Let Us See What Horrors Lie Below

“Your lack of faith is evident priests.” Maruc said dismissively, searching their frightened eyes. “If you believe in anything beyond your weak flesh you will follow us into the vault and lend us your aid. But I suspect you will fail not only yourselves but your god. If you wish to be of any service do not flee far from here, for we may need healing on our return.”

“We shall wait outside and watch for your return,” said a priest with shame and fright in his voice. The pair of Hutaakans retreated quickly away to a short distance away.

“Come friends let us see what horrors lie below.” Withdrawing his lightstone, Maruc boldly stepped into the archway and allowed his gaze to become accustomed to the gloom.

Miklos was less eager to enter but allowing the bulky woodsman to go before him, he followed behind.

“Rather lovely, isn’t it,” Hasan mused, taking a final peak at the temple’s facade that filled with gentle sworls, intersecting angles and the occasional hints of centuries-old pigments. “You really should think about painting it again,” he started to complain to the Hutakaa, then remembered that they had been too frightened to enter. He joined Maruc in crossing the threshold. The elf stood quietly and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Standing at the top of the stairs Ludo thought the Vault looked and felt like a tomb. He shivered and followed Miklos and Stephan down the stairs, At the bottom he muttered, “This place has the feel of death, tread carefully”. Fishing into his pack, he pulled out and lit a torch.

With the priest and elf in the lead, Feldard knew he’d be best served guarding the party’s backs, so he took up his rearguard position and kept watchful eye behind as the group entered the shrine. His dwarven eye for stonework took in the details of the shrines structure.

The art inside the shrine was of the same style as other Hutaakan relics, but the content was different from any other works they had seen. The interior walls were a panoramic the Hutaakan valley with a large temple in its center. The walls were split into two themes. To one side of the temple, the valley was bright and glorious. It featured an elf bearing a magic rod, riding upon a golden dragon into the valley toward a large Hutaakan temple. The other half was dark and wretched, with undead creeping everywhere across the landscape. In the center of the dark half of the valley, diametrically opposed to the elf, was a dark figure, entirely depicted as a black silhouette.

Stephan was not sure whether or not it was acceptable for him to draw his sword. Despite this place being a shrine, it nonetheless held a great sense of foreboding. He drew his sword taking his place among his comrades.

Miklos felt a tingling sensation emanating from the rod. It was ready to fulfill its purpose.

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The Vault of the Elders

Ludo turned to a Hutaakan priest nearby, “Who of your people was taken tonight? The scream that we investigated was not of the undead. I fear a greater evil is lurking out there, it will pick us all off one by one. Hasan you tell them, they listen to you, this land has a poison infecting it, unless they make peace with the Traldar their people and culture will be destroyed.”

The dwarf took a moment to catch his breath after the battle ended with the fleeing of the undead. He was wary about allowing the Hutaakan priests to heal his wounds but it was better that than wasting Maruc’s prayers or going without.

With his wounds tended, the dwarf took up a watch position near the group, his crossbow retrieved and loaded once more, and listened to the discussion adding in his own brusque opinion and comments rarely. “We are wasting time with all this talk. We should just get on with finding this Vault of the Elders that they spoke of.”

“Quickly now, build a great fire,” summoned Hasan. “We can talk all we want, but we need to handle him first.” The elf gestured at the twisted shape of the wraith he still held suspended in the air. “We shall give this one the pyre he craves.” The ancient Traladaran snarled his defiance as the party pulled together a great fire at the edge of the forest, but Hasan gently lowered the wraith into the flames. The elf thought he saw the winking wistful look as the wraith’s looks reformed before disappearing into the night sky.

With the last of the enemy eliminated, Miklos let the tension run from him. He was glad that this night would not yield more death. He was looking forward to an unbroken night. Such was not to be. He gathered his robe about him and curled up in the warmth of the fire and caught what rest he could.

As the fire cooled and peace returned to the deep Vale night, Hasan’s emotion waned as well. “Feldard, I think you are right. We should end this chase. The Kartoeba is a great foe, and the valley may never be free of it. But perhaps if we can bring peace to this vale and its woken dead, the vale can defend itself. Let us sleep and prepare for the Vault.”

