“Ambassador, how long are we going to travel with this lot of…” Stanrick said, ending his sentence with a grimace and a disgusted wave of his hand as he looked out at the motley merchant baggage train and its mercenary bodyguards.
“Stanrick,” said Raskolf, “there is safety in numbers, although I understand your concern. They are noisy enough to attract every bandit for three leagues, but I consider it good fortune that our paths have crossed. I know some of these Adventurers personally. I have fought alongside the men of Crow’s Landing in the past. They may look a bit rough around the edges, but they are honorable warriors.”
“I’m just concerned about your safety, Ambassador, as well as that of your daughter.” replied Stanrick.
“I appreciate that, friend. The Sun Horse is soon descending to the Western horizon, however, and I wouldn’t mind having the protection of this outpost that they seek, rather than making camp in strange territory.”
“With all due respect, Ambassador, I’m not sure I like the idea of being locked inside a fortress with this mercenary rabble and that fat, greedy merchant.”
“Your concerns are noted.”
Before long, the slow, noisy baggage train crested a hill, and the tower of the main keep could be seen in the distance. The fortress was overgrown and neglected. According to the merchant, it had been regularly garrisoned until recently, yet it appeared that the forest itself was trying to swallow it up. The walls were covered in vines, snaking tree branches, tippmann moss, and marbilizer fungus. It looked older than it was. The baggage train came to a halt as two of the Longfang scouts emerged from the woods off the trail.
“Mordok.” Reported Dria, “Azra and I counted nine Mordok on the ground inside the keep, and four on the West ramparts to the North of the main entrance. The doors seem to be missing from the front gate. We could see clearly to the courtyard inside.
“The ones on the ground were worshipping a strange idol until they heard the baggage train coming.” Added Azra, “They have surely seen us by now.”
“Orders, sir?” asked Stanrick, motioning for Harlock and the rest of the security detail to move up to the front of the formation.
“We strike now, quickly, before the defenders have time to organize.” Shouted Raskolf. “Every warrior with a shield form up on the left and interlock! They may have archers on the wall to the North of the gate. Longfangs, adventurers, move out!”
Raskolf trudged down the dirt road toward the yawning front gate of the fortress, less than a stones throw behind the clattering charge of mercenaries and Longfang warriors. As he sized up the situation, he took a moment to glance over his shoulder and ensure that the baggage train was protected. Rhodi was un-wrapping his maul and directing a security formation around the merchant’s cart.
“Thanks, brother.” He muttered.
Raskolf drew his pitted, weathered blade, and strode through the open gate into the back of the formation. The warriors were squaring off against a dozen or so Mordok. One Mordok already lay dying in the courtyard, pierced by arrows.
“Stay in formation!” Shouted Stanrick, “Don’t let them draw you out!”
As the arrows of Magrat Farwalker and the hooded mercenary named Duncan found their marks in yet another Mordok, the other creatures panicked and closed with the formation. Steel rang out against bone, bronze, and wood as the primitive and scavenged weapons of the Mordok traded blows with the formation.
“Hold the line!” shouted Raskolf, as two of his bodyguards broke ranks to follow a Mordok.
The two warriors fell back just in time. They were almost flanked and cut off, but made it safely back into formation.
More and more Mordok fell, until there were only a handful of them left and they clustered together in a desperate last stand to defend a small, ugly idol, topped with a skull.
“Now! Shouted Aradael, the Captain from Crow’s landing, “Surround them!”
As the formation broke ranks to form a ring, one of the Mordok suddenly dropped his weapons and made a dash for the center of the keep. Raskolf intercepted the creature, and felt his blade bite deeply into its flesh, but the monster kept going, even as its own momentum disemboweled it and nearly twisted the blade from Raskolf’s hand. With its dying effort, the creature leapt for a rope and clung to it with a death grip, swinging wildly back and forth for a few seconds before crumpling and rolling to a stop, stone dead. The bells of the keep rang out loudly. They could surely be heard for many a mile.
Raskolf turned to see that the last of the Mordok had gone down. It was quiet for a moment, save the resonance of the bells and the heavy breathing of the victors.
“Aradael,” said Raskolf, “Take your men and secure the front gate. Stanrick, Harlock, take the rest of the Longfangs and guard the back gate. Archers, take the walls. Everyone else, go fetch the baggage train before Mordok reinforcements arrive.”
Elise had been told to stay with Drifa, her Uncle Rhodi’s apprentice, while camp was being set up in the courtyard, but what self respecting seven year old could sit by and let these fascinating ruins go unexplored? Drawing her short sword and clinging to her little basket of bandages, she waited until no one was looking, and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the main keep.
“Curious,” thought Duncan as he scouted the ruins, “all the doors are missing up here too; nothing but empty doorways everywhere. This place must have been looted already.”
The veteran scout caught movement out of the corner of his eye and spun to face it. It was the Ulven Ambassador’s little girl. Duncan smiled as the tiny armored figure trampled noisily into an open bedroom, sword in hand. Slinging his bow, he placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and followed her in.
The room was dusty, and littered with papers. Torn parchment fluttered in the wind as he entered the room. The little girl was crouched down beside an overturned bed, examining a small figurine. There was a set of clothes on the floor, filled with ash. The outline of the ash was the shape of a person, but there were no scorch marks on the floor, and the clothes were not burnt. Suddenly, the little Ulven girl jumped to her feet and scurried back out onto the ramparts. Duncan knelt down and began gathering up the papers.
Raskolf was in the courtyard, examining the strange idol that the Mordok had tried to defend. It was a small wicker pillar, topped with a crudely carved skull. There really didn’t seem to be anything remarkable about it. The craftsmanship was poor and it didn’t look very old at all. He conferred with some of the others about it, and learned that the Mordok in this area had a tendency to decorate things with skulls. On the one hand, this trinket looked harmless enough, but then again, with all the problems that the statue Boomhowler’s sons had found had caused, Raskolf was uneasy around these things.
“Father! Father!” said Elise, tugging at his cloak. “I found something upstairs!”
“What should we do with this thing?” someone asked, as Raskolf turned his back on the strange idol.
“Burn it.” He barked over his shoulder.
Duncan was disappointed with the documents he’d found. They didn’t seem to be anything more than supply manifests, receipts, and some boring personal correspondence. As he was just about to drop them, his eyes drifted up and spotted the locked chest against the South wall of the room.
“Maybe this place wasn’t looted after all.” He thought.
Duncan smiled and took a few steps toward the chest, but was interrupted by the arrival of the Ambassador and his daughter. The blacksmith’s apprentice and a human dressed in a black hooded cloak accompanied them.
The Ambassador paid no mind to Duncan, and instead crouched down to examine the burnt body.
“Look, Father.” said the little girl, “It’s a little wooden animal.”
“I think that is a lion.” said the man in black. “It is a creature from Faedrun. It is also the sign of The Order.”
“Right.” said Duncan, “Well, your little girl found these papers so I guess that they are hers. So are those trinkets by the bed.”
Elise smiled and shrugged, picking up the little animal figurines and placing them in her basket.
“No, Elise.” said Raskolf. “We do not take things from the dead. Those clothes on the floor used to belong to a body. See the ashes.”
Oblivious to the fact that she had discovered a dead person, Elise was simply disappointed that her father was not letting her keep any of the little treasures she had found.
“I don’t like this place. Something bad happened here. Magic was involved.” Raskolf muttered, standing up and searching the room with his eyes.
“Yes, well, maybe you can get to the bottom of this.” Duncan laughed, thrusting the papers in the direction of the Ambassador, then grinning sheepishly and retracting them before Raskolf could take them. “Oops, I mean, here you go, sir.” He said, handing them instead, to the man in black.
“I can read.” growled Raskolf.
“Oh?” said Duncan. “It has been my experience that very few of your people can.”
“It has been my experience,” snapped Raskolf, “that very few of your people have any manners.”
“Right then!” laughed Duncan, “Well, I’ll be taking my share and moving on then!”
“You shouldn’t take anything that belongs to the dead.” grumbled Raskolf, but Duncan was already stepping through the empty doorway with the locked chest in his arms.
“We need a Priestess.” said Raskolf to Drifa. “This is a bad place.”
Down in the courtyard, people were still investigating the idol.
“Burn it.” said Raskolf.
“Simpleton!” bellowed the fat merchant, “Need I remind you all that this is my expedition, and as the sole investor that artifact is my personal property.”
“Burn it.” repeated Raskolf.
“We must do no such thing!” exclaimed a Syndar Priest, crouched near the idol. He had gold colored skin and was armored in black and shining silver. “This could be an artifact of great and dangerous power. Destroying it could release that power.”
Raskolf stopped in his tracks.
“Fine. Then don’t burn it. Tie it into a sack with some rocks and sink it into the swamp.”
“You must not touch it!” exclaimed the Syndar Priest.
“Why not?” asked Raskolf.
“Clearly, sir, you have no idea what this is, do you? Are you frightened of it?”
“No and yes. Can you tell me anything about it?”
“No. But I am going to attempt to commune with it through Solar. If it is an undead idol, or one of a death god, I may be able to speak with it.”
“Is that wise?” asked Drifa, “What if you are successful? You may awaken something.”
“I fail to see how this is safer than…” started Drifa, but the Syndar had taken a seat on the earth, eye level with the idol, and begun to chant.
The Priest made some strange gestures and then clapped his hands together in front of his face. His eyes were closed. Raskolf stepped back and told Drifa and Elise to go over by Rhodi and help him set up his camp.
“What’s he doing?” asked Yawn, one of the Longfang bodyguards.
“He’s conducting some kind of blasphemous ritual to try to talk to this thing. He said something about death gods.”
