Monthly Archives: January 2010

Invaders

“On now,” hollered Hasan, and the elf charged forward. “We have no surprise now. We need speed, before they ready for us.” The elf raced past Stephan and the rest of his companions and launched himself at the charging wolf. They met just past the log bridge, where Hasan tried to dodge and rake his sword alongside the wolf. The great canine’s agility matched the elf’s, however, and both assailants fell backward, bloodied but neither broken. Hasan’s recovery was faster, though, and as he stepped in to swing his sword yet again, he also shifted his position to close off access to the bridge. Hasan stepped onto the bridge, hoping his companions would protect his backside from another assailant.

Ludo, seeing that surprise was lost, drew his swords and charged down the slope from his position of concealment. He jumped across the still sleep induced Goblins, nimbly crossed the bridge, stepping around Hasan and into the shadows to the left of the gateway, using the walls of the compound as cover and protection.

Feldard, after sustaining some wounds via wolf teeth, finally killed one of the rabid beasts with his great axe. Ignoring the pain, he ran toward the lair. With his short stumpy legs, he was slower at making it down the slope, but whereas the others ran past the sleeping goblins, Feldard ensured the devious creatures would not be a hindrance later. For a moment, as he did a headcount of the group and assessed the situation, the dwarf felt his heart stop when he could not account for Hernane, then came the remembrance that she had left the group. Feldard gripped his axe tightly, and charged once more after the group, moving into a position to provide protection to Miklos.

Stephan, wincing a bit, rushed to help Hasan secure the strategic at the bridge. Approaching the high-stakes dance between the wolf and elf Prince, Stephan attempted to match the flow of the sparring rather than just rushing in. Seeing Hasan move to the left, Stephan moved to the right–slightly behind the snarling hell-beast. He waited fractions of a second, trusting in the Prince’s ability. Sure enough, Hasan managed a telling blow to the wolf that put the fiend within striking range of Stephan’s sword. With an unintelligible yell, he lunged, swinging the blade into the lupine’s left thigh. The beast erupted a sickening, brief howl and Stephan knew he’d dealt a deep slice.

In a strange and rapid mimic of the children’s game ‘paddle ball’, Stephan and Hasan used the wolf as the ball, their weapons as paddles–each vying to whack the object of ‘play’ with as much force as possible. The wolf was helpless, having been caught in a trap of sharp steel. Despite it being all muscle–taught sinew pushing hard at the world — the beast soon succumbed, trying in it’s last breath to deliver one more snap of the jaw. One more rake of the claw.

Thinking quickly, Miklos urged Feldard and Maruc to aid securing the bridge. “I thank you for your protection, but we must get out of the open into a more defensible position. Least ways we must stop those creatures summoning more of their brethren.” Taking his staff he followed the others toward the desperate melee which seemed to be drawing to a close as the creature yelped and collapsed.

Maruc nodded and limped his way toward the bridge his leg started to throb as the excitement of the battle subsided and his shoulder ached. He couldn’t help admiring the deft skill displayed by the lithe elf and the burly woodsman as finished off the newcomer. “It seems our intervention was unnecessary.” he grinned. “Come let us enter and see if we cannot locate the escapee! Perhaps we may surprise our yellow garbed foe?”

Taking a quick glimpse around the edge of the gate, Ludo hoped to assess the inside of the compound, calculate the number of goblins, and look for Vlaak. Instead, glancing to his left, he saw three goblins who were frantically trying to release more dire wolves from their pen. Their were two wolves left in the pen. Ludo’s eyes opened wide as one of them charged out straight toward him as the goblins barked orders for it to attack.

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Dire Wolves

With shocking realization, Ludo knew that Miklos was in mortal danger. From his experiences from his father’s estates, he knew that wolves were intelligent, cunning and ruthless animals. They would naturally attack the most vulnerable target, in this case Miklos. Ludo exhaled sharply in the cool night air, shot his arrow into the closest wolf as it made its way toward the spellcaster, and quickly notched another to his bow whilst continuing to look for a target.

With the riders down and wolves charging, Feldard moved from his cover and did his best to reload his crossbow. Hurry.. hurry. There! He raised the crossbow and aimed as the first of the wolves crested their small hill. Release! Feldard didn’t wait to see if his aim was true, he dropped his crossbow in favour of his axe and began to rush forward to intercept the wolves charge on Miklos.

