Ares had wandered the grounds of the fortress for some time, and had nothing to show for it. The bodies of the slain were picked clean by whatever foul force had destroyed the garrison here. What’s more, the dead were hacked to pieces, literally. Whether before death or after, one couldn’t be sure, which made the thought all the more unsettling. These were not the bodies of men dying in a typical Celn battle. These were men, and women, who had died in a hideous way, defiled. Their twisted faces, twisted arms and legs jumbled around as though they had been locked inside a barrel full of knives and rolled down a hill. Many of them were missing flesh in places, as though something took a bite, and then another. And another.
Whatever had happened to the fort, Ares figured it wasn’t the way he’d want to go. He had just set Gerrell down once more to investigate a small shack when across a small grounds a man shambled out of an L shaped building on wooden piers. He was wearing a long white gown as though he had been sleeping, and his head was bandaged all the way around. He looked as though he had no clue what had happened. Like he had just woken up from an afternoon nap to enjoy a stretch on the porch.
Ares stood there, not sure what to think. It was so completely random.
The man stretched his arms wide, yawned, rose up on his heels then back down. As if sensing another, he tilted his head up and then over and he saw Ares. They locked eyes, and time froze. Neither said a word, and there was no telling what the man was thinking.
A sound like a guttural horn came from the opposite side of the field. Around another building loomed a massive grey beast, dragging it’s knuckles on the ground behind it. It was nearly as tall as the building, maybe 12 feet high, even hunched over. Horns sprouted like twisting branches out of it’s head above it’s eyes. It’s skin was cracked and burdened with knotted warts. The eyes themselves were dark blue, like the bottom of a frozen lake. It’s claws were long and it’s whole body was cut with thick muscles.
“I smell….I smell,” it grunted. Sniffing the ground through it’s great nose. it crooked it’s massive head to the side, in the direction they were both standing in. Before either of them thought to move, it’s eyes fixed in their direction. The monster stood hunched over the grass, staring at them like that. It’s back heaved up and down, muscles tightened. It spoke through a mouth so full of teeth they stuck out up and down all around it’s lips, front to back. A cave full of stalagmite teeth.
“I smell, men.”
At just that moment, Gerrell walked out of the shack holding what looked like an umbrella. He stared at it in utter bewilderment. “I say Ares, what is this? Does it prevent something from dropping on your head?”
“RERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHH!” Gerrell swiveled around and dropped the umbrella. “Oh, I know what that is! Finally, something recognizable..” said the little gnome.
“Move!!!!” yelled the man on the porch.
The thing bellowed and charged, ripping up the grass as it used it’s claws to propel itself over the turf. The three of them stood there, as if wondering who would get the surprise. It shot forward like a grey lightning bolt, and at some point in it’s momentum must have decided that two was better than one. It had it’s sights dead on Ares. At just the last minute though the sorceror sprang out of it’s way. The beast struck the shack with such force that planks went flying. All that was left was a few floor pieces on the piers. The man on the opposite side, whose name was Theros, ran back into the building. While Ares cast a spell which singed the beast with electric missiles, Gerrell hobbled to hide under the porch. The beast, which had fallen over the beam and boards, regained it’s footing and scratched the ground like a bull about to charge again.
“Me eat youuuuuu!” it garbled through the tangle of teeth and lips. “You die!”
Just then, Theros emerged from the L shaped building once more. This time though he held a bow of strong wood, pulled back to it’s full. An arrow was cocked and ready. The bow twanged and the arrow zipped towards the monster, striking it in the shoulder. It roared and twisted around towards the man who had shot it.
“Me eat you first surface man!!!” The grey lightning bolt took off, it’s sights dead set on the man, there was no stopping it. It seemed not to care a building would be in the way, it was going to crush him. Everything afterwards was obviously not a concern to this beast.
“Now Gerrell!” yelled Ares. “While it’s killing the other. It’s our chance.” They both called forth a spell and together, streams of fire and electrical energy shot out at the creature. But even these powerful spells weren’t able to stop it. It stumbled but regained it’s foothold and struck Theros with a blinding power. One claw slashed his chest, sending him sideways against a porch beam. It brought it’s full height over him and came crashing down with it’s second claw. The other hand struck out, but Theros ducked at just the last second. The claw smashed the beam and the porch came tumbling down around them both. The thing bit and groped for it’s victim under the debris. It ripped off a large chunk of the wood which had been the porch roof and threw it backwards into the quad. With a mighty roar it sprang downwards mouth first to sniff out the man, and chew him no doubt to shreds.
But just as quickly, Ares and Gerrell saw the thing’s head snap back. It took a split second for either of them to notice why. It looked like some invisible force had simply defied the force of it coming down towards the ground. But then they saw it. An arrow, with feathers fletched like the one shot at it earlier was in it’s head. The tip protruding from the back, the feathered end of the shaft in front of it’s face, in between it’s eyes.