“That sounds dangerous. Should we stop him, Ambassador?”
“Just leave him be. It isn’t going to work, anyway. His gods probably don’t have any power here. Besides, I’m convinced this thing is just some Mordok icon. Send a patrol to reconnoiter the area before we settle down for the night.”
“Are we staying, sir?”
“I’m thinking we will. When that Mordok rang the bell, he summoned all of his tribe, I am sure. As much as I don’t like this place, I’d rather meet them here, in a fortress, than out on the open road. A group this large would be easy for them to track.”
“That reminds me, Ambassador, a scouting party found one of the doors to the front gate. They are trying to figure out how to hang it.”
“I’ll get Rhodi on it.” said Raskolf, walking away from the meditative Syndar and the ugly little idol. “Tell the others to keep looking for the other door.”
Elise was combing the area immediately surrounding the outpost, looking for yellow flowers. The healer lady who talked funny had sent her on this errand. Elise had almost filled her basket with every yellow flower she could find, but every time she and Drifa returned to the healer, the woman told her that she had picked the wrong flowers, and sent her back out. Elise was starting to get frustrated. She gathered medicinal herbs and flowers for her mother all the time back home, and never had this problem. This healer lady’s funny accent made her difficult to understand, and the lady didn’t seem to be all that great at describing what she was looking for, anyway. Elise may have only been seven years old, but she was fairly certain that she had brought samples of every yellow flower with healing properties that grew in the region. Two of the types of flowers she had collected were commonly used in the treatment of infections, but the healer lady didn’t want them. Elise was beginning to suspect that this healer didn’t know much about what grew in the region. Maybe the yellow flowers she was looking for were something that only grew on the lady’s side of the ocean?
Eventually, Elise gave up and headed back to the fortress with Drifa.
On the way back in, the pair passed Aradael and the other troops from Crow’s Landing. They were heading out to find the other door to the front gate. Rhodi had managed to hang the first one already.
Raskolf had just finished doing a perimeter check. He had placed archers on the walls, troops at each gate, and collaborated with Aradael and Fortinbras to see about finding the other front door and securing rocks for the ramparts, in the event that the fortress were attacked. Raskolf sat down to take a break, and fetch his pipe from his backpack. The Syndar were still investigating the idol.
“Well,” he thought to himself, “at least they aren’t letting anyone touch it. I guess that is sort of like guarding it.”
As Raskolf dug through his backpack, he noticed the skulking, misshapen form of the fat merchant’s deformed retainer. The man was scrawny, hunchbacked, and seemed to have a perpetually scrunched up face, twisted in such a manner as to appear as though he had stuffed slices of wild rhubarb and green onions into his cheeks while he was sniffing the backside of a skunk. He leaned heavily on a gnarled staff as he scuttled along.
“Excuse me, sir.” said Raskolf, “Are you from this area? I have some questions about the Mordok in this region.”
The hunchback looked frightened. He cautiously approached, craning his long skinny neck around to do the closest thing he could to looking over his shoulder, given his limitations. Less than a stone’s throw away, the merchant was trying to close a deal with Rhodi, over the sale of some alcohol.
“Raskolf Vakr,” said Raskolf, extending his forearm in greeting.
Raskolf was about to continue formally by introducing himself by clan, camp, pack, and title, but he stopped himself when he saw the apprehension in the hunchback’s eye. It was quiet for a moment. The merchant’s retainer made no effort to clasp forearms, nor did he respond verbally.
“This is the part where you introduce yourself, sir.” said Raskolf.
“Nobody talks to us,” whimpered the hunchback, “except the master, and only when he needs someone to yell at.”
“That’s not right.” said Raskolf. “Why do you tolerate such an injustice.”
“We should not be talking to you.” rasped the retainer, looking to see if the merchant had noticed.
“Why not? Are you a man, or simply a piece of property?”
“Master owns us.”
“How dreadful.” said Raskolf, “And here I thought maybe you could help me.”
“No. No, we cannot help you. We cannot. Please leave us before we get in trouble with Master.”
“How disgusting that any man should live in such fear and hopelessness as to where he cannot even help himself, let alone another who has shown him courtesy and compassion.”
“It is not so bad.” said the hunchback.
“What of personal honor, sir?” said Raskolf,
“He pays us fairly, just to stand next to him so he looks taller and more handsome, because we are so wretched. Sometimes he hurts us, but it is a living.”
“No man should have to suffer such cruelties.”
“It is a living. What else can we do, when we are so hideous?”
“I don’t imagine we will ever find out, unless you find the courage to discover that for yourself. I’m a soldier at heart, man. While I may have empathized with your misfortune, I have no pity for cowards. You whine as though you are a prisoner, but I see neither chains nor shackles upon you. Good day.”
As Raskolf left the hunchback to his misery, there was a sudden commotion at the rear gate. An old man was being helped into the keep by two of the Longfangs. He looked exhausted.
“Caravan!” he panted, “Caravan under attack by bandits!”
Raskolf called his personal detachment of Longfang and Watchwolf bodyguards to arms and sprinted down the trail towards the main road.
As they neared the road, the Ulven fanned out into a silent skirmish formation and slowed down. The bandits could be heard through the trees, carousing and tearing into the spoils of their catch on the road. The Ulven approached the edge of the woods like a pack of wolves instinctively creating an ambush, with the more lightly armored Watchwolves moving further to the North, in order to cut off escape on the road, and the more heavily armored Longfangs advancing from the West, to hit the careless brigands in the flank. Without any signal, the Ulven launched their attack. The panicked bandits tried to flee towards the swamp to the North, leaving a trail of abandoned chests, crates, and sacks of loot in their wake, but found themselves cut off where the road narrowed. As the two forces squared off, Raskolf shouted out to the thieves to identify themselves, but was answered only with an arrow that Harlock non-chalantly intercepted with his shield. Harlock roared in defiance and bared his fangs. The other Ulven followed suit, and a few of the bandits began to shiver with fear.
The bandits, though lightly armed, were dressed in uniform tabards. The tabards were green, and bore a dagger device. Raskolf did not recognize the heraldry. They were certainly not Vandregonian, and neither did they appear to be Aldorian, though the green was similar.
“I am Raskolf Vakr,” he shouted, “Ulven Ambassador, the Voice of the Watchwolves, and the Warder of the High Priestess Anjan Ravensmark, and I speak with the authority of the Clan. The eyes and the ears of the Watchwolves are upon you, and you will be judged. Now tell me! Whose colors do you bear and who do you represent?”
The bandits didn’t answer. Instead they drew steel and formed up back to back. It was a military formation. Clearly, these were trained men; militia perhaps. But who did they work for?
“Dria, Azra!” shouted Raskolf to the two Longfang scouts, “Sweep the woods and make sure there aren’t any more of them hiding out there. Ylsa, look for survivors from the caravan.”
Raskolf stared into the frightened eyes of the bandit leader.
“If you will not identify yourselves, then I will assume that you are bandits and thieves.”
The men still refused to answer.
Steel rang out against steel as the Longfangs and Watchwolves of Raskolf’s security detachment clashed with the bandits. The bandits did not last long. They tried to interlock into a shield wall, but lacked the long weapons necessary to make such a formation effective, and were quickly ground into the earth by the fury of the Ulven charge.
The formation rapidly disintegrated, and several smaller skirmishes broke out as the men tried to flee the Ulven warriors. As the Ulven consolidated their victory, the sharp eyes of the scouts made out the form of a man trying to escape through the swamp. Without hesitation, Raskolf ordered three of his Longfang bodyguards to follow him, and he ran off in pursuit of the escaping bandit. For a moment, Raskolf’s body protested the sudden burst of speed, and his breath came in ragged gasps, but then he got his rhythm and felt as though born anew. Indeed, he could run all day. He could run all night. He would never tire, for he was Ulven, and to be Ulven was to be half wolf.
Raskolf could smell the panic in the air, of his quarry, as it panted and cried, casting away bits of armor and dropping its weapons in an effort to lighten itself. In doing so, it had thrown away any chance of fighting. It was no longer an adversary. It was no longer a person. It was prey. Something primal flickered in the base of Raskolf’s brain. It was the part of him that was wolf. Raskolf had to chase it. He couldn’t resist. There was no longer any reasoning. There was no longer any risk assessment. There was only the chase. Nothing else mattered. Not the fact that he was running blindly into unexplored territory, nor the fact that he had outpaced his bodyguards. No, none of that mattered. Raskolf licked his fangs. He could smell the salt in the air, as his prey perspired, and tears ran down its desperate, panting, crying face. Raskolf, though more heavily encumbered than his prey, was tireless as he paced and harried it through swamp, and through forest, doubling back towards the main road to the abandoned mine, delighting and reveling in the squeals of anguish every time his prey looked back over his shoulder and met his gaze. Raskolf had no idea where the rest of his pack was, and he didn’t care. He wouldn’t lose this prey. He’d take it down himself if he had to. Raskolf stayed just far enough back to make his prey think that it might have a chance, if only it could maintain the interval, but of course such hope is folly when chased by wolves. Suddenly, just as spontaneously as it began, the chase was over. The prey stumbled and fell, wheezing and panting, and clutching at its chest. Raskolf bared his fangs and was about to leap onto it, when the man’s eyes met his own, and suddenly Raskolf realized what had happened, and froze. For a moment, the two men stared at each other, and Raskolf saw his own snarling face reflected in the watery eyes of the old man he’d chased like an animal. The man’s face was ashen and sweaty, and his lips were blue. All color drained from his features. The man began coughing violently and then shuddered as all muscle tone left his face and he slumped to the ground in an unnatural position, his eyes staring blankly through Raskolf’s own. The elderly man’s chest made one final wheezy rattle as the breath left his lungs for the last time.
