Pharast 6th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.14, Swallowfeld, 2am
Cloudy, temperate, light wind
They didn’t wait for daylight to leave Swallowfeld. The rains had subsdided, but Taran’s Run river was overflowing and the roads were muddy. Dekhar led them north along the road that would lead them into the Tangled Wood, on the trail of the Broken Arrows – and Zar, and Beren Skewes, if they were lucky. Ayuku, Dekhar, D-Dog, Maverick and the Raven made unlikely allies, but they would do, the Tien thought.
As they traveled quietly along the north road, they passed farmsteads with decreasing frequency. Ayuku was lost in thought. He recalled his investigation of Skewes’ estate following the attack on Wolverton. He and Hols had questioned the staff together. Skewes had obsessed about “the serpent,” but they never learned what it was about. The Tien wondered if this was Skewes’s puppeteer, like Margaret suggested.
D-Dog halted abruptly, and he and Dekhar crept silently off the road to the east bank, motioning for the others to do likewise. On the road ahead, they saw a man on horseback holding a longbow. He was cloaked, cowl pulled over his head. He had stopped at a farmhouse, on the other side of the road. Lights were on inside, and they heard voices. They all drew weapons, Maverick far in the rear, so as not to blow their cover.
The rider’s horse snorted and stamped as they approached. Dekhar cursed silently; the horse smelled them. D-Dog salivated in anticipation, and looked back at Dekhar expectantly, waiting for the order to attack.
As they crept toward the rider, the barn doors swung open on the other side of the road, inside the farmstead’s low stone wall. Horses whinnied as three men attempted to wrangle two horses outside. They were clearly horse thieves.
“Hurry it up in there,” the horsemen said in gruff Taldane.
A woman’s voice answered from inside the farmhouse, “He’s not giving up his stash. I might have to do something dramatic…” it was a threat. Whomever was on the other end began pleading, and children began wailing.
“Well, then do it and let’s away!” the horseman said, nocking an arrow, and scanning his surroundings. His horse was getting nervous for some reason.
“Please, please not my family,” a man whimpered inside the farmhouse.
“Then I’ll have to cut something off to hurry this along!” the threatening woman said.
“No, please! It’s there, under the floorboards!” the man whimpered.
The horseman said, “hurry up. I don’t think we’re alone.” As he did, D-Dog bolted out from the cover of the bushes and sprinted full tilt toward the horseman. He launched himself at the horse, raking it with his talons as he slashed them across its haunches. The horse whinnied in surprise, and reared. Its rider tried to process what had just happened, drawing an arrow and spinning around in confusion.
Ayuku emerged from cover and charged stealthily across the road toward the rider. He slashed at him with a wakizashi. It caught the man’s cloak – which Ayuku recognized as belonging to a Broken Arrow merc.
The three horse thieves moved to the gate to assist the Broken Arrow rider. They were poorly outfitted, and as they closed, Dekhar identified them as Blood Weepers by the tattooed blood drop below each eye.
Maverick emerged from the cover of the undergrowth, and began charging heavily toward them. He was slow in his heavy armor, and struggled to make it to the fight on time.
A woman appeared at the barn window and shouted, “what’s going on out there? Do I need to do this guy?!” She was also garbed like a Broken Arrow.
The Raven called out, “kill him if you want, that won’t stop us from coming after you!” She fired a bolt from her hand crossbow into one of the approaching Blood Weepers. He cursed and yanked the small bolt free.
The horseman pulled hard on the reins and withdrew from the attack, riding out of their reach.
“Chase that fool!” Ayuku shouted.
D-Dog smelled raw horsemeat, but he was too preoccupied with the closing Blood Weepers to claim his meal. He nearly eviscerated one with a talon slash that opened a red line on his belly.
Ayuku tracked the horseman, and slashed distractedly at the Blood Weepers. D-Dog was flanked by the trio, but they couldn’t land a blow on the feisty raptor.
Maverick lunged at one of the Blood Weepers from across the low stone fence, lancing him in the neck with his longsword and dropping the ganger, who died gargling his own blood.
Dekhar called for the spirit of battle to aid his companion, and D-Dog’s scales grew thicker and coarser, his talons longer and his teeth sharper. The remaining two Blood Weepers looked at him in fear, trembling as they backed away.
