Tullweim leered at the men who had carried supplies throughout this journey and said, “leave now and we shall spare your lives.” Sir Gasparus’ retainers did not hesitate and fled like rabbits from wolves as Xacksmith checked Cuana’s still form for any sign of life. The Hyrkanian thought he caught the slightest of breaths from the Cimmerian and immediately went to work binding his many wounds. Tullweim was still furious at Sir Gasparus and the Pict the Aesir had taken as a lover, Arisawe, but when he caught sight of Xacksmith’s ministrations he stepped over to give what aid he could. The Hyrkanian was doubtful his work could help the Cimmerian in the short-term and Tullweim suggested using some of the poultice Cuana carried with him. At the same moment, Dhak checked Lady Coelia and found her to be still among the living. The Stygian roused the young noblewoman, gave her some water from his canteen, soothingly caressed her head and asked what had happened while the party was beneath the earth. Coelia told of being struck from behind and dimly heard the sounds of battle before she lost consciousness. The Stygian surmised that must have been the Ligureans attacking Gasparus and Arisawe and gestured to the druid’s bodies which laid strewn about, all with deep sword wounds. Lady Coelia gulped, then breathlessly inquired if the adventurers had succeeded in their task. Dhak responded in the affirmative, but not without cost. Tullweim then asked the sorcerer how he managed to convince the devil, Dekanawidah, to awaken the staff. The Stygian simply said, “I did what was necessary.”
After a quarter hour of work, Cuana was finally brought back from the brink of oblivion. The Cimmerian was pleased to see his companions had bested Arisawe and Gasparus. To which Dhak said there was work yet to be done with the treacherous pair and leveled a murderous glare at their unconscious foes. Knowing full well the results would not be pleasant, Cuana and Xacksmith convinced Lady Coelia to go with them into the mist, away from this place of deceit and death. The noblewoman agreed, casting a nervous look at the Aesir and Stygian. Dhak waited a few minutes, then instructed Tullweim to put Arisawe on the blood-stained altar. The barbarian laid the Pict on the ancient altar and held her down just as she stirred. The Pict shaman begged for her life, pleading for mercy as Dhak held his blade above her. The Stygian spoke in the Demonic tongue, giving the Pict’s soul to his new master as he plunged the sword through Arisawe’s chest. Tullweim was a bit shaken from witnessing the act of murdering a woman he had grown close to and asked why they had not put Arisawe to any questions of her and Gasparus’ betrayal. The Stygian replied that it was easier to do things this way. Dhak then used his control of the necromantic arts to speak with the dead Pict. Arisawe gasped in horror as her soul, which had left her body to demonic agony, was wrenched back almost as quickly.
A burning sensation overcame the Stygian above his heart, where the demon Dekanawidah had recently marked him, and the Stygian was wracked with pain. Through sheer willpower alone Dhak was able to choke back the throbbing torment and laid bare his power over the dead woman by threatening to keep her trapped aware in her decaying corpse if she did not reveal why the party was betrayed. Arisawe told of how Sir Gasparus had been working for both Lady Coelia and Dji’ionando, a chief of the Wolf clan of Picts. The corrupt noble planned on fulfilling Coelia’s task of awakening the staff, then killing all involved and selling the staff to the Picts for silver they’d captured from the many caravans which had been waylaid by the savages. Dhak chuckled at the banal greed of the arrogant noble and then ceased his sorcery, causing Arisawe’s corpse to once again lie still. With the gruesome task done, Tullweim asked the Stygian if the Lord of Worms could aid the Nordheimer in lifting the curse the Wildcat Pict shaman had cast on the barbarian’s head. Dhak thought it would be possible and agreed to escort Tullweim to Dekanawidah’s cave. Meanwhile, Cuana, Lady Coelia, and Xacksmith made their way through the redwoods and mist. The Hyrkanian caught sight of a hazy shape moving through the gloom and brought the Cimmerian’s attention to it. The pair immediately ran towards where the figure had been glimpsed, but when they arrived they saw nothing. If there were footprints or other traces to be seen, neither experienced woodsmen could find them and they warily made their way back to the noblewoman’s side awaiting their companions to finish their work.
Dhak and Tullweim once again made their way through the tight, winding path underground. The insects and vermin moved about the earthen artery alongside and several bit into the 2 adventurers, though luckily neither succumbed to the venomous bites. After they emerged from the tunnel they felt along the walls attempting to retrace their steps in the dark and listening for the movement of the creatures attracted to the Lord of Worms. They did not have to travel far before they felt Dekanawidah’s presence in their heads, and the demon was not pleased. Dhak knelt in submission to his new master who again stood before the feral, glowing eyes of his chanting and hissing servants. The great bulk lumbered closer to the Stygian and the sorcerer could feel the demon’s displeasure in the air and through the mark on his chest. Dekanawidah angrily demanded to know why Dhak had teased him with a deliciously corrupt soul only to yank it away from him moments after. The Stygian realized his action of bringing forth Arisawe’s soul to speak with her had undone his sacrifice of the Pict and prostrated himself in apology, promising in the demonic tongue to find another soul for his master to feed upon. Dekanawidah stressed the Stygian should not fail him or he would take the sorcerer’s own soul instead. Dhak fearfully expressed his understanding and turned to Tullweim to speak.