As Raskolf stared into the blank, unblinking eyes of the corpse, he found himself suddenly embarrassed by his bloodlust. He quickly regained his senses, and the fatigue of his frenzy hit him suddenly, causing him to fall to one knee. The only other time that this had ever happened to him was when the Tundra Wolves were destroyed.
Was this his legacy? Was this his glory? Running off because he had to chase something that ran? Surely that wasn’t his aspect of the Wolf. Running into an obvious trap and getting his friends killed? Frightening an old man to death? When the wolf took control of others they achieved legendary feats of heroism to be forever remembered in song. But not Raskolf. He just chased things. That wasn’t even a wolf aspect. It was that of a common dog. A hound. As he sat and caught his breath, Raskolf realized that he was being watched.
The hunchback cowered behind a fallen log like frightened rabbit, afraid to move lest it trigger a chase like the one that had just transpired. The hunchback carried with him a pay-chest and his traveling bundles. For a moment they stared at each other. The hunchback cowered at the sight of Raskolf’s panting, foaming visage, and was unable to meet the Ulven’s blazing eyes with his own.
“You better get out of here.” said Raskolf, struggling to make words from the growls, barks, and snarls boiling in the back of his throat, “The rest of my pack is right behind me. Don’t ever look back. Don’t ever look back on any of this.”
The hunchback stared at him, wild eyed, and jaw agape.
“Thank you, and thank you, again.” he muttered as he scrambled over the fallen logs and headed deeper into the forest. Raskolf averted his eyes lest he lose himself again and give chase simply because the hunchback was moving. Raskolf wiped the foam from his lips and concentrated on regaining his composure. He was glad Elise hadn’t seen that. The Eyes and Ears, however, surely had. He may have outrun his guards, but there was no way that he could have possibly outrun actual wolves.
A few minutes later, Raskolf’s bodyguards finally caught up to him. Some were limping from the run over such harsh terrain. They were all exhausted and panting, but they found Raskolf standing tall over the body of his quarry.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves.” he growled, “Some of you are half my age, and lightly armored to boot.”
“Did you get anything out of him before you killed him?” asked Ylsa.
“I didn’t kill him. He dropped dead from exhaustion. Let’s head back to the Keep.”
“Should we take a break, first?” panted one of the Longfangs.
“No need.” said Raskolf, “I already took one while I was waiting for you soft little pups to catch up. Let’s go.”
Stanrick, Yawn, and some of the others had returned to the keep with crates and baggage from the caravan. The scouts hadn’t found any survivors besides the old man who had run to the keep to alert them of the attack. There were tracks leading off into the swamp, though, so it was possible that there were others out there somewhere. Upon his arrival, Drifa had tended to the old man until his pulse slowed to a normal pace, he caught his breath, and his withered hands ceased to tremble. The human had thanked Drifa for helping to calm his poor old heart, and for sitting with him until he felt better. It had almost been a legitimate compliment, until he called her a “noble savage” and made a seemingly absent-minded remark that perhaps Ulven weren’t all blood-thirsty animals after all. Drifa rolled her eyes and attributed it to dementia. The old man now sipped hot tea and conversed with the fat merchant about the old country. He kept on introducing himself to the same people over and over again. His name was Jack.
The sun was starting to get low in the sky. Her work done, Drifa took her leave of the old man and settled by the fire. It wasn’t late in the season yet, but it was looking to be a cold, damp evening, and her bones ached equal parts from the weather, the walking, and her work repairing weapons and armor with the portable smithy.
It had been a hard journey from New Aldoria, but she had survived, as had the others. It had been a close thing, though. Uncomfortably close.
Drifa pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she stared into the fire. She was tired of travelling, day in, day out. For someone who’d never ventured far from her home territory, the last several months had been a shock. She’d never imagined Mardrun was this big, leagues and leagues with no end, all the time watching and waiting for the ambush from Mordok or bandits or, even worse, their supposed allies.
Allies. She snorted, shaking her head. More like headaches. The longer Drifa spent around humans the less she understood them. Always rushing about and panicking, half-hysterical most of the time. So dramatic. How could Raskolf stand dealing with them so much? They never listened, bickering and squabbling with each other like spoiled cubs fighting over the choicest teat.
And arrogant? She’d never been so angry as at the first outpost they’d stopped at, when they’d looked down their noses at her, their upper lips curled as if smelling something foul. Her efforts in the smithy had been redoubled that night, and her arms and back had paid the price for it the next day.
Rage wasn’t as useful a tool as folks made it out to be. There was always a price, and sometimes the price was awfully heavy.
Some of the humans were pleasant enough, true. But others were just abrasive, and rude. Honor did not seem to be a commonly-held concept among humans, and dealings with them always seemed barbed, like the worm in a ripe apple. Drifa glanced over at the old man she’d helped. She was glad that she didn’t have Raskolf’s job. She wasn’t nearly as good at dealing with humans as he was.
She sighed and tucked her skirt around her feet, settling herself more comfortably against the chill. Perhaps she was just being paranoid. There were good and bad apples the world over, and one shouldn’t cut down an apple tree over a handful of rotten fruit. She picked up a stick and stirred the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. No, one shouldn’t judge an entire group by the failings of a few.
Drifa had been on the receiving end of that kind of judgment for a long time, until she’d finally found a clan that would take her in. The sense of pride she’d felt when she’d been accepted by the Watchwolves washed over her again. No other clan had opened their home to her, no other clan had welcomed her and healed her hurts and made her one of them. Her, Drifa Blackfrost, the last member of a dead clan, a clan the Ulven believed had been cursed by Gaia for their blasphemy.
She never knew what rite their Clan priestess had performed, and had never felt brave enough to ask the High Priestess Ravensmark. But on the fateful night that old Utta Brightmoon, the Clan Winterclaw Priestess, had performed her strange ritual, the Mordok had come boiling out of the forest like hornets, slaughtering her people in numbers she’d never believed possible.
She could still hear the old woman’s voice, cracked and papery, lifting Gaea’s protection and blessings from her clan, calling down Gaea’s vengeance upon them, tears streaming openly down her wrinkled face until a Mordok spear buried itself in her throat. She could still hear the shrieks of the children, the fierce, gruff battle-cries of the warriors, the clash of steel and the dull, sickening thud of the club that dashed her father’s brains across the snow.
She remembered blood. Blood on the snow, and the discordant, ululating screams of the Unclean Ones. That sound woke her from sleep more often than she cared to admit, and it frightened her to the core of her being. She would do anything to avoid hearing it again, anything, but yet here she was, traipsing through the whole of Mardun with people who fought Mordok, and dead things that didn’t stay dead but walked, and dead mages who didn’t stay dead but cast spells, and other such horrors.
Drifa didn’t fight Mordok. Drifa didn’t fight anything. There was a reason that Drifa Blackfrost was the only surviving member of her Clan.
Drifa Blackfrost was alive because she ran.
The thought shamed her, but she didn’t regret it. Running was the only way she could have survived.
She could remember her father and her mate and their pack, loping back into their village with the heads of the Unclean Ones mounted on their spears and victory painted on their faces. They’d raided a Mordok nest and looted it, taken trophies from the dead and goods in retribution for raids on their own camps. She could remember the angry words of Priestess Brightmoon, her eyes flashing and her gnarled hands clasping her staff in rage as she berated Drifa’s chieftain father for his Pack’s heresy.
Her father’s laughter, and gruff dismissal of her words. The pack began raiding in earnest, ranging wider and wider with their war parties, and always the trophies, always the proof of their conquests, heads and ears and claws and trinkets, crude idols and tools. Soon the whole clan was participating in Helmingur Blackfrost’s depredations, despite the warnings of their Priestess. It was a foggy new moon night Utta Brightmoon performed her dark ritual and the death of Clan Winterclaw came to pass.
She’d never figured out how the Mordok had missed her, as wild as her flight through the misty forest had been. She’d run until she’d dropped from exhaustion. The next morning dawned pale and wan, the sun obscured by rank smoke. Fearful, Drifa had retraced her steps, crept carefully back to the ruins of her Clan’s village. Nothing but atrocities greeted her. There were no other survivors that she could find.
A long period followed of aimless wandering, being driven away by other clans frightened of suffering the same fate as the Winterclaws, before falling into the warm, welcoming, open arms of the Watchwolves, who’d given her a home and a purpose.
Drifa was thankful for a purpose. She’d never had one before and the novelty pleased her. Images of a frustrating youth, a youth spent trying to be something she could never be. Her swordsmanship was poor, her shield work worse. She’d never gotten the hang of weaving or sewing, and a meal prepared by her less-than-able hands would cause even the most ravenous to declare a fast. She’d managed to become moderately competent in treating injuries, but she’d never truly mastered the art, and the complexities of herb lore baffled her.
In short, she’d never really been very good at anything. However, she’d learned that avoiding uncomfortable situations was preferential to bearing the shame of mediocrity, so avoidance became almost second nature to her. Drifa became talented at deferring, at drifting, like the drifting snow she was named for, falling into the path of least resistance.
Now she had found something she was a little bit good at. Smithing was fun, and useful. She could only do simple repairs now, but had hopes of becoming if not good, at least competent. Rhodi Vakr, the Clan’s Master Smith, seemed to think there was hope for her. And she could truly contribute to her pack and clan, for the first time. It was a wonderful feeling.
She yawned, baring fangs that gleamed wetly in the firelight. Maybe that feeling was worth braving armies of Mordok, rude Humans, strange Syndar and sore feet and tired muscles.
Raskolf and Duncan stood together, staring at the ugly idol. The Syndar priest had finally abandoned his efforts to talk to it or whatever he was doing. Raskolf chewed the end of his pipe.
