The wine was delightful but I longed to bring something far more heady to my lips. The cool breeze lifted Katherine's long golden tresses and sent them flowing. Entranced, I simply enjoyed the moment. I relaxed there in the meadow not far from the road from Adan, cup in hand, and made no plans. We chatted, Katherine and I, finally together for a short while. But then it was time for the company to continue its journey.
After a few days we reached the small traveler's rest at the crossroads where we would again turn north for the long-dreaded encounter with the goblins. To my surprise it was actually quite crowded. Instead of a modest selection of motley travelers and scruffy locals there were several dozen people of all ages. We soon learned that they were all refugees fleeing the goblins.
But for some reason they were preternaturally drawn to Brute. Indeed they treated him as though he was some sort of celebrity. Small children crowded around and marveled at him. Grown men asked in tones of awe about his defeating a minotaur, and vanquishing a cyclops, and ridding the world of three witches, and similar nonsense. Several young women stood off to one side and ogled him unabashedly. Granted, for them our Brute was likely a cut above what they were used to, despite his extraordinary lineage. But it was still all a bit odd.
The refugees generally looked as if they'd been dragged through the mud behind a wagon for a mile after escaping from a leper colony. They were bruised, bandaged, filthy, scabby, and also filthy. You would think they'd have noticed there was a river nearby. Suddenly one of the women advanced on me with dubious intentions. My earlier peevishness at seeing Brute getting all the attention vanished in an instant. She approached and began pawing at my new garments with grimy hands, mumbling something or other. Who was this woman? Some rustic relation of Veronica's? "Madam, unhand me" I gasped. "I say, steady on! There is a well over there, please make use of it promptly." She retreated. With a few deft arcane movements I restored the dignity of my new velvets, then moved off smartly and rejoined the others. Honestly, one must have some standards.
Pooling the bits of information we'd heard around the place we ascertained that the goblin army had actually conquered the town of Cliffside up north. The name was vaguely familiar from my early days with the carnival. But I remembered little beyond the massive cliff looming directly behind the town and a large lake just in front of it. There were wild rumors of fearsome "man-beasts" created by attaching the severed heads of animals to the bodies of decapitated humans. One wretched specimen even described them as "avatars of the Lords of Chaos". This was most unwelcome news if news it was. Marching straight into the face of certain violence was a madcap venture at the best of times but this apparently involved demonic monstrosities. Brute, predictably, was keen to get cracking so we set off again on the north road.
We passed the charred ruins of several farmsteads and the ravaged village where we'd battled goblins only a few days earlier and camped as night was falling. Katherine and I were on the first watch so that we would have sufficient uninterrupted sleep to be able to ply our arcane talents on the morrow. I was looking forward to having some quiet time with my K, but not long after the others had finally fallen asleep we heard movement in the woods--something was approaching. We woke the others but the intruder turned out to be our acquaintance the young woods-woman Faylan.
She stumbled rather than walked into our camp, her already obviously-homemade clothing was torn and stained with her own blood. The young rustic had several wounds but the worst was from a horrible deep stab. We made her comfortable as best we could. K called upon the Light and Faylan's injuries were well restored. Although exhausted she was keen to relate her recent misadventures. Faylan explained that she and her dog had gone to scout out the situation at Cliffside. She found "tons and tons" of goblins and also at least four of the foul animal-headed monstrosities we'd been warned about earlier. Unfortunately she was spotted and attacked by goblins. Faylan herself barely escaped with her life, but her dog was not so fortunate. I vaguely remembered her canine companion from the cave. If memory serves it was part mutt, part mongrel, and part mange. Well, at least now we were spared the unenviable possibility of having to eat it if we were stranded somewhere without supplies.
But as she related the scene at Cliffside additional memories from my long-ago visit surfaced. The massive eponymous cliff towered some 300 feet, looming directly over the prosperous town. At some time in the past falling rocks from above became a serious threat and the townspeople entreated some druids for help. The druids from a nearby place known simply as The Grove agreed to help on condition that the grove and its environs be unmolested ever after. The people of Cliffside agreed and the druids placed a set of enchanted stone menhirs atop the cliff to stabilize it. The blue glow from the menhirs could be seen from all around Cliffside thereafter.
That led us to The Plan: find the druids, get them to disenchant the menhirs, and let the ancient cliff collapse onto the army of chaos below! Faylan wasn't entirely sure where The Grove was, but she thought it was across the wide lake from Cliffside. We debated finding a boat or making our way through the woods with wagon and horses. Since the goblin army might depart at any time the boat trip would be shorter.
