Defending the West 2

Niyohontehsha of the Wildcats

Cuana and Tullweim both swore as they witnessed the awful change of one of the captive settlers into another panther-like abomination. Though the rite turned their stomachs to watch it did not quell Tullweim’s fury as he roared out a challenge. The were-panther snarled menacingly, snapped its bonds and leapt at the Aesir. The foul beasts teeth and claws ripped through Tullweim’s armor and lacerated the flesh beneath. The indomitable Nordheimer responded with 2 mighty swings of his greatsword, deeply wounding the creature which but moments ago was a man. Cuana followed the Aesir’s attack with a powerful assault of his own, splitting the top of the creatures head from its jaw in a swath of bright crimson. Amidst the scene of carnage, the Pict women and children continued to dance as the shaman intoned with an ominous cadence.

Meanwhile, Dhak and Xacksmith made their way along the inside of the wooden wall which defended the Pict village of Niyohontehsha. The two adventurers heard the fierce pitch of the battle as it raged at the center of the village and the Stygian had grown impatient. Dhak did not like not having a precise plan for rescuing a phantom woman from the Hyrkanian’s dreams. Xacksmith had his doubts as well but as they turned a corner the Hyrkanian was struck with familiarity at the daub-and-wattle huts which surrounded him. Xacksmith rushed towards a particular hut of grim aspect. The feathers, animal skulls, and scalps did not give the Hyrkanian pause as he flung open the hide-door covering. Inside the hut a beautiful women with lustrous hair, which fell in waves past a warm face, sat reposed on a mattress of animal pelts, surrounded by skulls and other grisly relics of former prisoners. The woman’s bright hazel eyes and full, soft lips showed alarm as from within the hut another were-panther pounced at the Hyrkanian. It was but chance which caused the creatures claw to snare the door covering instead of Xacksmith’s face.

The Hyrkanian lunged desperately at the were-panther with the curious staff he carried, driving the point into the beasts gut. The maddened creature raked its claws against Xacksmith, ripped through his leather armor and sent him unconscious to the ground. Dhak spoke arcane words of entrancement on the were-panther, who charged the Stygian, moving from hind legs to all four with great alacrity. The sorcerer’s words took hold of the creature just as it reached the Stygian, it’s clawed hand raised in an attack stopped unnaturally by Dhak’s will. The Stygian concentrated deeply to maintain his hypnotism of the creature as the young woman braved to move out of her prison. She looked down sorrowfully at Xacksmith and noticed the staff which lay beside him. Dhak called out to her to take the staff and deliver a coup de grace to the beast. At first frightened by the prospect, the woman watched as the creature stood menacingly not 5 feet from the Stygian and collected the staff. She moved near Dhak who urged the woman to strike quickly. The women held the shaft of the staff and struck the point into the creatures throat. Dhak’s sorcery was broken and the aberrant beast thrashed about as the young woman drove the staff deeper into the creatures gullet.

At the center of the village, the 3 Wolf Picts who had fled the combat at the village gate fired their bows at the 2 northern barbarians. Though Cuana’s armor prevented the arrows from doing any lasting harm he almost blacked out from the collection of bruises he’d acquired. The Cimmerian fought past the pain and dizziness, brought his greatsword down on one of his attackers and with a backswing wounded another who fled the combat, holding his torn side. Baraccus rushed at Tullweim, using his axe to attempt to trip the Aesir. But the mountain of a man proved immovable and the renegade ranger dropped his axe rather than be tripped in return. Tullweim then brought his greatsword down on the renegade, splintering bone and sinew. As Baraccus fell the Aesir plunged his sword through the renegade’s gut. A heavily adorned male Wildcat Pict led the 3 Picts who had been drumming for the ceremony into battle. The savages swarmed around Tullweim, delivering blow after blow from their hatchets and clubs. The masked shaman plunged a dagger through the only remaining prisoner tied to a ceremonial post as the battle raged. The feathered devil then shouted a great curse at the Aesir which caused Tullweim’s strikes to miss his target. Cuana rushed to the Aesir’s side and the savage Picts were witness to the unbridled wrath of the Cimmerian barbarian. Cuana’s greatsword tore the Wildcat chief asunder as brains, bones, and blood littered the field. The Picts who had been at the chief’s side quickly fled as the 2 barbarians heard their Stygian ally call for fleetness of foot. Tullweim moved towards the village gate but he could no longer sustain his crimson rage. Without the fury driving him the Aesir succumbed to his wounds and fell, motionless, to the ground. The Cimmerian saw this, sheathed his greatsword, and lifted his companion over his shoulder with hope that fate would see the Aesir rise to fight another day.