Stephan was happy to receive the healing ministrations of the Hutaaka. They excessively used a strange unguent from a green bottle on all the wounds before applying dressing. As one of the Hutaaka was using this fluid on Stephan’s chest wounds, the bottle ran empty. He was shocked when, without warning the jackal-headed creature deftly continued the treatment by licking the numerous cuts. The act was unnerving but somehow poignant and the woodsman found himself grateful.

Soon he was asleep to the sounds of the crackling pyre.

Maruc sank back exhausted and and enthralled at the mighty power of Halav. The creatures had retreated from His power as Maruc knew they would. This was a testament to his growing favour with the immortal and he would strive even more to the furtherance of His goals.

He watched with satisfaction the banishing of the wraith, then turned to the Hutaakan priests. “Your faith is lacking, attend to your god with more piety so that you can fore-fill His purpose.”

He gratefully sunk into slumber with his friends, the morrow would require all their strength.

In the morning, the party departed for the Vault of the Elders, accompanied by two Hutaakan priests. The journey was uneventful, and by late afternoon they had reached their destination. This shrine was similar in style to the others they had seen, but larger and more structurally sound. The doorway to the shrine was open. The priests explained that the entrance to the vault was inside.

The Hutaakans had become quite fearful at this point. They had wondered why they had not rushed out to save their captured brethren the previous night. Now the answer was clear. It was because they were terrified.

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I Have Never Seen Such Anger!

Feldard was quick to fire off his crossbow bolt at one of the horde chasing the rogue. Purposefully avoiding aiming towards his companion as he did so. “Move faster Ludo!” he bellowed out, attracting the attention of the undead. In another moment, the dwarf had reloaded and fired off a second bolt towards the horde – not that his bolts seemed to have much affect. He wouldn’t have time for a third shot so the dwarf dropped his crossbow and unshouldered his axe, moving forward at a run towards the undead. The dwarf was so much into his usual battle mode that he was unmindful of the fact that he wore no armor this time. No doubt he would be reminded soon enough.

Upon hearing Feldard’s encouragement Ludo increased his speed and angled his flight towards his companions. “Back to the village!” he yelled as he ran. “The living dead are attacking!” When Ludo met his companions, he turned and loosed an arrow at the nearest Skeleton and then resumed his flight.

Stephan, armed with only his sword and no armor, launched forward as Feldard completed his last crossbow shot. Ludo burst from the darkness imploring them to retreat, a tactic the Traldarian thought might be the wisest course at this point. He held his ground, however, to allow the others to gain distance.

Hasan watched as the ancient dead approached. “I have never seen such anger! These bitter souls long for their rest and to bring their unrest to us all!” The dead leader’s pantomimed rage chilled more than any animal’s primal scream. Hasan gathered magical energy from the cool woodland air, the hard, rocky soil, the hardscrabble trees that surrounded the dead. The elf’s brow bent as he pulled at these natural forces and lifted the leader up off the ground and away from his forces.

The elf had hoped that raising the wraith high into the air would have some effect on its undead brethren, but it did not for the skeletons and zombies continued their charge.

Feeling strangely fleet of foot due to the lack of armor, Stephan actually enjoyed a brief dance with the dead before fending off to make an escape. It was just as Maruc was declaring Halav’s power that a vapid zombie raked the woodman’s chest with sharp, dirty claws. The pain seared but his feet found balance and strength, allowing Stephan to begin his retreat to safety.

Maruc was not surprised. He had wondered how long the sleepless dead would summon the courage to assault his friends directly. He strode purposefully forward next to the stout dwarf. Producing his holy symbol from beneath the folds of his cloak, steadfastly he cried, “By the holy power of Halav Reincarnate upon the carven throne in Specularum, I call upon His Celestial Transendancy to cleanse this land and drive forth unto the blackest pit those denizens not worthy to tread His soil!”

Miklos stood back to give Maruc room the work his blessing. He kept his spell in reserve in case Halav was not so swift in His answer.

The priest had progressed to the point where he was able to destroy lesser undead at will. He had expected to see the skeletons turn to dust, but instead the first wave of them merely stopped their progress and retreated back into the night, but reluctantly at that. The cleric continued his holy invocations. This could take awhile.