It fell back dead, and a large round black rock slid from a crude sack it held on a chain around it’s waist. The rock rolled itself to a halt some few yards away.
The man strung another arrow and walked towards the creature, but it made no noise. It twitched a bit, and then lay still. The man then walked over to the porch and inside. A few minutes later he emerged wearing crimson robes. The robes of a high inquisitioner, the robes of a member of the Order of Crimson.
“My name is Theros. You have saved me.”
Uh oh thought Ares. _____________________________________________________________________________
Theros had been injured for some time. Struck down with the “valley fever”, the last thing he recalled was being given his “final Light”. He figured, now that he was still alive and breathing, that the only reason he was still alive, was that he had been lying among a group of dead bodies, some of which had been taken back by the Flame, others not. Whoever the enemy had been, they had not yet searched these dead. He had been lucky.
But he knew one other thing. He shouldn’t just be dead. He should be with the Flame. A final Light is always followed by a return to the flame. Always. In that instant, Theros knew, that his life was now forfeit. It wasn’t his own.
And yet here he was still breathing. He looked closely at his new “comrades” as well. At first, he would have assumed either would have required a thorough investigation, especially the little dark one. He told Theros then that he was a gnome, but Theros had never seen a gnome of his complexion before. He could consult the Hammer of Ket, a book that his order carried with them, to see if he met criteria for inquisition based solely on appearance, but he knew he wouldn’t have to. These days, and especially out here on the borderlands, the typical solution was to inquisition and ask questions later.
Better safe in the light, than sorry in the darkness.
Now, here he was. The inquistioner himself. He knew not what he should do. Without his book, no doubt taken from him as he lay dying, he had no answer. He suspected he would need to turn himself in to the nearest Temple Mount and face a keeper of the flame there. But he wasn’t sure. What had happened to him, as far as he knew, hadn’t happened to anyone in a long time.
Still deep in thought, Theros walked over to the round dark ball that had slid out of the dead troll. Cupping it in his hand, he realized it wasn’t a ball at all but a stone. He had not seen anything like it, but thought he might know what it was.
“I know what it is,” said Gerrell in his high pitched voice.
“Will it give us answers?” asked Ares.
Ares set the little man onto the ground and he stumbled towards Theros. He stretched his arm out, and held his hand there. Theros didn’t see any harm, after all he was now in league with the forces of darkness, the light refusing his soul. He may as well give over the blighted object. Gerrell took it and placed it a small smoldering camp fire made by someone in the fort no doubt before it was destroyed.
With the heat of the fire, thick black smoke began to issue from the rock, and swirled around them, although there was no wind. It was like a living thing, like great wicked shadow snakes slithering around and around in the air. The smoke snakes slithered and coiled and coalesced into other forms. Eventually, they formed the shapes of four people. Four humanoids.
One was a man, old but with an intelligent face. He wore a hat and a raggedy robe. Another, much shorter, she was an elf. Her pointy ears stuck through long hair. There was something in her hand, like a small creature. Maybe a mouse. Next to her stood the shadowy form of a lizard man, like the ones native to the outer wilds north of the the Cairn lands. He held two axes in his hands. Finally, a human. There was little consequential it seemed about him, except that in his hands it looked like he held a stick, in a very strange way.
‘Who in the night are they?” asked Theros.
“Don’t know, but whoever they are, someone wants them, someone wants them bad enough to kill everyone in this entire fortress looking for them,” said Ares. He wasn’t exactly adverse to the notion. In fact, he still thought the pickings would be good here. The armies always leave something behind he told himself.
Just then a horn sounded! Blaring from the Southern gate, from perhaps the valley below it. They stood there once more, unable to move quick enough again. Several giant grey streaks sped past their sights in between the buildings beyond this little area of grass they were in. Gerrell realized in horror that these were more of the ice trolls, one of which by all rights should have killed them all.
But not one of them looked any where but forward. Like dogs back to the hunter, they sped off towards the gate as fast as they could. The ground beat like an earthquake below their feet.
“They’re being called off!” said Ares. “But by what?”
“We’d better find out,” said Theros. Together they moved towards the southern gate, and once they knew there was nothing still living around, they crept up what was left of the fortress battlements, and peered out into the valley below through cracked mortar and collapsed stone.
Some several hundred paces out into the bare valley below the fortress camped an army, maybe several hundred strong. Spread amongst them though were larger beings, giants, ogres perhaps. They had made it just in time for the trolls to come bounding up to a small hooded figure. Like a hunter calling his dogs back, the grey beasts bounded up to it, pawing the ground. A cloud of warm moisture blew out of their snouts and nostrils.
The figure seemed to count them, looking from one to the next.
Uh oh thought Ares.
It then turned it’s hooded stare up towards the battlements they rested on. As luck would have it, that was exactly when Ares slipped, and Gerrell’s small hat poked above one of the stone’s ever so slightly.
The hooded figure briskly walked to a horse and signaled others to follow. Then, two of the trolls turned around and chased the riders up the hill towards Akra!