PBeM report – 1: Long Winter Shadows ~ A Single Step

This is an excerpt of the first few posts from the Long Winter Shadows PBeM for Palladium Fantasy, dealing with the wanderings of the wizard Marlin Tyrell. I include it here to provide a light read for those who enjoy this sort of entry, and to promote and invite discussion on ways of conducting fantasy games, dealing with the use and perhaps shameless abuse of stereotypes. While the campaign itself is being conducted with a certain implied sense of realism (that term is obviously being used in context) and consequences for action, it is not without its moments of levity.

It should also be noted that the first player to gm post or two have a slightly different feel and flow than what we settled on for the rest of the series, and there were elements of play about which the player needed to be refreshed as this was a return to the setting after a period of a few months, and the first Palladium character which he had run.

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~Palladium Fantasy~
Long Winter Shadows

Story II: A single step

It is morning. The harsh light of the winter sunrise – whiter and without cheer – cuts insistently at the closed eyes of Marlin Tyrell… yes, that is your name. You are Marlin Tyrell, son of Wilton Tyrell and Jesse, his bride. Son of a man, no – of a wizard – known to the few survivors of Winterholme as The Betrayer. As your eyes fully open and take in the cruel light of the sun’s rays shearing unforgivingly through the bare branches of the thick and grizzled tree against which you lean, your mind is full of the sense that you are a murderer… but of whom?

The thought creeps into your mind as you become aware of your nakedness… your mother. Your birth was her death. Matricide as infant. What an auspicious beginning to… what? The reclamation of a birthright no one remembers in a land thought as dead as the nobles who carved it from the Disputed Territories… It’s far too early in the morning and far too cold for thoughts like this. It’s not like you to be so introspective and glum. AND COLD! By Rurga’s bountiful breasts it’s freezing!

Clearing the sleep and grit from your sore eyes with a filthy, burnt and scratched hand you gather your bearings. Your back, stinging from what must be additional burns, is pressed into the hollow of a large tree split ages ago by a lightning strike or the displeasure of a passing god. Patches of snow and ice litter the shadows cast by the widespread branches, revealing your trail through the brush and leaf-litter of this wintry wood. You must be in the mountains… the air is thin and crisp.

Examining yourself, you find minor burns and abrasions most everywhere, with two deep gashes in along your right side which have clotted…reluctantly. You have dim memories of a struggle, a blinding flash, and a mad scrabble through the dark woods… then nothing until now.

It has been several weeks… maybe 2 months since you parted ways with Grath. One can only hope he is waking up in better straights this morning. In the middle distance… in the general direction of your own rough trail through the snow and leaves, you can hear the fragile, crystalline babble of water and ice running swiftly over rock. Stepping away from the tree you can catch sight of the cloud-shrouded peaks of the White Mountains… unmistakable as… that fat, merchant in…? Baca… Samuel Calder in Baca – that’s it. As unmistakable as he’d said they’d be…. Hmmm, which means that you must be somewhere in the foothills of that range. Naked, and without the parcel Calder had hired you to deliver to… a mage… in Wisdom. Right, the city of Wisdom in the civilized interior of the Dominion of Man. Great.

A large raven settles noisily in the branches of the tree overhead and chuckles to itself throatily as it appears to take in your situation.

Player the first wrote:
“Well, this is a fine start to the morning!” I mumble to the raven. The raven merely cocks it head and looks skeptically at me. “Same to you!” I groan, as a chill sets my body a-shivering. The movement tears open one of the gashes and it begins to bleed a little.

I need to get out of this cold and into some clothes, fast! Clutching my side with one had to stem the bleeding and the other cupping the only warm part of my body, I start to make my way ahead toward the sound of the stream. A drink, no matter how cold, and a chance to wash away some of the blood would be welcome. However, lost in the woods, and without the parcel, I can only try to think of ways to postpone the seemingly inevitable end to this misadventure. Still shivering, my mind only minutely less numb than my feet and hands, there are few options ahead of me. But ahead, that is the only way to go. Going back is like giving up; and giving up is a luxury I can ill afford. Onward! Maybe by the time I reach the stream the cobwebs will have cleared enough to allow me to touch some of the power that lies in or near running water.

The GM wrote:
“Well, this is a fine start to the morning!” Your dry voice cracks as you mutter to the Raven overlooking your pathetic situation. It cocks its head and fastens its other glassy black eye upon you, chuckling deep in its throat.

The cold seems to preclude further conversational attempts and with a groaned, “Same to you!” you are off across the cold ground and patches of snow and leaf-litter toward the frigid sounds of the stream. As you feared, movement gets some of your gashes bleeding slightly again, but staying here is certainly not going to do you any good.