The woman – the Broken Arrow inside the farmhouse – grabbed the farmer and put a blade to his throat. She pushed him out the front door. “Everyone drop your weapons or the farmer gets it,” she threatened. When she got a good look at them, she began to realize who these four were: Lord Kendrick’s shadowy new councilor, the notorious girl-thief from Wolverton, Ebrel Menadue’s ex-knight protector, and one of Kendrick’s so-called ‘heroes of Wovlerton.’ She started to falter, her blade dropping a bit.
Margaret’s smile broadened as the woman’s faded. “I see you know who we are,” she mock-curtsied. “Let the farmer go, and we let you live.”
The woman paused before replying, “I do know who you are and what you’re capable of. That’s why I know this is my only protection. Drop your weapons and we can leave these peasants to live out their long life of servitude.”
The cloaked rider fired an arrow at Maverick, and rode north along the road at high speed.
D-Dog juked past the two Blood Weepers to get to the woman. They slashed at him as he passed, but he was too quick for their clumsy blades. The raptor launched himself at the evil woman head first, bowling over both she and the farmer she’d been holding hostage. They flew apart like ninepins, and all landed prone, scattered across the yard.
“Thank Erastil!” the farmer said, rubbing his throat.
The two remaining Blood Weepers attempted to block Maverick and Ayuku at the gate, and the Tien took a light cut across the arm. Tonlor’s swing went wide, as his mark ducked under his horizontal slash. Ayuku launched himself over the fence, to the surprise of both of his enemies, landing gracefully on the other side, flanking them with Tonlor. As he landed, a blade snaked out from under his cloak, its point exploding out from the Blood Weeper’s chest. The man slumped to the ground, dead.
Dekhar had an arrow nocked, drawn and aimed at the rider. His arrow landed, though his target was riding full bore away from them at a respectable distance. It wasn’t enough to drop him though. The half-orc cursed.
It was over quickly after that. The remaining Blood Weeper and Broken Arrow woman fought on, but the former fell to Tonlor and Ayuku’s blades, and the latter to D-Dog’s flurry of talons and teeth, and the Raven’s bolts.
Dekhar dragged the woman into the farmer’s barn and began reviving her. The Blood Weepers were dispatched. The farmer thanked them, and offered them a place to stay for the night – he even offered his own bed to them, saying that he and his family would sleep in the barn. Then he recognized Ayuku.
“You’re him.… the one what saved Wolverton on that night!” he said it with such reverence that Ayuku felt awkward.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said gracefully as the farmer fawned over him. “We need your barn for other purposes,” he explained, casting a dark look at the captive Broken Arrow. The farmer looked frightened, and backed away, thanking them awkwardly as he gathered his family and returned to the house.
When the farmer left, D-Dog eyeballed the man’s rescued horses. He looked expectantly to Dekhar. The half-orc gave him a stern look of warning in reply.
“Is that all you think about,” he asked – knowing the answer already. D-Dog looked hurt by this, which didn’t make it less true.
The Broken Arrow woman woke up, injured and near dead but stable. Her blurred vision cleared to the sight of a salivating velociraptor head looking at her expectantly. Then Ayuku knelt beside her, and smiled with ghastly subtext.
“He has trouble finding enough meat out in the wild, perhaps there’s enough of you to satisfy that without killing you,” Ayuku said menacingly, patting D-Dog on the head.
“Please don’t kill me,” she said, and began to sing for him. She revealed the location of a Broken Arrows camp at a ford on the Killian River, to the north. They had snipers in tree perches overlooking the ford. Their main base was at an old Tuathi ruin on the cliff overlooking the coast, a day’s ride west of the Priory of Cymer.
“Beren Skewes found something in the old smuggling tunnels under his warehouse. They were expanding, making room, when they broke into another tunnel, leading toward the castle. There was something down there that… influenced him. Zar thinks he went mad, so he locked up Skewes and took over the whole operation. They have 40 Broken Arrows inside the tunnels under the fort ruin. Zar just wanted a piece of Wolverton – Skewes was crazy. Some interested factions from Zobeck were funding them, but it’s breaking up now that Zar and Skewes are at odds.”
Ayuku looked to his friends, discussing their next moves. “Maybe Zar can be bargained with,” Ayuku suggested. “Perhaps we have a common enemy.”
The woman spoke, “I don’t know what Skewes was allied with, but it isn’t natural, and it never showed itself.”
