“You promised her what?” I couldn’t have been more furious. I felt the power surge in my blood and it took all of my restraint to not unleash the full fury of my magic on that tree-kissing druid.
“The demon skull,” Theren replied. I could see it in his face, he could feel my wrath coming. Instead of cowering from me as a sane person would – closed the distance between us. “We needed it. We are not wealthy men. She wanted something consummate with the value of the message. If it means anything Althalus, I am sorry.”
His pitiful apology was not nearly enough. “It was not yours to bargain,” I replied, barely getting atop my rage. “I had plans for that skull.”
“What kind of plans does a man have with a demon’s skull?” asked Arius.
Nothing a paladin would understand. “Don’t worry, I assure you, they were beyond your comprehension.” He hates it when I am evasive with him. He could never fully fathom what power might lay in a skull born on one of the lower planes of Hell. Even I only understood the most basics…but I knew that skull would help me.
It told me so….
“We should go back, retrieve the skull, then make the exchange,” Bor said. “The sooner we are off this accursed ground, the better.”
The others agreed. This Lexa, if that really was her name, was trouble. I knew it. Turning over the skull to her was the kind of mistake that no one could comprehend. Only a handful of people might have a use or need for a demon skull. If her master would be interested in it, he could only be trouble…if not for us, than for others. If I possessed it, at least I could control any power it might have.
We made our way back to the road and started south. Two days into our journey, we heard the sound of someone coming down the road behind us. We took to cover before they were upon us. It was orcs, at least they nearly matched the drawings I have seen of them in my tomes of study. Horrible creatures – deformed faces, and a stench that came to us as soon as they came into view. They wore a patchwork of old armor, probably salvaged from the dead in the Gellesian Fields. Their weapons caught my eyes. Halberds. Not crude weapons either. These caught the sunlight and glistened. They were freshly forged – and in good condition. I pointed it out to Bor who agreed with me.
The four of them paused along the road, fanning out. The way they were sniffing the air, they must have caught our scent on the wind. Then they moved off the road right at us. Such audacity for such dullard fighters.
One of the brutes rushed at Bor and swung his halberd down in a vicious chop. If it had hit the warrior, it would have cleaved him nearly in half. Nay, this swing missed so much that the orc buried the blade into his own foot. Howling, he struggled to extract it.
Bor took the dwarven war hammer he had recovered from the ambush and swung it hard in an upper cut. The lower jaw of the orc was crushed and driven up into its skull, and out of the top. What was left of his body dropped. I turned, but with difficulty, my half petrified thigh stung at my flesh as I tried to move.
I unleashed my eldritch blast on one of the creatures – the white-blue bolt of energy searing into its throat as sure as any dagger, dropping it instantly as its blackish blood squirted into the dirt. Bor sprung at another one of the creatures, hitting it in the head with his war hammer and crushing its skull, littering the road with gore, bits of bone, and whatever counts as the brains of an orc. The last one was felled by Arius after it stumbled. We emerged from the fight without so much as a scratch.
“That hammer of yours,” I asked Bor. “Does it have a name?”
He grinned. “In Dwarven it says that it is Skull Ringer…well, that is the closest interpretation in our language. Dwarven language has four words for skull, depending on the situation.”
“Well-named,” I responded. Yes, you are keeping your prizes of battle – but I must give up my best prize – my demon skull. Hardly fair.
“An orc patrol,” I observed. “The fields are not patrolled, not by orcs anyway. There is something amiss with this.”
Theren nodded. “And those halberds…they are not the kind of weapon we would see with an orc. Someone provided them with these weapons.”
“The Gellesian Fields have always been a place of dark magic. Now even Gray Riders are not safe here,” I replied. “This points to something else – something more sinister I fear.”
We discussed it as we walked but could not arrive at any conclusions. It was like having pieces of a Gnome’s puzzle-block, without knowing what it was you were trying to construct in the first place. The pieces existed, and some could fit together, but we had no idea what they made. It was frustrating and ominous at the same time.
The next day Arius spotting someone following us. “It looked like a dwarf. He faded into the brush before I got a good look.”
