Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Erika peered out the window of her room. It was getting dark and the town of Almwick was a bleak, barren place even in the day. The war raging to the south was bad enough, every able-bodied man had marched off days before she arrived, and likely died on a goblin spear at Tarrington Fields. It was worse for the women, children, and graybeards that had remained in Almwick. Her arrival was greeted by locked doors, closed lips, and cold stares, but the signs of carnage were obvious. Three stakes still stood in the center of town, charred corpses piled around there bases. At every entrance to the town was a pike, topped by the tar-soaked head of one old man or another, placards identifying them as traitors or heretics, or both.
She stared out the window of a small house on the southern edge of town in which she had taken up residence to await her friends. She had been here a week, and still no one would speak with her, but no one challenged her when she took a bed in the empty house. The house’s prior occupants were piled outside with the rest of the bodies, the mother burned at the stake and her child trampled under hoof by the rogue witch hunters as they rode away. She watched as the tell-tale dust cloud of fast-moving horses approached Almwick. She listened as the already hushed and frightened town grew even quieter.
Erika stepped out of the house and waved as her friends approached. Sir Richard rode at the head, followed closely by Sister Carthix and “Mad” Meinhard Mott. The three of them, heavily armed, clad in battered plate, and prominently displaying Mitra’s holy symbol and the eagle of the Knights of Alerion were likely not helping the villager’s frightened condition.
“Ho, Sir Richard!” she called as they reigned up, “welcome to Almwick, or what’s left of it.”
The knight pulled up his horse just before the pikes and stared intently at the town. “You certainly picked a dour place to wait for us, Ms. Varning. We came as soon as we got your letter…”
“Yes, Makalu told me you were on your way,” Erika said as a hawk swooped down from the housetop to perch on her arm. “Did you pass the wall on your way?”
“Aye Erika,” Meinhard interjected, “and a sea of goblins as well. Which we should be riding back to put an end to. This place looks bad, but Balentyne was worse…”
“Mott, there are hundreds of knights riding from all corners of Talingarde to deal with the goblins, but there is only us to bring justice for these people.”
“Ms. Varning’s right, Meinhard,” Sir Richard replied. “This was an atrocity the likes of which I’ve seldom seen. Even after so long these implements of slaughter still bear the trace of evil. This was no righteous purge, but base murder and terrorism.”
Meinhard and Sister Carthix dismounted, the mail-clad nun looking around at the shuttered houses. “So what have you learned?”
“No one has been willing to speak with me, but luckily the people have been too scared to move about much, so I was able to find plenty of tracks. At least a half-dozen men rode in on the south road from Balentyne and left by the north. Tracks around the fire indicate that they wore heavy mail and their horses were shod for war. Unfortunately, the tracks end quite abruptly about a half-mile outside of town in either direction. They must be using some magic to mask their movements when afield.” She gestured north and west. “Lhotse, went scouting as far as Longsheaf and found similar signs of slaughter in every village up the river. That’s at least eight other towns that were similarly terrorized.”
“Following the Trasik…” Sister Carlotta looked at the river, “do they seek refuge in Farholde?”
“Yes, they do!” came a voice from behind them.
They turned to see a man stumbling into town, wearing armor apparently taken piecemeal from knights and goblins, his left hand wrapped in bloodied bandages, his belt festooned with crude weapons of all kinds, and the silver and sapphire holy symbol of Mitra about his neck.
Meinhard’s hand went to his blade, but Sir Richard positioned his horse between them. “Who are you Sir, and what do you know of the ones who did this?”
The man laughed, “I am Sir Fallon Nightly, Special Inquisitor to the King, and, to some, the bane of Aldencross. I don’t know for sure who did this, but I can hazard a guess. Balentyne was destroyed by a band of witches, the day before the goblins attacked the wall. I have it on good report that they then left by the river, headed for Farholde…”
Sister Carthix stepped around Sir Richard’s horse, “A special inquisitor? This far north?” She stepped towards the man, “You hand Sir, what happened to it?”
