Jenn had been taken to see Brother Griffon nealry immediately. He is someone Jenn knows and trusts. A giant of a man with a shaved head and strong hands. Though as a follower of Sylvanus his inner gentleness and sharpwittedness belies his physical presence.
Aleck has been with her the entire time and now is sitting at the back Brother Griffin's chapel room. He has been quiet and there is a feeling of personal anguish coming from him. A sense of shame perhaps. Jenn and Brother Griffin sit on rough wooden chairs at the front. She tries not to look at the altar and the various sacraments on it.
There is that pregnant silence in the air, for She's really scared on what to say. She twists and knots the hem of her skirt. Her voice is small like that of a child.
"I was born in Llorkh. It's where my parents come from. We left Llorkh as it was becoming ever increasingly barren. Now Llorkh is destroyed and the memories of that place are destroyed with it."
"When I saw the faces of the people. All I could see was the faces of my childhood. It was like the faces of all those who I had seen before being placed in front of me. Of the many people who had died of people I had loved. I saw Barsch as the man from my childhood."
"I thought that perhaps by us confronting Barsch I could finally stand up. Instead I saw the hopelessness of it all. The dead were there staring at me. The near dead. All those who I had once known were staring back at me. Silent."
"So, I did the only thing I knew. I stripped down from warmth to the cold of the dead and offered for Barsch to kill. To kill me. I lay on the ground and looked at his tent as he laughed and walked away from me."
"The house of my childhood had a staircase and we would have to climb the staircase to his room. It's a horrid place that room. My sisters and I would sometimes gather at the banister and listen. We would listen for the sounds of violence."
"I saw the banister on that cold ground. I saw my path. I picked up my sword and walked towards the tent. I wished to no longer be afraid and I remember saying as much. Instead I was brought to the ground. I saw my friends faces and I saw his face. I was violated. And I could do nothing but scream and like so many time previously no-one stopped it."
"I'm weak and useless. I'm not good for anything. You should have let me die as I should have on that field that day."
She bites back tears.
"The first time I saw him since I had left was down in the portal room. A shadow separated from the portal and moved along to me. It touched me. I saw his face, not as the phantom of Saris magic, but in full. He promised to come back to me, to finish what he enjoyed. Ka'an came down since I had not come up and walked me away. The shadow melted before she could see the apparation."
"The shadow was not foreign, it was something I felt had always been living in me. It had grown from every woe. It fed me and nurtured me when no-one else would."
"I try to be strong, but why am I so weak? The fates have deemed as the dust to be ground under its heel and perhaps as dust I should have become. Why won't it let me die as the worthless discarded thing I am?"
* * * *
There is a texture to cold. There is a way in which it whistles through the walls and twines around making the damp more firmly colder and the heat more thin.
Brother Griffin had given me some things to think about. He had given me advise. He refused to give me commands on how I should shape my life. In some ways I wish he had. He let me cry and knew that only a levee had broken and not the whole dam. Perhaps he knew me much better than I suspected he did. His suggestion was to do a ritual of atonement to burn something of the self and of the other. no rules were stated, simply suggestions. Perhaps a lock of hair to show the twistedness of my life?
I was in my lonely room. The windows were open to let in the cold. The hearth had at one point sputtered before dying. This was not some tame house damp, but the brunt of winter, clawing away across my body with it's icy fingers and numbing tongue.
I had stripped down to my undershirt. Across from me where the items of who I was. On my left was the sword I had threatened Barsh with. On my right was my lock picking set a mark of merit in Luskan. In front were some of the last of the first coins I had stolen in Waterdeep. The bag that supposedly held the ashes of my parents rested next to it, picked from the hearth of an unnamed tavern.
I picked up the rough clay bowl with the candle. Every single gust threatened to extinguish the fragile flame. I grasped some ash and let it fizzle to the fire. I teased back a leather cover of my wallet to reveal various vials and a reedy tail of my hair, carefully cut and braided. I slowly burned it in the fire, the smell of its acridity pushed away the cold.
"From parents to child, from phantasms to being." I pulled out from among the vials one which had a blackened label, it simply said Dark Toxin. I unstoppered the vial and a pungent odor of mushrooms long since past into rottenness permeated the cold atmosphere. It was my last parting gift of a past life now present in mind.
I swirled it in the vial and then brought it to my lips, drawing it down across the lips to spread across my tongue. The inky smokiness of the taste burned its way down, until it hit my stomach. Spreading a great warmth across me as I tried to hold it back in. I coughed and blood dribbled from my mouth.
"From light to dark, from life to death." I tried to hold my head up, suddenly very dizzy as I concentrated all my might on the candle blowing it out before my leaden body gave way. I struggled on the ground as my lungs and heart struggled with the bindings. Everything went slow.
There I stood on the second floor, I rested my head between the banisters of the mezzanine listening to my parents as they argued. There were others with them and it was about leaving Llorkh. They spoke about the Zhents and their emissary. They spoke about the brute called Barsh and about how his brutishness needed to be countered by righteousness.
I was pulled away to the forest. We hid from hobgoblins. They sought to entice us out by wearing the clothes of those they slaughtered. The threatened the mothers of some and after arguing we approached sheepishly back to their fold.
The first night in the closet of that accursed house in Luskan, I had burned Master Jaher Treach's dinner. He had broken my hand with a cowling. I was weeping quietly in that darkened closet and I heard a sound. It hissed and whispered in through the door.
"Hello Jenn." The thing looked back at me from my room, not in Luskan but here in Loudwater. It pulled one of my chairs across to the center of the floor, patted it off self-consciously of the light patter of snow and sat down. "It has been some time."
It looked down on me it's three fingered hands clasping and unclasping. Where a nose would have been there was only a slit. It's eyes were pearly white, it's skin carefully covered in a web of alabaster and smoke. The rest of its body was covered in the tatters of what could only be sheeted shadow.