“Do you think it is one of Lexa’s thugs?” Theren asked. I almost laughed. There was more going on here than Theren could see. The orc patrol on the road…now a stealthy dwarf following us. A woman that would risk her life to kill a Gray Rider. Circles within circles…
“She doesn’t trust us,” was all I replied. “Nor should we trust her.”
For once, Arius and I agreed. “I will fall back with Bor, see if we can catch this shadow that stalks us. The rest of you travel on and recover the skull.” Good. If the paladin wants to go over the stalker, let him.
We reached Cockatrice Hill and I was sent in to recover my beloved skull. I half-hoped it wasn’t there. When I found it in their nest, I toyed with lying to my blood-brothers about it. Why should I have to surrender my prize? My conscience got the better of me…that is something I am going to have to work on.
As we left I passed poor petrified Phillipe’, my horse. It made me wonder if I would ever get a cure to the bite I had on my upper leg. Poor little Phillipe’…
We started back up the road towards the Bailey Hills when we rendezvoused with Arius. “It was a dwarf, he was following us. He works for Lexa – as we suspected.” I saw a faint red mark on his lower neck that told me there was more to the story than he was relaying to us.
“’Works?’ I take it he is still alive?” I prodded.
“I do not wish to discuss it,” the Paladin said, rubbing the red mark on his neck. I have to admit, it made me smile.
Two nights later Theren was on watch. I was not sleeping well. Nightmares plagued my slumber all night…I felt as if I had ants crawling on me. I kept the knapsack with the skull close. Losing it at this stage would prove to be treacherous. The druid altered us that he had come across something, “unnatural.” That piqued my interest.
We saw it and I marveled at the image. It was some sort of undead, a spectral skeleton knight mounted on a skeletal horse. It wore armor of the older age, still in magnificent condition. The entire apparition shimmered in a blueish light. There was a dull crimson glow in its eyes. This was no ordinary skeleton, that much I could ascertain.
Theren climbed into a tree as it advanced, a long war lance before the long-dead steed. I was unafraid. Arius moved in beside it. “It is dead – we should kill it.”
I frowned. Typical paladin – off dispatching evil when there was much to learn. I used my powers to communicate without speaking. It approached me slowly, the tip of the lance right before me.
“Are you good or evil?” I asked with my mind.
It only responded with by advancing another half-step. The lance hovered in the air only a few hands from my face. I did not cower. The undead were to be avoided but I knew something of their nature. Something in the back of my mind told me I had nothing to fear, and I have learned to trust that inner voice.
“What do you want?” I pressed.
It did not respond. Perhaps it could not. The magics that enveloped it were strong…strong and dark.
“Move aside warlock,” Arius said through gritted teeth. “I will send this creature back to the Hells it was born from.”
I held up my hand to hold the paladin at bay. I looked at the skeletal rider, the glowing red eyes. It understood me but could not respond. Whatever was binding it to these fields held it tight in its grasp. The magic energy seemed to flow from the ground into the ghostly image.
I kept trying to reach it, trying to find a way for it to respond. I knew it could sense my thoughts, but responding was as far beyond it as was life itself.
The skeletal horseman reeled his spectral mount about, hovering just above the ground. Then, without warning, it charged straight at me. I braced for the impact – with my stone-stiff leg leaping was out of the question. The lance should have pierced me but instead passed through me. I expected it to feel cold, but it was the opposite – a burning sensation. The phantom crashed into me as well, passing right through my body. I held out my arms at my side, embracing it as its black energy passed through me. It rose into the air and flew off, shimmering into the night like a fading star, then disappearing.
It had seen something as it passed through me, almost like when you remember a dream the next day. Many of the details were obscured, but I could see the torment that this warrior was possessed of. It could not leave the Fields, no matter how much it desired to do so. It was trapped there, an eternal prison. Perhaps Arius was right. Destroying it might have given it release. Now it was far too late. It was gone.
“What was it?” Arius asked as he moved beside me.
“Something wondrous,” I replied. They will never understand what I saw.
On the tenth day we arrived back at the five Bailey Hills. The day was overcast and gloomy, perfect weather for our exchange. Lexa Lyoncroft stood atop the largest of the hills, looking down at us.