“Why were you so eager to get rid of this thing?” asked Duncan.
“My people do not take things from the dead. This idol belongs to the Mordok. Nothing but misfortune will come from our taking it, and the evil spirits of those we have slain will hound us relentlessly so long as we possess it.”
Duncan raised an eyebrow.
“It is especially taboo,” said Raskolf, “because it is a religious icon. That makes it even worse.”
Duncan thought about it for a moment.
“You know what?” He said, “I don’t pretend to understand your religion, Ambassador, but I think that you bring up an excellent point. As long as we have this thing, the Mordok are going to be after it, and I don’t see how keeping it will do us any good. As far as the argument that it shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, well, who’s to say who that is? It is a piece of wicker and clay. It doesn’t seem to be either magic or valuable, so I don’t see that it does any of us any good. Tell you what, Raskolf. I am going to do you a favor. Look over there.”
Raskolf hesitated a moment, then looked away. When he looked back, the idol was gone and Duncan was walking away.
“Where are you going, Duncan?” asked Raskolf.
“I’m going out on patrol with the Crow’s guard.” he said.
It had been over an hour. Aradael, Fortinbras, and other militia from Crow’s landing were still searching for the other door to the keep, or even a suitable substitute. Their archers had been left to stand watch upon the walls, back at the keep. The heavy platemail and chain of the fighters echoed in the stillness as they tramped along the dirt road to the old mine. The woods were quiet. Far too quiet, in fact. Duncan had tagged along with the party. At first he had simply been enjoying the company of fellow adventurers, but the farther the group got from the keep, the more uncomfortable he became. There was something wrong in this forest. Duncan was, by trade, a scout and explorer. He had a knack for telling when something was wrong. Duncan began moving silently. He slowly fell to the rear of the formation, and then disappeared into the landscape. His compatriots never noticed that he was gone, nor did they realize that they were being stalked.
One of the harsh realities of the infantry Soldier is that no matter how well trained or disciplined a unit is, their chance of surviving a well organized ambush is almost zero. From green volunteers and conscript troops, to elite phalanxes of heavy footmen, being on the receiving end of a proper ambush is near certain death, especially if the attacker knows how to use the terrain to their advantage.
The majority of the Crow’s Landing militia were stuck full of arrows before they even realized the situation they were in. Aradael hadn’t done anything wrong, either. Infantry commanders are taught to take the low ground when maneuvering troops, so as not to create silhouettes on the high ground. It makes you harder to find. Sadly, though, in the event that you are found, traveling the low ground makes a unit susceptible to attacks from the high ground. There’s a reason they call foot Soldiers “the poor bloody infantry”.
Duncan saw what was unfolding before it actually happened. There was no time to waste. He had already started running back to the keep for help before the first arrow was loosed, but the screams and shouts of combat caught up with him as he ran.
Raskolf and his bodyguards returned to the keep to find the front doors hung and secured.
“Good job, brother.” he said, admiring Rhodi’s craftsmanship in repairing the destroyed hinges and brackets of the first door, “Who found the other one?”
“A couple of the mercenary types said they got it from an old woman who lives west of here. She was using it for a table or something.”
“Mercenaries. Great. I suppose they expect someone to pay them for dragging it back. I was hoping that Aradael and Fortinbras would have found it. Where are they?”
“They haven’t come back yet. Probably still out looking for the door.” Chuckled Rhodi.
“Hope they come back soon. It will be getting dark.”
Raskolf checked with the Longfangs and the remaining troops from Crow’s Landing, who were pretty much all archers. He sent the Longfangs out on a short patrol of the immediate area and ordered them to be back before sunset. Guard rotations had been set up for the walls and the gates. Some of the adventurers had even collected a large cache of field stones, and stacked them on the ramparts of the gatehouse, in case the keep were besieged by Mordok after the sun went down. Raskolf, Rhodi, Drifa, and Elise found some spots in the walls which were of questionable integrity, and reinforced them with improvised timber shoring. The architecture of this keep was different than the walled villages and stockades that Raskolf was used to defending from Mordok, but he was confident that they could work with it. The only thing that concerned him was the size of the fort. It was too big. There was too much wall, too many towers, and too many doors for the number of troops on hand. It would be impossible to properly watch everything at once.
Not far away, Horus Von Horst examined the ruins of the abandoned mine. The timber was still in excellent condition. The mine had to be less than ten years old, assuming it was built by colonists. It didn’t go very far down at all. His companion and guide, Rory Sturm, examined the wall of dirt with a lit torch.
“It wasn’t a cave in.” he said, picking at the dirt with his fingers, “It was never mined any further than here. They built an entrance corridor, but never actually started digging down.”
“Look.” said Horus, pointing to a small mud-clay figurine sitting on an unused beam partially buried by erosion.
“Natives?” he asked.
Rory Sturm, adventurer and explorer knelt down and examined the crude humanoid lump of brown clay.
“Yes.” he hissed through clenched teeth, “Mordok, to be precise.”
As the two men turned to leave, the torchlight danced across the entry arch, illuminating pictograms and runes that had remained hidden when they entered from that direction.
The two stared in wide eyed silence for a moment.
“Rory,” said Horus, “what can you tell me about the Mordok in this area?”
“They like to decorate things with a skull motiff. These pictograms here are suspected to be representative of death, or a death god, and are typically found with offerings or sacrifices of small creatures. This round little one is anyone’s guess, but based on my personal travels and from what I’ve seen of other cultures, it is likely a fertility character of some sort. The big circle looks something like a round pregnant belly, and the other circles are probably breasts.”
“Death and rebirth.” muttered Horus, rummaging through his bag for his notebook.
“These runes, however,” he said, “are certainly not Mordok, nor are they Ulven. They are necromantic.”
“There is a lich here, then.” said Rory, “On Mardrun. You were right.”
Horus Von Horst examined the runes and compared them to the notes in his book.
“Not just any lich.” he muttered, “It’s him.”
“Do you think he has already started raising an army?” asked Rory, “From the Mordok, I mean?”
“Based on these paintings, I fear as much. Look at these. They represent the alignment of the stars. My old foe is performing a ritual here. Tonight is the last night. Where is the nearest human settlement from here? We need to raise an army, and we have only hours to do it!”
“There is a small frontier outpost not far from here, Horus. We can reach it well before dark if we hurry. It is garrisoned by militia from the Order of Arnath.”
“Even better! Fighting the undead is their specialty! How fortuitous!”
Rhodi had just sat down with Drifa to finally begin repairing armor damaged earlier in the day. He had several orders to fill, and had to get them done before nightfall. He needed all the hands he could get, so he even put Ylsa to work. Dria Northwind, one of the only Longfangs who had stayed back due to it being her guard shift, took a few components back with her and started making simple repairs from her guard post. Rhodi had been working hard all day, and his back was killing him. He was beginning to grow a little annoyed with his brother. Raskolf, it seemed, had spent most of the day running about like a headless chicken, trying to manage everything and pretend that he was in control. At the same time, however, he also seemed to be way too nice to actually get anything done. Raskolf knew that the little totem statue they’d found should be destroyed, but he’d let those idiots from the colonies talk him out of it. If only Anjan were here. That would get Raskolf’s head out of his arse.
Rhodi winced in pain, tried to pop his own spine, and settled for cracking his neck. It wasn’t just the work and the travel. His spine always acted up during any time of the year that was a season. Rhodi had suffered a horrific spinal injury back in his days as a warrior. It happened in the same battle that cost Anjan her sight. They were, all three of them, Rhodi, Raskolf, and Anjan, members of the Tundra Wolves back then. It was an elite war pack, independent of any clan, and made up from only the fiercest warriors of the Ulven nation. They specialized in fighting the Mordok, and traveled all of Mardrun to wherever they were needed. The Tundra Wolves were a special pack, comprised of the greatest of Ulven heroes, and the sons and daughters of the most prominent leaders in the nation. To serve in that pack was the greatest honor anyone of the warrior caste could ever hope to achieve. Raskolf and Rhodi had trained hard to get in when the opportunity arose, which was infrequent as the pack rarely recruited. The two boys had even traveled to Longfang territory to seek out the tutelage of the great Ulven hero Hanseth Longfang. There, they studied day and night with the Longfangs, a pack which prided itself as producing the strongest warriors on all of Mardrun, and who often provided professional Soldiers and bodyguards for the most important and highest ranking leaders and priestesses in the Ulven nation. The Longfangs, as a matter of fact, were so strict with their warriors, that any children who they deemed weak or sickly were sent to live with other packs. Many of the Tundra Wolves were born and raised in the Longfang pack.
As far as Tundra Wolf selection went, just being accepted past the initial trials by combat and the earliest phases of candidacy could earn a warrior renown, even if they didn’t make the cut. Raskolf and Rhodi had made it.
To be honest, though, Rhodi had always felt a little out of place in that warpack. There was always just the slightest sliver of doubt as to whether he actually belonged there. He remembered the day that he and Raskolf made the cut. There were some who said that the two had only been accepted because they were twins. Ulven women almost never give birth to twins. It happens so infrequently that it is considered a powerful portent indeed, should it happen, and the children are believed to live a blessed existence, and to be destined for greatness.
“Right.” thought Rhodi, gritting his teeth against blood blisters as he used his bare fingers to close a tear in a piece of chainmail, “Charmed existence all right.”
Others, still, had said that the brothers only made it in because their mother was such a high-ranking warrior in the Lunar camp.