Maruc raised his shield and swiftly stepped in front of Miklos. Timing the impending collision of the lead wolf, he bunched his legs and launched himself forward as the beast cannoned into him. Maruc was jarred against the impact. Despite being stunned, the wolf’s reactions were lightning fast and a paw wrenched open Maruc’s shield and it bit hard into the priests steel pauldron. Maruc rammed the shield rim into its head to loosen its vice-like grip. It wouldn’t budge and it began to rake the priests breastplate with its heavy claws. In desperation he brought his knee up sharply between the wolf’s legs. It took three attempts to encourage it to let go. He spun on his heel and brought his flail around in a wide fast arc and down on the creature catching one of its legs which snapped at a sickening angle.

Grateful for the priest’s intervention. Miklos backed away. Glancing to the left he saw Feldards mage-wrought axe cleave with ease through the toughened hide of the dire wolf facing him. To his left Stefan fared less well, but fought valiantly none-the-less. Miklos backed away further as Maruc was forced back by the wolf biting and clawing at him.

If he got the chance he’d have to thank him for saving his life. Not for the first time either.

The beast shot forward and fastened its jaw to Maruc’s thigh, the priest cried out and slammed the flail again and again into its spine until its back legs gave way.

Stephan kept a steady breath as he let fly three arrows before the wolves had to be engaged. A split second behind the action of Feldard, Stephan followed suit–dropping this bow and hefting melee weapons. In his case, sword and shield.

He rushed forward. Seeing the first wolf nearly downed by Maruc, and the second well in hand by Feldard, he took on the third. The snarling beast lunged in an impossible arc through the air. Stephan stepped sideways bringing his blade down, striking the lupine in midair.

“Blessed, Halav! The hide is tough!” Stephan thought as his sword did little damage on this first attack. The beast landed with a sickening sound of growling hatred and scrabbling claws. Turning on Stephan, the thing again lunged with a cunning twist that caught Stephan off guard…

Hasan saw the wolves close the distance in a trice, but they never reached his sword’s striking range. Which was all the same with the elf, who saw the fury with which the creatures attacked his companions. Maruc faced one just 10 feet away and could scarcely hold it away from the nearly defenseless mage. As the wolf latched its jaw into the priest’s leg, it finally presented a clear target. Hasan drilled an arrow into the creature’s outstretched neck. It yelped loudly and ran off away from the direction of the lair.

With only one dire wolf left to contend with, just as they thought the battle practically over another wolf sprinted out from the lair entrance.

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Sleepy Goblins

Feldard, still keeping watch along the route they’d come from, added his wisdom. “It won’t take those wolves long to track us here. I say we find a position of advantage, dispatch these then find a way to storm the village. If we attack the village or even attempt to sneak in before finishing with these seven, there is a strong likelihood that we could be trapped between the two groups.” As the dwarf spoke, he readied his weapons for an upcoming battle.

Miklos grasped Feldard’s shoulder then placed his fingers to his lips. “If it is surprise you seek, I shall send these folk into a magical slumber. That way we may be able to pass unhindered and without alarm!”

The cleric nodded in agreement. “Let us see what Miklos can achieve. At the least we will have fewer foes to contest us.”

Stephan nodded in agreement to Miklos’s plan. He crept silently to a position from which he could train an arrow on the approaching goblins in case it was needed. Kneeling behind some petrified wood. The cover was excellent. He readied his bow.

The plan wasn’t at all what he’d had in mind but it was a plan. Feldard sought what cover he could and raised his crossbow, ready to take out any that might not succumb to the mage’s magic.

Ludo quickly grasped the situation, took cover behind a tree and readied his bow. Notching an arrow, he aimed it at a Goblin rider. Images of the torture inflicted upon him by Vlaak flashed through his mind, there will no mercy for these Goblins he vowed silently to himself.

Hasan joined his fellow archers in preparing to take down any survivors.

Miklos glanced around to see that everyone was in agreement. He edged his way a little closer, the better to encompass the scouting group. It was important to act swiftly, as they might alert further goblins within. There was no knowing how many lurked within the twisted foliage.

Miklos expertly formed the the symbol of summoning and deftly cast the blanket of slumber upon the goblins and wolves shortly after they had crossed the log bridge.

