“What’s she doin’ with us?”
Huge looked over his shoulder at Tanya, who rode near the rear of the party, talking quietly with Vampensh and Grul. He wore an incredulous expression, and would have said so had he known what the word meant. He turned to Uther who, as usual, rode at the head of the column with him.
“I mean, I bash heads, right?” He slapped a fist into his palm. “You chop heads, holy boy makes th’ zombies run off, Vamp can make big ol’ fireballs, and even the weirdo can turn into a bear when ‘e thinks to. So why are we lettin’ some skinny skreyja follow us?”
“You must feel quite strongly about this Huge,” replied Uther. “I don’t think I’ve heard you say so much at one time before.”
Huge frowned, his orcish heritage showing in his churlish countenance and dominant lower incisors. “I jus’ don’t get it is all. She should be home, with ‘er father. Time like this, a man needs ‘is kin ‘round ‘im.” Huge gazed off into the middle distance, momentarily lost in memory.
His companion raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Casting a wary eye over the trail before them, Uther spotted numerous wolf tracks crossing the path ahead of them. As if on cue, a wolf howled in the middle distance, and was quickly followed by three others, each seeming closer than the last. Uther frowned and leaned over his mount, patting its neck as its ears pricked up anxiously.
Behind them, there was a rush of air and a heavy thump. Turning in his saddle, Uther saw a great brown bear standing next to Grul’s now-riderless horse.
“Feeling nervous, Grul?” teased Uther.
Grul simply growled in reply and padded to the head of the column. The party traveled on, Tanya telling them what she knew of the road ahead – of Lysaga Hill, the Tser Falls and the mad dwarf that resided there. All the while the baying of wolves grew louder and more frequent, and the travellers drew their column closer together, should the unseen carnivores attempt to attack stragglers.
The sound of rustling ahead caused their eyes to snap up. In front of them was a pair of elves, bows drawn, eyeing them cooly.
“What evil do you bring here?” one of them asked.
Sharing a skeptical look with his friends, Uther drew the Sun Sword, but held it low and lose – a gesture of wariness, as opposed to aggression. “We come seeking the Amulet of Ravenkind.”
“Ah.” At some hidden gesture, the elves fired. As the arrows streaked towards the party, however, Malakai snapped his hand up and invoked the power of his ring, conjuring a wall of wind that deflected both arrows. He turned at the sound of Vampensh shouting behind him.
Vampensh saw them too. “Flanks! Ready weapons!”
Uther brought his sword up just in time to deflect a vampire spawn and wolf lunging at him. The Sun Sword glowed brightly in his hand, eager to destroy the pair of vampire spawn that revealed themselves.
It never got the chance. Drawing on divine power, Malakai blasted the spwan with positive energy, vapourising them. The pair of wolves growled and lunged forward, but to no avail. The first was peppered with arrows from Haradrim, the second slammed into the ground by Grul’s massive bear paw and run through by Malakai’s sword.
The elves fled, with the party in hot pursuit.
“Thanks for your help there, Huge,” shouted Uther sarcastically as their mounts thundered along the trail.
“Yeah,” grinned the half-orc. “You guys were great.”
“I don’t know why our enemies bother with such subterfuge,” Haradrim grumbled. “What good does it do them?”
“Well, it’s not like any of them live to tell the tale,” replied Vampensh as he struggled to control his galloping steed.
They soon came to a break in the woods where a huge rocky outcrop rose up from the forest floor. The mouth of a cave, about 25 feet across was barely visible through a thick copse of trees before them. A low growl reverberated off the rocks as a group of wolves and armed elves revealed themselves, spread out across the base of the rocks.
With a sudden blur, violence broke out in the forest. Vampensh doubled over his steed as arrows peppered him. He and Hardrim answered in kind, sending flaming arrows and rays of magical fire blasting back at their attackers.
Tanya looked on in shock at the sudden change in her escorts – from jovial companions to deadly exponents of lethal force. To her left she saw Uther and Malaki on horseback, an elf pinned against the rocks, while Grul was busy mauling another elf on her right. Before her, Vampensh and Haradrim harrassed whoever they could see with magic and arrows alike. The scene was of ostensibly barely controlled chaos, with the sound of metal ringing, fire blasting and screams ringing in the air.
Sitting atop Grul’s horse with little more than a small wooden shield to protect her, Tanya felt more exposed than she had ever felt before. I’ve faced wolves, zombies, ghosts before, she thought to herself, but then, I’ve always been able to run away before.
She glanced to her right to see Vampensh shout in pain as a pair of arrows hit him. Most of the force was absorbed by the magical armour that shimmered as the arrows found their mark, yet they still drew blood. Anger flared in the mage’s eyes as he tossed the ammunition to the ground.