“Sister, wait!” Erika said. “The refugees I spoke with on my way north said that Aldencross was set ablaze by one of Mitra’s Witch-Hounds…”
“That is true,” the man replied. “I smelled the witches when I got to Balentyne and searched Aldencross for them, unsuccessfully. When I reached the town’s inn I found that everyone there had been charmed and had the witch’s stink on them. A fight broke out and I was forced to call on Mitra’s Fire to defend myself, but ended up burning the inn and several of the people there in the process. The charmed villagers chased me from the town, and I assume the witches did a good job of spreading the tale of my failure…”
Sister Carthix looked hard into the man’s eyes, “I feel as if you’re not telling us everything…”
The man shrugged, “Fine. After escaping the villagers I was captured by the goblin warlord, Sakkarot Fireaxe, and learned that he was in league with the witches I was hunting. I also learned that the witches had been tracking me by means of a cursed ring I had been tricked into putting on when investigating a jail-break at Branderscar Prison. I took my own hand and the goblins left me for dead when they marched south…”
“You met the Fireaxe?” Sir Richard looked stunned, “and did not slay him?”
“I was outnumbered, unarmed, bound, and helpless…”
“Argh, that’s no excuse!” Meinhard growled. “If I’d been there I would have torn the blooder’s throat out with my teeth!”
“Whatever Mott,” Erika sighed. “As I said, we have more pressing business. If the people who did this are the same people who destroyed Balentyne, and, as Sir Fallon says, also witches and in league with the goblins, then we have to find them, and fast…”
“North then! To Farholde!” Sir Richard looked at Sir Fallon. “Will you ride with us, Sir?”
“I don’t trust him.” Erika and Meinhard said in unison.
“Trust him or not, we’d best take him with us,” Sister Carthix said. “The fact that Sir Richard has not yet taken his head tells us that he is not an evil man, and having a sniffer might be our best bet of finding these witches in knight’s clothing…”
“He’s on foot. He’ll slow us down…”
“Shot up Mott,” Erika sighed again. “If Sir Richard and the Sister have decided to bring him along, then Sir Fallon can ride with me. Rainier can easily carry the two of us.”
Just then another hawk flew in, shrieking.
“What’s that?” Sir Fallon asked, reaching for the axe on his back.
“Lhotse says there are several creatures approaching from the north. Man-like, shambling, smelling of death and smoke.” Erika climbed into her saddle, and pulled Sir Fallon behind her. “Come, quickly, before these poor townfolk have to face any more trauma…”
Within moments Erika and her, now four, allies were racing north out of town following the directions of her hawks. When they saw the things at a distance, she unleashed a blast of flame in their midst, to little effect. “They resist fire,” she told the others.
“Let see how they like steel!” Meinhard said, the familiar blood-red haze of a rage entering his eyes, and he and Sir Richard urged their horses into a charge. Just when they reached striking distance, Sir Richard’s Gray Lady faltered. Meinhard’s mount dropped dead instantly, sending him crashing to the ground. He stood up sputtering and looked at the things…and immediately went pale.
Sir Richard leaped from Gray Lady’s back, impaling one of the creature’s with his lance and shouting for the horse to continue on. “Bodaks!” he shouted to the others, “do not meet their gaze.” The one he impaled pulled itself forward on the lance and began pummeling him with its fists.
Erika dismounted and give Sir Fallon the reins. “Help them,” she said, aiming a lightning bolt at one of the creatures near Sir Richard. The bolt struck the creature and grounded out into the dirt, seemingly doing it no harm at all.
Sir Fallon drove her horse into the fray, pinning one of the bodak’s under Rainier’s body as the horse fell and stabbing into the creature’s foul eyes with a crude dagger of goblin make. The blade struck home, blinding the bodak, but causing Sir Fallon’s own eyes to seep blood. Sister Carthix rode in behind him, her armor glowing like the sun and blasted the bodak’s with a burst of holy energy.
The bodaks screamed and shrank back from Mitra’s holy light, their undead flesh melting away. Enraged the creatures focusing their dread gazes on Sister Carthix. She averted her eyes, holding her holy symbol firmly before her, but her friends saw her waver, her arms fell, by the time she thought to close her eyes, it was too late. The holy symbol fell from her hands and she collapsed, her eyes burning away into wifts of acrid smoke.
Sir Richard and Meinhard screamed in rage and laid about them with a fury. Meinhard cleaving the heads from two of the beasts that Sister Carthix had weakened, Sir Richard pulling out his holy symbol and destroying two with his own blast of holy positive energy. Still, even as they pressed the assault, Erkia could see them weakening. She thought back to everything she had heard about Bodak’s and suddenly remembered that the creatures lacked any defense against cold.