Hand cupped tightly around… your staff, you make your way toward the sounds of the stream. Behind you, the raven utters three sharp, gurgling caws. As these choke off into silence, another raven settles in a tree ahead and to your right. A third floats softly overhead and comes to rest in a tree several meters ahead and slightly to your left. At your feet you see torn bits of clothing scattered here and there in the direction of the stream. Your clothing… or what’s left of it. Most is burnt or ripped to shreds. Your belt is a few feet away and looking past it you can see the stream glittering coldly through the underbrush. After a moment, the smell of cold, burnt flesh comes to your nostrils as well.

Just ahead, next to a low, mossy tree stump is one of your boots in decent condition. You realize that the shreds of cloth around are what’s left of your pants.

The cold is settling deeply into your flesh and the shivering is becoming very uncomfortable. You must be higher in the foothills than you thought. Dimly, in the back of your mind, you can feel the warm tingle of mystical energies as the course under the river and the ley line it marks.

Stepping closer, you can make out the river, more wrecked clothing, and what might be a body… what IS a body – burnt almost beyond recognition as a man.

Near him is your cloak and bedroll, in decent condition. No sign remains of your shirt or underclothes, but your package is left untouched next to your campfire with your pack.
The ravens – 5 or 6 of them now – break into a chorus of choking calls and then as suddenly fall silent, looking at you curiously from limbs overhead and all around.

Player the first wrote:
One raven is bad enough, two annoying. But three, coincidental? Six… something nasty is afoot! I scrabble for the nearest boot and pull it on, wincing at the touch of cold stiff leather against my nearly frost-bitten feet. Another boot, and the cloak next, wrapped around my sparse frame for immediate shelter from the cold. Well, maybe not shelter as such, but at least it is a moment’s reprieve from the breeze.

Taking a moment to open my inner eye to the ley line nearby I draw some much needed warmth and sustenance from it before making any move further. The now-silent ravens send signals down my brain stem: ranging at once from curiosity to panic. I push that down though and force myself to focus on survival. First, I should see to the fire; warmth is paramount, followed closely by food, but that is (or should be) in my pack and not an immediate worry. Starting the fire, arcanely, should pose no serious problem and then, once warmed, I will have to check the body (and look for animal tracks; the scent is sure to bring something nearby). If the immediate area is secure, then I can probably afford a few moments to allow the natural energies of the earth to wash away the injuries done to my person. Then, the ravens.

Despite all my efforts, one eye still creeps open to watch the watchers. Experience has proven a good teacher, and caution is the better part of prudence. Watch the birds, get warm, take stock, and, oh yeah… check the package.

The GM wrote:
Once dressed – despite the ice and dampness on most of the shredded and singed garments – you begin to feel more human and less likely to perish from the deep chill. A drink of water clears your head, and the strong influx of mystical energies from the ley lines coiling passage beneath the brook allows you to shake off the worst of the pain and stiffness. Once a fire is blazing, it will be a simple matter to channel those energies into healing the burns, abrasions, and cuts which have begun to send more and more insistent messages of pain to befuddle your whirling thoughts.

Overkill is nothing if not clear and comprehensible. Despite that truism, it is with fine control that you harness the mystical energies you studied so hard to master, and force them into the mental and physical patterns which bind them to enacting your will, causing a bolt of flame to jet from your hand into the fire pit you hazily recollect preparing the night before. In moments, a cheery fire is crackling in the dry wood, and the clean sent of wood smoke covers the charred smell of burnt meat… burnt man.

Settling down beside the fire with some travel rations from your pack, and your ruined cloak wrapped about you, you turn your mind toward healing your wounds. In the same fashion as the water wears down the stones in the stream, so too does the energy of the ley line wash away the injuries of the night before. After a dreamlike time in meditation… you are well. The sun is higher in the sky, the ravens gone, and your condition seems much clearer.

The shortest route to your destination is over the peaks of the White Mountains. Shortest, but not warmest or easiest. Your mount is gone, and is very likely most of the way back to Baca by now. The package is here and seemingly unharmed. The sigil etched upon it also seems intact. That this sigil is a ward seems indisputable.

If you choose to cross the mountains you will need to head North by North-East. To reach Wisdom on foot will take 3-4 weeks. If you do not cross the mountains, you can head South-East where there is supposedly some great marshland and some small communities. Skirting the mountains will add weeks to your journey, but preclude any climbing or further frosty mornings. Alternately, you could head South West where you believe there to be a port of some type… less than reputable but a port. It is likely closer than the marshes to the South – perhaps 2 or 3 days on foot. From there it is perhaps possible to refit, or even book passage on a coast-hugger to take you to a port closer to Wisdom.