The seven goblins all fell asleep at the mage’s command. The dire wolves however, were built of stronger stuff. They had picked up the scent of the interlopers, and they knew what to do. The two of them shook off their dozing riders and headed straight for the group. Arrows shot at them as they swiftly rushed forth. Meanwhile, from inside the lair, another wolf was released. Sans rider, it hastily charged out of the entrance, trying to catch up to its brothers.

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A New Companion

Stephan listened carefully to Ludo’s words in response to the various questions. Upon hearing his claim of some level of nobility, Stephan examined the newcomer’s hands.

No signet ring. But perhaps he wore it on a chain about his neck, thought the Traladaran warrior. Or perhaps it is pocketed.

Miklos laughed as he took Ludo’s hand. “I see my leadership qualities are showing through! I am Miklos, Ludo. I feel I may have seen you before somewhere? Perhaps in Specularum? One of those big social functions…ah well.” He was lost in thought a moment. “You wish to join us you say? Well out here, few are our friends and many are our enemies. Quite easy to tell apart had not we been aware that Goblins are allying themselves with human brigands. So,” he nodded at the scouting dwarf, “some may require you to earn our trust.”

Miklos took a long look at the young man in front of him. “Your fathers’ groundsman you say? A local Lord then? Perhaps that’s why I recognize your features. Which house do you belong to?”

Maruc walked all the way over to the Dwarf and spoke quietly. “So quick to judge someone so harshly?”

He knew this would result in a dwarven sized argument, so as Feldard rounded on him, he held up his hand in supplication. “Perhaps it is wise. Miklos himself suggested that the enemy we face could be a noble. This might be a clever ruse for us to accept him without question. Although it begs the question, how did they know we were coming this way, and what our intentions are? Again, perhaps that is why he is here, to find out or intentions? I think they were admirably demonstrated by Miklos, eh? And, naturally you being here, we are unlikely to wish to ally ourselves with them. Of course, he seems a little young to be the orchestrator of a rebellion, but he might be a trusted son…” he left the thought hanging in the air.

“However, it is my belief that he is honest,” continued the priest. “though like you, I wouldn’t trust him straight away. Well, as honest as Nicolai, Halav rest his soul. He has a certain rakish quality about him don’t you think? They say ‘keep your foes closer than your friends’, I’m of a mind to accept him and keep an eye on him. No doubt you will too.”

Feldard’s nod of agreement to Maruc was short and abrupt.

Hasan interjected himself in Ludo’s petition for Miklos’s favor. “Woodland skills, you say? That I’ll be interested to see. I rather doubt it.” The elf shook his head. “No, the first skill you’ll need to show is an understanding of what duty you owe to any group that will have you. Lead on, boy, and I hope you’ll show sterner stuff than I’ve seen so far, or this will be a rather short journey for you. My companions and I undertake rather more than a foxhunt.”

Ludo turned to face the elf. With a steely look in his eyes he replied, “Prince Hasan, my whole life I have been raised to know duty and my obligations to it, I need no lesson of it from you or anyone. As for calling me boy, I have not had the privilege of court and family protecting me like some I have met, but I know how to fight, survive and win – you can count on that! I also know when to accept assistance when it is offered, so I do not think you have the right to call me ‘boy’.

“I understand your hesitation in allowing me to travel with you, after all a natural assumption would be that I could in cahoots with the Goblins. I am unsure what I can say to alleviate you of this apprehension except to say, that I believe that you saved my life and for that I am indebted to you”.

“I do have some information that you may find interesting – your activities have caught the attention of someone of importance, when I was captured by the Wolfskull tribe three days ago, I was interrogated and tortured by a mysterious man who seem to be directing the Goblins and a Hobgoblin, his name was Vlaak, a cruel brute if ever I did meet. I found this relationship strange to say the least. I was questioned about a group of adventures that were traveling within the forest and that this group included an Elf and a Dwarf traveling together as brothers in arms. Simple deduction suggests that you are this group of adventures. I can now see why they are so vexed with your activities. Anyway, I deducted that my usefulness was coming to an end. I had no knowledge that was of use to them, and so I had to escape. After killing my guard and recovering my equipment, I escaped from their lair late last night; however this lot you have just met tracked me down. This landscape is unlike anything I have ever seen”.