“Duck!” she shouted, as a cone of icy wind exploded outwards from her hands. Sir Fallon dove to the side, easily evading the blast, Meinhard gritted his teeth and shook off the cold, but Sir Richard and the bodaks took the full brunt of the icy assault. Sir Richard fell to his knees, shivering. The remaining bodaks froze in place.
Sir Fallon and Meinhard set about shattering the frozen bodaks as Erika rushed to help Sir Richard and Sister Carthix. Sir Richard was already healing himself, but the nun was dead.
“Burn her body,” Sir Fallon stated plainly. “This is clearly the work of the witches and anything their undead minions kill is sure to come back as such.”
Meinhard and Sir Richard nodded gravely. They stripped Sister Carthix’s body of any useful possessions, then stood back as Erika called up a gout of flames from her hands to destroy the remains of the nun and their undead assailants.
The cleanup done, Erika and Sir Fallon took Sister Carthix’s horse, Mitra’s Gift, and Meinhard climbed up behind Sir Richard.
“If these witches can summon such creatures to their aid, then we must hurry…” Sir Richard said.
And hurry they did.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
As he turned away from the burning ruins of the town of Aldencross, Sir Fallon half-collapsed with exhaustion. The mob chasing him had dispersed, but he had been running for hours, and now, after the brief pause, his wounds caught up with him. He unshipped his great axe and used it to help prop himself as he descended the far side of the hill.
When Sir Fallon reached the bottom of the hill he fished in his pockets for his last healing potion and quaffed it greedily. The potion worked its magic, taking the sting out of his burns and softening the pain from his many bruises, but it was not enough. He was tired, and it felt as if he had a cracked rib. With no other options, he began searching for a place to rest, finally settling on a large hollow log. It was a tight squeeze, but just large enough to hold him, and the best shelter the dark woods could provide.
He awoke with the dawn, cold, damp, and aching, crawled out of the fallen log, stumbled what he hoped was a safe distance away and relieved himself. He then crawled back in the log and fell back to sleep. He was next woken by the sound of his own stomach. He tore into his pack and scarfed down the handful of soggy biscuits that he had grabbed on his way out of the keep the morning before searching Aldencross, then, somewhat sated, passed out again. Three days passed there in the fallen log. At some point he apparently woke enough to catch and eat a rabbit, and to bandage his wounds, though he remembered little of it.
When Sir Fallon finally did wake, he found that the pain of his wounds had mostly subsided, to be replaced by the ache of spending days sleeping in the cramped confines of the hollow log still clad in his armor. He was still tired, and felt as if he may have had a fever during those three restless days and nights, but he at least felt as if he might be able to defend himself again. A good thing too, for he woke to the sound of harsh voices speaking not far away. He could not understand what they said, but knew enough to recognize the vile speech of goblins.
He crawled warily out of the log, staying as low to the ground as possible and keeping a hand on his axe. He wished that he had thought to borrow a sword, or at least a knife, from the keep’s armory, for his axe required considerably room to swing properly and would be of little use if the goblins caught him before he was on his feet and clear of the log. Luckily there was a large rock between himself and the speakers, and the disgusting creatures were too caught up in whatever they were talking about to look in that direction.
Free of the log, he hazarded a peek over the rock and saw not only the two speakers, which were, as he suspected, goblins, but dozens, even hundreds more of the creatures. While not well organized, the goblins were well armed and equipped for a march; clearly a war party. More importantly, Sir Fallon was starving. Whatever the foul creatures carried with them for provisions had to be better than starving to death…right?
Sir Fallon slid his axe back into the straps on his back and picked up a sharp-looking stone, which, while not a proper weapon, would be better in close-quarters. He waited. One of the goblins turned towards the rock and lifted its kilt to relieve itself and gasped, seeing Sir Fallon there. The rock took it between the eyes, stunning it. In a flash, Sir Fallon was over the rock, axe in hand, and the urinating goblin’s companion lost its head. Sir Fallon stifled a laugh as the splash of goblin blood began healing his remaining aches and pains. He punched the urinater, which was apparently female, in the face for good measure, then quickly drug the two bodies back behind the rock, pausing only very briefly to make sure the others in the band had not noticed.
