half a dozen days or more,’ retorted Rhasgar, his scaly face scrunching up into what appeared to be a frown. ‘And then there would be the dangers of the pass — the eastern side may be sealed and safe, but I’d wager the western gate and the pass itself are riddled with vermin like orcs.’

Borik thought for a moment, clutching at the short branch he carried as a walking stick. He looked up at Rhasgar with steely eyes. ‘The pass is clear, of that much I know,’ he said decisively. ‘Though you are right, the western gatehouse is taken. However, they have not managed to open the gate.

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The Pineforest

There was a small silence at this point.

It was quickly filled by Tradden who simply voiced the thought many of the group had at that time.

‘Erm, Borik… how do you know all this?’

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The Pineforest

The old dwarf studied Tradden for a few moments, considering his reply. ‘I was captured, along with many of my fellow dwarves, from a mine not far from the pass. Orcs, mainly, some hobgoblins. They came over the north of the Cairngorms, through the forest and round the side of the Wintermist. A small party, but enough to rout us. Most were killed, but some, like me, were captured. They took us through the forest and around the north before throwing some of us in those bamboo cages and sending us down south and west.’

‘On the way we passed the western gate and could see the mess the orcs had made of the gatehouse. It looked strong, still, though, and we’d not seen anything come through before, so I suppose it stands still. The orcs were fewer in number, less than it sounds have infested Kiris Dahn, and there was no sign of any dragons. If we seek a way through to the Vale, then I’d suggest that was the safest route.’

Borik fell silent, perhaps thinking of his fallen comrades, both at the old mine and those that the rest of the group had seen within the ruined keep.

‘It’s possible, I guess,’ offered Rhasgar at last. ‘The pass has been disused for years as far as I know. Perhaps a way through, even for a wagon, still exists. Assuming we can get through the western gate,’ he added with a shrug. ‘With the south blocked, perhaps the only way is north? Khalin, what do you think’

The dragonborn turned back to Khalin, studying the dwarf warlord for his answer.

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The Pineforest

Khalin smiled. ‘If that’s your recommendation, that’s good enough for me,’ he nodded to the older dwarf with respect before turning his head towards the other Krakens for confirmation.

Satisfied, the warlord turned back to Rhasgar once more. ‘Granted, twenty leagues is no small detour, but I like our chances better with that dragon hopefully out of the equation.’

Khalin regarded Zero with something akin to admiration as he continued. ‘And Zero’s right — to not investigate this other portal would surely be a dereliction of duty, not to mention potentially having disastrous results for both Blackengorge and the Vale down the line.’

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The Pineforest

Khalin’s mind began whirling, forming plans on how best to travel. They needed to be travelling light, yet be prepared to spend perhaps even a tenday in the wilds. ‘Zero,’ the warlord called to the rogue, ‘start packing the gear. We’ll need three tents and enough dried rations to last ten days.’

The rogue groaned at the thought of the tasteless iron rations, rather than some of the fruits and meats they had aboard the wagon, but set to preparing packs and rolls for the group. ‘I’ll put a few torches in too,’ the rogue offered. ‘I’m not ending up anywhere where I can’t see again.’

Khalin nodded before turning back to Sorrow and asking to see her maps once more. ‘We’ll meet before the pass,’ he pointed at the top left of the map of the Nentir Vale with his finger. ‘Before we get anywhere near that gate. I want to make sure we scout that one out thoroughly. As soon as you break the forest line on the Old Road, head north and keep in the foothills of the mountains if you can, hopefully it will give you some shelter and some concealment from anything that is looking out for travellers. Borik, what do we need to look out for to be sure we’re near the pass?’

The old dwarf stroked his beard and described the cut of the mountain range at the point of the west gate. With a single high peak, capped by snow, surrounded to the left, right, and behind by lower peaks it would still be difficult to spot, but Borik described a shattered overhang, near the top of the main peak, that would help them identify it. The Talons would wait for a tenday from now before they attempted to storm the gate themselves, alone.

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The Pineforest

With plans laid with the other, Khalin turned his attention back to the Krakens. ‘I suggest we move quickly,’ he motioned, pointing to the trees to the north. ‘Keep a line as north as we can, getting through the trees. Hopefully it will not be too difficult on foot. It’s noon now, so let’s strike out. We can be at the treeline before dusk, it can only be a couple of leagues. We’ll take a break there and then see if we want to keep travelling through The Stonemarch through the evening or not.