“Now that you have heard my story, I will leave it up to you to decide if it is true or not. However, know this; if you continue on the trail you are using, you will meet your doom. If you should be ambushed, you will be overwhelmed and killed or worse … captured by Vlaak and the human who interrogated me. I would like nothing better then to run my blade through Vlaak’s gut, so if you think my skills and talents can be of use to you then say so, if not I will find another way to take my revenge”.

“Vlaak, you say? That is indeed a name that interests us.” The elf searched Ludo’s face. “Your path will be ours as we search together. Lead on.”

Hasan walked beside Ludo, as the human walked through the petrified wood. The elf’s mind raced, turning over the fact that Ludo had seen a human with the goblins. Hasan didn’t dare reveal that it was that alliance the group cared most about.

With the elf and newcomer taking the lead, Feldard took up the rear guard once again. While he didn’t actually keep his crossbow on the man, Feldard was careful to keep him within sight as they traveled toward what they hoped would be the goblin village and the answers to many of their questions.

Stephan took a position just after Hasan and tried to be as silent as the elf — an impossible task.

Miklos fell into step with Maruc. “Interesting. He did not mention his house. Perhaps he is discraced? He skirted the issue, it is a shame Hasan interjected. Oh well, what do you think?”

The priest shrugged, “I’ll not make any swift judgments about him, but I have faith in Halav. Nicolai was taken from us in an act of selflessness that bordered upon heroic. Neither of us, Miklos, would have believed he’d be capable of that. But I at least have had my eyes opened. Judge not a man by his countenance, but his actions. Perhaps Halav guided him to us in his wisdom. To save him.”

“And to aid us.” he added.

Ludo with Hasan beside him, lead the group to the Goblin lair with as much stealth as the terrain allowed. By the time they neared the lair, night had fallen.

Ludo whispered to Hasan, ” We are getting close, over this small hill lies the Goblin lair. What are your plans”?

Miklos noticed the scouts had paused ahead. “It seems we have arrived.” he cracked his knuckles. “Let us see what our scouts report.”

Hasan gave a description of the lair, and Ludo adding his own inside knowledge. The hideout was constructed of large stone walls erected between the trees of a petrified grove. Some of the larger trees were hollow, and the goblins took advantage of this. The canopy of leaves and branches formed an impenetrable roof. In the gloom, a muddy river that flowed around the lair appeared black. A path led from the forest to the grove, where a hollow tree served as a log bridge over the dark water.

Ludo was not familiar with the entirety of the interior. He only had knowledge of the layout of the guardroom, the wolf pens and the prison.

A crude entrance had been smashed out of one of the large hollow trees. Torchlight could be seen coming from inside. After the gloom of the forest, it almost seemed welcoming. Not so welcoming were the goblins and wolves rushing forward to cross the bridge. Most likely, the wounded wolf had made its way home and now they were on full alert. There were seven goblins, two of them on wolfback.

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Ludo

“Well done! I think you got the lot. I have never seen anything quite so… devastating. Quite impressive.” The young man’s voice trailed off, he placed his unused arrow into his quiver and turned, smiling warmly to the group.

Stephan spat after breathing in the acrid air left by Miklos’ fireworks. He’d loosed only three arrows before the blinding flashed ended things. “That was quick”, he half muttered to himself. And fully to himself, “Hardly seems fair. A man must fight with blood in sinew…”

Turning to the smoking bodies, “I don’t suppose any of our arrows or Feldard’s bolts are recoverable.” He looked regardless for any that might be used again.

Hasan returned from his combat position, and nodded a wordless acknowledgment of Miklos’s developing skill.

Ozone hung in the air. Purple after images were etched across the mage’s eyelids. Barely contained magical feedback numbed his fingertips. He flexed life back into his hands and grimly surveyed the results of his incantation. He nodded at the acknowledgment of his skills.

“Did someone mention no prisoners?”

“Blimey.” Maruc rubbed his eyes, “Some more warning next time Miklos. Thanks.” The odor of burnt meat hung in the air with a heavy grey mist. “Prisoners? Fetch me a pail and I’ll show you a prison!” The priest was too stunned to smile at his own humour.

The stranger looked quite tired. There were marks on his face where he had been beaten. Still, he was upbeat and full of energy. By his demeanour, it was easy to see that he was quite confident of his abilities. He studied each of the group in turn.