“This could be a trap,” Bor offered.
I clutched my back pack before me. “Let us go,” I managed to say out loud. Before I change my mind.
We reached the top and she was there alone. I had not seen her before. She was beautiful, but there was something about her, a dangerous energy. Not an aura, but you could sense her power. And that sword of hers…it had a strange curve to it. This was not some woman to be trifled with. That didn’t mean I wasn’t about to try.
“You came,” she said with a hint of surprise.
“We did,” Theren replied. “How do you propose we do this exchange?”
“You come here with the skull. I will hold the note and one of you can read it.”
I came up with a plan – one none of them could have guessed. “I will do it,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Arius asked. I bet he fears I will not fulfill our end of the commitment.
I closed my eyes for a moment and used my powers to connect our minds. “Trust me. I will relay the message to all of you. We will get a complete version that way.” The words were not spoken aloud, but projected into the minds of my companions.
Even the paladin smiled. It would be the same as all of us reading the message. No chance for anyone to forget something important.
I stepped forward and Lexa opened the Gray Rider’s pouch. “No tricks,” she said, pausing for a moment.
“No tricks,” I communicated into her brain through my magic.
“Do not do that warlock,” she said bitterly. “I know your ilk. Don’t test my capabilities by entering my mind.”
“What do you mean?” I asked out loud. I gave her a little grin.
“You know what I mean,” she replied. There was something in the tone of her voice that told me that she meant business…that and her free hand drifted to the hilt of her magnificent great sword.
I opened the back pack and removed the skull. It was heavy, heavier than before. It did not want me to let it go – I could feel that. I hesitated, I admit that, then I handed it to her.
“Very well,” she said, taking out the message. I could see the faint wax seal, already broken on the scroll. I read it, and as I did, I sent it word for word to my blood-brothers.
To Lord Andrew Sklaver of Karn
My lord – two months ago the Order of the Fang marched to the north east in pursuit of a dark force that emerged from the Fangs of Kraylor. The force numbered most of our garrison, 400 men and horse, almost our entire legion. They road into the mountain pass at Sever and never emerged.
We have sent parties in search of them but no trace has been found. The Order is down to a mere 30 noble knights, nowhere near enough to protect the realms of men from what lies at the bottom of the gash.
I beseech you to send us reinforcements – holy warriors that can help us defend this keep or can assist with finding what has become of the missing legion. I ask you keep this information private. If word were to get out of our plight, it might cause panic.
This is our most desperate hour. Any and all assistance is honored at our gates.
Sir Karrick of the Silver Blade
Acting First Shield, Order of the Fang
She held the note long enough for me to read, then re-rolled it and put it in the pouch. “We are done then.” As if it weighed nothing in her hand, she put the skull in one of her saddle bags. “I advise you to leave the Gellesian Fields farm boys. This is no place for the uninitiated.” She mounted her horse and departed.
Bor looked like he had seen something on her, something important. His brow was furrowed, and that was usually a bad sign. “What is it?” Theren asked. “You look confused or angry.”
The fighter nodded once and tried to relax his brow, unsuccessfully. “I may tell you later.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“We were wise to not cross her,” was all that Bor said in response. One day I would have the power to take his thoughts from him, if all went as planned. That was not the case this day.
We immediately compared notes, jotting down the words I had written before we forgot. We all looked at the message.
“A missing legion…” Arius said in disbelief. Being a holy knight, the thought of the most elite army of paladins being lost, possibly killed, hit him hard. I would have offered pity, but I was still angry at having to surrender my precious demon skull. I will get it back…I swear it.
“Thirty knights will not be able to hold the Fangs of Kraylor,” Bor offered grimly. “Fortress or not, thirty warriors are not enough.”
Theren was shaken too. “The legion was the most elite army I have heard of outside of the church’s fighting orders. For them to have disappeared…what has that kind of power?”
The kind of power I want to know…and possess…
“What do we do now?” Galinndan asked.
What do we do next indeed…?
Thus ended the session…with our heroes recovering the message they were sent to find, but now facing even more challenges and choices.
I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am writing them up. Below are previous episodes: