Blood and Smoke
The long weeks of travel had taken its toll on the journeyers. Each day consisted of traversing through trackless wilderness in blistering heat, swatting away strange insects, finding a defensible position to make camp, and hunting for whatever game could be found. Each night was full of strange sounds and restless sleep. Tullweim in particular had keenly felt the isolation and burden of this trip as his disturbing nightmares continued. The Aesir would wake gasping in the middle of the night, believing he had committed some unspeakable atrocity to his companions. Only after checking all in the camp could he lay back down, but still his mind was troubled. This day, Tullweim felt the heat acutely and his mind wandered far from where his feet landed. He barely heard Cuana call after him and was surprised to see his companions had stopped and were gathered around one of Sir Gasparus’ retainers, who lay face down in the ground.
The Cimmerian saw the strange daze his companion was in and moved to his side. The signs of a high fever were evident in the Aesir, his eyes were glassy, sweat poured down his face, and a faraway look was cast. Sir Gasparus’ retainer was in worse shape. His mind was addled and the weakened worker mumbled nonsense. Arisawe looked over the retainer and then Tullweim and found evidence of a red, bloated, insect bite. The Pict guide feared the barbarian and retainer had caught a deadly disease from the bite and suggested the group find shelter quickly so she could tend to them. Sir Gasparus furiously bemoaned the delay in their journey stopping would cause and suggested leaving the Aesir and retainer to whatever fate their gods had for them. Cuana refused and seemed about to strike the noble when Lady Coelia intervened, stressing the importance of having a warrior such as Tullweim to succeed in their task as well as a healthy retainer to carry their supplies. Sufficiently mollified, Gasparus berated the other retainers to lift their companion as Cuana guided Tullweim. Arisawe informed the group of an old Pict village nearby which she believed to be abandoned and where the 2 ill travelers could be treated.
After several miles of travel, in the dwindling sunlight, the party saw the village Arisawe spoke of. The palisade stood overgrown with vegetation and no Pict sat in the watcher’s post. The huts appeared empty, and in various states of disrepair. It was surmised the village had been abandoned for some time as the forest had encroached in and some of the cabins were completely covered with vines. No signs of battle were evident in the eerie ghost village and all were unsettled at the heavy silence within. Arisawe gestured towards a large cabin and said it used to be a sweat lodge where the Pict could perform a ritual to heal Tullweim and Gasparus’ retainer, though she required supplies for the ritual. Cuana and Xacksmith agreed to venture into the forest to snare an animal, which the Pict insisted be brought to her alive. Meanwhile, Dhak aided Arisawe in gathering various herbs and berries while the retainers moved their companion into the lodge with Tullweim trailing dazedly behind.
Hours passed before Cuana and Xacksmith returned with a live deer. They had difficulty with their attempts to snare the doe, but the Hyrkanian borderer had finally managed to track and capture it. Dhak, Lady Coelia, Sir Gasparus and his retainers all sat around a fire eating the meager jerky from previous caught game, some with disapproving looks at the animal which would be used for sorcery and not food. Arisawe stepped out of the lodge, her naked form silhouetted in the doorway by the fire within. The Pict had used the berries gathered to paint arcane marks in blue all over her body. The shaman stood unashamed at her stark nudity and asked Cuana and Xacksmith to bring the doe into the lodge and place it on a crude altar. Arisawe then stated the deer was large enough to do more than heal the disease in their companion and could be used to give the blessings of Jhebbal Sag to the adventurers. Whether out of a desire to have any advantage available or of curiosity in the ritual about to take place, Dhak and Xacksmith agreed to participate. Arisawe instructed them to remove their clothing when they entered the lodge. They noted Tullweim had already disrobed and sat with legs crossed on an old fur. A wary look was exchanged but both companions stripped off their attire and took their positions, sitting next to the Aesir.
Arisawe began chanting and sensuously swaying with a mesmerizing rhythm while coals burned and the room filled with heat and smoke. The participants had been instructed to chant as well, and not stop no matter what occurred, or risk the sorcerous energy running afoul. The Pict cast the various gathered herbs into the fire and the smoke danced about the female shaman’s body as if it were alive. The sparks from the fire moved like strange firefly-like insects which fluttered about the room. The walls of the lodge warped and bent as if the building itself was breathing and all within appeared to glow. To the participants astonishment, ghastly whispers were heard and the smoke began to take form. Each adventurer saw people they knew had passed from the mortal coil move in the haze, murmuring blasphemous truths from beyond the grave. The hypnotic chanting continued, the participants voices forming a disturbing chorus to their companions outside the haunt.