Ayuku took Dekhar and Maverick aside. “We should send a rider to Wolverton, to let them know of this development.”
Tonlor shook his head. “You should go. This is big news. It’s the way this kind of thing is done. You’ll need an army to assault their base, you can’t ask for that without being present.”
Ayuku thought about it. He was right – as much as he wanted to get this underway, they needed to go back to Wolverton. It would take time to muster their force anyway. He looked at Tonlor, and nodded in affirmation.
“So we gather our strength and assault them from the front?” Ayuku asked his allies.
“It seems like the better option at this point. If we do, we could use the army as a distraction while we sneak in and assassinate Zar,” Dekhar said.
Ayuku turned back to their captive. “Is there a back door?”
She nodded, eager to appease the Tien. She was getting hopeful that they’d let her go after all. “Yes, there is a cave mouth behind the fort, you could get in there. It’s guarded, but not as closely.”
They had their plan. They slept in the barn, and in the morning the farmer and his family brought them breakfast. Despite what had transpired last night, they were glad to see that there had been no real bloodshed in their barn during the interrogation. The farmer insisted that they take his two horses as a reward for saving his family. D-Dog licked his chops, but when he saw them saddling the horses, his face fell in utter disappointment. He was becoming cynical before his time, for a velociraptor.
They rode through Swallowfeld in a hurry the next day, and arrived in Wolverton that evening. They let the Broken Arrow accompany them to Wolverton, and convinced her that her people were doomed – there was no point in her going to warn them unless she wanted to die with them. She sincerely did not.
They went to the jail to visit Hols. In the stark structure, the stern man was in his office, as usual, sitting behind a desk processing criminal cases.
“Well met,” the man said as they entered. He looked surprised to see Margaret Menadue, but said nothing of it. “What news?” he put down his quill and sprinkled sand over the parchment he’d been penning.
“We have news of the enemy,” Ayuku said. “We happened upon a group of bandits raiding a farmstead. Two of them were Broken Arrows. We captured one and learned that they are holed up in a ruined fort a day’s ride west of the priory. We also learned of another camp, along the Killian River. We know they number about 40, and Zar has taken over from Skewes. I believe if we can muster a force, now is the time to attack.”
“Tell him about Skewes,” Dekhar prompted.
“Yes. In a strange turn of events, Skewes is in the custody of Zar – they had a disagreement about the balance of power and Zar seized control.” He didn’t tell the whole story, he just wasn’t sure about it yet.
“Interesting,” Hols mused. “What do you propose?”
“Muster a force, bring them to justice. How many can we expect, and how long will it take?” Ayuku was determined.
“I’ll have to think about this,” Hols answered. “We need to bring it to Lord Kendrick tomorrow, and see where it goes.”
There was a moment of quiet. They were all thinking about their next moves, playing out scenarios in their minds. At length, Ayuku finally broke the silence.
“Skewes is being manipulated by something supernatural, perhaps otherworldly.” He let the weight of it sink in.
“What makes you think so?” Hols asked.
“Our captive confirmed it. Remember the strange portents found among his belongings, and the witness of his servants?”
“I remember,” the captain said.
Before they took their leave of each other. Ayuku compelled Hols to pay his companions for their service. The steward returned with 2,000 gold pieces. Hols called it a ‘discretionary fund,’ and the steward questioned him several times as to the nature of the payment. Hols finally slammed his fist on his desk and told him to bring it and be off.
Ayuku told Hols of their run in with Tryfena in Swallowfeld, and the captain said he’d look into it after this business was over.
Pharast the 7th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, warmer, light wind
They brought their proposal before Lord Kendrick the next day. The man was high on his recent wins, and it was easy for the Tien and Hols to talk him into supporting their action against the Broken Arrows. It remained covert as long as possible. Five days passed while the Wolverton Guard set up a special cavalry force. Fifty of the best riders and archers would ride out under Ayuku’s command. Lord Kendrick loved a hero… moreso a hero leading a charge against an enemy of the monarchy.
In Kendrick’s audience chamber, Ayuku counseled the stalwart lord that Zar and his mercenaries were the last thing holding back his unquestioned control of the region. Once he was eliminated, they could expand his territory, secure more lands for future growth.
