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Armour of Thorns
Across the Foothills

…continues from Book #01, Chapter #10, Scene #15

Synopsis

4th Day of Tarsakh in the Year of the Sudden Journey
Leaving the perils of the Stonemarch behind them, the group head east and north to meet up with Altair's Talons at the northern range of the Cairngorm mountains. A lone peak with a shattered outcrop awaits them for the meeting point; before they attempt to cross the mountains through the orc-guarded pass and finally reach the Nentir Vale.

For a chapter summary please see Chapter #11 Summary.

Cast List

Khalin Grundokri 

Level 8 Male Dwarven Marshal (Warlord)

Kireth Majere 

Level 8 Male Half-Elven Arcanist (Wizard)

Tradden Aversward 

Level 8 Male Human Weaponmaster (Fighter)

Zero Uhlit 

Level 8 Level Male Human Scoundrel (Rogue)

Beltak Ancaron

Scribe of Pelor (NPC)

Scene Length

This scene starts on Friday 9th August 2019 and is expected to be completed by the end of Friday 27th September 2019.

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

Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

Crossing the path swiftly the group hurried into the scrub at the far side, keeping low and silent where they could. Khalin shifted direction slightly to the north keeping roughly in line with the worn path and began a fierce march forward.

The going wasn't too bad. The foothills had plenty of rocks, boulders and bushes, but they were easy to navigate and gave enough cover for the group to feel more confident about striding about in the daylight.

At times they had to near the path to move around low bluffs or rises and they became more cautious. At other times they headed further upwards and into the mountains.

[Khalin Perception Check: 1d20+4: 17] - success!

[Kireth Perception Check: 1d20+4: 20] - success!

[Tradden Perception Check: 1d20+6: 10] - failure!

[Zero Perception Check: 1d20+12: 18] - success!

It was only half an hour or so of travel until Zero hissed for everyone to stop. There was something up ahead of them that he didn't like the look of.

Kireth's keen eyes could make more out of it than Zero. Over to the northwest, more or less in the direction they were travelling was a small hollow where the worn path snaked back to meet them. It seemed as though something, perhaps a body, was staked into the ground by the path, perhaps even a lesser worn path moving eastwards away from it.

‘I don't like the look of this,’ grumbled Zero softly.

4th Day of Tarsakh | Afternoon | Clear | Cold | Gentle Breeze, Easterly | Map Location | go to latest… | back to top…

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Me neither,’ echoed Khalin, looking up and down the sections of the worn path that he could see amongst the hills and scrub. ‘But I think we need to take a look.’

There was some slight element of doubt in his voice. If it was a figure staked out and it was one of the Talons then there had been some sort of disaster.

‘It could be someone needing help,’ offered Zero, eerily echoing Khalin's fleeting thoughts.

From the rear of the group, Kireth spoke up, the first time the mage had said anything for some time. ‘Perhaps you should take a look, then, Zero, and help if you can?’ The half-elf's voice was quiet, as though he were thinking about something else. ‘Be wary, though. Such a thing may yet just be bait to lure in the unprepared.’

‘I'll go!’ chirped Tradden, already starting to move forwards, before an stout dwarven arm reached across and held him back.

‘No, Kireth is right,’ said Khalin. ‘We need to be cautious on this one. Zero, take it easy and carefully. Get back here as quick as you can if you suspect anything.‘

The rogue sighed, checked his crossbow briefly, and then looked for a good route down into the hollow.

4th Day of Tarsakh | Afternoon | Clear | Cold | Gentle Breeze, Easterly | Map Location | go to latest… | back to top…

Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

With the sun high in the clear sky above him, Zero took to using the bushes and scrub to keep himself hidden on the way down to the stake. Taking plenty of time, and always looking about, he moved from bush to shrub to thicket with practised ease.

[Zero Stealth Check: 1d20+15: 34] - success!

The onlookers above sometime lost which particular bush it was that Zero used as cover when he swept round the sides of them. His uncanny ability to not be seen when he didn't want to be was starting to get unnerving.

As he got closer and closer the rogue paused to check the path and the bushes surrounding whatever it was that was staked out — he still wasn't sure — ensuring that nothing was coming down the path or was hiding in one of the bushes.

[Zero Perception Check: 1d20+12: 16] - success!

Happy that he wasn't walking into an obvious ambush he drew his crossbow and covered the last remaining yards quickly.

4th Day of Tarsakh | Afternoon | Clear | Cold | Gentle Breeze, Easterly | Map Location | go to latest… | back to top…

Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

The first thing that Zero noticed as he closed in on his target was not the sight of the thing in front of him, but the sound. The droning of the flies was incessant and his lip curled in disgust at the thought, his eyes not really wanting him to have a look. They were disturbed by his presence, and gave a brief interlude of peace, but then came back with a vengeance as they settled once more on their prize.

The second was the smell. The wind from the east, fresh off the mountains, had been driving the smell away from them, but now he was close he got much of the effect and it was definitely not to his taste. He had been in the company of many a rotting body in the past few tendays, but most of them had been fairly fresh or oozed that sickly, sweet tobacco smell, or were ancient, crumbling zombies that had lost most of their putrid odour. This one had been out in the sun for a while and the stench, for him, was largely unbearable.

The final thing he noticed was the cadaver itself. To his relief it wasn't a person — it was only just recognisable, though. It was, or had been, a goblin, he thought. Small enough, and there was just enough skin and face left to identify it as one of that kind. A hefty piece of timber had been driven into the ground and the thing had been trussed up with thin rope or some kind of gut, keeping it upright by the looks of things, facing the worn path. Lashed to the timber were bits of feathers, wilted flowers, and an odd wooden bell that Zero was most definitely not going to touch.

He waved at the group hiding out at the top of the rise to come down. Then held his nose and moved around the body to get some minor relief from the stench.

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Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

By the time the others had joined him, Zero had taken out one of his embroidered handkerchiefs and had it firmly clasped over his nose and mouth. Most of the others were somewhat revolted at the sight, regardless of the fact the victim was a goblin, with the usual exception of Kireth, who just eyed the scene impassively as information to be processed.

‘I'd stand this side, if I were you,’ muttered the rogue from behind his handkerchief. ‘Less smell, plus, you can't see its face. Or what's left of it,’ he added.

Most of them followed Zero's lead, with the exception of Beltak, who took to examining the corpse, trying in vain to swat the flies away.

‘Looks like it has been dead for a while,’ he began. ‘Perhaps a few days, I'm a bit surprised nothing more than the flies are having a feast. It's hard to tell with what's already been chewed on by the flies, but I can't really see any obvious sign of what killed it, but the way it is bound to the stake I would suggest it was already dead when it was put here.’

With what looked like obvious relief, Beltak joined the others at the far side of the corpse.

4th Day of Tarsakh | Afternoon | Clear | Cold | Gentle Breeze, Easterly | Map Location | go to latest… | back to top…

Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

‘And so we ask the obvious question. Why?’ the mage mulled, prodding the disgusting carcass with no more emotion than he might prod a rock.

‘Not a sacrifice, not if it was already dead. A trap? Not for us, why would we care for such a creature? Being lulled in with easy bait? Or is it a warning? Stay out of our lands?‘

Kireth gave thought to its positioning then looked at the immediate surroundings.

[Kireth Perception Check: 1d20+4: 21] - success!

The more he looked at the unfortunate corpse the more he was sure of his summary. It was definitely not a sacrifice, nor did it seem much of a trap, or at least one that had not yet been sprung. A warning of some sort made much more sense, though a warning to whom?

The thing looked to have been positioned so that those on the worn path would see it looking back at them, so he guessed that it was a warning to people passing by on the path. Zero and Tradden had mentioned the orc looking back, perhaps with a worried glance, back this way, so was this what the orc was worried about?

If it was, then the obvious thing to be worried about would be whatever was east and behind the corpse.

‘There is something up this rise,’ surmised the mage. ‘It looked like there was a path leading in that direction from back at the top of the hill,’ he said, looking down, finding the trail harder to spot now he was right on it. ‘If we followed that, we would find out what all the fuss is about I would think.’

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Yes, perhaps, but if I am correct this goblin has more to tell us!’ Tradden deduced, striding forward and rolling up his sleeves. Detective Tradden was back.

Kireth barely managed to choke down a snort of contempt, and stepped out of the fighter's way, towards the back whilst the fool made a idiot of himself. What next, a pipe whilst he worked?