The Aesir barely contained the terror which threatened to overcome him again in the presence of the Lord of Worms. Little caring if his soul would be damned by the action, Tullweim croaked out a plea for aid in stripping the curse which afflicted him. Dekanawidah slithered towards the barbarian and seemed to sniff the air around him. The demon replied that he could indeed remove the curse but doing so would come at a cost. Tullweim agreed to sacrifice a warrior to appease the demon and the pair of adventurers again made their way out of Lord of Worm’s chamber. Once again above ground, Tullweim moved to Sir Gasparus’ prone form and lifted him over his shoulder without a word. The Aesir removed the knights armor and placed Gasparus unceremoniously upon the blood-stained altar. With Dhak’s instruction, Tullweim shouted out his gift of the treacherous’ knights soul to Dekanawidah and plunged Gasparus’ broadsword deep into the nobles’ chest. Whether or not the demon had made good on the deal was unknown to the barbarian, but Tullweim was at least satisfied in removing the conniving, arrogant noble from his presence. With the deed done, the Aesir collected the Ligurean’s bodies and made a funeral pyre. Dhak and Tullweim then walked away from that ill-fated site, behind them a barely controlled blaze sent smoke billowing up to the winds.
The Journey Back
Dhak and Tullweim reconvened with Cuana and Xacksmith in the misted forest. The Hyrkanian informed the Aesir and Stygian of the figure in the gloom and his belief they were being tracked. The party moved out of the range of redwoods into the dense tract of wilderness with weapons drawn. A quarter mile from the redwood treeline had been traversed when a hail of arrows fell from the surrounding trees. Lady Coelia was struck by 2 shafts and fell to the ground. Cuana, Dhak, and Xacksmith were also stung by the blood-seeking bolts but Tullweim’s hauberk turned all the arrows aimed at the Aesir. The Hyrkanian and Stygian leapt to the ground as the Cimmerian maneuvered himself into the trees for cover but was struck by another arrow which sent him to his knees and almost robbed Cuana of consciousness. Tullweim spotted 2 of the Picts firing from behind the cover of trees, let out a roar and moved like a cornered bear among wolves. The Aesir hacked and slashed the 2 Picts with his bardiche and all the hate in hell. Dhak and Xacksmith both drew their bows and returned fire to their assailants as Cuana crawled behind cover. One of the Picts charged Tullweim, slamming the Aesir to the ground while several others dropped their bows and brought their stone hatchets down upon the barbarian. Tullweim returned to his feet, taking several glancing strikes for his effort, one resulted in a Pict shattering his stone hatchet upon the Aesir’s armor.
Tullweim then brought his bardiche down upon the feathered devil who had knocked him down, cleaving deep into the Pict’s side. Dhak and Xacksmith let loose with a volley of arrows taking down several of the Picts which surrounded the Aesir. Cuana was taking fire from another Pict, whose face was concealed with a war mask, but managed to dodge the missiles. Moving with panther-like alacrity, the Cimmerian rushed at the masked devil with a wide swing of his greatsword. The Pict dropped his bow and used his club and hatchet to trip the barbarian. Cuana rolled away from his attacker, got back to his feet, menacingly roared, and devastatingly hacked into the Pict’s shoulder. The Cimmerian brutally plunged his sword through the Pict’s abdomen, not stopping until the hilt of his sword touched the flesh of his enemy. Tullweim’s bardiche lopped the head off the Pict he’d faced as Dhak and Xacksmith finished off the remaining savages. As quickly as the combat had started, it was bloodily ended.
The adventurers patched up their wounds as well as their patrons and after Tullweim scalped the dead Picts they were back to the journey to the settlements in Oriskonie. Fortune smiled on the battered party as they were able to stay clear of any further engagements with Picts on the journey back to the Westermarck. In the weeks of travel, Dhak used his not-inconsiderable charisma to comfort and woo Lady Coelia. It is true that strange times results in strange bedfellows and for the noblewoman the past few weeks had truly been strange. One evening of their travel she found herself laying in the arms of the Stygian sorcerer, much to the envy of his allies whose bedrolls were shared only by whatever insects or snakes found their way into them. Tullweim’s mood only darkened in seeing the happiness his ally had found and his practice of cutting into his arms continued. Not even Cuana’s bawdy tales could lighten the dark clouds around the Aesir’s soul.
Finally, a settlement bursting with refugees was found. The adventurers learned Schohira had fallen completely to the Pictish invaders, Conawaga was close to falling, though Velitrium (now cut off from supplies and reinforcements) and Skandaga still stood. Most of the rest of Oriskonie was also overrun, with only a scant few of the larger settlements still standing, taking in refugees by the wagon load. Thandara was so isolated from the other settlements that its fate was completely unknown, although a few Bossonians had heard troubling rumours about the province. Cuana learned the refugee settlement where he’d left Hema and her sister had also fallen, and the Cimmerian grew eager to learn of their fate. The barbarian asked many people, but none had heard of the girl named Hema, or could give any clue as to what may have befallen her. With a heavy heart the Cimmerian cleaned the strip of purple silk Hema had given him for good luck and tied it round his sword arm with an oath to make the Picts pay for their onslaught.