“Queen of Breland, and two pair: Cyran eights, and Cyran Aces. I win.”
“I thought that was a loosing hand.”
“It is, if you’re playing Brelish Crowns. This is Cyran Pips shorty!”
Mabu was a halfling. Tall for one of his tribe, about 4 foot 2 inches, and muscular, Mabu moved with a powerful grace. Long black hair was tied in a topknot above his head. The knot held an almost waist length ponytail. Mabu’s features were spars like the windblown plains. His skin was tanned to the colour of bleached tall-grass. A curious expression lit his face, one that seemed to still be unaccustomed to the sights around him.
Mabu was dressed in clothing composed out of all the colours of the plains; yellows, whites, and dark brown embroidery decorated rough cut cloth of similar hues. His knee high moccasins were cut from soft tan leather, and stitched together with the same. Very little jewelery adorned him, but hanging around his neck was some sort of mask. The mask seemed to be made out of carved bone. Tribal patterns were carved into its entire surface. With the exception of a mouth filled with razor sharp teeth, few of the patterns were clearly discernible as anything but pattern. However, the entire product gave off the impression of something like an animal skull, polished off-white in colour.
Hanging from his belt was a wooden boomerang carved in symbols similar to those that adorned his mask. Resting at his side was a strange weapon, a one foot scimitar like blade with two feet of wooden haft decorated in the same tribal carvings. Hanging from a pair of leather cords bound to the intersection of haft and blade a set of long sickle curved claws clinked in the wind.
His companion was a 6 foot tall soldier in Cyran uniform with dirty nails, an unshaven face, and battle-ruined red hair. Every time they played this game the rules seemed to change, and Mabu always lost. Mabu’s heart ached for home, for the opportunity to roam the plains. But the months he had spent with this Cyran company had given Mabu some empathy for them. The war was going poorly for them. Nations pushed on them from all sides, squeezing them as a yaka might squeeze a boro fruit for its drink. But, as hopeless as the battle seemed, here Mabu was, Mabu and his clawfoot, guiding this people through the dangers in their own land.
The past days had seen a bloody defence by the Cyrans against a Brelander force who were backed by a strange mix of Audairian knights and Zilargo magicians. The Brelander forces continued to pour forth from the fortress at Kenrrun, and Cyre seemed likely to loose its south-western lands. Mabu had spent much time watching the battles from the top of an overgrown hill not too far from the Cyran camp.
Suddenly, one of the pixie messages sometimes used by the Cyran officers flashed before Mabu’s eyes. The commander was calling. Mabu often wondered how this magic always managed to find its quarry so quickly. But right now, this message was an excuse to avoid loosing more gold.
The camp was a bustle marked by men, weapons, animals, and the smell of blood. The commander’s tent wasn’t far. Its dull leather exterior lacked any differentiating markers; heraldry was little more than a bulls-eye for enemy diviners. Most of the men in the camp had to duck deeply in order to avoid the tents low hanging entrance flaps. Mabu strode through with a back as tall as nabi-grass. It was no surprise that the man in the tent was no longer the commander from last week. These days, commanders seemed to come and go, usually leaving by way of Dolourrh.
“Scout Naboo, we will need to execute a tactical fallback by mi-day. Scout to our west and report back on what stands between us and the river. If there is going to be pursuit, we want to know which way its coming from, and what measures will be required to curtail it. Ensure that any structure capable of hiding troops is examined. That is all.”
Chana was off at the far north end of the camp. She tended to make the horses skittish. Weak creatures: they lacked Chana’s grace; her two powerful sickle like talons, one on each toe; her razor sharp teeth; why anyone would want to ride anything except for a clawfoot or a carver was beyond Mabu. Maybe a glidewing. Mabu could understand those, though he never particularly liked the notion of raising that high above the plains. Even the thought of it made him queasy.