The young man stood in front of the corpse, analysing from close up, with arms folded. If the smell and general unpleasantness bothered him, it didn't show. He took his time and Khalin was just about to suggest they move on when Tradden started to speak.

[Tradden Insight Check: 1d20+6: 12] - failure!

‘This,’ he started, emphatically, ‘was a goblin…’

‘Yes, lad,’ intervened Khalin, ‘but perhaps we should…’

[Tradden Perception Check: 1d20+6: 9] - failure!

‘…and, before I was rudely interrupted, one which has…’ There was a pause. ‘died!’

Khalin moved to pull the man away, but Tradden shooed him away. ‘Ah, ah, ah. I am working here!’ he warned. With that, he crouched down, his back to the group.

[Tradden Healing Check: 1d20+11: 30] - success!

‘Yes, yes,’ came Tradden's now slightly muffled voice. ‘Mmm, hmm…’

The fighter stood up slowly and then turned around at an equally relaxed pace. He stood one hand across his chest, supporting the elbow of the other arm, which now held an empty pipe to his mouth. There was an audible snort from the back somewhere.

‘This goblin died, I think, from poison. And, what is more, a poison I have encountered before!’ gestured Tradden to various parts of what remained of the body. ‘See here, here, and here,’ he pointed with the end of the pipe. ‘Small cuts and slices. And, oh yes, here! One of the thorns still stuck in the body! Don't touch it!’ he warned.

The smell is almost like the taste of rotting vegetation,’ Tradden gave an involuntary shudder. ‘The same as I encountered in a glade outside of Blackengorge. I was with Aukan and touched one. Fair knocked me out, it did, and left me with a terrible headache. From just a pin-prick!’

He focused on Khalin. ‘If the bad folk around here know how to weaponise this poison we need to be ready — an arrow with a modest amount on is all it would take to down any of us.’

Finished, Tradden tried to blow a smoke ring from the empty pipe and started to choke.

4th Day of Tarsakh | Afternoon | Clear | Cold | Gentle Breeze, Easterly | Map Location | go to latest… | back to top…

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Those thorns were all over the stone circle near Blackengorge,’ said Beltak. ‘On black and twisted vines, covering the place. Valino and his men tried to clear them, but they were as hard as iron and they blunted many axes. They did manage to clear them, but they grew back within a tenday.’

‘Valino brought some of the thorns back with him and we took a good look at them. They oozed poison, but after a few hours they started to wither, eventually turning to dust. Perhaps the ones out here are different, or don't crumble as they are still stuck in the goblin's body?’

The scribe was now in full flow, and couldn't help himself but continue.

‘I asked Morninglord Tremak if he would ask Valino to get a sample of them for Lucius Drax to take a good look at. He must have done so, but I wasn't privy to the report.’

He looked at the others, trying to gauge if they were still interested. ‘They found a book in the circle. An old one, very old. We never did manage to translate it, though,’ he finished dejectedly, forgetting somewhat the original purpose of his conversation.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Yes!’ chimed in Tradden. ‘Aukan said there was something important about that circle, although he was a bit weird about it.’

Tradden looked a bit pained-yet-confused for a moment, as if the memory was both hazy and unpleasant at the same time. ‘Anyway, I think it is. Important, I mean. Like the stones. The ones that are magic and make a good wall. Hmm, sounds strange now I say it out loud. Anyway, something else to add to the list to look at when we get back.’

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Fascinating as this little tale is, unless it ends with “and this is how we make the antidote” I really do suggest we move on.’

Kireth didn't wait for anyone to concur, he assumed they would, and gestured Khalin to “get on with it”.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘It strikes me,’ mused the dwarf, ‘that we have a straightforward choice. We head up the hill to investigate, or we continue our current path to meet with the Talons.’ He stroked his beard thoughtfully. ‘Given this is a warning, the sensible approach would be to heed it and continue on. Alternatively… the enemy of my enemy?’ the others stared back blankly, so the warlord elaborated. ‘A killer of goblins might be a potential ally of ours?’ though the look on Khalin's face betrayed his sceptism as he glanced up the rise to the east.

‘Given, as Kireth says, we don't have an antidote, I am minded to take good precautions and take a look east.’ The warlord hefted his shield as he nodded to the faint path that headed up the hill.

There were no objections from the group, though Beltak retained an unhappy gait and Zero rolled his eyes in anticipation of being sent out ahead.

‘Aye, lad,’ nodded Khalin to the rogue. ‘We'll be needing your skills again. I suggest we have weapons and defences at the ready. I do not want to find out how quickly that poison works first hand!’

‘Beltak, Tradden, you're most familiar with these thorns. Stay on the look out and let us know the moment you see any sign of them.’

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Storyline
Cairngorm Foothills

The group readied themselves and on Khalin's word started to make the climb slowly up the rise to the east. Khalin motioned Zero on ahead a little with the spike of his hammer and the rogue graciously obliged, moving off to the side somewhat and slightly in front.

After a couple of minutes Zero started to disappear, heading over the rise and down again. As the group topped the rise they saw him simply standing there looking at the scene below, without much thought for hiding himself.

Down below them, the hill gently rolling down to another hollow, was a tangled mass of brambles and vines, too thick to see through, and gently blowing in the rising wind. The sight seemed quite out of keeping with the rest of the landscape, the brambles too thick and the jet black vines, thick and ugly. They rose perhaps thirty yards in the air from the ground and from here, on the top of the hill, appeared to form a rough circle about fifty yards across.

There were no vines or even any brambles close to this circle, it just appeared to have sprouted up of the landscape of its own accord.

However, scattered here and there around the perimeter of the growth, were white, baleful bones, clean of any meat or gristle.

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Cairngorm Foothills

Khalin frowned at the vista below them. ‘What in Moradin's name is that?’ he exclaimed, almost under his breath. ‘It does not look… natural.’ The marshal turned towards Beltak and Tradden. ‘Does that look like what you saw at the stone circle?’

‘It looks like an effective barrier. But is it to keep something out, or to keep something in?’

He slowly paced forwards, moving to within fifty yards or so.

[Khalin Perception Check: 1d20+4: 19] - success!

He couldn't see much more, even from the closer distance. The vines and intertwining brambles were so closely packed they were nigh on impossible to see through without getting precariously close. The bleached bones, however, he did get a better look at. They were smaller than would make up a man, and short of picking them up and examining them more closely he surmised they might be from goblins.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Well,’ said Zero, clapping his hands together, ‘that's clearly that. No way through that scrub and no reason to try, in my humble opinion. So, shall we proceed on mission and meet up with those Talon folks?’

He looked around for any hint of concurrence from the others.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘That's it? No one else? Nothing?’ Kireth looked around at the blank faces, he sighed and mumbled to himself, ‘No, of course not.’ He spoke again louder so all could hear, all that wanted to listen anyway as he scornfully noted Tradden preoccupied with a belt buckle. ‘Well, obviously it's a magical circle isn't it?’

Beltak looked down at the circle. Khalin cocked his head to one side. Zero scratched. Tradden's belt came undone.

‘It's right there… it's… how have you people lived this long?’ implored the mage. ‘There is a circle within of some power. I cannot tell you what, yet, but I can tell you it is powerful. Is it within because it needs protecting or is it because those outside need protecting from it? What is strange,‘ he continued, ‘is that someone has cast a faerie fire upon this circle. A simple evocation spell of generally little consequence but it does draw attention to it, even you people would see it once the light gets darker. Why would you cast such a spell if you didn't want to draw attention?’

‘Well, I…’ started Beltak, before Kireth spoke over him. ‘Yes, yes, an intriguing mystery that I for one would love to see solved, but we must first get past the vines. I do not wish to go down to their poison.’

‘Khalin,’ finished the mage, gesturing the dwarf to get stuck in.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Khalin!’ the half-elf repeated, growing more irritated by the moment. The warlord was deep in thought, staring at the unnatural copse below them, as if gazing at it for long enough might allow him to see through the vines to what might be within or beyond.

He stroked his beard. ‘Do you know what it reminds me of?’

‘Oh, do enlighten us!’ Kireth retorted, folding his arms in growing impatience.

‘A nest,’ finished the dwarf.

Tradden immediately stopped adjusting his belt and looked down at the tangle of vines ahead of them. ‘That would be a very big nest. A very big nest indeed,’ the mirth slowly drained from the fighter's voice. ‘What would need a nest as big as that?’

