Defending the West 3

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.

Loose Ends

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.

The Path to Osekowa

Only the occasional cries of a waking bird broke the heavy silence of the forest in the grey light of pre-dawn. In the distance Tullweim saw the group’s destination, a Pict village called Osekowa, home to Sagoyaga, the Paramount Chief of the Wolf clan. Sagayoga had managed to do what no previous savage had done, getting the disparate tribes of Pictland to set aside their differences and join together into an unstoppable, belligerent army of raging cutthroats and bloody-handed savages. It was he whose life needed to be brutally ended. Osekowa had a palisade around its perimeter like previously encountered Pict dwellings, but instead of completely surrounding the village, the palisade ended at the border of a swamp. Xacksmith spotted a lone sentry in the watch–hut guarding the gate of the palisade. Dhak suggested killing the sentry silently by bow-shot, but after a brief exchange with his companions it was decided the distance and number of shots required to kill the Pict watcher would give time to alert the savages in the village. The adventurers decided their best path to Osekowa would be through the nearby swamp, which the watcher’s hut was blind to. Cuana led the party as they crept toward the swamp, slid down into the murky water one by one, and waded toward the village, with only their heads showing from the surface of the murky depths.

The adventurers slowly made their way, tense in anticipation of the bloodshed to come, when the Aesir was grabbed by a hideous creature which burst from underneath the stagnant water. Tullweim fought with the creature, which looked as if it had once been human but now had an unusually long neck, webbed hands which ended in claws, scales, and pointed teeth. The foul abomination struggled to plunge the northman’s head under the water’s surface but the mighty Aesir’s strength was too much for it. Tullweim gritted his teeth, overcame the revulsion which threatened him and threw the horrid mockery of human life back. The other adventurers noticed 7 more of the horrid creatures emerge from the dark pools of water around them. Cuana drew and plunged his greatsword through the chest of one, then cried out in alarm as an alligator clamped down upon the Cimmerian’s arm. Dhak and Xacksmith pushed away the brutes which surrounded them and swam to a nearby protrusion of land. The Cimmerian pulled the alligator’s jaws open enough to free his bloodied arm then finished off the abomination which was still impaled on his sword. In a rush of movement Cuana slew a second servant in the swamp and plunged his greatsword through a third. Meanwhile 2 of the creatures wrapped their scaly arms around the Aesir, pulling him down into the hazy water below.

Xacksmith quickly fired several arrows at the anathema accosting the party, landing several hits which caused a black ichor to pour forth from the wounds. Cuana narrowly dodged the alligator’s maw and saw 2 more of the beasts closing. The alligators both savagely bit into the barbarian but Cuana’s armor deflected the brunt of the sharp teeth which sought his blood. Then the abomination the Aesir had previously hurled away wrapped it’s arms around Cuana and sunk it’s teeth into the Cimmerian. Tullweim struggled mightily with the 2 creatures which beset him. The Aesir would push one away only to have the other grapple him and between the 2 slavering assailants his head was again plunged into the water. An alligator moved to the edge of the land the Hyrkanian and Stygian stood upon and viciously snapped its jaws at Dhak. The sorcerer responded with a hypnotic invocation which mesmerized most of the parties foes. Cuana and Tullweim wasted no time in using the opportunity to swim to the nearest mass of land. For the Aesir it was with the Hyrkanian and Stygian he stood, for the Cimmerian it was another island within shouting distance. As Cuana raised himself from the water another alligator surfaced and ravaged the barbarian’s leg. The beast tried to pull the Cimmerian back into the water but Cuana’s thews proved too strong and he was able to wrench himself free.

Once the Stygian’s sorcery ended the servants in the swamp rushed at Dhak, Tullweim, and Xacksmith. Both the borderer and sorcerer rapidly fired their bows and Tullweim swung his bardiche shearing the head of one of the creatures off it’s neck. Two alligators closed on Cuana but the Cimmerian was able to dodge both and respond by slashing murderously, killing one of the beasts, and with a reverse swing ending the other’s miserable life. The barbarian then leapt to another nearby island and jumped again to the same land his companions occupied. One last alligator menaced the party but stood no chance of defeating the arrows, bardiche, and greatsword which pierced and slashed its scaled hide. After a moment was taken to catch their collective breath, the Stygian suggested time be taken for the tending of wounds but the idea was quickly thrown out as the adventurers couldn’t take the chance the sounds of splashing and battle had not roused the Picts. The party neared the village, avoiding the swamp water as much as possible and kept a keen eye open for any other attackers.