Thankfully, Hutaakans that had been positioned to guard the wall joined the fight. Their priests attempted to turn the dead, but their power of faith was not up to the task. Only Maruc’s intonations seemed to have any effect as the rest of the skeletons retreated, then finally the zombies.

In the time it took for the dead to be turned, the three companions caught in the melee had all been wounded. Though the Hutaakans had not been able to turn the dead, they were quite capable healing any of the group who was willing to accept their offer of laying hands.

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Dead Pursuit

Hasan directed the four Hutakaan guards, “Escort the Mage Miklos. Do not let the dead enter a melee with him.” Jasiteq and the elf, moved to join Stephen and Feldard. “Stephan, please wait, and bring Maruc forward as quickly as you can. Jasiteq says the scream will bring the dead. We will need Halav’s hand in this fight. Feldard, you, Jasiteq and I can see in the dark, but Ludo cannot. We must move forward to save the young lad. Perhaps we will see this Kartoeba as well, but I fear not.” The elf moved into the forest, eyes and ears scrying the land ahead.

The dwarf gave a grunt and nod as Hasan assumed command of the situation. Feldard could only imagine what it might look like to others of his race, him following the lead of some elf prince; but he’d spent enough time now traveling with his companions to know that the elf had a good mind for this type of thing.

Feldard followed the slime trail quickly to the edge of the woods and from there proceeded more slowly as he tried -with next to no experience – to track the Kartoeba creature through the trees beyond. He kept Hasan, and Jasiteq in sight as they spread out to cover more area in search of Ludo and the Kartoeba.

Ludo gulped, his throat was dry, the scream in the night, the mist clinging to him and the cold night air… what had he been thinking of charging blindly into the night against. He suddenly realized he had no idea what was out here. Whoever had made the scream was most likely dead now. The fear clung to him like a heavy cloak. What a fool he had been to come out here alone without support. Suddenly he blinked, he could see some shapes in amongst the trees getting closer. Ducking down into the shrubbery for cover, he fumed at his own recklessness; a thought flashed through his mind ‘heroics are for lofty elves not for cunning rogues.’ He threw his torch to one side and, keeping low, darted off in the opposite direction making his way back to the Hutakkan village.

Stephan stuck close to Feldard relying on the dwarf’s night vision. Their progress was slow and careful; pausing often to see and hear. “You see anything out there?” he asked trying to keep his voice calm. Despite being a forester, he did not like traipsing about in dark, misty woods. “Feldard,” he hissed. “This is feeling like a trap.” That said, he continued to follow the dwarf.

Looking through the trees ahead and to the right, he noted that Ludo did not seem to be moving anymore. Well, he thought, at least his torch is not moving anymore.

The dwarf saw a squad of undead. A dozen skeletons were followed by a half dozen lumbering zombies. Some of the animated corpses appeared to be Hutaakan, while others seemed to be Traldar. The lesser undead seemed to be commanded by another of their kind. It looked like a Traldar, but bone-white and thin, with hollow, lifeless eyes. The undead were heading quickly toward the village. They were chasing Ludo!

Maruc glanced at the drag marks. “This is no trap. This creature hunts like the tiger not like the spider. It seems indiscriminent though. It has taken Hutakaan villagers. If this thing was under Hutaakan control, it would not do so. I fear this thing has been summoned for some purpose. It isn’t what I’d call natural. What think you Miklos?”

Mikos eye’d the gloom. Ludo was ahead of him a ways and he picked out odd dancing shadows beyond him. The rogue had stopped and was returning at pace. “I think,” he said in reply to the priest. “We may be about to find out.” He produced the glass rod which he used to focus his mage wrought lightning. “Be prepared to run if this doesn’t dissuade it.”

The rogue came out of the treeline. He had abandoned stealth as the undead were now in full pursuit. A dozen skeletons followed immediately behind him, with still more dark shadows moving in the forest behind.

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The Kartoeba Strikes

Ludo quickly grabbed his bow and quiver and scaled the perimeter wall and stood on the ramparts searching and listening for anything that might indicate who or what had made the scream. The inky blackness soaked up the light from the torches that had been placed at regular intervals along the wall and he couldn’t see anything in the darkness. “Feldard, Stephan I think the scream came from over yonder, he pointed. He grabbed a torch and slung himself over the wall to investigate.”