But the masked shaman was not yet done. The guttural chanting of the Pict shaman reached a crescendo as he angrily sent his mystical call of command to the surrounding forest. As the adventurers met up near Niyohontehsha’s front gate they were chilled to see a huge pale shape slither out of the black woods. Cuana cried out for everyone to run and the party had a slight advantage due to the creature coming from the forest behind the village’s palisade. The noblewoman almost lost her nerve but Dhak was able to keep her focused with helping him carry Xacksmith. The adventurers were almost to the edge of the forest and the Cimmerian braved a look behind to see the form of a monstrous Ghost Snake, glowing palely in the moonlight. Cuana called out to the 3 settler women the party had left hidden, ordered them to run and not look behind. Though they’d managed to keep some distance from the creature, it was a mile trek back to Thunder River. The Ghost Snake had caught up to Cuana and lunged at the Cimmerian, who even carrying the Aesir was able to narrowly dodge the beast. The barbarian was able to gain some ground after the attack as Dhak, carrying Xacksmith with the aid of the noblewoman, came to the bank of Thunder River. Fortune was with them as 3 canoes were beached nearby. But the adventurers passage did not go unnoticed. Several Picts fired arrows at the party as they moved towards the canoes. The Cimmerian then barreled through the savages and behind him struck the massive serpent. Not aware that a shaman had summoned the creature the Picts panicked and some attacked the Ghost Snake as the adventurers rowed out into the river. The creature immediately fell upon the hapless savages and their screams rang out across the wide, open river as they fell prey to the demonic thing sent after the party by their own chieftain.

The adventurers stopped briefly on the opposite shore. Cuana used a length of rope to tie the 3 canoes together as Dhak tended to Xacksmith’s wounds. Within moments the Hyrkanian was roused and the canoes were launched back into the river. The Cimmerian and Hyrkanian rowed the 2 canoes flanking the one Dhak was in. Both the Stygian and Hyrkanian’s cat-like eyes were able to use the moonlight to direct their passage. Though physically exhausted the adventurers rowed until the morning light shown. Then, in early dawn, they made towards the shore and moved the canoes out of the water and behind the cover of trees. The adventurers attempted to conceal their camp as much as possible and set up a watch to rest. It was then the noblewomen was questioned. She introduced herself as Lady Coelia, the very noble written of in the waylaid missives the adventurers had discovered several days earlier. The noblewoman told her tale of involvement with the staff. She had long been interested in the Picts and was told of some great destiny concerning them. She knew little of the strange staff Gault had entrusted with the adventures other than that it was called the Staff of Dekanawidah and Sagoyaga desperately sought it. The noblewomen helped as she could with the 3 settler women who finally seemed to have enough sense amongst them to relate who they were. It seemed they were the 3 settler women which Baraccus had kidnapped. The renegade ranger and his henchmen had traveled to Schondara with the intent of crossing the Thunder River and giving the women to the Wildcat tribe. But the Wolf Picts attack on the frontier town changed all that. The adventurers then rested for many hours. When early evening arrived the Aesir roused from unconsciousness. The party packed up and once again traveled on the Thunder River by moonlight.

Several nights passed with the adventurers similarly stopping at dawn and continuing their trek to the Oriskonie province at dusk. Several fires in the distance on the settlers side of the great river showed the Westermarck was still besieged but the party was able to avoid any Picts crossing the river. Though they rowed against the current, the Aesir and Cimmerian’s legendary strength and endurance were able to keep a steady pace. After a week and a half of such activity they finally arrived at the Oriskonie province. Though Pict attacks occurred in the settler province they had not yet become as brash and wanton as the attack on Schondara. The adventurers were able to locate Fuldonus and bring the 3 settler women to him. The Bossonian thanked the party and ensured the governor gave the reward promised. In addition, Lady Coelia was taken in by the governor and the party enjoyed no small amount of coin for the noblewoman’s rescue as well. Given the continued attacks on the Westermarck, Lady Coelia was successful in convincing the adventurers to stay and aid the settlers in pushing back the savages onslaught.

The Caravan to Oriskonie

It had been 6 weeks since the War of the Wolf began and the Westermarck burned. The Picts rampaged through Schohira. Thandara was harried extensively by the Otter and Alligator tribes. Conawaga was under siege. Plagues disrupted the settlers and the cities were quickly evacuated. Aquilonia sent in more troops, which resulted in Nemedian opportunists testing the flower of the West’s strength. A bounty for Picts was put into effect to bolster support against the savages seemingly unstoppable advances. One silver coin of the realm for each Pict head or scalp brought in. Large bounties were posted for Sagoyaga (1,000 sp), Machk (500 sp) and Dji’ionondo (200 sp). Bounty hunters from across the Thurian continent arrived to try their hand at capturing Sagoyaga and his followers. An Aquilonian knight, Sir Gasparus, son of Gaspar, arrived with his troops and asked for volunteers and scouts to bring in Picts. In between slaying savages Cuana, Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith had found much work escorting caravans between what remained of settlements. Their most recent job was escorting a caravan of supplies from Conawaga to the Oriskonie province. The adventurers hoped to make as quick progress as possible as a carrier bird delivered word that Lady Coelia had gained knowledge about the curious Staff of Dekanawidah and needed the parties’ help.