Searching the immediate area of the camp, you find that whatever happened last night, happened before you had taken more than rudimentary supplies from your horse. You are left without gold, most of your survival gear, wardrobe, gold, or any real food. What you do have is dried rations, spell books, some components, and the package.

Player the first wrote:
The day has certainly gotten better now that I feel whole and refreshed again. I will check around and gather up what I can, and start to search for the staff. Hopefully I can sense it, being as I have used it heavily in the past and maybe there is some natural attunement that has been built up. Barring that, I will have to search around the area, although I admit I am very reluctant to leave it behind. In fact, I will NOT leave it behind. If it is not here anywhere, then that will be a serious problem. However, throughout the search, my eyes are continually drawn to the body, or what is left of it. Who was it? Why was (s)he burned? What happened to me? Nothing appears to have surfaced during my meditation, and the ravens aren’t telling me, or even mocking me anymore so nothing there. The package is intact and safely stowed in my pack again. I will draw as much heat and sustenance from the ley line as possible.

As for what to do next… assuming a) I can find my staff and b) that there are no surprises on the body, I will finish burning it and destroy the carcass, clear the camp, and head to the port. “Disreputable” suits my mood ATM and I think I can finagle some supplies and passage there. I will need to “conjure” up some cash, but I have relied on my skills of writing, entertaining, and even petty theft in the past, so maybe it won’t be *that* bad.

The GM wrote:
It doesn’t take long to gather up the bits and pieces of your gear that are scattered about the small clearing by the brook. When… yes, when you were attacked it must have been just as you were first setting up camp. There is no sign of your saddle or tack so you couldn’t have been far into preparations.

Turning your attention to the body is a gruesome but rewarding task for your staff lies trapped under it. The body is nude and burnt even worse on the front which lies in the dirt. From the completeness of the burns and the lack of real fire damage in the clearing, you have little choice but to surmise that you blasted him with all the might of the ley line behind you. Overkill for a bandit…. what happened here?

Around the crisp neck of the corpse, is an unharmed charm of some kind. It looks vaguely like a protection charm, but such things are really beyond your expertise. Clearly, it is not potent versus fire….

The position of the body suggests it was reaching for something, and the hands are gripped tightly around charred strips of cloth… very likely your tunic. Once this thought occurs, the drag marks in the loamy undergrowth of the clearing become evident for what they are, and your mad, dash through the woods shedding flaming bits of clothing makes a certain amount of sense. The fogginess of your memory, however… this is no clearer.

It doesn’t take long to dispose of the body, gather your gear, cover yourself enough to be presentable in polite company, and orient yourself for travel toward the port. Fortunately, the brook seems to be headed in an amenable direction and the ley line can carry you aloft should you so desire.

If your geography teachers were correct, there is not too much to fear out of the ordinary in this part of the world other than tangle vines, packs of ravenous wolves, roaming bears, the trickery of kobolds, encounters with bandits, swarms of poisonous insects, serpents, and the small possibility of a hunting dragon.

Player the first wrote:
I will pocket the charm for later perusal, and possibly trade. Drifting down the ley line seems the easiest and safest way to go, so that I will do. Animals are less likely to get to me, I can stay warm and dry and also I can keep the staff, as well as myself, fully charged. There will also be time to do some investigation of the amulet. I will reset a “Mystic Alarm” on the package and carefully put it away in my pack first thing though, assuming I get no hint of danger by adding such a spell to it. I can “Sense Magic” on the amulet but clearly get not much more than that. If there are no hints or clues forthcoming, I will stow it in my pack as well. During the more boring parts of the ride, I let my mind work on some of the spells that I knew Kadmius had at his disposal… given the events of the last 24 hours, things like “Extinguish Fire” or “Sense Evil” might be handy to know. They are so close, frustratingly so; I can almost work them out, on the tip of my tongue as it were.

The GM wrote:
With a last look around the camp you shoulder your pack, dropping the corpse’s amulet into a small pocket on its side as you do so. With a hint of purpose to your stride, you step out onto the pulsing energies of the ley line and appear to drift at a sedate pace several feet above the course of the stream. Before long, both you and your staff have recovered your mystic energies in full. Despite recovering from your obvious will-workings of the night before, you are gripped by a deep and pervasive fatigue that you suspect will take days to pass. Without this ley line and its alternate mode of transport, you might not have survived walking out of the mountains.