‘Something big enough to chew gobbos ‘til only bones remain,’ sighed the dwarf, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Zero, didn't you say you saw something flying far to the north a few days ago? And the orc you saw was afraid of something this way.’

‘Legend once told of winged wyrms who guarded great hordes of gold, but their breath could turn scores of men to flame,’ Khalin continued, his voice growing richer as if telling a story round a roaring fire.

‘Gold?’ enquired Zero, his interest suddenly piqued.

‘Aye, lad, gold,’ responded Khalin as he clapped the rogue on the shoulder. ‘But they were just tales to tell children at bedtime. Besides, if Kireth says it's a magic circle, a magic circle it is.’ Khalin nodded to the mage before turning to scan the clouding skies about them. ‘Still, I'm not sure I want to be out in the open exposed.’

‘Okay, Kireth, we will take a closer look, but let us have our wits about us more than ever. I don't like this,’ he finished with a frown before twirling Aecris with a flourish to point the path ahead.

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The group trudged towards the mass of dark vines. ‘Beltak, didn't you say it took several days to clear the other circle back near Blackengorge? And the vines were inert I presume?’ the dwarf shuddered at the thought of unearthly tentacles tightening in like a trap. ‘We don't have to clear the whole area, but we do need a safe path. This could be slow work — and it needs to be careful work!’ he warned, raising his voice for the whole group to be clear. ‘I suggest no exposed flesh, and put on your most hard-wearing gear.’

Zero groaned at the prospect of snagging vines and thorns tearing at his fine silks.

‘Kireth,’ the warlord continued, ‘do you know of any magics in your scrolls that might clear us safe passage through this mess?’

Tradden was already twirling his blades impressively, and the dwarf nodded appreciatively at his friend's enthusiasm.

‘Kireth,’ repeated the dwarf, ‘I don't want to be working on this for a moment more than is necessary.’ Khalin frowned again, clearly unhappy about their situation. ‘Once you determine what it is this circle is protecting or, Moradin forbid, imprisoning, don't keep it to yourself!’

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Valino and his guards did manage to clear the circle near Blackengorge,’ Beltak offered, trying to raise their spirits. ‘It took a while, though, and those vines were like iron.’

‘I'm afraid my mace will not be that useful, I wouldn't have thought. You'll want to keep your eyes on your weapons if you are using those,’ the scribe said, nodding at Tradden's swords. ‘Don't blunt, or for Pelor's sake, break them!’

‘I will have a look through my notes and books and perhaps your Zoonomicon, Khalin, and see if I can find any insight to help us.’

Beltak shifted his pack off his shoulder and started to rummage into its depths. At last he found a book, brought it out and opened it to read to a large sigh from Khalin. The scribe's timing was impeccable, no longer was the book out and its pages exposed to the open air than the rain began to fall.

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Cairngorm Foothills

Tradden's enthusiasm took him right to the edge of the brambles with his swords at the ready. At the edge he paused before thrusting his swords energetically into the ground, their pommels shaking with the force, and slipped his pack from his shoulders. With a flourish he pulled out a pair of slight and supple leather gloves and pulled them theatrically over his hands.

Zero spluttered. ‘Aren't they ladies'…’

‘No,’ retorted Tradden swiftly before taking up his swords and giving them an expectant twirl. Taking a brief look up at the rain falling from the sky, he took a large breath and settled into a familiar stance. His blades began to whirl.

The brambles were no match for his skill or strength, falling sharply to the edges of his blades. The vines, however, were another matter. Half a dozen strokes were needed for each tendril, long, hard strokes that were usually accompanied by a grunt, or even a curse.

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The going seemed slow but Tradden gradually made some headway. After half an hour he thought he could see something tangible through the vines, but had probably only cut through maybe a dozen feet.

‘I'll take over for a bit,’ offered Beltak, who had obviously found nothing of value in his books.

‘Not… ugh… with my… grr… swords you won't,’ muttered the young fighter under his breath, interspersed with the efforts of chopping down on the vines.

‘Oh, this is ridiculous,’ huffed Khalin. ‘This will take us forever.’ The dwarf, still close to Tradden turned over his shoulder to search out the mage.

‘Kireth!’ he shouted. ‘What sort of damage might one of your “magic missiles” do to that, do you think?’

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Whether it was the disturbance cause by the dwarf's sudden bellow or the slippery ground, wet with rain, that threw out Tradden's stance he could not be sure, but all of a sudden the young fighter felt the curl of a vine around his ankle and stumbled forward.

[Tradden Dexterity Check: 1d20+7: 12] - failure!

With his swords lodged in a tendril he could not regain his balance and fell, straight into the awaiting embrace of the black thorns.

With no helm to protect his head the thorns had easy access and a cut as long as his finger was drawn down his cheek.

‘Tradden!’ yelled Khalin, darting forward ready to grab his friend.

[Tradden Saving Throw vs Poison: 1d20+1: 21] - critical success!

The dwarf had hold of Tradden's feet, fortuitously free of the brambles and vines, and started to pull.

[Tradden Perception Check: 1d20+6: 16] - success!

‘Wait,’ baulked Tradden, trying not to panic. ‘There's something here I can see.’

The fall had pushed back some of the vines and the path that Tradden had already cleared allowed them all to spy some of what lay behind the tangled mass. From just in front of where the stricken young fighter lay rose a large black monolith, perhaps a dozen feet or so in height, carved, although as to what extent was hidden, and upright.

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‘The stone, yes, yes, I see it,’ marveled Khalin, squinting through the opening that Tradden had made in the undergrowth.

‘No, not that,’ mumbled Tradden, trying not to move his jaw too much lest another thorn pierce his flesh. ‘This, this right in front of me.’

In front of Tradden's eyes, barely inches away, was a gently roiling green flame extending from the ground and up for six or seven inches. It was beautiful to look at, serene and majestic in its form, although Tradden wasn't sure if that was real or whether it was an effect of the poison that could be coursing through his veins and giving him hallucinations.

Running around the bottom of the flame, which, incidentally, appeared to have no effect on the vegetation above it, were chalk marks in what he guessed might be a large arc.

‘Magic circle?’ whispered Tradden. The temptation for him to take his arm and just reach out was almost undeniable.

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‘Do not touch it!’ scolded Kireth sharply. ‘Get the fool out of there, Khalin. This cannot be solved by brawn.’

The mage casually walked towards Zero as Khalin grudgingly assented and motioned Beltak over to help him pull out Tradden safely. Next to the rogue, Kireth smiled and snuck his hand into one of Zero's front pockets, plucking out another of the gems that Zero had secreted throughout his embroidered clothes. There was a moment when the rogue looked as though he was about to complain, but seemed to think better of it and just shrugged.

‘Give me some moments,’ Kireth said, already staring intently at the gem.

The mage studied the inside of the gem, stood before the vines, softly mumbling to himself, ignoring the rain and all of the others around him.

Beltak and Khalin managed to extricate Tradden from the brambles and vines without catching the young fighter on any further thorns, and the scribe set to cleaning the cheek wound and checking for any remaining poison. By the time Beltak was confident Tradden would not suffer any adverse effects, Kireth appeared to be reaching a crescendo. The mage slowly walked over to the nearest black vine and, being careful to avoid any of the sharp thorns, stuck out his arm and grasped the tendril tightly.

[Shrink]

[Kireth Arcana Check: 1d20+14: 34] - critical success!

[Black Vines shrinks to 10% of true size for 24 hours]

Nothing seemed to happen for a moment, but then there was a curious creaking and popping noise. The whole nest appeared to quiver and then ever so slowly began to contract. The brambles appeared to be unaffected, but the black vines began to shrink, collapsing in on the brambles and grasping them in an even firmer embrace.

As the vines shrivelled they contracted into the circle, trying to cling onto the stones that they began to reveal, but with little success, being pulled by themselves toward the centre of the circle, dragging and crushing the brambles with them.

The circle of stones was revealed in its glory as the vines retreated — twelve gleaming black monoliths slick with rain, the green flame of the faerie fire reflecting and dancing between them. The stones did indeed seem to be carved, but from without the circle it was hard to see what of, they looked to all be facing inwards.

The vines kept pulling in on themselves, twisting and popping, coalescing at the northern side of the circle and revealed another wonder of a statue in the centre of the circle in an animated pose.