The caravan consisted of 5 wagons pulled by 10 horses. There were 4 mounted mercenaries, and 2 rangers guarding the caravan as well as the adventurers. Late in the afternoon Cuana called attention to the unnaturally silent forest surrounding the caravan. The Cimmerian told one of the soldiers to spread the word to the others an attack was coming. The soldier was at first annoyed at the foreigner’s orders, but realized the likely truth in Cuana’s words with the unusual stillness in the air and moved to alert the others. The soldier had just turned to the 2nd wagon when an arrow impaled the mercenary. The sky darkened by the stone-tipped bolts that came from the surrounding forest like a swarm of deadly insects followed by the ominous beating of drums. Man and horse alike were hit and the mercenaries dove for cover. A large group of snarling wolves burst forth from the forest biting the caravan guards. Cuana’s greatsword spilled the guts of several of the beasts and the Cimmerian made for the trees to hunt for Pict scalps. Dhak, Xacksmith and one of the mercenaries defended the caravan from the attacking wolves. An arrow through the neck killed the closest mercenary and the feral beasts crowded the Hyrkanian, biting and dragging him to the ground. Tullweim aided Xacksmith, clumsily swinging a bardiche, and cleared a wolf off the borderer with a final yelp.

Cuana reached a group of Picts, and one savage slammed into the barbarian, knocking him to the forest floor. Several Picts surrounded the Cimmerian and rained down powerful blows with their hatchets and clubs. Cuana bellowed out in rage, forced his way back up taking glancing strikes for his efforts, and cleaved into 5 of the savages, ending their miserable lives in scant seconds. Tullweim rushed into the woods after the Cimmerian as Dhak wove necromantic rites which breathed ‘life’ into 5 of the dead wolves. Several of the caravan wagon drivers and horses panicked at the blasphemous, shambling creatures and the caravan line was broken as the horses led their wagons in different directions, one almost crushing Dhak in the process. Annoyed but otherwise unharmed due to his quick reflexes, the Stygian sent the dead wolves straight at the Picts. Between the slaughter of almost an entire pack and the terror of the dead brought back to life the savages resolve melted away and they hastily abandoned their attack. The convoy was quickly put back into order. Scalps and the dead mercenaries were collected and the group pressed on for the Oriskonie province.

They reached the tent settlement of refugees built upon the ruins of a former proper settlement in the last rays of daylight. Sir Gasparus had put his forces to good use pushing back the Picts from the area and was using the still serviceable buildings as a command center. Their was much commotion as the caravan meandered into the settlement. Many refugees cheered as several of the soldiers began distributing goods from the caravan. Fearful whispers were exchanged among the caravan drivers and soldiers of besieged Conawaga. The adventurers were told to meet Sir Gasparus in the still-standing inn. As they traveled Cuana heard a womans voice call out his name. The Cimmerian turned to see Hema, the young woman the party had rescued from Baraccus’ botched attempt at trading women to the Wildcat Picts, pushing through the crowd to meet him. Hema flashed a warm smile and caught the barbarian in an embrace, intimating her fear of Cuana finding a mean end in the wilderness. The Cimmerian assured her he was fine despite her noticing his wounds from the earlier battle. Hema invited Cuana to her tent so she could tend to him and make him a fitting meal. The Cimmerian smiled and told his companions they would have to deal with Gasparus and Lady Coelia without him. Tullweim chuckled at his friends’ leaving and the adventurers moved into the inn.

It was obvious the Aquilonian military had commandeered the Shrieking Owl inn as an officer’s barracks as the only non-soldier in the common room was Lady Coelia who sat at a table with a knight in a mail shirt and breastplate. The young noblewoman warmly greeted the adventurers and noted their wounds. Dhak spoke of the skirmish with the Picts in the woods which attacked the caravan but was pushed back and Tullweim plopped the collection of scalps on the table towards Sir Gasparus. The nobleman arched an eyebrow and said he would have his accountant make note. Gasparus then inquired as to the scalp Tullweim had hanging off his armor and was surprised to hear it was taken from the head of Wanenaka, the Pict who had led the slaughter of Schondara. Gasparus offered 200 silver for the scalp but Tullweim declined stating it was a personal trophy of his recent exploits. Lady Coelia quickly ordered food and drink for the party as Gasparus related his own tales of victories over the belligerent Wolf Picts in Oriskonie. Indeed the knight appeared to be highly regarded by his fellows as his cup was never empty at their expense. Whether it was done out of thanks for Gasparus’ exploits or out of boot-licking to a knight with a reputation for cruelty was not known to the adventurers.

