The dagger’s blade slid ever closer to its intended target. Closer. Almost there. Its wielder thought, deftly bring it nearer to its target. At long last he would be rid of this annoying problem.
A sudden jerk in the room itself caused the knife to slip.
“Yeeee-Ouch! Dam it, Bilious!” Salopard spat the blood now following freely from his lip. “Fly this thing straight!” The halfling once more propped himself in front of the mirror and resumed his quest to remove the offending turkey skin from between his back molars.
“Curses – what now Torr?” He would never get rid of the annoying skin. Likely the avenger had seen the most hated wren of Bahumat and demanded Bilios pull over.
“Saloparr, I think you see this. We have reached Silvarlake, but-”
“It’s Salopard, noble Torr. If you would be so good to tell Bilios to set this thing down – gently – I will buy the first helping of fish at Fred’s.”
“-but Saloparr,” the proper pronunciation seemed to be impossible for the shifter, “The village, it’s in flames.”
The halfling sighed. “Just my luck. Why do you plague me so, m’lady Avandra? Lead the way Torr. The werecreatures must have another belief with our employees.” Grabbing Moonclaw on way out, Salopard soon lagged behind the speedy shifter. Why is he always in such a rush, the paladin though, as he pulled his obese frame up the stairs to the stern of the flying stone head.
Out of breath, Salopard came to the top of stairs, pausing only briefly to wipe the sweat from his brow with a silk handkerchief and resume scrapping the turkey skin from his teeth.
Entering the steerage, he cast his gaze upon the motley crew Lady Luck had saw fit to gift him as travelling companions.
Torr, the gigantic shifter, whose ancestors had at one time been weretigers, was clad in his usual black leathers, with icons of the platinum dragon and swords adorning every inch of his person. The hackles on the back his neck were already raised and he was likely ready to rush off and face this new threat blindly. Again.
Next, to him looking out over the banister into the valley below was the elf Therren. In his hand was his massive seven foot ironwood bow, which when the ranger drew he seldom missed. Though the diminutive knight owed Therren his life many times over, he was plague by the thought should the small band get in over their heads, Therren may not be there in the end. Then there was the elf’s unusual tendency to relieve himself at the most inopportune times.
Flying the stone head – Salopard uttered a quick prayer of thanks to Avandra for granting him such a wonderful ship, which saved him from walking across the Schoff Valley – was the wizard Bilios. The rotund Bilios, never really venture out of the head, though he did get them from points on the map and could be counted on to enjoy a good fish fry.
The fourth occupant of the room, or what Salopard thought was the fourth occupant. The figure lost in a haze of blue smoke was little more than a huddled mass of robes and blankets. Joral. The gnome who could talk to spirits was again lost to material plane in the hallucinations brought on by smoke of the Widow’s Bane weed. The shaman would not be of any use to anyone this day.
Removing the dagger from his mouth, he spoke “Now, what seems to be the problem gentlemen?”
“There…” Therren spoke, pointing to the scene below.
Salopard approached the lookout and was amazing at the carnage below. Half the small village was ablaze (again – unlucky sods) and something was burned into one of fishing town’s small fields.
“What is that?” The halfling pointed towards the charred symbol.
Torr was first to respond, drawing his massive back sword, “The most hated enemy of Bahumat.” His voice dropping to a deep growl, “Tiamat has come to Silverlake.”
Salopard’s dagger clanged on the stone floor.
The occupants of Silverlake were abuzz with trying to put out there smouldering homes and mend the wounds of the injured. Some were pleased to see Salopard, Therren and Torr once again walking there streets, although the adventurers got the sense that far too many of the fishermen were upset by their presence.
Making their way towards the only pub in town, Torr pitching in to help where he could, the trio saw other markings of Tiamat etched about the town.
By the time they reached the small taproom that served as the town’s only watering hole, Salopard was more than confused. They have saved these people from an army of werecreatures, created new trade routes usurping in a new age of prosperity and they had given many of the villagers jobs in their upstart business, Black Dragon Trout.