- – -
Vimalk crouched before the fire, surprisingly limber for his large size. The light of the blaze played over his grey, hairless skin, highlighting mottled brown patches. Beside him a man groans. Private Shale had taken a poisoned blade in the frenzied fighting the night before and none of the survivors had the skill to do more than try to make him comfortable. Perhaps it would have been better had Shale perished with the four dozen other members of their company. But there was nothing that could be done for that now.
Vimalk looked up and saw a red glow in the eastern sky. Most likely another village burning. Too many villages had been razed in the clash of armies. Still, there was something unnatural about that light. Instead of the light flickering against the low clouds it almost seemed like the sky was slowing pulsing behind them…
Vimalk’s attention is diverted by a man approaching the fire.
“Good morning Rovik,” rumbles Vimalk.
“It’s not morning yet,” replies the half-elf.
“Soon enough.” Vimalk used his long spear to pull himself to his full seven feet of height. The haft is cunningly carved in the shape of intertwining brambles. The blade is cleverly clasped in the carved wood rather than bound in the traditional fashion. Miraculously, the brambles do not seem pierce the goliath’s flesh.
Vimalk’s eyes flicked quickly to a shimmer of light to the right of Rovik’s head. Vimalk tensed for a moment before recognizing the copper wings of the messanger construct. The device is made of a small copper box suspended between two filigreed wings beating frantically to maintain its position by Rovik’s left ear. Rovik’s face turned grim as he listened to the magically recorded message. He held out his open palm and the message construct landed daintily and folded up its delicate wings.
Rovik looked Vimalk in the eye, pocketing the now inert box with a grim expression on his face.
“We are regrouping three leagues to the south east. And there are reports of undead spotted at a ruined tower an hour to the east. I doubt Karrnath would send troops this far south, but you better take a look. Deal with it you can,” at this Vimalk grins, “but we need the intelligence more than we need another dead soldier, so be careful. Rejoin us to the south when you can.”
Vimalk moved away from the firelight, but not before clasping arms with Rovik. “May Father Bear watch over you, old friend.” Rovik nods at Vimalk’s words.
“May he watch over us all. And get us all out of this damned area.”
Vimalk strode quickly and silently into the tree. Falling into an easy lope, a pace set to bring him to the tower at dawn.
As planned, Vimalk crested the hill overlooking the tower just as the sun was rising over the horizon. There is no sign of life in the small clearing. Or unlife. Fighting can be heard in the distance as the dawn’s light allows the various factions to resume their bloody work. Grunting to himself, Vimalk descended to the tower. The walls stand no more than three meters tall. Little more than the foundations remain.
Vimalk noticed a section of the wall that has crumbled in on itself. The side door seemed like a more prudent approach than walking up to the front door. No more than two steps from the opening, Vimalk heard a voice behind him.
“Hello friend.” The voice belongs to a young human male. No, he is no older than a child. Yet he bore the robes of a clerical order.
“Who are you?” demanded Vimalk. Despite his desire to be quiet, Vimalk’s voice echoed with a low bass.
“I am Ketu. I have been sent to investigate these ruins,” replies the boy.
“As have I. I am called Vimalk.” The goliath comtemplated the child and dismissed him as a puzzle to be deciphered later.
“Quiet boy. We do not know what lurks within.” Vimalked motioned Ketu back and stepped over the tumbled stone into the dim light of the tower. He is immediately greeted by a chittering sound he is all too familiar with. Small, chitinous bodies emerge from holes in the floor and walls.
- – -
Mabu rode west as ordered. For the most part there was only an occasional snack for Chana in those rough hills; soldiers departed for Dolourrh’s plains. Over a rise to the west Mabu caught sight of a crumbling watch tower. With a calming word for Chana, Mabu spurred her on, the two heading towards it.
As the two approached, Mabu took careful note of his surroundings. The ruined tower jutted up from the mountainside, silhouetted against the gray sky. A few leafless trees grew taller than the tower’s crumbling walls, and a mound of rubble was piled near the entrance. There was no sign of the doors that once sealed the entrance. He couldn’t hear anyone. He couldn’t see anyone. Chana didn’t seem to be picking up on anyone either. But, out here, with battles raging in all direction, that didn’t really mean much. Mabu rode Chana up to the pile of broken rubble, climbed off her back, and gently patted her head. “Down girl. Stay down. We don’t want to make any noise just yet,” he said. Turning around, Mabu scrambled up onto the top of the heap, and crouched down low next to a jutting outcrop of shattered stone.
