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  #426  
Unread 6th of February, 2008, 05:40
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Aashya

"Then leave it!" Aashya says, without even taking the time to think about it. Nothing good can come of a mysterious 'magical' substance. Legates have creatures that can smell such things from miles away, or so it is said.

Although one does have to wonder why something magic would be hidden here, of all places.

"Anything else? By the Host, it stinks in here!" Aashya covers her nose with her hand and shakes her head. "Who lives here and why? This forest is an evil place, and this shack is just as bad! Were the village women brought here? What should we do now?"
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  #427  
Unread 8th of February, 2008, 02:55
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Heulwen

The smoke and heat sting her eyes, but the halfling pays them no heed. Tears are something she has never had time for. So she lets them roll down her cheeks as she rushes forward, grim in her intent. The sword she carries is a crude thing. Its pommel and hilt are as plain as her roughspun overshirt. Castle-forged weapons are for the fey and the Shadow, not for her or her people. But while it might not be pretty, its blade is sharp.

She meets the scarecrow at the base of its pole as it hops onto the ground. It makes no sound, and does not seem any worse for wear from losing its pumpkin head. It raises its stalks in what she can only assume is a defensive posture. It doesn’t matter. She slips it right underneath its arms and jabs the blade into its belly. If her strike causes the thing pain, it doesn’t show it. Instead, it lashes at Heulwen with its straw hands, scraping and cutting her face.

And then it does something she doesn’t expect. It leaps back a step, turns on its heel and moves to run away. Heulwen lunges at its back, stabbing it again. The blade sinks through the ragged clothing the scarecrow wears and sends some hay scattering to the ground. But losing some of its flaxen innards does not seem to slow its step as it runs through the cornstalks and toward the forest.

OOC: Heulwen is hit for 2 VP and succeeds in both her initial attack and the AoO when the scarecrow tries to run away.

Initiative
*Heulwen*
Cytaill
Scarecrow

Last edited by Cadrius; 9th of February, 2008 at 07:29.
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  #428  
Unread 8th of February, 2008, 11:39
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Aswad

The trembling fullness of her firm, youthful figure presses through the rough burlap of his clothing, and her closeness makes his blood pound thickly though his veins. He stands there, drinking in the smell of her wet hair and relishing in the heat of her breath against his neck. He stands there, unable to do anything but simply breathe and want. He wants to kiss her, to drink the sweet innocence of her lips. He wants to bed her, to feel something besides blade and wind against his skin. He wants to hold her, to squeeze the fear from her and tell her it was going to be all right, and maybe, for just a few moments it would be.

But simply wanting something didn’t make it so.

“I…need to get your friend,” he says at length as he works himself free of her grasp. Staff in hand he moves towards the barn door. His hand touches the wooden latch and he pauses for a moment listening to the patter of rain on the roughly hewed shingles above. “If I fail, the Fell will be back. You need to get somewhere safe,” he says over his shoulder as he pushes the door open.

He leaves without looking back.

Last edited by -J-; 9th of February, 2008 at 06:17.
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  #429  
Unread 13th of February, 2008, 00:56
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Aleina

Reluctantly, Aleina agrees with the wisdom in Aashya's words. Keeping the vial was too dangerous and breaking it open too risky. Frustration is a dog worrying at the edges of her calm. She banishes him, accepting that this is the course she must take whether it be good or ill. Too much depended on her judgement; she could not afford to be rash. With cool grace she carefully replaces the items in their hidden niche.

"I see nothing to indicate their were prisoners here. Yet what we find is not ordinary, either."

She exits the shack pensively, letting Aashya make the decision to follow. They rejoin the others and Aleina briefly relates her findings.

"We will search the perimeter of the clearing and try to pick up the trail once more. If we cannot, then we must choose: wait for the owner to return or seek out our companions."
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  #430  
Unread 13th of February, 2008, 05:07
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Darting forward, Heulwen strikes again at the scarecrow more in an attempt to speed it along its way than to really give chase.