"What no greeting to an old friend. Such rudeness in you." He cocked his head so his face was parallel with mine. "But I suppose that's to be expected. Although it would be flattering that I who made you would at least receive a complement at least once."
The creature picked out of his shadows a plum. "You know I love plums. They have this interesting texture of blue and with careful enough polishing they turn black. Personally, it's more about the taste wouldn't you agree?"
Between morsels as he bit his way through the plum, he spoke "Conversationally speaking I am still at a loss of why you have called me here. I mean after all you are in a bit of a hard place I have to admit, but that's because of you. I mean it too, every single lie you have told has been about bricking up your life. Why are you limiting yourself in such a way? I thought you liked having your bones mended and the games we played in the closet."
He sighs and lets the stone of the fruit drop to the ground, lickign his fingers clean. "Would the Jenn who was raised in idle comfort of Waterdeep, seen the eyes of power, would that waif of a girl stripped down to her undershirt and challenged that warlord? Would you have? Truly?"
His milky eyes looked directly into mine "Let's stop this childish wallowing in misery. Get up."
I could not feel my body, my fingers had long since turned numb, even my breath was no longer moving in my body. The creature carefully stood up carefully flicking a piece of yellow plum from his blackness and walked over to me.
He put his face next to mine, I could smell the plum and something like milk on his breath. "Get up. Jenn, I am going to tell you what you should know by now. You are dying. The poison is working its way through the heart. You choose to die here and now and you will be dead. You will have failed me, but more importantly you will have failed yourself. Now get up."
I looked at him and my world changed. Every single thing I had done to this point had been forced, it was all inevitable. I had simply followed the need for survival, even the lies were a part of survival. The choice was that of a ignominious but virtuous death or of embracing my darker side and that of villainous but impetuous life.
I who had survived many choices of horror would be crushed by my own devising. Such a quiet death. It would be a calm death. I could see my parents waiting for me. I could see the friends who had died on the wayside. They were all waiting for me at the end of the light. My lies would cover me in my shroud and I would be truly free to be what I wished myself to be.
I turned away into the darkness. I turned away from my parents from my friends. I clawed at myself grasping for control of the bundle of blood and bone that I was so quick to dispatch with. I screamed and bounded over, coughing and sputtering blood and mucus from my mouth. Every inch of my body burning and screaming as I took control of every sinew and fiber.
I knew what I needed to do. I now knew that I could no longer deny who I am. I would grow to be powerful. I would grow to be terrible.
I still dreamed of the creature that was in my room during the ritual. His presence was covers my face like an oily shroud when I sleep. I dream for his touch and instead all I can feel is the rough warm grasp of a man. I look up and see Barsch. Instead of being hearty and healthy he is crippled. His face contorted with pain and his eyes ablaze with hate. The oily wrappings around me give me strength as I struggle with him.
I snap back to this reality, the food in front of me cold, my beer flat, the Green Tankard Inn appearing less cheerful than before. The rest of the group arrayed around me.
There is the large Alek, his red hair winking in competition with his burnished plate. So quick was he to paint on its looted surface the emblem of Loudwater. He had become such a guardsman. He was looking at me if all is right. He his hand touched mine and I looked away to the other two.
There is haughty Ka'an, our minstrel and fickle as the wind at times. She is such a word sayer often confounding my mind with words I can barely comprehend. Something flashed across her face and I withdrew my hand further to hide behind under the table.
Sari quirked an eyebrow and went back to her book. She had in the past week focused on the lore of old. To find out more about our precarious position. I had once stared into her book and had tried to assist her. But she had grown impatient with my lack of the letters and I stopped from angering her.
"This is important! What are we to about Risk? He keeps running away and now he's supposedly looking after his mother and yet has been gone away for weeks." Ka'an stopped to sip her mead.
"Well, we should really focus on Barsch and the things he can do to us, to Loudwater. We have strong reasons to stay together." Sari said.
This had been going on since Risk had left. Alek was very busy with the city guard, and I had withdrawn into myself. They looked at me and could see me as weakness. We were splintering. I smiled and looked at the rest and pulled my hand back onto the table.
I was about to say something to break the deadlock between Ka'an and Sari. Alek had all given up as they had bickered like this since we came back. There was a commotion outside there was the sounds of shouts and a scream. We looked at each other and the bickering was put away as we ran towards the door. Perhaps Barsch was attacking?
Outside we see the snow covered ground. The few roaming between houses and between the wall. The wall itself a hole had been made and there were workers scrambling from it. The foreman was shouting at them as they cowered carefully away from the hole. We walked over and asked what was going on.
The man was a large grizzled man with unkempt hair and a bushy winter beard. He looked at us and said that there were monsters in the wall. Alek nodded once and ran in search of the city guard in case if there was need of support.
We looked down in the hole and see that the excavation had broken through the supports of shale rock that make up the foundations of the wall into some kind of cavity. Something was moving in there and chittering insect-like. There was a moment and we see the mandibles and the segmented body. They were dog sized, but looked every inch more dangerous.
Sari went to look for Alek who appeared shortly with a troop of city guard. They refused to go down, so it was only the three of us to go down this hole. Alek went first through the cavity with shield first and sword readied and as for I, I came behind him. The insects fought and we fought them. The largest was twice our height and had a loud screeching voice. Sari created a cage and pit for as we fought off the rest. Finally the larger creature, what I would learn later was a crufix queen was killed. The rest of her entourage by this point dispatched.
The room we were left in was quite large. The ceiling covered in groping roots and some of the slabs of its roof fallen or gripped in greenish tendrils. What we had was two exits, an entryway by what I can only assume to be insectmade and a door with a flame symbol on it. The flame symbol glowed with pale light.