Of course, if getting through candidacy had been hell, then that didn’t leave much room for metaphors to describe what being the new guys in that sort of a pack was like. Anjan was the meanest, having been the newbie herself until the boys showed up. If the boys didn’t feel that they’d earned their place by going through selection, they sure felt like it after a few months on the road with those savages. The Tundra Wolves were big damn heroes, and they knew it. Wherever they went, people took care of them. They could roll into any village on Mardrun, drink all the mead, trash the tavern, eat whatever they wanted, sleep with whoever they wanted, and never have to worry about the bill.
In return, they fought with a ferocity and savagery that even the Mordok found barbaric. They traveled fast, and light. The Tundra Wolves lived off of the land and the generosity of the clans and packs they came across. In time, Raskolf and Rhodi found their places within the warpack. Rhodi specialized in heavy weapons, like Anjan. Raskolf learned tactics and strategy, and gradually was given more and more responsibility as a leader. Within a few years, he was one of the packleaders.
That was all history, now. It was a different time, and though the land was the same, it felt like a different world, now, with strange new people. Rhodi didn’t live in the past. He couldn’t stand people who did. He had no time for crusty, out of shape men and women who’d reached their prime years ago, been in one battle, or won one contest, and just stopped there; Sad old characters who told the same story over and over in the tavern every night, wondering why the heck they were still alive, and if the Great Wolf would remember them when they died facedown in a puddle twenty years after the last thing they ever did. No. Rhodi couldn’t stand people like that. Rhodi lived every day to its fullest. Rhodi worked hard, played harder, and drank hardest. Rhodi didn’t drink to forget anything, though. Nor did he drink to remember, either, which is almost always counter-productive anyway. Rhodi drank to celebrate life. If the Great Wolf somehow didn’t know Rhodi’s name, it would only be because it was too loud to hear anything at Rhodi’s parties. Just to be on the safe side, Rhodi made sure that any woman he bedded screamed his name loud enough for the Great Wolf to hear.
Rhodi grinned to himself as he worked. As much as his body protested, there was something about being on the road again that felt good, especially now that he wasn’t a Soldier anymore.
Raskolf cursed to himself as he worked. Hang this “Ambassador” garbage! Life was so much easier when he was a Soldier.
Raskolf was running back and forth between the front gate and the fat merchant. Rhodi wasn’t sure if Raskolf was storming or scurrying. It was a rather unnatural combination of the two. Rhodi squinted in the evening light. He was pretty sure he could see his brother’s hair getting grayer with every step.
Rhodi decided to take a break from his work and investigate. A drinking break. Rhodi pulled a cork and sauntered over to the front gate. He was caught a bit off guard by what he saw. It was a hostage situation.
Aradael and his men were arrayed in a line, on their knees, with their hands bound behind them and blades at their throats. The men were battered and bloody. Some of them had arrows sticking out of them. Their captors wore green tabards with daggers for heraldry. Rhodi glanced over his shoulder at Raskolf. His brother was having a heated argument with the fat merchant over a small bag of silver coins.
“What’s going on?” Rhodi asked one of the archers.
“The Ulven Ambassador is trying to negotiate their ransom. With that Ulven pack out on patrol, we don’t have enough manpower to make a move without them killing the hostages first. I don’t think the fat merchant wants to pay it. He thinks one of the adventurers stole his pay-chest.”
“Oh?” said Rhodi, “Is that all? I’ve got this.”
Rhodi sauntered up to the front gate with bottle in hand.
“Gentlemen!” he yelled, “You have the tired and hungry look of traveled Soldiers. I know that feeling. My name is Rhodi, Master Brewer and Winemaker of my Clan, but I used to carry a shield in my younger days. Who is your Captain?”
The men in green looked around among each other for a moment. There were a few whispers and nods of agreement before one of them stepped forward. He was tall, lanky, and had a red beard.
“You must be Captain, then, good sir?”
“Yeah.” said the man, “Sure.”
“Well, sir, I need to be frank with you. I’m afraid that we cannot pay your ransom. These men, you see, are hired security. They were paid in advance, so any money you got off of their persons was what they were worth to us, and really all we had.”
“That other guy said he was some sort of diplomat or noble or something. He must have money.”
“Raskolf? No. He has a rather over-inflated self image. He’s here to help set up a trading post. That’s all. Trust me. I’ve known him his whole life. He was probably trying to scare you with all this talk about the eyes and the ears of the Clan being on you and stuff, wasn’t he?”
The man with the red beard shifted his weight and looked kind of disappointed.
“Look, Captain.” said Rhodi, “Let me level with you. We don’t have the money for the ransom, but there are Mordok in the area and we’d really like these mercenaries back especially with the sun going down. I’m sure you want to get your men safely back to your camp too, for the same reason. How about a trade? You guys look thirsty and hungry, and we are in the middle of nowhere. How about I send you home with a party in a crate. Hmmm? Here, taste this.”
Rhodi took a swallow from his bottle and handed it to the man. The man hesitated for a second, sniffed the bottle, and then took a swig. The corners of his mouth turned up as he lowered the bottle, and his eyes sparkled. Rhodi knew he’d won.
“I’m the Master Brewer and Wine-maker for my Clan,” Rhodi beamed, “I have more where that came from, as well as some cheese and sausage. Do we have ourselves a deal?”
By the time Raskolf convinced the fat merchant to pay up and had run back to the front gate, the bandits were already leaving. The gate guards were helping the wounded militia men of Crow’s Landing by performing first aid. Raskolf stared for a moment as the healer lady rushed past him, followed by Elise and Drifa carrying baskets of bandages.
“What just happened?” asked Raskolf.
“Your brother just saved everyone with a crate of wine, some sausage, and a cheese wheel.” grunted Aradael as Drifa tended to his wounds.
Raskolf stared at the small coin pouch he held in his hand. He scratched his head.
“Brother,” laughed Rhodi, slapping him on the shoulder from behind, “You’ve been an officer too long.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’ve forgotten how to talk to Soldiers. You’ve forgotten what it is to be a Soldier.”
Raskolf narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as Aradael limped past, leaning on one of his men.
“All that fancy talk, Raskolf, with the titles and everything. You can’t do that and expect them to respect you. You sound like a bloody officer, or maybe one of those damned nobles you spent all that time with in New Hope. Soldiers hate those people. Talking like that instantly makes them hate you and think you are an idiot.”
“I certainly feel like an idiot.” he grumbled, “And I probably look like one, now.”
“Raskolf,” said Rhodi, “I’m a blacksmith, but I remember what it was like to be a Soldier. You do too. Tell me, what does every Soldier everywhere in every army want all the time?”
“To go home, Rhodi. They all want to go home.”
“That’s right. Soldiers want to go home, they are always hungry, and they love to drink. I appealed to that. You have to look at things from the perspective of who you are talking to.”
It was quiet for a moment.
“Well,” said Rhodi, “I have to get back to work. The Sun Horse is almost descended.”
Rhodi turned. He started walking back towards his temporary workshop.
“Rhodi.” said Raskolf.
Rhodi stopped, but did not turn to face his brother.
“Thank you, brother.” said Raskolf, “Thank you. I know that travel is hard on your back, but I think it goes without saying just how much I need you.”
“Someone has to keep you grounded lest your head swell anymore than it already has.” laughed Rhodi as he crunched down the gravel path, “Who better to anchor you than a blacksmith and his anvil?”
As the bandits returned to their camp, the man with the red beard was quite proud of himself. The provisions they acquired from that Ulven brewer at the old keep were badly needed. He only hoped that his little brother’s raiding party would soon return from their hit on that caravan to the East with even more food. It would be getting dark before long, and there were Mordok about.
The man with the red beard took a swig from the bottle as the rag-tag encampment came into view. The area was becoming too dangerous and too traveled. Soon, the bandits would have to move, whether Mr. Black liked it or not.
Mr. Black was not popular among the men he employed. Even the hearts of sell-swords and ne’er do wells are not so hardened as to be unaffected by the trauma of killing travelers on the road for no reason, and then being forced to bury them in a secret graveyard. By letting those men live today the bandits had risked angering their mysterious employer, but hunger, desperation, and weariness were taking their toll on the bandits.
“Tonight,” thought the man with the red beard, “we feast. Tomorrow, we move on, and leave these dark deeds behind us.”
Bite patrolled the ramparts. Her diminutive stature made it a harder task for her than for her peers. The archer wasn’t even sure exactly what would happen if she had to shoot down from her position up on the wall. She could barely see over the ramparts, and it made it difficult for her to aim. Her field of fire was seriously restricted, and she wouldn’t really be able to shoot down at anyone who got too close to the wall. She started organizing the rocks that the troops had hauled up on the walls into neat stacks and piles. When no one was looking, she tested their stability by climbing up onto them. That was better. Now she had a much improved field of fire.
Bite’s small size made her the brunt of many jokes. She was, quite possibly, the littlest Ulven on Mardrun. All the joking aside, though, she loved the people of Crow’s Landing. They were her family. Ten years ago, Bite had been found by the Crow’s Guard as an orphaned child of perhaps five years She was alone in the wilderness, bloodied and silent, the apparent survivor of a Mordok attack. They took her in and the community raised her as their own. She didn’t talk for a long time, and looking back, she really couldn’t remember much of anything of her life before her adoption. From the beginning, her heritage was questionable, but despite the strained relations with the Ulven back in the earliest days of the colonies, the people of Crow’s Landing had been nothing but merciful and kind to her. They hadn’t been one-hundred percent sure that she was Ulven until her fangs came in during puberty, but it had always been suspected. By that point in time, relations between Crow’s Landing and the closest Ulven, Clan Nightriver, were improving. Bite was given the choice to live with her people if she so wished. She had decided that the ones who raised her were her people, and had joined the Crow’s Guard as a scout.