[OOC: Charge scarecrow again and attack.]
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  #431  
Unread 14th of February, 2008, 17:06
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Heulwen

The scarecrow runs and Heulwen gives chase. The low hanging corn lashes her cheeks. Her short legs pump, speeding her between stalks and kicking dirt behind her with each step. She catches the scarecrow at the edge of the field. It moves with unnatural grace, speeding across the field despite its lack of feet.

Her blade slices through the air. Once again she finds its golden guts, sending more hay spilling to the ground. This time, the scarecrow does not respond in kind. It keeps running and leaves the halfling far behind as it disappears into the forest.

OOC: Heulwen succeeds again. She’s on fire!
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  #432  
Unread 15th of February, 2008, 10:56
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Heulwen

Satisfied that the scarecrow has been suitably convinced to continue fleeing, Heulwen returns to Cytaill's side.

"I'm going to need some water to tend to those wounds properly. When Aswad returns we'll chance being seen and go with him towards that barn. They should have a well somewhere close by."

Sheething her sword, Heulwen draws her bow and nocks an arrow, watching the woods where the scarecrow disappeared while she waits for Aswad's return.
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  #433  
Unread 21st of February, 2008, 14:35
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Aswad

He finds her, arrow knocked, eyes sweeping the surroundings for danger. They fix on him, burning. Nerves taut, she trains the arrow point on his chest as he emerges from between the rows of corn—a Sarcosan ghost in rags. All around her the stalks have been scorched by flame, although none burn now. Scratches mar her face. Nearby, Cytaill sits on his haunches, licking his side. The Sarcosan can see patches where the wogren’s fur has been burned away and the skin is red and blistered and angry. The last woman lies unconscious next to Cytaill, her chest rising and falling.

Heulwen relaxes visibly, lowering the bow, but to Aswad her vitality seems amaranthine.
There is a perdurable strength that burns bright within her tiny frame. He wonders how she finds the will to survive in this world where her people are enslaved by cruel masters three times her size. Out in the plains of the south, Aswad and Osrick’s Riders had come across the occasional halfling settlement. Their agrarian lifestyle was peaceful and tranquil and utterly doomed to be ground beneath Jahzir’s boots, and if not the Night King himself, then one of his many generals, such as the ruthless Grial. Those that are not captured become nomads, roaming the great southern expanses in packs. Theirs is a life of ephemeral homes and constant flight. They have much in common with the freeriders.

“We need water,” she says, her voice calm.
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  #434  
Unread 21st of February, 2008, 14:36
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Aleina

Aleina stares at the vial in her hands, its arcanum eluding her. She knows it is no trinket, can feel it in the way her skin tingles upon first brush, but she knows that Aashya speaks true. She must leave it. Yet the mystery tugs at her mind. The stone slabs and vial are out of place among the squalor of the hermit’s shack. Could one lone, crazed man, loot a church of Izrador? What would be worth the risk and the Shadow’s wrath?

“Out here,” Rhotha’ah’s voice cuts through the air. The note of concern in his voice snaps her reverie. “There is something you must see.”

She tucks the vial back into the space between the stone and wood, placing it gently, uncertain as to how frangible it may be.

The Dorn is waiting for her outside with the others. He had roamed a short distance while Dun and Soradur stood watch outside. His cerulean eyes are impassive, but there is something imperious in his manner. He holds his great blade in one hand, a steel comfort to soothe whatever has ruffled him. A wave of his arm beckons them past the hermit’s home and further into the woods beyond. He does not wait for Aleina and Aashya to catch him before striding off again, weaving between the trees and coming to a halt another fifty paces away.

Three large trees dominate the area, dwarfing Rhotha’ah. Their bark is rough and weathered. Thick branches twist outward, curving up at the ends, and from these branches hang scarecrows. Each has been strung up with a noose and hanged. Eight there are, split between the trees, and Aashya takes a few steps closer to get a better look. After a moment she covers her mouth with one hand, looking at Aleina and then back at the leftmost scarecrow.