“Master Dwarf, I think now is the time for some introductions. First, allow me to thank you for your timely intervention. My name is Ludo, and what am I doing this far in the forest, well quite obviously I was running away from them,” he said as he pointed over his shoulder at the still smoldering corpses. “Your arrival was most opportune, as I fear the wolves were gaining on me and I was running out of breath. I can assure you that the Goblin’s reputation of hospitality is rather overrated and best avoided.”

“Now, may I inquire as to your purpose for being so deep in this part of the woods? It is unusual to say the least, to see a Elf and Dwarf traveling together in such … harmony”?

The elf grasped the stranger’s offered hand, saying, “That dwarf and I have traveled dark paths together. In the dark, you don’t always see your differences. Not that he would notice them anyway, unless they were dwarf-inlaid with gold.” The elf laughed. “I am Hasan Elyan, Prince of the Radlebb Wood. My companions and I have traveled here to find the goblins you brought to us, so we thank you. Have you been further in this cursed vale? We have come to find their home.”

The priest turned to the newcomer. “Glad we could have been of service, Ludo.” He offered his hand in friendship.

Stephan too rose slowly from his knelt position to greet the newcomer with the briefest of pleasantries mandated by human social custom.

Feldard had been stunned speechless after Miklos’ display of magic. He caught only part of the newcomer’s introduction, and was slow to respond before the elf took it upon himself to greet the man named Ludo.

Feldard snorted at everyone tripping over themselves to greet the stranger. The dwarf noted that the man didn’t truly answer as to why he was in the area. Bah! Humans and elves were way too trusting of others.

He moved off towards the bend in the path, peering from whence the goblins had come, his crossbow still at the ready. Then called back, “It won’t take long for that injured wolf to make it back to the goblin tribe. Let’s get moving.”

Ludo approached the mage. “Miklos may I take it upon myself, to invite myself to join your merry band, as we seem to be going in the same direction before I was taken prisoner by this Goblin tribe. I was heading to the frontier seeking employment with the Duke’s army as a scout. I fear that being this far out without companions, my chances of arriving at my destination will be small. I, of course, will offer my blade and skills to your group for a equal share of any profit. My father’s groundskeeper trained me well in the art of woodland scouting and of identifying traps both of the natural and mechanical type and I do believe my skills could benefit you and your companions”. If you are looking for this Goblin tribe their main camp is not far. A few miles over yonder, however if you would like to approach them unseen you will need my skills and knowledge. How say you?’

Upon hearing Ludo’s offer — very hasty lad! — Stephan maintained a dour face — not difficult with the foul smell still hanging in the air — and looked to see Prince Hasan’s reaction. It was clear the dwarf was skeptical. After all, who was to say this Ludo would not lead them to a trap.

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Miklos’s New Trick

“Look to your weapons!” he shouted as he hurdled towards the group. “They are not far behind me”! Quick as flash, considering how tired he looked, the young man spun around toward the growling sounds of wolves and the clanking of armour, drew his bow and notched an arrow.

He was a young man around 18 by the looks of him, dressed in worn dark grey leather armour, with two short swords strapped to his hip. He looked over his shoulder, “if we have to break for it, head back that way to the small hill a half mile back. That will be where we regroup, this lot coming are in no moods to take prisoners”.

He quickly counted the arrows in his quiver, and muttered, “damn. Only seven. Guess that will have to do”

Feldard grunted at the mans’ assumption that he could order the group about. As for looking to his weapons, the crossbow had been loaded and cocked at the ready since entering this cursed and forsaken forest. The crossbow was currently pointed towards the stranger. “Who are you? What are you doing this deep in Dymrak?”

The surrounding unnatural stone sent the medley of clank, crack and growl in direction-less echo. Stephan could not help but glance backward along the path as the bouncing sounds tricking him into suspecting some emanated from there.

In a flash, an arrow was nocked in Stephan’s bow. He quickly looked about for any amount of cover. Not much. But he was able to step quickly off the path and kneel behind a narrow stone trunk and a bit of sparse rock tangle which once lived as a wan bush.

Mentally, he checked that the light stone was in his left pocket. “Yes, I felt it there only a minute ago,” he thought to himself. He might need it in this dimmed battle.

As the riotous combined sounds got closer, it became more clear that the they were coming from around the bend up ahead, as the young man said. Stephan drew back his arrow, waiting for a target.

