Echoes of Ilithria

Precious Cargo!
Some jobs aren't what you'd expect...

It was a surprisingly warm and clear summer day in Anselm. Cadimar weather was rarely so optimistic. Daniel had just returned to the city after yet another successful mission for the Golden Serpent. He’d really found his place in this organization, hunting down miscreants and more recently, working to dismantle the organized crime that was crippling the city. Because of the work of the Golden Serpent, Infidelis, a group of corrupt politicians, had been dismantled. For this reason, many members had recently relocated for their own safety, leaving more and more work to Daniel. He’d used his newfound friends on occasion. Kovak and Kaedo’s magical abilities had proved quite useful, and his handler, the Dutchess, was quite impressed with Daniel’s ability to get the job done. He had in his mind to go and enjoy the wonderful weather and let the aches of his past run wear off, but he saw a familiar chalk mark just inside his front doorjamb and knew that the Dutchess was waiting to see him. He sighed audibly and went inside to put away his things before heading back out the door. On his way to the usual meeting place, he sent two couriers to send messages to Kovak and Kaedo that they might be needed again.
It was a short walk to the Grizzled Penguin tavern, but Daniel usually took different roads each time, just as a precaution. He entered the nearly-empty tavern and headed towards the private room in the back, nodding to the barkeep. The Dutchess waited within. The aging man was still in good shape and his penetrating eyes never looked anything other than serious. He had long white hair and no trace of facial hair, part of what had earned him his lifelong nickname, although he didn’t seem to mind. The custom crossbow at his side was a deadly tool in his hands. Daniel could shoot quickly with a bow, but had never seen someone out-shoot him both in speed and accuracy, let alone with a crossbow. The Dutchess was a dangerous man, and Daniel honestly knew nothing about the man, even after over a year working with him.
“Looks like your my man again,” he said in a gritty voice. Daniel sat down and just nodded. Pleasantries were usually wasted on this man. “We just got an urgent message from one of our agents up north in Orrid. We know it was urgent because she went through the trouble of using a sending spell to get it to me in time, something not easily accomplished. All we got were a few words. Family. Precious cargo. Leaving Orrid today. Vital. That was it. We got it this morning and haven’t heard from her since. So, what I need from you, is for you to assemble a time immediately, head up there and see if you can intercept whatever it is that is important enough for one of my higher agents to risk her life over. We don’t know what this is, so keep an eye out, and if at all possible, see if you can find what happened to her. I expect they’ll use a barge, the fastest way out of Orrid. It’s likely heading to Kaerland, but there’s no way of knowing.” He finished and stared at Daniel who was writing down a few notes on a parchment. “Well, what are you still doing here?” Daniel looked up, realized that he’d lingered and went to see who else was available. The life of a bounty hunter…

  • * * * *
    Kovak and Kaedo had agreed to accompany Daniel on another dangerous adventure, but because of the apparent importance of this mission Daniel had also asked two of his trusted fellow Serpents along; Leorik, a holy warrior, and Donovan who had joined the order after the tournament. The five had ridden two and a half long days and some nights to get to the where the mouth of the Orrid river opened up into the lake by Grimsbury. If they missed the barge at this point they’d likely never find it. They found a good spot up river a ways and made their preparations. The river was extremely wide, well over two hundred feet, and they didn’t have time to make any sort of barricades. Without a barricade it would be difficult to control the movements of the ship. They’d have to figure out how to get on the ship, assess the situation, and get away. They could just sink the barge, but if there was any chance the precious cargo could be used further against the family, they’d try to keep it intact. Kovak used one of his more powerful spells to create a small series of illusory walls just over the surface of the river to make it look like that part of the river was too dangerous to pass through, forcing the ship to veer close to the south bank and closer to the group. Kaedo had whipped up some flying and invisibility potions for Daniel to use so they could board the barge if need be. With their preparations made, the group waited, and waited.
    Early dawn came and the sky began to lighten with each passing minute. As the darkness slowly faded Daniel caught sight of a barge rounding a riverbend not far away. This might be it. He and Kaedo both used invisibility and began to fly to get closer to look. The others would just have to wait. Kaedo perched on a rock near where the barge was headed and drank his extract that allowed him to see magical auras, although this was a much more powerful version than generic magic detection. Using his arcane sight, he watched the boat. He could see the pulsing of both defensive and offensive enhancement magic on two figures within the heart of the boat. Next to them was a third figure who radiated strong arcane magic, and beside that figure was a small box or chest that also had some magic surrounding it, although it had a number of auras that were hard to separate. This must be their vessel.
    He waited until the barge was past his location and closer to the rest of the waiting group before he threw two fire bombs on the back of the boat. The bombs exploded against the barge’s upper cabin and the wall immediately burst into flame, igniting the canopy that covered the walkway and dripping liquid fire onto the deck below. The man manning the back of the boat screamed in shock and tried to put out the alchemical fire, but only made it worse. Daniel took his queue and fired arrows at the man, two with his first shot, followed by another single shot. The three arrows sunk deep into the man, killing him instantly. Men began to pour from below, some putting out the fire, others drawing their own bows and firing back at the two flying figures. Arrows whizzed past both Daniel and Kaedo, and even a few spears were hefted, although few found any sort of mark on either of them. Daniel continued to rain down arrows of his own, one shot hitting so hard and directly that it pinned one of the men to the wooden cabin behind him. Kaedo threw two more bombs and the barge’s fire was out of control. With the vessel in chaos, it was quickly at the mercy of the river and began smashing into the few rocks that were close enough to the surface. It spun a few times before firmly crashing into the bank, then ceased to move. Most of the crewmen were down from arrows or had retreated below seeing the deadly aim of Daniel’s bow.
    Kaedo moved closer. As he did, three figure jumped off the front of the barge and onto the muddy bank. They looked around, assessing the situation. Kaedo took his opportunity and flew down and grabbed the hooded middle figure, holding his mutagenically-enhanced arms around them so they couldn’t move. The other two brandished weapons and quickly reacted, swinging at Kaedo and inflicting some wounds. The middle figure turned out to be a young girl with blonde hair and green eyes. She wriggled free and waved her hands, inflicting Kaedo with some sort of magic, although he was able to resist its initial effects. He grabbed her again and shot up into the air. The two bodyguards swung hard at him, but he moved too quickly and both hit each other with their weapons. Kaedo could only laugh at their cries of pain.
    Knowing that the girl was a wizard of some sort, Kaedo put his mouth over hers to prevent her from successfully adding the verbal components of her spells. She resisted, but was no match for his strength. Daniel just had to watch in shock and giant Kaedo kissed the girl and floated over the river. He shook his head… only Kaedo. One of the crew had thrown a few items overboard, one of which was a large wooden barrel. Daniel was suspicious that they might be trying to offload the precious cargo and float it down the river to be picked up later. He swooped down and grabbed the barrel, then followed Kaedo across the river to the southern bank. Kaedo meanwhile felt the affects of the girl’s spell as all of the air was drawn out of his lungs. He panicked and had to carefully and intentionally will his lungs to inhale. The girl took the chance to try another spell, but Kaedo dropped her onto the bank where Daniel held her at arrowpoint. The other three had made their way down and were helping carry the barrel and the girl into the nearby thicket and away from the crewmen’s sight.
    “Don’t try to make a move or we’ll use force,” said Daniel as Donovan tied her wrists. She cursed at them in some eastern-sounding language that none of them could identify. “Doubt we’ll get much out of her. She seems quite hostile.”
    They opened the barrel. Inside was a simple iron-bound chest, but Kovak warned them that it was pulsing with magical energy. He touched it to assess the nature of the magic, but recoiled in pain. He began to bleed from his eyes and the flow wouldn’t stop. Kovak began to curse and rub his eyes, mumbling something about backlash. “Put it back in the barrel,” he said, blinking often to clear his vision. He looked hideous, and Leorik took a look at him.
    “Yeah, that’s a curse that is. Can’t do nothin for ‘im tho. I can’t cast that high-a seal yet. ‘E need ’im a cleric.” Daniel always strained to understand Leorik’s strong accent, but understood well enough. The group took their horses and headed off back towards Anselm.
  • * * * *
    The trip back wasn’t as hurried as their trip north, but it was still toilsome, carrying the barrel containing the chest and their prisoner. Daniel kept looking back, expecting to see someone following them, but he never saw anyone. He made sure to push them hard the first few days to get some good distance between them and the burnt ship. On the second night of travel, they made camp in a small dell near some trees. The rations were cold as Daniel didn’t want to risk a fire on the open plains, lest anyone was still looking for them. If this cargo was as important as he suspected, then the Family would likely be after it, and with force. Everyone settled in, except for Kaedo who was chosen for watch. The night was quiet, except for the occasional cicada call. Kaedo was beginning fade as tiredness from the hard rides and the attention it took to watch the girl. She was quite young, around 17 perhaps, and had refused to eat anything they had tried to give her, although Kaedo had heard her stomach rumble several times. They’d have to find someone who spoke her language, and maybe that would help. Kaedo was reading his own notes on alchemical discoveries when he saw what looked like a glint of steel in the moonlight. “Who goes there?” He called out. With no immediate answer he yelled to rouse the others. The attack came quickly. Eight figures came out of the dark surrounding the small group and daggers flashed. Unable to react in time, all of the sleepers took hits from the daggers, but got up quickly to respond. Daniel, still on the ground, knocked two arrows and sent them into the one that had attacked him. The arrows hit home with such for that the humanoid figure in front of him exploded. Shards of wood rained down from the figure’s head and chest. That was not what Daniel had expected. “They’re wood!” he yelled, out of shock.
    Donovan also reacted quickly, raining five quick blows down on his assailant, likewise shattering the creature as it dropped lifelessly to the ground. Leorik didn’t get up. Kovak moved away from the two that had run up on him and breathed fire, setting them both alight. They continued to attack for a time, but quickly burned out and smoldered on the ground. Kaedo used bombs to set another two on fire. The fight went quickly, as whoever had sent the would-be assassins had underestimated the team’s ability. They made quick work of the last two. One tried to run, but was easily gunned-down by Daniel. They inspected the bodies. They were carved wood with metal joints and some metal plating, and there were no gears of any sort indicating they were propelled by magic.
    “Aye, those be anonymous assassins. Got a small group that makes em and sells em to whoever wants. No way of knowin who sent em. Best make our way before we get any more surprises,” Donovan said, panting on slightly from the exertion.
  • * * * *
    The rest of the trip back had been uneventful, but Daniel didn’t take any other risks. They worked in paired watches and found more sheltered grounds to sleep. Leorik had been poisoned somehow by one of the assassin’s blades, and would just have to have it work through his system. But with his unconscious body and a prisoner, the going had been slow. When they reached the city, Donovan took Leorik to a healer while Kaedo took Kovak to find a priest to heal his curse. Daniel went to the Dutchess who eagerly waited to hear their report and looked over the chest carefully as it sat on the table.
    “I’ll get some of our people to open this up. What of the girl?” he asked.
    “Still unresponsive and still not eating. It’s been four days since we got her and not a single bite.”
    “I’ll see what I can do.” The Dutchess was known for having quite an array of abilities. One of which was being able to speak almost every major language known on Ilithria. Rumors said he was over a hundred years old, but he didn’t look it. He still had a boyish face. Just rumors. Hopefully they could get this chest open and figure out who this girl was. At the very least that was one less Family member out in the world…
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A Winner is Crowned!
The Theod Tournament comes to it's conclusion...