"Mystra" was the word Ka'an used, the light of the flame pulsing with that name and the stars around it winking into existence. I looked at her and nod and head towards the insect entryway. When I looked back I can see Ka'an and Sari looking at the door. Ka'an singing in an otherworldly voice. The mention of Mystra and her deeds weaving through my understanding. I crawled through the worm-tunnel and tried not to think of the ichor I occasionally touched was from. The tunnel opened up next to a corpse of trees and bushes. I could see the wall behind me and the vastness of the wilds beyond before me. I took a white piece of cloth and wrapped it on the tree. Perhaps we would find a time to come back this way. A secret entryway might come in handy. Although the thought that Barsch could also use the same entryway brought me only dread.
When I have come back Ka'an has finished singing to the door, the trails of light from her mouth lazily gliding across the door. Now there was not only a flame and stars but numbers as well, drifting between magic and reality. I looked on as lore learning and academic knowledge became to the fore. They readily solved the puzzle, the door gliding open as if the hinges had been oiled but yesterday.
We passed like a wind in the doorway through what felt to be the veils of perception. We stood now in another with a similar pattern of stars on the floor and instead of a symbol there is an actually statue of a flame in the middle. Alek was nowhere to be seen and the doors behind us firmly closed.
We look around the room before Ka'an touches statue. The rock lights up with an inner light and we shifted. We are between worlds, I can see the rest of us weaved around with white tracery, while I in lacy blackness. A voice, a woman's voice asked us "Are you here for personal gain?"
It was a complex question for I was here because I had to be. Not because I was seeking riches - I was here because Alek was. I thought it a bit more and said "Yes?"
There was a pause and asked again "Is your answer truthful?"
I bit my lip and said "I do not know. Yes I suppose."
We were let go from the shift of worlds. Later I whether two companions had the same question posed to them. We were back in the room and the glow from the flame dimmed, but did not extinguish. In the half haze we could now see doorways to the right and left. They may have been obscured by magic or then we are simply in another place.
The room to the left was simply caved in. What may have been buried underneath is now covered with the layers of earth and roots.
The right hand one was by far the more interesting of the two a vast repository of things saved were now covered in moss and slime. From among the pile a rusted corner of something would peak. I had bidden Ka'an and Sari to wait for if this was like the previous death trap then it would be best not for all to be captured at the same time.
As I was poking what might have once been a bolt of cloth, now the mulch for highly conical white mushrooms a shadow dropped from the ceiling. It's bony body pressing its way into me. A fetid odor of death and decay coming off of it. I struggled with it, fighting it until the grip tightened and my lungs collapsed as my ribs broke under its power.
Ka'an was the first one I saw as I awoke. The creature like some hideous headless half cloaked duelist lay over Sari. It had nearly killed her and it took Ka'an and I both to shift it from its deadly embrace.
We used one of our healing potions and Sari slowly awoke. Her eyes blackened and sunken and we both looked at each other and laughed in that careful laugh of someone who had their body crushed and ribs broken.
Among the junk we found one book which had survived and a cloak of fine elven quality. The book was clasped and Ka'an and Sari looked at the lock and were confounded by it. I offered for Sari to open the book if she would teach me letters. Sari for a while thought I meant reading another language and then realized that I really couldn't read or write. It was a source of shame. I can understand a simple list on butcher's paper, but a book such as this was a mystery to me.
It was a diary of one of the last mages of this safe-house of Mystra. He wrote how a Zhent thief from Llorkh had stolen the smaller flame, the key to the statue. The unknown writer called it the "Key of Flame".
It took us a while to figure out how to open the door and we walked through. We were back in the room and Alek stood there. We found out to him we had been gone mere moments, not the hours it felt to us.
We walked out into the wan sunlight. We should be blessed with the darkness instead the afternoon sun still shone. We walked the brief journey back to the Green Tavern Inn to talk of options. We had the choice of dropping the room and shoring the wall or remaining a weakness in the wall for the sake of the power in the room.
Of course such an adventure would not go unheralded and we were called into speak with Lady Moonfire. As we told that it was a safe-house of Mystra, such a find would not be and could not be locked away. We would have to keep the safe-house open - wall be damned.
We were being asked about the safe house of Mystra. After several bit of discussion Lady Moonfire made the decision to keep the Safe-house open.
Lady Moonfire's manor was an old dwarven house. Perhaps one of the oldest buildings in Loudwater. It had withstood fire, the elements, the floods of the region, the occasional orcish incursion, the latest challenge was Ka'an who was absent-mindedly picking at the wallpaper.
She asked us to remove ourselves into the neighbouring room where we were invited to eat and refresh ourselves. I watched through an open door as the Wizard Kurufar, Brother Gryffon, Rivermaster Sarro and Captain Haraleaf of the city guard tromped into the room.
I looked on the rest of my group,sucking on a piece of meat. I carefully leaned my shadow towards the door, penetrating the wood, avoiding several ancient sigils of warding, slipping away from my body to curl around the darkness behind candle light as it listened in on their conversation. No-one had probably seen it. A strange thing that was both a part of me and it's own entity.
The refugee problem of Llorkh was the primary concern. Rumours were abounding that foreign rangers were seen in the forest and that normally safe winter paths were becoming treacherous.
There was talk that it was possible that Risk had been killed at the behest of Barsch. The focus of the conversation shifted and moved back to the defense of Loudwater.
After a while of waiting, we were brought back into the room. Around Lady Moonfire were her entourage of advisors. She told us of her suspicions that Risk had been killed by Barsch. The hut in which he had lived and his mother had been burned down.
She showed us a regional map of the area and asked us for input on the defense of Loudwater. Ka'an talked about the thieves and problem of the refugees. It was the problem of the leader Barsch and that the refugees are hungry but now weakened.
The weak ones will have certainly died by now is what I thought. A people with no allegiance than to a sole leader made them a dangerous opponent. Those were the thoughts that came through my mind.
We reached a consensus. We would make sure that Mystra's safe house was saved, we would go to Llorkh for further information. Leaving the council of Lady Moonfire to the defense of the city.
The meeting then heaved and collapsed as each thought what was more important to the defense and left them to the divisions of defense and resources.