The mage had been in a good mood as he fell asleep. The food and wine coursed through his tired limbs and he felt more satisfied than he had for weeks. He hadn’t appreciated the stress of trying to sleep in a haunted land bereft of peace.

At first he thought it was a dream, but even in his fevered imagination could not have invented such a soul wrenching sound. He was out of bed scarce slower than the rogue. He pulled on his trusty backpack and without word followed Ludo into the dark.

Feldard was surprised how quickly he came alert out of his sleep after his long, long day but then bloodcurdling screams in the middle of the night tend to do that. The dwarf slung his crossbow over his shoulder and grabbed up his axe, forgoing his armor due to the urgency of the scream. He watched as the rogue climbed the wall, pointed off into the darkness and disappeared over the walls edge. “Idiot,” he grumbled and hurried his way to the city wall entrance and bullied his way out past the guards there.

Outside the wall, he searched the darkness for sign of the rogue and source of the scream. He saw a trail of slime, dotted here and there with blood, that led up over the wall.

Stephan felt almost as grumpy as Feldard’s normal state. Waking to such high-pitched screams left the supper and drink–he’d been so surprised to find delectable– quaking in his gut.

“Da,” he muttered in way of agreeing with Feldard’s assessment of Ludo’s maverick point guard action. Stephan too was up fast with only sword and bow. He followed Feldard out the village wall and to the edge of darkness beyond.

“What do your eyes see, dwarf? Even I can see Ludo’s torch. Would that I had some flaming arrows to launch into the darkness. Might be that we could pull the curtain back on this screaming.”

Soon he saw that Ludo had extinguished or otherwise hid his torch. He knew that the rogue must be in his stealthiest mode. No doubt the crafty Ludo would soon appear behind the unaware dwarf and human.

Stephan walked carefully to the right being as quiet as possible. This afforded a better view of the gnarly, grey woods. But the thick air hindered sight and provided a discomforting damp blanket.

“Jasiteq, come now,” commanded Hasan. “Leave some to guard your gate, but you and your best must come with us now. What do you know of that sound. We heard it once before. Last night.” Hasan moved the Hutakaa out of the gate quickly and scanned the dark night with eyes and ears.

The screams stopped. It was quiet now.

“It is the Kartoeba,” said the Hutaakan. “We must be careful now. The scream will attract the undead.”

Maruc started out of his meditations. Swiftly he rose to his feet, there was little time to get back into his armour but screams indicated assault. The others were well out of the room before he was ready, he followed as he could trying to keep up.

The priest’s shield flopped awkwardly on his back as he dragged at the strap to tighten it, Stephan’s silhouette traced across the wall ahead hae he caught up with him. “What’s the situation?” he whispered.

“The screaming started within the village walls then moved to yonder woods.” The forrester replied quietly. “Ludo is ahead and we await his signal. Follow silently, if you can.”

The rogue scanned his surroundings. Something had dragged one or more Hutaakans from within the village, then disappeared back into the night. His ears heard a branch crack in the distance, then another. Dark shapes were moving in the distance, and they were headed his way.

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Bloodcurdling Screams

“You have sworn peace under the eyes of the immortal,” Maruc seemed satisfied. “So I must fulfill my duty to do what I can to cleanse this land. If we are successful, delegations from both races must meet somewhere neutral to discuss how this peace will work and any griefs be put to rest. Come we need rest and food. On the morrow we shall seek the Vault of Elders and the Tome of Knowledge.”

When the Hutakkan priest finished speaking Ludo relaxed and turned to Stephan, “I still don’t trust these Hutakkans, however, I would not want it said that I am not willing to give them a chance and it will be nice to have day of rest. My back is sore with all the sleeping on the ground and a bed even for a night would be very welcome. I wonder if that rod is magical in some manner and now we have an opportunity Miklos has a wand that we do not yet know of its power; maybe today we could determine what type of wand it is”.

Stephan nodded at Ludo’s words. “Da. Some good food, drink and bed would be nice. But do these jackals use beds? And what sort of food and drink might they have? I wager the Traldar know how to brew a stout or two.”