He beheaded the second goblin and found it very hard to draw his gaze away from the lifeless eyes of the creature’s head. Finally tearing his eyes away, he stripped them of their gear, claiming a pair of short, crude swords, a number of strange bag-like projectiles, a skin of what he hoped was water, and a couple hands-full of smelly, watery cheese. At least, he hoped it was cheese as he crammed the milky-white globs into his mouth. While he nearly gagged from the smell and it tasted more like spoiled milk than properly cultivated cheese, the stuff was at least edible.
Sir Fallon re-shipped his axe and removed all his armor save for his breastplate, stashing his boots, greaves, cuisse, gauntlets, vambraces, and gorget inside the log. He then shoved the remaining goblin rations into his pack, took up the two swords, and lit out away from the goblin war party, hoping to put some distance between himself and them before any of them thought to look for the two missing ones.
Sir Fallon had not gone far before he spotted another band of goblins. He routed around them only to encounter another, and another. Within the span of a mile he spotted at least six such bands, each larger than the last. Knowing that so many sightings could not be a coincidence, he found a large pine tree and climbed, and there, on the edge of Lake Tarik, he saw it. A huge encampment of goblins, twenty-thousand strong and arrayed for war. A larger force than had ever been seen in all the history of Talingarde.
Sir Fallon half-climbed, half-fell in his haste to get down the tree. He knew that, regardless of the events of the other night, he had to warn the defenders of Tower Balentye about the goblin horde. Somehow he knew that the events in Aldencross and the massing army of goblins had to be related. It could not be a coincidence that the town and keep guarding the gates of Talingarde had been infiltrated by the forces of darkness just days ahead of this mass of savages.
Unfortunately, he had been so intent on the main force of goblins by the lake that he had not spotted the group that had amassed around the base of the tree. He came down right in the middle of them and was immediately grabbed by a pair of large, dark-skinned goblins, and the smaller, faster goblins quickly deprived him of his weapons and gear. He struggled to escape, but the grips of the two goblins holding him were like manacles of iron.
Sir Fallon was dragged, struggling the entire way and with several beatings, towards the camp on the edge of Lake Tarik. From the ground the camp looked even larger, but somehow less impressive. The goblin army was armed, but only loosely organized. Tents were scattered in haphazard clusters, fires were not banked, weapons lay strewn in piles on the ground, just a little too far from the hands of their intended users. He saw enough disorder that he was sure that, if he could only get free, he could turn it into true chaos…possibly even escape alive…
Sir Fallon was dragged to a large tent on the shore of the lake. While larger than some of the others in the camp, and clearly some sign of status or place of meeting, it was nothing like the pavilions kept by the knights in Talingarde, but rather a makeshift kind of thing of sewn-together bear hides, staked from the outside with crude wooden pegs and ropes woven from animal fur. A banner hanging in front of the tent bore a crude drawing of an axe surrounded by flames. Then he smelled, it. The tang of witchcraft in the air was faint, but smelled very similar to that in Aldencross.
As he was shoved into the tent the smell became stronger. Within was a plain wooden table, bearing a rough diorama of the wall, the Tower Balentyne, and Aldencross. Even the damage from the recent fire was, as best he could guess, accurately represented. Standing behind the table, staring intently at it, was the largest goblin he had ever seen. A great, black beast with shaggy fur and a giant axe strapped across its back. The eyes that examined the table gleamed with the vicious cunning that Sir Fallon had learned to expect from goblins. While filthy, disgusting, and disorganized, goblins were exceptionally bright, especially where it came to spreading mayhem and
destruction. The stink of witchcraft clung to the great goblin like a sickening perfume.
After what seemed like minutes, the large goblin looked up at him and smiled. “Greetings soldier of Talingarde. You arrive on an auspicious day. Tomorrow our great army will storm the gates of Balentyne and conquer your pitiful nation.”
Sir Fallon glared at the goblin and struggled against his captors. The great goblin looked carefully at Sir Fallon, seeming especially intent on his hands, then at the two holding him and, with a wave of his hand, ordered that Sir Fallon be released. The two goblins let go of him and took a step back to stand beside the entrance to the tent.