It was a cold and wet day. The back of winter had broken and instead of snow there was the light patter of rain. We bought equipment and food for out trip to Llorkh. The journey was slow but steady. Towards the end of the day we were always wet from the hips down. Our clothes and shoes always fighting with the creeping cold and wet. We stopped a days travel from where Barsch's camp was.
Sneaking closer. We saw of the camp only a few ragged bits of cloth left behind and some lone grave markers. This meant they were moving. Not wanting to meet our most dangerous of foes we sped up towards Llorkh.
On the day before we arrived to Llorkh we saw silhouettes on the southern mountains. They looked like drakes or dragon-like creatures. We reach the fork in the river and headed up stream. Soon we were climbing a steady incline heading to the foothills of the Eastern Mountains. On a hill looking over a pass we see the ruins of Llorkh castle and a group of orcs moving around the base of the castle.
I volunteered to see Llorkh. It had been a long time since I was back and I wished to be there as soon as possible. There was a corpse of bushes and stunted trees near Llorkh. One looked liked an ent with its branches reaching down towards the bush. The bush itself was coated in sticky snow and looked like a sheep. I would meet them the next day here.
I moved slowly closer, missed an orcish patrol which were more interested in their feet than the surroundings. We saw elves, dwarves and humans clearing out buildings. Doing repair work under the careful watch of an orc guard. As I got closer people were moving around more.
The demihumans staying in their enclaves but I also saw woman orcs and their children in tow. This was no raiding party. This was a tribe and they were living here. I listened in on conversations and let my shadow slip by and listen to others. I had always been very good at listening at key holes.
The orcs had taken over the city and there was a truce going on between the orcs and the demihumans. They banded together for security and there were always fears of the people of Barsch most whom they had thrown out of the city.
One of the best repaired houses worked as a makeshift tavern and that's where I headed next. Idle conversation doesn't give me the answers of several properly directed questions would. It would not tell me the power of the orcs or the power of Barsch over this town. I waited until the darkness reached me and the tavern became busier.
I slowly entered the tavern and talked to the barkeep. I told him I had been a part of a caravan which had been attacked and I was the only survivor. I drank their ale and asked questions which did not get me any proper answers.
In the morning I snuck out and went to the vulgar oak and sheepish shrub. We walked through the village skirting patrols and packs of orcs. Finally we reached the gate of the ruined castle and demanded to talk with the Big Boss.
After Ka'an talked with the guard orc for a while we were led to what had once been the stables. There was heat, food, drink and the other markings and furnishings of power.
We met the largest orc I have ever seen, he was huge. Next to him was an orc covered in fetishes and another wearing robes. The spiritual head, the intellectual mind as well as the chieftain now ruled this city. They were Cloud Tribe and they were Llorkh now. We entreated them with offers to take back the people of Barsch. We also said we were members of the Loudwater Tribe and that we were strong. We sought to cajole an answer of agreement.
Instead they said they would think about it and asked us to stay at the inn. We went to the tavern and I was called a liar by the bartender. I did not want to admit it, but I was telling the truth. The only lie was that the caravan was not heading towards Llorkh, but away from it.
The next morning we were summoned in front of the chieftain of the orcs. The women I could hear in the other room until a guard shouted at them and they became quiet. The wizard was the best talker, but even with him common was halting.
We talked to and fro. They agreed on a pact of not fighting the Loudwater Tribe, but truth be told we knew that both knew that we were too far away for this to be a true agreement. We were told that Barsch and his followers were allowed to leave the city and that if they were to return it would be on pain of death. Ka'an wove her silken words and the orcs agreed to take the tribe in under certain conditions. What those conditions were I was unsure.
We left the meeting perhaps with more than before, but the problem of language considerably hampering any efforts or inroads we could make.
One of the missions we had was finding the house of Dogfit. We walked around after the meeting and asking from people they told us to simply follow the hows of the dogs. We come across a building surrounded by a tall wall and a sturdy door. A quick look over the wall showed that the dogs had broken out a warg was among them.
After talking for a while Sari uses her sleep spell. Three of the dogs, lay down and fell asleep. We were left with another three dogs and the warg. We killed two dogs chasing them around the house. Sari killed the last dog with her hands burning it to a crisp. The last one the warg was breathing heavily when I slipped down and slit its throat.
I opened the door and let the rest of the group in. The house was two floored with an expansive living room and study on the bottom floor and a bed room on the second. The only thing locked in the house was a chest which I carefully pried open. The chest contained bones, files for potions and powders. There were also Dogfit's private notes on dog breeding.
We find an old manuscript note about a dragon dog. Dragon dogs raised by the ancient Netheril as prestige creatures for the more noble families. A hand written note on the edge said simply "Abraxis knows!"
We ask the villagers for more details about Dogfit and Abraxis. Unfortunately no further details re forthcoming except the joy that he is now gone as well as his hounds. We did ask the innkeeper and found out that Abraxis is a young dragon that lives in the North-East, in the mountains.
He points out a young elven woman called Aranduel who knows the lay of the land and more about Abraxis. She was simply stopping by and going to the High Forest. We asked for further details about Abraxis. We find out that he is a copper dragon hasty and unpredictable. He also had been living in and around the village for nigh 200 years.
In the morning we left to the mountains with Aranduel and climbed the cliff face to the location. We saw in the cold air a nest of wolf spiders look at us and then scuttle away. We climbed the final ledge and looked at the small hole that led further into cliff face.
We called for Abraxis for a while and no answer was forthcoming. We waited the night on the cliff, we waited outside the cave as we were bound by arguing on the etiquette of entering a dragon's cave. I slipped away from the campfire and entered the cave. The cave had been emptied. Only a litter of pillows and blankets indicated that something had been here.
The walls of the cave were covered in acid. We find a lone dark gray scale of another dragon. This told us that Abraxis had been chased away or possibly even captured by a black dragon. We walked down to the base of the mountain and parted ways with Aranduel. I do not know what it was about her, but she made me ever suspicious. A traveler to Llorkh appeared to be a bit - convenient.