Brute, Faylan, Uhmri, and Boomtock went ahead to scout. Waiting back with the Katherine and Kull, I absent-mindedly played with the small horde of magic rings in my pouch. They were each a treasure but the embroidered silk and velvet pouch from the witch's secret mirror room was also a fine piece in its own right. The construction was as elegant as it was complex, with small interior pockets and many deep folds in which to...hmm, it seemed there was something tucked into another corner fold. A few moments fiddling and yet another mystery ring emerged from the interior. Given that all the other rings (by the gods that woman was fond of rings) bore weirding this one likely did as well. After a moment's inspection I decided that boldness should be my policy and slid it on.
My companions stood nearby chatting but suddenly they and everything around us turned blurry shades of grey and lavender. At first I wasn't sure what was happening. Was I in a shadow realm or some aetherial phase? Sounds were muffled and wavered in tone and intensity. Then my companions looked over at me and looks of concern appeared on their faces. Then I smiled. They were unable to see me. My dream as an illusionologist was one day to achieve this: invisibility! Well, actually it was the ring rather than my own skills but still the feeling was glorious. I enjoyed teasing them for a bit but then revealed all by taking the ring off.
But no. It wouldn't come off. Well, this was a most unwelcome discovery. Damn. Damn. DAMN! I knew it! Eventually we would come across some fascinating item planted by the witch with a curse on it to punish transgressors. I paused for a moment and looked out at the lake, now all muted greys and purples shifting and wavering amidst the quiet hushed sound of the rain falling. Drops of water beaded on the edge of my hat and dripped down. Was this to be my future? Stranded in this realm of neither-here-nor-there? I yanked frantically at the cursed shackle on my finger imprisoning me here but to no avail. Well, I thought, might as well make the best of an odd situation until something turns up. I left Katherine and Kull waiting by the wagon and caught up with with the others near town.
Our mission was to secure maritime transport at the docks. The town came more into view and we could see now that it had indeed fallen. The buildings were mostly burned and goblins were camped all throughout the ruins. Huge pyres of corpses burned in the main square. Nearer the outskirts were wooden frames with headless bodies nailed to them. It was hideous but at least we knew for sure that the army was still here and apparently planned to stay a while longer.
We made our way over to the docks and I took advantage of my "condition" to slip over to untie one of the boats. Getting to one of the larger boats was easy, but a small group of goblins was hanging about and not far away the monstrosity was inspecting another group. Then one of the nasty little swine in the nearer group began mocking the monster with pantomimed gestures while its back was turned. I quickly used a bit of the old ghost sound to make a rude noise in his vicinity. The stag-headed thing swung round and caught him in mid-caper. It crossed over more swiftly than I expected, spitted his victim on his spear, and tossed the body out into the lake. The toss was nothing to it; it could easily do the same to me if I was discovered.
Quietly I drew my dagger and began slicing carefully at the thick rope securing the boat to the dock. I hoped to make it look as if the rope parted accidentally. The dagger wasn't the sharpest and I began sawing harder. Then the monster turned towards me and began sniffing. I froze, holding my breath. It was close now and there was little else here to cover my scent. The thing looked as much dead as alive. Its stag's head looked like it had been cauterized onto the body of a human man. The head and body were both covered in pustules as though it had the plague. A vile, malodorous ooze leaked from the pustules, occasionally falling in drops on the ground. Flies surrounded it, drawn perhaps by the stench.
I had to do something quickly. There were a couple barrels piled nearby on the dock. I used a deft bit of prestidigitation to bump them together, hoping for a distraction. It peered over, unsure. I glanced around but did not see any other opportunity for a distraction. Any further magic would require me to speak, giving away my presence. To my great relief it sniffed a bit more and then plodded back down the dock.
Quickly I finished cutting the rope and boarded carefully. The boat drifted out and Uhmri swam up quietly to join me. The goblins were confused but did not raise an alarm. We had done it. Night was falling and we maneuvered away and beached it back near our companions. I was still invisible and at night it was difficult to see with the odd arcane effects of the spell. We discussed the situation and then Katherine asked to try removing it, hoping a combination of her innate magic and The Light might do the trick. Also the rain had stopped, which I felt might help. I put my hand in hers, so soft and delicate. She found the ring--and it came off my finger straight away. The world returned to normal.
|Trevor Sees the Light (internet pic, not mine)|
With that resolved, at least temporarily, we boarded the boat and set sail into the dark with Faylan at the helm. Kull was not at all happy with our mode of transport. The poor fellow was clearly terrified and clung to the mast with quiet desperation. Frankly, this was my first time on a proper sailing vessel as well and it took a bit of getting used to. I offered him one of my bottles of wine but he decided against it. Later he downed an entire keg of ale and slept for a while. I spent some time with Katherine in the bow enjoying the ride. Uhmri reconnected with his roots as a fisherman and caught half a dozen lovely fish for dinner.