Some while later, Miklos sat with the wand and ‘Elf rod’ in front of him. He turned the rod over in his hands. “Elves use a sorcery akin to magic-user magic. The Hutaakan’s are priests and its construction would be unfamiliar to them. I still believe that until we have done what is required of us they wouldn’t endanger us any more than necessary. I think this is the key to the vault but because it is different magic to clerical magic they have forgotten how to use it in the mists of time.” he focused his attention on the wand. “Ah a command rune is etched here, interesting. I recall a similar rune in my book.” he pulled out his spell book and opened it. “See here and here. Ahh now we are getting somewhere…”

The warrior Stephan looked at Miklos studying the rod. “Don’t think there’s much I can do to help with that.”

Stephan double checked his gear. His armor was in need of repair. The helm lining was badly worn. A seam on his quiver was coming lose. He tried to do what he could to find a place to work and fix these things. The Huataakans did not seem inclined to assist.

Hasan studied the want carefully with Miklos. Watching the Mage work, held said, “You must teach me that Analyze skill, and soon. And the lightning bolt, too, of course,” the elf smiled.

* * * * *

Miklos ascertained that the etchings upon the rod would cast forth a powerful knock spell. When the magic users finished their task, they rejoined the party for a celebratory dinner.

One of the Hutaakan priests led the party to an empty dwelling for them to stay for the night. With all the casualties of war, there was now extra space in the village. The mood in the village was tense. The Hutaakans were an austere race to begin with, and now they faced war and a curse upon their lands. The number of guards along the outer wall facing the valley were increased by reinforcements at nightfall.

Food was brought to them by another priest, who blessed the platter of food that consisted of a wheel of sweet bread, vegetables, a lamb roast and two pitchers of beer.

“Ahh, this is wonderful,” sighed Hasan, as the elf enjoyed a deep drink of the trenchant ale the Hutakaa served along with roast lamb. “After peace is found again in your vale, you will need to come to Radlebb, to visit my people ands are our stories, for both our people have seen golden times.”

As they rested for the night, it was comforting to be within the safety of a village. This secure feeling would be shortlived, as they were once again awoken by bloodcurdling screams in the middle of the night. They came from an area nearby, toward the village’s edge.

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Peace Terms

Hasan stepped forward. “Well met, holy one, and peace be upon the Hutakaa and their Vale. Know thee that we come with reverence for the antiquity of your race and its understanding. Know too that we come as friends, of thine and of thine own enemies. Indeed, see now that we bring your enemy as our own bonded diplomat. These humans are thine own friends these many years, and deserve the respect their friendship those many years earned. For friendship and belief is what brings us here. Belief that none can stand idle when evil that can end us threatens us. So I stand before you, an elf heir, young though I am, I will aid you as I can. Pass me the runestick, that I may assist thee.”

“Thanks be to thee kind elf,” she said as she handed him the enchanted stick. “It is only peace that we seek as well.” The more the Hutaakans spoke, the easier it became to understand their accent.

“Koforedz, you are wise, and I will honor your confidence. Take me to the Vault, and I will do as I can. We shall find this Tome of the Hutakaa, and see peace again on this Vale.” Accepting the Rod, Hasan examined it closely. “This looks old, yet still I recognize some of it. Ludo, Miklos, tell me what you see. Use your skills that I may do what I must at the Vault.”

Miklos recieved the rod giving it a cursory glance then turned to Ludo, “We should have brought the Traldar spokesman. It would have been interesting to see what he might have said to the High Priestess’s accusations. My mind is not made up in this matter, as you say I don’t believe all the truth has been told. There is fault on both sides.” He returned his attention to the rod. “It is a key Hasan, I suspect no duplicity at this point. We are here to break the deadlock and in return we shall learn the secrets the the Son’s of Night covert and in doing so we achieve and ultimate good.”

Ludo looked over the rod’s inscribition. “Its a, elven dialect that I am not familar with. Beautifully made, obviously very old.” He handed it back to to Hasan.

Ludo started to ask “I wonder if they have anything to eat,” then stood agape as he was interrupted by Maruc.