We went back to Llorkh and started asking questions about another dragon that of a black dragon. We finally talked with the wizard of the Cloud Tribe and found through halting words that there was a swamp in the north with a black dragon and that there were also lizard men there. Possibly the dragon was using the lizardmen for its own purposes.
When we spoke of going into the swamp, the wizard stopped us and ran out to talk to the shaman and his chieftain. He beckoned us with him and introduced a fourth orc a young orc. A brave. The wizard told that we had come to fulfill part of the the prophecy and this was Orglog the other side of the prophecy.
As we no longer had Aranduel we needed a guide to the swamps. From out under a rock crawled Count Sliss. He was a wily whip cord-like man with a silver forked tongue and an oily disposition. we haggled to and forth and we agreed on 300 gold, especially as he heard we were black dragon hunting. He demanded 100 gold now and 200 later. I was sad to be parted with 100 gold coins, but I doubt he would live to see the rest.
When everyone was leaving and him with his curled smirk on his lips I threatened that I would find him if he led us into a trap. He simply smirked some more and asked that what I had threatened with was nothing more than simply words of a little girl. We had not even started the journey and I hated him with a cold passion.
I was surrounded by the acridest of almond smoke. Every single breath burned the lungs and made my eyes bleed. I held onto the rope, it's rough surface biting deeply. My other hand held my weapon. It was a thin blade of blue steel that when breathed upon, the serpent could be seen, the wyrm tongue, the roeddel. Above me the sound of leathery wings kept me aflight and the scream of the monster in afright. In this vision of nightmare did I thrust my sword into belly of the beast. Sometimes I was successful and the scalding ichor would drip down along the blade. The screaming would increase and then there was but one sound as the muscles gave way and I was bombarded with the vile gushings of its innards.
The dragon above me screamed as started its tumble the claws raking for me. The cloud around me dissipating, below spread the view of the marshland as far as I could see. I let go of the rope and let the marshland take me.
Several days before count Sliss had agreed to take us to the swamp from the ruined half human and orcish city Llorkh. Our plan at the time was to kill the black dragon and free the captured bronze dragon, Abraxis. We thought about for a while and agreed to bring some items.
The dragon we would face would be the fiercest thing we have so far encountered. The thing could breathe acid, create clouds of ash around it. Not forgetting the more mundane attacks of claw and tooth. It had lived in those fetid swamps for most of its blightful existence. I could only now comprehend why count Sliss wanted his money now instead of later.
Sari our wizardess crafted 3 frost potions from among the loot we had found in that abandoned tower from such a long time ago.
I found and bartered for two of the largest bear traps I could find. I also took some rope so that perhaps we could at least capture it. I hoped for chain, but the bits they had in the town were either for around the neck or to berth a galleon.
Meanwhile, Alek our fighter, was tasked on creating shields for us from glass. When he came back he had two leather shields which had more akin to hap hazard stained glass windows. They might only survive one blast, but that was better than death by acidic blast.
The morning started with a deep red sun. Surely a bad omen for the journey to come I thought as I walked through deserted streets of Llorkh. I remembered some of the houses and approached one as if I was drawn by my own feet. The house was derelict. Nothing more than a chimney and some broken thatching with open yawning windows. I stood across from the door which despite all these years had stood fast. It was like my past, gone and shut to my hand.
I am not sure how long I stood there before I heard my name being called. I looked around and saw Alek looking for me. I quickly turned and walked back to Alek. He asked where I had been and I simply walked back to the inn. I promised I would come back.
There we were assembled. Sari eager for the magic she needed to cast. Ka'an a song ready on her lips. Alek with his glassen shield and steel sword ready. The orc, Oglar, with his ritual fetishes. Sliss his salamander appearance, his tongue licking his lips. And of course a taciturn me.
It took us a full day to get to the edge of the swamp and in the waning afternoon light did we make camp. Count Sliss insisted we go in the morning, especially as he warned us in his slithering voice of the lizardmen.
The next morning saw us walk through the swamp. It had an indescribably odor of rotten eggs and mildew. As we descended deeper into the bowl of the bog, a fog swept over us and with the inky water it would have certainly been suicide at night. We saw some limbed shapes in the distance, either dead or asleep we were unsure, nor of who they were. I gripped my sword tighter thinking of the stories of dead armies that still slumbered in the marshland ready to rise again and take fight.
Instead of a great army we found the shambles of lizardfolk in crude leather armour. Their shields, spears and axes scattered. The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs, sprawled and groveled along the saps and trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud. Wallowed like trodden burlaps loosely filled; and naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair, bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime. And then the rain began.
Here and there creatures, limbs twisted all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, staring back with cataracted eyes. All dead except for one. I looked on as Sari helped the lizardman to breathe, It's face and neck covered in blisters.
Oglar our near mute new friend says, "Queen found them."
Count Sliss pointed to the corpses and said that perhaps it would be better to turn back for this could be our fate. I rose hand on my sword and turned to him so as best to tell him how to hold his worm tongue. I knew what this would be, I knew how this would end. Luckily for Sliss Ka'an stepped between me and him.
With careful ministration from Sari the lizardman was able to speak. With Ka'an translating we understood what had happened. He was patrolling against other lizardmen. His village the black tribe was to the north, while the rivals, the green tribe were to the east. But they were ambushed and chased by a black cloud or a dark shadow.
We asked more about this green tribe for we were assuredly heading east. This is a stronger tribe than theirs. Already their lizardmen warrior families were joining the other tribe. We helped the lizard to his feet and with Count Sliss's urgings we headed away from the rough field.
Despite Count Sliss' complaints, or perhaps I should say because of them, we escorted the lizardman as close as he dared take us to his village. He pointed the way to the lizardman village. We headed to the east to most assuredly a confrontation with the black tribe.