Tradden agreed enthusiastically, Kireth simply nodded. Zero groaned from the back of the wagon where he had nearly finished the packs. ‘Kireth, we’ll need some way to find the Talons when we get close to that gate, I hope you have a plan,’ the warlord asked. ‘Of course,’ the mage replied with a shallow smile, but did not offer an explanation. Khalin simply gruffed and turned back to Tradden. ‘What about Iolanthe?’ he asked.

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The Pineforest

The young fighter had forgotten about the young girl. Khalin had seen something in her eyes that suggested a steely resolve. How had the girl survived so long at Kiris Dahn alone? Perhaps Iolanthe still had a part to play here, though for now she would best be kept safe with the Talons and the wagon. Khalin gesticulated to Tradden that he should go talk to the girl and ensure that she stayed with the other group until they met back up at the gate. With gritted determination the young fighter headed over to reason with Iolanthe.

The pair talked for a while, tears brimming at the young girl’s eyes, but she was nodding and seemed to understand. Khalin breathed a sigh of relief before checking Beltak was ready.

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The Pineforest

‘Let us strike out, then,’ the warlord finally proclaimed. He nodded across to Rhasgar and approached the dragonborn. The huge lizard-man towered above the dwarf, but Khalin did not seem to notice. He clasped the paladin’s scaly arm and held it firmly. ‘May Moradin bless your journey, Rhasgar,’ he said sincerely. ‘As Bahamut will surely bless yours,’ replied the dragonborn.

Turning and looking towards the trees to the north the dwarf finally issued to orders to depart.

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The Pineforest

‘Well, before we part ways, et cetera, et cetera, there’s something that I think bears mentioning,’ Zero announced. He held up one of the coins that had recently latched onto his eyelids. It bore a striking double-headed eagle insignia. ‘This design, I’ve seen it before. Back in Deepingwald, one of my uncles had a signet ring with the same image on it.’ He shrugged. ‘For what it’s worth.’ Then he pocketed the coin again.

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The Pineforest

‘Wait! What?’ Kireth’s head jerked upright, quite literally dropping what he was doing. The mage then strode over with such pace and purpose that Zero actually took an instinctive, defensive, step backwards. ‘The who with the what now?’ snapped Kireth clicking his fingers.

‘I… I… huh?’

‘The coin, the coin!’ barked the half-elf. Zero pulled out and held up the coin. Kireth did not take it. He just stared at it. Then he looked from the coin to Zero, studied Zero for a moment, back to the coin, then back to Zero again. Zero began to feel a tad uncomfortable.

Without taking his eyes off Zero, Kireth fished into the darkness of his robes and pulled out a ring. A signet ring. A signet ring with a double-headed eagle insignia. ‘I think we should hear more about this… “uncle”

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The Pineforest

Zero stared at the ring. In the span of five seconds, his face flashed with surprise, uncertainty, then finally settled into an expression of intense curiosity.

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘Uncle Gordon’s looked just like that one. It’s remarkable really. Where did you get it?’

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The Pineforest

‘Well, I found this ring in a festering tunnel back in Caulkin Keep. The tunnel after the rotting zombies if I recall correctly. It was laying in the grime and refuse. Found out of pure chance, scraping my knees on it.’ He paused to consider Zero. ‘Of no consequence I would ordinarily have tossed it but there was something familiar about the design I couldn’t place… until now.’

‘So the question to you, Master Zero, is… how exactly like your uncle’s ring is this? Think carefully now… exactly like it?’

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The Pineforest

Zero scratched his head. He could feel everyone’s gaze falling upon him. It felt rather itchy.

‘Well,’ he replied to the grave wizard, ‘it’s… very familiar. Not saying it’s the exact same one. Could be. Maybe.’

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The Pineforest

Khalin smiled. ‘Zero, Zero, my dear fellow. No one’s saying your Uncle Gordon is an evil necromancer…’

The dwarf’s voice trailed off as he took on a rather funny look.

‘Wait, Kireth, are you suggesting… GORDON’S UNDEAD?!’ he finished with a roar.