DAY 5
The exhibition for day five was being prepared in the Grand Pavilion and the teams were making their way there. The excitement had really died down for the competitors as the toll of days of battle left them weary, and wounds were being stacked. Kovak had disappeared since the previous day and none of the others knew where he was. This put their team at a huge disadvantage. Keaton entered the arena and assessed the situation. The exhibition for the day was some sort of mind challenge, a riddle. The arena floor was open except that a large pillar had been placed in each of the corners. The rules were announced and the contestants would have to go to each of the pillars, read a clue, then put the clues together to find the answer, and they only had two minutes to do it. Their turn had come up. It was a real shame that Kovak wasn’t there. Despite his crazy and often distracted mind, he was quite clever, and knowledgeable. They’d have to make due without him. They entered the arena and the time was started. They each ran to different pillars and began to read. Only then did they realize the catch to the challenge. Each pillar was rigged with a magical trap, that when read, triggered a different spell. Keaton and Kaedo read two of the clues and then began to move to the other corners. Daniel began to read a third pillar, but just became more and more confused. He stared at it and just couldn’t make sense of it. Keaton tried the fourth pillar, but his mind wasn’t strong enough and the magic triggered. He panicked and ran away from the pillar as if being chased. Kaedo tried the same pillar and was able to get the clue. They all tried the pillar that Daniel was staring at, but none of them could make sense of it. The time was almost up, and with only three of the four clues they tried to solve it, but were unable before the time ran out. Disappointed, they went to prepare for their afternoon bout against the Poison Lodge.

  • * * * *
    The afternoon match came and Kovak still hadn’t been found. The three had looked, but had heard no word about the white-haired old man. They headed into the large mountain on the island which was supposed to be a dormant volcano, but as they climbed the last set of stairs that opened into the hollow interior, they could see pools of lava indicating otherwise. The arena for this fight was open, but the whole fight was to take place on a bed of coals. Contestants would have to take off any footwear and fight barefoot for the duration of the match. They entered the arena and got the first look at their opponents. Two men and two women, moderately-armored and with some average-looking weapons. With a name like the Poison Lodge though, they could be pretty sure there would be some foul play.
    The match started and the teams moved quickly into their positions. Daniel fired shots at one of the girls as she ran up, bearing dagger. Kaedo began to fly and started throwing bombs at both her and the other man that was advancing with his sword and axe. The other two had held back. Keaton also charged the girls and hit with a few precise strikes, leaving the girl bloody. The dual-wielding man proceeded to step up to Daniel and take a few swings, although he was able to dodge and block most of them. One of the two that had held back ran up to the girl and laid his hands on her, chanting some sort of spell, and many of her wounds began to close by themselves. From out of nowhere, a bolt of bright lightning burst forward. The girl and Daniel dodged out of its path, but Keaton wasn’t able to react quickly enough and the bolt caught him across his back, burning him significantly.
    The girl with the daggers took the opportunity to stab at his back and caught him in the kidney. The dual-wielding man turned around and attacked Keaton as well. Kaedo threw bombs to deter them, but it was too late. Keaton was unable to sustain the blows from both of them, and he slumped to the ground. Daniel, feeling overwhelmed, threw his hands up and forfeited the match. Sneering and laughing, their opponents limped off the arena floor and disappeared out of sight.
  • * * * *
    The banquet was as somber affair for the team, or what was left of them. Daniel drank in silence. Kaedo was a little upset over forfeiting the match, although he had stopped verbalizing it. He had hard feelings about Keaton’s death, but was more frustrated at himself for not being able to defeat their enemies. If he’d done better, Keaton would still be alive…
    Daniel had been watching the Rhilirosian girl from the team Flair. She was the target he’d been hunting and the original reason he’d come, although he’d grown attached to these guys. With a companion dead, his anger was at full-boil. Tonight he’d take his bounty. He got up and skulked off to the tents to hide in wait.
    The time passed slowly as Daniel waited. Keaton’s pride had killed, he thought to himself. If he’d given up sooner, he’d be alive. It wasn’t his fault. He repeated these thoughts to himself, but he couldn’t get past the weight of personal guilt for his part in letting another man die. An innocent man… He stopped as the team of three made their way into the tent. It was late and the banquet was surely over. He waited until he didn’t hear any noise from the tent, then waited another hour, just to be sure. Creeping up to the tent, he listened for any noise. Nothing but the rhythmic sounds of breathing. He used a dagger to cut a small slit in the back of the tent, then knocked two arrows that he’d stolen from the sanctioned armory. Taking his aim at the figure of the woman sleeping on the floor, he released. The arrows sunk deep into her chest, pinning her to the ground. She awoke, but with arrows through her lungs was unable to scream. Daniel moved quickly away from the scene and headed back to the tent. Keaton’s body was there, stripped down to his undergarments. Kaedo was tending to the body and had prepared fresh clothes for him.
    Daniel stood there in shock. The tattoo of a small, red flower could be seen on Keaton’s left shoulderblade. The Red Orchid. Keaton was part of an assassin’s guild. Daniel felt a little worried. Had they sent him there to check on him? Was he being watched? His order was sworn to take down all of those involved in organized crime, and the Red Orchid was Anselm’s largest group. Mostly assassins for hire and dirty politicians. His group had been working on them for years, yet they still thrived. He wasn’t sure what this meant, but didn’t see anything to do but to wait it out and see what happened.

DAY 6-7
The rest of the tournament was less than exciting. The final four teams were Jasmine Kiss (Elysia), The Knights of the Mountain, the Poison Lodge, & Jabberwock. Jasmine Kiss defeated Jabberwock and the Knights defeated the Lodge. Daniel’s heart wasn’t in it. He had such mixed feelings about the whole situation. He, as a part of the Golden Serpent, should have hated Keaton, but then again he couldn’t just let someone die. He felt good about completing his assignment, and word had spread quickly of the murder. There was no way he could be identified, but he still acted casual so as not to arouse any suspicion. Kaedo was complaining about the money they had lost by not advancing to the next round, but Daniel just drowned him out. Kovak had also showed up the following day, and it turns out he’d been kidnapped, with no way to identify his kidnappers, and was released the following day. Daniel suspected that the McNally’s had something to do with the whole process. Kaerland’s premium crime family had had quite a presence in the gambling circuit for the tournament, Daniel had identified several higher-ups, and would have loved to collect bounties on them, but there was just too much of a presence there for one man. They would have to wait. He was convinced that the gamblers had orchestrated Kovak’s kidnapping to tip the results of the fight in their opponents’ favor, but without proof anything he said would only cause more trouble.
Elysia was crowned the winner of the fifteenth Theod Tournament during the victory ceremony. She smiled and feigned humility as she waved to the crowd. Daniel could see right through her. He was almost certain she was a pawn of the McNally’s and that fair play is why they were defeated. He stored up the anger in his mind, saving it for a later time. The team received their prize: 1,000 gold crowns and a participant’s sigil, embossed with gems in the outline of the Warrior constellation. Disappointed and defeated the team went back to the tent and collected their belongings. Daniel was eager to put some distance between himself and Tader Island.
Back on his private houseboat, Daniel stared absently over the cresting waves. The shoreline of Kaerland could barely be seen behind them. It would be almost two weeks on the ocean to get back to Anselm. Faster boats could be used, but the houseboat was all he had. Keaton’s body was below, in a simple wooden casket, and Kovak hadn’t wanted to leave its side. Kovak had insisted that Keaton was to be buried in Anselm, and Daniel was happy to take them all back, feeling like he owed them something. Kaedo had a townhouse that he could let them use once they were back until they figured out what was to be done next. For now, Daniel’s mind returned to the wind and the waves.

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You Gotta Fight, for Your Right!
The Theod Tournament continues its brutal bracket...

DAY 3
An overcast day with light drizzle, the third day of the tournament wasn’t as glorious as it should be. Despite the weather, the throngs of people were no less excited about another day of heroic and dangerous fights. The day started off with an exhibition in the Grand Pavilion as usual. Archery was the skill being tested. Each team selected one participant and they 64 men and women readied their bows. They were given sanctioned arrows, ten each, and were allowed to shoot at their choice of three targets at different distances with the further targets awarding more points. Contestants took their shots one at a time, and for the group’s team, Daniel was chosen. He was an able marksman and took his first shot, sinking it cleanly into the second ring on the first target. With this confidence he shot at the second target. His eye and aim were right, but his shot missed the target entirely. He looked at the target again. It was as if some sort of visual trick made it appear like it wasn’t where it actually was. He shot at the third target, but again, missed entirely. The third was even more askew than the second. Daniel was trying to figure out the optical illusion. He managed to make another two successful shots, but the rest missed their mark. He had a lot on his mind and the pressure was getting to him. He felt like he’d really let his team down, but that wasn’t why he was there. The winner of the tournament was a blond-haired man who took all of his shots at the third target and managed to hit five out of the ten attempts. The crowd loved it.
Later in the day the team, now known as “Clown Baby”, went to their arena for their match. The opposing team’s name was Crush, and they hailed from Makhor. Keaton had gotten some information about the team when he had found his connections to make his usual bets. The team was a singular man and his gorilla, Betty. Apparently the gorilla was quite well-trained and incredibly dangerous. Well that seemed obvious… The team was assigned to the forest arena on the eastern part of the island. When they entered the stadium they finally could see the arena itself. It was a series of platforms comprising two levels. One level was twenty feet high while the other was forty. The platforms were all wooden and rope ladders were used to connect the two levels. The ruling was that if a contestant fell off, or in the case of Kaedo flew off, the platforms he or she was disqualified. The coin toss was made, with Crush winning and start on one end of the upper level while Clown Baby started on the other end of the lower.
As soon as the match officially started, Keaton and Daniel rushed to the other side of the platform directly under the opposing team. Kaedo turned invisible, a trick he had learned from their opponents the previous day. Kovak just stood there, quite confused and waited where he was. The large man started barking orders in a strange language, although a word that sounded like “Betty” could be heard, clearly explaining why others had thought the gorilla had that name. Such an animal was extremely rare and could only be seen at great cost when a traveling circus came through a major city. The armored beast ran and jumped from the upper level onto the lower, and seeing only Kovak, swung a large arm. Unable to get out of the way in time, Kovak was knocked to the ground and disqualified. Hearing his cries, the rest of the team responded. Daniel sunk a few arrows in weak spots around the beast’s armpit, while Keaton ran behind and stabbed at its kidneys. Kaedo became visible and threw a concussive bomb, deafening the creature and sending it into a rage. The handler above waved his arms and yelled some incantation as the clouds above them swirled. A large burst of lightning came down from the sky in a magnificent display. The sheer amount of power arced off the spot Kaedo had been standing and jolts hit both Daniel and Keaton. Although shocked and in pain from the power, they were able to shrug it off and continue their assault.
Betty, close to Kaedo, stepped and easily knocked him off the platform. The handler was trying to control Betty, but it couldn’t hear an was swinging blindly from the pain. With another few well-placed arrows and dagger strikes, the gorilla began to back away and lost balance, falling off the platform and lying still on the ground below.
Although they couldn’t understand the man, it was clear that he was yelling some sort of curses at them. In a rage, he began another incantation and fire sprung up under Keaton and covered half of the platform. Sustaining some burns he had to retreat to the other side. Both Daniel and Keaton went to different rope ladders to move up to the next level, but a fierce wind kicked up. It picked up with some much speed that tree branches were being broken and parts of the stadium and arena were coming apart. This made it very difficult to climb the rope ladders, but slowly and steadily they managed. Once up top the three men exchanged a few blows before Daniel tried to push the man off, but he was too big and stood his ground. Keaton moved up behind and sunk his prized dagger deep into the man’s back. Bloodied and worn out, the man conceded and the winds began to die down. Clown Baby had won, but the fight had been more than they’d bargained for.