‘I suggest you put the remains to the fire, Khalin, otherwise we only have the passage of a day before it will spring back upon us,’ said Kireth, breathing heavily, his eyes now intent upon the circle.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Very impressive, Kireth, thank you,’ marveled Khalin. ‘One wonders why you didn't suggest we try that before Tradden wasted all that time and effort hacking away, but no matter.’

Taking care not to enter the circle, the dwarf regarded the stones with the eye of an artisan.

He had to be cautious, standing just outside the chalk lines and faerie fire, but now that the vines had been drawn back and most of the brambles with them he had a much better view of the situation.

The stone circle itself was large, somewhere in the region of fifty yards in diameter, and the stones were huge black monoliths, twice the height of Tradden. There were twelve stones in all as he counted, gigantic forms all, upstanding, grim and dark through the veil of falling rain before him, evenly dispersed around the circle with a smaller stone near — but not quite in — the centre, perhaps of a different, lighter, stone. There were still strands of the brambles upon them, where the vines had not managed to pull them back and the stones were worn and patched with lichen.

There were intricate carvings on the monoliths, not so much facing outward but on their inner sides. It was difficult to see close up without breaking the line of the magic circle. Even from distance, though, he began to recognise that they were figures, quite still and silent, seen vaguely through the rain, but in humanoid shape indisputably. The one furthest from him, across the circle to the east, was in the form of Moradin, seated like all of the other stones and facing the middle of the circle. Rather than the fully familiar dwarven features, beard and helm of Khalin's patron, however, it appeared that much of the face and head had been hollowed out, the bleak sky visible through the stone.

The stone near the centre appeared to be a more lifelike statue, a smaller figure, perhaps even a dwarf from this range, carved with finer detail it appeared and quite aesthetic in its form, capturing movement as it reached out in front of it to grab or push something.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Indeed one might wonder, Khalin,’ Kireth retorted. ‘There is still much work for me to do here, unless you are proficient and knowledgeable of the arcane rites of protective circles. My power is not unlimited,’ Kireth continued, though Zero swore the mage mumbled “yet” under his breath, ‘and no doubt I will still have much thinking, concentration and skilled action to perform.’

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Cairngorm Foothills

Whilst Kireth and Khalin continued their bickering, Zero simply shook his head and started to wander around the circle, keeping a wary eye on the faerie fire. It felt safe to him now, as long as he didn't step over the chalk lines. Safer than facing orcs and goblins, that was for sure.

It was the western monolith that he looked at first, slipping in front of Khalin — the dwarf had turned to “talk” to the mage — with him hardly noticing. The familiar scales and sinewy body of the dragon-god, Bahamut, seemed to entwine the monolith, reaching up to the top of the stone where it ended in a snaking loop, hollowed out.

The rogue continued around the circle, sunwise, marking off Corellon, smooth and flowing, complete with the hollowed out head, a slightly larger hole than that of Bahamut. Next came Kord, followed by Pelor. Then the other gods one by one.

At the south side of the circle, after Ioun's wrapped mouth, was the odd one out, though. A stone where a worshipper should stand. It was about the same height as the others, accentuated fingers, perhaps even ending in claws, and strange pointed ears, almost like an elf's but not quite. It too had the now familiar gap where part of its head should be.

The whole circle seemed like some sort gallery to Zero, fine carvings in beautiful black stone. He felt a pang of regret that he was not in one of the fancy galleries in Deepingwald, warm, dry and surrounded by waitresses with glasses of wine and small, tasty bites to eat.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, he peered through to the centre of the circle and the statue within.

The stone in the middle appeared at first glance to be quite different. The colour was lighter, and browner like dirt. It was more lifelike, that was for sure, a dwarf, probably, judging by the size and girth. Here from the south he was positioned behind it and could see clearly strapped to its back a large hammer. He was sure he'd seen something else with such a hammer before somewhere, something to do with the monolith beside him, but he couldn't drag it from his memories — the last tenday or two bleeding, almost literally, into one.

‘So, what are we doing about this magic circle thing, then?’ the rogue casually asked.

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Cairngorm Foothills

No-one seemed to be listening to the rogue. The dwarf and the mage were still in conversation, though it did sound a little like an argument. Tradden was still recovering from his fall with Beltak tending to his wounds.

Idly, Zero picked up a rock, tossing it up and down in his hand. Looking the other way, as though the rock was nothing to do with him, he tossed it into the middle of the stone circle and through the magical barrier.

There was a slight flinch from the rogue, an expectation that something might happen. It didn't. The rock simply hit the floor with a soft thud and tumbled across the ground. He raised his eyebrows and began to hum a tune.

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Cairngorm Foothills

The rock sat silently on the bare ground only a few mere yards from Zero. It hadn't exploded, or burst into flame, or turned into a lizard. It just sat there in stony silence, mocking him.

The others still seemed busy, but Zero was getting impatient with the rain, the growing wind, and the grumbling from his stomach. Were they going to stand around here for ages, or were they going to actually do something?

He thought about the gold that Khalin had mentioned and whether any lay under the statue at the centre of the circle. Surely it wouldn't hurt to take a look? The chalk marks in front of him looked quite old, perhaps the magic had worn off — it had had no effect on the rock.

Before he knew it himself, he strode forward, stepping over the chalk marks and through the limned ring of faerie fire, between the monolith of the elf-like stranger and that of Ioun, entering the circle where a worshipper might be admitted.

He scuttled a few steps forward, almost falling over his own feet, half expecting something to stop him. He kicked up dust and let out a huge exhale of breath and a cough.

At the noise, the others stopped their chatter and turned to look at the circle. To the south they spotted Zero, within the bounds of where they assumed was a magical barrier. The rogue looked sheepish, almost apologetic, as he was stared at and began to whistle a tune to cement his innocence.

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Cairngorm Foothills

All heads stopped what they were doing, and turned towards the rogue. Khalin was the first one to break the awkward silence.

‘Zero!’ he chided. ‘That is… that… is, well, I expect that kind of behaviour from Tradden!’

The young fighter looked hurt, and stuck his bottom lip out. And then burst into loud, hearty laughter, initially to the consternation of Beltak, who then joined in despite himself — proving that some things really are infectious.

Khalin chuckled, as did Zero himself. Kireth alone just scowled at the others, but despite this and the rain, spirits were generally lifted for welcome moment.

Then the lighting struck down from the sky, the rains came with intent, and the wind began to strengthen.

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Zero looked up at the increasingly angry sky. ‘I'm sure that's just a… coincidence,’ he said with a nervous chuckle.

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Khalin reached across to clap Tradden on the back in amiable fashion. ‘Come on, let's take a closer look, before it's too late,’ he added, with a nervous glance at the darkening skies. With a deep breath, he stepped over the chalk and lightshow into the circle.

As he raised his boot over the faerie fire there was a peal of thunder. It was the last thing that the warlord heard for some moments.

[Magic Circle]

[Khalin takes 30 force damage]

He felt as though he had been hit by an anvil, the force blowing him off his feet and catapulting him backwards, narrowly missing Tradden in the process, and leaving him lying on his arse in the grass full of pain.
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Cairngorm Foothills

‘Sandstone and shit!’ cursed the dwarf as he tried to dust himself off, but the movement provoked another yelp of pain. ‘I can't wait to get to a bloody inn!’

[Khalin spends 2 Healing Surges and regains 15+15: 30 hit points]

Tradden hurried over to help the injured warlord back to his feet. After a few long breaths Khalin righted his helmet and once more regarded the central statue, now a fair distance away. ‘The form of a dwarf as a warning to dwarves?’ he wondered aloud. ‘Not a very bloody good one if so!’ he finished angrily. After a moment he continued, ‘I'm not going to recommend anyone else tries, but by all means be my guest. Zero, what do you make of that statue?’

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Cairngorm Foothills

Tradden stood back from Khalin and looked thoughtfully at the barrier-that-wasn't there, thumbs tucked in his belt, rain dripping from his nose.

After a while, he spoke. ‘Kireth…’ there was a pause as Tradden tried, mostly successfully, to keep a straight face, ‘…you enjoy testing hypotheses, do you not?’

With that, the fighter gestured with one hand as if to encourage the mage to join Zero, in the circle.

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Cairngorm Foothills

As the others seemingly looked for ways into the circle, Zero cautiously approached the statue for a better look. He circled around it, keeping a respectful distance, looking for fine details, carvings, jewels, buttons or handles — anything that might lead to a secret compartment opening up and spilling its treasure.

