Well, I don’t remember when I have been so stuffed with greasy chicken.
Last night, the chief led us up a tiny, twisty path through the hills until we came over a crest somewhere to the east of a dark valley with a river running through. We could see the darker shapes of huts stretching from one end of the valley to the other, and on a hill opposite us, the fort – where we assumed the prisoners were.
Raven and Mikael took the invisibility potion, and headed off on their infiltration mission. The first greys of dawn had started in the sky, but it was still several hours away. Mikael had prayed a blessing or petition or something, and the sky was sprinkling fitfully.
We gave them about a hour before Ezekiel and Agnar started down the hill. As we approached the huts, the flinds noticed…and started up their yipping, almost-laughing cries. (Lydia says it reminds her of an animal she saw in a cage at Greyhawk.) Wolves howled in the night, but it was hard to tell where the sound came from.
As Ezekiel mumbled and waved his holy water around, Lydia chucked a dobbet of guano into the valley…and a half-dozen huts exploded in flame. Fire-lit shapes and silhouettes appeared in the area – smaller than I expected, but hunch-backed and snout-faced like regular gnolls. I let fly, dropping a couple while Ezekiel shouted, “Stay,” and waved something at the enemy.
With the darkness, we must have walked farther into the village than we realized. Ezekiel strolled forward, ducking under halberds as the arrows bounced off him, and I heard Agnar laughing up ahead. But we didn’t pay much attention to our flank – unlike the flinds, who ran together and set their weapons in what Ezekiel agrees with me was a phalanx. Heiron and I kept the arrows flying, dropping flind left and right – until we heard Lydia cry out.
Meanwhile, Raven and Mikael say they snuck up to the fort without being noticed. The palisade was surrounded by a moat of spikes, but the fort was set back against a steep hill, and the rope of climbing helped Mikael scale the cliff (Raven of course is not bothered by things like physics or gravity). No sooner did they reach the top, than a heart-shaking shriek launched through the air over their heads, heading toward the battle. The top of the cliff was a confusion of flind, chattering in their own language while someone barked orders – and something rattled in a watchtower on the peak.
Perhaps Agnar got a little over-enthusiastic, but I heard him grunting and swearing as the flind hammered on his armor. Ezekiel tossed the instant-fortress, crushing several flind as it appeared full-size…and moments later a wall of fire cut through the village – lighting up everyone, on both sides, and licking around the huts.
I heard Agnar fall over in a clatter of armor – but I knew from the dwarvish cursing that he wasn’t unconscious. Heiron raced past me, cradling Lydia in his arms, and went into the fortress. I turned to survey the battlefield, and got my feet swiped from under me for my trouble. But I carried it into a roll, jumped up, and went back up the hill for the half-orc. He was staggering a bit and holding his head, and a handful of flind were dancing around him, chattering things that sounded like taunts. Ezekiel seems to want to make a bigger deal of it than he should, but I wasn’t going to just leave him there. If you start abandoning your party members, for whatever reason, that doesn’t end in any good place.
I dragged Usin into the fortress, still wheezing and shaking his head, and left him leaning against the wall. Heiron had Lydia to one side, bandaging her cuts and gaping wounds.
For a second, I thought about Agnar…then I thought about trying to drag him into the fortress, away from the battle, then I thought about his giant broadsword…and in another moment I took my stand at an arrow-slit with my bow. He’s made of tough enough stuff, I could leave him to take care of himself.
Raven and Mikael picked their way invisibly through the crowd of armed flind. Another eery sound flew overhead, streaking toward the valley…and sounding somehow different, so they tell us.
As they moved around the hill-top, they found a slope that led to the lower part of the fort. Following the palisade (and ducking flind), they discovered the area inside the fort wasn’t as big as they expected. However, a cave opened underneath the hill that held the watchtower, so they headed to investigate…Raven leading the way, sensing bodies and walls in the dark with his super monk senses, and Mikael hanging on to him with his one arm. They rounded the cave – Mikael even transformed into a bat and had Raven carry him – but they discovered nothing but a single room full of crates and flind-children. Deciding they’d played it close enough in the crowded cave, they slipped out and climbed the hill again.
We didn’t know that at the time, of course. We still thought the plan was for Raven to open the gate and let us into the fort, which meant we had to cross the valley and get there. It wasn’t shaping up too well, though.