From atop her rock pile, Bite spied movement on the trail. Their garb was too practical for them to be Syndar, but not practical enough to be Ulven. Humans. One of them looked old. Perhaps they were pilgrims. Bite called down to the guards at the gate, but there was no answer. She realized that other archers on the wall were pointing at her little rock pile and laughing, now that she had drawn attention to herself. She hopped down and snarled in their general direction.
“Who is at the back door?” shouted Raskolf, “I put people at the back door! Where are they? Have these Humans no discipline? That’s the second time that door has been left unattended.”
The top of Bite’s head appeared on the inside wall of the rampart.
“I’m watching it from up here, Ambassador.” she said, “I don’t know where the men you put on the door went, though. I think that is them over there in the courtyard.”
A quick glance showed Raskolf that the mercenaries he’d put on the door were loitering near his brother and drinking. He thought about going over there, but remembered what Rhodi had said about people not respecting him if he tried to hard to push his authority on them. They weren’t his troops and he wasn’t the one who paid them. Why should they listen to him, anyway?
“No discipline.” muttered Raskolf, “Very well, Bite. You watch that door from up on the wall. I know you at least have a good enough span of attention to stay put until relieved.”
“Yes, sir!” she said, “I won’t move from this spot, no matter what!”
Raskolf looked around. Most of the troops from Crow’s landing were attending to the wounded, or wounded themselves. He was about to pull some of Sir William’s men off the front gate, but realized that they were the ones keeping the mercenaries under supervision, and he’d probably never get those Soldiers of fortune to stay put again if he moved their babysitters. On the other side of the wall, he heard an owl hoot, despite the fact that the sun horse had yet to cross the West horizon.
“Never mind.” He thought to himself before returning the bird call, “In that case, I’ll just get it.”
“I don’t know.” said Rory, “There is no banner of the Lion Rampant on the keep. No banner at all, actually. Last time I was here I was challenged by guards before I made it this-”
“Halt! Who goes there?” shouted a little voice.
A small face appeared between the ramparts.
“That’s no Lion.” grumbled Rory, “Not even an Eagle, likely.”
“Greetings!” shouted Horus, “I am Horus Von Horst, but my best friends call me Boomhowler. This is my friend Rory Sturm, the famous explorer and cartographer.”
“She looks like she is about fifteen.” grumbled Rory, squinting against the low lying sun over the wall.
The door opened, and a lone Ulven warrior dressed in leather armor stepped out.
“My name is Raskolf Vakr,” he said, “Ambassador of the Silverhowl pack, and Voice of the Watchwolves.”
“We need to see the garrison commander from the Order of Arnath.” said Horus, “It’s important.”
Raskolf laughed and stepped away from the doorway.
“That’s rather bold of him. He doesn’t even know us.” whispered Rory.
“Not really.” said Raskolf, “My Longfangs are back.”
Several figures rose silently from the foliage off to the sides of the trail.
“I don’t know anything about the Order of Arnath,” he continued, “but there is a fat merchant inside who thinks that he owns the place, and probably feels the same way about the people.”
Raskolf approached the two men and clasped their forearms as he welcomed them inside.
“Your reputation precedes you, Horus Von Horst. I have met your sons.”
“Don’t let that ruin his reputation for you.” grumbled Rory.
“Don’t mind Rory.” said Horus, “He is a navigator and explorer himself, and he considers my sons to be competition.”
The two travelers were escorted inside by Raskolf and the Longfangs. Raskolf sent the Longfangs about to perform security tasks without so much as a break to get water or change their socks.
“So,” said Horus, looking around at the overgrown and neglected keep, “we were looking for a garrison of Soldiers of the Order of Arnath’s Fist, but we found you here instead. If this isn’t an Order outpost, what is it?”
“That fat merchant can tell you better than I.” said Raskolf, “I am just passing through. We linked up with this merchant and his baggage train along the way, and decided to travel together for the sake of numbers and safety. I believe that his intent was to re-establish this fort as a trading post between the colonies. The merchant and his hired security intend to stay here, but my people will be moving on in the morning.”
“How many of there are you?”
“That’s a rather suspicious question.” growled Raskolf.
“I ask because I need your help. You have the honor of my name. You said that you know my sons?”
“I have met your Bastards.”
“Which ones?” muttered Rory.
“If you must know, I have met the crazy one, the angry one, the slow one, and the one with the hat.”
“There is little time, and the task is dangerous.” started Horus, “Wait. Was Aedan the angry one or the slow one?”
“I said angry to differentiate him from the other slow one.”
Horus Von Horst paused and thought for a moment.
“Just out of curiosity, are you on good terms with my sons?”
“I fought along side them, and they were generous and hospitable towards me and my daughter.”
“Not too hospitable towards your daughter, I hope?” Horus cringed.
“No. She is a child of only seven summers.”
“Oh, thank the gods.” he said.
Rory rolled his eyes and squinted at the setting sun.
“Boomhowler?” said a scratchy voice, “Boomhowler! Is that really you?”
The men turned to see who addressed them and found themselves face to face with the old man that Drifa had helped earlier.
“Jack!” excalimed Horus, “Jack, my old friend! How are you?”
“Oh, Boomhowler!” said the old man, “What a sight for weary eyes! What brings you here? Who is your friend?”
The joviality drained from Horus’s face.
“Jack, my old friend.” said Horus, “This is Rory Sturm, the famous explorer. You know him very well. We have all adventured together.”
The sad vacancy of the elderly briefly sparkled in the old man’s eyes. He said nothing to Rory, but smiled nervously. Horus grabbed Jack by the shoulders so they were face to face.
“I need to know something, Jack. Do you remember your Arcane talents on this day?”
“What?” laughed Jack, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, Jack.” sighed Boomhowler, “Even on one of your bad days you remember me, and yet you cannot remember all of yourself. I couldn’t ask for a more loyal friend, but I really wish you remembered your magic today. I need you.”
“Magic?” muttered Jack.
“Yes, old friend.” said Horus, “You are a wizard. You are a great and powerful wizard, in fact, but sometimes you have trouble remembering things. I need your help today.”
“Do you need a guide?” asked Jack, “I charge a very fair daily rate.”
“No, Jack.” said Horus, “I need my old friend. Listen carefully, and think hard. Our ancient foe is here. I have hunted it and tracked it from across the ocean. We have to face it tonight, and the sun is almost down.”
Jack tilted his head and thought very hard.
“The Lich!” he suddenly exclaimed, “The Lich!”
“Yes! Yes!” shouted Horus, slapping Jack on the shoulder, “Wonderful! This is wonderful!”
“How terrible!” moaned Jack, “How terrible! How could such a fate befall such a fair land? Have not our people endured enough?”
“Excellent!” said Horus, “You remember.”
“How horrible!” lamented the poor senile old wizard.
The strange outbursts had attracted a lot of attention at this point, and the men were beginning to draw a crowd.
“Here, Jack.” said Boomhowler, thrusting his notebook into the wizard’s hands, “Take a look at my notes.”
As the sun set over the main gate, Boomhowler stepped upon a crate and addressed the assembled adventurers, mercenaries, guards, and Ulven warriors.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Syndar of all castes, and Children of the Wolves, my name is Horus Von Horst. Some call me Boomhowler. I am here tonight because I have made a terrible discovery. For a lifetime, I hunted and pursued my most hated and ancient foe all across Faedrun. Today, here, on this the new world, your land of Mardrun, I believe that I have finally caught up with that ancient evil. The Lich is here. The Undead walk on Mardrun.”
The crowd burst into a flurry of commotion.
“Tonight,” he continued, hefting his crossbow, “I intend to destroy the Lich once and for all, but I cannot do it alone. We have reason to believe that the Lich is working with the Mordok in this region, to conduct a ritual in the abandoned mine to the Northeast. This may be our only chance to destroy the beast before it becomes too powerful!”
People began shouting over each other and asking a million questions at once. Calm in the flurry of panic and madness around them, Aradael turned to Fortinbras. The two exchanged knowing looks.
“The Lich will not gain a foothold. Not here. Not again.” shouted Aradael over the noise of the crowd, “The Crow’s Guard will fight at your side, Von Horst. What do you need us to do?”
“The men of Vandregon stand with you, as well!” said Sir William.
“There will be an idol.” said Jack, looking down into Horus’s notebook, “The idol will be part of the Lich’s ritual. It acts as storage vessel for dark energies. In the Old World, these idols were charged by the worship and sacrifices of the Penitent so that necromancers could build up and discharge greater amounts of black mana than their bodies could otherwise channel without disintegrating or exploding. The Lich cannot complete this ritual tonight without such an idol. According to your sketches of the progression, Boomhowler, the cosmic alignment will occur at midnight. If the Lich misses that window of opportunity, then he will lose all the energy that he has put into the idol.”
“So all we need to do,” said the human rogue in the black cloak, “is keep the Lich from getting the idol.”
“Well, the Lich probably already has it.” said Rory.
“No, he doesn’t!” said the Syndar priest with the golden skin, “We have it right…”
The Syndar priest cut off mid sentence as he gestured across the courtyard to the now empty pedestal near the firepit. There was a sudden uproar of panic and activity as the inhabitants of the keep began making accusations of thievery and pointing fingers at each other. Duncan and Raskolf exchanged nervous expressions at each other and moved to the side of the angry mob.
“I don’t suppose you still have it, do you?” whispered Raskolf.
“Nope.” rasped Duncan through clenched teeth.
Raskolf was about to suggest that Duncan take the Longfangs and try to retrieve it before the sun horse descended, and Duncan was thinking the same thing, except that his version of the plan involved blaming it on the hunchback. Both of their thoughts were interrupted by the booming voice of a young human dressed in blue and black.
“Horus Von Horst,” he said, “is this the idol of which you and your companions speak?”