On the first night in the swamp our first watch of Sari and Oglar heard splashing. We were all shaken awake to this and Alek jostled Count Sliss to ask for meaning to this ominous sound. Count Sliss told us that it would be better to leave the camp quietly. For we were not safe. We all agree, but curiosity gets the better of me and I crawled closer to look into the water. In that moment the water goes still for a while, before the splashing resumes and from the water I could see the shapes of a 30 foot crocodile and around it a snake.
We quietly moved away so as not to become their night-time snack, waiting it out in another part of the swamp. In the morning we went back to our camp, which besides the ever present carrion beetles had not been touched.
As we were about to head east, Count Sliss said that if we were to go in that direction it would be surely suicide. He only knows the route he takes not any new routes. He offers to leave us if we decide to foolishly press on. Despite our better judgment we agree to head back.
It took another night until we came across the lizardmen bodies again. Now there were fewer and we carefully moved around the inky still ponds of this marsh. We got on the right trail and Count Sliss confidently strode forward leading us deeper into the marshland.
Several hours of this confident striding as the tided mist wafted over us and a few more hours until his striding failed its strength and wavers. The mist having pushed so badly in front that we can no longer make sense of what is cloud and ground.
We were lost, wandering aimlessly and possible in circles. Stopping by lump of weed and moss that looked vaguely similar to one we passed much earlier, we demanded to know where we are. Count Sliss admitted that we must have strayed off the path for this place, is no place he knows.
We biker for a bit and as just tempers are to flair, Sari tells us of a ritual to call a hand of fate. This hand would tell be able to signal the direction to go. She prepared the ritual, burning the components produced from her satchel of magical things. The mist parted a bit and a blue incandescent hand appeared. She could ask three questions. And only three. Sari asked the hand for directions - Where the lair of the dragon is, where the dragon is now and finally where is Count Sliss. Each time the hand pointed in the direction of Count Sliss. Although the last time it appeared to waver before pointing.
We headed in the direction of the pointing finger, past Count Sliss and deeper into the smelly bog. Soon Sliss found his way again and we trod on through brackish water and past moss covered trees.
Count Sliss directed us to a rickety bridge, which was made of wines and rude wooden bits. Across it were bushes and an overhanging willow. Both giving us the possibility of dryness and respite. I went first to check the route and the fastness of the bridge, for I was the smallest and most dexterous of the group. I safely walked across trying not to look down into the dark loamy water. Next was Sari. As she got halfway along the rope bridge, there was a whizzing sound as two darts stuck out with black plumage from Sari's face and neck.
I rushed through the bushes and attacked the first dart thrower, plunging it over the ridge into the waters. As I was readying to attack the second one, I heard a bellow and see a lizard of monstrous proportions barreling towards me. It's muscles ripple like a hundred thick water snakes as he swung his copper axe widely for my head and instead of ripping head and splitting bones it chops and buries into the soft bark of the willow next to me. I kept the tree between the lizard and I as he tried to attack me, his companion readying his blow gun when Ka'an and Sari come to the fight. Oglog rushed across the bridge and met the axe of the lizard with his turning it around to wrack across the thing's chest while I circled around. Oglog giving felling blows to the lizardman every time he tried to twist in my direction. The final strike being mine as I slashed it across the back of it's neck while Oglog crunched through bones into the thing's bursting heart.
By the time the large lizard was dead, the other two smaller lizards had been killed. Unfortunately dear Alek was out of the combat as he plunged into loam and his enemy the swamp was much schooled in rebounding the ineffectual flailings of a mere human. We laughed and helped him out. A victory against a smaller foe sometimes lifts the spirits.
We continued along the path through the tree and shrub corpse turning into thick reeds, the height of a great tree and thickness of my wrist. Through this foliage we hacked our way until it started to thin. Through the mist a tree surrounded by fireflies could be seen. From the spots of luminescence a person could be discerned to be sitting under the tree.
Count Sliss urged us to go on and appeared not to see the hag. He looked at us strangely even when we pointed out the tree. It was then that we felt some strange magic was afoot.
We carefully walked across to what appeared to be an island, but was more of an isle jutting in the middle of the water. The person was an old hag, with black greasy hair. She smelled of swamp and effluent and she looked miserable, dejected and sad. She spoke with voice that squeaked and creaked as if not used for a long time. She needed some help with smart hands, she would like us to entertain her and catch some of the fireflies to keep her company and light her night when possible. She told us her name as well after much thought - Mab is what she remembered it to be.
Sari entertained her with a small elven orchestra who with their tiny instruments play a young elven song of summer meadows and love. They wore red caps and had green hose.
Orglar cleaned out her hair a bit and does some magic of his own using his palms and knowledge of the body, revitalizing her body under careful presses, making the woman's bones creak and sweat to appear and a flush of vitality come onto her cheeks.
The elves after finishing off their musical repertoire, bowed to the audience and promptly vanished. Orglar continued with the pressing of the woman's body, while Ka'an can took the vacated stage with a story.
An old woman was sweeping her house, and she found a little crooked sixpence. “What,” said she, “shall I do with this little sixpence? I will go to market, and buy a little pig.”
As she was coming home, she came to a stile: but the piggy wouldn’t go over the stile.
She went a little further, and she met a dog. So she said to the dog: “Dog! bite pig; piggy won’t go over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the dog wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a stick. So she said: “Stick! stick! beat dog! dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the stick wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a fire. So she said: “Fire! fire! burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the fire wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met some water. So she said: “Water, water! quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the water wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met an ox. So she said: “Ox! ox! drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the ox wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a butcher. So she said: “Butcher! butcher! kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the butcher wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a rope. So she said: “Rope! rope! hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the rope wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a rat. So she said: “Rat! rat! gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the rat wouldn’t.
She went a little further, and she met a cat. So she said: “Cat! cat! kill rat; rat won’t gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home to-night.” But the cat said to her, “If you will go to yonder cow, and fetch me a saucer of milk, I will kill the rat.” So away went the old woman to the cow.