Ezekiel breezed through the fortress, slapped Lydia (the slap that closes wounds, y’know), and ran out again (just banging his nose on the door a little bit as he tried to leave before the door was completely open. Must have taken another potion). Usin seemed to have recovered by that time, and stood with his flame-sword near the door. He opened and closed it once, maybe to try out whether the pass-word actually worked.
Through the arrow slits, I saw Agnar knocked down again…so I risked the stab wound, ran out, and dragged him back into the fortress. He must have been in a bad way, since he didn’t resist at all.
Then I climbed to the battlements for a better vantage. A shining figure was flitting through the village like an overgrown firefly, and the flind poured volley after volley into him without much visible effect. Someone had cast a light on the front lines of the flind (standing in ranks between us and the fort) so it was basically like shooting fish in a barrel. Shortly, Heiron and Lydia joined me – and Lydia threw a lightening bolt across the field, carving a path of singed bodies through our enemies’ ranks.
That was enough for the flind. They filed backwards through the gate, and disappeared into the fort (where somewhere, we didn’t know where, Raven and Mikael were trying to sneak). Well, all except one…he was wandering back and forth on the battle lines, crying or cackling or something…his face was so bright that it lit up the valley, so it’s no wonder he couldn’t see anything. When I decided from his gait that he wasn’t Ezekiel (not even a wounded Ezekiel) I put him out of his misery, and sent a few arrows over the palisade of the fort, just to keep them on their toes.
I don’t remember if it was at this point, or earlier…but the whole fortress shook as a ballista bolt struck it. We’re used to thinking of the fortress as inviolable…and for certain values of things, it is. But as it’s important to learn, there’s always something stronger, and there’s always a weakness that must be guarded. Anyway, when Ezekiel showed up at the fortress door and told us we had to move the fortress up to the battle line, we all filed out.
I hope I’m a person who can learn from mistakes. I switched to sword and shield, and told Usin to stick on my right flank, and stay in front of Lydia (if he’s going to be around, he may as well be useful). Well, he guarded the flank (a little closer than I was envisioning), and Heiron and Agnar took care of the other directions, so we got across the bridge and followed Ezekiel until the fort was in better range.
Range goes both ways…a cloud of arrows rattled off Ezekiel, but he seemed to shrug it off and threw up the instant-fortress. The archers focused on him, so the rest of us reached the fortress without a hitch.
Well…most of us. I heard a suppressed giggle behind me – and next thing we knew, Lydia had disappeared. I heard her say something to Ezekiel earlier, so I wasn’t too worried…she’s a big girl. Heiron was a bit anxious, but he focused his mind on his job, and that seemed to help.
We advanced through the huts and made it into the instant-fortress…and after that is when things started getting weird.
We’d been hearing the baying of wolves throughout the battle, but we assumed the flind had dogs of war or something. Well, about the time Heiron and I climbed the battlements of the fortress, the sound was getting louder…and it didn’t sound like any wolf pack I’d heard before. I can’t quite describe it, except to say my stomach clenched and the hairs on my neck stood up.
Ezekiel buzzed by, splashing holy water at my face (he missed my bowstring) and disappeared downstairs. A fire exploded along the palisade of the fort, lighting up the enemy for Heiron and me to pick off.
Raven and Heiron weren’t idle, either. When they left the cave, they found the fort packed with flind (who had retreated there). Ducking and weaving through bodies, they snuck up the slope to a back corner of the fort, and held a whispered council.
Mikael decided to make his move – and turned sticks into snakes…specifically, the weapon-handles in the hands of the flind surrounding them. That canceled the invisibility, of course – but a lot of the flind were too busy fighting their own weapons and getting bit to notice him.
Those that did notice fired arrows at him…and though Raven tried to deflect the arrows away from him, most of them still struck home. Since they’d basically done what they went to do (except open the gate for us, but that part of the plan was basically scrapped by that point), Mikael pulled out the ebony fly and said the trigger-word to grow it huge, and climbed on.
With Mikael safely on his way, Raven cast three balls of lightening from his ring, and used that chaos to climb over the wall and run away.