He took his time to examine it, carefully considering its aspect. It was most certainly a dwarf, but even as he approached it from the rear, he could see something in the proportions that made it look a little different from most of the dwarves he had seen. As he slowly circled around the figure, the reason became clear: this dwarf had no beard and clearly had feminine features. It appeared to be a female.

The thing that stood out more than such an unusual gender for a dwarven statue was the intense level of detail in the carving. To say it was finely crafted was somewhat of an understatement. The detail was exquisite and, furthermore, the condition appeared pristine. Whilst it is was tarnished and stained from the clutches of the black vines and was pitted with moss here and there, there were no chips or cracks anywhere, even on some of the more intricately carved details.

The figure struck a dramatic line, one of mid-action as opposed to a sculptor's studio pose. Its left arm was outstretched, with the palm of the hand forward and the fingers spread. Its whole upper body was rotated to bring the left hand forward. Its right hand was also open, with the arm bent and away from its side, the left heel lifted from the ground. As Zero stepped back at the whole pose it was clear it has been carved to look like the statue was reaching for something or pushing at something and the sense of movement was expertly captured.

As he moved closer in to inspect the face he was continued to be surprised. The mouth was open as if shouting and again Zero was staggered by the fine craftsmanship in and around the teeth, and even see the tongue. The eyes were wide with a convincing expression of surprise or possibly concern. The details did not stop at the face and movement, however, as they continued into the hair, woven into plaits and braids and tied back, with delicate strands on close inspection that were like the lines of individual hairs.

Zero stood back for a moment and puffed out his cheeks, his hands on his hips. In Deepingwald he had been to many fine galleries, with their artists trying to impress his father with their works of beautiful maidens in stone, and the rogue had a good eye for exquisite art. This statue must have taken an age to carve in such precision. It was a masterwork of skill.

However, the subject itself seemed somehow to let it down in his own estimation. It was clothed in a rag-tag set of armour, rather than flowing silks, or better yet the nakedness of youth, and the proportions of the dwarven body made it look squat and although not ugly by any means, it looked as though it would just wrestle him to painful submission, rather than wrestling him to the bedchamber with loving affection.

The armour looked like it was of leather or hide and continued the intricate style with sculpted furs around the belt and left shoulder and across the upper back. The right shoulder was adorned with a pauldron, fashioned into a stylised boar's head and other parts of the hide were covered with hangings of mail and the attachment of a few plates of steel. Even the boots continued the detail, featuring simple, yet likely stylish to a dwarf, geometric adornments and had been shaped to appear as though they were capped in iron, even including the rivets and cuts and scuffs to make them look worn. On reflection, across the whole statue, the only parts that looked worn were those that had been chiseled in as part of the sculpture.

Strapped to its back the statue bore a large weapon, what looked to be some sort of hammer to Zero. He was sure that Khalin would likely know exactly what it was, and would probably go on about it for days. It had an unusual head, with a triangular cross-section resulting in three equal faces, each adorned with a single linear geometric symbol, probably dwarvish he guessed.

He stood back once more, gazing at the figure, rain cascading down its sides and dripping from its outstretched hand, then let out a long breath. Despite the subject matter, this was hands down the most astonishingly realistic statue he had ever seen. It was almost as if he touched it, it would spring to life.

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Cairngorm Foothills

‘This is amazing!’ Zero shouted to his distant companions. ‘This statue is just perfect… more like a frozen person.’ He inspected it again, marveling, the thoughts of rain, cold, the thunder and lightning, even his hunger banished from his mind.

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Tradden looked up at the sky. What was not already a threatening black morass directly above them was grey and tumultuous. Water was already falling in thick, oily globules — the kind that instantly soaked leather and skin, throwing aside any respect for either. The hazy sky all around them was full of portents of more, more and more. A wicked wind whipped up as if sent by an evil god of zephyr's intent on scathing the land of all that was good and righteous.

It all seemed like an unearthly message meant to deliver a truth that if deciphered could usher in an understanding that would elevate the beings of the world to levels hitherto unseen, if only the right prophet of this new world could sense the message, and start to decrypt it…

[Tradden Nature Check: 1d20+6: 8] - failure!

‘Hmm…’ said Tradden. ‘Looks like rain.’

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Cairngorm Foothills

It was perplexing but extremely exciting. This was powerful magic indeed. Kireth tried to recall all of the information he had on such circles. It ticked many boxes in the usual manner and yet exceeded them in several ways. Khalin should certainly have been blocked by its power but not so aggressively thrown back… not a totally unsatisfactory result Kireth smiled to himself.

[Kireth Arcana Check: 1d20+14: 28] - success!

[Kireth determines the trigger for the magic circle]

To the others it looked like Kireth was having a conversation with a third, unseen, person. His lips moving quickly, his hands gesturing absentmindedly, the odd word spoken aloud. But Kireth was no madman.

[Kireth Arcana Check: 1d20+14: 29] - success!

[Kireth determines the consequences for triggering the magic circle]

Without warning he stopped his mumbling and strode quickly forward to the edge of the circle, carefully stopping just before it. ‘Blood of the Eagle,’ he said almost accusingly at Zero. ‘Why? Tell me quick!’ the mage's eyes narrowed.

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Cairngorm Foothills

Over the strengthening wind and the heavy fall of rain it was starting to get difficult to hear one another at distance. Zero had to cup his hand round his ear to hear what the mage was saying. Another peal of thunder echoed around the circle as Kireth barked his order at the rogue and the wind picked up once more, swirling around the circle, darting between the monoliths and rushing through the hollowed heads of the statues.

Eerie keens and groans emanated from the heads of the statues, one after another, as if in turn, as the wind pushed through them.

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‘I don't know!’ shouted Zero above the wind, rain and eerie groans. The rogue looked animated, perhaps even panicky.

‘But I had this dream about a throne and there were maidens singing in a circle around it then I sat in it and they all became these hideous hags and an eagle suddenly swooped down and attacked them. It was awful!’ The words tumbled out of him one after the other.

He shook his head as if trying to get something out. ‘Can't get that tune out of my head, either,’ he sighed.

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Tradden looked up, towards his fellow human. Narrowing his eyes partly against the wind and rain, which was getting to slightly ridiculous levels, and partly as it was his natural reflex when thinking hard.

‘Hey, Z!’ the fighter bellowed, against the wind. ‘Don't you have that eagle stick thing? The one Sorrow looked at?’

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Khalin was still dusting himself off and stretching out a shoulder from the impact, but had nevertheless heard the question from Kireth.

‘Blood of the eagle?’ he enquired. His thoughts immediately flew to the bloodied standard that was lashed to his pack. Could there be a connection? The thought was quickly followed by the recollection that he'd compared the thorny circle to a nest. As the wind and rain seemed to increase its ferocity, a feeling of foreboding descended. ‘I have a bad feeling about this…’

Breaking out of his reverie, he hurried towards the mage, careful this time to not get too close to the magical aura surrounding the circle. ‘What are you thinking? Could the standard be something to do with this?’ he asked the mage, a feeling of increasing urgency descending.

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Kireth considered the dwarf's question and looked at the ragged and bloody standard strapped to the warlord's back. ‘Well, I wonder,’ he said. ‘It clearly is not the key to entry, considering the ferocity in which you were rejected by the barrier. If your standard is in opposition to the guidelines in which this circle was set up, would you like to take it off and try again?’ the mage enquired gesturing with his arm to the circle like an innkeeper might gesture to a vacant stool.

Khalin paused for a moment, genuinely unsure if the mage's suggestion was a serious one or not. The half-elf's face gave nothing away.

‘No,’ confirmed Kireth. ‘You should not. I shall make the next step here.’

For in those brief moments of dwarven uncertainty, Kireth’s mind had been weighing up a myriad of options and possible outcomes. He appeared to decide upon the most actionable of those. The mage's hands disappeared beneath his deep, dark robes and deftly moved them in some strange, unseen, arcane fashion. The hands stopped their movements and reappeared from the clothing.

‘And now we shall see…’ he said confidently, approaching the edge of the barrier. Anyone with keener hearing may have heard the elf mutter: ‘…see what a damn fool you are if this doesn't work.’

The elf stepped forward to cross the circle.

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Kireth strode confidently to the circle, only a hint of a tightened jaw as he placed his foot over the faerie fire, and continued his pace past the monoliths. As he took two or three more strides towards the centre of the circle the soft glow from the circle's radiant flame began to die, as if being put out by the incessant rain that now fell like a curtain.