Once the food and drink arrived, Lady Coelia began her tale of what needed to be done with the Staff of Dekanawidah. She spoke of the curious staff needing to be taken to the great Ligurean grove of Nuadwyddon in order to be attuned and ‘awakened’. To that end, the adventurers were asked to accompany herself and Sir Gasparus and retainers to Nuadwyddon. The young noblewoman also noted they would be led by a Pictish guide Sir Gasparus had found, called Arisawe. The female Pict knew where the holy grove was located and could lead the retinue through the trackless wilderness. In the middle of Lady Coelia’s instructions Sir Gasparus’ squire Dion hastily interrupted. Gasparus back-handed the boy for his insolence and Dion apologized to the young noblewoman profusely. The young squire then stammered out that Arisawe required Gasparus’ presence. The knight sneered out a comment about the Pict slut probably wanting more Bossonian whiskey. Gasparus ordered the squire to follow him as his armor was due for maintenance before the morrow’s travel. After they left Lady Coelia was heartened to hear the adventurers eagerness to aid her in awakening the staff. The meal was finished as Cuana arrived, looking as if he had exerted as much energy having dinner with Hema as he had fighting Picts, and Lady Coelia retired to her room. The party was told they could sleep in the common room of the Shrieking Owl and preparations were made for a much needed rest.

Back into the Wilderness

The next morning the adventurers woke early to prepare for their journey. Cuana left the others to inform Hema that he was leaving. The young woman was surprised but the Cimmerian assured her of his return. Cuana stressed the importance of the mission he was taking and Hema nodded in understanding. The young woman then ran inside her tent and grabbed a purple slip of silk, one of her few remaining possessions and wrapped it around the Cimmerian’s neck for luck. Touched by the gesture, Cuana grabbed his coin pouch and pressed half his money into Hema’s hand with instructions to take her sister and flee north if the Picts attacked the settlement again. Hema was fighting back tears as the Cimmerian embraced her for a moment then took his leave.

The adventurers at the Shrieking Owl had packed their supplies while Sir Gasparus barked orders to his retainers. Dion escorted the Pict guide down the stairs. The woman was beautiful by any man’s standards. She wore little other than a beaver pelt loincloth and moccasins adorned with various beaded patterns. The Picts upper body was covered only by evocative designs of blue body paint. Tullweim and Dhak exchanged looks as Cuana returned. The Stygian noted the silk the barbarian wore and the Aesir chuckled. The Cimmerian ignored them as Gasparus ordered the company to depart. Lady Coelia carried the strange staff and Dhak helped her onto her horse. Sir Gasparus mounted his beast and the retainers lifted their heavy packs. The procession traveled out of the refugee settlement without much fanfare. They traveled northwest for most of the day, crossing Thunder river at a shallow point, and made camp before nightfall deep in Pictland.

No fire was braved and cold rations were eaten by the travelers. Cuana and Tullweim furrowed their brows disapprovingly at the abuse Gasparus heaped upon his squire and retainers, though they took no action to stop it. After a somber meal the camp prepared for the night’s rest. Watches were divided up with Tullweim taking the first and Xacksmith the last. As they began to sleep the Aesir noted Arisawe eying a jug strapped to Gasparus’ horse. Tullweim looked the Pict up and down with a smile and Arisawe returned the appreciative gaze. The Picts eyes burned with a fire and passion no woman in a civilized country could match and Tullweim felt the minutes of his watch pass at a glacial crawl. But pass they did and it was with a great relish the Aesir nudged Cuana awake for his watch. As the Cimmerian propped himself up against a tree, Tullweim moved to Gasparus’ horse and grabbed the jug. The Aesir popped it open and took in the heady scent of Bossonian whiskey. He wet his lips with the strong liquor then passed the jug to Arisawe whose hand lingered upon his for a moment. The Pict woman then threw back her head and downed the liquor with a voracious thirst like a man in the desert downs water. Arisawe then set the jug down as her eyes devoured the Aesir. She sidled up beside him and pressed her lips to his. Tullweim was a bit surprised to discover she still had the whiskey in her mouth and was sharing it with him. Cuana shook his head as he saw the Pict woman lead the Aesir into the dark of the forest and the sounds of their passion made its way back to the camp.