As you travel back down the mountain the stream begins to widen and slow. As it does, the ley line become somewhat fainter and drifts slightly away from the course of riverbed. You suspect that without luck, you will be back to walking as the line will pass through trees and undergrowth, leaving no clear passage above it. Still, it is a small matter… one full day and a little more in the foothills, then rolling grasslands between you and… whatever the port was called. Something Beach… The memory eludes you.

Later in the afternoon, you hear the scream of a horse, and the low growl of what can only be an ogre… or if bad luck is a continuing facet of your existence… a troll. It’s probably a troll. Rounding a sharp bend in the river and peering circumspectly through a copse of trees, you see a trio of dwarves, a string of ponies and wonder of wonders, your own horse – still fully saddled and equipped. Of course, there is also a troll.
The river has widened to be about 3 to 4 metres across and perhaps as much as a metre deep in places. Beyond the troll the rocks press in on the river forming a pass of some sort which the troll, true to type, seems to have chosen as a place of extortion.

As your eyes take in the corpse-like, blotchy skin, immense knotted muscles, the lips torn and savaged by the barely contained fangs, the troll slams a crate-sized fist down on one of the dwarves as it sought to slam its cruel-looking flanged mace into the creature’s scarred knee. Even at your distance of 40 or more metres the sickening crunch of bone, and the shriek of rent metal reaches you with uncomfortable and surprising volume. A gout of blood jets across the troll’s legs and spatters the eldest-looking dwarf as he approaches from behind. His white beard and black, battered armour attest to many battles fought and won, but this seems impossible. The troll is outraged, and it is clear the only way these dwarves will win passage from this mountain pass is in death, or with help.

The troll brings both clawed hands high above its head and bellows its rage to the sky as it stretches up to its full height… 12 or more feet of muscled death. Beyond the troll lies an unbelievably large scythe… the troll’s weapon you presume. The elder dwarf must be trying to prevent the troll from reaching it. The other dwarf, brown beard braided into two fierce and bristly projections, is bravely taunting the troll in some language you either do not know or cannot make out over the troll’s bellowing and the screams of the horses.

Player the first wrote:
My horse! I think elatedly. Then the guilt of that selfishness washes over me and I make the snap decision to help the dwarves survive this encounter. Besides, troll tolls are something I find deeply reprehensible. The dwarves, being what they are, will probably appreciate any help I can provide, just not the means of it. Well, it might be an opportunity to point out that *not all* magic is bad magic. As I am still floating on the ley line, I have a great opportunity to put to rest one more vicious beast extorting the innocent. At least, I assume the dwarves are innocent. And I would like to thank them for saving my horse.

I will hold the staff out horizontally in front of me and let go with some magical goodness that would make Kadmius proud. The proximity to the ley line should allow me to reach the beast from even this far out but I shall continue to drift closer nonetheless. Pumped by the natural energies surrounding me, I intend to encase the beastie in a column of thick oily smoke and then put him down — and put him down hard. I’ll let the dwarves flail away at him with their sharp but clearly less effective weapons, but to be honest, the scent of burnt troll would go well with the rest of my day. A gout of burning death from each hand should get its attention, and when that fire splashes across his torso, boy-oh-boy will that be fun to watch! I bet that will really sting! Following that, I will try to help the dwarves directly. Having not really experimented with this, I am not sure how close I need to be to encase either of the doughty fighters in some Ithanian armor. I will give it a try once the fire has left my fingertips; if I can reach the closest of them great, if not, then I will continue to approach and wrap the armour around myself. More blasts of arcane fire from each hand for a few more minutes should do the trick.

Besides, the more I do to help end this swiftly and safely, the more of a claim I can lay to its horde of tolls that must be near by! Surely the dwarves will recognise that sort of a claim. And gods know I will need the cash when I get to Beach… whatever it is…

The GM wrote:
Continuing to close in order to enact your plan, takes precious time that seems to slow and crystallize into hyper-real clarity. As the dwarves struggle to avoid the gruesome claws and blows of the troll, which is much, much faster than it looks, while trying to close and deliver debilitating strokes with their weapons, you wonder if you will be able to get close enough in time…

A rough backhand catches the younger dwarf and sends him reeling and tripping into a deeper part of the river. You are confident that you can reach the troll with your arcane fire bolts, but are less certain that you can project the obscuring clouds of smoke you desire that far… As the troll moves to crush the off-balance dwarf you make your decision and two blazing bolts of searing fire rip across the 30+ meters between you and the melee. Caught completely by surprise, the troll is unable to dodge and shrieks in fear and rage as his torso is splashed, seared, and baked by mystic flame (-20 PPE, 7D6 twice, rolled out to 55 points). As the flame strikes, the elder dwarf presses in close and drags a heavy-bladed knife fiercely across the back of the creature’s knee in an attempt to hamstring it. As the heat and pain from the fires begin to really ignite in the troll’s flesh it bellows again and throws its head around looking for the source of this new outrage.