But the cow said to her: “If you will go to yonder hay-stack, and fetch me a handful of hay, I’ll give you the milk.” So away went the old woman to the haystack and she brought the hay to the cow.
As soon as the cow had eaten the hay, she gave the old woman the milk; and away she went with it in a saucer to the cat.
As soon as the cat had lapped up the milk, the cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope; the rope began to hang the butcher; the butcher began to kill the ox; the ox began to drink the water; the water began to quench the fire; the fire began to burn the stick; the stick began to beat the dog; the dog began to bite the pig; the little pig in a fright jumped over the stile, and so the old woman got home that night.
The old woman clapped her hands and applauded. I with my bottle of fireflies came closer. She looked enchanted and reached for the pretties, but I drew back for a moment and she looked very sad. Instead I showed the bottle and turned it over in my hands until it disappeared. I showed the bottle, suddenly bereft of any fireflies to flap open my cloak as they stirred over and were about to take wing, I snatched them out of the air and carefully placed them back in the bottle and carefuly presented it to her.
Alek, neither magician, conjurer, healer, nor storyteller. Used rough hands and a ready hand to chop up some wood for the old woman. We joked Ka'an, Sari and I that perhaps he should take off his shirt instead.
The woman stood up for the first time, the back creaking as Orglar pushes on the hips causing the back to go from hunch to more straight. Mab thanked us for the help we had given her, being so greatly entertained. She hoped we would stay with her, but as Ka'an so eloquently placed it we had a rendezvous with fate and fate said that it would come in the form of a dragon. The gods had made our destiny clear.
Mab warned us about gas pockets and a geyser area between us and the lair of the dragon. She pointed in the direction of Count Sliss and said in her creaking voice to avoid the swamp gas for not only is it explosive, but also poisonous if breathed.
As a parting gift she gives Ka'an a twisted egg for she was the most entertaining of all us. There was an inscription on the egg which Ka'an translated and also the old woman, Mab confirmed - Dragon's terror. It would attract any flying lizard, dragon or no.
We went back to Count Sliss who looked at us suspiciously for we had simply disappeared for a moment, which made no sense as we felt we had been there for hours, but he was true the light which had been fading at the tree was replaced by the faint sun above the haze of the swamp.
I turned back once as we walked away. Already the island was gone as if it had never been there. If not for the egg we could only explain it as madness or magic.
As we went farther even the thickets left us to only the occasional black twigged bush. The geysers bubbled a greenish hue, the stench was overwhelming and occasionally they would not only bubble but a slight blue flame would appear in the distance. This would be followed by a rapidly expanding fireball.
We stopped for a moment and looked across the boiling and occasional exploding landscape. Sliss pointed to the distant bank and says we should go there. I have been the first during this adventure in the marshland and I would still not be last. I carefully walked across the land, avoiding the geysers and the occasional bubble. I reached the opposite side successfully. I watched as Sari circumnavigated carefully trying to follow my path. The last few steps causing a bubble and burst of flame which shocked her and caused her to stumble and be hit by another blast. Despite the hits she arrived only slightly ashen and smudged. Ka'an and Alek carefully walked together. Ka'an holding Alek's hand a few times as each was about to mis-step. Orglar instead simply raised his hands to the sides and walked across the stenched field as if this was a stone tiled church. "Faith", he said when he stepped onto the firmament of our side.
Looking for count Sliss we saw that he was already with us. He looked quite annoyed for a moment before his face repositioned itself into feigned indifference. Perhaps I was the only not only to see the expression but the safe trail he neglected to tell us about.
We wish to go further, but Count Sliss refused to go any further as we are in the only oasis of this part of the marshland. We spend our night camped on this little bank. We dare not a fire for the swamp gas and Sari casts a spell making us only wet, but not uncomfortable. Truth be told I preferred the cold, now I feel as if I am merely among the dead.
The night was filled with willow-o-the-wisps and fireflies as we stayed draped in our cloaks and blankets. There is no sound but the rhythmic snoring of Alek and Orglar. The rest of the vista had the silence of a tomb.
In the morning we could see why we should not have continued. What were geysers behind were replaced with a gray powdered ground in front. Count Sliss told us this is the most treacherous part of the swamp. If the ground cracks it will swallow you up and if that won't kill you the escaping swamp gas will.
Sari thought about this a bit and created a magical disk to transport some of us. I decided that I would prefer to show off a bit and rapidly ran across the cracked eggshell landscape. Each crack splitting off as bits fell away into nothingness.
Only when I reached the other side, was I aware that Ka'an was not to be outdone by my theatrics for she came right behind me. I smiled at her and she barred her teeth as we looked at the rest on their voyage. They were carefully balanced on the slightly glinting floating disk, Sari guiding it like some abyssal oarsman. I do not know what the planes of hell might be like, but I suppose this was similar.
As we assembled on the other side, Count Sliss told us that the dragon's lair was close, two arrow shots away. This was where he would leave us. He was not here to fight but to guide us. He asked for his money and we refused. He shrugged and said that he would wait one night for us. If we did not come back then we had met the end of many adventurers before us.
We carefully approached and can see a bit of a ridge of ground and on it's face a blackened maw of a cave yawned. We checked for a dragon, but unless we actually went into the cave it could not be seen.
Next to the cave was three land masses above the water. The idea of fighting something in the water certainly did not appeal to us. We laid out a plan to place the bear traps on one island, while the other with a bit more of a knoll would give Ka'an the advantage to see the whole battlefield.
So with these carefully laid plans, I was covered in mud and twigs, my eyes barely above the waterline as I trod and swam carefully with my reed straw towards the island where we planned to make our stand. It is thus that I peer across the landmass to see a lizard with an axe walking around.
He was larger than the brute I had seen and fought at the bridge. Across his neck where skulls. Some were definitely human or human like, others avian or lizard. He had a blackened tattoo on his chest of a paw mark. He moved around the islands partially hunting and more for the purpose of guarding its master.