The camp was awakened by a scream of pain from the Hyrkanian. An arrow had been shot from the trees and pierced Xacksmith’s leather armor biting deep into flesh. The adventurers were up in an instant and searching for attackers. More arrows were fired into the camp and Cuana and Tullweim rushed to meet their assailants. The Cimmerian caught sight of a savage and tore into him with his greatsword. The Aesir was overrun by another and the Picts followed the attack in a predictable manner. Cuana slashed another Pict allowing Tullweim room to get back to his feet. The Aesir did and then his bardiche found purchase in a savages side. Closer to the camp Gasparus and his squire Dion rushed into the forest as Dhak and Xacksmith readied their bows should any targets present themselves. A painful cry was heard from behind the trees and then the Picts fled the scene. Cuana and Tullweim rushed to where they’d heard the sound come from and found Gasparus on the ground. The knight shouted that the Picts had overpowered him and taken his squire before they fled.

The Decision is Made

Sir Gasparus was in a foul mood after the dawn Pict attack. The knight let out a snide remark that it was Arisawe and Tullweim’s caterwauling the night before which beset the savages upon them. A brief discussion was had by the travelers on whether an attempt should be made to rescue the captured squire, to which Sir Gasparus stated, “We can’t match their pace. Even if we could track them they’d have already done whatever horrors to the boy they aim to. And now that we’ve been seen the Picts will search for us in greater numbers that will jeaporadize our task and endanger the lives of the nobility who tasked us. No. Our way is North, toward Nuadwyddon. Arisawe tells that the Ligureans believe it to be a sacred grove near Cimmeria. But following this trail will make us easy to track.” Cuana nodded in agreement. The idea of traveling off the trail was discussed and thrown out of hand as the horses Lady Coelia and Sir Gasparus rode and armor worn by the adventurers would slow the party down to a glacial crawl. Arisawe added the attackers ornamentation marked them from the Wolf tribe. Likely from Dji’ionondo’s village, Tsorahsa, which was dangerously close by. With a wary eye on the forest surrounding them the decision was made to set upon the trail north.

Tullweim was visibly agitated during the party’s passage through the wilderness. His mind was troubled with memories of dreams the night before. These were unlike any nightmare he had ever suffered. In his restless sleep the Aesir dreamt he’d grabbed Lady Coelia in the night, clasping his cold, iron hands around her mouth and throat. She awoke and struggled helplessly as Tullweim carried her through the forest like a rag doll. Deep into the dark, silent woods did the barbarian carry her until a large boulder was found. Lady Coelia was forced onto the boulder with Tullweim’s left hand and in his right was an axe. The Aesir slammed the young noblewoman’s head against the rock, stunning her, then the axe was brought down, splitting the woman’s once beautiful head in two. The nightmare had not stopped there, but Tullweim shook his head and shuddered, determined to forget the rest. As it was, he could not stand to look at Lady Coelia. But despite his efforts his eyes were constantly drawn to her. The barbarian longed for a drink from Gasparus’ whiskey jar to help drown the disturbed dream into oblivion. But that would have to wait until the nobleman fell asleep when Tullweim could forget his troubles with Arisawe. The Aesir thought he’d ventured into dream again as he caught the discernible scent of death in his nostrils. He was relieved to see he was not the only one who noticed the faint stench of rotting flesh.

The putrid miasma which hung thick in the air grew progressively stronger until it was near nauseating. As the party rounded a bend in the trail they saw a giant carcass blocking their path. None of the travelers had seen a creature like this before. The scales of the creature looked as if they could turn even Cuana’s greatsword. The corpses tail had a stinger like a scorpion’s and two rows of large ridges were along its back. Large scavengers had removed much of the exterior musculature of the creature and several small scroungers and other vermin were spotted around the oozing remains. A flock of vultures cackled in orgiastic glee as they fed on the upper torso of the rotting mass. Sir Gasparus held his cloak to his nose and ordered the adventurers to clear the road. When Xacksmith asked the noble how exactly they were to do such a thing, Gasparus said he cared not whether they hacked through the beast or rolled it out of the way, but they needed to be further along the trail before the Picts returned. Dhak said he might be able to move the enormous corpse. He asked that Lady Coelia move a short distance away with Arisawe and recommended Gasparus leave as well, but the noble’s pride held him firm and he ordered his retainers to remain. The Stygian simply shrugged his shoulders and warned his companions to look away. Once the women were clear he uttered archaic words of power over the dead. Dhak’s necromancy caused the bloated body to twitch.