The younger dwarf, helm askew and blood in his eyes, staggers around in danger of being battered flat as he is unknowingly in perfect striking range of the now furious mountain troll.

With only seconds to act, you focus your will, channel it and the arcane energies of the ley line into calling forth billowing clouds of choking black smoke from the very surface of the cold waters (-2PPE), the last glimpse you have of the elder dwarf is of his grim smile as a fine spray of blood from the troll’s calf obscures the grit, grime and dwarvish blood on his face. The smoke coils upward unnaturally fast, blooming into a column as you call forth another bolt of fire and send it arcing after its two deadly predecessors (-10PPE, 7D6, rolled out to 24 points).

As the smoke rises above the troll’s confused and pained face, the younger dwarf manages to stumble to relative safety in a shallower section of the river, losing his helm in the process. Not hesitating for an instant you curl your lips around the rippling words which your will shapes into fatal bolts of flame. At your will, word becomes fire. At your will, certain death for these dwarves becomes triumph. At your will, this troll dies. Your will changes and shapes the very world around you.

Twin bolts of fire lash from your hands across the intervening space, one after the other, unerringly finding their marks as the troll lurches forward toward you out of the billowing column of smoke (-20PPE, 7D6 twice, rolled out to 52 points). His torso, charred, cracked and peeling already, erupts in a shower of hot sparks and steaming blood, as his bestial face melts in a sheet of white-hot mage-fire.

The troll’s immense frame crashes first to its knees then topples over on its side into the chill grasp of the river, steaming harshly as it settles slowly below the surface.

Silence returns again and you glide to a stop over the river. The column of smoke dissipates, and with watering eyes and a futilely waving hand, the elder dwarf comes coughing into view, howling some sort of dwarven battle cry. His companion drops unceremoniously on his armoured ass on the river bank and presses a wet hand to his forehead to try and staunch the flow of blood.

The elder dwarf begins wading toward you, and comments, “Aye, n that would ha been one helluva fight now, wouldnit? But thanks, just the same – no harm in savin’ a fellow traveler from gruesome death at the hands of a wee bastard like that’un! Of course, you may ha damned us all with yer wizardry now, may’nt ya?.”

A small yellow bird flashes from cover as the natural world reasserts itself in blissful ignorance of the events just past.

Player the first wrote:
“Damned I may be Sir Dwarf, but you… you have been saved. Not that I doubt your ability to take down this fell beast readily… it was your younger companions for whom I feared evil (as a knobby fist) might befall.”

I shall act calmly and rationally here, knowing, at least by rumour, of the Dwarven reluctance to use magic. Any resulting conversation will be light and honest. I think though, a reasonable reaction to the use of arcane powers should assert itself soon. If necessary, I shall indicate the red flapjack that was their erstwhile companion as I re-acquaint myself with my horse (surreptitiously checking the saddlebags). Once satisfied they are still (more or less) full of my stuff, I would like to say something along the lines of the following: “Let us retire away from this foul air and together seek out this beasts’ lair.” Then, realising I have inadvertently broken out in (bad) rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, laugh at the joy of life. “Maybe we should warm our bones over a small fire and tend to your wounds before you expire.” (Insert laugh again). Assuming I do not get pummelled for my bad verse, that is what I intend to do. The troll must have a cave nearby and that is as good a place as any to make camp – despite the smell and threat of Kobolds.

The point being to put the Dwarves at ease, help heal as I can, search out their lair and divide the loot. Maybe, I can engage them in some healthy drinking/storytelling and learn more about them, their travels, this area, and possibly a quest or two (involving dragons and more booty) that need solving.

The GM wrote:
The elder dwarf cocks his head and looks at you quizzically then think better of asking questions and just mutters, “Wizards,” under his breath. Then with a resigned shrug he squares his shoulders and begins wading toward the remains of his companion.

“Aye, n thanks fer sure fer the rescue – no disrespect intended to yer *intent* or charity. It just gets a bit frustratin’ to have the younger races runnin’ about hither and thither blindly bringing about the end of reality… get me? Nothin’ personal.” He pauses a moment as he begins to drag the shattered flesh bag of a dead dwarf toward the shore and his other, healthier cohort. “Och… my wife’s youngest brother… silly beggar.”

As you inspect your horse, the wounded dwarf nods his head. “Father, this horse doesn’t like the wizard much, but she definitely knows him… I’d say she’s his, all right.”

