“I...saw Jakardros.” Twitch said slowly
“Alive?” Krolmn asked excitedly, before realising Shalelu may not want to overhear Twitch’s response. The gnome lowered his voice to a loud whisper and repeated his question. “Alive?”
Twitch nodded. “For now...”
Realising he had the attention of the rest of his companions, eagerly awaiting information, he elaborated. “He’s been taken captive, and looks badly injured, but I don’t know how much longer he’ll last without aid.”
“Ogres?” Tevan asked.
The druid shook his head. “A man, out hunting with dogs. Not a normal man though, large and deformed.”
“If a man rather than ogres, perhaps he doesn’t mean him any harm.” Belor suggested hopefully.
“I don’t know exactly what his intentions are.” Twitch replied “But they certainly didn’t seem good. I think we should head after him immediately.” There was something very foreboding about the hunter’s words, though Twitch did not know exactly what he had meant.
“What about the Fort?” Jon asked.
“I think if anyone is alive still from there they are either well hidden within or have escaped. I fear that Fort Rannick is beyond saving.”
“Traitor’s work.” The sorcerer muttered angrily.
“Perhaps,” Twitch replied with a shrug. “But either way I think we’re best served by tracking down Jakardros and attempting his rescue.”
“I could go and check the Fort.” Krolmn volunteered. “I’ll be able to get way closer by myself than with you lot clomping around, and I can probably see what’s going on there and looks for the tracks of any survivors.”
“I’m not usually big on splitting up, but it seems a good idea to me.” Belor replied “I don’t much go for sneaking around.
Decision made, Krolmn trotted off into the woods, his small form quickly disappearing among the greenery.
Twitch led Belor, Jon and Tevan northward, hoping to find traces of the imposing man, his dogs, and Jakardros.
With only a rough idea of where to find their quarry, it was slow going through the forest as the companions searched for any trace, and after an hour they were becoming disheartened. As they continued to trek through the undergrowth, Jon was heard muttering to himself suspicions about Kalar, and his desire to torture information fomr the Black Arrow, a suggestion that was met with dark looks from both Tevan and Twitch. Suddenly however, Jon ceased his diatribe.
“What’s that?” he asked, holding his hand up for stillness and silence.
The others stopped to listen, and soon became aware of the sound that had captured the sorcerer’s attention; a pained feline mewling.
“Sounds like a cat.” Belor said.
“A big cat. “ Twitch added, calling on his knowledge of fauna. “Maybe a leopard or...firepelt.”
“Kib.” Jon stated.
The four hurried more swiftly toward the sound, and soon came upon Jakardros’ companion. The cat looked pained, staring pleadingly at the men, and as they approached they could one of its feet caught in a bear trap.
“I’ll get that.” Tevan said, making his way toward the trap while eyeing Kib closely. While the cat knew them from there time at Fort Rannick and travelling with Jakardros, he was a little wary of what the beast might do while injured and hepless.
Twitch followed closely behind Tevan, comforting the animal as the paladin release it from the trap, and healed its wounds.
“More noises.” Jon stated. “Dogs this time.”
The companions quickly arranged themselves around behing the bear trap, and Twitch cast a spell to sharpen the grasses to slow and injure any attackers.
The dogs came into view, the half-dozen canines quickly sprinting toward the men. As some hit the altered ground there were yelps of pain and the charge stalled, and Jon followed up by conjuring frightening mists around them.
Injured, confused and disheartened, the dogs quickly succumbed to the weapons of the men, who set about the task of dispatching the animals with no joy, but knowing it was necessary.
“Hey, what happened to me dogs?” came a call from the edge of the clearing.
Standing there was the man from Twitch’s vision, a hulking brute half was wide as his eight feet of height, a steel spear gripped in one hand, his other limb, deformed as it was, coming around to also grip the weapon as he summed up the situation.
The brute charged forward, stumbling only a little as he crossed the edge of Twitch’s trapped ground. As he did so, the druid began calling on the powers of storms so familiar to him by now, while Jon sent a bolt of arcane energy sizzling at the man. Belor and Tevan stepped up to meet the charge.
A brief melee ensued, the two warriors occupying the man while Jon and Twitch assisted with their magics. Suddenly Belor slipped slightly, and with a roar the brute took advantage of the opening to slam his spear through the warrior’s breastplate.
There was a sharply indrawn breath from all as steel shrieked on steel, and Belor seemed doomed. Somehow though the great fighter managed to twist away. Perhaps it was a trick he had learned in fending off Shayliss’ ardent intentions, for the warrior's mighty heart remained untouched. Wounded, but not yet done, the fighter struck back, assisted by Tevan, and the brutish man fell.