  • * * * *
    The team had spent the rest of the afternoon watching other fights and trying to get a handle on what other teams they might be up against. Marythsan won his match against three crazed females with large axes. They also got to watch the team Flair win with their dance-like swordplay, flipping, tripping, disarming, and fencing with skill and speed.
    The banquet that evening was quite calm compared to the previous nights. Most of the competitors were worn out and tired and ate voraciously, cuts and bruises abounding. A bracket was placed and the team could see that they faced the Boulton Boys in the following match, which happened to be Donovan’s team. Kaedo, looking for any way to get an advantage, tried to slide some poison into one of Donovan’s drinks, but couldn’t find the right opportunity without getting caught. He let it slide. Later in the evening Marythsan came to congratulate the team, clearly making with way around to the winning teams as a courtesy. He was able to watch their fight and was really impressed with Keaton’s knifework and Kaedo’s impressive bombs. Elysia also made her way to the table to flirt with Kaedo some, although she ignored the others. Keaton had had about enough of her. Later than evening he snuck, alone, to her tent to give her a present. With no one around and quite sure she was asleep, he undid the buttons on her tent and stepped inside. As soon as his foot crossed the threshold, a loud bell began to ring from inside, and he fled without hesitation. There would be more opportunities…

DAY 4
The weather had cleared up some, although the day was still quite cloudy. Competitors went through their morning routines, having breakfast, fixing armor and weapons, sharpening blades, preparing spells… The team was able to recover from their wounds for the most part. They still had some cuts and scratches, but all in all, they came out of the last two fights pretty well. Large crowds of spectators moved to the Grand Pavilion early in the hopes of getting a good seat while a number of vendors tried to sell their wares. Kovak was able to find a few spell scrolls, which were quite rare, although only one of the spells was useful in itself. He sated himself on turnip mash for breakfast, but made a face as the standard of turnips in these parts was quite low. Oh well, a turnip is still a turnip, he thought to himself. Apparently the exhibition this morning was going to be quite difficult, not something Kovak wanted. He was enjoying his freedom, and in his old age, this tournament was taking quite a toll on him. His teammates had abandoned him to the pleasure of that great ape yesterday and he hadn’t even been able to get a spell off. Keaton should know better…
He made his way into the arena as the exhibition was getting set up. It was called the Iron Body test. There were five stations set up for five different “idols”. The first was the Drowning Idol where contestants had to hold their breath for four minutes, then there was the Fiery Idol where they laid on a pyre for 10 minutes, then the Pain Idol where they were pierced with a number of pins, then the Poison Idol where they had to survive a poisonous gas chamber, and finally the Winter Idol where they stayed in an ice bath for 10 minutes. One contest from each team had to perform all five of these Idol challenges back to back without any aid once they’d started. With little option, the team chose Kaedo to participate.
Kovak watched as he made his preparations. Their team wildcard drank some strange potion and said that he felt his body become more resilient or something. He could already be more resilient if he’d eat a turnip once in a while, Kovak thought condescendingly. Other teams were doing similar things, choosing their strongest to take the test while enhancing them with any spells that might help. Kaedo’s turn was here. Kovak watched as the ‘gentleman’ went under the surface and held his breath. Four minutes was a long time to watch and wait. He could see Kaedo begin to struggle in the last fifteen seconds, the look on his face betraying his need for air. Right as the timer finished, Kaedo’s body limply floated to the surface. A few officials dragged him out. He was okay, but had passed out from lack of air. They revived him and he stumbled over to the next challenge. He managed to handle the next three challenges quite well, just gritting his teeth and enduring the heat, the pain, and the poison. The final challenge lay in front of him and looked quite worn out. He sat in the ice bath and the minutes ticked away. Kaedo turned blue and looked like all the energy had been sapped from his body. In the sixth minute, he waved a hand, unable to speak, and the officials helped him out. He was freezing. With his performance, he had placed second in this exhibition and the team was rewarded with a number of potions as a prize. Kovak continued to watch, casually munching on a turnip and less than impressed by these youth.

  • * * * *
    Daniel was worried about Kaedo. He’d done well in the exhibition, but nearly killed himself and would be less effective for the upcoming fight. His heart simultaneously was relieved and worried when he heard the rumors about the conditions of their next fight. It was the infamous “Boar & Tiger” fight. The tournament had a number of bizarre fights they used to change up the format from a traditional fight. For this bout, each team would select one member. That member would then be tethered to an animal and the two would be placed in the arena. The first person to defeats his opponent’s animal would be the winner. The others had agreed that he would be their best option for this since he had more experience hunting wild animals than any of them. He was pretty worried about it. He wasn’t used to this sort of pressure, nor was he used to being tied to the animals he’d hunted. He didn’t see much of a choice. His target was still in the tournament, so he’d have to try to win this for the team if he’d have a chance of completing his job.
    Daniel won the toss and chose the boar, while Donovan ended up with tiger. The arena was full and the crowd was cheering wildly. The match started and Daniel sent a few arrows into the tiger from across the arena. The boar next to him, now clearly released from whatever spell was holding it, attacked him in turn. Likewise, the tiger attacked Donovan, who, with a perfectly-placed strike, crippled one of the tiger’s legs, making it limp. He then began to move across the arena slowly as the angrily tiger limped after him. Daniel continued to shoot arrows at the tiger, although some missed their mark. It was difficult to get a proper aim with the large boar trying to gore him, and at one point he even dropped his bow to avoid the boar biting his arm. Donovan covered the distance and began to rain quickly blows on the boar. The tiger and boar both attacked each other wildly. Daniel continued to shoot at the bloodied and beaten tiger, but Donovan was making quick work of the boar. With one last carefully-aimed shot, Daniel hit the tiger in the neck and the beast slumped to the ground, dead. Only seconds later the boar did the same. The match had been incredibly close and Daniel’s heart was pounding. He knew that Keaton had money riding on this match and he didn’t want to be responsible for their loss.
    Donovan approached him, both of them panting from the short, but intense match. “Aye, that’s a goodin’! Ye did well!” He said with his usual smile and friendly demeanor. Daniel was breathless. Somehow, by the skin of his teeth, he’d managed to win it for his team.
  • * * * *
    The banquet was even more quiet than before. Only the top 16 teams that had participated were there, and over half of them didn’t show up. Everyone was tired and beaten down, desperately getting whatever rest they could before another difficult match in the morning. Elysia was there in her finest, tightest evening-wear as usual. Keaton had no idea how she continued to progress in the tournament, and he knew she couldn’t be trusted. Slipping out of the area early, he headed to her tent and waited inside for her to return. After some time, she came in and began her nightly rituals before she stopped suddenly.
    “Who’s there sweetie?” She said in a sickeningly-sweet voice. Keaton didn’t move. “I know you’re there, don’t be shy.” He sighed and stepped out.
    “Oh, to what do I owe this pleasure…?” She clearly forgot his name.
    “I, uh… just wanted a better… look if you know what I mean,” Keaton said, trying to cover any hint of his real motive. She blushed, although he didn’t believe it to be sincere.
    “I’m flattered sweetie, but I’m just pooped from this tournament. Sorry. Maybe when its over we can… take a better look at each other,” she said with a wink and a smile. She made him sick. He left and hid, waiting for her to go to sleep. He was determined to take her out. After another hour when most others were asleep, he snuck around to the back of her tent and carefully made a slit with his dagger. He could see her on her bed in the middle of the tent. He quietly placed a foot inside the tent… and the same bell went off. She jumped up, clearly only pretending to be asleep, and looked at the front flap, giving Keaton the seconds he needed to slip away again. She was crafty, he’d grant her that, but her time would come…
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Calling All Champions!
Heroes from across the world head to the Theod Tournament...

The smell of salt filled the air. Although the wind whipped sea spray over the deck of the Nary Seahorse, dampening the clothes of the passengers, nothing could dampen the spirits of these competitors. All manner of men from across Ilithria crammed aboard the small vessel, displaying vastly different weapons and armor. Although many couldn’t understand what others were saying, the common language of battle was spoken by all. Crowds gathered around the impressively large Thimondians with their enormous greataxes, and the deft Rhilorosians with their knifeplay. Bards accompanied the vessel, bringing life through their joyous tunes and songs, bringing a multitude of various dances out from many of the men and women. Keaton wasn’t dancing, though. Instead, his eyes were on the valuable weapons men had casually laid aside as well as the coin purses left in cloaks that hung about. He chose his targets carefully, unburdening only those who he was certain were incapable of competent retaliation and those who clearly couldn’t miss something as petty as 20 gold coins. “A sucker is born every day…” he thought to himself as he moved towards a jackpot target.
A man of clearly noble birth, not afraid to flaunt his wealth, was in the midst of a crowd, impressing them with his juggling skills. Although this wasn’t any normal juggling. The fool was juggling five glass vials filled with some bubbling gray liquid. Although Keaton couldn’t be sure what these flasks might do upon breaking, he was sure the results would be amusing and he silently wished for a slip-up, although it never came. Rich. Arrogant. Careless. A perfect target. So arrogant was this man that he unmistakably had his butler aboard the ship. After the “performance” Keaton looked for his opportunity. Siding next to the fool, he reached for a small coin purse tucked into the man’s belt. He spun around. Keaton had been made. He attempted to slip away, but the man managed a firm grip on his arm and he forced Keaton towards the edge clearly in an attempt to throw his overboard. “Rotten lowlife thieves! You all deserve to be put down!” As if getting caught wasn’t enough, the man’s scoldings were just too much. A firm hand separated the two.
“Aye, now what’s this?” Came the friendly but firm question, thick with a northern Cadimarian accent.
“This… vagabond attempted to pick my pocket!” Said the nobleman with all the polite disgust he could muster. Keaton made no attempt to speak, but merely slid his hands to his side where he could reach his concealed daggers if need be.
“There’s no nee a be fightin now. Save it for tha tournie boys!” Both men seemed to eye each other up before silently conceding. “I’m Donovan by tha way. Nice ta meet you.” The man smile broadly, holding out his hand and waiting for a response. Keaton took in Donovan for a second. The man was tall, quite skinny, and wearing only simple sandals and a tattered robe. On his wrists and ankles he wore manacles that jingled with every movement. Half his head was shaved, the other half forming a long pony-tail. This boat was for competitors only, so Keaton knew there must be more to this man than met the eye, or else he was a fool who was going to get himself killed.
“I’m Kaedo, at your service,” the nobleman said, clearly back to his social courtesies.
“Oh it’s a pleasure! Can I get you boys a drink?” Donovan replied, his manner indicating he’d buy them a drink even if they didn’t want it. Keaton noticed others who were missing their valuables begin to look around. He couldn’t make enemies just yet, so he thought it prudent to, for the time being, befriend these men.
Down in the galley, the three men sat around, sharing the pisswater ale being served. Drinking seawater might have tasted better. As Donovan and Kaedo got acquainted Keaton assessed some of the competition. Mostly young men, looking to make a name for themselves, although a number of veterans were there, sporting all manner of deadly weapons. Most people stayed in their groups, what he assumed must be teams. The advantage was on their side. Teams could be up to four members, and right now, he just had two. He wanted that prize money so he could exact his escape from…
“Heya boyo! They’ve got turnips!” A bowl of turnip gruel smacked onto the table and an older man with graying hair sat down and began to eat fiercely. “And who are your friends Keaton? I’m John, John Kovak, if it please you,” He said through mouthfuls of food. Keaton cringed at the mention of his own name. Hopefully no one overheard…
“I’m Donovan, and thus is Kaedo. Keaton eh? Ya know I’ve got a nephew name Keaton. That little bugger is such a handful, I mean, when he…” Donovan rambled on with some anecdote. Lost in his own thoughts, Keaton continued to survey the room. She was hard to miss. A slender woman wearing a tight-fitting and hardly-modest dress, with long black hair and ivory skin was making her way around the room, talking to the groups of mostly men. Her soft laughter could be heard as she subtly flirted with any who would have it… which was most. He hand would casually touch an arm here, a shoulder there. Most men were beyond subtlety and openly stared at her flawless curves. In time, she made her way to their table. Placing her hand on Kaedo’s shoulder, she introduced herself.
“Hello darlings. My what capable men you are! Are you on a team together? I don’t see any weapons. What is it exactly that you all… do? I’m Elysia by the way.” Her smile was radiant and her body was breathtaking. Her gentle laugh was too much for Kaedo who was openly fawning over her. Donovan was friendly and polite but seemed to have little interest. Kovak offered her some of his porridge. For a moment, her face displayed disgust, seemingly both at the gruel and the man offering it, and then she seemed to remember herself and her courtesies returned. Keaton knew what she was up to and gave away nothing. Luckily Kaedo knew little about the others’ abilities, and was only able to brag about his own capabilities. Apparently those vials he was juggling could produce fire when broken. A useful tactic, although he shouldn’t be giving that away to any potential opponents… or their informants, whichever she was. Keaton kicked Kaedo under the table and gave a look. After his immediate indignation, Kaedo got the point and stopped talking. Clearly knowing she couldn’t get anything else from them, she excused herself and moved on.