The elder dwarf drags the carcass of his brother-in-law to the bank of the river and then bends over to wash his hands and face, nodding curtly at this son before doing so. When finished he raises his dripping face to yours and sighs again.

“We saw signs on the other side of the pass of a band of kobolds and ha thinned out many, but the cowards caused a cave-in and we were forced to come round the mountain and through this blasted pass to find another way in to get the rest. We were hired for the job by the stone quarries. We figgered it best to kill the kobolds first and then deal with the troll, but life fucked us up the arse on the plan. It seems now like the troll has been blocking the supply routes to Luna Beach with the kobolds, but I dunno… The quarry patrols ha’nt the jurisdiction to come this far to do anythin’ aboot it. If you’re willin’ we will cut you in fer this poor bastard’s share of the treasure, but the retainer we would pass on to his wife. What say ye?”

He gestures to the troll’s ill-made firepit and the large kettle boiling madly on a spit over it. “Troll’s eat their meat raw so I dunno what might be a-boilin in tha kettle, but let’s sit and rest a wee bit and stop the flow of blood while we talk.”

Player the first wrote:
Well a third is better than none. I will go along with them to find the troll’s bounty, such as it is, avoiding the stewpot. I’ll even offer to help in any way I can re: the pass and kobolds, and then procure directions for Luna Beach. With the money I can get from this, plus what’s still in my saddlebags, I should be able to get a good night’s sleep and a ship to take me ’round the headlands, dropping me past the marsh and well within reach of Wisdom. If the dwarves have drink, I’ll enjoy their company and ply them for info.

The GM wrote:
After a few moments of necessary attention to bodily needs, securing the ponies and your horse, and carefully disposing of the egregious atrocity boiling in the troll’s pot, all three of you are settled comfortable about the fire pit passing a skin full of a warm, sweet mead back and forth while the elder dwarf digs deep in his pouch for tobacco without bloodstains.

Chatting about minor things clears the way for a more concrete offer and acceptance for dealing with the kobolds. Much later, once the pot has been cleaned, bandages have been boiled and applied, a brace of rabbits have been trapped, skinned, and eaten with noisy satisfaction, the dwarves excuse themselves somewhat reluctantly and begin the task of wrapping their fallen comrade in a heavy tarpaulin.

“See that there are Living to tend the Dead…” the elder dwarf mutters gruffly and then turns his back to the fire, stares deep into the darkness and begins to sing softly, but in a rich bass which carries with the smoke and sparks into the depths of the night sky overhead and between the trees into the equally black depths of the forest. He sings of the deeds and dreams of his fallen comrade, and hours pass.

When he is done, he nods briefly to you with words of good night, motions for his son to take first watch, and tears glistening in the orange glow of the fire, moves off to his bedroll. “We will move on the entrance to the kobolds’ lair in the morning,” he says. “Prepare yourself.”

From crude diagrams scratched in the earth during dinner, you know that the second entrance to the lair is roughly 1km back upstream, and leads steeply downward into the bowels of the mountain. The dwarves surmise that it is a passage to the less savory areas of the lair, such as the abattoir and prison. They expect to find as many as 10 within.

Player the first wrote:
I bid them a good night and sleep until it is time for my watch, during which I make sure that the staff is fully charged, as am I. The cave seems to be within reach of the ley line, which should make things better and somewhat easier. Not wanting to disgruntle the dwarfs, I will let them take the lead but spew fire liberally about as required. I will also offer them some magical protection in the form or Ithan’s Armor, if they so desire. I’ll probably force it on the son… Not sure what else I can do to prepare except take a few deep mental breaths, run some spell over in my head and fall asleep trying to (once more) glean information from the spell-book.

The GM wrote:
The stars are a crystal canopy of wonder in the crisp, clean mountain air. Although you are fed, invigorated by the pulsating impetus of the ley line, and have no injuries, you still feel the heavy grip of a bone-deep weariness. Sleep comes easily, but not without a price.

To the beat of the world’s heart, your breathing slows and deepens as you descend through the many stages of sleep into the realm of dream and fantasy. Kadmius always told you to be mindful of dreams, but dreams like these you have never experienced… it is as if the world is turning itself inside out, piece by piece. When morning comes, it is a relief.

The dwarves classify morning as two hours before dawn. It must be all of that underground living. Fish are roasting over the fire, and an aromatic brew of tea and something pungent… mushroom? is steaming on a stone next to the pit. As you open your eyes and prepare to rise, you notice the dirt around you is disturbed and your bedroll is cast aside, as if you thrashed wildly in your sleep.