The awful sight of the huge dead creature moving created a panic in Gasparus’ retainers and horse. The retainers cried out in alarm and the noble’s horse reared, mad with terror, threw its rider and galloped off in a panic. Sir Gasparus cursed and cried out after his retainers to catch the horse as he nervously withdrew from the unnatural animation. Dhak ordered the risen dragon to move out of its path and as it attempted to lift its decayed girth from the forest floor the sounds of fragile bones snapping drew concern from the Stygian sorcerer. After a full minute of futile effort Dhak sighed and ended his weaving of eldritch power. The sorcerer shook his head at his companions and stated they would have to move it with muscle and not magic. Xacksmith wished to gauge the task at hand and moved closer to the once again still corpse. The Hyrkanian only got to be thirty feet of the huge carcass before he was overcome by the horrid stench of decay and relieved himself of his morning meal. Xacksmith drug himself back to his feet, wiped his face and returned to his companions. Discussion was had between the Aesir, Hyrkanian and Stygian of how they could either climb or hew their way through if they could not even get within a stones throw of the remains. Cuana shook his head and tried a different approach.

The Cimmerian scaled a nearby tree, climbing to the highest branch which would support his weight. From his vantage point Cuana could see past the grisly carrion to a wide ravine in the forest. A simple bridge of rope and planks stretched across to the other side but the barbarian knew there was little chance either Lady Coelia’s or Gasparus’ horses getting across. Cuana chuckled a bit at the wasted effort the arrogant noble and retainers were making to retrieve a beast that was fated to be abandoned, then relayed his findings to his companions. Xacksmith again attempted to get closer to the carcass and with nothing left in his stomach was able to approach nearer. The Hyrkanian cast his rope and grapple across the top of the dead beast and felt it bite into bone. He then set to climb up the fetid remains, doing all he could to keep from dry heaving in the process. Cuana did not sit idle in the tree as the Hyrkanian climbed, but instead leapt from tree to tree to get closer to the ravine, the weight of his armor giving little hindrance to the Cimmerians mighty thews. A surprised shout and menacing roar that came from no human throat gave him pause. Two tentacles had burst forth from the reeking mass which Xacksmith stood upon. The Hyrkanian uncannily dodged one but the other wrapped itself around Xacksmith’s leg. The borderer managed to free himself of the tentacle and attempted to withdraw the way he’d come but as he planted his foot he felt it break through the rotted skin and sink deep into the creatures innards.

Dhak and Tullweim rushed towards the melee as Cuana continued to move towards the ravine. At the edge of the precipice a weak branch gave way and the Cimmerian plunged to the ground adding to the collection of scrapes and bruises already received on this journey. Xacksmith avoided another assault from the tentacles and pulled his foot free of the carrion clasp. The Hyrkanian then leapt over the palpus with a grace that would have made a Khitan coryphee gasp and landed on the nearby bridge. The Cimmerian lowered himself to the ravine’s edge and moved hand to hand towards the bridge. On the other side of the carcass Dhak and Tullweim began the gruesome work of hacking through, causing the nauseous odor to pour forth, stronger than before. The Aesir’s legendary constitution was not strong enough to keep the bile from gushing out. The Stygian though quite disturbed at the stench was used to being around cadavers and held his breakfast down behind clenched jaw. Xacksmith stayed out of reach of the creature as Cuana climbed to the bridge and drew his greatsword. The tentacles lashed out at the Cimmerian but his wary eye was able to guess their path and Cuana narrowly dodged both. As one retracted the barbarian struck twice with his weapon, shearing it through in a spray of gore.

Tullweim’s bardiche managed to clear enough of the fetid remains to see the parasite within. A bloated ovoid covered with a tough, rocklike skin and scraps of decaying matter, tittered menacingly through a mouth little more than a wide gash filled with razor sharp teeth. A lesser man would have panicked at the sight of such an abomination but the Aesir only saw red and wished to deal death to the horror. His rush to slay the beast was halted by a misstep in the foot thick rancid fluids. Tullweim landed hard in the basin of filth as the parasite wrapped its uninjured stalk around the barbarian’s throat. Dhak drew back his bow and let 3 arrows fly into the oblong horror causing a horrid shriek to resonate. Tullweim regained his footing, gripped the spiny tentacle which held him, and tore himself free. The depraved monstrosity whipped its appendage at the Aesir but could not penetrate past Tullweim’s hauberk. The barbarian sloshed through the decayed filth and with a roar, brought his bardiche clean through the egg-shaped menace.

Shaking off his rage Tullweim moved back into the clean outside air. Gasparus and his retainers returned and the Aesir let it be known they would need their aid in cleaving through the corpse and moving it out of the way. The noble nodded and told his men to get to it. The barbarian narrowed his eyes at Sir Gasparus, said nothing, and turned to the task at hand. Cuana could hear the tearing of flesh and wanted no part of it. Instead he scouted across the bridge in case some other danger lurked. The Cimmerian had only stood at the bridge’s end for scant moments when his keen ears heard the steady pounding of feet on the ground, closing on his location. A Pict burst into the clearing and for a long second the 2 men gazed at one another. Then the savage turned and made for the cover of trees. Cuana cried out an alarm to his companions and ran after the Pict, knowing his armor would slow him enough that he would never catch up to his quarry. Luckily the Hyrkanian was in range to aid the Cimmerian. Xacksmith let loose 2 arrows from his longbow and both struck true. The dead Pict fell against a tree, spilling paper from a bundle he carried. Cuana picked up the 2 missives, broke their seals and read the contents.

