Entry 25 Part 1: Riloth the 19th the 22nd
I spent the day developing a plan and preparing for my next attempt on the harpy. The day’s activities left me hopeful, and I’ll go over today later, but now is a good opportunity to continue my recounting of Edgewater.
Illunia 21 - Edgewater
After their dire pronouncement, the dwarves rose to their feet from where they had fallen, sprawled at the foot of the well. I’d only seen a handful of dwarves in my life and so I spent a moment examining them with a scholar’s eye. I’d read plenty about them, even if most of it hadn’t been written by dwarves themselves. Both stood just over four feet tall and had long braided beards hanging to their waists. Their hair and beards were black but beginning to gray. One dwarf had a bald head that—from the emerging stubble—looked to be shaved. The other had a simple close-cropped haircut. Each wore the tattered remains of clothing hardly worthy of the name. The dwarves I’d seen previously wore simple, functional outfits, with no frills outside the occasional badge to indicate rank or profession. The bald man’s clothing had once been white, and he still had a badge with the dwarven symbol for Torc, with some sort of rank designation etched around it. The other man bore no insignia. His clothing had once been a solid gray, but was now covered in blood. Goblin blood from the smell.
Daulf moved to help them, "Sirs, you look wounded, are you in need of healing?"
The two dwarves stepped back at his approach. The bald one saw Illunia's eye emblazoned on his pauldron, marking him as a Seeker.
With an upturned lip said, "We’re fine for now, we must speak to whoever is in charge of your armed forces. A—" he paused briefly, deliberating his next words, "—dwarven stronghold has fallen. The enemies are mustering an army and plan to use this area as a staging ground for an assault on the surface."
"Whoa, heavy," came Trish’s whisper. "Maybe I don’t want to travel with you, you keep involving us in crazy adventurer nonsense."
How is any of this my fault?
I refrained from shouting that back to her and blushed instead. Daulf ignored her jibe and flagged down a townsperson, tasking her with gathering clothes for these newcomers.
He turned to the dwarves. "Step in here, the other leaders of the town are on their way back. Please, rest and wait."
With quick glances to each other, the dwarves decided to comply. They walked into the tent under Daulf’s direction, while I remained outside with Trish watching Roland defend the well. He didn't shoot often, but when he did, squeals of pain punctuated his shots. When Tobren returned with chains and a lock, I assisted in securing the grate that topped the well.
By the time we'd finished, Mobear had arrived with a squad of soldiers bearing spears. "These men will guard this well. I have sent similar groups to the other wells in town."
Tobren nodded and added, "I sent my sons to those as well with more chains. Let's go see what our most recent guests have to say."
The situation now in hand, Roland hopped down from his perch and the "bigwigs" filed back into the tent. Inside the dwarves waged a two man war on a table laden with light refreshments, as if they hadn’t eaten in days. Which, judging by their appearance, was probably true.
"Tell them what you told me," Daulf prodded them.
They straightened as we entered. The two now wore ill-fitting clothing donated from local men. Their broad shoulders necessitated shirts that hung to the ground like a kirtle.
The ridiculous sight contrasted the authority with which the short haired dwarf spoke. "I am Kenra Ludvik—General Ludvik. I commanded a fortress in the northern mountains that fell to the forces of the Forsaken.”
He paused for a moment, letting his pronouncement set in. At the mention of the Forsaken, the room grew still. Most gathered bore expressions of worry or terror. Daulf—who’d heard this news once before—wore a face of grim acceptance, while Bearskin’s brow furrowed, but his mouth was turned up slightly in an eager smile. The Forsaken had long been driven out from the Continent, the few that made their way here at least. It was believed they’d been wiped out during the Flood, so news of their return was not to be taken lightly.
He gestured at his companion when he resumed, “This here is Deshiv, a Blessed of Torc. I don’t know how, but the Forsaken breached the front lines we’d long held against them. We thought we were prepared"—he paused, emotion warring on his face. When he’d regained his composure, he continued, staring off into space—"We were not. They surprised us and bypassed our defenses. We didn’t stand a chance."