  • * * * *
    Many ships had already docked and others continued to pour into the harbor of Tader Island. Set off the coast of Kaerland, the island had the same lush green grass, and rolling hills as the mainland. A massive mountain dominated a large portion of the southern half of the island, and clouds of white smoke could be seen slowly drifting from its peak. Teams were being assigned to their tents, while those without teams were in a designated area to be recruited. All things aside, Keaton had seen Kaedo’s potential, and the two had managed to agree to work together, along with Kovak. Adding a fourth member would be ideal, so before they settled in, they headed to check out the unassigned. Clearly they were later as most of the men remaining without teams were either very young, very old, weak, or clumsy. About to lose hope, the three noticed a newcomer moving to the area. He was tall, muscular, and carried a bow on his back as well as a sword at his side. He was their best hope.
    Daniel Prado was swamped with offers as soon as he walked into the recruiting area. His mind was lost elsewhere. He had a benefactor pay for his entrance fee, the same anonymous benefactor that had set him up on his current job. He cared little about the fame and glory of the tournament, but was there on a mission. He was there for bounty. He needed to be a competitor since he was sure his target was also a competitor, but the job wouldn’t take long, so he didn’t want to get stuck fighting through the whole thing. For this reason he ended up choosing the team he thought least-likely to succeed: some ragtag team of a noble, an old man, and a weaponless silent-type.
    The newly-assembled team settled into their tent and talked some strategy. Keaton was skilled with a well-placed dagger and seemed adept at remaining quiet as he did so. Daniel could use a bow quite well, and wasn’t bad with a sword either. Kovak could wield magic, a surprising ability since those who could use magic were rare. The others learned that he could actually cast fourth-circle spells, which was even rarer. Kaedo mostly threw his flasks of fire liquid, but assured the others he had some tricks up his sleeve. They pretty much hoped that they would at least have the advantage of being a unique team; most of the others were just meatheads with sharp pointy things.
    Everyone was heading to the banquet area to celebrate the opening ceremony for the tournament. A large, bald and bearded man took the stage, announcing himself as The Emissary. His family owned the island and had been officiating the tournament since its inception. Here, his word was law. The Emissary began to give a long-winded history of the tournament. It began over 750 years ago with the first sighting of the Theod Comet, named after the constellation of the Warrior through which the comet passed. Every 53 years upon the comet’s return, a tournament would be arranged for the heroes from across Ilithria to display their martial prowess. This was the fifteenth tournament to be held and as such had special significance. The prizes were great, as well as the cash pool… but so were the number of contestants allowed. Over 800 teams had signed up, although only the top 64 would secure a place in the single-elimination bracket. The Emissary also explained the tournament rules. First, his word was final. Second, once a bout had begun, no help could be given from those outside the fight. Third, if an opponent forfeits, the fight is over and the other side wins. Fourth, slain enemies cannot be looted. Fifth, fights outside the scheduled arena bouts were not allowed and would lead to disqualification. And sixth, competitors were not to leave the island for the duration of the week-long tournament.
    As everyone enjoyed the moderate feast, a ripple of murmurs ran over the crowd. An old man clad in expensive and ornate full-plate walked up to join the Emissary. Everyone had recognized him as Marythsan, the winner of the previous tournament. Since the time between each tournament was relatively long, it was uncommon for a victor to survive to attend or even compete in future tournaments, usually making the title of Theodian Champion a lifelong one. Elysia was also at the banquet, again, making her rounds though only with the more obviously-impressive teams. They’d have to keep an eye on her…
  • * * * *
    DAY 1
    The format for the tournament would be exhibitions in the morning that would provide minor prizes based on a team’s success, with scheduled fights in the afternoon at one of the six primary arenas set up over the island. The first day’s challenge was a series of skill tests meant to present athletic and mental prowess. First was an obstacle course of progressively harder feats. Keaton took this one. Flawlessly moving through the first five obstacles, he struggled with the last two, but still placed well. The team was also able to watch Donovan’s performance. Although he was hung over from drinking in excess of excess the previous night, he still managed to complete the course without a single misstep. Next was a triathlon of climbing, running, and swimming. Daniel took this one. Climbing over a high wall, he was one of the few who simply jumped off the other side. Being a strong runner and swimmer, he was able to secure a high number of points for the team. The third test was a number of combat maneuvers to be performed on dummies. From disarming, to tripping, to grappling, many skills were tested. Daniel also took this one, although his abilities in these areas were more limited. The final challenge was a tactical assessment test. Brain prevailed over brawn in this test as Kovak secured the top place for the challenge, putting the team’s placement at second.
    Because of the vast number of teams present, the fights for this day were relatively short. There was a ten-minute time limit on bouts, with points being scored in case a fight wasn’t yet resolved after the time limit. Through a series of five fights a ranking was established, granting the top 64 teams their place. While many capable teams held back to keep some of their tricks a secret, the newly-formed team decided they would try to win the hearts of the crowds, and pulled no stops. Dominating their matches, they placed fifth and earned a lot of notice from the spectators.
    At the banquet that night, Elysia approached them to congratulate them on their success. The fact that she was there meant that she had also qualified… an unnerving fact. No one seemed to know anything about her team or her tactics. Donovan had also qualified for the bracket, as well as Marythsan, who surprisingly had competed despite his old age. Further shock entered Keaton’s mind when he learned that Marythsan didn’t have other teammates, but was a solo competitor. Despite their high placement, the team would have to be careful. Many of these people had more to them than met the eye.
  • * * * *
    DAY 2
    The second day of the tournament began with beautiful weather. With the top 64 established, all manner of bets were being placed, on everything from a match’s first blood and individual winners to tournament winners. Keaton placed a few bets… on his team of course. The odds were really against them for tournament winner, but with their impressive first day, they seemed to have more crowd support than they thought. The challenge for the day was a breaking contest, where a series of progressively harder item were to be broken in succession. If an item was not broken but damaged, it was replaced. Kaedo volunteered for this challenge. Most of the men that volunteered were quite large and strong. Some even laughed when they saw Kaedo. He didn’t care. They’d see.
    The items, in order of difficulty were a quarterstaff, a coconut, a block of ice, some boards, clay tiles, a river stone, some bricks, and finally a metal bar. Kaedo easily broke through the first two items, but after two failed attempts at the block of ice, he drank two of his special concoctions, greatly increasing his strength and size. With this, he was easily able to smash the remaining items, including the metal bar. Few others succeeded, and many hurt themselves severely trying. The team noticed that among the competitors was a gorilla. Not just any gorilla, a very large one. This extremely exotic animal was never seen by most people, especially so far from its home environment. The gorilla placed second, earning quite a lot of repute for its team.
    Assigned a random arena, the team headed to the southern part of Tader Island. They entered their side of the arena, which was a maze of 15 foot high stone walls. With no knowledge of who their opponents were, they set out carefully as the match began. Kaedo used a flying potion, wowing the crowd. As he flew higher, he saw a number of small figures moving into strategic positions on the other side of the arena. His team did likewise. As he flew closer, he threw some bombs at visible targets only to have them disappear. They were some sort of illusion. An arrow hit him in the arm, so he descended to just above the walls. Keaton was sneaking around, peering around corners, hoping to catch someone unaware. This was offset by Kovak following him and loudly mumbling about not have any turnips at the moment. Daniel climbed the wall and began to fire arrows at targets as they appeared. Everything they hit was an illusion and disappeared. Suddenly, one of the squat figures appeared around the corner and attacked Kovak with ferocity. This short, incredibly strong man had a beard and wielded his axe with skill, hurting Kovak quite badly. As Kovak tried to run, the short man pursued, continuing to rain down punishment and earning cheers from the crowd. Hearing his friend’s plight, Keaton moved in that direction. A fireball manifested itself out of thin air, and he was able to barely move out of its path before it exploded on the wall behind him. A female figure of similar stature stood before him. As he charged to attack her, his body froze. He couldn’t move.
    On the other side of the arena, Kaedo began throwing bombing in rapid succession while Daniel fired off arrows, several of which missed their target. One of Kaedo’s bombs hit quite directly, severely hurting the axe-wielding man. Three against one was too much punishment for him. It was only a matter of time before his team couldn’t handle being outnumbered. The crowd was on their feet for the brutal displays of physical violence and powerful magic before them. They had made it to the next round, but they’d only have one night to rest up and recover from their wounds.
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Wells.... & Power!
Death comes to all eventually...

The company limped back, not so hurt physically as much as mentally. They had few injuries as the armored man’s sword had killed everyone it had touched. Mardan had a pit in his stomach. They had lost so many men, so quickly, to just one… thing. It had been pure evil and it had been really difficult for him to retreat instead of doing everything he could to defeat such a herald of darkness, but he had been thinking about the lives of the men. So they pressed on slowly through the night to return back to the barracks for rest, and to reequip. Mardan and Sigmar had to give their report to the Commander, which had been yet another drekstorm, having to explain how they lost so many with so little result. They had found the missing scouts, but had been able to do nothing to save them. In the morning they would formulate a plan for what was to be done. As Mardan left the Commander’s office and headed to the barracks he could feel a shockwave of air rush over the whole town. He looked towards the direction it had come from; south. The direction of the well. A massive column of green light shot into the air, into the clouds. It swirled with energy and pulsed, about fifteen times, before shrinking back down and disappearing. Mardan had no idea what was going on, but the hairs on the back of his neck still stood on end and he shivered briefly. That night, no number of soldiers or walls or buildings made him feel safe.