After talking to some of the regulars, the heroes quickly established that a gang of cultists had entered the village, kidnapped some of the occupants and daring the ‘Protectors of this shanty to meet them at the cave.’
After spreading some good will, and coin about Torr left to seek healer Yura’s and the Shaman Oopik’s guidance. Meanwhile, Salopard got himself and Therren another pint and resumed their investigations.
Not long after Torr’s departure, the pub’s door slammed open and in stormed the village drunk, Puck.
“There’sss they are! TThe great heroesh. Brought n’thing, but pain and sshuffering, since we met’em.” Locals rushed to silence Puck’s ramblings.
“No, good fish trappers. Let the man speak.” Salopard spoke without bothering to glance at Puck.
“D’ey issh the reason we was attack! Kick’em out and that lowshy shop of theirs. Likely d’ey won’t even go to t’at dam cave.” Puck continued his drunken rant for some time, in spite of Therren’s attempts to bully him into silence, eventually he lost steam and went to bar to get a flagon of ale.
Sighing Salopard rose from his stool and took this opportunity to approach the foul smelling Puck. After paying for his drink, the two began a quiet conversation, interrupted only by Puck’s occasional vocal cursing and Therren’s further attempts to cow the drunk into submission. Salopard had to hide his laugher in his mug at the thought of the twig-like, five foot elf bullying anyone into submission.
It turned out that everyone male member of Puck’s family, save the drunk himself, had at one time ventured into a nearby cave never to return. It was here Puck told them, the cultist had taken the townsfolk.
After buying Puck another flagon, Therren and Salopard rehashed the drunks story and in spite of a few glaring errors – how did Puck know the cultist had fled there, for example – they decided to round up the avenger and make their way to this cave. Puck had informed them it would be easy to find, just follow the large path the cultist had hacked their way through the forest.
Through his investigation, Torr had discovered that one of the hostages taken was Brother Oopik, the local priest. Furthermore, Yura the town healer was too busy to aid the heroes in a direct way, but wished them luck in rescuing the villagers. Also, the shifters had stopped by and checked in with their company and discovered that it had been unharmed by the attack.
Prior to leaving, the heroes collected a small amount of coin from their purses and gave it to Fred the bar’s own to provide drinks and food for the villagers upon their departure and finally, gathering all inhabitants around the Big House in the middle of town, Salopard summoned his silvery plate armour and set his glowing force shield on his back its oval edge forming a halo over his curly hair. With the aid of Torr and Therren he got atop a wooden crate and began to address the villagers;
“Friends, Silverlakers, Employees lend me your ears. I come here not to guarantee success in saving your loved ones, but to ensure you get back to your fishing duties. The hurt that has been done to you and yours has been most unfortunate, but we go forth to bring back those stolen from our village and punish those who have inflicted these injustices…”
After addressing the crowd for some time, the heroes departed with great fanfare, with Therren and Torr easily tracking Tiamat’s followers.
For Therren the walk through the woods was no great difficulty. They were a sparse wood a pleasant mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees and variety of ferns and other under growth. Therren also spotted numerous patches of Widow’s Bane, making careful mental notes of each patch as Joral would be sure to be interested in them and Sally had mentioned a business scheme involving the sweet burning weed.
Continuing along, the elf began to seek a spot to relieve himself of some of the sour ale Sally had insisted they consume in the human town. His keen ears picked up a low howl through the woods. He glanced back and saw that Torr had also heard the noise, as he had raised his nose to air and was sniffing the air. Sally on the other hand, seemed to be oblivious to noise and was appeared to be trying to wipe some mud from the toe of his boot with another of his silk handkerchiefs.
Unable to ascertain the exact location of the howls, or the creatures creating them, Torr thought it best to continue and Therren agreed. The halfling never looked up from polishing his boots and soon once again they were following the tracks.
To Therren’s skilled eye it looked as if there were 20 humanoids, they were following; six lashed together, the villagers no doubt. Mixed amongst these tracks were a number of large canine paw prints. Not wolf, Therren was sure, perhaps mastiff or wolf hound. Even though there were the canines in the group, the ranger seem certain the howling he heard was not coming from those they pursued, but behind them.