We all listened, respectful and silent—even Trish—as he recounted the invasion. The attack had occurred on the 10th of Illunia, eleven days prior. The enemy’s forces came from a tunnel that connected the fortress to other dwarven outposts. They had sent a small group to take over a supply caravan, and used it to infiltrate the base. Duergar are masters of illusion, and after capturing the caravan, they’d disguised themselves as the crew. At the fortress, they were ushered into the base after passing the security checks—the passphrase to which they had somehow obtained. Once inside, they turned on the dwarves. Chaos broke out, and an army of Fallen orcs burst from the supply cars. While battle raged in the cargo depot, an elite squad of powerful individuals pushed deep into the fortress, slew the leader of the outpost, and turned the fortress’ defenses on its defenders, ending the conflict.
Ludvik had led a squad of survivors to safety, hoping to rally them and retake their home, but in their escape they discovered that all the surrounding fortresses had fallen. They remained nearby, spying on the enemy. More Fallen orcs and other Forsaken forces arrived with each passing hour. They captured one small group and learned that the fortress was to be the staging post for an invasion of the surface. At the news, Ludvik and his small band of survivors fled into the dark tunnels of the Torack, seeking a route to warn the surface. They ran for over a week, dodging the patrols of Forsaken and their foul minions which now swarmed the territory of the dwarves. Each night saw their numbers dwindle. He didn’t describe the passage, but his disspationate voice spoke of a man who’d witnessed horrors. I can imagine the terror of a goblin infested cave well enough. By the time they saw the light of the wells of Edgewater, Ludvik and Deshiv were all that remained.
When the tale was done, Ludvik pleaded, "You must send word to Landing, to Lakeside, anywhere, even the Tower. You must gather an army. Muster your defenses. Faust’s forces are preparing to wage war on the surface."
Mobear and Daulf looked at each other with unease, before Mobear spoke, "I am a captain in the Landing army. I regret to say this, but the city has fallen to a white dragon. I have nearly one hundred and fifty men, with more trickling in each day, but I fear this is the only force you will find in the region."
"Damn it to Fauell!" Ludvik shouted, throwing his cup at the tent wall, where it hit with an unsatisfying foof. "Then we must prepare a defense here. Build walls, prepare traps, arm the people and hope you can delay until help arrives."
In an instant Ludvik switched from despair to command and began giving orders, seemingly oblivious to his lack of authority—or pants. "Send riders to Lakeside, and others to gather more of your soldiers from Landing. You can send word to the shipclans, the elves, anyone. You do not understand the stakes of what is to come."
Mobear looked to Daulf, who gave a small nod.
"Alright, we believe you,” Mobear said, taking Daulf’s nod as proof of the dwarf’s sincerity. “Let's get to work. Tobren, what resources can you bring to bear? Can we evacuate anyone unable to fight to Lakeside?"
The meeting broke up into smaller groups—Tobren sending for children to act as runners, and Mobear tasking his men with organizing the raising of fortifications.
Amidst the chaos, Bearskin’s voice broke through the planning. "What about defenses?"
His voice brought the work to a halt, as all turned to the source of the booming question.
Seeing the confused eyes, he clarified, "How did they clear out your fortress?”
Ludvik, acknowledging the giant for the first time, explained, "The fortress—”he paused, holding the next words back with reluctance“—controlled the river you call the Fess. When invaded, the defenses could be triggered to flood chambers lost to the enemy. They reached our control room and turned our defenses against us. They stopped the river as well, which was surely the prime motivation behind the attack."
I wondered, looking at the faces in the room. No one else seemed curious, all of them focused on the more immediate matter before us.
Bearskin listened, carefully thinking over his words before speaking, "Why don’t we do the same? Sneak in, restart river, drive out enemy."
Ludvik looked at Bearskin like he'd asked why we couldn't politely ask the enemy to leave.
"We can’t," he said reflexively. "We can’t because—"he paused, thinking over the idea. I could nearly see the wheels turning in his head as he thought it over. After a moment his sneer disappeared, replaced with a look of determination and hope "—We would need a small strike force that could get there and sneak in. The army will march any moment—they could even be marching now. You’d need to sneak in, activate the defenses, and fight your way out."
"Okay, I will do this," Bearskin said, as if Ludvik hadn’t just described an impossible task.
"I’m in as well," Roland chimed in from where he was reviewing maps with one of Mobear’s scouts.