Lord Arrigus Barrabus, Governor,

Oriskonie is suffering greatly from attacks by the Bear, Owl and Snake tribes, who are being pushed into our rightful lands by those of the Wolf tribe. Our beloved King is unable to send more troops at this time because of incursions by Nemedia, who are treacherously taking advantage of Aquilonia’s dire emergencies in the Westermarck. I have even heard rumours that the King is not even in Tarantia; he may be to the south of some fabled land called Zembabwei with a large force of arms we desperately need. Trocero and Pallantides are reputed to be with him. I heard this rumour from a correspondent of mine who claims to have seen Diviatix, sodden with wine, at the great Mitraeum in Tarantia. Regardless, the black heathen, Sagoyaga, must be dealt with; however, he is proving difficult to find. If he is assassinated, then the tribes will again fall apart. Plagues, such as those that devastated Schohira and your own lands, have begun to hit us here. We have heard nothing of the fate of Thandara. We are also being overrun by Bossonians, who, in the guise of helping us fight Picts, have been helping themselves to our settlers, rations and lands. We are sending troops into the Karihton Valley to bolster it against Raven reprisals. I ask for any advice or news.

This dispatch is official and sealed.

Lord Glyco, Governor of Oriskonie

The second missive bespoke grimmer news still.

Commander Styr Dagny’s son,

We have been hard beset by Wildcats. After the beating our fort took from the Wolves we did not have enough men to maintain the fort. We have abandoned the frontier and are marching with due haste toward the Bossonian Marches. We intend to join forces with Baron Borgar at his castle to defend the Bossonian border. The Westermarck is lost. We must defend Bossonia and Greater Aquilonia. Toward that end, you need to retreat your Rangers toward Borgar Castle. The battle you are waging is fruitless, especially with the King in absentia from his throne. I pray he returns in time.

This dispatch is official and sealed.

Volund Odd’s son, Commandant of Fort Ohnerohkwa

Cuana was shaken from his reverie by the sound of his companions and a swearing knight who seethed at the forsaking of his steed. The Cimmerian passed the ill tidings to the others and the companies’ mood grew darker still. Tullweim made his way to the fallen Pict, scalped the corpse, and unceremoniously cast the body into the ravine. The Aesir then added the scalp to those he’d earlier collected, hanging from strings he’d tied to his armor. The travelers then pushed back upon the trail, their minds troubled, their eyes and ears warily aware of their bleak surroundings, sensing danger with each curve of the trail’s path.

The Voice in the Swamp

The company journeyed for days yet no pursuit from the Picts they’d encountered was evident. Tullweim continued his practice of stealing away from the party, drinking, and bedding their savage guide and his dreams became more troubling with each passing night. The alcohol seemed to be the Aesir’s only succor but it was not long before the bottle of Bossonian whiskey was drained. Tullweim irritably cast the empty container against a nearby tree with a curse. More acutely felt by the rest of the company was the depletion of their rations. Cuana and Xacksmith contemplated hunting for food but their apprehension of Picts waiting in the dark and the close proximity of a swamp darkened their prospects. The Hyrkanian struck out alone with his bow and returned an hour later with 2 lean hares. It was obvious to all the meager offering would not be enough to feed the 11 travelers and Arisawe divulged knowledge of a Pict village nearby which she could barter with for food. Sir Gasparus had his retainers offer up various tools from their packs and the Otter Pict left the party to split rabbit portions in the dwindling sunlight.

Later in the evening the travelers waited impatiently for Arisawe’s return and the chorus of frogs and other swamp creatures played on their nerves. Dhak engaged Lady Coelia in conversation, inquiring of her family and how she became involved in the Westermarck. The noblewoman spoke of her relation to the Duke of Manara and how she abandoned all due to her dreams of the Pictish wilderness. She met a female Pict slave once. The old woman said Coelia was destined for a great fate. It was from that woman she learned of the Staff of Dekanawidah, and indeed of the corrupt sorcerer himself, the deeds of whom sent a shiver down even the stoutest man’s spine to be heard. Lady Coelia’s tale was cut off, when amidst the cacophony of the primal swamp was heard a sound that did not belong. That of a woman, desperately crying out for aid. Cuana and Tullweim sprang up, ever ready to spring into danger. Dhak and Xacksmith recommended caution, intimating their suspicion of a Pict trap. The debate was interrupted by another strangled cry. Tullweim recognized the voice as Arisawe’s and plunged into the swamp with Cuana shortly behind.