The elder dwarf greets you with a short, barked, “Eat.”

The “morning” air is quiet, but a sense of anticipation fills you with the knowledge that there will be killing soon. You suddenly wonder how large a kobold warren is, and by extension, how high the tunnels are.

“Ha’e ye bin inna mine nor warren afore, ya wirld endin’ bastard?” the elder asks around a large mouthful of white fish. He seems genuinely interested.

Player the first wrote:
Still rubbing sleep out of my eyes, such as it was, I find it somewhat jarring to be called a “wirld endin’ bastard?” before the sun has even made an appearance. Trying to remain as civil as this ungodly hour allows one to be, I mumble, “No offense intended Sir Dwarf {whose name I have either failed to gather or have forgotten over the course of a night that seemed to be months in duration} but I believe Dwarves and Kobolds are of a similar stature, though clearly unrelated, and it has occurred to me that I might have to do my Kobold hunting on all fours…” I will engage the Dwarves in some earnest information gathering over the fish, trying to learn, without appearing a complete fool, just what I have agreed to undertake. Now in the (near) the light of day, the prospect of crawling through a Kobold abattoir has lost some of its appeal, treasure or no treasure.

The GM wrote:
“None taken. Dwarves feel naught but symp’thy fer the fragile and gangly races wha’ came after.”

As you eat the tangy fish and sip the heady brew of mushroom tea the cobwebs of sleep part from your brain. The dwarves discuss their thoughts on what might be encountered in the Kobold warren, putting your mind at ease on some points and upsetting it with others.

From their description, it would seem that you can expect the halls and tunnels to be just under your own height, and to be needlessly haphazard in layout. They mention that these are new tunnels and so not very extensive, but they also warn that the mining is not safe in this area so the tunnels are not safe in and of themselves, regardless of what traps have been laid and what foul creatures have been allowed to dwell within.

They expect to encounter some vile but necessary aspects of underground life such as the abattoir, cesspit, and garbage dumps, and speak ill of Kobold estate management principles. No dwarf would live that way.

They make no mention of the fact that there are but two of them and one of you.

Player the first wrote:
I will eat contentedly, making sure that I (and the staff) are fully tapped from the ley line yonder. As the Dwarves are espousing such confidence, it will surely feed my own over-extended ego as well. Self-confidence is not something I lack, but it doesn’t hurt to have a pair of sturdy Dwarves with you when going on a subterranean walkabout. Although I do not have a great plethora of spells at hand, the ones I do have should serve: Ithan’s Armor for myself and any who need/want it and far-flung founts of fire as required. If worse comes to worse and I have to engage in knife work… well, we’ll see how that plays out. Given the nature of this adventure, I intend to let the Dwarves lead (as I am sure they do as well) and play a supporting role. I do, surreptitiously, prepare some bits of cloth to stuff up my nostrils to prevent inhalation of Kobald gasses.

The GM wrote:
The camp is packed up in silence, and the three of you begin your stealthy trek up river. They have given you to understand that there may be sentries or trained watch-beasties. From their description of their battle on the other side of the mountain at the other end of the Kobold warren, you suspect that they may well count a ward-master among them. The caution of the dwarves seems well-placed.

As you slowly creep forward you are quite impressed with the stealth of your companions… stealth you yourself are not matching. The dwarves do not complain or cast aspersions; they merely slow their pace until the noise of passage is acceptable to them.

Weapons gripped in gnarled and scarred hands, the doughty dwarves break trail ahead of you, each step determined and somehow broadcasting that they intend to kill every Kobold they find. While you are familiar with their customs somewhat from books and conversations with Kadmius and other monks at the abbey, you have no idea if it is normal for them to withhold names from those they meet.

After an hour of slow progress the dwarves indicate that the area you are entering is near the entrance to the cave and that the woods show signs of heavier traffic. You have noticed some of this yourself. The entrance is across the river and about 50 metres upstream.

Player the first wrote:
As we trek through the woods, I shan’t dwell on the lack of names. Without even noticing I had done so, I surely gave them my first name over the course of the evening. I blame exhaustion and nerves last night for not noticing the lack of reciprocation. Be that as it may, there is time later to rectify that. For now, in my own head at least, they are known as “Daddy Foulmouth” and “T’other”.
In an effort to bring my wandering mind back into focus, I make mental notes of landmarks and memorable locations in case I need to find my own way out of here. I do try my best to be stealthy and even when I notice that the progress is slowing, I remain quite proud of myself. I naturally attribute the slowing pace to their shortened legs and try not to show my impatience. Once we approach the cave entrance, I will start to earn my keep. Silently praying to whomever is listening that I don’t fuck this up, I will cast my senses ahead and see if there is any sign of a ward protecting the entrance or at least within range of my abilities to notice it. If none is detected, I will so inform my companions. If something is found, I will warn the Dwarves and then deal with it as more information becomes available.