You might think we would notice lightening materializing on the hill inside the fort – but we had our hands full with something else. The dogs were closer now…in fact, the first wave of them was streaming through the village toward us, and they certainly didn’t look friendly. They must have been some kind of wolf – most of them would be taller than Agnar, if they raised their heads – but their forms seemed to drip with shadow or something like that. A few of them were white rather than black (there must have been dozens altogether), but they were even scarier somehow…maybe because they weren’t what you expect a wolf to be, maybe because there was something otherworldly (and hostile) in their eyes and fangs. Which is weird to say, because the black dogs were the ones with two heads – and if that’s not unnatural, I don’t know what is!
I ordered the vegetation to seize the enemies of Ehlonna…and the dead grasses sprang to life as they tangled around a group of the dogs, snaring them in their fibrous stalks. That freed our attention to shoot down the rest of the dogs, which started lunging at the fortress, snarling and baying fit to chill your blood. How glad I was we had the fortress!
Ezekiel flashed through the battlements again – this time slapping Heiron and me on the backs, so that our scratches and small cuts closed – and was gone in another blink. As I was switching quivers, I saw a huge dark shape descend from the sky…the thunderous buzzing of unnaturally-big insect wings. A moment later, Mikael hopped off its back, grabbed up the fly – pocket-sized again – and put it away.
So I knew he was back safe, and Raven is a perfectly able to take care of himself, so I turned by attention back to shooting dogs.
Mikael raised his arm and started chanting. The dark clouds above us seemed to blacken and thicken, and suddenly – a searing bolt of lightening tore down from the sky and electrocuted a handful of the dogs.
A giggling sound drifted down from the sky…Lydia appeared on the battlements, batted her eyelashes at Heiron, and stood at the palisade – holding a wand.
The white dogs were howling – reminded me of harpies, but not so indecent somehow – when under all the ruckus I heard Ezekiel yell something about Keotighm’s ointment. Lydia disappeared downstairs, and I figured she had it covered.
Most of the dogs were clustered around us now, banging on the door or trying to leap the thirty feet to the battlements (glad to say none of them made it)…except, of course, for the ones trapped in tangling weeds. I saw a streak of tiny light darting through the huts, which sounds like must have been Raven, exploring the village and still looking for the prisoners.
Then came another howl. This time, from inside the fortress – below our very feet. But it sounded different – like the polar opposite of the howls we had been hearing, somehow. Still loud and powerful and authoritative, but with a totally different thought behind it. (I’m talking about wolf-howls having “thoughts” behind them…I’ve now gone full Ranger.)
The creepo-dogs heard it, too – and it affected them quite differently. They stopped their baying for a moment, and looked at one another…you could almost read the hesitation on their faces. Then they turned and started running away.
Heiron slapped his empty quiver, muttered something, and ran downstairs, stowing his bow. Shortly after, I saw him and Agnar leave the fortress down below, swords drawn.
As they killed the demon-dogs trapped in the weeds (Ezekiel insists they’re actually “devil-dogs”), I saw another dog run away from the fortress toward the flind fort. He was heading the right direction, and there wasn’t much else to shoot at, so I headed down the stairs far enough to ask Ezekiel what the next plan was.
He gave me this confusing story about a “good” dog, and told me we were waiting for Raven to show up. So I went back upstairs to keep a look-out for Raven, and arrived in time to see a bolt of lightening light up the tower inside the flind fort. (There seemed to be quite a ruckus over there, too…something was howling inside, and lots of shrill, cackling voices were screaming.) Mikael interrupted his chanting to give a little chuckle.
About that time, I saw the little, bobbing light from Raven’s lit pebble approaching the fortress. I went downstairs, and found him reporting to Ezekiel.
After he saw Mikael off, he escaped over the palisade of the fort and snuck around the back. The flind had plenty to focus on besides him at that point, and he reached the village without trouble. He didn’t like the sound of all the vicious barking around the fortress, so he ran around and did a little exploring – discovering another stockade on one end of the village (not as sturdy as the fort on the hill). Inside were animal pens, filled with deer, rabbits, antelope, and wolves…except that the wolves had broken out of their pens, and were terrorizing the other animals (there was a lot going on, and they were all panicked).
He tried to knock some sense into the wolves, but…they were just wolves, and not in a mood to calm down. So in the end, he opened the gate of the stockade to let them run free, and came back to join us. He relayed with some frustration that he and Mikael hadn’t found any trace of the prisoners in the fort, nor in the stockade, and the animals in there didn’t have enough sense to give useful information (they are just animals, after all).