Coming to a small vale in the woods, the trio on Sally insistence stopped for the midday meal. As the fat, little knight plopped himself down on some rocks to sun himself, Torr began to prepare a small cook fire. In spite of growing up in an abbey, Therren held the shifters tracking and survival skills in high regard and was confident the fire Torr prepared would be hot and smokeless.
Going behind a tree to finally empty his bladder, Therren saw movement in the woods.
Quickly drawing his bow, Therren let loose a volley of arrows dropping two of the charging canines.
Even as the arrows streaked towards the oncoming enemies, Torr had unsheathed his two short blades and had plunged one into a wolf’s belly and slid the other across its neck. The wolf took another two paces, still unaware of its own death, before it crashed to earth, a crimson pool quickly forming around it.
The final enraged wolf in the pack saw what it assume to easy prey – Sally, lying on his back dressed only in his silk travelling cloths – rushed forward to sink his teeth into what more closely resembled an overweight hog then an armed adventure. It was only through Advandra’s grace that Salopard smelt the wolf’s hot breath as its jaws snapped down, and was able to roll off the rock to safety.
Upon regaining his feet Salopard summoned his armour from whichever plane it had disappeared to, its weight and tightness around the waistline, causing him great discomfort. Finally, he reached down and touched the rune that caused the radiant energy of his magic shield to spring forth. Now ready to fight, he turned to face the wolf only to set two arrows and a short sword end the beast’s life.
As Therren went to fetch his spent arrows, he could not help but thinking how unusual it was for a pack of four wolves to attack three men, well two and a half Therren thought with a smirk in Sally’s direction. His grin quickly disappeared as he saw another six wolfen shapes came racing through the woods towards them. These creatures were slightly larger than the previous four wolves and looked like a mix between an insect, a wolf and a rat. Therren had no clue as to the name of these hellspawn, but as there wretched howling rushed closer he had no doubt it was these beast that had caused the common wolves to act so unnaturally.
Laying down a storm of arrows at the approaching howling devils, Therren watched as his companions charge to engage them with their swords. He would never understand his friends’ desire to spill their own blood. Another arrow hit flew into one of the beast’s nostril with a loud thewack, slaying the fiend in mid-howl. As he prepared to draw another missile, the ground beneath him erupted in a frenzy of dirt, teeth and elven blood.
Torr cleaned the deep scarlet ichor from his blade. Bahumat was pleased by the death of the land shark. It could be the only reason that his deity set the creature in his path. It was a test, to prepare him for further greatness. Bahumat hated the bullette and now it lay dead by his hand.
The massive sword cleaned and re-sheathed, Torr rejoined his place in behind his friends eager to find these worshippers of the Dragon Queen and test himself against these foes. He fealt the hair on the back of his neck begin to rise and smile with anticipation of the coming exam.
Deeper and deeper they tread into the forest. Long past the four hours, his campaigns had claim the drunk said it would take. How he wish he could have spoken to the coward. Convince the drunken sot that he should show them the way.
Torr froze. Up ahead Therren had motioned for silence, it took the Saloparr a moment to notice and stop his vulgar shanty about Bella the Half-Orc of Claini. Closing his ruined eye and squinting with the good one, Torr could make out two figures trying to claw at a third dangling just out of their reach in the branches above.
Torr saw Therren string his bow, and Saloparr bid his armour come forth once more, but most importantly he could recognized the two figures on the ground as zombies, and the third about to fall into their clutches. Rushing forward in his righteous fury Torr proclaimed the closest of the undead would be the first to fall to his blade in Bahumat’s divine name and blasted it radiant energy. The unliving thing was thrown back fifteen paces and seared with the Torr’s righteous fury.