Cuana, Lady Coelia, Sir Gasparus and retainers sat uncomfortably in the center of the abandoned Pict village. The sound of Pictish chanting sent shudders down their backs and they could not keep themselves from looking apprehensively around at the empty huts expecting a surprise attack. Gasparus turned to Cuana and spoke of troubles in Aquilonia proper, far from the Westermarck, where the knight hoped to return to reclaim his families’ land. His ambitions were laid plain of a desire to gather mercenaries and carve out an estate from a cabal of merchants who, he claimed, had swindled his family. The knight then told the Cimmerian after their task was done Gasparus’ could use Cuana’s blade by his side, not only in ousting the merchants, but on revenging himself against powerful enemies. Sir Gasparus added that in the days of a barbarian king on the lion throne, a Cimmerian could do quite well for himself. Cuana had no interest in further relations with the arrogant knight and simply shook his head, saying he had plans to travel far from the flower of the west as he would not be welcome in or around Tarantia any longer. Gasparus shrugged his shoulders and stated the Cimmerian was throwing away a fortune in mercenary work and the group fell silent to the chanting from the lodge.
At the height of the ritual, Arisawe’s voice reached a fevered crescendo as she thrust her knife into the doe’s neck, spilling it’s life-blood in a bowl. The Pict continued intoning as the bowl filled, then she supplely swayed towards Tullweim. Arisawe dipped two fingers into the deer’s blood and anointed the Aesir with strange symbols as she pressed her hips onto Tullweim’s without missing a beat of her sorcerous weaving. The shaman’s voice remained strong and in control, though only barely, as she moved with the barbarian. And after minutes of chanting intermixed with heavy breathing, Arisawe rose, dipped her fingers into the blood and undulated towards Dhak. The Pict continued this practice with Xacksmith, then finally Gasparus’ servant, where her chanting finally gave way to a scream of ecstasy. With the ritual ended, Tullweim’s and the servant’s fever broke. All but Arisawe took several moments to collect themselves, feeling as if they had experienced something both wonderful and profane. The participants emerged from the lodge, looking weary but otherwise healthy and eager for sleep. Cuana offered to take first watch while the others settled in. Though for Dhak, Tullweim, Xacksmith, and Gasparus’ servant, little rest was to be found amid their troubled dreams.
The Sacred Grove
A week of uneasy travel through swamps and quagmires, forests and clearings, passed. Cuana noted all his sword-brothers seemed restless, taken with dark thoughts and strange behavior. Tullweim especially, as he recently had the habit of repeatedly dragging his blade across his arms and during stops in travel the Aesir had added quite a collection of self-inflicted scars. The Cimmerian didn’t press his barbarian ally about it, but Cuana’s concern for his friend was evident. Eventually, Arisawe declared the travelers to be near their destination. The trees were thick here and all were struck with a sense the ancient timber was aware of the travelers, observing with hostile intent. The undergrowth was denser, and thornier, making every step through the forest a tedious effort. Sir Gasparus grumbled his displeasure at the situation and came to a sudden stop at the sight of 3 primitive men robed in white.
The leader of the white-robed men held out his hand and demanded, in the tongue of the Picts, the travelers stop or be struck down. The adventurers looked around and saw several more of the curiously dressed men among the trees. Cuana stepped forward and replied with the reason or their presence, to reach Nuadwyddon and empower the staff Lady Coelia currently held. The druids eyes widened at the sight of the staff. The Cimmerian continued to parley, asking the druids for aid, even if that aid was just an allowance to continue towards the sacred grove. The lead druid solemnly nodded his head in agreement, but gave warning to tread carefully as the druids would be watching. Cuana thanked the man and relayed the result of the exchange to his companions. All continued their slog through the forest with wary eyes upon their newly acquired watchers. When asked who these strange people who lived between the Picts and Cimmerians were, Arisawe responded they were the Ligureans, a race of men who long feuded with Picts. Dhak had heard of the wild order of druids as well and Cuana had heard myths of the men robed in white. They both believed that an enemy of their enemy could only be their ally in this journey.