“I see you serve Thorn’s Girls as well…” the goblin began, holding up a hand bearing a ring identical to the ring of protection Sir Fallon had taken from Branderscar.
The knight, coiled and ready to spring at the goblin, stopped and looked at the goblin incredulously. “What?” he asked.
“Your ring, Sir. It is the same as the one I wear. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me, but I suspect it means that you have met the three lovely girls who presented this one to me.” The goblin smiled. “They are probably watching us right now if you’d like to speak to them.”
Sir Fallon’s eyes grew wide and he reached for the ring on his hand, and, in terror discovered that he could not remove it. He concentrated on the ring and could feel the curse embedded in the item. It must be one of the prisoner’s rings from Branderscar, somehow magically disguised when Aidan had examined it. No wonder the witches had created that storm. They knew he was in Aldencross. He growled and tore at the ring, cursing Sir Aidan and himself for fools.
“I take it you do not wear yours willingly?” The big goblin laughed and stepped around the table. He grunted something to the other goblins, who laughed as well. “What are you doing alone north of your precious wall, soldier of Talingarde?”
“Scouting…” Sir Fallon began.
“Do not lie, Sir,” the goblin interjected. “Scouts from Balentyne always travel in packs and on horseback. I should know, I slew six of them just a few days ago.” The goblin laughed again. “Now let me repeat, why are you here?”
Sir Fallon looked at the big goblin’s ring, his maps, his weapons. He figured he could take as many as a half-dozen of the smaller goblins in a fair fight, but somehow he was certain that this one was more than a match for him. He looked around for an escape route, saw none that presented itself. “Very well,” he said, “I am Sir Fallon Nightly, Special Inquisitor to His Majesty, King Markadian the Brave, the fifth of his name, Protector of the Righteous. I was sent to Balentyne to investigate possible laxities in their soldiery. While there I caught the sent of a witch…”
“Ha! You are one of Mitra’s Hounds?” The goblin laughed at him again. “Is it really true that you can smell sorcery? And yet, you were tricked into putting on one of Thorn’s Girls’ rings?” The tent practically shook under the force of the goblin’s guffaws.
“Thorn’s Girls? You said that before…”
“You smell them, yet you do not know them?” The big goblin leaned back against the table. “They are three of the loveliest females of your species I have ever seen, and believe me, I have defiled a great many of your women. Three girls of exquisite beauty, a blonde, a brunette, and one with hair like fire. And, I may add, most persuasive.”
Sir Fallon fought down his rage.
“Tell me, Special Inquisitor, if I released you right now and promised you safe passage back to Belentyne, would your warnings be of any use?”
Sir Fallon thought for a moment, then sighed, “No.”
“Good, you are smarter than most soldiers. Even at its strongest, Balentyne houses maybe two hundred soldiers. I have a hundred times that many. Even without the girls there to throw open the gates and undermine the tower’s leadership, my hordes would overwhelm the keep within hours.”
Sir Fallon started to respond, but was cut off again. “What? You think that if you return with the knowledge I just provided that you might catch the girls?”
“Yes!” Sir Fallon replied emphatically.
“No! They see your every move, hear our every word. They’ll know where you are and where you are going.” The goblin grinned, “You will never catch them…unless…”
The goblin stood up to his full height, plucked a dagger from the table, and tossed it to Sir Fallon. The knight grabbed the blade out of the air, looked at his hand, and gulped.
“You know what to do. Tomorrow my forces will overrun Balentyne and burn it to the ground. We will slaughter your people and topple your wall. There is nothing you can do to stop it.” The big goblin waved at the map. “By the time we reach the wall, the girls will be gone. Their benefactor will be waiting to pick them up once they signal that the gates have been opened. She tells me that the girls will be taken north to deal with some other task of importance.”
Sir Fallon nodded grimly, laid his hand flat on the table, and began to cut…
Sakkarot Fireaxe watched as the knight, axe across his back and blood still dripping from the stump that had been his hand, and smiled. “That one is formidable,” he said to his commanders standing beside him.
“Then why let him go great Sakkarot?!”
“Because he is no danger to us. Our war is no longer his concern. He has been beaten and humiliated. All he cares for now is vengeance against the witches. He will stand by and let his country burn as he hunts those girls to the ends of the earth…”