In the fury of the battle, Torr realized that these creatures were not true undead, but living puppets. Shells animated by hundreds of grubs inhabiting their bodies. It mattered little to Torr, he brought he sword clean through their flesh time and again. Not noticing the small grubs latching onto his own skin. Soon through the combined force of arms, the automatons and the grubs that had inhabited their rotting flesh were well and dealt with. Though Torr could feel some of the creatures moving about in his forearm, this concern would have to wait until after the cultists were dealt with.
Quickly wrapping his arm in a bandage, he went to where Saloparr was helping the zombies injured prisoner remove his hood. As the sac was removed, Torr saw two small orbs drop and a lump of ruined meat fall to the ground. The man’s eyes and tongue! Torr’s could feel his fury towards the cultist could to rise. It seemed to spring erupt out of him as he recognized the wounded prisoner. It was Oopik, the holy man of Silverlake. No soul deserved this fate, much less than that piece fool friar.
As Torr drew closer, he could see Oopik was writing something in the dirt. Kill me. It read in the common tongue. Torr could never consent to such a thing, but Therren was all too ready to end the man’s life, believing it to be an act of mercy. As the two began to discuss this over the ruined man’s moanings, Saloparr brought his pummel down upon the Oopik’s head, knocking him unconscious.
Deciding Bahumat again testing him, Torr thought the only solution to this was to fix a quick litter and dragged Oopik along. Through these feats he would prove his greatness to his good and be granted the right to slay the most hated enemy of Bahumat. He would prove himself.
His feet hurt. The hilt of his sword had rubbed a soar into his under belly. His clothing was soaked through with his sweat. And to top it all off that turkey skin was still stuck between his back molars. Avandra had truly cursed him with misfortune this day, but finally they were at the cave. Soon they would have rescued the villagers and be on their way home. Salopard could already taste the plate of trout of the greenless rainbow in front of him and a pint of sour ale.
He was so caught up in his meal dream that at first he did not notice Therren had discovered something at the cave’s entrance. Salopard sidled over to where Therren and Torr now stood. There on the ground lay another of the villagers, dead with both his legs missing just above the knee. What had happened to the rest of the body it was unclear and known of the troop could figure it out.
Quickly stashing Oopik, still tied to the litter, in a nearby copse. The trio cautiously entered the cavern. Angered by a long day’s walk and frustrated by the head, Salopard took his knife quickly scratch on the unnaturally smoothed walls of the cave, Puck this is your da, help me please you coward! With Avandra’s luck this message would play a role in events yet to unfold, but at very least they made the tired halfling feel better.
The cave ran for sometime in an unnatural smooth path, with numerous ancient symbols of the pantheon of deities. Neither Torr in his religious upbringing nor Salopard in his haphazard studies had seen these ancient depictions of the pantheon, nor could they ascertain what the bas-reliefs meant. The adventurers just continued deeper into the cave.
Finally, they came to a fork in the tunnel the smooth hallway continued straight ahead and another rough hewn path branched out to the side. Its rough edges were in stark juxtaposition to the hall they had been travelling down and it was decided that they would venture into the rough pathway. Just as they were about to set foot down the second hallway, Torr saw a boot in the original hallway.
Deciding to leave no stone unturned the trio turn around to investigate the boot, or pair of boots it would turn out to be, with their owner’s feet still inside them. It was soon evident that these were the missing feet from the body that lay outside the cave. How did they get separated from their owner was unclear, but the massive door with more of the strange cravings upon might give some clue.
Torr crept forward to touch the door, whilst Therren and Salopard maintain a rear guard in the side tunnel. As Torr reached out to touch the massive doors a deep voice spoke to Salopard directly, “Enter only if you have proven yourself worthy.”
Unsure of what this meant Salopard glance at Therren and saw that he had an odd expression upon his elven face. Torr crept back to where his friends rest and the three informed each other that they had all heard the same message, though it had spoke to Therren in elven, not common like the others.
Still felling like Avandra was on their side and not willing to disappoint Bahumat if this were another test, Torr volunteered to once more crawl forward and open the door. Everyone once more took their positions and Torr pushed open the portal. Again the voice spoke to each of the heroes;
“Welcome Watchers of the Valley!”