  • * * * *
    The next morning M’ut awoke early. He could barely sleep at all. Dreams about the armored man had haunted him, although he wasn’t necessarily afraid, but intrigued. A part of him desired such a presence, such power. Another part hated the brutal cruelty he had displayed. His sympathies went out to those prisoners, being tortured and terrified on a constant basis. They would have to go back and try to rescue them. Plans were discussed and it was decided that the best option was to send a small team to try to covertly rescue any survivors. The night before, the troop had been marching back and Bori had appeared out of nowhere and scared the life out of them. Apparently he had wandered back in the caves and found another back entrance, and unaware of the carnage, had simply exited and run into them as he tried to head back to the cave mouth. He was also really good at seeing in no light at all, which M’ut envied exceedingly. So the plan was to take this back exit and try to sneak the survivors out if at all possible.
    So, M’ut, Bori, and two of the barracks’ best scouts made their way as fast as possible south until they reached the mountains. They secured their horses and headed towards the back entrance that Bori had located. They entered and worked their way through a number of tunnels, with Bori leading slowly since the others couldn’t see, and they didn’t want to risk any light. It seemed like an age in the darkness moving slowly and carefully, trying not to stumble, although in reality the trip took them little more than an hour. They finally approached the back end of the large room where the prisoners had been and Bori stopped them and moved in alone. In the dark he could see no signs of any life. The makeshift cage was empty and there were no bodies or body parts, only blood, lots of blood. The blood trailed as bodies had been dragged over the cave floor and out the mouth that they had used before. It was a gruesome sight. Bori went back and motioned that it was all clear. The others lit torches and took in the scene. One of the scouts choked, trying to hold back his vomit from the sheer amount of blood and skin that had been scraped off as dozens of bodies were dragged across the rocks. They followed the blood trail back out of the front of the cave, stopping to listen for any signs of trouble, but heard and saw none.
    Outside the mouth of the cave was the same story. The bodies of the twenty or so men they had left to ‘guard’ the entrance had also disappeared, leaving behind only smears of blood, skin, hair, and clothing that worked its way up the hill and towards the small forest nearby. All signs headed in the direction of the well. The four decided they needed to go back and get their horses first, so they crested the hill and went to head east towards the back entrance when a mounted company approached them. It was Sigmar, with Mardan, Ren, and about ten soldiers in tow. They had around thirteen extra horses with them, including M’ut’s and Bori’s pony.
    “What in the Eyes of the Priestess are you doing here?” M’ut said discourteously. This was supposed to be a covert mission and Sigmar just couldn’t leave well enough alone. A part of M’ut was glad to see some reinforcements, but Sigmar had a way of… screwing things up, and getting men killed.
    “Watching your back, soldier,” Sigmar replied with renewed authority. He pulled rank whenever someone had a problem with anything he did. M’ut didn’t say any more. He and Bori just continued towards the forest and the well, and the others naturally followed. Following the tracks was easy as there were several rows of scrape marks in the dirt, although the boot prints were still hard to identify. The company moved through the forest back to the clearing. Sigmar and the troops moved up from the south while Bori circumvented the clearing to move in from the west and M’ut moved in from the east. They were all in position and stood at the end of the clearing, still in the cover of the trees and surveyed the scene. The well was now covered in thick, dried blood. On top of it lay an ornate, clean, silver-looking dagger. Beside the well lay a large pile of gore; bodies and body parts carelessly piled in a massive, bloody, fleshy heap. There was no sign of the armored man or any other life in the clearing. M’ut turned himself invisible and moved slowly into the clearing. Bori, on the other side, also moved in. As soon as stepped foot in the clearing, the voice of the armored man could be heard.
    “Welcome back, heroes,” the sarcastic emphasis on the word was mocking in the utmost. “Because I am gracious, I will give you all one more opportunity to willingly serve me and my master. Great power awaits you, and I will give you a taste.” As the words finished, a surge of power fill the men. They felt stronger, more alive, more… everything. It was as if a great spirit had come upon them. “This is but a taste. There is so much more power to be had. If you desire this power, then simply take the dagger before you, plunge it into your heart and jump into the well. Join me, and together we will serve the great one!”
    The voice stopped and no further words came. The men all looked around as if waiting for the armored man to burst out of the trees and attack, but it never came. Silence reigned. As they waited, Bori walked up to the well, and without a word, picked up the dagger. Looking over its shiny surface for a moment, he turned the blade towards himself and plunged it with great force into his left breast. Then, with his last ounce of strength, fell into the well and disappeared out of sight. M’ut, still invisible, rushed to the edge, but there was no sign of him in the infinite blackness. As he stood there, he looked to the side. The same dagger was back in its original place and staring at him taunting him to accept the greater power. The power surging through his body gave him a rush, and he couldn’t look away from the dagger, considering deeply. Picking it up, he said a quick prayer to the gods of nature and plunged it into his heart. The cold metal was more shocking at first, then the pain came quickly. His heart felt cold, as if it had begun to ice over, although it still beat slowly. He gasped for breath, panting quickly as his nerves shot pain signals through his entire body. He sat on the edge of the well almost instinctively before falling backwards. He fell for an eternity, and yet no time at all. When he hit the bottom, he was lying on sand, and it was impossibly hot. Hot wind poured over his face. Almost bleeding out, he looked over, only to see a massive armored boot near him. The armored man stood, looking down at him as the last inch of life leaked out of him…
  • * * * *
    Mardan stood, utterly shocked at what Bori had done. He had hardly known the guy, but it seemed so, irrational what he had done. Mardan could also feel the power in his veins, but for him it was a foreign entity, a poison. He held to his tenets and channeled divine powers enough to know a profane power source when he felt it. He felt like disrobing and scratching his skin off to get it out, it was so… itchy, and unnatural. Nevertheless he knew he could use its power if he so chose. He looked over at Sigmar. The cleric of Orien had a crazy look in his eye. He seemed to be… reveling in the power he’d been granted. Mardan had noticed a large shift in Sigmar’s devotion since they’d met again. He felt like he was slipping into darker things, asking questions that a holy cleric shouldn’t. Sigmar looked at the dagger almost longingly.
    “I won’t kill myself oh great one, but is this sacrifice enough?” Sigmar said as he took his shortsword and stabbed forcefully at Ren, standing next to him. The warrior looked shocked, but the blow hadn’t been enough to kill him. There was no response from the armored man’s voice. Sigmar moved into the clearing as if to jump in the well and Ren drew his greathammer and followed, angrily bloodthirsty. Mardan ran after then, hoping to spare any more bloodshed. As he did, the pile of bodies stirred. They all stopped immediately to look. The pile stirred and rose up, the bodies holding together somehow, until a massive shape of flesh and gore stood before them. It had ‘arms’ made out of bodies and fashioned some sort of legs and moved towards them to attack. The company drew weapons and charged in. Sigmar instinctively raised his shield as a massive arm crashed down on him. The weight was almost unbearable. The creature proceeded to change shape adding new limbs and attacking the men. One arm pinned Ren and the flesh attacked him viciously. Heads bit him, arm clawed, legs kicked. Mardan regained his bearing and blessed his shortsword with holy energy and stabbed at the creature. It was strong thrust, right into the center of the creature. So strong was it that part of Mardan’s arm sunk into the the gore, and he quickly pulled it out, leaving the weapon inside. The creature, powered by dark energy, responded violently to the holy power that was not inside of it. It used its arms to claw and tear at its ‘chest’, tearing itself apart, but with each movement, the blade moved around more, cutting deeper. After almost a minute of this dance, the thing fell to the ground, a pile of gore, and ceased to move.
    Mardan moved to Ren, who was hurt quite badly, but still alive. Some of the other men had taken quite a beating, but only one was found to have perished. Mardan ordered the others to arrest Sigmar for assaulting a member of his unit, and the cleric finally felt the weight of guilt for his past sins, and didn’t put up a fight. They felt the surge of profane power leave them as they left the forest and headed back to the horses.
    “I’m sorry my old friend. I… desire power too much. I have failed Orien and the Light.” Sigmar hung his head in shame and said nothing the rest of the trip back. When they returned, Mardan gave the full report. Sigmar was sentenced to ten years in prison for his actions and stripped of all rank. Mardan went to visit him once, but he as a wreck and didn’t want to speak. This war had taken its toll on all of them.
  • * * * *
    Not long after the events of the well, Mardan resigned his post and moved to Farran to look after his family. The civil war was coming to an end, with the two halves becoming independent countries. The large wall that had been constructed to separate the two was guarded and maintain by both sides, and although all of the organized military action had ceased, some skirmishes still took place. Nyder and Eriwen were at odds and any hope of diplomatic solution was abandoned.
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The Culprit!
A great adversary is met...

Sigmar scrambled to climb out of the well, using gaps between the stones for leverage. He cleared the top and drew two daggers instinctively, quickly scanning the scene. A few soldiers remained near the well, swords drawn and waiting, clearly not sure what they were looking out for. Sigmar could be heard trampling through the part of the forest just south of the clearing, so M’ut moved in that direction. He didn’t hear the sounds of fighting, just men trudging around, cutting at bushes and circling trees. M’ut training kicked in, and he found his own cover and stood completely still, and from there began to observe his surroundings. That’s when he spotted it, the smallest edge of a book poking out from underneath some foliage. He slowly moved towards it, daggers ready. Suddenly, a broad, squat figure burst out of the small hiding place and bolted. M’ut yelled to the men and around twenty men began to pursue. It wasn’t hard to catch up to the smaller figure, and the men quickly had him surrounded. He was dressed in travel greens and browns, allowing him to blend in well with the forest. He had a black beard and short black hair, except for a small ponytail in the back. He wore a bow on his back and had two battleaxes in loops on each side. He made no move for his weapons.
“What is your name? What were you doing spying on us? Where do you hail from? Speak quickly,” Sigmar said in a menacing tone, leveling his hammer. The squat man looked at the men, then straight back at Sigmar with a look that suggested he was confident he could take on so many and so large a group.
“Bori, Bori Once-tossed. Who’s asking? Any why are ye scaring away me prey?” Hergr entered the area, having been on scouting patrol.
“I know where he’s from. He’s a bloody Vaen!” Hergr said with unmistakable contempt. He drew his own axe and walked right up Bori and stood close, looking down at him. The stark contrast between the six and a half foot man and the four foot man was laughable, although the looks they gave each other could temper iron.
“I’m surprised they let you off your leash,” Bori said returning the sneer and the attitude. Hergr raised his axe as if to strike.
“NO!” Sigmar barked. “Stay your weapon soldier. Do you two… know each other?” Hergr lowered his axe and stormed off.
“So, still on his leash,” Bori muttered loudly enough that Hergr should have been able to hear. “No… um, sir. But I know a Thimondian when I see one, and our people have been at odds for, well, forever. Those big dumb brutes stole our land, and they’re abominations! They…” Sigmar cut him off.
“What did you mean, ‘scare away your prey’, what is it you hunt?” Bori didn’t say anything but instead held up a finger and moved back to the clearing. From there, he showed the faint impressions of bootprints, the same as M’ut had found earlier. They found a few sets of tracks coming and going to and from the well. North, west, east. Bori explained that he hunted big game for a living, and that in all his days he’s never seen a print that big. Curiosity got the better of him and he tracked it east, whatever it was, across the river and into the forest when they so rudely interrupted his trap.
“And what worries me most is that its clearly a boot, not a footprint… this person or whatever it may be, is armored, and should weigh a ton but barely leaves any tracks. Too mysterious!” Bori narrated, whether or not anyone was listening. Sigmar was lost in his thoughts about what to do with this situation, but he had a feeling that the large bootprint had a connection with his missing scouts…