A road wound towards the south west, and walking up it was a strange elf. The elf wasn’t a Valenar, Mabu didn’t think. It wasn’t riding a horse, or carrying a double scimitar. He was not tall, and was rather slender, but carried himself with the confidence of a more powerful figure. His movements were refined and graceful, but spartan and efficient. His features were sharp, just like any elfs, and blond. But his eyes were like nothing Mabu had ever seen, of a solid color, and constantly seeming to shift in color. He wore a black cloak, military cut, with fine gold embroidery along the edging. Mabu had seen a cloak like this before, it designated a soldier in the direct service of the Cyran crown. Whoever this elf was, he knew the Queen.
Or maybe not. His armor was unique, made of what looked like large scales of an otherworldly serpent, deep, dark red in color, and with an almost translucent quality. His clothing was finely crafted, made out of supple leathers and fine silks, but like the armor it wasn’t of Cyran cut. And why would the military send him to scout out structures without warning him of a potential Cyran presence? The commanders weren’t always well organized, but still. Whoever the figure was, he held a great spear; one that looked new, and fairly sharp. He also wore a long slightly curved sword, and a short hunting bow. Maybe he had killed an important Cyran and stole his cloak? Mabu decided to stay hidden amongst the rubble, and keep a close eye on the figure.
The elf kept walking up the road. He was getting fairly close to tower. Then, suddenly, when he was about 30 feet away, the elf tensed up and grabbed his weapon in a two handed grip. Had he seen Mabu? The Halfling fingered the boomerang hanging at his belt. But the elf didn’t look in Mabu’s direction. Instead, he stared in the direction of the tower’s doorway. Mabu could hear it now. There was some sort of commotion going on in there. Clicking, shouting, was it a fight? The elf moved towards the doorway, probably to joint the fray that seemed to be growing inside. “Should I aid him,” Mabu wondered. He continued to watch.
The elf was stabbing at something in the doorway. Mabu couldn’t quite make out what it was. Then a small, chitin covered, six legged, insect like reptile jumped into sight, trying to gnaw at the elf’s shins. It was a kruthik. Why had the elf run towards the kruthik? They fought in hordes, and ate everything in sight. If there was one, there was a good bet the tower was infested with more. Still, if the elf did know the Queen, Mabu couldn’t just leave him to his fate. Jumping out of hiding the halfling grabbed his boomerang and prepared to throw it at the beast. As he did, hordes of kruthik began to climb out of the rubble around him. With a curse Mabu grabbed his mask, slipping it over his face with the same hand that still held the boomerang. With his talanta tangat in a one handed grip the Halfling began to slash at the creatures around him while simultaneously trying to fumble his boomerang back onto his belt.
It was then that a young boy appeared from around the far edge of the tower. A Human boy, though he appeared outlandish for one. He could not have been older than 14 years. Dark ocher skin wrapped an underweight frame. He was draped in a simple, single sheet of monotone dark red cloth robe. All that can be seen of his body from head to toe were the sandals at his feet, and his shaven bald head. Not a weapon, shield, or wand was on his person. All that seemed to be in his material possession was the red cloth on his body, and the sandals on his feet. The boy raised his arm and shot a beam of white light towards the nearest kuthrik, transforming it into little more than a pile of ash.
There was no time to assess the situation. Whoever the boy was, he seemed to be a friend. And, while Mabu fought off the attacking kruthik, the elf had disappeared into the tower. As Chana tore the last of the kruthik on the rubble heap apart with her talons and teeth, Mabu jumped off the rubble pile and ran towards the entrance. The boy was already heading into the door of the ruined tower as well. The child seemed somewhat ill at ease around Chana, but he did nothing to harm her as she and Mabu rushed past.