Twitch picked up the spear after Jon identified its magical nature, keen to add the enchanted head to his own weapon when time permitted, and Tevan and Belor made use of the healing available to them.
“I should be able to track his backtrail to wherever he has left Jakardros.” Twitch said after they had rested briefly. “But to do so I will have to transform into an animal, and will be unable to speak for the duration.”
The others agreed, and the druid took on the form of a great bear, its stringy black and grey coat framing a long snout, and covering large taloned paws. He knew his companions would be devastated by being bereft of his wise words as they travelled, but such were the sacrifices that sometimes had to be made.
The Graul FarmsteadEdit
"Yeah, that place just doesn't look right," mutters Belor, gazing across at the farm, unease clear in his voice.
"The obvious comment, but completely accurate," replies Jon, looking at the twisted and malformed corn stalks laid haphazardly in the field, while scratching at himself absentmindedly.
Unaware that Jon is going through withdrawals, Tevan pretends not to notice. "I don't like the idea of crossing the field, I think we should loop around the field through the forest - get to the closest point to the building we want to enter."
"The barn or the house, then?" asks Jon.
"The barn," reply Tevan and Belor in unison, looking at each other in amusement. It would appear that having battle instincts of 'hit it with a sword until it dies' can provide a firm foundation for a growing friendship.
Everyone looks at the bear. Twitch makes a rumbling sound deep in his chest, shaking his head from side to side. Tevan looks at the others, knowing they have been with the shapeshifting druid longer and hoping they can translate. None of the three here can, and Krolm is far away. "The barn makes the most sense anyway," announces Jon, settling the matter democratically.
A few minutes later, having uneventfully arrived at the barn door the group look at each other all thinking of their next move.
"We could just charge in?" asks Belor a hopeful note in his tone.
"I'll have a look first," replies Jon, before calling upon his magic. Moments later the sorcerer vanishes from view. Tevan opens the door to the barn slowly and carefully, ready to wince at the first creak of hinges. But the hinges remain silent, and Jon slips through leaving the rest to wait anxiously at the door. The group slowly grows more tense, waiting for the sorcerer to reappear, expecting to be spotted by the residents of the farm at any moment. The rescued Kib paces restlessly, while Twitch in bear form sits back, sniffing the air constantly.
"I'm back," announces the disembodied voice of Jon, causing everyone to flinch having not heard his return. Jon quickly sketches out the details of the barn; the three malformed men at a table playing some sort of game, locked and barred large doors opposite the entrance, the catwalks on each side, leading to smaller doors to the room beyond. What lay beyond the doors was worse. The captured rangers were in the room beyond in cages at the far end of the room, with an enormous funnelled web rising from the centre of the room - as if some kind of giant spider lurked within.
Gripping their swords tightly, Belor and Tevan lead the charge into the room, resisting the urge to bellow war cries. Twitch comes in close behind, the lumbering bear looping around as if hoping to catch the flank of the group. Jon follows behind, keeping his distance slightly to be able to better call upon his magics.
The battle is fierce, but brief, the group having caught their opponents on the back foot. The two swordsmen both take crunching hits from the misshapen brothers, armour crunching and unable to completely defeat the blows from the swords and axe wielded by their opponents. Twitch makes great use of his bear-form, wickedly sharp claws and teeth ready to rend his foe and he constantly threatens to grip his opponent in a crushing hug. Jon remains a constant annoying just out of reach, a stream of glowing points of magic striking his targets.
"Is it just me," grunts Belor between gasps for breath, "Or are people hitting harder these days?"
The warrior groans lowly as Tevan slowly straightens Belor's wounded arm, examining the wound as he does so.
"Their strength is as constant as their deformities," comments Jon as he kneels and examines the body of the most obviously deformed corpses - the hunchback.
Having expended some his energy on his healing powers, Tevan gestures at the catwalks. "Guess it's time to go get the rangers."
"You going to be able to fit through the door?" Belor asks Twitch. The bear climbs the stars up to the catwalk, his bulk barely fitting along between the wall and the railing opposite.
Reaching the door, he seems to ponder it for a little while, before his body seems to shudder and contort. Within moments, the druid has returned to his normal form. "Do the two separate catwalks join together beyond these doors?" he asks Jon. "Yes... but only past the two cages on the far side of the room," replies Jon. "Past the web."
The party quickly splits itself into two groups, Twitch and Belor on one catwalk, Jon on the other. Tevan listens at his door for a moment, but hears nothing. Opening it with his left hand, sword in his right, he step through to take in the scene. It is as Jon described, and the righteous warrior grows nervous in the face of that giant web. He begins to creep along towards the captives with Jon close behind as the others begin their walk along their side of the room. They don't get far along before the webbing shivers and as feared, a giant spider rises from the dark centre of the room, Its eight black eyes glitter as it takes in the scene before it rushes to attack the intruders.