The man, an adventurer named Thanatos, carefully unwrapped a bundle of rags and held the ugly little wicker and clay idol aloft.
“I didn’t think it wise to leave it out in the open,” he said, gazing coldly in the direction of Raskolf and Duncan, “so I secured it.”
Duncan managed a sheepish grin back at Thanatos, but all Raskolf could do was bare his fangs and try not to burst an aneurysm.
The sun was all but gone, now, and the inhabitants of the keep were barricading the doors in preparation for the long night ahead.
As the sun descended, the defenders of the keep prepared themselves for whatever the night may bring, be it Mordok, the Undead, or both. As Soldiers, mercenaries, and adventurers manned the walls, the healers set up aid stations in the courtyard. The provisioners cooked great pots of stew, and began running hot bowls to the troops on the ramparts. Once the dinner had been served, the pots were cleaned, and water boiled for the healers. Dishes could wait.
The idol had been secured in a heavy duty trunk belonging to the fat merchant, and guards assigned to protect it with their lives.
It was very shortly after darkness had enveloped the world that the first of the Mordok scouts were spotted by the archers on the walls. Their numbers were impossible to guess. Their filthy leathers and furs gave them the perfect camouflage.
“Save your arrows!” shouted Sir William to the archers on the walls, “Do not shoot at shadows in the dark. They are hoping to make you waste your shots.”
The Mordok seemed to melt back into the shadows, after taunting the defenders for about fifteen minutes. All was quiet. The silence was nerve wracking. Not even a night bird or a cricket chirped. The defenders looked to one another, and then squinted once more in the darkness. The wind picked up. Stanrick sniffed the air.
“I can smell them out there.” he said to Yawn.
The silence continued for a few long minutes, or perhaps an hour. The world seemed colder.
Suddenly, from the blackness, came the slithering form of a great serpent upon the road. No! It was no serpent, but a many legged creature, like a centipede the length of fifteen horses! It charged madly down the road, and straight towards the front gate. Archers began releasing arrows into it, though no order had been given, and great rocks were hefted up onto the crenelations of the battlements. As the form crashed into the front gate, the defenders recognized it for what it truly was.
“Battering ram!” shouted Aradael, “They’ve got a battering ram!”
“Release the rocks!” yelled Fortinbras to the defenders on the gatehouse.
Rocks and Arrows found their marks, and the Mordok shrieked and screamed as they were pierced and crushed by the deadly rain. For every Mordok that fell, though, another ran up to take its place. The ram found its mark against the gate, and the barred doors flexed inwards before bouncing back. It was holding for now, but it wouldn’t last forever.
“I’ve never known Mordok to use even the most rudimentary of siege weapons!” exclaimed Sir William, “We need to reinforce those doors! Find something to shore them up and brace them with!”
As the men of Vandregon scrambled to find additional timber, there came the sounds of screaming and clashing steel upon the ramparts.
“Mordok on the wall!” shouted a voice, “Mordok on the AHHRRRGH!”
The foot Soldiers and adventurers in the courtyard immediately rushed to man the walls. Just as they joined combat on the walls, however, the bar on the front gate gave a loud crack, and began to bulge.
“Brace it! Brace the gate!” shouted Aradael.
The Longfangs guarding the chest with the totem inside looked to Raskolf.
“Hold the gate! Go!” He said.
The Longfangs piled themselves against the gate, the every impact of the ram shaking their bones and rattling their brains as if a tree had fallen on them.
“Grappling Hooks!” came a shout from the walls, “They have grappling hooks! Cut the lines, cut the lines!”
Raskolf looked around him and took the situation in. He knew this place was too big to defend with this number of warriors! The scenario was getting worse and worse. Suddenly hearing a noise behind him, he looked toward the back gate. In the chaos and confusion, the defenders appeared to have all abandoned it to fight on the front wall, even Bite! He’d made her promise not to abandon her post no matter what, though, which meant…
“Bite!” he called, drawing his sword and running towards the back gate, “Bite!”
As he entered the flickering torchlight of the inner rear gate he saw her shield lying on the ground below the wall.
“Bite!” he called again.
A faint whimper was his only answer.
“Aradael!” he cried, “Bite is hurt!”
The two warriors, ran up the rampart and around the corner. The young Ulven girl lay motionless on the rampart in a pool of blood. Raskolf cursed to himself. He would never forgive himself if he’d gotten her killed. As the two warriors ran to help her, an armored Mordok suddenly jumped down from a tower ladder-well, placing himself between the warriors and the casualty, and injuring Raskolf with a sweep of his axe that carried with it all the force of his fall. Raskolf stumbled with the blow, but Aradael never lost his momentum. Though he wasn’t able to bring his weapon to bear in time, the big, heavily armored human Captain of Crow’s Landing charged his full body weight into the Mordok before it had regained its balance on the rampart, knocking it clear over the ledge where it landed with a thud and a sickening snap. Raskolf regained his footing and scooped up the unconscious little Ulven. More Mordok came thundering down the rampart and Aradael was forced to make a fighting retreat back along the narrow wall as Raskolf carried the casualty on his back.
“This all seems rather familiar!” said Aradael, clashing steel against Mordok iron, “Fighting a retreat from the Mordok with a casualty in tow! All we need is for William to join us!”
“Yes,” said Raskolf, “Except that you easily weigh more than twice this little pup.”
Aradael roared in laughter, and bellowed down to his men in the courtyard to take to the wall and help clear it. As they reached the bottom of the ramp, a healer was already running up to take Bite from them. As soon as she was out of their hands, Raskolf and Aradael charged back up the ramp and into the fray.
Unseen to everyone else on the walls, a human in black was silently making his rounds of the ramparts and cutting the ropes to the grappling hooks.
Down on the ground beneath the front gatehouse, the doors suddenly disintegrated in a flurry of splinters and wood shards, sending the Longfangs tumbling across the ground. As Mordok began spilling in, the last of the guards on the chest ran forward to hold the line at the front gateway. The battle raged as Mordok after Mordok forced themselves into the choke point and tried to press the defenders back. Harlok raged and threw himself into the breach as though he were trying to plug a bursting dam, but he was suddenly catapulted off his feet and sent rolling backwards by a bolt of dark energy. There was an enemy spell caster out there. Magrat knocked an arrow and tried to spot it through the press of bodies. All she could see was a tenebrous wisp moving in the darkness, nearly invisible. She loosed an arrow at it, but her shot was intercepted by the body of a Mordok as it clambered through the breach and into her line of sight. She didn’t have time for another shot. The Mordok were pushing the defenders back and she was forced to drop her bow to protect herself.
Harlok lie motionless on the ground for a moment with a smoldering hole in the shoulder of his armor. Coming to his senses, he suddenly sat up. He could not feel his left arm, and was forced to drop his shield. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to stand and then rejoined the fray.
Elise watched from the shadows. Her father had told her to stay put when she tried to join the Longfangs holding the front doors, and said that he didn’t want her getting trampled. Her eyes were upon the chest. There was no one guarding it anymore. Suddenly, Elise felt very dizzy. She knew the feeling well. It happened to people if they were too close to her mother when really powerful magic was wrought. Elise steadied herself and focused. There was something moving in the darkness. No. It was the darkness. It was the darkness that moved. A figure arose from that darkness. Elise had never before seen a god of death before, but she was sure that she just had.
She wanted to draw her sword. She wanted to scream for help. She could not. She couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t even stop looking at it. Darkness boiled all about the creature, and strange things peered out from the puddle of shadow, as if monsters of the underworld were peeking up over the crust of the earth. The Lich’s touch caused the padlock to crumble and rust before her very eyes, and then, suddenly, they were gone.
Elise snapped out of her stupor almost instantly, and looked frantically about for an adult. The only one she could find who wasn’t fighting was the fat merchant, who was cowering beneath his wagon, with his backside sticking out. Elise couldn’t find Drifa anywhere, or her Father, either, so she ran to Uncle Rhodi and the Longfangs and joined them in their melee at the gate. Minutes later, a strange sounding horn echoed in the night.
Just as quickly as it had begun, the fight was over. The Mordok disappeared into the darkness of the woods.
William, Aradael, and Raskolf immediately began consolidating their forces and taking accountability, while the healers began triaging the wounded.
As soon as it was discovered that the idol had been taken, the various defenders of the keep immediately began pointing fingers at each other and bickering about who’s fault it was. Before things got too out of hand, though, Horus Von Horst stepped up onto the merchant’s cart and got everyones attention.
“There is no time to fight amongst ourselves now. It is nearing midnight. If we are to disrupt the ritual, we must go now. Rory and I can lead the way to the old mine.”
“We need men who are not wounded.” said Rory, “Speed is our greatest advantage over the undead, and we cannot wait up for stragglers.”
“Raskolf,” said Sir William, “You stay here and help re-organize the defense of this keep in case the Mordok return. The men of Vandregon and of Crow’s Landing have experience fighting the undead. It is our expertise, just as fighting the Mordok is yours.”
“Grab lanterns and torches.” said Aradael, “Let’s move!”
Elise grabbed a lantern and hurried to join the war party.
“Oh no, you don’t!” shouted Raskolf, “You aren’t going anywhere. It’s too dangerous.”
Elise folded her arms and pouted. As soon as Raskolf was busy organizing the removal of bodies and the barricading of the empty gateway, she ran off into the night, hot on the heels of the adventurers.
“Sorry, father.” she said to herself, “But it is personal, now.”
She had just caught up with the Lich hunters when Raskolf came running up behind her.
He was about to give her a good scolding when the party passed back the hand signal to be quiet.
“We’re here.” whispered Boomhowler.