Kendrick said, “we need to do this at a minimum loss of life. We must break their morale. If they’re holed up in caves as you say, we send sappers to demolish them. Wolverton will see it through,” Kendrick smiled, and clapped hands with the Tien, then slapped him heavily on the back. Gordan was making notes, and a list of alchemist sappers. The one he wanted was away at the moment, he’d have to make due with someone else.
“The faster we move, the better the surprise, and the fewer men lost,” Ayuku promised. Kendrick concurred.
“Five days, no more,” he promised. You’ll have your army.
Pharast the 12th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Clear, moderate, light wind
Fifty armed soldiers of the Wolverton Guard rode swiftly through the town, thundering along the Cliffway toward Swallowfeld. Ayuku, Dekhar, Maverick and the Raven rode at their head. Ayuku’s horse flew the wolf’s head banner of Wolverton – silver wolf on midnight blue. The whole village turned out to witness their passing, but Tryfena was conspicuously absent.
They turned north, and passed by the farmstead where they’d interrogated their Broken Arrow captive. They returned the borrowed horses to their farmer host. Ayuku was sure it was his proudest day – the wrongs done against he and his family were apparently being redressed by an army. The farmer cheered as the soldiers passed, his heart full in his chest.
Continuing up the river along the north road, they came to the ford, where the camp was said to be. They crossed the ford in force, and found it cleared out. They continued along a horse trail leading southwest toward the coast, through the Tangled Wood. They stopped at the verge of the wood, which looked out onto a hundred-yard clearing between the woods and the sea cliff. Many horses grazed around in the clearing, and on a rise near the cliff edge, there stood the crumbling ruin of an ancient Tuathi fortress. Not many stones still stood upon one another, but there was enough cover for a few to hold off many with arrows. The forward scouts saw movement among the ruins, men with bows.
Ayuku, Dekhar, Maverick and the Raven were at the front, surveying the enemy’s fortification and discussing plans. Ayuku turned to Maverick.
“Can you make a show of force, to cover our infiltration? Advance the sappers, seal their upper entrance to the cave tunnels. Take no casualties. We’ll find the back door.” He looked hard into the man’s eyes. Not long ago, the man he’d found drinking his old life away in the Hare & Ass was a wreck. The man in front of him now was steely-eyed and ready for action. Maverick nodded, and was glad that he could do this for Wolverton. He was absent for the Night of Sundered Arrows, and this was his chance to make it up to himself.
“I’ll do as you say,” Maverick promised, and turned to his men. Ayuku, Dekhar and Margaret stole away while Sir Tonlor roused them with promises of vengeance for Wolverton. Ayuku had a package from Wolverton, filled with bottles – a gift for their enemy.
As they crept along the treeline, crouched and moving carefully to avoid detection, they saw Tonlor order a line of horsemen out from the cover of the trees. They formed up, but took a pelting from the very accurate Broken Arrows amid the broken stones of the fort. Tonlor ordered them to dismount and form a shield wall, while another line – his archers – formed up behind them to give covering fire as they advanced up the hill. The rest followed Tonlor’s wall, arrows clanging off shields as they made their assault.
Ayuku was sad that he couldn’t watch the battle. They had bigger fish to fry… his mind drifted to Zar the Mangler, and he hoped they were ready for this. They would have to exercise caution, or this would all be for nothing. The three of them and D-Dog reached the cliff face, overlooking the southern sea, 50 feet below. The spotted the cave mouth – it was high up on the cliff, they would have to climb up to it. Dekhar spotted the silhouette of a sentry in the cave mouth, firelight flickering behind him.
They hugged the cliff wall as they approached as closely as they dared. The tide was coming in – soon they would have to be in the cave, as their narrow beach was disappearing fast. Ayuku grabbed a potion from his belt and swigged it, winking at Dekhar beside him. He began quickly climbing the cliff, spiderlike. He went invisible.
He crept nimbly up the cliff to the cave opening. The sentry was a Broken Arrow merc, standing about five feet back from the edge. The potion of spider-climb he’d imbibed allowed him to creep over the head of the sentry, padding along the ceiling of the cave, and circling around behind him. He dropped down behind the man silently, and drank a second potion – cat’s grace. A second later, the sentry had two wakizashis emerging from his chest. Ayuku set the dead man down carefully, and dropped the body down to his surprised comrades. A rope followed shortly after.