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The Pineforest

‘Gordon’s alive… for all I know,’ shrugged Kireth. ‘I am merely trying to establish if this is “his” ring or just one like it. But, I would say, either way, a ring with your family crest on it is something of an odd find,’ he looked quizzically at Zero. ‘I trust it is of no insult to your family to suggest that they were not here on the mainland before the exodus? And, therefore, to conclude that it has arrived here rather more recently. Be that on the hand of your uncle or another.’

He paused. ‘So, this uncle… is he the adventurous type? Or do we have another rogue in the closet?’

Zero didn’t like the way Kireth’s face did that ‘one raised eyebrow’ thing.

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The Pineforest

Zero chuckled. ‘Uncle Gordon? Adventurous? Hardly. He was a total bookworm. Rarely left the house. Nice chap.’

The rogue began gathering up his stuff, patting one of his many pockets that contained the coins.

‘I’ve not seen Uncle Gordon since just before last Midsummer. I assumed he was holed up in his library somewhere…’

He shuffled uncomfortably on his feet. ‘Anyway, we should get going. Nothing about this riddle that we can solve here and now. Maybe there’s something more at this portal?’

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The Pineforest

‘Ha!’ guffawed the dwarf as he clapped Zero on the back with reassuring gusto. The rogue grimaced. As he turned away to gather his things, Khalin shot Kireth a look of concern mixed with curiosity. This might be a simple coincidence, but there was something about the mage’s manner that left the dwarf unsettled by this development.

‘C’mon, we need to get moving.’

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The Pineforest

Tradden piped up at Khalin’s command. ‘I’m ready, I’m always ready,’ he said lightheartedly. ‘Well, most of the time, I guess,’ he continued.

Khalin grunted and continued to fasten the straps on his pack, whilst Zero grabbed his own belongings. Kireth appeared to be ready and waiting but at the last minute changed his mind and took the sack containing the platolabe from the wagon. Khalin raised an eyebrow.

‘Safer with us then close to the girl or the infirm,’ he stated, nodding across at Iolanthe and Borik. ‘Besides, we have no idea what influence it may be having on the dead,’ he added, with a stare at the swaddled corpse of Ulmo on the back of the wagon.

Khalin did not seem convinced but kept his peace nonetheless, offering another hand of farewell to Rhasgar. ‘This time we leave,’ he nodded at the dragonborn. ‘We will see you before this pass, I promise.’

Rhasgar nodded back and started his own orders for the Talons to break camp and start to leave.

‘Zero, you’re up front,’ the dwarf called. ‘Eyes and ears and all that.’

The rogue sighed and took a last cut of boar from the cooling spit near Aukan, thanking the goliath for his last decent meal for a while, before heading slowly into the pines to the north at Khalin’s request. The dwarf followed, his craghammer held high, with Kireth behind. Beltak came next, a noticeable distance between him and the mage.

Tradden loped across to Iolanthe, lifting the girl’s chin and stared once more into her violet eyes. ‘Take care,’ he offered. ‘The Talons will look after you for now. I‘ll see you soon, and we‘ll find you a home.’ He wasn’t sure why, perhaps it was somewhere inside he missed his younger sisters, but he felt protective and responsible for the girl.

She smiled back at the young fighter, pecking his cheek sweetly and whispering into his ear. Tradden looked queryingly at her, before turning and striding after the others.

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The Pineforest

The going was difficult, but not overbearingly so through the trees. The pines were packed closely, with gnarled roots and clumps of brambles causing Zero to take a winding, twisting route. Low branches started to become and intolerable obstacle for all but Khalin, who seemed to duck beneath them with ease. Mostly it was Tradden and Beltak that were caught out.

‘Only a couple of leagues, boy,’ Khalin chirped at the young fighter at their first rest. ‘I’ve no idea why you keep walking into the trees.’

The young fighter’s height and the gloom beneath the thick canopy were his major stumbling block and the effort of dodging them was starting to tire him out. Still, he plodded on behind the others, watching their backs and the forest behind him in turn.

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The Pineforest

With three or four stops, mainly instigated by Zero, the group found themselves a couple of hours later on a gentle downward slope and a blessed relief of thinning trees. The murk began to clear and the late afternoon daylight began to poke through the canopy like golden spears in front of them.

Another ten minutes and the end of the trees was in sight.

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The Pineforest Edge

‘Let’s take a break here,’ ordered Khalin. ‘Take some time to scan the area, we don’t want to get caught out as soon as we step out of the trees.’

