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.