They heard explosions rocking the cave system and cheers of victory from the top of the cliff as they climbed up to the cave. Rubble cascaded from the ceiling as they crept into the cave tunnel. The smooth granite passage forked right and left. They heard murmuring from the right hand passage, and men scrambling to the left. They smelled dog.
D-Dog led the way to the right tunnel. They saw a man chained to the wall – it was Skewes in manacles. A guard dog stood up and approached them, but Ayuku silenced it with a quick arrow to the throat before it could alert their enemies to their presence. D-Dog ate it quietly as they approached the captive Beren Skewes.
“Did you come to rescue me? Did they send you?” Skewes sounded crazed. Ayuku shushed him.
“If you can keep quiet, we’ll talk,” Ayuku said.
“I can offer you money, connectins, deals – I’m a powerful man. Take me with you!” Skewes pleaded.
Ayuku saw a further chamber and peeked in. It was filled with fur bedrolls and blankets. There he saw crates of food and barrles of drinking water, stacked neatly against a wall. He smiled coldly as he carefully delivered Wolverton’s surprise – poison. After doing the deed, he freed Skewes.
“How far do we go in here,” Ayuku asked Dekhar.
“Footsteps,” Margaret whispered. She started backing away, toward the escape tunnel. “They’re coming this way…”
Beren Skewes started panicking.
“We need to knock this guy out,” Dekhar said. Skewes began banging his own head against the wall to accommodate his rescuers. “This is interesting, but maybe we need to do it,” the half-orc grinned as he pommel-bashed the man on the crown. He grabbed the limp Skewes and threw him over a shoulder as they made good their escape down the rope and along the cliff to an easier climb up.
They ascended the cliff to see that Tonlor’s men in their gleaming armor occupied the ruins now. Five dead Broken Arrows lay among them, and two of the Wolverton Guard. The latter were being prepared for the return to Wolverton and a proper burial. Tonlor described how they quickly took the ruin, and how their alchemist sappers sealed the entrance. Two of the kills belonged to the knight, his men said.
They spent a few days camping near the ruin, making sure the Broken Arrows lived up to their name. Then they returned to Wolverton, victorious.
Pharast the 15th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, moderate, light wind
“Jackpot,” Hols said with a smile when Ayuku brought a bound and bedraggled Beren Skewes before him. It was the third time he’d seen the man smile.
“I’d say our task force has proven quite effective,” Ayuku said. “Pretty soon Wolverton will have no opposition.” He looked optimistic.
“That’s not true,” Beren Skewes interjected, returning Hols to his usual scowl. “I have a friend who is near, who has shown me deeper oceans. He is still in control of this town.”
“You’re mental,” Ayuku said. “Someone is pulling your strings.”
“Perhaps, but once your eyes are open, there is no closing them.” He sounded mental.
Ayuku took a different tack. “Alright, you’ve piqued my curiosity. I want to know what you’ve been shown. Tell me what I’m missing out on.”
Skewes’s eyes met his, they were wide and profound, “The deepest oceans, infinite. I was wrapped in darkness, turned inside out, then only emptiness. And there I was.” He concluded.
The rest of them looked from one to another uncofortably. Hols started to shoo the man off to his cell, but Ayuku stopped him.
“Where do I get started, Skewes? Where do I meet your new friends?”
“I can show you if you free me…” he looked hopeful.
Ayuku shook his head, “no dice. You’re just mad.”
“Very well. Either way I win. He’s only trying to help us, anyway. There’s a greater threat than he – he’s here to help us defeat it.”
Dekhar shook his head. “This guy may not be as guilty as you thought – he might have been mind controlled. If so, can he really be held accountable for his wrongdoing?”
“That’s for the court to decide,” Ayuku said matter-of-factly. Hols nodded his approval.
“What makes you trust them?” Dekhar said, but then realized that only the Raven would agree with him on that front, and quieted down. He let D-Dog do all the talking for the remainder of the conversation.
Ayuku turned back to Skewes, “how long has it been down there, infinity years?” they laughed.
Skewes was locked away, and they returned to the familiar comforts of Gor’s tavern. The Blood Weepers were now a page in Wolverton’s history, the Broken Arrows finally broken. Ayuku sat down at his small desk that night, and penned a letter by candle light. It was to Conton Willowpole, and it was not in Ayuku’s typical courtly voice. In summary, it said: ’you’re next.’