“I will not side with anyone willing to curse a land with the sleepless dead.” Maruc said. “But I have not pledged my loyalty to either side and I will not until I have all the facts. I have precious little of those.”

He turned to the priestess, “Kforedz, High Priestess of Hutaaka. If as you say the Traldar released the undead on your lands, why would they do such a thing? They are strong and violent and they outnumbered you I presume? They seem incapable of magic’s that would cause the weakness between the worlds necessary to fill a whole valley with restless spirits. They accuse you and your kin of this deed and the facts so far point in this direction. You admit you are a priest and priests have skills in such areas. But only the evil would choose to do so.” He added darkly. “From my point of view it looks like your culture of what the Traldar call ‘slavery’ broke down in a violent revolution and perhaps this action was a final roll of the dice to maintain power, or simply even to save yourselves?”

Maruc raised his voice as all could hear, “I follow the immortal Halav Incarnate who sits on the Ducal throne of Specularum in the deep South. He is wise and benevolent. I try to emulate Him in my way. I do not believe that the Hutaakan priests would deliberately and irreversibly befoul their land, but equally I do not believe the Traldar would have wilfully unleashed an undead hoard upon themselves. Miklos would be a better man to describe this, but what I think is this. Some delicate magical balance has been disturbed during the revolution. Neither side of the war are innocent. The Hutaakans forced labour from the Traldar, however willingly or not at the first, the Traldar certainly felt aggrieved enough to form a revolution in the end and have in ignorance broken something of Hutaakan making that has flooded the land with evil. But equally a violent revolution casts its own evil light and the Traldar did not choose to negotiate their plight, or were refused negotiation to avoid death and war. I do not accuse the Hutaakan’s of making the evil but of insufficiently containing it. I do accuse you of lack of foresight, arrogance and subjugation of another culture.”
Maruc held up his hand for silence and the babble of voices, “I serve only the furtherance of Good under the eyes of Halav Incarnate. I will not suffer the undead to walk the land and I will do what I can to cleanse this land, but in return for this deed I seek oaths.”

Maruc stepped forward in front of the Priestess and looked directly into her eyes. “Kforedz, High Priestess of Hutaaka. Under the eyes of Immortal Pflarr and Holy Halav who I call in witness, you will swear do all in your power to never again allow enslavement or anything akin to it to enter your culture. And this will be your responsibility and your heirs forever. Do you agree to these terms?”

“Faack…” Stephan muttered about halfway through Maruc’s speech. Sotto voce, “Couldn’t he just say it was an accident and we’ll try to fix it but can you all just be nice to each other. And maybe just leave off that last part until we sort things out.” It was a rhetorical question. “Halav in Heaven,” the Traladarian muttered in way of correcting Maruc’s interpretation of the god’s whereabouts.

Silence bellowed as Maruc finsihed his speech. Ludo looked around uncomfortably and in an sotto voice echoed Stephan “Maruc you sure do know how to make friends and influence people. Come into their home, accuse your hosts of arrogance, evil and slavery and then give their religious leader an ultimatum.” His hand slowly moved and rested on his sword. This could go bad really quickly.

Feldard lost interest in the priests long winded lecture as to the cause and reasons behind the war; it was only when the priest demanded an oath of the Hutaakan that the dwarf paid more heed. He watched the jackel headed priestess for sign of insult and anger, and moved his hand to his axe just in case.

“Kind visitors. You see the ancient art that surrounds us. There are depictions of peace and knowledge, fine craftsmanship and honoring of the dead. You do not see depictions of war and aggression. We are caretakers, living quietly in the valley for ages, faithfully serving Pflarr and performing our duties of sacred guardianship over ancient malevolent forces. We tried to instill these values to the Traldar, but it is not in their nature to know peace. They are a selfish, aggressive race.”

“You ask that we do not enslave the Traldar. I give you my word that we have not done, now shall we ever do anything of the sort. Whatever grievances the Traldar hold against us, we hope we can resolve. War has taken a great toll on both sides. The Hutaakans can pledge to you that if you can help us bring the dead to rest and defeat the evil unleashed by the Traldar’s ignorant actions, we shall do our utmost to come to a peaceful treaty with their clan.”

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