"Me too, it seems like our best hope," Daulf volunteered. "Mobear, you must stay here and lead the defense. We will attempt this. If we fail, hopefully we will buy you enough time and some lives. I'll write letters that will help muster Tower forces—if you can find representatives to give them to. But, I fear we will not have the time."
Turning to Ludvik and Deshiv he asked, "You two are in no condition to accompany us. Tell us what we need to know to get in and activate these defenses."
Deshiv, silent up until now, rummaged through the maps on the table until he found the right one and marked the location of a secret entrance.
"I need gems," he demanded. When no one jumped to move, he elaborated, "I can imbue the gems so that you can open the locking runes and disable the wards to the secret entrance. I need two, one for the door, and one for the defensive control room."
Trish drew two rings set with precious stones from one of her many hidden pockets. "Will these work?"
"Perfectly, thank you. They will not be harmed. This will only last—”he paused to inspect each gemstone"—twelve hours or so. It’s best we wait until you are about to leave."
Frantic planning began and the gathering broke up to work on their own tasks. A group led by Mobear continued the work of preparing a defense in the event of our failure. Another, led by Daulf, prepared for the expedition. Nine horses were set aside for us. Mobear had used the bulk to outfit his cavalry, but he had enough to spare for our mission.
To make the trip in eight hours, each member of the assault team needed two horses, and they would need to be switched frequently. Daulf graciously lent his charger to Bearskin, who had been staring in awe at the horses since they were gathered outside the tent.
"So big! Almost as large as a goat! Wonderful!" he petted each horse, a childlike glee in his eyes.
Goat? Where was this guy from?
While Daulf gave instructions to Bearskin on the rudimentary points of riding, Roland went over the plan, "We will ride down the road to the village of Forest Haven, set far to the north. It lies an hour’s hike from the origin of the river, but it's also a regular day’s ride from here, so we must make haste if we are to get there in time to use the key."
Men gathered packs of supplies at Tobren’s direction. I picked one up, set it on my shoulder, and mounted the nearest horse.
Wow Spellbook, that isn't how I remembered this at all. Daulf was right. Not one person had asked me to go on that expedition. I think I stole that pack from one of Mobear’s men who had been assigned to go. When I’d reflected on these events since leaving Edgewater, I pictured myself as an unwilling conscript swept along with no say, but that's not right.
Trish watched me grab a pack, stole one from the grasp of another of Mobear’s men, and mounted the horse next to mine. "I can’t believe we are doing this," she grumbled to herself.
Bearskin mounted Daulf’s horse and I half expected it to collapse under his bulk. The warhorse looked like a pony beneath the giant man. It sensed Bearskin’s inexperience and stomped the ground uncertainly, despite Daulf’s attempts to reassure it. Just when it looked like Bearskin would have to remain behind, Roland went to Daulf’s horse and whispered something into its ear. At the words, the tension melted away from the horse and it followed Roland wherever he went—no matter what Bearskin did to direct it.
The last thing to do before departing was for Deshiv to imbue the gemstones. He held each in his hand for a moment as he closed his eyes, before handing them back to Trish. "The emerald is for the door, the ruby the controls."
She inspected them, looking for some change, but seeing nothing they disappeared back into her clothing.
Bearskin, Daulf, Roland, Trish, and I set off down the road to Forest Haven. Ten minutes out, the horses grew skittish and began to bray.
Roland spoke aloud to the beasts, "Be calm, she's a friend."
The horses settled and I looked around to find what'd caused the commotion. In the woods, just off the road I spotted a four legged figure keeping pace with our group.
Roland whistled and the shadow loped out onto the road, the figure resolving into a chestnut brown furred wolf that stood taller than my waist. The horses took the predator’s appearance in stride, trusting in Roland’s assessment of its intentions.
“What’s her name?” Trish asked, watching the creature as it ran beside us.
“Fauel if I know,” Roland answered with a grin, “Assuine’s children do not use names as we do, but I call her Maple.”
We rode without incident, Roland's friend—he took offense when Trish referred to Maple as his pet—at our side. We stopped regularly to switch horses. Whenever Daulf's charger started to flag, we slowed and Bearskin ran beside us. While Bearskin ran, Roland rode beside the riderless horse with his hand on its neck, using some Blessing of his goddess to renew some of its vigor. Maple ran near Bearskin at these times, and the wolf looked like a family dog next to him.