Ignoring the child, Mabu charged into the towers murky gloom. To his far left the tower wall had crumbled, leaving a space large enough for a enormous humanoid to crouch and enter. Straightening up, the man was nearly twice the height of the halfling. When the goliath spoke, the mountains echoed in the low bass of his voice, and a massive grey bear formed out of mist before the last kruthik. Raising his arm, the goliath bared black, puckered flesh running from the base of the smallest finger on his left hand up to his elbow, an old injury that refused to heal. The goliath clenched his fist, and the spirit bear crunched the kruthik between his jaws. The goliath, too, was a friend… at least for now.
As Mabu gathered in his surroundings, the boy rushed passed. To Mabu’s right a short hallway led to another room. Something in the room glowed, and from its confines the elf’s voice shouted, “goblins. Get in here damn it.” Somewhere in the murk in front of Mabu the boy responded. Mabu couldn’t quite make out what the boy said, but it sounded like he was asking for a description. “Damn it, no time,” the elf responded, “way to many arms. Get in here!”
Mabu rushed into the hallway to his right. The light was coming from a strange symbol glowing in the dirt. Laying on top of it a bleeding man lay unconscious in a fetal position. At the other end of a wall a bloody man was chained to a wall. A number of strange goblin like creatures, each with four arms and two mouths, were attacking the elf. “Chana, kill,” Mabu hissed. The clawfoot charged at one of the creatures. Holding his talanta tangat in a two handed grip Mabu rushed in as well. Somewhere to his left he saw the spirit bear appear. Behind him heard the goliath draw the unconcious man to safety outside the pulsing rune. The elf’s great spear whirled and stabbed. Soon, all the goblins were dead.
The elf bent over man chained to the wall and cut the rope tying the figures legs. A key was easily found on one of the strange goblin mutations, which the elf used to unlock the chains that bound the man to the wall. The child, meanwhile, moved to tend to the unconscious man. A magical light seemed to descend from boy’s hands, and the man breathed easier. Leaning against a wall, Mabu pulled his hunt-mask from his face and breathed deeply, unable to pay attention to the dialogue between the elf and the man, still rubbing his wrists where the manacles had bit into them. When the boy came over to tend to Mabu’s wounds, he grunted appreciatively. Hasty introductions were made. “Vimalk,” the goliath called himself, “Ketu” stated the child, “Arweal” the elf lilted, “Mabu” muttered the Halfling. The human who had been chained to wall called himself “Bren ir’Gadden,” and named his unconscious companion “Avric.” Bren and Arweal continued to speak to each other while Mabu caught his breath, but all Mabu caught of the conversation was Bren stating that he had been captured about half a mile to the south west of the tower.
As Mabu zoned back into the conversation, he heard Bren state:
“Well, I must thank you all for rescuing me. I must return to my forces. You have Breland’s thanks.”
Mabu climbed back onto Chana, a little confused. When Bren began to move towards a pile of armor and equipment at the far end of the room, Mabu instinctively put himself and Chana between the man and the weapons.
“You will come back with me and the Elf to Cyran camp, yes?”
“Um, no little one, I don’t think that would be in my best intrest.”
“Mabu, let the man go.” Arweal stated. “He is a noble. We must return him to his people,” the elf responded.
“Noble? You mean, like Lath?”
“Yes little one, I am like your tribal leaders,” Bran stated.
“But he is a prisoner of war, no?” Mabu said confused.
“No Mabu. He has given me his parole. I will escort him to his forces,” Arweal responded.
“On whose orders?” Mabu replied. “Who do you serve, who is your commander?”
“I serve the Queen.”
If the elf served the Queen, there was little Mabu could do. But, what if he had killed someone and stolen that cloak? “This could all be a ruse,” Mabu thought. Rearing Chana out of Bren’s way, the Halfling decided that it would be in his best interest to follow the Brelander noble, the elf, and then report back to his commander.