We sailed on into the next day and about midday Uhmri sighted land. Excited, he climbed the mast for a better look. Alas the boat was much too small for such a maneuver. His weight caused the boat to lurch precariously to one side. We all scrambled to counter but Katherine and I were flung over the gunwales. The mighty Kull snatched me from certain doom and hauled me back aboard. Brute just managed a grip on Katherine's wrist but she slipped from his grasp and went in. Quick as a flash Brute dived in and brought her back. We were all most relieved to see our K back safely. Once again our two odd-fellows had proved their worth as members of the company.
But then things became rather awkward. Katherine had earlier stopped wearing armor, due to its deleterious effects on her magic, and today had on a fetching white dress. Alas, white linen dresses cling closely to the figure and become almost transparent when wet. We members of the male persuasion were momentarily transfixed by the vision before us. Even wet her hair shone like a river of gold and she glistened like a fey princess. A bit of spray shot up behind her and a rainbow appeared briefly in it as if to confirm the presence of the divine. And the thin fabric clinging to her breasts left no doubt that...suddenly Brute handed her a blanket and the moment passed. I offered to magically whisk away the dampness so she would not catch a cold but she preferred to hunch in her blanket. Apparently she was still sulking over the affair with the ring.
The rest of the voyage and hike through the woods to The Grove were uneventful. This bit of woods was clearly a magical place and we met a druid by the name of Damian. Oddly, even here in the middle of nowhere he had heard the same astonishing rumors about Brute's legendary exploits. It did not seem in Brute's nature to spread rumors about himself but the string of feats of valor attributed to him seemed to be everywhere. The druid then proceeded to ignore everyone in the party except the allegedly heroic odd-fellow. The sylvan codger insisted on bringing a small menagerie with him which consisted of a raven, a weasel, and a wolf. The scruffy canine stared at me intently the entire voyage back for no apparent reason. It was quite disconcerting. I considered asking Uhmri to make me a pair of gloves out of it.
We sailed back across the lake and landed near the docks while it was still light. The next step in The Plan was to ascend the massive cliff but in broad daylight we were sure to be spotted. Then the druid stepped forward and began a sort of belch. I wasn't sure what he was up to at first. I thought perhaps he wanted to challenge his hero Brute to a contest of rude bodily noises. And indeed he launched into a series of noises and abdominal movements apparently learned from watching an asthmatic moose give birth. But after a few moments wisps of vapor emerged from his distorted visage. The vapor rapidly thickened into a dense fog. The fellow kept at it and the fog poured from him in prodigious quantities. In a surprisingly short time the entire town under the cliff was smothered in an impressive fog bank. Well done old chap, I thought. I now consider it a feat which my magical skills must emulate at some point in the future--albeit in an appropriately refined style.
The climb was perilous but when we arrived near the mass of magically-restrained boulders at the top the view was magnificent. The fog had dissipated, revealing the town laid out below us and the vast lake sparkling beyond. Lovely green forests stretched for miles in all direction. But it was also clear that the town was devastated and we saw no sign of surviving townspeople.
The druid prepared to remove the enchantment from the set of menhirs holding back untold tons of loose rock dislodged over the years. We could see the goblin encampments in the ruins and there was no sign of alarm. But then Kull decided that we should make sure that the enemy was gathered to receive our blow. Brute tied a rope around his waist for safety and he clambered onto the mass of rock which would soon fall. Raising his axes in heroic fashion he issued a deep roar of challenge which rolled out across the town. The goblins and monstrosities poured out from their hiding places to gawk in surprise, a sea of hideous faces upturned. As they pointed and chattered the druid completed his ritual and the runes on the menhirs ceased to glow. The mass of stones shifted and groaned slightly, then descended in a torrent of death. Kull swung down on the rope. He was bruised and somewhat battered but elated. His ploy had worked perfectly! I gladly handed him my last bottle of wine and he celebrated with it above the drifting clouds of dust.