It doesn't take long for the group to realise it may not be as easy as they would have hoped to engage the spider in combat, as they would have initially thought. With its long legs the spider seems to have no trouble attacking the humans, but the warriors have trouble striking blows back with the spider constantly ducking back out of range.
"Let's get the rangers and get out of here!" cries Tevan, frustration evident in his voice. Soon the group have the three captive released from their cages, but the spider remains a threat. Calling upon his powers, Twitch soon causes a large billowing cloud of mist to coalesce in the middle of the room, blinding his monstrous opponent.
Bundling the weak rangers out of the room before them, the group makes it back to the main room, taking care to shut the doors firmly behind them.
Once safely outside the barn, there were a few moments of silence as everyone caught their breath.
“How’s everyone feeling?” Tevan asked.
“Not my best.” Belor replied, as Twitch nodded his agreement.
“I’m far from it.” Jakardros said, as if it weren’t obvious for all to see. “But far better for being out of those chains. Thanks you all.”
The ranger scratched Kib behind the ears affectionately. Kalar and Mutey for their part seemed too dazed to reply, but were obviously barely standing.
Summing up the situation, Tevan stands tall.
“All gather around me.” He says.
There seemed no particular ritual or appealing to any kind of deity on the paladin’s part, but a warmth slowly radiated out from him. In its wake the group all felt better as their wounds were, to varying degrees, mended.
“Time to check out that house.’ Belor stated eagerly, limbering up his sword arm. The group eyed house warily; if their encounters to date with these people had been unsettling, the appearance of the dilapidated building certainly did nothing to put them at ease.
Foreboding enough was the boarded up windows, which rarely boded well, but this was accentuated by various talismans from both animals and more humanoid forms hanging from the porch, wind chimes made of seemingly human bone clacking in the breeze. More discomfiting still was the oversized rocking chair creaking eerily as it moved with the occasional gust, again crafted of the bones of various creatures, with no doubt that the species of origin of many of them was two-legged.
“Any idea what’s in there?” Twitch asked the rangers, only to be met with shaken heads.
“Perhaps we would be better served to bring the occupants out?” Jon suggested.” Start a fire in the barn maybe, if we’re lucky it’d take care of that spider too.”
“Might be worth a try.” Twitch agreed, seeing the merits of the idea.
Jakardros, however, shook his head.
“That could leave us trying to deal with everything from within at once. Without any idea how many are within I think that’s too risky.”
After a little more discussion all agreed that the direct approach was best. They walked warily along the creeping boards of the porch to the door.
“Well, here we go.” Tevan said, finding the door unlocked and giving it a push.
A loud click was all that was needed for the companions, victims of traps many times in the past, to throw themselves to the ground or in any other direction as sharpened bony slivers erupted from the doorway. Their successes at dodging the missiles varied, but fortunately none were injured too grievously.
Stepping cautiously through, they found themselves within an entry hall. Furniture continued in the style of that found outside, of particular note a large lounge chair composed of both beastly hides and human skin, bringing to mind for Twitch thoughts of the Scarecrow, the hideously patched-together flesh golem they had faced at the base of the clocktower in Magnimar. Several doors, as well as a staircase, provided exits from the room.
Again a hurried, whispered discussion ensued, before they decided to try the smallest door, theorising that this would be the least likely to lead to any significant threat, but it would be good to clear the area of any danger rather than leave it at their backs.
Tevan again opened the door, but the tension with which the group held themselves proved unnecessary as no further surprises awaited them. Beyond the door lay a short corridor, narrow enough that they would only be able to progress single-file if they wished to preserve space to swing weapons. Keen to avoid being caught in such a small space, they hurried to the other end, to be met by another door.
Taking the lead again, Tevan put his ear to the door. He was about to tell his companions that he could hear loud, wheezing breath from the other side, but a sudden series of rattling snorts and coughs were clearly audible down the hallway, making such explanation redundant.
“Ideas?” he asked instead.
“You all know where I stand.” Belor stated, the warrior clearly ready for action.
“Any ideas other than storming through the door?” Jon asked the others. The question was greeted with shrugs and silence; no brilliant plans were forthcoming.
“Okay then. Three, two, one...” Tevan threw open the door.
The scene that greeted them was more or less appalling, depending on how one chose to interpret it. Floating just above a large bed, a massive sheet wrapped around her obese form, was perhaps the most monstrous woman they had ever seen (and this taking into account the half-woman, half-serpent Xaneesha they had previously dealt with), presumably the “Mammy” mentioned in Twitch’s scrying. Sharing the room with this horrific matron were three open caskets, each containing the body of a deformed man similar to those the group had already encountered, no less intimidating for the coarse hair stitching their mouths closed, or the signs of old wounds on their bodies. They immediately began stirring, these sons of Mammy, and their unlife made the situation seem all the more sick. For why, one had to wonder (if one dared), was the bedroom the place she kept them? Twitch, for one, shuddered as he heard again in his head the deformed man’s words from his scrying; “Oh, mammy is gonna be so happy with this one! She been so lonely!”.