Still many yards from the centre of the circle, where the statue and Zero stood together, he turned and looked back at the others, as the groans and keens from the wind whistling through the monoliths's heads began their chorus once more.

The faerie fire petered out and finally dissipated, leaving the circle in growing gloom as the dark clouds gathered ahead.

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‘Well, now,’ marvelled the mage, examining the ring on his finger with great interest. ‘That worked out nicely now, didn't it?’

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Khalin raised his eyebrows in surprise and appreciation, both at the half-elf's successful negotiation of the magic circle, and, he had to admit, at the mage's guts in risking getting blown across the clearing as the dwarf had.

‘Well done,’ he acknowledged, though despite no sign of the faerie fire remaining the warlord looked reluctant to enter the circle. But the need to investigate the “statue” made the dwarf keen to try. Still, better safe than sorry. ‘It's no longer dangerous, then?’ he enquired of Kireth. ‘Even with the standard?’ Khalin was reluctant to leave the ragged banner behind, even for a few moments.

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The mage didn't appear to hear Khalin through the howling wind. The dwarf edged nervously towards the very edge of the circle, unconvinced that the effects of the faerie fire had been fully nullified. He cupped a hand to his mouth and tried to make himself heard above the din. ‘Kireth! What did you do?’ he yelled.

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With Kireth now within the circle, Zero felt a little more assured. The mage would know what to make of the statue and perhaps the others might now come in and burn those horrible black vines. If only the rain would cease and the sun come out. It might help if that damned wind died down and stopped making those strange noises.

With a huff he turned his back on the statue and strode across the circle to most northern of the monoliths, his mind made up to do something — although he didn't know what — about the noise.

As he approached the carving of Pelor he felt a little daunted. The stone was huge, towering above him, splattered with lichen and moss, but carved and decorated with care. The “head” of the monolith was where Zero focused his attention. Even through Pelor's sacred head a hole had been carved through which he could see the dark clouds in the sky. Closing his eyes for a moment, the rogue listened.

[Zero Perception Check: 1d20+12: 22] - success!

As the wind swirled around the circle, blowing now with ever-increasing strength, it seemed to catch the monoliths, blowing through their head-holes, reverberating like a trumpet. Some of the notes from around the circle were low and full, others higher and more shrill. A melody played out, but here and there was a note of discord, a flat or a sharp where a note should not be in Zero's opinion.

Zero hummed along with the tune, still with his eyes closed and his ears sharp. Pelor was in discord — the note was all wrong; too sharp and not within the melody. It simply shouldn't be there. Somewhere around the circle was another, too.

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Now within it, Kireth looked around the circle with curiosity in his eye.

[Kireth Arcana Check: 1d20+14: 23] - success!

[Kireth validates the trigger for the magic circle]

The principles of the magic were familiar but not all of its aspects were as expected. ‘Most peculiar,’ he said to himself.

[Kireth Arcana Check: 1d20+14: 23] - success!

[Kireth examines the magic circle]

‘Yes, yes,’ he replied to the dwarf. ‘It is safe for you to enter now. You can bring your stick if you like.’

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‘Fellas!’ Zero shouted through cupped hands over the wind, rain and noise. ‘This one's head needs fixing. Give me a hand.’

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Shielding his eyes against the fierce winds, and involuntarily shrugging his shoulders to keep warm, Tradden looked from Zero to Kireth to… invisible… wall… of death… thing… and then over to Khalin. The dwarf met his gaze and they shared an unspoken “rock, parchment, knife” game.

Tradden, who always lost those games, decided that the same was going to happen here and so strode forward, then shrieked as a “something” hit him in the face, bang on! He reeled back a couple of steps. Khalin coughed. ‘A twig, lad. Caught by the wind.’

‘Ah, yes,’ replied the fighter, straightening back up. ‘I knew that.’

Fighting back a familiar red flush, he set forth again, this time ending up next to Zero, who was still staring up at what appeared to be a statue of Pelor, albeit one with a hole where the face should have been.

‘It's not right, it's not right,’ Tradden swore he could hear the rogue mumbling.

The young fighter stared at the head, plus its hole, and wondered what it was that was causing his friend so much consternation. As he stared he couldn't help but notice that a twig — he swore it was the same one — whipped round and past his face, through the hole in Pelor's head, and presumably back around.

Tradden put his hands together, locking the fingers in place, in a horseshoe fashion, and held out the convenient stepping stone to Zero. ‘Want a boost?’ he hollered.

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Cairngorm Foothills

Khalin took a deep breath and stepped gingerly into the circle. As his trailing foot touched down with no ill effects this time, he let out the breath. He was minded to head straight over to the dwarven “statue”, but Zero and Tradden appeared to up to something over at the monolith to the north.

Khalin hurried across to join the duo. ‘What is it, Zero?’

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The rogue seemed to pay no attention to Khalin's question, his mind focused on the monolith before him. He looked down at Tradden's cupped hands briefly and then shrugged off his pack. With a nimble leap he was into the young fighter's grasp and stretched up to inspect the head of Pelor.

‘A bit higher,’ he called to Tradden, who locked his shoulders and lifted until the rogue was at eye level with the hole in the god's head. Reaching out he tried to find any way to twist it or turn it but was stumped. ‘Just a bit more,’ he shouted and climbed from Tradden's steely grasp up and on to the young fighter's shoulders.

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‘The Nine Hells!’ swore the rogue from atop Tradden's shoulders. ‘There doesn't seem any way to move it,’ he said. ‘Hang on. Khalin, hey, Khalin! Pass me my pack,’ the rogue ordered.

With a frown the dwarf picked up the rogue's pack. ‘What do you want from it?’ Khalin hollered.

‘What? Oh, the whole thing,’ shouted back Zero, leaning down with one hand grasping the back of Tradden's head and the other towards the dwarf and the ground. The quick movement and strain on the young fighter made him lose his balance for a moment.

[Tradden Strength Check: 1d20+8: 24] - success!

Even with the unbalanced load, the rain, the wind and the fatigue, Tradden was a match for the task and straightened his back, raising the rogue and his pack back to the top of the monolith.

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Digging his heel into the cheekbone at the side of Tradden's face to get just that little extra height, Zero found purchase and shoved his pack into the gaping hole where Pelor's face should have been. ‘Excuse me, your lightness,’ the rogue mumbled, just in case.

With a sudden fleetness of foot he scrambled down the young fighter's body, much to the relief of Tradden's face, shoulders and fingers, with a broad grin on his dripping face, and cupped his hand to his ear.

Above the incessant rain, distant thunder and the general swirl of the wind were the trumpeting notes, playing through the heads of the monoliths. Zero seemed to nod as each one played out, a joyful smile as a beat was missed, presumably where the stuffed pack prevented the wind from reverberating within Pelor. It was followed by a scowl a couple of beats later as a shrill discordant note blared out from somewhere else within the circle.

[Zero Perception Check: 1d20+12: 23] - success!

‘Ah, ha!’ appealed the rogue, his finger pointing over to the east. ‘Mr Soul Forger, eh?’ he tutted and strode off towards the monolith representing Moradin, waving at his mule, Tradden, to follow.

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‘Meh!’ exclaimed Tradden, once again shrugging his shoulders as he fell into line behind the now-determined Zero. ‘Beats getting hit by things.’

As the rogue moved over to the eastern monolith, which Tradden recognised as being Moradin, he skipped past and planted both feet firmly on the floor, opening his stance to allow his friend to again climb up onto his hands, getting the height he needed to inspect the dwarven deity's head.

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As Zero and Tradden clambered over the monoliths, Beltak cautiously entered the circle and headed over to stand by Kireth, who still stood seemingly waiting for any sort of acknowledgement on his skill and power at defeating the magics of the protective wards.

‘Fine work,’ the scribe offered, to which the mage half-nodded in return. ‘It seemed to be powerful magic. How did you manage to remove it? Perhaps a tale to tell once we are warm and dry, eh? I would be fascinated to learn more about this circle — just look at these wonderful stones.’ The scribe turned on the spot looking at all of the monoliths in turn, biting his tongue at the sacrilege performed by the rogue on his patron. ‘What do you make of it? They seem to mirror the circle of constellations, but this one in the south? What is it?’