With this decision quietly made, the Brelander rearmed himself, Ketu and Vimalk moved to help the unconscious man, and the party prepared to head towards the tower’s exit. But, before the party could leave, Vimalk suddenly reared up, his body convulsing, and he cried, “Four at the brink of desolation stand as one against the tempests roar…”
“What? Are you ok friend Vimalk?” Ketu stated.
“A vision, I’ve had a vision,” the goliath responded.
Shaman Tabi sometimes had visions as well, but now really didn’t seem like the time for religious talk, Mabu thought to himself, largely ignoring what he took to be the Shaman’s preaching. As a group, the five men and their unconscious ward made their way towards the door of the ruins.
The group had spent only ten minutes inside the ruins, but something outside had gone drastically wrong. Strange orange lighting flashed across the sky, followed by a rumble of thunder that shook the ground beneath the party’s feet. A gust of wind, unseasonably warm, shook the dry branches of the trees. Corpses were shambling towards the entranceway. Two human men wearing an emerald insignia shaped claw grinned at the party from behind the zombies, hefting their flails. Behind, them a gaunt woman dressed in green and black scowls in the party’s direction.
“Surrender or die!” She cried.
“Surrender to whom,” Arweal asked.
“To me, you fool.”
“And you are?”
With that, the two men drew crossbows and launched bolts towards the party. Arweal was the first to react. Spear in hand, he rushed by, dodging around the incoming zombies, and running between the two male assailants. As he ran by enemies he twirled, spear arcing, slaying a zombie, lashing out at the crossbowmen, and ending up in full frontal combat with the screaming she-witch. The eastern sky seems to catch on fire—clouds, fog, and the air itself ignited in a terrible conflagration.
“We must protect the injured!” Ketu cried, as he attempted to drag Avric out of harms way.
The sky was illuminated in lurid orange and red, casting strange shadows across rolling banks of gray fog. Mabu had begun by trying to stop up the ruined wall against the zombies trying to enter, but as Arweal rushed out into the center of the fray he spurred Chana around and attempted to follow the blood crazed elf. Zombies seemed to step in his way at every opportunity, blocking him from aiding his impromptu comrade. To his right a spirit bear appeared, crunched a zombie’s head between its jaws, and then seemed to teleport to another location on the field of battle. The crossbowmen dropped their crossbows, pulled out cruel flails, and turned on Arweal. For a moment, Mabu thought the elf would fall before he could reach him. Great tendrils of fiery lightning reached across the cloud draped sky. Then Arweal seemed to step out of reality, and vanish before everyone’s eyes. Around the companion necromantic forces, tendrils of death made manifest, launched themselves from the gaunt woman’s bone staff. Light seemed to launch itself from Ketu’s fingers, and zombies around the battlefield turned into inanimate corpses. Vimalk’s spear dropped another even as Chana crunched a zombie’s head between its jaws. Mabu eventually managed to get Chana adjacent to the witch-hellion, but neither her claws nor his blade seemed to be able to reach around her whirling staff. Then, suddenly, as fast as the combat had began, Vilmalk’s spear impaled the women. One of her flail wielding bodyguards lay dead. The other raised his arms in surrender.
“Filth,” Bren hissed, and knocked the man out with the pommel of his blade.
A huge bank of gray mist lit from within by a raging fire was sweeping down the Saerun Road from the east. Around them, the group could no longer see the armies fighting in the distance. They were hidden in the gray fog. Occasional flashes of fire were all the group could see in the mist that hid the battlefield, but the echoes of distant screams reached their ears.
“That mist is coming in fast, we should not be here!” Mabu called out, staring at the incoming wall of mist stretching across the eastern horizon.
Vimalk bent down next to the corpse of the witch searching her body for clues as to the reason for her party’s presence. Arweal, who seemed to appear out from behind a tree, noticed the bodies of a number of cyran soldiers hidden in a bush around the edge of the tower. Bending down next to them he inspected the bodies.
“I agree,” Ketu said.