  • * * * *
    Although the track was incredibly difficult to follow through the forest undergrowth, the group now had two trackers working the detail, meaning that the going was a lot faster than before. Bori had agreed to help out since they apparently were after the same creature. Bori had come from the west, not finding much else while the company had come from the north, so by elimination they followed the trail that headed east, towards the mountains. It wasn’t long before they were outside of the forest and climbing quickly. The terrain grew rockier and the tracks became more and more obscure, if that was even possible. Soon, they lost the trail altogether and there was no hope of finding more tracks, so they tried continuing in the same trajectory the trail had been going. They crested a small peak and on the other side, down in the valley below, saw the mouth of a cave. That was good news. It fit with the general direction the tracks had been going, so the company slowly moved in that direction. M’ut and Bori scoped it out first. Usually Hergr would have been up in the front with them, but he was still hot under the collar about them allowing a ‘dirty Vaen’ with them. The two moved to the mouth of cave slowly and carefully, and without hearing or seeing anything of danger, signaled to the unit before proceeding in. Somehow, Bori could see clearly without torches, or at least he claimed he did. It wasn’t long before the light of the day was lost to the deepening darkness of the cave. The two slowly and quietly made their way down the curving passage at the back of the cave.
    Bori stopped, and held out a hand to stop M’ut. In the complete stillness, they heard whimpering and crying from several voices. Bori moved around another corner and the cave opened up into a larger room. Across the room, in a makeshift cage of iron bars, sat huddled around eleven men. The room stank of urine and feces, apparently days worth from the potent odor. Otherwise, the room was empty. Bori moved in very slowly and surveyed the room while M’ut worked his way back to the company outside the cave. He explained the situation, and Sigmar made a decision to move it. He assigned twenty men to stay outside the cave and guard while the rest moved in and began to fix torches to light the passage. M’ut moved back in at his own pace and went back to the room. Bori was nowhere near, but M’ut was able to feel his way along and discover the passage continued down the back of the room. He moved his way in, checking for any threats from behind.
    Sigmar and the unit moved into the large room and the men in the cage cowered and screamed, and they shied away from the light. Sigmar had to hold a hand to his nose to try to block the strong odor, but it did little to help. He ordered some of his men to free the prisoners and had one of them brought for questioning. When the man was brought closer, he was clearly one of the missing scouts.
    “Who did this to you? Where is he? Tell us what you can,” Sigmar said in his usual authoritative tone. The man didn’t respond but try to back away from the men. He didn’t seem to recognize them as friends and whimpered and muttered, begging for his life. He was obviously traumatized and of no use for information. Sigmar was about to question the others, seeing if he could get anything when they heard the sound of men’s screams coming from the mouth of the cave. The men were ready to go out and join the fight, but Sigmar stopped them. There was an incredibly-strong presence of evil at the mouth of cave, and the men’s screams died off quickly. The men tried to prepare themselves for whatever was coming, but a strong sense of dread and helplessness came over them. Sigmar tried to inspire his men and give them courage, but it did little against the sheer weight of hopelessness that invaded their minds and gave them pits in their stomachs. The prisoners cried loudly and screamed, many of them clambering back into the cage and closing the door, huddling in the corner. Sigmar and Mardan stood at the mouth of the room. M’ut, hearing the commotion, began to make his way back to the room. They stood tensely and waited as the sound of clanking armor came from the direction of the cave mouth. The clanks were thick and deep, as if the armor was large and thick. The footsteps were slow and deliberate.
    “Welcome, strangers. Thank you for bringing me more prisoners,” the voice was deep, gritty, and incredibly menacing. “Are you so eager to die as well?” No one dared speak, except Sigmar.
    “Who or what are you, evil thing? Show yourself!” The figure stepped around the corner and the sheer sight of him filled the men with renewed dread. Before them stood a nearly nine-foot tall humanoid clad in full plate and brandishing a greatsword with a blade around five feet long. The armor he wore was of exquisite make, and was made out of some dark metal that couldn’t be iron, steel, or mithril. It had cruel designs over it, with a large embossed emblem on the breastplate of a horned skull that was covered in ice and menacing. The trim of the armor was a deep, blood red, and the helm’s face was also that of a skull. The sword was thick, and looked quite heavy, although the figure held it with apparent ease. It was also made of the dark metal and had runes carved into its length. It was of a wicked and cruel shape.
    “Ha ha, cleric. So bold. Would the powers of the light save you from my hand? I think not. I will show you all how merciful I can be, if you join me right now I will grant you power beyond what you will ever know and your death will be quick. If not, then I will find… creative ways to make you suffer.” It was everything they had in their minds to resist the urge to flee this man’s presence, but they held fast. M’ut dropped to one knee, tempted by the offer of greater power, and seeing little way out of this. Sigmar however, drew one of his throwing axes, blessed it with a spell for accuracy, and hurled it at the man. The axe hit, but dinged uselessly off the armor. Sigmar threw another, but it fell short.
    “So that is your answer? You wish to die? So be it. I will grant you your request.” The figure walked towards them slowly. Many of the men dropped their weapons and backed away. Sigmar and Mardan readied their weapons. M’ut talked himself out of it and stood up to help. The large man swung his sword and with a single blow, hewed three men in half. As they screamed and died, the runes on the sword glowed with a faint green and a faint vapor could be seen coming out of the men and being absorbed into the blade. Some very dark and evil magic was present. Many men regained their courage and stepped up to swing their swords at the dark figure, but it was beyond useless. His armor was impossibly-thick and no weak spots could be found. He continued to slice, each time decimating their ranks. Even Sigmar and Mardan were able to do little against such a foe. Since Sigmar’s pride would have them all killed, Mardan took the situation into his own hands. Blowing the magical horn he had looted from one of the enemy generals during a skirmish, he produced a cloud of fog that filled most of the room.
    “RETREAT!” he yelled, and the men were more than happy to comply. Those that were able rushed back to the mouth of the cave, Sigmar leading the way. Screams continued behind them as men still died. Out of the cave and up the hill they ran, past the bodies of the twenty or so slain men that had been outside. Mardan was sick to his stomach from the sight, but still ran, for his very life. He looked back as they climbed the hill. The figure was standing at the mouth of the cave watching them, but making no attempt to pursue them. His presence was still fixed in Mardan’s mind and that despair filled him again. What could be done against such an enemy?
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The Reunion!
Old friends, new places...

The year was 4968 New Reckoning. Autumn was coming quickly as the leaves began to change color and the weather grew more cool every day. Days were often overcast and entire weeks of rain would occasionally come. Sigmar rode on his large horse, taking in the fresh autumn smells and relishing his new promotion to Second Lieutenant. The unit of men he lead moved sluggishly, only recently recovering from one of their skirmishes with the south. The war had been quite brutal for the past two years, with high and low points. Each side had a number of victories, but it was the peasants that paid the greatest price. The economy of the south was spent without their high-price mithril mines in the north to fuel the effort. Sigmar and Mardan had defected to the north, although they had quickly been split up and assigned based on their expertise. The biggest development of the war was the presence of arcane magic. To most of the countries in Ilithria, arcane magic was a superstitious and sacrilegious thing, but when the war broke out, the north made use of a number of arcane mages. In turn, the south revealed that they too had arcane casters. This was shocking to the religious southerners, and the presence of powerful arcane magic meant that collateral damage during the war was high. Large bounties were paid for the death of a wizard or sorcerer on the opposing side.
Sigmar had felt the backlash from all of it. He was the one healing the troops after those heathens rained fire and lightning down on them. He was the one that had to inspire his mean when they feared for their lives. He had proven himself time and time again, and now he was getting a well-earned break. His unit had been assigned to Cardis, the westernmost city near the border between north and south. As he approached he could see that it clearly had been influenced by the war, as wrecked buildings had been quickly and practically rebuilt, trenches had been dug, and city walls erected. His men entered the city in ranks behind him, and as he made his way to the central barracks, a hand grabbed his arm.
“Could you spare some change, my good sir,” came a beggar’s voice that had a hint of a familiar accent. Sigmar turned and stared at the beggar. His long, unkempt hair and scraggly beard make him look of no import, but his eyes said otherwise. The man had dark skin, and his eyes were narrow, like a cat’s and his skin looked thick and leathery. Despite the shocking appearance, Sigmar could recognize the man’s voice and accent.
“M’ut? My old friend, can that possibly be you?” The beggar gave him a sly smile. It was indeed him. Sigmar couldn’t help but hang his mouth open in shock. “Where have you been? I… what… wow! Just wow! You’ll have to come and visit me in the central barracks, tonight, as my guest. Feed you, bathe you… the Light knows you need it! I must be off with these men,” he said gesturing to his unit, “but come visit me!” M’ut stopped smiling, gave a quick nod, and then continued to beg other strangers, most of whom were shocked at his appearance.