It is crudely dressed like Erenlander, bearing the same colors if not the same fabric. Aleina’s eyes comb the rest. One, bigger than the others, is Rhotha’ah. Another, short and broad and colored in grays of stones and rocks is Soradur. Each of her companions hangs up there. Even little Heulwen has her own small scarecrow, swaying in the faint breeze.

She feels Rhotha’ah’s eyes on her and she turns back, meeting his gaze.

“How mad is he?”
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  #435  
Unread 27th of February, 2008, 05:40
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Aashya

It takes Aashya several moments to realize what she is seeing. Figures made of straw... dressed to resemble her companions. Dressed to resemble her.

A shiver runs down her spine, though she doesn't know why exactly. She can't fathom a meaning behind it all. Someone crafted these figures, but who? And why? And how did this person even know about them? And why hang straw figures in a tree? WHY??

"This is... this is... It's all wrong. I'm not going to just let him - whoever he is - do this. It's... witchery or something else evil."

Aashya makes for the trunk of the tree and sets about climbing it. The bark is rough on her fingers and makes it hard for her to get a grip, but she manages to scramble up to the branch from which the straw figures are hanging. She crawls out to reach the scarecrow dressed in a reddish tunic and ragged black skirt. Her fingers pull at the rope, trying to release the knot.
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  #436  
Unread 27th of February, 2008, 23:52
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Aleina

Hands in her sleeves, Aleina studies the crude likenesses as they gently sway on an equally crude gallows. Eight. As disturbing as the sight is, she cannot help but feel a pang of relief that Lyr is likewise represented. Quickly the relief fades to bitterness; once again his knowledge would be a boon, and to her shame he is likely facing danger alone.

Her eyes scan the wood around them, but it is a reflex only. She does not expect anything will have slipped past the watchful eyes of Rhotha'ah or Dun. Instead, as Aashya clambers hastily up the dark tree Aleina considers the mystery in search of more than just a glimmer of understanding. What did it mean?

<OOC: I'll take Knowledge: Weird Hermits for $1000, Alex>
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  #437  
Unread 28th of February, 2008, 09:31
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Aswad

"What happened?" Aswad asks incredulously. The smell of burnt corn and dog hang thickly in the wet air. He lifts the unconscious girl off the ground and slings her over his shoulder, adjusting her weight while waiting for a response.
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  #438  
Unread 29th of February, 2008, 09:07
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Heulwen

What did happen... A scarecrow threw its head at us...

"We were attacked," Heulwen states simply, not really sure she wants to give life to the truth by giving it voice.

"Let's move, I need to wash and bind Cytaill's burns."

Her bow still drawn, Heulwen keeps her eyes on the forest line as they make their way through the cornfield. Cytaill follows, threading his way through the corn as carefully as possible. Even so, he occasionally emits a suppresed whine when a corn stalk brushes a burn in just the right way.

Once the group exits the cornfield, Heulwen immediately looks around for a well and heads in that direction.
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  #439  
Unread 29th of February, 2008, 13:56
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Aswad

"There's a rain barrel by the barn," Aswad says at length, as he begins to walk toward the old building. He doesn't know why Heulwen is being evasive, and he's not really sure that he cares. Soon she'll be on her way with her friends and he'll be trying to find the Fell.

Nothing else mattered.
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  #440  
Unread 1st of March, 2008, 04:36
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Heulwen

Carefully removing Cytaill's saddle, Heulwen pulls the bright red shirt from her bag and tears it into strips before soaking each strip and carefully cleaning and binding the Wogren's burns.

Mumbling to herself as she does so, Heulwen can't help but remember how she first met Cytaill; doing much the same thing as she is doing now.

"No orcs trying to make you fight in the dog ring this time."

[OOC: Heal 16 and use racial ability to cast cure minor wounds on Cytaill.]
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  #441  
Unread 3rd of March, 2008, 08:03
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Aswad

As Heulwen tends her companion, Aswad brings the last of the women into the barn and lays her on the musty smelling hay. He turns, his eyes meeting Marta’s, their unspoken attraction arcing between them like lightning. She begins to step towards him.

“Remember what I said,” he says slowly stopping her advance. “You need to get somewhere safe.” She nods weakly and kneels down to care for her friend. When she looks up again, the Sarcosan is gone.

-----------------

Aswad quietly comes to stand a few yards away from Heulwen and Cytaill. He leans on his staff and watches her carefully bind the large wolf’s wounds. There was a purity in their bond, a magic that defied the darkness that choked the world around them and ground men to their basest edge. He stood there in the pattering rain, the glow of their love dispelling the confusion from his mind as the sun cleared the night.

There were still some things were worth dying for.

Without speaking he removes a small bit of folded leather and lays it on the damp earth, then turns and disappears into the cornfield.
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  #442  
Unread 21st of March, 2008, 00:42
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Aashya

The oaks and maples of this Westland forest are nothing like the oases dotting the prairies that stretch along the long banks of the Eren. Panocks are the chief residents and are thin and dun-colored to match the dry oceans of swordgrass. By contrast, the venerable woodland statesman that towers over her has hide so dark that it’s almost black and its broad leaves are of the greenest green. Its branches, high overhead, are splayed out like fingers, shielding her and her companions from the rain.

But it is the tree’s macabre adornments that seize her gaze and refuse to let go.

Each scarecrow is a crude mockery of their motley band. It’s a gallows that’s all too personal. The malice behind the hangman’s intent is deafening in the hanged silence. One—Dun it appears—twists in a slow circle, his rags pierced by errant bits of straw. His head is lolled to the side, leaning against his shoulder.

The bark is rough, but her hands are calloused from life as a deckhand. The burn of rope through her palms had thickened her skin until it was like leather. The ascent is easy enough; it’s much like climbing a poorly made and erratic ladder up a mainsail. Hand over hand, the Sarcosan woman climbs until she reaches the stout branch that bears the weight of the hanged.

With all the grace of a practiced sailor, she eases her way out onto the branch and comes to the first of the nooses. Her fingers pull at the rope, yet cannot untie the knot. The knife she pulls from her belt bites deep. She saws back and forth and after a few moments its keen edge severs the noose. The scarecrow falls to the earth with a dull thump of straw hitting leaves. Arms and legs bend unnaturally as only a scarecrow’s can and its soulless eyes stare up at her.

Grim, Aashya sets about cutting the others down. After a time all the hanged lay at rest upon the forest floor.
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  #443  
Unread 27th of March, 2008, 15:35
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Aleina

In the lands to the south, where Sarcosan peasants till their fields, they’re known as murmets. Their agrarian Halflings neighbors have their own similar word—mommet. But it is the Dorns who name them plain and true: scarecrows. Although, from the stories she’s heard the Dornish version is often draped with a cloak of dead crows. Perhaps they recognize the moldering threat of joining that murdered murder.

There are as many myths surrounding the power of scarecrows as there are cultures dwelling upon Aryth. As a child, Aleina’s father had whispered ghost tales of spirits that dwell within the scarecrows’ straw breasts. The Lost, he called them, souls that were caught between the world of flesh and the swirling ethereal nothing. They wandered Eredane, looking for a home, or a body, to inhabit. Even little girls, he had said, lunging at her and making Aleina squeal but not unhappily.

It was all nonsense of course. There are many strange and horrible things in this world, and the Lost are very much real, but they do not live inside scarecrows. Still, it is hard not to feel the malice radiating from these mockeries like heat from the flame. They do naught but hang, yet it is the very threat of that stillness that sends gooseflesh rippling across her upper arms and back.