Six long hours of riding brought us to the village. Roland noted signs of feralkin and other beasts of the wild as we traveled the road, but we had no time to spare on these lesser threats. If we failed to reach the fortress in time, there would be no one left who needed protection from such creatures. The smoke from the village’s fires rose above the trees, giving away its location. We’d planned to warn the town to flee and continue on, but something felt off when we entered the center of the small village.
It consisted of two dozen modest homes with a central longhouse. Like many small towns near the mountains, the longhouse had been constructed from the ship that’d brought its founders to the Continent. The settlers had brought it down the mountain, built some walls and set it atop overturned.
Our arrival interrupted a gathering in the center of the town. Roland tensed as a group of villagers approached. "Let me handle this," he whispered.
"Greetings travelers, how can we help you?" asked the lead man of the approaching trio.
The three men looked skinny and pale. Not what one would expect from villagers in a verdant forest such as this.
"We found this horse"—Roland gestured to one of the spares—"roaming on our hunt. Does she belong here?"
Greed flashed in his eyes as the spokesmen answered, "Oh yes, Lily! She is ours. That's wonderful, thank you. So noble to have brought her back." He walked towards us, shamelessly taking the rein.
As if an afterthought he added, "Can we interest you in lodging? It's the least we can do for travelers as honest as yourselves."
He eyed the rest of the horses hungrily as he spoke.
"No, but thank you kindly for the offer. We were just returning to our camp a mile or so south down the road. Enjoy your gathering."
Roland led us away from the town at a canter.
Once out of sight he said, "Be on guard. Whoever those people are, they killed the inhabitants of that village. A messenger ran off to the north. Set the horses loose on the road home and follow my trail."
He leaped from his horse and ran into the woods without waiting for our response. Maple ran with him and I watched from my horse as the pair disappeared into the woods. He moved with a supernatural speed and silence, the trees seeming to part from him as he ran while Maple moved with her own predator’s grace. We dismounted and removed what we needed from the horses and shooed them back towards town. I consoled myself with the thought that if we failed, they would be okay.
Even the Forsaken would value horses—unless the feralkin get them.
Bearskin took point and had little trouble following Roland's trail. Even I could have done it. The plants that parted for his passage stayed parted, creating a clear path through the forest. Looking behind, I watched as the branches slowly relaxed in our wake, completely masking our trail.
It took twenty minutes for us to catch up to Roland. A young man from the village sat gagged and tied to a tree while Maple let out a low growl inches from his face and Roland sat casually whittling to the side.
When we arrived he brought us up to speed, his casual whittling belying the fury behind his every word. "They took the village on the tenth—dragon cultists. They were acting as a depot for gathering supplies. There's a shipment of weapons and other goods heading to the fortress and this one here was sent to warn them of us so they could send a force to kill us for our gear. We have no time to waste."
"What will we do about—" I began to ask as Roland cut his throat with a quick slash. The man's corpse went limp where he’d been tied.
Maple walked over to Roland’s side after the act, leaning against his legs as he absentmindedly ran his fingers through her fur.
"They killed the whole village,” he said, as much to himself as to us. “Let's go."
The branches parted before us as we traveled, making our passage quiet and fast. Only Bearskin was too large for the trail, but he paid no heed to the stings of branches on his skin.
Half an hour into our trek, Roland held up his hand, gesturing for a stop and silence. I’d yet to grow acclimated to this active lifestyle, and didn’t think I could have made it much longer. He left us, disappearing into the trees with Maple in tow. A minute later, his voice came from behind us, "I found the caravan. Three wagons. No guards. Follow me, prepare to attack."
He led us north, shortly later I saw the road through the trees. It had been freshly cut through the woods, the smell of sap still filling the air.
We had passed the caravan of three carts, and it could be seen advancing towards us on the uneven, stump ridden path. They barely fit down the corridor of cut trees, and occasionally one would catch on a tree, halting the group. Two robed figures drove each cart, and another sat in the back of the middle vehicle.
I stared at the familiar robes I’d seen once before, the night I’d lost my parents. I froze, unable to move or think, confronted with the reality that my parent’s killers could be these very men.
"I will handle this alone." Roland said, his voice calm, belying the rage visible on his face.
Daulf nodded and then gestured at Roland with his hand and muttered a prayer. "A protection; You will be immune to their magic."