  • * * * *
    Mardan was in the courtyard, showing his men how to perform a disarm using a sword. The men worked hard, although they weren’t the brightest or most capable, the early parts of the war had taken most of those… He had to work with what was available. He had done his time fighting on the front lines, but when the opportunity to hang back and train recruits came up, he couldn’t say no. He was worried about his mother and sister in Farran not far to the north. He had been able to see them occasionally, but for the most part he was needed where he was. For almost a year he had been the head trainer in Cardis, and had equipped a great many successful and deadly warriors. The greatest skill he could give them was teaching them how to use their minds. Most just wanted to use brute strength to win battles, but he had won a number of skirmishes against greater odds because of his tactical strategy and lateral thinking.
    “And that is how you…” he stopped dead in the middle of his sentence. Riding through the barracks gate, in his unmistakable full plate and large shield, was none other than Sigmar. What cruel fates have brought him back into my life, thought Mardan. Sigmar would notice him eventually, and there would be no getting around it.
    That evening in the mess hall, Sigmar approached Mardan. “My brother! What brings you to Cardis? By the Light! I never thought I’d see you again!”
    “Me too… I’m… I’ve been better,” Mardan said with a courteous tone, although it was a struggle for him.
    “Well, we might be working together again! My unit’s been assigned here. So you’re a trainer I hear? Wonderful, wonderful.” Sigmar clearly wasn’t picking up on any of Mardan’s annoyance, and he seemed distracted, always looking at the door. Mardan looked to see what he was looking at. A scraggly-looking man came in, clearly out of place, and Sigmar waved him over. Something was familiar about the way the man walked. As he got closer, there was no mistaking, it was M’ut. Mardan was utterly shocked.
    “Look what I found wandering the streets of Cardis,” Sigmar said, slapping M’ut on the back. Mardan tried to take in all the changes M’ut had undergone. His eyes and skin looked more… sinister, but his disposition was still the same. Mardan shook his hand and the three all caught up with what they could. Mardan continued to be polite, despite M’ut’s strong odor and dirty appearance. The man must not have eaten much recently as he devoured as much as they’d give him. It was a relief when Sigmar excused them to get M’ut clean and prepped.
  • * * * *
    M’ut was happy, in a way, to see his old companions. He didn’t really get attached, but these two strange clerics were something familiar, and right now, he needed that. He wished he could tell them why he had disappeared, but they would likely thing him some sort of evil thing. He had received a calling through a dream from his clan’s shaman, and had made the long trip home without so much as a word. Aiding his shaman on a dark, spiritual journey, he had desired to go back to Ilithria and continue the life he had started there. Unfortunately, some other dark fate had made plans for him. Getting lost one night, he fell into a deep pit full of serpents. Perturbed, they started biting and wouldn’t stop, the pain was excruciating but somehow he didn’t die. He lost track of all time, passing out from the mixture of venoms coursing through his veins. When he awoke, the serpents were gone, and he was weak and famished. Based on the movements of the stars, he estimated he had been in that pit for almost two weeks, and yet somehow he was still alive. After a long recovery, he noticed that canines could produce a venom, and his skin had started to harden and become scaly. His eyes also looked reptilian, giving even more reason for him to keep his cowl up. People that saw him had become frightened and called him all manner of devil names, so he had to move often, begging and stealing to stay alive. Now, under Sigmar’s protection, he might have some solid meals and a decent place to sleep for once.
    It had been a few weeks since Sigmar had brought him in from the street and vouched for him as one of the unit’s specialists. The barracks commanders had wanted some sort of validation, so he had used some of his newly-learned magic to impress them, turning invisible, conjuring fire, throwing his dagger with great accuracy… They seemed reluctant, but gave him under Sigmar’s care. Now, the unit was back on mission, just like the old days. M’ut had also noticed that Sigmar had changed quite a bit. Not so… exact in his religious beliefs and a little more… unhinged than he remembered. War did strange things to people. He had gotten their stories about Gripplin and the monsters, which instead of producing fear or doubt, made M’ut more interested than ever in the powers that lay beyond. This cult sounded powerful.
    Sigmar lead the unit southwest with a quickened, intentional pace. The unit had been assigned to uncover the reason behind the mysterious disappearance of one of the scouting patrols to the southwest along the river that bordered Drachurst. Others had looked, but no obvious trail could be found, and with M’ut being some sort of exceptional specialist, they had been assigned. Sigmar had insisted that Mardan join them, even pulling rank to make it happen. Mardan accepted, but brought along ten of his best recruits in the hopes that this might be a good training experience for them. So, the group of around sixty member tromped along the scouts’ usual route, looking for any clues. M’ut was far up ahead, looking at the hoofprints and occasionally bending over to look at something more closely, muttering to himself in his native tongue as he did so.
    “Sir, I believe I found something,” he finally said after nearly four hours of slow tracking. Sigmar got off his horse to have a closer look. “See right there, this is the outline of boot,” M’ut said as he pointed to a few very subtle indentations amidst a thousand other obvious tracks. Sigmar couldn’t see it, but nodded his head anyway. The print M’ut outlined was quite large. A man with a foot that size had to be at least eight feet tall, but the odd thing of it was, a man of that size would be quite heavy should have left a much deeper print. Just another mystery for M’ut to solve. The tracks headed towards a small, nearby forest at the foot of a cluster of small mountains. M’ut followed the subtle tracks, pressing on with excitement.
  • * * * *
    The tracks had lead through the forest and into a small clearing near its center. In the center of the clearing lay a simple, gray stone well. Sigmar had tried to detect any magic as soon as they got into the forest, and had felt extremely strong emanations pulsing from this area. They appeared to be coming from the well. Without any signs of danger, the company was sent to search the forest in small groups and then create a perimeter while Sigmar and M’ut looked at this unassuming well. Sigmar touched it gingerly. Nothing seemed out of place. They looked inside. Instead of seeing water, an imperceptibly-deep hole lay before them. Using a trick he’d learned, Sigmar cast a simple light spell on a small stone and tossed it in. It never stopped falling and never made the sound of hitting any sort of bottom. After some very careful inspection, M’ut had discovered that a number of hieroglyphic-type runes were etched into the stones on the surface, fifteen in all, each one different. Further inspection had revealed nothing about these marks.
    For some time the two inspected everything could about the well. It was clearly magical in some capacity, and despite it’s simple appearance, was quite powerful. Sigmar had hit one of the stones with his hammer and with all of his strength was still unable to break even the smallest chip off of one of the stones. M’ut had used various spells near the well, each one causing the well to emanate a small pulse of bluish, magical light only visible to those possessing magic. Through trial and error, he had discovered that the well responded more strongly to conjuring magic than any other, but he still wasn’t able to break it’s secrets. Frustrated, he jumped into the well, hoping for the best. Falling only for a second, he splashed into cold water. He was only about thirty feet from the surface of the well and was treading water. He would figure out this well’s secrets…
    “Who goes there? Show yourself!” Sigmar barked and the sound of drawn steel could be heard.
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Civil War!
Tensions between the north and south prove to be too much...

The group from Gripplin had been in quite a lot of shock from the attack. The bishop had everyone move back while he examined the two bodies of the bizarre creatures, although no one else besides Sigmar, wanted to be any closer to them. The creatures were made for death. All of their features were eldritch and unearthly, and the raw power they possessed had been clearly demonstrated. It had been dusk when the attack came and now night was upon them, which only made the men more antsy. They had plugged up the hole as best as they could, but with the superhuman strength displayed by these things, their poor excuse for a barrier was little consolation. The men were noticeably happy when the bishop declared that the creatures’ presence was something that must immediately be report to Zvolig, the capital, and that they should set out at once. Clearly Olsbrin was done doing any favors for the Church, but beneath his hard exterior he showed the slightest bit of fear and it seemed like he wanted to leave as much as any man. He made the order that they should move out and at least make camp outside of town before anything else was done. Nothing more could be done for Gripplin. He dispatched three men as messengers to Dresdnik to make a report to the Commander while the rest of the unit made camp outside Gripplin’s valley, despite the continuous protest of the bishop.
The morning came without incident, although the company was hardly rested. Watches had been tripled, so most of the men got little to no real sleep. They broke camp early and wearily set out for Zvolig. The trip would be around a week’s march with only small towns in between. Their rations would be pretty low before they got the capital, so Olsbrin halved the rations, further adding to the dissatisfaction of the men. The two prisoners, nicknamed Butch and Twitch were still chained to the wagon and brought along. The men got tired of Twitch quickly as he never stopped his wild mutterings and he always seemed out of touch with reality. It didn’t take long for the men to notice that the two monsters they had on the wagon were adverse to sunlight. By the end of the first day, the creatures’ skin had dried, cracked, and began to decay rapidly. They almost looked preserved, like they’d been dead for a century. The bishop covered them up in the hopes of preserving the bodies.
The trip was uneventful, except that on the third day, Twitch disappeared. He had been chained to the wagon and the two prisoners had a guard that would check on them occasionally for the safety of the men, but no one saw or heard anything. The following morning they looked for any signs of him, but the manacles were still securely closed and no one could find any sign of his leaving. Olsbrin wouldn’t let them take much time looking for him; no one was worried about him coming back after them. So, without success, the company had just moved on.

  • * * * *
    The sprawling metropolis of Zvolig was set before them. Boasting some of Ilithria’s greatest engineering feats, Zvolig had a colossal central palace and a number of multi-storied buildings, which were usually uncommon across the rest of the continent. It was a sight to behold. The men’s spirits were raised at the prospect of a hot meal, a real bed, and safety from the crazy unknown that they had encountered in Gripplin. As they approached an unmistakably large host of armored soldiers could be see outside the city between the incoming group and the gate they intended to enter. When they were quite close a number of officers and knights on horses rode up.
    “Captain Olsbrin, you are under arrest for the siege of Gripplin. Have your men lay down their arms and surrender peacefully or else force will be used.” Mardan saw the man that had spoke. He looked quite important, although he didn’t appear to be directly under army command. Perhaps he was a leader of the city’s defenses. He wanted to protest and defend Olsbrin, but he figured this wasn’t yet the time or place. There would have to be some sort of hearing. The armored men flanked the unit and escorted them into the city where they were broken up into smaller groups. Mardan and Sigmar went with Olsbrin to some of the city’s central buildings and were questioned separately, although they weren’t held for long. After getting out, Mardan found out that the bishop had pulled some weight to explain what really happened. It was quite a double standard for the interrogators to believe the bishop when Mardan had said the same thing… Who knew what version Sigmar had given them. Olsbrin was still being detained for the time being and the rest of the unit was being reassigned and dispersed so they could be watched over. Mardan and Sigmar, being men of the Church were free to do as they wished, so they set about trying to research the horrors that had attacked them.
  • * * * *
    Three and half weeks had been spent in Zvolig. The capital was a beautiful place and Sigmar couldn’t complain. He wasn’t as important as he had been in Dresdnik and there were an ample number of clerics and bishops that outranked him. He and Mardan had spent numerous hours pouring over Church records and library resources trying to find out what the four-armed and winged monsters were. They had had little success, although they had come across mention of faceless horrors in relation to a rumored dark god named Nzaakczu. He was supposedly some god of corruption and chaos, although his origins were unknown. All good clerics knew about Orien, god of the light, and the Dark One, his enemy. The two fought for the hearts of men and power over the world. This Nzaakczu had no place in that fight. Despite the tomes’ dismissal of his existence as rumor, they had stumbled across some sort of cult that thought he was real, if indeed that was the same thing, and they had these monsters to prove that something else existed.
    Without being able to find much more they had settled in for some rest before they decided what they’d do next. M’ut had just disappeared and it had been over a month since they’d seen him last. It was a shame, as Sigmar had grown quite attached to that strange and dangerous man. Rumors had been growing about the north of Nyderiwen attacking parts of the south. Sigmar had also gotten an unbelievable report that Nipid had attacked and laid waste to Dresdnik while Commander Remorric had simply taken his men and left the town defenseless. Zvolig had responded by mustering the troops that it could and had marched, although it had been too late. Apparently, the “assault” on Gripplin had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Word came out that the north didn’t believe the monster story that the south had given, and had found out that a unit from Dresdnik was present at the town’s destruction. Sigmar later learned that the north had been looking for a reason to secede from the oppressive southern government, and it was given to them.
    A few weeks later, a meeting was to be held in the Citadel, a neutral location for both parties to parley, although skirmishes were still taking place along the newly-created border between north and south. The north had claimed they were Nyder, and no longer a part of Nyderiwen. Belwall was claimed as their new capital and their own army was being mustered. Nevertheless they still agreed to meet for negotiations, likely just to flaunt their newly-proclaimed independence.
    The meeting was tense. They met in a large, open courtyard in the center of the Citadel, and both sides brought a small army to the “diplomatic” meeting. Mardan and Sigmar were asked to attend so they could give their accounts of what had actually happened in Gripplin. After they’d given the account and showed the now nearly completely-decayed bodies of the monsters, the northmen’s leaders had dismissed it all as an elaborate farce and the arguments continued. This went on for almost three days before it all went south. Mardan had noticed that one of his closest friends, nicknamed “Shorty” was one of the marshals on the northmen’s side. The two had met secretly, and Shorty had tried to convince them to join the north. Mardan had considered in carefully. On the third day, he had made up his mind to defect and join the north, but that was the same day that negotiations failed.
    After one heated discussion, a large ball of fire had appeared out of nowhere from the northmen’s side and burst right on one of the main leaders of the south, burning him alive. The fight broke out fiercely and chaos ensued. High-value leaders were protected and escorted away. Spells were flung. Swords drawn. Men died. Mardan and Sigmar took this as their opportunity to defect. As they made their way across the courtyard, they saw Shorty beckoning to them. As they moved closer, an arrow took Shorty in the neck and he slumped to the ground. Through the mass of chaos, the two clerics had to fight their way across the courtyard, and by the time they had reached their fallen friend, he was dead. Mardan began to drag his friend’s body away as high vision blurred with tears. Sigmar helped as much as he could while trying to defend them from other attackers. The Nyderiwen civil war had begun in full…
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Return to Gripplin!
The problem escalates quickly...

“What in heaven’s name have you done this time?! By the six curses…” The vein in Olsbrin’s neck was pulsing and his face was redder than a mallowfruit. “I don’t give a drek if you’re some member of the Church, you just involved four military personnel in this crazy quest of yours and you screwed it up…” Sigmar wanted to defend himself, but Olsbrin wasn’t letting him get a word in edge-wise. He had sat there for twenty minutes now, listening to Olsbrin’s lecture and was just looking for his chance to leave. “Go ahead, go report to you bishop or whatever. I can’t stand to look at you right now.” Sigmar stood and slipped out as quickly and quietly as he could. He didn’t mean to report to Olsbrin first, but the gate guards had apparently been looking out for him. There was no sign of Xa or Mardan yet. This was a colossal screwup, but it wasn’t his fault, it was those wicked townspeople. He headed back to the the Glorious Badger with both haste and reluctance.