Questions plague the beautiful Erenlander. That these vulgar creations were garbed in a similar fashion is troubling enough, but it is how the hangman knew to make one for each of them that bothers her more. She, Dun, and Lyr had parted with the others a day earlier and had only just met again a scant few hours ago. Could a mad hermit have the time and the resources to do this? And to what end? Or are these another’s handiwork altogether? The villagers had said the woods were haunted. There could be more that lurks beneath the boughs than the charred dead. Each possibility is a facet that she turns over and over in her mind, searching for the truth.

But no answers come and she is left with uncertainty gnawing in her belly.
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  #444  
Unread 31st of March, 2008, 02:44
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Aashya

Aashya swings around beneath the branch and dangles from it for a moment before dropping back down to the ground. She feels better about the scarecrows now that they are no longer hanging there like condemned criminals on a gibbet. But something about them still bothers her. They just shouldn't be, that's all. She kicks at the one dressed like her until there is nothing left but rags and straw. Then she moves on to destroy each of the others in turn.
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  #445  
Unread 2nd of April, 2008, 00:44
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Heulwen

The wogren’s eyes stare up into her own, unblinking and unwavering. They aren’t golden, no, but are the rich blend of the auric and orange waves of sunrise. His ocher eyes bring back memories unbidden, swimming across her vision to the point where it takes a moment to separate this day from the one where the orcs brought back a new dog to pit against the others.

The Sarcosans are masters of the horse. Their very society revolves around it. There are those that own the animals, those that are allowed to use them—and the lowest of all—those that are denied them. At the spearpoint of their cavalry they had forged a once mighty kingdom that spanned from the Kasmael Sea to the south all the way up to the border forts of the Northern Marches. But as much as the Sarcosans are are a horsepeople, their bond does not, and cannot, compare to the connection between the halflings and the wogren.

There are those among the Sarcosan scholars and academics that believe the wogren are an off-shoot of the legendary animals that dwell within Erethor. It would stand to reason that the faithful and intelligent companions of the halflings would share a common link with the dire creatures that hold an alliance with the elves.

The scholars are wrong.

A wogren is a halfling, in a manner of speaking. They are bound together by blood and spirit as payment to an ancient debt of love and honor. The wogren serve as companions and shepherds and guardians. Ever-faithful, they hold a solemn vigil over the halfling tribes as the years, decades, and centuries roll by. And when a wogren bonds to a halfling it is unbreakable.

Heulwen’s hand is lost in the thick dark fur at the base of Cytaill’s neck. He gazes at her, silent despite the angry red burns on his sides and flanks. Whispering in her people’s language, she chants a word of health that soothes and comforts. She dips the strips of red cloth into the half-full rain barrel, seats herself, and presses them to the wogren’s hide. After a time, the wogren lays his large head in the halfling’s lap, closes his eyes, and sighs. Even now, burned as he is, Heulwen can feel the Cytaill’s love for her that is as infinite as the charcoal gray above. It is a warmth that wards the chill from her bones; knowing that in all of Aryth, here is one soul so devoted to her that he die for her and do it gladly. Heulwen smooth the fur behind the wogren’s neck.

Inside, she can hear the women stirring. There is no rest for the wicked.
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  #446  
Unread 2nd of April, 2008, 04:19
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Aleina

As Aashya destroys the handiwork of the faceless hermit, Aleina has a moment to consider the situation. They had followed a trail here, presumably of a woman in trouble. That was guesswork only - the signs could very well have been from the hermit himself. Either way, they knew he had been here, and so from here he must have left. She looks up at Rhotha'ah.

"Let us search the perimeter and look for any trail. There may be more than one, so we must search carefully."