Eventually a dense grove of mighty redwood trees which towered to unbelievable heights stood before the travelers. A mist seemed to perpetually hang among this hilly land which radiated natural power. The grove was a rich verdure, clothed in primeval forests. Stone monoliths rose out of the green abundance, seeming to poke mystically out of the fogs and mists, lurking in the dark shadows of the mighty woods. Deep in the grim depths of this green labyrinth of moss-covered monoliths and vine-laden tree trunks lay a circle of giant stones raised by hands unknown deep in the shrouded past when legendary figures, long forgotten, ruled these lands. In the center of this awesome structure of mammoth monoliths was a stone altar, grim with the ancient bloodstains of sacrifices killed during the gruesome rites of the Ligurean druids. Lady Coelia moved towards Dhak and handed the Stygian the curious staff of leaf and bud. The noblewoman explained the great altar would need to be moved and the adventurers would have to descend beneath it with the staff. Coelia did not know exactly what would happen beneath the earth, but something there was supposedly able to awaken the staff. Sir Gasparus said he would not go, but would stay topside to guard Lady Coelia should the Ligureans change their disposition or any Picts launch an attack. The 4 adventurers then worked with a tree limb to move the massive altar from where it had sat for millennia.
Once the altar was moved, the entrance below was seen to be a small hole in the ground, barely large enough for a person to squeeze into. The hole was too narrow to pass through with armor, so Cuana, Tullweim, and Xacksmith removed theirs. A rope was lowered and Cuana climbed down 15 feet to the damp floor. At the bottom of the pit the Cimmerian could discern a dank burrow in the darkness. Things crawled in the earth here and a branch was used as a torch, but with the dampness of the hole and the breeze of foul air that came up from the burrow the torch would not stay lit. Cuana progressed into the damp cramped space in the dark and the others quickly followed. The burrow was little more than a low tunnel that twisted and wound like the bowels of a great creature of the earth. Moving on hands and knees the party keenly felt the worms and insects which moved in the moist mould of the earth and dropped from above as the party knocked them down with their passing. Cuana felt the sharp bite of an insect and the acidic fire of poison transmitted, though his fortitude was such that the venom’s bite did not take hold.
After what was only a quarter hour of travel but felt much longer to the travelers, the small tunnel widened and enlarged. All was dark and blind there and the adventurers could only move safely through their sense of touch. An angry hissing was heard mere steps from the party and they saw a multitude of feral eyes glowing dimly in the dark. A chorus of hellish voices, like the hiss of a pit of serpents raised in challenge at the adventurers intrusion. Stooped awkwardly as they were, the party drew their blades as the glowing eyes moved forward to attack. Javelins were thrown, striking the unarmored flesh of the party. The adventurers rushed to close the distance with their assailants and steel sang in the gloom. The disadvantage of blindness took its toll on the party as they missed the squat children of the night more than they hit. But when a blade did strike true a pair of feral eyes glared no more. The creatures did not have the same trouble finding their marks with their clubs, bashing and bruising the adventurers with dozens of furious blows. With lips mashed, blood running from their wounds, and mounting frustration the party slowly gained ground. The beasts numbers thinned and they began to fall back to the far side of the chamber. After 2 more were struck down the remainder fled into another tunnel and no further malevolent eyes gleamed. The party took a moment to regroup and catch their breath.
Dhak attempted to bind Cuana’s wounds in the dark, but knew his attempts were sloppy and not likely of any aid. The adventurers then pressed on into the dusk to another soggy chamber. The smell of damp earth and mould was everywhere. Worms and insects were underfoot, in the parties hair and nearly everywhere else. Something horrible seemed to draw them there. After careful passage into the dank chamber all that could be seen were the dancing pinpoints of those feral, glowing eyes. Blades at the ready, the adventurers were about to pounce when they were stopped by a voice that spoke not to their ears, but as a sound within their head, echoing through their very soul. The voice said, “So my staff comes home after all these long aeons…” A rustling of the terrible thing which spoke in their minds was heard. The squat creatures in the chamber hissed a repulsive chant, a litany of horrific worship for their misbegotten king. The grotesque bulk swayed in front of the party, barely glimpsed in the darkness as it passed in front of the feral eyes of its worshipers. Tullweim could not hold in his panic at the presence of this demon and fled into the tunnel they had entered from.