The sun was low in the sky to the west and cast a warm glow across the grey wall of mountains to the east. The peaks took Khalin’s breath away, seemingly so close he could touch them, yet still leagues away, their snow-capped peaks a reminder of their majesty. Before them lay The Stonemarch, cracked and sharp hills, escarpments and scree, casting long shadows, littered their path to the north. Boulders and rocks studded the landscape with only minor scrub and the occasional twisted shoots of strange tree-like plants, scraggly and thin, but tall.

The rolling hills disappeared like a turbulent sea to the north with no major landmark to define scale or distance. Their path would be hard going.

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The Pineforest Edge

Tradden began shading his eyes and scanning the undulating scene as soon as he arrived. Khalin began to stroke his beard with though and Zero sat down against a tree and took a breather. The rogue seemed to be unconvinced that they could stay hidden across the plain in direct sunlight.

Kireth, however, paid little attention to the vista before him, taking out his rough wooden cup from somewhere about his robes, sprinkling herbs within it and pouring a small amount of water from his skin. A brief motion with his hand over the rim and a mild steam arose from the cup with a faint sweet odour.

The mage began to sip slowly eyeing the scribe, who was adjusting his own pack, with care.

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The Pineforest Edge

‘Well it seems a bit early to be calling it a day. And given the exposed terrain we might be better travelling by night, at least for a while,’ he suggested while stroking his beard in trademark fashion. He turned to the others.

Kireth looked disinterested, sipping his herbal concoction and studying the others with an intense glare. Tradden continued to look out across the plain as though contemplating several routes across its rocky hills. Beltak simply looked worried and unsure. Zero appeared the calmest of the bunch, lounging against one of the outcropping pines, humming his tune over and over again.

‘What do you think? Any strong feelings either way?’

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The Pineforest Edge

Tradden finally took stock of what he’d been looking at for all of the time.

[Tradden Nature Check: 1d20+5: 8] - failure!

Having seen absolutely nothing which he could make any use out of on horizon or the lands spread out before him, Tradden offered a typically direct answer.

‘I say we just go for it — there isn’t any real benefit or advantage in sneaking around. Speed is, as they say, well, as some say, of the essence…’

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

Kireth swilled his cup and took a sip before speaking his mind. ‘I have no objection to pressing on. My only thought on this would be to avoid traveling at night through unknown terrain unless we really have to.’ He took another sip. ‘Wouldn’t want anyone to trip would we?’ he concluded looking at Beltak.

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

Tradden narrowed his eyes. Something was up. Kireth kept peering at Beltak. What was he looking at? Was the scribe doing something odd?

[Tradden Insight Check: 1d20+5: 6] - critical failure!

The fighter shrugged. The exertions of the last few days had got to him.

‘Look, let’s just get going, shall we?’ he said, more to Khalin than anyone else.

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

Khalin smiled, ignoring Kireth, but pleased Tradden was chomping at the bit too. The lad could be impulsive but he had a stalwart streak of fearlessness right through him. The dwarf regarded the forbidding landscape before them once more…

[Khalin Perception Check: 1d20+3: 7] - failure!

[Khalin Nature Check: 1d20+3: 17] - success!

It didn’t look as though there was much moisture out there on the plain to Khalin, not enough to sustain any abundant growth like the forest they had been travelling through. The dwarf guessed that the scraggly trees would have very long roots, reaching deep into the ground to grab whatever moisture lay there for the taking. With a dry surface and moisture well below, possibly in small cave pockets, his dwarven nature warned him to be careful, lest a misplaced foot should go down a crack in the surface and twist or break.

The escarpments and scree here and there looked treacherous too, with little water to round them, the stones might be sharp. The jagged bluffs might give them some cover, though, with the right route providing some amount of protection from prying eyes.

Khalin couldn’t see any signs of movement out there. No animals, no lights or flames, and nothing flying about in the slowly darkening sky. Even the birds that circled the tops of the forest were quieter now they were at the forest’s edge.

The Stonemarch appeared to be living up to its bleak name. Whatever route the party took, they would have to pick carefully and tread with caution.

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

‘I say we get cracking,’ offered Tradden, rubbing his hands together with enthusiasm. ‘The sooner the better.’