Aleina circles slowly in one direction and the giant Dorn the other, crossing over one another at the midpoint so as to scan the entire circumference with two sets of eyes. If they found nothing here, they would go back to the hut and perform a similar search. They had stepped on this path and now they must follow it to the end.
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  #447  
Unread 5th of April, 2008, 00:43
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Aswad

Of all the Sorchef it is perhaps Dal Hali that possesses the most arduous of burdens. As the evening star it is her task to drag the sun from the heavens at the end of each day so that the stars might shine. For centuries, Sarcosan astrologers have gazed upward into the night sky and predicted the future. Their lore permeates all castes, from scholars to warriors to peasants. Every Sarcosan knows at least some of what portents the stars can hold.

In times of stress and strain, it is Dal Hali that the Sarcosans look to for strength. Even before the Sundering, the Sorchef did not give boons to their worshipers. They provided strength through lessons and shared struggles. If Dal Hali can drag the sun from its blazing throne each day, then Aswad can drag his tired body back into the woods and hunt down one monster. So he does, putting one tired leg ahead of the other and passes beneath the thick canopy once more.

The forest is silent save for the patter of rain on the leaves above. It masks his footsteps and breath, but it does little to ease his mind. On the plains, the Lion’s riders had relied on their speed and ability to surprise the greater forces of the Shadow. Here, it would do little good. What advantage would he have? Slitting a fell through would not matter, and if the rain can hide his own footfalls, then it can hide others. He cranes his neck, peering behind trees and shrubs.

Time passes, his feet plod along the dirt and leaves and twigs. Finding the trail is colt’s play. The halfling and the wogren made little enough mark, but the women and Aswad had beaten a plain path. He retraces the steps, feeling again the phantom burn of his back as he bore the weight the unconscious woman. He reaches up and rubs his shoulder, feeling what little meat there is, and wonders not for the first time if he’ll live to see the next dawn. Here he is, alone, in a forest teeming with malevolence. The dead stalk between tree trunks, stealing womenfolk for some horrible purpose. What good is he doing here? They had saved the women and girls. That should be enough. So why is he going back? What part of him wants to die?

But it’s another question that leaves his bones chilled. How much of him wants to live?

He reaches the clearing and peeks around the trunk of a thick maple. The aftermath of the undead monster’s wrath is evident. Shrubs and plants have been torn out of the ground and hurled about in a rage. The ground even looks to have been torn asunder in places with dirt spattered about, the rain changing it from brown to almost black. His brow creases as he frowns. All this destruction will make it hard to find the fell.

But tracking won’t be necessary. It is already here.

He feels it before he sees it. Waves of primal loathing and hate crash over him, making him shiver involuntarily. His heart quickens and his hand clenches the rough bark knot on the trunk. Aswad pulls his head back behind the tree until only one eye can see where the creature is, where he can feel it coming from.

It steps out from behind the far side of the clearing, wroth with desires denied. Its hands clench and unclench like Aswad’s father’s used to when he was furious. Steam seeps upward from the cracks in its charred skin and it stalks through the clearing as if its prize may reappear at any moment. Aswad feels the lump of terror forming in his throat. He swallows it.

The Lion’s son fears nothing.
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  #448  
Unread 5th of April, 2008, 06:29
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Black Plauge
PhD in Physics [Epic GM]

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Heulwen

Looking up at the sounds of the women stirring within the barn, Heulwen scans for Aswad, but can't see him.

"Where did that human get off to now..." she mutters as she straightens up and looks around with more care than before.

Spotting the folded leather on the ground, Heulwen goes over to it and picks it up. Opening it up to look inside, she finds the arrow heads. Puzzled at first, Heulwen picks one out to examine it closely, noting its craftsmanship. Placing it back with the others, she turns her attention to the tracks at her feet and realization dawns on her as she reads the story they have to tell.

"Damnable fool!"

Casting another look around, she turns to Cytaill and speaks half to him and half to herself, "The man has a death wish. We'll follow him, for now. He's headed back in the direction we need to go anyway to try and rejoin the others. If we find him, maybe we can slap some sense into him."
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Unread 23rd of April, 2008, 04:33
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-J-
Dread Lord on High [Epic GM]

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Aswad

I should not be here.