Jon, however, seemed undistracted by such thoughts, taking the opportunity of everyone’s momentary surprise to read the scroll he had already pulled from his belt. A tiny ball of fire sped into the room, exploding as it hit the back wall, a wave of heat washing over those in the corridor. As the flames cleared they could see the back wall of the room had been incinerated by the blast. Closer, mammy scowled as she patted out the smouldering remains of her sheet.
“Haka!” she cried loudly. “Dinner’s getting uppity!”
“Coming mammy!” a slow voice responded from deeper within the house.
Jolted into action, the group responded. Tientrich squeezed past the warriors and flung himself through the doorway, his form growing and shifting as he entered the larger space and assumed again the form of the great Lurkwood bear. The zombies were also on the move however, and no sooner had Twitch cleared the doorway than one of the undead blocked the way, leaving the druid alone in the room and his companions stuck in the corridor.
In the moment it took Tevan to decide what to do, Belor bellowed, shoving his way past and crashing into the zombie with his shield, his full armoured weight behind it. The zombie was smashed from the doorway, and Tevan and Jakardros quickly took advantage to pour into the room. Meanwhile mammy had conjured a ghostly hand to her side, but while the spectral limb was intimidating it did not immediately pose any threat. The remaining Black Arrows turned to play rearguard, certain that the voice of Haka had an equally offensive body attached to it, and would soon join the fray.
Having recovered his energy after casting the fireball, Jon turned now to his well-used spell to speed his companions’ actions. Twitch immediately took advantage of his extra speed, savagely tearing into Mammy with teeth and claws. Taking a step back from the assault, the ogress used her own magical powers to nullify Jon’s spell, but it had at least kept her occupied rather than assaulting them with her own magic, and with swords swinging the warriors began hacking at the zombies.
This was soon helped by Jon recasting his enchantment, and the hastened men continued combating the zombies, one quickly falling, as the bear-druid continued its savage mauling of Mammy’s puddlinglike flesh. Mammy responded by floating out through the burned-out wall, rising into the air but then directing the floating hand toward Twitch. The horrid thing lightly touched the druid’s hide, but that light touch was all that was required, as the magic it delivered froze him in place, and his body began exuding a putrid stench.
The fight between Tevan, Belor, and the zombies continued in earnest, as Jon sent sizzling bolts of arcane flame at the matron, only to have one fly wide and the other deal only a glancing blow. It was enough, however, for the woman to feel she was truly threatened, as she began to flee further.
What happened next seemed incredibly strange to all watching. Tevan broke off his combat with a zombie for a moment, effortlessly deflecting its spear-thrust toward him as he stepped toward Mammy and called out a challenge.
“Get back here and fight like a real woman!” he called. And, strangely, she steamed through the air toward him, where he sliced into her ample flesh with his sword.
One of the remaining zombies and then the other fell to blades, and sounds of combat could be heard from down the corridor: presumably Haka had arrived.
Seeming confused by her own efforts at wading into combat, Mammy opened a glowing door around herself and disappeared. Belor ran to the hole in the wall and saw that she had appeared further away outside. He unslung his bow and sent arrows speeding toward her, soon joined by Jon and more of his arcane missiles. Mammy fell to the ground with a crash, and moved no more.
As this happened Kalar and Mutey decided they were outgunned by the new arrival, and Kalar had backed off while Mutey ran toward the room, Haka in close pursuit. As the two arrived in the bedroom, Haka at first glance appeared surprisingly normal, if one ignored his brutish size. However such appearance was short-lived. As he turned his head to survey the room it became apparent that one side of his head was grotesquely deformed, resembling nothing so much as an enormous pumpkin. The brute roared, consumed with rage as he saw his mother dead in the dirt outside the building. His rage did him little good, however, as he was badly outnumbered. Twitch, finally free of the paralysing magic, turned and slashed at Haka with his claws, and this wwas quickly followed by the swords of Tevan and the Black Arrows.
Haka fell to the ground, his blood pouring upon the floor.
“Mammy! Ooh oo-ooh!” he whimpered in pain as he crawled along the floor toward his fallen mother. “I don’t wanna die!” he cried. “I sometimes wish I’d never...”
Haka never finished whatever it was he had meant to say, as Belor’s sword came down and neatly severed his malformed head. It seemed the immediate threat, at least, was over.