The enemy of my enemy is probably, well, close enough for now, thought Hasan. Besides, Feldard looked to have the situation well at hand. The goblins, however, were a different story. A large group was coming. Hasan moved 20 yards off the pathway as quickly as possible. He would protect the group’s flank, and try to assure that no goblin could flee the encounter and warn the tribe.

“No time for introductions and pleasantries Master Dwarf, your traditional enemy is to your front”. As soon as a Goblin or Wolf appears around the corner, the young man with precision releases his arrow and notches another to his bow.

The newcomer reminded Maruc of a vivacious version of Nicolai, looking more stressed than wounded. He couldn’t help warming to him. Without a word Maruc shouldered his shield, noting with disappointment the chipped enameling and a burred groove on its rim. He readied the familiar weight of the chain-flail.

“Well, Miklos. This is more your thing.” the irony of their surroundings was not lost on the cleric.

“Gentlemen!” the mage called loudly. “What I’m about to try, none of you, or I, have ever experienced. I know the theory. I advise averting your gaze this is going to be bright … and loud!”

The mage estimated the ignition field area. If he placed this right, everything from him to the bend in the road some fifty to sixty feet away would be engulfed. Nerve and timing were everything.

Metal clad goblinoids with snarling faces yelled curses with spit and bile as they surged into view though the brittle forest. Yawing wolf maws with huge red tongues filled the air with the clamour of bloodlust and hunger. Forest dust filled the air as they approached with terrifying speed. Miklos almost forgot what he was doing. The familiar flit of arrows and the heavy twang twang of the crossbow brought him to his senses and he blurted out the first syllables of the spell…

A huge goblin with a notched two handed sea axe broke away from the charging line straight at Miklos. Maruc started to meet the foe, but was brushed aside which a contemptuous back hand slap. The brute’s eyes met Miklos’s, and it grinned. The seconds stretched as the dreadful weapon swung up and down

Squeezing his eyes shut Miklos finished the spell. The landscape froze in a blinding monotone tableau. Then came an awesome crack of thunder.

Then an eerie silence. Miklos opened his eyes. The goblin was gone. The wolves and their goblin riders had been virtually incinerated—a dozen crispy corpses all together. The narrow path through the stone forest had provided the perfect trap, forcing the goblins to come at the group in a line. Miklos could not have asked for better conditions for the first lightning bolt launch. One of the wolves was still alive, managing somehow to avoid the center of the energy blast. It shook off its dead rider, yelped and then ran away.

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The Petrified Forest

Hernane was afraid. Afraid of what she would become if she continued with this group. Eaten by some spider, choking to death on her own blood after having her throat slit by an Orcish blade, or something worse. The thought made her sick. She knew that this was not the life for her, and wanted to be home to see her family. To be safe and not hear or see in her dreams the faces of the lives she had ended.

Taking Feldard to one side, “Feldard it is time for me to depart, I intend to take Tekaryon home so he can recruit new workers for his mine. Once home, I will see your father and tell him your shame is mine, that you were not to blame for me leaving. I will tell him of your courage in battle and one day I hope that you and I can be friends for you will always carry a most special place in heart. Thank you for coming to my rescue, be safe”.

Hernane thanked each of the group in turn, and collecting her backpack, she lead Tekaryon and the two other Dwarfs on the path home and the next step in her life. She paused at the top of the path, waved to the group and idly wondered if they would all be safe. She sent them a prayer to keep them all safe, for she knew they travelled on the path of danger.

At Hernane’s announcement, Feldard was torn between feeling disappointment and relief. He doubted his father would understand his not returning with her, but he had committed himself to this group and this endeavour and he couldn’t in good faith leave them now to take her home, and perhaps she was right—perhaps, in time, he might forgive her and his brother. But for now, his pride was too strong for him to face either without outrage.

To ensure she made it home safely, Feldard had one of the rescued miners swear to see her home. When it came time for her to leave, Feldard made himself absent, keeping watch on the goblin, questioning him on where Vlaak could be found.

The prospect of plunging back into the forest pleased Hasan. “Unless that goblin comes up with anything, let’s leave him with Tekaryon. We’re better off exploring without him, as he’ll only take us on known ways that are bound to be watched. Rather, we should head back to the river, I believe, and then straight south, into the heart of the forest.”