Dhak asked the devil what it was known as, to which the gurgling voice replied, “Once, I was known as Dekanawidah, weaver of the blackest sorcery, now…I am but the Lord of the Worms. Why have you trespassed unto my domain?” The Stygian replied that they were tasked with awakening the staff he carried. The demon chuckled, saying it would attune the staff, in exchange for a sacrifice. A great warrior, or virgin soul would be sufficient, as would a gift of fate or entering into a pact with Dekanawidah. Neither Cuana nor Xacksmith liked the terms the demon had set. The Cimmerian stated he was going to find Tullweim and the Hyrkanian said he would help. The Stygian stood alone with the creature and could feel the fetid breath the demon exhaled. Seeing no other way in succeeding in his task for a woman he had a growing obsession for, Dhak agreed into entering a demonic pact with the Lord of Worms. The devil slithered forward, pulled the Stygian’s tunic open, muttered arcane words of binding spirits, then bit deep into the flesh above Dhak’s heart, causing a scream of agony to burst for from the Styigan and leaving a mark on both body and soul.
Treachery in the Grove
The other adventurers ran into Tullweim near the tunnel which led to the entrance and the Aesir had composed himself from the terror which caused him to flee. But Tullweim had some troubling news. The barbarian told of how he’d moved back to the entrance to climb out but the rope the party had climbed down was no longer there. The Aesir had called for Gasparus who appeared saying only that the rope would come down when the group had returned with the awakened staff. Cuana was furious upon hearing of Gasparus’ actions and made his way back through the dark tunnel to the entrance. The Cimmerian dug his hands into the moist soil and ascended what civilized men would consider an impossible task. Cuana reached the apex of his climb, he swung his arm out over the lip of the hole and began pulling himself up seeing, too late, Gasparus’ sword swing down upon the Cimmerian’s forearm. Cuana roared with a great fury as he leapt out of the hole, drew his greatsword and rushed the treacherous noble. The Cimmerian’s greatsword cleaved through the noble’s breastplate and Gasparus returned with his blade, but did little than scratch the mighty Cimmerian. Again Cuana hammered into the knight causing gouts of blood to spew forth from a massive tear down the nobles’ side. Gasparus feebly struck back and his eyes grew wide with terror knowing he could not stop his indomitable foe. Cuana bore down on his enemy barely aware of Arisawe chanting behind him. Mere feet from his hated foe, the Cimmerian was struck by agonizing pain which brought him to his knees. Gasparus smiled and walked confidently to the downed Cimmerian. He raised his broadsword above Cuana’s writhing form and brought it down with all his hatred as Tullweim climbed out of the nearby hole in time to see his friend fall.
The Aesir, fueled by rage, charged Gasparus and brought his bardiche down onto his breastplate, knocking the noble to the ground. Xacksmith used his rope to scale the pit and emerged seeing Arisawe weave sorcery, calling out to the wilderness around them. Dhak was next to climb out as a pale white panther rushed to the Pict shaman’s side and attacked the Aesir, raking its claws against the unarmored barbarian’s already lacerated flesh. Sir Gasparus crawled away from the distracted Aesir and rose to his feet as Xacksmith leveled his bow at the panther, letting 2 arrows fly. Both shafts pierced deeply into the creatures’ side. Dhak turned his gaze to the noble and called upon his blasphemous arts to inflict the same torment on Gasparus which Arisawe had afflicted Cuana with. The knight cried out in agonizing pain and hit the ground unconscious from his many physical and spiritual wounds. Tullweim struck with 2 powerful attacks against the beast, painting the creatures unnaturally pale flesh crimson as it thudded heavily to the ground. All 3 warriors glared murderously at the Pict they had each recently copulated with.
Arisawe desperately called out for mercy, claiming she was forced to obey Gasparus’ order to betray the party. Tullweim took one look at the scene around him, the dead Ligureans, Lady Coelia bloodied on the ground, the dead panther, an unconscious knight, and a long time ally who lay still on the forest floor, shook his head, grabbed the Pict by her hair and rammed her skull against a nearby tree. The beautiful Pict crumpled onto the ground as Dhak moved to check Lady Coelia’s condition and Xacksmith likewise searched for signs of life from Cuana in the heavy mists of the Ligurean grove.