Bloodshed Before the Grim Altar-Hut

The village of Osekowa consisted of 4 score long-houses, each at least 80 feet long. A council longhouse was also seen but it was the daub-and-wattle altar-hut decorated with grotesque spirit masks, skulls of captives, and other macabre religious icons which drew the adventurers attention. They neared the savage village and were immediately startled to hear the cries of women. 4 Pict women were seen and the adventurers rushed forward with their weapons drawn. The gaggle of women scattered further into the village. Knowing there was no chance of stealth left to them the adventurers slowed their pace as they neared the altar-hut. As they arrived, the party saw their way barred by 13 Picts and one large, menacingly growling, wolf. A pained groan was heard from inside the altar-hut but before any words could be made out, one of the savages, be-feathered in the manner of a shaman stepped forward. The Pict said he knew of the adventurers and promised them they would be strapped to the ceremonial posts in the center of the village, tortured and changed into servants and play things. Cuana replied in Pictish that they sought only Sagoyaga and would spare the rest if taken to him. The shaman laughed harshly and responded that he was Machk, loyal servant to the Paramount Chief, and the adventurers were too late as Sagoyaga was likely already arrived at Velitrium with 4,000 strong Picts who aimed to raze the fort that very morning. Cuana replied that the shaman’s name may as well be worm-food as Tullweim rushed the shaman and struck a vicious blow with his bardiche. The Cimmerian followed, cutting a wide arc as he pressed forward into the savages. One Pict fell in a bloody heap to Cuana’s blade and another twisted just enough to prevent the barbarian’s greatsword from mortally wounding him.

Arrows were set loose by the Picts, aimed at the Cimmerian. Dhak and Xacksmith let loose arrows of their own, dropping a Pict between them, as one of the savages struck at Tullweim with a greatsword, likely captured from a fallen Hyborian, cutting deep into the barbarian’s flesh. The large wolf lunged at the Aesir, biting deep into Tullweim’s thigh. The beast then pulled the Aesir’s leg out from under him and several more Picts crowded around to hammer their hatchets and clubs down. Another greatsword wielding Pict circled Cuana and brought his blade to bear upon the Cimmerian. 2 more Picts closed on Cuana but the barbarian’s blade split one savages head like a ripe melon then cleaved into the second. Tullweim managed to kick the wolf off of him and though he took several blows from the surrounding Picts, including those which wielded greatswords, he was able to bloodily get to his feet. The Aesir swung his weapon again at Machk, but the shaman quickly wove a curse which caused the brutal result of the barbarian’s strike to be evident on Tullweim’s own flesh. Machk quickly withdrew behind the protection of the other Picts and shouted for his wolf to kill the barbarian. Once again the wolf bite deep between the chinks in Tullweim’s armor and once again the beast yanked the Aesir’s feet out from under him. Cuana was beset by another volley of arrows as both of the greatsword wielding Picts caught the barbarian in the arc of their devastating blades. The Cimmerian responded with a powerful attack of his own which dropped the first greatsword wielding Pict and the back swing spilled the guts of second onto the trampled grass. Several more of the savages fell, pin-cushioned from the Hyrkanian and Stygian’s rapidly fired arrows.

Many of the Pictish dogs laid bloodied and dead. Five still fired arrows at Cuana and Machk remained, shouting curses and commands from behind his wolf. The beast circled the bloodied Aesir, striking wherever it found a sufficient gap in Tullweim’s armor. Cuana quickly moved to the Pict shaman catching Machk by surprise with another powerful blow of his greatsword, causing massive damage which resulted in the shaman’s cloven carcass thudding to the ground in a spray of blood and gore. The wolf, however, proved difficult to strike as it continuously dodged the Aesir and Cimmerian’s swings. The beast rushed inside the sweep of the Cimmerian’s sword and clamped its jaws down upon Cuana’s legs. Though the wolf drew blood it could not force the Cimmerian to his back as it had done with Tullweim. Dhak and Xacksmith exchanged fire with the remaining Pict archers as Tullweim flanked the wolf and attempted to strike the beast, but once again the bruised Aesir missed. The wolf then lunged forward at Cuana and again sunk its sharp teeth into the Cimmerian’s leg. Again Cuana twisted free and brought his sword down, dealing a tremendous blow. The wolf yelped, then growled pure hatred as it fixed its gaze upon the Cimmerian. Tullweim landed a blow upon the beasts back but still the creature did not fall. The wolf spun with great alacrity, clamped its teeth upon the Aesir’s leg and once again pulled Tullweim to the ground. Seeing the plight the barbarian’s were in, Dhak and Xacksmith shifted their attention to the troublesome wolf, both sending arrows flying at the beast. One of Xacksmith’s arrows missed its mark and sunk deep into Cuana’s arm. Still on his back, hearing the dark whispers of death ringing enticingly in his ear, Tullweim desperately swung his bardiche, opening a jagged gash into the wolf’s side and with a final whine the beast fell still.

Several more arrows were fired by the remaining Picts, two of which sunk deep into Cuana’s shoulder. The Aesir and Cimmerian both chose one of the remaining archers and advanced. The savage Cuana faced off with hopped back and fired 2 more arrows into the barbarian. With a roar the Cimmerian plunged his sword through the Pict’s gut, spilling his life blood down the length of the great blade. Tullweim similarly dispatched the last Pict warrior with his bardiche cleaving a gully straight down the center of the savages chest. The Cimmerian yanked out the arrow Xacksmith had shot into him and gave the Hyrkanian a menacing stage which quickly turned to laughter as Cuana took in the piled bodies of their Pict enemies. The laughter was quickly ended by the sounds of groans from within the altar hut, rekindling the adventurers curiosity to who was inside.

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Defending the West 3

The Nemedian Chronicles Flatscan