“Thank you,” Roland said as he strung his bow in a single motion as he drew it from his back holster.
I watched him prepare, part of me wanting him to kill them, the other part wanting to do it myself.
Roland stepped out of the forest, bow drawn. Without warning or challenge, he unleashed two arrows in quick succession at the men in the lead. Each shot struck true, taking a cultist in the heart. At his first shot Maple burst from the trees. She jumped up on one of the drivers on the rear cart, dragging him down by the leg and biting into his neck as he fell to the ground.
The horses drawing the rear cart panicked and tried to flee the predator, but their burden caught on a tree and they began to buck to be free of their harnesses. The driver fell from the bench in the chaos and scrambled to his feet in the stump ridden mud.
The remaining three in the middle cart moved more quickly to action, balls of flame and frost appearing in their hands. They unleashed their magical attacks on Roland. He shot back, his arrow shooting past the Firebolt and Ice Bolt that flew towards him and continuing on to strike the shoulder of the muddy cultist as he prepared a Firebolt for Maple. The Firebolt went wide, exploding harmlessly in the mud of the road. Maple took the opportunity to pounce on the man, driving him once more into the mud and repeating her performance from before.
Two balls of fire and a shard of ice struck the invisible barrier before Roland. The ice struck first, shattering into dust before disappearing in the cloud of fire that erupted as the firebolts struck.
To Roland’s credit, he didn't even flinch and continued shooting as soon as the flames cleared. His next two shots struck the drivers, and Maple leaped into the cart, taking out the last man.
I watched it all, trapped in a cage of my own emotions, unable to move or act. The violence had not been the balm to my rage that I’d hoped it would be. Far from feeling joy, I felt disgusted. Disgusted that these people would join a dragon cult, giving their will to Faust, and disgusted at the death. Each splatter of blood reawakened memories of the scene around that cold fire pit.
The brief battle over, the group—save me—broke from the woods and gathered around the carts. The beds were loaded with a wide variety of weapons: swords, bows, axes, daggers, and clubs. No more than two were alike. These were the product of a disparate effort, not a wholesale order. While my companions reorganized the load, my eyes still lingered on the dead. Having recovered from reliving my trauma, I became aware of the callous dispatching that had just occurred.
So cheap are the lives of sorcerers. I don’t deny they deserved it, but if we’d stumbled upon them without seeing the village, would this exchange have gone any differently?
Daulf saw me looking at the dead and, as if reading my mind, spoke gently, "These were cruel men. Murderers arming a force of the Forsaken. Spare no pity for their deaths, only for the lives they lived that brought them to accept this corrupting power."
That sort of made me feel better, but not for the reason he meant.
I hadn’t done anything for my power. Would that make a difference if he learns the truth?
Roland retrieved his arrows from the dead after soothing the panicked horses. Six arrows in total for six kills, though one of those was an assist. He seemed more upset at Maple's spooking of the horses than he did at the killing. Bearskin unceremoniously threw the cultists’ bodies into the forest; looking disappointed as he did so.
He stood next to me and said, "This fight was not fair. But I do not think they fought fair in taking the village. There is fairness in enacting justice."
Fair? What fight is ever fair?
I wasn't in the mood to talk, and let his statement stand.
We cleared one cart of its wares and Bearskin lay under the tarp covering it. There was little chance anyone would believe the tattooed giant was a dragon cultist. Daulf took off his pauldrons emblazoned with Illunia’s eye and hid them with Bearskin. We did what we could to make the shipment less valuable to the enemy's war effort, throwing away the better weapons and discarding all the bow strings and most of the arrows.
The cultist’s robes were beyond salvaging, and once more I lamented my lack of Clean.
“I have serious doubt about this plan,” Daulf said, looking at the bloodied robes.
“It’s fine,” Trish reassured him. “The key to a good disguise is attitude. People see what they want to see—even the Forsaken. Give them a little bit of what they expect and their minds will fill in the rest.”
They went back and forth, but eventually the paladin of truth gave into the wisdom of the charlatan in the art of deception.