About then this doggish thing walked through the wall of the fortress and sat down beside Ezekiel. Ezekiel introduced him as “Rover,” some kind of Good-divine dog-shaped being that showed up wounded at our door, and Ezekiel took him in and used ointment to heal poisoning on him. There’s some more about a vampire and these “death-dogs” or “devil-dogs” or something, but Rover interrupted Ezekiel to ask, didn’t he hear us talking about some human prisoners who needed rescuing. We said, yes, and he said, fine – and ran off through the wall again. So at least I know that first time I wasn’t crazy.
Mikael staggered down the stairs, panting but grinning from ear to ear, and we all decided the enemies were just about mopped up.
Not long afterwards, Rover came back, and said he found some women and children and old people in a stockade at the north end of the village, past the fort. Then he went around and licked us all, which sounds weird when you say it but he’s a dog-thing, and it actually made us feel better. Mikael sighed that a simple lick couldn’t grow his arm back, and Rover said, well, some things can grow arms back – but, yes, not his lick.
So we followed him through the village – past the burning huts, and the smoldering huts, and through the piles of dead dog and flind bodies – to a similar stockade on the north end of the village. Rover asked if there was anything else he could do for us before he had to go home and rest – cure poisoning? Dispel illusion? He kinda looked at Agnar and commented that he was the only one who seemed charmed, and while we were stammering and trying to explain that, he kind of laughed and said, “Sorry…” and then faded away.
Agnar was shaking his head, like he had something stuck in his ears, and rubbing his eyes. We all stared at him – a little anxious, I think, to see what he would do.
He made a grunting noise, like a “well I’ll be darned” noise, and said, “Well, Ezekiel, that was th’ best fight I’ve had in a long time!”
So turns out he decided not to attack us, and helped us open up the stockade. Inside, sure enough, we found a crowd of women and children and old folks – humans – huddling together. We explained who we were (all of us, each with their own conception of what was the proper length of explanation), but they eventually got the idea we were friendly, and would take them home…so we got them to come out of the stockade.
Ezekiel said he wanted to search the flind for loot before we left, so he sent Lydia and Heiron to lead the prisoners back to where we were supposed to meet the wildmen. Raven and Mikael wanted to run down and let all the captive animals out of their pens (now that the wolves had run off), since after all their care-takers were all dead now.
Ezekiel took Agnar and me, and we went to the fort. None of the bodies we searched had any money on them, but I did find several quivers of usable arrows, and took some for myself and Heiron.
Inside the cave, besides all the dead bodies, we found trade goods (like metal ores, fabric, what-not) and crates of food…but still no liquid currency. There was one bigger-than-normal flind, wearing special armor like a chief, who had a funny-looking weapon. Ezekiel took that to add to his collection of oddities.
All the flind who retreated to the fort are dead…and so are the children who fled to the cave. It’s conceivable a few fled the battle and escaped, but for all intents and purposes, this settlement has been wiped out.
Finally, we left and caught up with the rest of the party (the kids didn’t move too fast), and everyone met up with the wildmen without trouble. The men stayed far enough away from the flind that none of them were seriously hurt – and when they heard the evil dogs hollering and charging down the valley, they had the sense to get out of the way and hide.
So we headed back to the village – not worrying about how fast we went, and carrying some of the smallest children on shoulders – arriving just as dawn was breaking through the clouds to the east. Mikael let the weather ease up, so the misty drizzle finally let up…and the wildmen and their wives got to work cooking a big feast.
I tell you, it’s sights like that this make the job all worthwhile. The rescued prisoners seem basically unharmed, and even though several of the huts here are still burned down, the kids ran in and out of their homes and danced around their fathers and Mikael told Marie Ant-oinette to give rides to the smallest ones (Raven says Marie did not see the point of this at all).
The men say they don’t have any material way to repay us…but they’ve stuffed us so full of chicken and winter vegetables I might not be able to move for a week.
Ezekiel says the chief was telling him “everything will be different now,” since the other tribes in the area all bought their weapons from these flind. Quite apart from that, having an entire political group wiped out is going to leave a power vacuum. I suppose we could have guessed this would happen, even though our original objective was to rescue the captured women and children, not necessarily slaughter everything else.
Not exactly what I planned to do with my life when I was young. I will have to be more thoughtful about what I set out to do in future…the Pomarchj doesn’t necessarily need more chaos.
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