Vimalk nodded, headed into the tower, and lifted Avric over his shoulder. Slapping Chana’s behind with the flat of his blade Mabu began to ride her at break neck speed away from the incoming mist. The rest of the party joined him in flight. Their feet thudded across the battle trodden earth, bushes and shrubs were ripped apart against their shins, and then, eventually, the mist stopped moving towards them.
“It stretches across the entire horizon,” Mabu whimpered, “I must head back.”
“Into that!?” Vimalk cried.
“My camp… it was to the east, in the direction the mist came from. I must see if any survived. I must… I must find out what happened.”
“If he has friends in that direction, I agree. We must try and help them.” Ketu stated.
“Friends, I thank you for saving me an Avric, but we must return to our camp and report what we have seen here,” Bren stated.
Whatever purpose there was to keeping an eye on the Brelander had been swallowed, along with the eastern horizon, by the dead gray tendrils of recent events. Mabu waved his tangat in salute, “Good luck Lath. I wish you well.” With that the halfling, elf, goliath, and human boy headed back in the direction they had come from.
The tower was not swallowed by recent events. Corpses still littered the hill it rested on, but, the eastern end of that hill was swallowed by a solid wall of shifting vapor.
“Is there anybody out there? Hello!?” Mabu called out.
Dark forms shambled towards the group from within the mist. The party fingered their weapons, worried. Then a horst broke free, tendrils smoke clinging to its sweat glistening flanks. A Cyran soldier was caught in its stirrups, dragging behind the horse, his body badly burnt. Mabu spurred Chana forward, and slashed the leather thongs binding the injured man’s legs. The horse, suddenly off balance, toppled over. Mabu jumped off Chana, grabbed his water-skin, and brought it to the injured mans lips.
“Are there any other survivors? What happened?” Mabu trembled.
The man moaned. From the east more survivors dragged their burnt carcasses out of the calamity. Vimalk and Ketu rushed from survivor to survivor, administrating the healing glow of the gods, or the touch of benevolent spirits. Arweal, like Mabu, was left to offer water or bandages where he could.
Then, a little to the north east, another band of soldiers made their way out of the mists. These bore the marks of Breland. Two warforged, their metal plate’s torn open to reveal limbs whose wooden musculatures were almost severed in placed, accompanied them.
“Enemies, I see enemies!” The warforgeds’s bass voices intoned.
“Friends, I am attached to a Brelish unit from Kennrun. These Cyran’s are not enemies. They are badly wounded,” Vimalk called, placing himself between the living constructs and the wounded Cyran men.
“They are Cyrans! Cyrans unleashed a great magic against us, killing many of our forces!”
“Do you know it was Cyrans who did this?” Ketu asked.
“Well?” Vimalk pressured.
“Stand down or be dismembered. Today is no longer the day for battle!” Arweal threatened.
“They are enemies. We must attack!” The two warforged pressed forward.
Arweal, Vimalk, and Ketu jumped on the warforged attempting to hold them down. Mabu’s boomerang whirled through the air, striking the opponents lower limbs. As the automatons crashed to the ground, disarmed and restrained, Mabu rushed towards the Brelish troops.
“Does anyone here need water?” The Halfling asked.
“Water…” croaked a dying soldier.
The Halfling rushed over, tipping his water-skin to the man’s lips.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“I… I don’t know. We were fighting… and then, the lighting. The men. The bodies… their flesh!” The soldier began to sob.
Mabu sank to his knees, staring east. The mist reached across the entire horizon. How far could it reach? What if the entire eastern world has been destroyed by this war? What if the plains no longer existed? Tears streamed down his face.
“Your people are safe Mabu. This thing, whatever it is, I doubt it stretches that far. There is no reason to believe that it has swallowed the plains as well,” Vimalk said, as if reading Mabu’s mind.
The Halfling wiped tears from his eyes and nodded.
Arweal assessed the situation. “We should make camp here. Help who we can. Tomorrow we will look for the closest camp that we can join. Someone must be willing to help us…”
“I follow you, sergeant,” Mabu stated, finally deciding that one way or another, the elf was his best hope of being reunited with his family.