I drove the lead cart with Trish, while Daulf drove Bearskin in the center cart, and Roland brought up the rear in the last. Trish would do the talking, and I could reinforce her claims of cult affiliation with a show of magic if her “attitude” proved insufficient. Maple disappeared into the woods, and I caught the occasional glimpse of her as we traveled the last mile through the forest. At that point, the road turned to the west and came out of the forest at the dry river bed of the Fess. It was there that Roland gave Maple a wave, and she stopped following.
“This forest is her home,” Roland explained. “She will help me defend it in its bounds, but will not leave it lightly. Besides, a fortress is no place for a wolf.”
We traveled along the river, the road leading up into the foot of the mountains that hold back the Ocean. By my estimate we had just over two hours left before our gemstones lost their "imbuing." Imbuement? I spent a portion of the ride thinking of the proper word for whatever the dwarf had done.
Eventually, the road leveled out and we spotted a wooden palisade ahead with the mountain looming behind it. The smoke of a hundred fires rose from the encampment. The riverbed itself was not walled, but the force occupying the fortress had constructed a twenty-foot wall of logs across each bank. There were two Fallen orc guards straddling an opening in the wall. The orcs were accompanied by an ogre, who stood blocking the entry. The blood-red color of the orcs’ skin stood out amidst the green of the forest surroundings. The ogre stood dumbly watching the clouds, I’d say lost in thought, but that would be giving ogres too much credit.
As we approached the checkpoint, Trish whispered, "Don’t say anything."
I hadn’t planned to and was happy to comply.
"What's this?" the guard asked, speaking the language of the Forsaken. I struggled to read his intent, the language made everyone seem angry and suspicious. I could understand the language, its written form being phonetic and using the same letters as Riloth, but I'd never mastered the speaking of it.
Fluently, Trish replied, "We have the weapon shipment. Where does it go?" Her posture had changed to mimic that of the cultists who'd greeted us outside Forest Haven. She hunched over the reins casting her eyes around suspiciously, never making eye contact with the orc for long.
He looked at her with suspicion of his own, "I haven’t seen you before, but you leeches all look the same. What is it this time?"
Effecting subservient pleading, she answered, "More weapons, some food. None of it’s very good. I’m sorry. It’s the best we could do."
The orc looked us over, suspicion now clear in his eyes. Even without Trish's talent for acting, I had no trouble emulating the meek subservience of a cultist finding himself in over his head. The orc suspected something was off, and Trish could sense it too.
He walked behind us and looked through our cart. "Where are all the bow strings!" he demanded after inspecting the cargo.
"I told you, this is the best we could do. We couldn’t exactly place an order with a bowyer at Landing," she accompanied the last part with a manic laugh.
The orc laughed at her joke, the sound reminiscent of a boar. "Hoh ho! No you cannot. Alright. Go on in, and drop these off by the supply tent. Then stick with your kind. Don’t mingle. We are mobilizing within the hour."
Our carts rolled through the gate without further question. The ogre hardly noticed us when we squeezed past its bulk, barely moving to let us through. From the high bank we saw the enemy army arrayed before us. The camp sat in the dry lake bed formed from the water rushing out of a cave. When water was present, the cave sat below the waterline, feeding the river while remaining unseen. The enemy's army filled the muddy bowl. Calling it a camp was generous. There were few tents, just fires, and piles of supplies with Fallen orcs, gray orcs, dark elves, duergar, redcaps, and human cultists mingling about. The last group was isolated in a smaller area near the edge. In the center of it all sat a massive throng of Feralkin, cowed into submission by the Forsaken standing around them.
A tent rested near the mountain on the riverbank. A massive tent that made Mobear’s command tent look like a sheet spread over a line. The fabric was a deep red, and outside it stood two more Fallen orc guards, these decked out fully in black enameled plate armor. They looked like demons of myth with their red skin and wicked spiked black armor. These stood alert, eyes scanning their surroundings for potential threats to their charge.
The cliff face on the opposite side of the river from the tent was split by an unnatural opening. Ten feet high and wide, it had clearly been cut into the mountain. Forsaken moved in and out of this door in a steady stream, moving supplies down to the waiting army. Deshiv had mentioned the fortress had a front door that could be opened if we could not make it to the secret entrance, but this didn’t seem to be an option.
We followed the cart tracks in the dirt, which brought us between the tent and the mountain, and led us down a ramp into the dry lake bed.
Out of sight from the camp, hidden by the tent, Trish stopped the cart and turned to the group. "Now what?"