He gave a curt nod to his escort. “Excuse me a moment.” With a cry, he urged his horse into the melee, necrotic magic already flaring in his outstretched palm.
Tanya watched him go with amazement. What have I gotten myself into?
The bear Grul padded up next to the horse. He grinned, revealing a set of blood-soaked teeth, and turned back towards the fray, watching for any enemy that might break through to the rear. Tanya gave a nervous pat to her mount, who, already distressed by the noise that surrounded them, was anxiously eyeing the bloodied 1,800 pound brown bear that stood growling next to it. She peered through the trees that blocked her view into the cave, and tried to position her horse so she could see better.
Suddenly a soft female voice pierced the cacaphony. “Stop! No more!”
Although she couldn’t see directly what happened, Tanya saw and heard the immediate effects of the newcomer. Huge, who was the first to see the voice’s owner, immediately rocked back in his saddle, rubbing his eyes. Immediately after, the remaning elves – who had previously been well and truly on the back foot – began to fight back with renewed vigour.
Haradrim’s voice carried above the din. “Damn! My friends, my arrows don’t seem to be effective any more!”
Grul moved forward to see the mouth of the cave and, growling loudly, suddenly dropped to the ground, stunned. Shifting so she too could see what the druid saw, Tanya gasped in astonishment as she glimpsed this new aggressor. Standing in the mouth of easily the most beautiful woman Tanya had ever seen. Scantily clad and wielding a quarterstaff, she and an elf were defending themselves against Huge and Vampensh. In between them was a slender white monolith that seemed to glow with the ebb and flow of the battle around it.
Although the defenders looked heavily outclassed, the barbarian and the mage both appeared to be battling the dazzling effects of the woman’s very presence. It took a huge force of will for Hueg to finally dispatch the elven attacker before him, despite the fact that the elf was reeling from Vampensh infecting him with blinding sickness.
By this point the female, having seen the tide of battle turn against her, had made good her escape into the bowels of the cave, taking with her the modicum of protection her presence offered her allies. Once they were quickly dispatched, the party regrouped by the mouth of the cave, Grul retaking his natural form.
“What are you doing, Vampensh?” asked Malakai, who was watching the mage study the column in the cave mouth with equal parts bemusement and condescension.
“Examining it, of course,” he replied as he poured over the monolith. He gave the object an experimental prod with the end of his quarterstaff, and was rewarded with a brilliant flash of light that near knocked him to the ground.
Uther sighed and helped him to his feet. “Enough playing. We still have work to do here.”
The group made their way cautiously into the cave. Uther cast a spell of light, and in the illumination they could just make out the large outcropping immediately before them that seemed to divide the otherwise large but shallow cave.
Vampensh whispered a few words of power and gave Tanya a touch on the shoulder. “Protective spell,” he explained. “You may need it.”
“There is evil here,” murmured Uther. He closed his eyes, trying to focus his senses. “That way,” he pointed down the back of the cave. Motioning for Huge to join him, he waved the others to the left side of the outcrop, while he and Huge went right.
As each group rounded the cave, they all saw their enemy, standing in a shallow pool waiting for them. A smile crept across her face and at once the party were overcome with her extrodinary beauty.
“My…” whispered Haradrim in awe. “How wonderful…”
“Shake it off!” shouted Grul as he loosed a pair of arrows at the woman. “It’s a trick, she’s a fey spirit!”
Malakai shook his head, managing to free himself of the female’s devastating beauty. “Enough, creature – you stand in our way!” With a guesture of power, he called upon Corellon’s divine strength. With a deep roar, a gout of flame appeared above the pool and blasted downwards.
With a shriek of surprise, horror and fury, the nymph was doused in flame and abruptly incinerated. Malakai, having expended one of his most powerful abilities, took a deep breath and nodded in satisfaction.
The party searched the rest of the cavern, but found no other visible threats. With the nymph defeated, it seemed, her werewolf allies would trouble them no longer. In the pool they were able to discover a few items of value, including, finally, the fabled Amulet of Ravenkind.
Malakai quivered as he closed his hand around the medallion. “It is powerful, I can feel it. Though I know not what it does, it pulses with divine energy.” He slipped the amulet around his neck.
His satisfaction was short-lived, though. “My friends!” called Hardrim from the back of the cave. “You should see this.”
They gathered around the rogue’s discovery – a half-mauled body and clutched in its fist was a letter sealed with an ornate ‘B’.
“That seal,” said Vampensh as he examined it, “it is the symbol of Kolyan Indirovich, the former burgomeister.” He opened the letted and looked it over, drawing from his pack the original, forged letter they had receieved. “This one is different, the handwriting matches the samples we saw at the Kolyana mansion.” He looked up, ashen faced. “And I think perhaps you should read it, Tanya,” he said.