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Zero took a good look at Tradden's clenched hands and then at the head of the monolith. Although this stone was somewhat shorter than that of Pelor, the head, and therefore the hole within it, seemed a little larger in comparison. The rogue's eyes strayed to the pack on his friend's shoulders, but frowned at how slim and lightweight it looked.

‘What are you up to, Zero?’ came a gruff call from behind him from the confused dwarf, who was striding across the circle to meet the pair.

Zero's eyes didn't meet Khalin's, instead they wandered over the warlord's broad shoulders to inspect what he could see of a typical dwarven pack. ‘Your pack,’ he waved expectantly. ‘Can I have it?’

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Khalin looked over at the statue of Pelor, with Zero's pack stuffed into the face-hole. The rogue appeared to be trying to manipulate the notes “played” by the wind. The warlord dropped his head and stifled a curse as he pulled the pack from his shoulders. ‘In the name of Moradin, be careful with this, Zero,’ he sighed, nevertheless putting his trust in his two friends not to damage the contents.

He turned to respectfully face the statue of his patron, before bowing quickly. ‘Forgive us, my lord,’ he whispered.

Khalin quickly but carefully removed the standard and the pole, lest they need it, or worse, it be lost to some magical mishap. Gripping the standard with one hand and trapping the pole under his armpit he handed the pack over to the rogue. Leaving the duo to whatever plan they were hatching he hurried over to the “frozen” dwarf statue nearby, to inspect it more closely.

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Zero took the pack from Khalin with grace, holding it in both arms tightly. When the dwarf had turned around to head off to the statue near the middle of the circle Zero's face turned into a grimace. ‘What in the gods' names has he got in here?’ he mumbled to himself as he lurched about and waddled over back to Tradden.

With a fair amount of difficulty he managed to climb up onto Tradden's hands and with the strength of the young fighter once again showing, get himself eye-level with the dwarven god. With a curse he managed to wrestle the heavy pack to the fore and line it up with the hole in Moradin's head just as another mighty peal of thunder echoed around, nearly toppling the rogue over with alarm.

Steadying himself, by thrusting his knee into Tradden's face, he grasped the bottom of the pack and gave it an almighty heave, lodging it into the hole, firmly bunging it up. With new-found litheness he slithered down to the ground, patted Tradden on the shoulder condescendingly, and then looked back up at the statue, cupping his ear to examine his handiwork.

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Tradden wasn't sure what he was expecting to happen after Zero's actions. The rain was still falling heavily, whipped around by the strong, swirling wind. Beltak, Kireth and Khalin seemed to have moved towards the centre of the circle, closer to the statue than any of the monoliths, and now for a moment, under the shadow of the imposing dark stone of Moradin's effigy he felt exposed.

His friend, however, seemed content to cup his ear and listen, the rogue's other hand tapping the air in tune, beating at each note that Tradden heard screaming through the heads of the monoliths. As a beat was missed, Zero smiled and followed the tune around by turning to face the stone that created them on each beat, as if conducting a grotesque orchestra, again nodding when a second beat was missed as he faced Tradden and Moradin.

‘Yes!’ exclaimed the rogue as the trumpets ended, pausing as the wind settled for a short while.

‘Is that it!?’ cried the young fighter, feeling cheated that nothing supernatural or magical was happening.

‘It's the first verse, yes,’ replied the rogue. ‘I'm sure there's more, maybe two, or was it four?’

Zero's remaining answer was drowned in the blaring of the trumpeteers again, however, as the wind picked up and the cycle began once more.

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Tradden took another glance at the oddly behaving rogue, shook his head, and abandoned him, slowly walking over towards Khalin and the statue, taking a good glance up at the rain and clouds above him.

[Tradden Nature Check: 1d20+6: 10] - failure!

It looked like rain and the darkening clouds were gathering viciously overhead in ever-tightening circles. One of the large drops of freezing rain hit him right in the eye and he had to take a few moments to rub his eyes and clear his vision. As the cacophony of the howling notes finished their second cycle, pausing before they likely picked up another, he continued his walk towards the warlord.

‘What do you make of it?’ the young fighter asked Khalin when he arrived at the statue, still rubbing his eyes and looking a little disappointed that the statue didn't resemble Khalin at close inspection.

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‘If this is indeed a real person, trapped and frozen, we must try free them,’ Khalin continued earnestly.

[Khalin Nature Check: 1d20+4: 14] - failure!

‘Without,’ he added with a confused look at the maelstrom growing above, ‘becoming trapped ourselves.’

With that he retrieved the pole from beneath his arm and began to carefully lash the standard securely to it. Tradden looked on enigmatically. ‘By thunder, it's worth a try,’ finished the warlord, faith ringing in his voice, and with a somewhat lopsided smile at the unintended pun. With that he walked to what he estimated was the centre of the circle.

‘Moradin guide us,’ he whispered, and with a flourish thrust the pole into the ground.

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The dark and tattered cloth hung limply for a second or two and then as the third chorus of the screeching horns blew out over the circle it picked up, fluttered for a moment, and began to swirl wildly in time with the notes and the rise and fall of the wind.

[Khalin Perception Check: 1d20+4: 5] - critical failure!

As the flag roiled in chaos the warlord tried to pick out any pattern or sense of any assistance it was giving to whatever Zero was playing at, but he couldn't see anything as it settled down after the end of the third verse of noise.

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Khalin shoulders sagged at the anti-climax. He nevertheless looked back towards the frozen dwarf, hoping… something… might have happened. ‘Anything?’ he called to Tradden above the howling winds.

Pausing only a moment for the fighter to respond, he shouted towards Kireth, who'd been silent for several moments now. ‘Kireth, what do you make of all this?’ The dwarf span to regard the other statues around the circle, and searched his memory for any familiarity with the “melody” of the winds.

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Tradden was cold, wet and tired. The wind and rain whipped in his eyes and, yes, there was that same twig again, slapping against his face and causing a teeny abrasion. Nothing seemed to make sense about any of this. It was, as his old sergeant in the Deepingwald Guard would have said, ‘Above your pay grade, Aversward!’

The fighter slapped his hand across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. The hand then slid down across his face, wiping away some of the rain.

[Tradden Perception Check: 1d20+6: 16] - success!

As it did so, the light fell in a certain way across the banner which had been so forcefully planted by Khalin only moments ago. The dwarf was walking past Tradden right now, also mumbling about how this was all pointless. However, the young human snaked out a hand and gripped his shoulder by the pauldron, twisting so as to turn him around.

‘Wait, Khalin. The banner, it's. This sounds crazy, but isn't it…’

The dwarf half turned to look at his friend, and then turned fully to look at the standard again, this time shielding his own eyes from the elements. The banner was… different. Not as ragged as when he had first seen it, and wrapped it up when at “The Mouth”. It wasn't as if it surely once would have been, but certainly looking better. Which was odd — they hadn't done anything to mend or fix it.

‘By Moradin!’ Khalin exclaimed loudly, invoking the name of the god which seemed most appropriate. ‘Your're right lad! Kireth, Beltak, get over here and look at this. What do ye make of it?’ This time it wasn't a polite request — it was the warlord in full “command” mode.

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The noise from his comrades and the environment was doing all it could to distract the mage but Kireth's mind and eyes were focused. His eyes, in fact, were narrowing by the second. He didn't like where all of this was going. Not one… little… bit.

The thief was humming, Beltak was wittering at him and Khalin was giving it his usual “Kireth, what do you think of this?” routine.

[Ghost Sound]

Suddenly the sound of a large, booming, gong rang out above the noise of the winds and the rain and the chattering party. As they all looked over to the sound, which had come from about a foot above the mage's head, Kireth slammed his staff to the ground.

‘Can you all just stop!’ he shouted.

As one, they all paused, like scolded children, at least for a moment to hear what the mage was so upset about. Even the rain stopped at Kireth's command. Noting that he had them, he continued. ‘Khalin, the standard is special, I agree, and we shall definitely come back to that, but we have a more pressing concern.’ Kireth looked upwards.

‘Has no one else noticed that the clouds above? The very, very, angry clouds above, that are reacting to the tune our very own Zero has started?’

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The group looked up the the skies and saw the dark clouds swirling deiseil above them menacingly. They seemed to be centred above the circle with an angry midnight eye in the middle where the rain had finally ceased, bulging down as if getting ready to disgorge some form of deluge.