Ahead on the trail, the intrepid adventurers could see the mouth of the mine. An eerie purple glow was emanating from within. Von Horst, Rory, and Jack huddled together to come up with a plan of attack, and sent a whisper down the line for William and Aradael to join them. As Aradael crept up to the front of the line, he accidently kicked a person lying prone on the side of the trail.
“Sorry about that.” he whispered, reaching into the darkness to pat them on the shoulder, “Are you ok?”
He got no answer, and opened the shutter on his lantern just a little, to check. It was a corpse in a green tabard. Rolling it over, he recognized it to be the very bandit that had held a knife to his throat earlier that day. The red-bearded bandit’s face was frozen and contorted in horror and agony. Dropping the body back into place, he ran up to the front of the line.
“We’ve got problems, Von Horst!” he hissed.
“What kind of problems?”
Sudden rustling sounds, wheezes, and moans broke the silent darkness as if in answer.
“We’re staging in the middle of an ambush, and we are already surrounded by corpses.”
All around the formation, and even within it, the silent dead were awakening and slowly stumbling to get to their feet.
“On your feet, men!” shouted Sir William, “The undead are upon us! Steel yourselves, and get back to back with your comrades!”
“No!” yelled Raskolf, “We are in the middle of an ambush. It’s a trap. Just charge the mine! Get clear of the killing field!”
“Raskolf? What are you doing here?”
Cold things clutched at the adventurers through the darkness, grabbing at ankles and stumbling after them, but the lich hunters managed to fight their way towards the mine and away from the road. They had moved just in time, too, for magical energies flashed in the night, bombarding the place where they had been staging just seconds before. Stiffly moving Mordok, no longer living, stumped out of the yawning purple mouth of the mine and met with the steel of the brave adventurers.
“Okay, Sir William.” said Raskolf, as he lunged to grab Elise and keep her close, “Now would be the time to do that defensive thing that you were talking about.”
“Right!” he grunted, cleaving a Mordok zombie in half with his greatsword, “Men! Formation! White Shield, execute!”
Raskolf watched as the men of Vandregon and Crow’s Landing formed up into a last stand sort of formation that would have been suicide against anyone but the slowly moving undead. The few Longfangs that had come along found places within the gaps. At the head of the formation, brave adventurers had accompanied Rory, Jack, and Von Horst into the mine entrance. Their fight wasn’t going well. Rory had been dragged down by undead, and pulled out of reach of his comrades, his screams adding to the chaos of the Lich’s arcane chanting and the moans of the lesser undead. Jack was furiously hurling bolts of energy at the zombies that were trying to flank them, while at the same time, trying to throw some relief in Rory’s direction. As the other adventurers tried to fight a path to the Lich, the beast recognized the danger of another spellcaster in its midst, and stopped its incantation. Turning its attention to Jack, the Lich drew dark and purple mana from the totem, and began shaping a deathbolt. Horus Von Horst saw it even as it was happening and drew his crossbow. It was loaded with a blessed crossbow bolt, made from the silver of a melted holy symbol. Despite the chaos around him, he took careful aim, and released the arrow at just the right time to interrupt the spell. To his horror, the missile clattered harmlessly off of an invisible barrier around the Lich, and the spellcaster’s amplified deathbolt spell impacted poor old Jack with such force that it blew him clear out of the mine and into the waiting horde of zombies fighting the Soldiers outside.
“Amateur mistake!” Von Horst cursed himself, “Back when I was on my game, I never would have wasted my only holy crossbow bolt on the first shot unless I was sure that the enemy didn’t have a shield spell activated!”
Outside, the warriors found themselves nearly blinded by purple lightning as a body was violently hurled from the mouth of the mine. The sudden flash of arcane light revealed just how bad their situation was. They weren’t just surrounded, there were more and more zombies filtering in out of the woods and from the swamp.
“They aren’t drawing off to fight us!” shouted Sir William, “They are trying to get into the mine. Move toward the entrance! Raskolf, Stanrick, Harlok! See if you can get in there and help Von Horst!”
Horus Von Horst loaded another, but non-magical, crossbow bolt.
“Very well.” He said, taking aim, “I may not be able to destroy you this night, but I can disrupt your ritual!”
Squeezing the trigger of his crossbow, he sent a bolt flying right past the Lich’s head. At first glance, it would appear that he had missed, but he had not. His aim was true, and the arrow shattered one of the three arcane mirrors that was channeling the dark mana into the runic receptors.
The Lich shrieked in rage, and sent Von Horst flying backwards into another adventurer with a push spell. The two of them tumbled to the ground, where they immediately found themselves grappling for their lives against undead Mordok. The receptors had almost absorbed enough mana. Even with only two mirrors, the ritual could still be completed, but the Lich didn’t dare draw any more mana from the idol now!
Raskolf, Harlok, Stanrick, and Elise fought their way into the room just in time to see the Lich throw Von Horst into another adventurer. While Raskolf and Stanrick tried to pull the zombies off of the two lich hunters, Harlok tried his best to protect their backs and keep the undead creatures at bay with his spear. He was fast discovering, however, that such tactics did nothing to discourage the hungry ghosts, who, unlike Mordok, feel no pain, and therefore do not fear the bite of a blade. The creatures were simply relentless in their press to close with the defenders. He could not match skill with them, for they had no skill, themselves. He couldn’t intimidate them, either, for they knew no fear. Their horrendous appetites, and un-natural resilience to physical violence reminded Harlok of something out of his nightmares. He stabbed them over and over, and bashed them with his shield, but all it did was slow them down. No matter what he did, they simply shrugged it off and kept on coming after him. He couldn’t kill them.
“The mirrors!” grunted Von Horst, “Destroy the mirrors!”
Stanrick didn’t have to hear it twice. His javelin hurtled through the air and destroyed the second mirror. The Lich shrieked and commanded more zombies to attack. What it didn’t count on, though, was the seven year old girl with a personal vendetta against it. Elise nimbly dodged out of her father’s grasp, and that of the clutching hordes of zombies. Using her speed and her small size, she easily evaded the clumsy enemies. Raising the last of the mirrors above her head, she flashed a smug smile at the Lich. In a final act of desperation, the beast darkened the room with tenebrous arcane power, and tried to en-trance the girl with fear as it had before. Elise was scared, and the mirror felt as though it would freeze her hands to ice, but in her chest burned the heart of a wolf, and as the cold shadows clutched at her, they were rebounded by the blessings placed upon her by her mother before she left home. The Lich knew that it had been defeated, and in desperation grabbed the idol and disappeared with a bang and a flash of light. The idol fell to the ground, and the remaining zombies collapsed, motionless.
Elise stood there, as though frozen, her hair smoldering and standing on end, as the purple glow of the mirror faded to darkness. Raskolf ran to her and hugged her close.
“What happened?” asked Stanrick.
“The Lich abandoned its ritual.” said Von Horst, “but before it did, it purged all the mana from the idol and from these undead, and channeled it to perform a long distance recall spell. It could be anywhere on Mardrun now. We stopped it, but we didn’t destroy it.”
Pulling on a leather glove, Von Horst took the mirror from Elise.
“You should never handle dark mana with your bare hands, child. You are lucky to be alive.”
Elise’s eyes were huge. She blinked a few times and then sneezed purple smoke.
“Let us burn these bodies as quickly as possible.” said William, “Send runners to fetch as much lamp oil as possible from that fat merchant.”
The gold skinned Syndar Priest tended to Elise.
“This one should recover quickly.” he said gesturing to Elise, “The fact that such arcane energy shorted into her might be indicative of a dormant talent for handling mana.”
“What do you mean?” asked Raskolf.
“When the Lich recalled all the mana, some of it was attracted to your daughter instead of the Lich. Arcane energy can be something like lightning at times. The fact that some energy flowed into her without harming her could mean that she has an aptitude for one of the types of magic.”
“We will cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime, I want her to undergo a rite of purification from an Ulven Priestess. Thank you for your help.”
“This one was happy to help. Siala kay nu.”
“Sialikaynu to you, too.” said Raskolf, “It was an honor to fight by your side.”
Harlok Longfang slumped to the ground and stared blankly at the wall. He had never fought anything like that before. He never wanted to again.
Back at the keep, Horus Von Horst sat down. He had never felt this old before. Though the night had been considered a victory, he knew the end was not even close. Jack, his oldest companion, was dead. Rory Sturm, the explorer who had the best idea where to find the artifact, was also dead. It had been a horrible day for Horus. It could easily have been just as horrible for the entire continent if not for the unhesitating assistance of the brave group at the fort.
The more he thought about it, the more he came to realize that so little was known about the the Lich and the dangers faced. He knew he had not destroyed the idol. It was more likely that the Lich and his army had left the area and whatever link was shared with the idol was severed. He thought it would hearten the adventures if they thought it was destroyed. Some of the Ulven had wanted to pitch it into the swamp. There was a time when Horus had once thought this way too, but much to his dismay he knew that what is once lost can be found again.
Horus and his allies had spent years chasing this monster with little success. Each encounter had left him with fewer friends. It seemed as if mere men could not resist this threat, but Horus had endured and survived. He wondered why he himself was not dead yet. By all rights he should have died on Faedrun.
But there was no time for this kind of thinking. He would mourn the dead later. There was too much at stake. The undead could not be allowed to take root on Mardrun. Perhaps out of this new group of adventurers there would be more willing to join the fight. On top of that he now had an idea, provided by Rory’s map, of where the artifact was. An expedition must be mounted into the Outlands. Finding the “May’Kar Soul Blade” would let him end the Lich for good, and perhaps help to wash some of the blood off of his hands.
Before any of this could happen he had to pay a visit to his old friend Karl and leave the idol in good hands.
Knocking the dust off his boots he stood up. There was much to do. He could grieve as he worked.