  • * * * *
    “Tell it to me again, and don’t leave anything out,” the bishop said without looking at Sigmar. He was staring out the window over the city.
    “Yes your grace,” Sigmar said trying to be as humble as he could. He felt odd without his armor, but there was no changing that now. He recounted their observations and their story, leaving out his act of punching the town guard. “And they tried to charge me for some false crime. I think they suspected I was a holy man. Mardan had the sword, and he must have lost it. I didn’t know where the others were, so fearing for my life, I ordered my man to break the stocks and we ran.” He couldn’t stomach the blame for this one. His moral compass slid a little as he convinced himself that the white lies where no big deal. As he opened his mouth to speak again, the door swung open, and in came Mardan, panting, dirty, and bearing the bishop’s sword.
    “Sigmar, I… how did you…” he stopped, out of breath. Sigmar’s heart sank a little.
    “Just in time, cleric. Thank you for retrieving the sword. Please sink, drink.” He motioned to his partner who fill a glass with fresh, expensive wine. Mardan drank politely, although he was clearly thirsty.
    “I’m sorry your grace, I got lost in the countryside.”
    “No matter. You’re here. Please, Sigmar has been telling me of your… adventures in Gripplin. Is the town as wicked as he says?”
    Mardan gave a look over to Sigmar. Sigmar’s returned gaze was quite guilty. Mardan turned back to the bishop and recounted the true events of their trip, including Sigmar’s somewhat irrational behavior. Sigmar’s face sank, but didn’t dare to defend himself. “I did however find a quite strong presence of evil near the courthouse, although there were too many townsmen for me to investigate further. When I went back to the courtyard, I saw them ritualistically kill Xa. They cut his throat and offered his death up to ‘the master’. It gave me chills, so I left.” The bishop took it all in and didn’t speak for some time.
    “Cleric Sigmar, I think I understand your reasons for lying directly to me. Although I understand, such profane behavior is not acceptable for a man of your position. You are on probation, for the time being. I see you have a great desire for justice, and Orien delights in justice. Perhaps you can join our inquistorial division. They might better suit your… methods.” Sigmar felt relieved at the bishop’s grace. “Thank you, your grace,” was all he could manage.
    “I thank you, Cleric Mardan, for your report and your faithful recovery of this blade. I think I have decided what we must do. I will talk to your Captain, but I feel we must march on Gripplin, and quickly. Dark things are happening there, and this… master… could be quite dangerous. Please, report to him at once and inform him that I will require his assistance. I have further words for Sigmar here.” Mardan bowed and excused himself. He still couldn’t believe Sigmar making him a scapegoat in all of this.
  • * * * *
    The company marched north. It had taken a lot of convincing for Olsbrin to let his men be used for the bishop’s purposes. Sigmar and Mardan had had to watch the whole thing quietly on the side. Olsbrin had yelled while the bishop calmly and logically won the argument. Olsbrin couldn’t disagree that an entire town under some dark power was a threat to the country as a whole. Olsbrin still wasn’t happy, but then again, he never really was. The unit of fifty men marched for five long days to make it to the valley that held the small town. Sigmar had taken the bishop up on his offer to join the inquisitorial division of the Church. Apparently to this clandestine group the ethics of Orien could be bent slightly if it was for the greater good… just the sort methods that Sigmar was used to.
    As the large unit made its way over the crest of the hill, Olsbrin held up his hand to stop them. Mardan was able to take in the scene from atop his horse. Before him, where once stood the town of Gripplin, was a smoldering wreckage. The land itself was rent in several places, like the claws of some impossibly-large beast had torn the earth. Buildings still smoked lightly, evidence of recent fires. No life or movement could be seen below. Olsbrin motioned for them to move forward and the company descended the steep valley hill.
    Once they reached the town proper, the men split into groups of five to survey the town. Olsbrin, the bishop, Mardan, Sigmar, and Ren all went to the town square. Buildings had collapsed in piles of ash and there were large splatters of blood around the place, but there was no other evidence of people. No bodies or body parts. Nothing. No life could be found in the whole town. After some time the small groups of men came back to give their reports. All were the same. No life. Lots of blood. Burned and crushed buildings.
    “We should look into the civil building, where you detected the evil,” the bishop said, looking at Mardan as he spoke. Mardan nodded and led the way. They approached the once-large building. It was now caved in, and most of it lay underground in the small chasm that had opened up under it. The bishop stood in concentration, taking in the scene while Olsbrin motioned for his men to be quiet. In the silence faint, muffled cries could be heard from under the rubble. “Get those beams out of the way!” Olsbrin began to bark orders and slowly the rubble was cleared away. Two men who had been chained, presumably in some sort of jail, were freed and brought up for questioning. In clearing the rubble, it could now be seen that this chasm was quite deep, and one side of it opened up into a pit, the depth of which couldn’t be determined.
    “Who are you? What happened here? Tell us what you know,” the bishop said in a kind but commanding tone. One of the men was large, with an unforgiving expression. The other was thin, short, and twitchy. He didn’t answer any of the questions, but instead just muttered random nonsensical phrases to himself. Eventually the gruff-looking one answered their questions.. in some fashion. He apparently had killed a man after losing his temper and was being detained for sentencing. He said the others prisoners would disappear one at a time, and he was quite sure they weren’t being released. Perhaps 48 hours earlier, the earth shook and he heard screams and the sounds of battle before silence. He hadn’t seen anything, and that was all he could offer. The soldiers then fed the men and chained them to unit’s wagon until it could be decided what was to be done with them.
    As Olsbrin and the bishop were discussing what this might have been, six large, dark shapes shot out of the pit under the building. Landing among the groups of men, these… creatures started to attack. Each was vaguely humanoid, although they each possessed wings, four sinewy arms, razor-sharp black claws, and most oddly, no faces. They had mouths, but no eyes or nose, just a large protruding skull. Their skin was purplish-black and thick. They attacked with great speed and ferocity, and it was clear they were quite strong and quite deadly. Several men dropped quickly before most could respond. The bishop immediately began to channel holy energy in the hopes that it would drive away such evil creatures. They hissed in response, but continued their attack. Ren joined the fray, sustaining some wounds, but crushing the skulls of the one the creatures. It’s lifeless body twitched at his feet. Mardan and Sigmar worked together to flank another and successfully wounded it for the bishop to finish it off with the holy sword. As quick as they came the remaining monsters took flight and flew back down the chasm they had come from. Olsbrin set the men about, using wooden beams to block the hole and set up a perimeter. Thirteen men had been killed, and many other wounded. Something evil had happened in Gripplin, but what that was, no one knew.
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It Hits the Fan!
Things in Gripplin go south...

After some time seven older men were assembled and a large crowd of spectators had also filled the square. As he took in the council members his heart sank as he noticed the same tattoo on each one of them, in the same place as the barkeep, just under their neckline. What had he done? They were all in on it! They probably knew he was a cleric and he would be likely be killed. The council questioned him in front of the crowd and he tried to give answers that were a little crazy, so they might think his behavior just irrational. If they knew what he was really there for, no doubt he’d be without hope of escape. The council reached their decision. Because he was from out-of-town, he would be placed in stocks in the town square for the day and night, and would be banished in the morning. They’ll probably have someone come kill me during the night, Sigmar thought to himself. He just hoped his comrades could get him out of this…
The afternoon passed slowly. Random townsfolk would pass by and spit at him or jeer. Eventually his three compatriots came near. “What were you thinking Sigmar?” Xa tried to reason with him. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“Where’s Mardan? Did you see the tattoos? They’ll all a part of this… this whole Orien-forsaken town! Get me out of here!”
Ren, being not too bright and just as impulsive as Sigmar, grabbed his greathammer and with a fierce swing, smashed one end of the stocks, allowing Sigmar to wriggle his way out. A nearby guard noticed and came over, yelling at Ren. Without hesitation, Ren smashed the guard’s leg, crushing bone. The man passed out from the pain and the three fled the scene as fast as they could. They wouldn’t risk getting their horses from the inn, not yet. Sigmar didn’t know where Mardan was, but they couldn’t risk waiting around for him. So the three fled the town to hide in the nearby hills. Night was coming quickly, so they had a good chance of hiding…

  • * * * *
    The night had been a long one for Mardan. He had returned to the city square later, expecting to find Sigmar still in the stocks, but instead he found they had been smashed and the town was in an uproar. Men on horses were marshaling in packs, while others with torches went out on foot. Apparently something crazy had happened and Mardan was sure that Sigmar was in the middle of it. Some priest of Orien, he thought to himself. He had also made the connection that the tattoos were likely a bad sign, and being a good cleric himself, had tried to avoid most people in case they somehow identified him. He also didn’t want to risk going back to the inn yet. He figured they would have traced Sigmar back to there and might be waiting for any of them to return. They still hadn’t succeeded on their mission, and Mardan was going to try to do it, even if he had to do it alone. So he spent the night scoping out different places of interest. He too had detected evil of various strengths emanating from various buildings. The strongest he’d found was under the courthouse, and the emanations were quite strong, but thanks to Sigmar’s antics the city was like a kicked beehive and there was no way he was going to break in with town guards looking all over for the troublemakers.
    He skirted the main streets and headed back towards the town square. There was quite a commotion going on and it would be easier for him to blend into a large crowd. People were jeering and chanting and yelling. Silence fell over the crowd as the main elder raised his hands. Mardan was finally able to see what they were all looking at. It was Xa. He was stripped down to his loincloth, and clearly beaten and bloodied. Mardan’s heart sank, but with this many people, nothing could be done.
    “For the crimes committed against this township, you are hereby sentenced to death. And may this death be pleasing to our master,” the elder said in an official tone. The crowd cheered and pumped their fists in a frenzy. The elder drew a large silver knife that glittered in the torchlight. He held it up for all to see, then without another summarily slid it across Xa’ throat with great force. Blood spray out, but none of the crowd recoiled. Xa’s gurgled cries came out as he choked on his own blood. A large man brandishing a bastard sword stepped up, and proceeded to sever the rest of Xa’s head from his body. The elder picked up the head and showed it to all. What the hell kind of town am I in, thought Mardan, before he quickly backed away. Sigmar and the others were on their own, wherever they were.
    In the wee hours of the morning Mardan was able to quietly free their horses from the inn’s stables and lead them away. Avoiding the main roads, he headed back to where they’d stashed their armor and was able to load it on the horses before heading out of the valley. He had no idea what to do, but clearly the others weren’t going to head back to Gripplin. He felt like he had no choice but to return to Dresdnik. He did spend some time looking for any tracks indicating where Sigmar and Ren may have gone but he found none. He wasn’t particularly adept at tracking, and he thought it for the best that he didn’t find anything. If he had, then surely the townspeople also would have. He would have to go tell Olsbrin, and the bishop, and hopefully come back with enough force to take care of the town. There was something definitely going on in Gripplin.
  • * * * *
    Sigmar, Xa, and Ren had split up and tried to hide in different places, agreeing to meet at the top of the hill they’d cross earlier after sunrise. Sigmar had found a small farmhouse far on the outskirts of the town and managed to pay for their guest room for the evening. They didn’t ask many questions, and also happily accepted his coin for their only horse. With what he gave, they’d be able to buy twenty. That morning he was able to find Ren, but with no sign of Xa and the town still in an uproar, the two rode back towards Dresdnik with all haste. Gripplin would pay for what they’d done. The wrath of Orien be on those cultists, he thought to himself. As he rode he made a sinking realization. The holy sword he’d been given was still hidden back at the town. What would he say to the bishop? His shame turned to renewed anger. Gripplin would feel the wrath of both the Church and the Nyderiwen army.
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