Stephan offered his farewells to Hernane and her traveling companions. He then looked around to see how Feldard would deliver his goodbyes but the dwarf was nowhere to be seen.

Rubbing his neck, Stephan nodded at Hasan’s words. “This sounds very well with me, Prince Hasan. Your woodland skills will guide us true.”

Stephan eyed the skies, noting the direction of cloud drift and general atmospheric conditions. Sniffing, he said “Aye. There’s a good chance some rain will catch us soon. Let’s set foot on dry ground whilst we can!”

Before leaving the mine area for good, Stephan took one last look around noting the environs. He felt his jackal statuette in his neck pouch and felt not a little disappointment at not solving the riddle of it.

“Do not worry!”, he thought to himself. “It is Halav’s Will. My little statue, perhaps, has another role to play. Or not! The ways of Halav are odd.”

But Stephan studied with care the lay of the land around the mine, thinking that one day he’d return to see if more could be learned from the strange chamber filled with similar statues.

The priest smiled warmly at Hernane. “Good luck my dear. May your hands flow with gold.” He bade farewell to the other miners and waved goodbye as they strode away.

“Well Feldard, I’m surprised you didn’t take that opportunity to travel to Highforge. It is afterall the reason we traveled this way. Albeit we now have many more reasons. I for one am glad you have chosen to accompany us instead.” Maruc was tired. He sighed heavily as he pressed life into his calloused hands. He caught sight of Miklos.

“Hey, what do you make of the Yellow garb’d man story?”

“Well.” replied the mage, “It is my opinion that he is likely to be one of the masterminds behind this alliance. Robes are usually worn by aristocrats and scholars, although this too could be a deception. The fact that he was spotted by this mere footsoldier means he was not trying to remain unnoticed. Certainly not in yellow at least! Shall we assume the worst? If so, he is a Mage or a Lord, bent on the overthrow of the local government. He is stirring trouble, agitating the goblinoid races. If I were him I’d be setting other fires of unrest to stretch the Dukes forces and empty Specularum. Noting the tower token we retrieved at Sukiskyn ,and the general power this man has over the goblins my mind is erring toward a black warlock. Perhaps even a follower of the Sons of Night?”

He shrugged. “It’s too early to tell,” he waved over to Hasan. “From their direction of travel so far they have followed the river eastward. From my memory of the maps of this land, the river forks over yonder one arm stretching to the north and the other piercing the heart of the forest. I agree, we would make better pace following the bank.”

“Very well. We strike out as soon as Feldard has finished with our little friend then trust in Halav to guide us.” Maruc grinned. “After all, he sent us Hasan!”

* * * * *

With further interrogation, Feldard was able to garner a rough idea of the Wolfskull’s territory. The goblin described a dismal valley, deep in the Dymrak Forest. Apparently, long ago in a forgotten age, the valley was smitten with a magical blight that turned every living thing—plants and animals—to stone. It sounded like a miserable place—fitting for the likes of goblins.

They did not put all their trust in the goblin, however, for there was no guarantee the goblin would not attempt to mislead them. Instead, they relied on the instincts of their elven companion to guide them true. And that he did. Along the way, they had some close encounters with various woodland creatures, some dangerous. Thankfully, they were able to avoid any direct engagements through avoidance and intimidation. During the journey, Maruc was able to employ his healing arts to bring everyone back to full health, and the spellcasters were able to replenish their minds with arcanery for their upcoming showdown with the goblin clan.

Eventually, they came to the area described by the captured goblin. The petrified forest was an eerie and silent place, with little or no color to relieve the grey stone of the stiff, blighted trees and undergrowth. The trees were transformed while in full lear, and now formed a dense, opaque canopy which drew a shadowy, twilight gloom over the forest floor. The only living things here were patches of pale moss and lichen on the tree trunks and limp, web-like creepers hanging like shrouds from the branches. Petrified birds and other animals could be spotted littering the valley floor.

Maruc sighed. His mood wasn’t helped by the grey broken landscape. Magi! he thought angrily.

In the distance, they heard the sounds of armor clanking, rubble cracking and wolves growling. There was nowhere to hide—the tangled, petrified undergrowth rose to a height just above their heads, and blocked them from any chance of quick concealment. Around a bend in the path ahead, they saw a lone man sprinting toward them.

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