Khalin was still stroking his beard furiously, his eyes fixed on the sky ahead as if he was regarding some otherworldly vista. ‘Well, I can’t claim we dwarves are experts in the weather. Living in underground cities rather limits that skill,’ he mused. ‘But moving in the daylight without drawing undue attention will slow us down considerably. If the skies stay clear though, we’ll make faster going after nightfall.’

The dwarf looked around at the others. ‘Kireth, Beltak, Zero, any good at weather forecasts? Perhaps we can help Tradden to work out just how fast we can get going.’

[Aid Another]

[Khalin Nature Check: 1d20+3: 9] - failure!

[Kireth Nature Check: 1d20+3: 14] - success!

[Zero Nature Check: 1d20+4: 19] - success!

[Beltak Nature Check: 1d20+7: 23] - success!

[Tradden may apply a -1+2+2+2 bonus to Nature skill check]

Khalin sniffed the air, a growing easterly, bringing cold down from the mountains and the clouds that swirled around their peaks with them. There would be clouds over the night, for that he was sure, if not rain and perhaps even thunder.

Kireth simply wrinkled his nose as he sipped his drink, he eyes never wavering from the scribe. ‘A starlit night,’ he offered without pause and turned away to focus on something more interesting to him.

Zero nodded in agreement with the mage. ‘Like Kireth says, I hope it stays clear. I could do with a night without rain just to dry out.’

Beltak took the task more seriously, concentrating on the sun, his eyes closed and the fading glow of the setting sun warming his face. ‘Pelor will grant us a clear night, I believe,’ he said piously.

Khalin scoffed at the others. ‘I think you’ll find they’re wrong, Tradden. I feel it in my bones. What do you think?’

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

‘Hmm,’ began Tradden. ‘Well — I’m not sure, of course, but… my old Grandma was spot on every time with the weather. It’s like this skill that old folks have. If she were here, she would say that the plants would need watering.’

[Tradden Nature Check: 1d20+5-1+2+2+2: 23] - success!

‘It’s going to be fine — a clear night, stars and all. No clouds. No rain. Light wind. Cold, but not freezing. Based on the last few nights I will wager that it’ll be just past a full moon, too, waning a bit gibbous, as it heads towards its third quarter. Probably high in the sky.’

The others just looked at him. Even Kireth’s jaw dropped a fraction of a fraction.

‘Erm — as I say, Grandma was good. One picks things up.’

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

Khalin’s jaw dropped as he regarded Tradden in stunned silence. Eventually he appeared to snap out of it with a harumph. ‘Very well, then. A clear night it is.’ The dwarf looked far from convinced but he did trust the lad.

‘We have maybe a night’s full march ahead. This is apparently dragon country — we’d be spotted miles off out there in the daylight unless we slow to a crawl. Better to have the cover of gloom, I reckon.’

He looked once more at the assembled group — Kireth sipping his drink, Zero humming his tune to himself, Beltak looking worried as usual, and Tradden looking smug about the weather. ‘Let’s get some rest for a couple of hours. We’ll leave after dusk.’

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Storyline
The Pineforest Edge

The group unslung their packs and moved just back into the treeline for cover. With a good view out across The Stonemarch and shelter from the cooling breeze they felt quite comfortable and waited patiently for the sun to set off to the west.

The lengthening shadows grew slowly, joining one another and swamping the landscape before them. The cool air turned to a sharp chill as the warmth of the sun disappeared and they began to wrap their cloaks about them.

For Kireth and Khalin the light was plentiful enough to see, their eyes attuned to dimness. Khalin was not ignorant of the others’ senses, however, and let Zero make the decision on when to depart.

‘You give the call, Zero,’ the warlord offered. ‘When your eyes are attuned to the dark lead us on the best route you can through the hills out there. Keep us hidden as best you can from being seeen from afar.’

The rogue nodded, falling silent and looking out and up into the sky. He was all business now.

When the first star twinkled in the clear night sky he nodded at the others and rose with barely a sound. In a moment he was off at a good pace, down the slight incline with Khalin following not far behind. Kireth went next, pushing on with his staff, leading out the scribe, Beltak. Tradden took one last look at the forest behind him, dark and oppressive in the evening gloom, before scampering lithely to join them at the rear.

30th Day of Ches | Dusk | Clear, Cool, Light Easterly Breeze | go to latest… | back to top…

Combat
Completed

End

[…continued in Book #01, Chapter #10, Scene #01…]