I left the bear traps in the shallow waters of the island. Carefully knotting them each to a piece of roll of rope, which I placed above the water line. Sometimes things in water couldn't be found.
I drifted slowly back to where the rest of the group were. A whispered discussion ensured. Sari mentioned her powers of obfuscation to create a distraction for the sentry, the same powers that could create the elves for the hag could be used for other purposes. The rest of us agreed to be ready to silence the creature if need be.
We waited in among the reeds and moss covered rocks as the voices of lost children could be heard in the forest. They complained about how lost they were and hungry. They were so realistic, I could tell Alek was gritting his teeth to jump up and search for the little lost sheep.
The lizardman turned upon hearing the easy prey. It stopped to smell the air and for a heart stopping moment I thought it saw us. Instead, the beast crept forward quietly searching for the sound and then heading off into the thicket in search of these breakfast morsels.
While we quickly set the bear traps. I had to admit that the screaming sounded quite genuine as the noises moved further into the swamp until nothing could be heard. I threw my cloak over the readied bear traps and the coils of ropes. There was nothing to tie them. The cloak's magic so far excellent against being seen made the traps themselves merge with its surroundings.
No sooner had I placed the cloak on the traps, but a monstrous roar was heard from the cave. Claws scrabbled and massive reptile larger than anything I saw climbed onto the ridge of its cave.
The dragon was at least 40 feet long from nose to tail tip. It's hooked claws the length two of my hands. The spiny ridges along its back ready to tear a lesser creature apart. It's black skin gleamed with the solidness of a thousand schools of fish from the deepest ocean. I looked at it and was terrified. This was pure malice, cunning and terror in one creature. I hardened my heart as it screamed again and took flight.
There it flapped over us, before raining down acidic rain onto us. It's tail swished through the air as I sought to avoid the acid. The drops that did fall on me pluming in moments of acridity, pockmarking leather and burning cloth.
It circled around for another spewage, when I showed it the egg. The dragon screamed and landed close by into the water, leaving a wake behind it. As it used the flesh rending hooks on its wings to climb towards me. Just as I thought it would kill me Alek rushed between it and me and with his stalwart glass covered shield and strong sword arm defended me. The blast of acid dripping down the shield as Alek returned the action with a thrust of his sword which went wild.
Sari our spell caster joined the fight and created circles of flame around it. Ka'an mocked it with her sonorous voice, cause it's head to reverbeate. It howled and scrabbled more firmly onto the island. It ignored the flames and tried to snap at me. I showed the egg and using the same trick as on the old woman, I threw it. Now instead of an egg landing in the dragon's mouth it was two frost potions. The bloom of cold driving deep into it's gullet. The dragon floundering as it stayed and burned it's way through the icen mouth. One of the carefully laid bear traps added greatly to its discomfort as it landed it's foot perfectly in the middle, the trap biting hard into its leg.
The combat was fast and furious, as we fought the dragon with steel and magic. The dragon with its furious abilities of acid, claw and tooth. Now it bled from a hundred pin pricks.
It screamed again at us and summoned a black cloud and hoped to escape. The bear trap on its leg dangling horribly, the rope attached dangling from the darkness. I ran up to it and just caught it as it was about to slip into the skies. Alek was close by me, but not as fast or as nimble as I.
This is the state I was in, holding onto a rope for dear life as I mined for rubious guts in the inkiness of its magical cloud. It was in such a state that the veils before me parted and I saw the vastness of the marshlands. I too was ready to die for I had been mauled in my struggle. The marshland the last foe I would meet and I just a willowy wisp to its vastness.
I wished I could have told my dearest friend what was on my mind as the marsh land reached up and kissed me. It was a wet kiss of the inexperienced. Water rushing into my mouth, the ground tearing at my clothes, branches grappling against my body. The mess of marshen limbs and I was great, our combat had carried us 20 feet or so, judging by the cleared bracken. I was beaten on every part of my body. I was bleeding from somewhere, but I was alive and conscious. I came to my feet and screamed. It was an inhuman scream and I reveled in it.
Further along I could see the body of the dragon and unbelievably my sword jutting out of the swamp hilt first. I limped towards the dragon, grabbed my sword and screeched my inhuman scream again.
I stood on the carcass of the dragon as Alek and the rest came to the place where we were stuck in the damp marshland. It was not I who was the first to drag the carcass through the swamp back to the ridge. It was not I who was the first to eagerly divvy up the carcass into the meats and rewards of the dead beast.
However, I was the first to taste it's warm heart. We all ate a piece except for Orglar who was disgusted by our barbaric behavior. I did not care. For this was that could not be mired by middling rewards. I gave the finishing blow. I was the one who felt it die.
Inside the cave we found another brute of a lizardman. His brethren running after little boys in the swamp. He looked at us and the full knowledge his master is dead he drops his axe and we chase it from what was once the black terror's lair.
In the back is a chained bronze dragon. It growls and snarls at us until Ka'an can translate that it simply wants to be freed. Something I am happy to do as I carefully open the locks that held it into place.
He said his name was Abraxis and as we have freed him, he offered to grant us one boon. Ka'an of course, the only one to speak draconic, asked about the ritual to bind a dragon dog. Abraxis is taken aback and even I can see that this was not perhaps the best of questions, but a boon is a pact and he tells it to Ka'an who with Sari make notes. Meanwhile we look through the hoard of the dragon. Instead of vast riches as I hoped we found some trinkets, a coffer full of gold, scrolls and vials marked by the Cult of the Dragon.
The Cult of the Dragon is a group who believe that dragons will one day rule the world and we should all bend our knees to them. This knowledge was worth more than an animal ritual. Abraxis winged away as soon as he could leave that fetid cave and we walked back to find Count Sliss. Soon we would be out of this marshland and back in the mixed town of Llorkh.