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Once they had all finished looking up and then back to him, Kireth continued. ‘Well, I have. I have been paying very close attention and I believe we are building towards a crescendo here. A crescendo I fear we are not going to like. In the words of a sea captain I once knew, “Brace yourselves, boys, it's about to get choppy”.’

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Tradden reached each arm back, in unison, over his shoulders and drew his swords. He kept them point down on the basis that, well, water. Big black clouds that might have lightning in them and long pieces of metal sticking into the air were not a good mix, he knew.

‘So, what are you saying Kireth?’ he asked in a calm voice. ‘Is what Zero is doing bad so we should stop?’ He looked again at the clouds above, which were admittedly getting more ominous-looking by the second. ‘Or, is what he is doing bang on right, so we keep doing it?’

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As the notes played the antecedent phrase of Zero's melody, the clouds answered Tradden's question with a crackle of tendrils of sharp light reverberating around the dark maw of its centre. A few moments later a peal of thunder proclaimed the arrival of the consequent phrase of the melody and the remaining few notes started their bellow.

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The last phrase of notes blared out with the wind in fervour until the last, where the note held its haunting pitch for some moments from the through Melora' graceful head. Gradually, after what seemed like an age, it softened to a whisper as the wind died. Then it was gone, leaving the group in silence and stillness.

Zero's shoulders slumped as though his moment was over as he turned around to face the group settled near the statue at the circle's centre. ‘Was that…’

The rogue never finished his sentence, interrupted by a strike of pure brilliant light cascading down in a jagged spear from the maelstrom above. It struck the top of the statue and exploded into pure radiance, seemingly obliterating the stone before searing their eyes.

It was met mere moments after with a boom of thunder that shook the earth.

[Lightning Strike and Thunder Clap]

[Burst 10 centred above statue]

[Burst Attack: 1d20+10: 18 vs Beltak's Reflex (17)] - hits!

[Damage: 1d4+4: 7 lightning] and [Knocked Prone] and [Blinded] and [Deafened] and [Dazed]

[Burst Attack: 1d20+10: 13 vs Khalin's Reflex (16)] - misses!

[Saving Throw vs Forced Movement: 1d20: 14] - success!

[Khalin stands his ground and avoids being Knocked Prone]

[Blinded] and [Deafened]

[Burst Attack: 1d20+10: 21 vs Kireth's Reflex (20)] - hits!

[Damage: 1d4+4: 6 lightning] and [Knocked Prone] and [Blinded] and [Deafened] and [Dazed]

[Burst Attack: 1d20+10: 19 vs Tradden's Reflex (21)] - misses!

[Knocked Prone] and [Blinded] and [Deafened]

[Burst Attack: 1d20+10: 15 vs Zero's Reflex (21)] - misses!

[Knocked Prone] and [Blinded] and [Deafened]

Beltak and Kireth were thrown to the ground roughly by the force of the blast, hurt, dazed and confused. Tradden and Zero fared a meagre amount better, though could not see nor hear what was going on. Only Khalin' dwarven resilience kept him on his feet, though he too could only see a vast white stripe across his eyes and hear an incessant ringing in his ears.

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Zero winced and groaned what he thought might be loudly, the sound strange in his ringing ears. He blinked and shook his head, but the smear of brilliant light across his eyes did not clear.

He rolled into a more comfortable position, trying to stop everything from spinning, and spoke his mind, though he couldn't hear clearly what he said. Breathing out hard he waited in hope to see if his sight and his hearing would return.

As he lay on his back he felt the meagre warmth of the sun's rays upon his chest for a moment. The clouds above must be clearing.

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Tradden, perhaps more used to being knocked down than the others, involuntarily sat up from his previously prostrate position. As he waited for his vision to clear and the ringing in his ears to stop, he found that they did not.

Having been in this situation before, Tradden knew that staying calm was the trick — but also hard to do. He swallowed hard, trying to quell the natural feelings of unease that came with the loss of senses. He cleared his throat — he could feel it rather than hear it — so tried saying a few words.

He shouted. There was no reply, or none that he could hear.

Relying on his innate balance skills, Tradden got to his knees and then shakily stood up. The world didn't appear to end, which was pleasing.

Having got this far, the fighter waited — gathering his inner calm and trying to focus on clearing his head.

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Zero lay on his back. The kiss of the sun felt quite nice. Shame he was still shy of his major faculties.

He called out, or hoped he called. He couldn't hear anyone shout back, but they might have heard him, so he continued, despite the fact he could hardly hear himself. It was disturbing.

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Tradden entered a tranquil state. Or at least he thought he did. That was the aim anyway. Calmly sheathing his longsword on his back — easy enough given the muscle memory and that he did it by feel anyway — he then bobbed back down on his haunches, using his one spare hand to feel around him in a slow, circular motion, patting the floor to see if any of his friends were there.

He tried speaking again and at least felt as though he was actually saying out loud what he was thinking. He just hoped the others could hear.

In his floundering he stumbled across something soft and wrapped in fabric — a leg at his best guess. Thinking quickly, as he often did, he wrapped out a whimsical “knock” on the “leg” hoping that without voice or hearing he would get a friendly reply.

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Kireth was no fighter but he had been punched and bullied by the best of them as a youth. Despite not being able to see what was striking him he made movements to avoid a further blows and rolled away in the opposite direction.

Coming up onto one knee he held his staff out forwards in a defensive position, a spell ready to form on his lips.

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Moradin's folk were a stout bunch and, despite the blast of ungodly force, Khalin stood firm on his feet. As the tempest dissipated the warlord calmed his breathing and racing heart, whispering a prayer to his patron. As he strained his eyes he could make out the hazy shapes of four figures before him, one stood, two crouched off to the right and one on the floor further away. “…its…” shouted a voice that he could just make out as the ringing in his ears started to ease.

The dwarf reached out instinctively for the standard nearby, and presumably still standing proud against the lightning strike, using the pole to steady himself as he continued to shrug off the after-effects. It was definitely warmer now and the haze appeared brighter than the sky had been before the climax of the storm. Khalin hoped that was the end of it, and that his comrades were none the worse for wear.

His thoughts turned also to the “frozen” dwarf, but first things first. ‘Is everyone alright?’ he called clearly, hoping his voice would cut through the daze.

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Tradden stood quickly when he heard a noise  — he was sure he heard “…alright…” — and instinctively drew his longsword again from his back.

‘Hey, anyone's hearing better than mine? Wave if you can hear me!’ he shouted.

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Seemingly drawing strength from his grip on the standard, Khalin felt his eyesight clear further. He could make out the closest figure, still standing. It was the “statue”, but to Khalin's amazement and delight, the figure seemed to be alive.

‘Moradin be praised!’ he exclaimed, as he strained to clear the remainder of the shock from his senses. ‘You're free!’

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Tradden blinked his eyes at Khalin’s exclamation, his sight slowly returning and his ears clearing. Kireth, from his crouched position, also seemed to be coming round, turning his head to look to where the statue was. Even Zero, bathing in the brief moments of sunlight on his back, rolled his head to one side at the noise, waving one of his arms in the air, relief flooding through his veins that his sight and hearing were returning. Only Beltak still suffered, laid on his front in the dirt, his hands clutching either side of his head.

Four pairs of eyes turned to the figure in the centre of the stone circle, which indeed appeared to be alive with no sign remaining of the stone statue. It was holding an almost comical pose in comparison to the statue’s grasping reach, now balanced, but looking around from side to side, taking in the scene as if it were the first time it, or more correctly, she, had seen it.

She paused for a moment, perhaps taking in Khalin’s words. ‘Melora's tits!’ she exclaimed harshly, in a familiar accent, before turning her head to look over towards, and then past, Tradden, narrowing her eyes.

With a swift move she changed her stance, planting her feet firmly, and seized the hammer from her back.

‘Also… goblins,’ she added calmly.

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‘What?’ said Tradden, seemingly able to put aside the fact that a statue had come to life. ‘We're not goblins, I think you ought to…’ The human trailed off, and slowly looked behind him, twisting his head round whilst the rest of his body stayed perfectly still.

‘Oh, right…’

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Shading his still smarting eyes from the setting sun, Kireth rose to look at Tradden's view. Over the slope to the west, coming up the hill out of the sunset, was a band of goblins, skulking up the path, with more troops behind.

‘Get off yer arse, Zero!’ shouted Khalin, his hand still firmly on the pole of the standard. ‘And someone get Beltak on his feet.’

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Completed

End

[…continued in Book #01, Chapter #11, Scene #02…]