25 Barrakas, 998 YK
Wir, 7:40 AM
Rickard looked shaken and climbed into the elemental land cart without a word. Bex needed help getting into the vehicle and Rocky obliged her. Once everyone was aboard, Art opened his satchel and dumped the coins they’d recovered from the bodies on the battlefield in a pile on the floor. He looked up at Failin and declared, “Just a drop in tha’ hat o’ what ye can expect, sir.”
He tossed a platinum coin to the excoriate, who snatched it deftly out of the air and eyed it appraisingly. “Hm. Bled enough for it. Foolish venture. Exciting. But reckless. Onward?” A sarcastic note flavored his usually toneless voice.
“Nothin’ worth not workin’ for!” the tiefling said. “I suspect we kin rest here a moment. I kin tend to our wounds.”
“As you like.”
“Would…appreciate that,” Bex groaned.
“Aye, girly. We’ll git ye all right as rain,” Arturo said gently.
“All in one piece is good enough for now. I’ll keep an eye out while we rest,” Rocky said before hopping off the cart to patrol the near perimeter.
Even with the artificer’s infusions, their more serious injuries seemed to resist healing. He was forced to siphon off some of Rocky’s strength in order to get Bex back to fighting fit. “Always a pleasure… doin’ business with you,” the changeling said as Arturo sat back to rest after his ministrations. “Lousy wolves.”
“Well, now we got our insides back on the inside an’ our outsides holdin’ ‘em in, prolly should be off again,” Arturo said, pulling out a pipe and tobacco as his familiar hopped onto his shoulder.
Failin got the cart moving again in short order, and once more the elemental pulled the vehicle through the desolate landscape of the Mournland. Jagged spurs of rock erupted at random, pits of stinking acidic mud bubbled and popped, and other seemingly random and horrific geographic features marred the surface of the once fertile nation. Failin directed the elemental quietly, his eyes ever searching for routes to circumvent the worst of the obstacles while still trying to maintain something resembling a heading.
“Not the homecoming I dreamed of, eh boys?” Bex sighed.
“It’s bad. Real bad,” Relic said.
“Dreams are lies in this place, best forgotten,” Rocky intoned.
Arturo took a slow drag from his pipe. “Aye, we knew t’wouldn’t be pleasant. But least ye ain’t walkin’ these dirts alone, or as one o’ them glass monstrosities.”
“I keep looking for familiar landmarks in the gloom, but it barely even feels like home,” Relic said.
“Right. Whatever made this place home is dead,” said the changeling.
“If it feels like home at all, you’re closer to the emotions of the mortals than I’d expected,” Rocky said to the wizard.
“Actually, Rocky… It seems like you are the one in agreement with the others. Interesting twist, I guess. Personally, I don’t want to give up my memories. It would only make me complicit in Cyre’s final destruction.”
Bex seemed to consider that for a moment. “As long as we remember Cyre, it isn’t really dead.”
The tiefling coughed, took another pull off his pipe and said, “Damn gloom is getting’ the better o’ us. Remember, friends, still got each other ‘round. Smile on yer lips. Song in yer hearts.” He began humming a tune.
. . .
Ruins of Olkhaan
An hour passed, then two, before a welcome sight appeared on the horizon: buildings surrounded by low walls – a village.
“Don’t trust it now,” the tiefling said. “Low walls could be keepin’ things in, ‘stead of out.”
“Like with graveyards,” Bex said.
“Hopefully, the dead will appreciate your noble intentions toward their collective memory when next we meet,” Rocky said, letting out a low rumble of a chuckle.
Failin slowed the cart as they drew nearer. A sign hammered atop a now-bent post had blocked out letters:
“Hm,” the driver muttered. “Lucky.”
“Nice driving, Failin,” Relic said.
“Hm,” he repeated, eyeing the walls apprehensively.
“Do we stop? Or press on?” Bex asked.
“I don’t think we will find supplies here. Best to get to Whitehearth, I think,” Relic suggested.
“Can’t pretend it ain’t here,” Arturo said. “Gimme a sec. Monty, fly over an’ tell me what ye see.” The familiar took wing and flew over the wall and into the village beyond.
“Interest and intrigue are traits I appreciate better when death is not so pressing a concern,” Rocky commented.
Monty returned several moments later and made a gravelly sound directed at Arturo. “Hrm… People sleepin’ under a spell or somethin’,” the tiefling translated.
“Sleeping? Not dead?!” Relic exclaimed.
“We should not leave without aiding them,” Rocky said.
“More likely dead and yet fresh,” Rickard said, his voice haunted. “Like those near the siege engine.”
“If’n we get closer, I can have him take a better look,” Arturo said.
“I’ve no interest in aiding the dead,” Rocky asserted. “We should move on.”
“If’n they aren’t? An’ are truly asleep? We just let ‘em rot?” said the tiefling. Bex drew a breath in through her teeth. “I need a closer look,” he insisted.
“We should check to be sure,” Relic agreed. “But be ready for a quick sprint back to the cart. I have never heard of a spell capable of such a thing. It would be unfathomable. But then again, so was the Mourning.”
“See, that’s what I thought,” Bex said, mostly to herself.
“I’ve no eye for detail, but also no stomach for letting the living suffer,” Rocky declared. “If a volunteer needs to go I’ll be off to take a closer look.”
Arturo and Bex slipped out of the cart and made their way quietly and carefully toward the gate. The warforged followed at a respectable distance so as not to give away the approach of their more stealthy companions. Rickard made no move to leave the cart at all.
The tiefling stopped about halfway to the wall and sent his familiar to the top of it to get another look. Arturo and Montaque had a quarking, cackling, crawing back and forth “conversation” for a few moments as the spirit apparently described what it saw. “I wish I could speak bird,” Bex lamented.