The Pictish Wilderness had already proven itself to be one of the most dangerous environments the party had ever ventured in and the adventurers pressed into the dank, dark swamp with much trepidation. Strange lights glowed in the swamp and dry land was rarely encountered. The water surrounding the party bubbled in places as if something breathed beneath the surface. Tullweim moved toward a large pool of dark, still water, where he thought he had heard the cry for help. The Aesir looked around for any sign but no body or even prints were found. Tullweim stood, confounded and searching as nearby, not 5 feet from the the barbarian, lurked a creature in the dark with only the very top of its head and eyes above the surface of the water. As Tullweim’s foot stepped closer to the water the large reptile struck, the razor-sharp teeth from its blunt snout sunk deep into the Aesir’s leg. The barbarian shouted in alarm as he swung his bardiche into the creature’s rough, pebbly, hide. Dhak followed Tullweim’s attack with a slash from his arming sword, driving its point straight down the monitor’s gullet.

4 more of the long reptiles rushed out of the water towards the adventurers. 1 viciously swiped Cuana with its tail, knocking the Cimmerian prone. Another dire monitor clamped its savage jaws into Cuana’s flesh. Xacksmith pulled back on his bow and let 2 arrows loose at the beast which caused the monitor to release the Cimmerian. With his greatsword drawn, Cuana skewered the powerfully built reptile straight through its crown. Tullweim swung his bardiche at the closest creature but his blade went wide and the barbarian once again swore an oath at the Wildcat shaman who had cursed him. Cuana rushed to the Aesir’s side and savagely struck at the reptile’s flank. The creature fell still, gurgling blood into the swamp grass.

The adventurers turned to slay the remaining overgrown lizard when their attention was taken by the sudden appearance of a ghastly green fire which manifested out of thin air. Flaming red eyes shone through the flames and a bestial face with a sloped brow presented a wolfish grin from its lipless mouth. Dhak swallowed back the terror that threatened to overcome him and spoke in the demonic tongue that they meant the creature no harm and would leave its swamp. The swamp devil laughed as it replied in the same black language that it had not feasted on any human souls for some time and was very hungry. The devil’s slavering grin grew, showing its long, wicked teeth, as it moved closer to the Stygian. Cuana and Tullweim turned their near terror into a crimson mist of rage. The barbarian rushed the reptilian devil, unheeding of the flames which engulfed them. A desperate battle was joined as the dire monitor attacked Dhak and Xacksmith, seemingly in conjunction with the swamp devil. The Hyrkanian was knocked to the ground by a tail slap as the Stygian slashed twice with his blade. Tullweim missed the nimble swamp devil, but felt the strangest sensation of a freezing cold worse than winter on the highest mountain in Asgard come from the green nimbus of flame. Cuana too was struck by the cold from the outer dark, but brought his Akbitanan greatsword down true upon the devil with a barbaric roar. The swamp devil answered with its claws, both hitting the Cimmerian with such finesse as to find the chinks in his armor and tear at his flesh.

Xacksmith managed to roll away from the saurian he was engaged with, drew his blade and struck out one of its eyes. Dhak followed with 2 blows into the monitor’s husk. With that threat dealt with the Hyrkanian and Stygian turned their attention to the next. Tullweim’s bardiche glanced off the devil’s scaly hide, his great fortitude barely withstanding the hateful cold from the flames. Dhak and Xacksmith both fired multiple arrows at the creature, half of which went wide but 2 finding purchase. Cuana struck with 2 powerful blows resulting in a hellish cry which made all who heard them shudder. The green flames dissipated into the ether and the swamp returned to darkness lit only by pockets of gas and moonlight. The adventurers wasted no time in retreat back to their camp as Cuana and Tullweim suffered the rebukes of their fellows who had warned not to blindly follow a voice into the swamp.

As they returned to their fellow travelers they found everybody eating with a nervous look in their faces. Lady Coelia was relieved to see the adventurers as she had heard the sounds of battle and inhuman shrieks. Dhak assured her that what had attacked them would trouble the camp no more. Tullweim smiled at Arisawe, who was among the others in camp. The Pict woman said she had managed to gather some medicinal herbs from the village in addition to the food. The Aesir stripped off his armor and the painted lady tended to his wounds. Afterwards the party told their tale to Sir Gasparus as they ate. Arisawe spoke of such creatures as the swamp devil as common in the wilderness this side of Black river. The thought of other devils able to mimic voices and manifest anywhere prickled the small hairs on all in the camps’ necks. Watches were set and sleep was attempted among the sounds of frogs croaking from the swamp.



Defending the West 2

The Nemedian Chronicles Flatscan