The thought worms its way into the Sarcosan’s mind as he quietly watches the Fell rampage about the clearing. The creature’s skin hissed like water dropped on coals as it effortlessly uprooted small trees in its mindless search.

I should go and get the others. The dwarf and Dorn would be up for a fight, of that he is fairly certain. Heulwen would make an excellent skirmisher. Together they could do it. They could kill the beast, save the town and then he and Aashya could ride off together.

Aashya.

He remembered when she first came to their camp, so many summers ago. They were only children then but he knew she was the one. She was the person that made all of the pain of living under the Shadow’s yoke bearable, his sunrise and sunset, his everything.

And then he took her.

Aswad’s hand tightens on his staff as he recalls the sickening thump of the rock as it crushed the back of his father’s head. The Lion of the Desert felled in the dead of night by his own son. Hot tears well in Aswad’s eyes, and his throat tightens.

He hadn’t questioned how she had returned to his life, or how it was that she didn’t remember him. For a brief time he thought it was fate’s way of forgiving him of his crime, but now he realized there was no forgiveness. The law of Shoref was clear.

In one smooth motion Aswad steps out from behind tree and levels his staff at the creature.

Blood demanded blood.
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  #450  
Unread 1st of May, 2008, 23:48
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Aleina, Aashya

The Dorn looks down at her, mighty thewed, and nods his assent. Far removed from the cities and culture of the Sarcosans, his ancestry is one where civilization and the wild hold a truce and coexist not in harmony, but in familiarity. The elves are the people of Erethor, the dwarves are the people of the Kaladruns, and the Dorns are the people of Eredane. Long before the Sarcosan cogs landed upon the shores of the south, the Dorns ruled. By blood and steel they forged their kingdoms. True to their nature, it was only when they were defeated in battle did the great northern lords bend the knee to the Sarcosans.

It is the men of the north who bore the worst of Izrador’s machinations. It was their homes and cities that felt the first wave of darkness break. Nalford was sacked amidst a maelstrom of unholy wrath. In Cale, they unleashed a horror that was not of this world. It was in Highwall that the combined knowledge of thousands of scholars was taken and corrupted. The Scholar’s Academy was razed to the ground and rebuilt in horrible parody as Theros Obsidia.

Despite his people having been utterly conquered, Rhotha’ah still clings to the Dornish pride, honor, and way of life. He keeps his head shaved as a mark of shame and recognition of his people’s loss. When pressed, he will acknowledge that the Dorn obsession with single combat and the glory it brought had been corrupted. When the Shadow came, his people were weakened from the years of obsessive combat.

To Aleina his eyes blaze with blue fire here beneath the heavy branches of the hangman’s oak. They burn with an intensity and rage that paces its cage like a wild cat, searching for a way out. She cannot offer him blood, not yet, but she can give him this: the smell of earth, the rustle of leaves, and the trail of prey.

They find the footprints soon. Leading south, the trail takes them beyond the oak and further away from the shack. Rhotha’ah makes no pretense at stealth, but his large feet still make little noise amidst the wet leaves and fallen twigs. The footprints move with a purpose, not meandering, but taking a path away from the tree.

As the trail ends, they come to a stop. A hundred paces distant lies another shack, but this one is in an even worse state than the hermit’s. The roof has caved in and half of the boards are missing. Aleina crosses the distance and draws near, feeling the presence of the Dorn right behind her. She measures her stride, steady but not quick. She stops a short distance from it, her eyes cooling appraising the structure.

It doesn’t feel abandoned; it feels empty. It lacks spirit. Where the hermit’s shack is a pitiful sight, it still bears the scent of life. This collection of rotting wood does not. It is blank with naught but the echo of ghosts. If anyone had lived here, it has been a very long time since.

Returning to where the trail stopped, Rhotha’ah scans the area. He eventually finds the footprints again. They do not stray close to the hovel and instead move back through the trees toward the shack.
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