Then Monty flapped off the wall and returned to land on the artificer’s shoulder. He and Bex returned to the group. “They appear ta be sleepin’, faces up,” Arturo reported in a whisper. “I think it would behoove us to follow the right and proper path and see to their safety.”
“I had a feeling you’d say that,” Bex said.
“So, they appear to be alive. Well, I’ll head in then,” Rocky offered. “I assume everyone is with me, yes?”
Relic hedged. “Art, are you sure they are asleep? How well would Monty be able to tell?”
Arturo shrugged. “He says they’re sleepin’. Either way, I cannae live with mahself knowin’ a whole town’s life slipped away ‘cos I was too cowardly.”
Bex smiled at him. “And I couldn’t live with you not bein’ able to live with yourself.”
Rocky nodded. “Here’s my plan. I’ll walk in the gate. If they fell me, get me back up and we’ll run. If they don’t, I’ll give the all clear when it looks clear. Okay?”
“Okay, Rock,” Relic said, still sounding reluctant. “Lead the way.”
Rocky told the others to stay back about twenty feet, and as he approached, he saw that the gate was not even latched. He opened the gate and stepped in, cautiously scanning. The mud streets of Olkhaan had not seen any traffic in years. A handful of people lay in the road or against buildings, unmoving. One such lay with his leg at an impossible angle for a living human, as he’d come to understand their anatomy; others did not even appear to be injured.
Stepping swiftly, Rocky moved for the nearest ‘sleeper’ and picked her up. He met with no resistance and the body was dead weight in his arms. Without pause, he returned to the gate and exited the village, carrying the body. “Here, I’ve a specimen,” he said to the others. “Does she live?”
Rocky set the woman down on the ground and Arturo knelt to inspect her. He found no pulse, and she did not appear to be breathing. After a moment, he shook his head. “Nay, she draws no breath. I do not see any obvious cause of death.”
“Others in the village were contorted in strange ways,” Rocky added. “Several seemed to be in unnatural positions, legs bent opposite to normal joint functionality. Perhaps the mists kill in this fashion?”
“Perhaps…” Bex said.
Relic heaved a big sigh, an affectation he must have picked up from breathers. From the cart, Failin could be seen genuflecting to a few of the Sovereign Host.
Arturo finished his examination and said, “No bruising, no breaks, just dead. Whole town, probably. We may be able to salvage something if’n we want to risk it further. I’m curious, but it’s a ghost town, so I cannae make the final decision. I’d like to go further in.”
“Maybe on our way back from Whitehearth,” Bex suggested.
Arturo nodded. “So long as we come back. I would carry their tale from this place, since we cannae carry the people.”
“I will come back with you, Art,” Relic vowed. “For now, I don’t think there is much we can do… unfortunately.”
“Good decision. I’ll just put her back, then,” Rocky said, putting words into action.
Arturo hummed a little dirge as the warden carried the body back into the village. “May yer rest go undisturbed, folk,” he said quietly, his eyes sad. “Ye realize, that necro-monger bastard might could use this place as a breedin’ ground for his abominations.”
Relic nodded slowly. “I don’t think he will let anything stop him from getting to Whitehearth.”
The tiefling wasn’t listening, but squinting up into the murky dome above. “They’s upon us, friends,” he said, pointing to the sky in the direction from which they had entered the Mournland. “Scout bird.”
“What? Where?” Bex asked, scanning the skies as she climbed back aboard the cart. Whatever Arturo had seen had already vanished. Once everyone was back in the vehicle, Failin started it up and made his best guess for ‘East’ from Olkhaan.
. . .
The Mournland – East of Olkhaan
Perhaps an hour passed before they came upon an even more terrible sight than what they’d encountered around the broken siege engine. The land cart slowed as they approached the remains of a massive battle, the bodies from which formed a large pile. Most of the corpses appeared to be Brelish infantry and Cyran archers, but mixed in with these still fresh-looking bodies were demi-human victims as well. From the markings, they appeared to be Valenar elves and Talenta halfling hunters – either they’d wiped one another out… or run afoul of something worse. The scene was eerily silent. No scent of death or decay was discernible in the air despite the number of bodies scattered across the field.
“Gon’ slow us down,” Arturo said. “Kin we maneuver around?”
“Take us out of our way. But yes,” Failin answered.
“Sounds good to me. I don’ think we can afford any more stops,” Bex said.
The tiefling squinted. “Also takes us off our course, now I think ‘bout it. Ill advised. Rather fight another wolf o’ bones than get lost in this shroud.”
“Can we not simply go through the battlefield?” Rocky asked.
“Failin, can you navigate a safe path?” Relic followed up.
“Hm. Perhaps,” the excoriate said.
“Somethin’s in that there pile,” Arturo predicted. “I kin feel it. That many dead in one place… Place fer souls to rot.”
“Sounds like ‘Something’ to be avoided, Art,” Bex said.
“Lady or the Dragon. Either door could mean death, lost in the mists or here in this charnel pile,” the artificer commented.
“Let’s take the faster route,” Relic suggested. “We have to gain ground on the army at our backs.”
“I’m with Relic,” Bex decided. “The way out is through.”
“Ah agree,” Arturo said.
Failin began to wind his way around the corpses as best he could while passing through the battlefield, while the adventurers prepared themselves for what felt like an imminent attack. The pant wound ever closer to the largest pile of corpses, and Arturo held a finger to his lips to indicate quiet. As the cart passed within twenty feet of it, the mound of corpses and discarded weapons shifted, rising up from the ground on eight crablike legs. Four eyestalks emerged, and the giant crustacean covered with corpses leapt toward the card. Gripping the vehicle with its two largest pincers, the abomination gave a great heave and the cart was overturned, tossing the Cyrans and their driver onto the body-littered ground!