The GM wrote:
With a muttered word, a twist of will and hand, and an exhalation of breath you reach within and force the trapped energies within to conform to your desires…

Gazing with empowered eyes through the gloom you search out the unmistakable signs of enchantment and magic. Standing as you are on the ley line, you have no need to see its coruscating energies coiling beneath you, so you pay it no attention, instead focusing momentarily on the revelation that the hammer in the grip of the elder dwarf is bound about and within with mystic energies. It sheds a soft blue-white light in the pre-dawn air.

Searching further as you press closer toward the point where you will have to step from cover and cross the river, you become aware of a bright point of malevolent burnt-red light seething across the bark of gnarled tree on the bank of the river… about 20m away through the trees and scrub brush. You have no idea of what the magic might be capable, and, other than as a smallish point of mystical energy on a tree trunk, cannot really describe it.

In your experience, you know that it is unlikely to be a supernatural being – unless it is actively working magic now, and that chances are – whatever it is, it means trouble.

Player the first wrote:
Clutching the staff tightly and focusing on that red malevolence, I try to see what sort of ward it is, movement, life, proximity, anything. If there is no more forthcoming, then with a muttered curse, I will catch up to the Dwarves and get their attention. With nothing more to go on, I will have to go with my gut. Whispering to Daddy Foulmouth, “I will not be bringing about the end of the wirld anytime soon, but believe me when I say, as much as that hammer in hands glows white with mystical power, over yonder on that tree is a blood-red sign of warning. This back entrance is warded.”

Depending on how he reacts, I will suggest setting up some kind of ambush, possibly triggering the ward and taking the Kobolds as they come out. Of course the risks to such a plan are that we lose the element of surprise and could be overwhelmed.

The GM wrote:
His expression turns – if possible – even dourer as he takes in what you are telling him.

“Aye…” he mutters after a few moments. “On t’other side, somethun’ took down two o’ me men with a crimson flash of searing brill-yunce… They died screamin’.”

The elder dwarf nods his head unhappily as you suggest triggering the ward at a distance and waiting to ambush the Kobolds which come to investigate – he is as dissatisfied with that approach as you are.

The younger dwarf looks at you with an appraising glance, and asks, “So… can ye do nothin’ ’boutit, then?” jerking his head in the direction of the tree.

Player the first wrote:
I reflect on how little I actually know of magic still, and then shake my head. “With a couple of more moments’ reflection, I can try again to decipher what sort of ward it is, what triggers it. What exactly was happening when your fellows died? Any more details you can give me would help in recognising what sort of magic this is…” Using whatever else they can tell me, I will try again to plumb the depths of the ward, although such magicks are not my forte. I clutch the amulet tightly and concentrate once more on the ward. I have such little experience with this sort of thing, I know that two times out of three, I wouldn’t likely recognise magic being used against me. But maybe, just maybe, this is one of those times when I can…

The GM wrote:
Too many factors are against you, ignorance playing no small role, with darkness and fatigue competing for second place.

At the best of times, you would really have no clue where to begin assessing what a ward did, and based on what you have seen in the past, often you have been known to be completely in the dark with distinguishing a real ward from a fake one without first verifying that it was radiating magic.

There is no need to share any of this with the dwarves.

In the end, you figure that what is usually true is likely true in this case as well. Contact with the ward will set it off, but no doubt in a situation like this one, proximity to the ward is also a factor. Unless there are more, sneaking into the river at an earlier point may just obviate this trap completely. Providing everyone can make a stealthy approach through the slightly deeper water before this point, nothing should be lost.

This leaves two choices… setting it off, or trying a longer creep through the river to the cave entrance. The elder dwarf seems to feel that stealth is valuable.

Player the first wrote:
I shake my head with a look of wry helplessness. “I cannot fathom any more than that it is dangerous. Given its placement, I can only assume it is triggered by proximity. I suggest a more oblique angle of approach. How well can you both swim?”

I can make it across the river easily enough, and maybe even gain a high enough vantage point to see where the ward lies with regard to the cave entrance and river, thereby giving us (hopefully) a small alley of safety along which we can travel. If it seems too dangerous to make such an observation at this hour of the morning then I won’t risk it, but if the sun is not yet visible, I shall try it. Odds are, even Kobold sentries, such as they might be, will be tired at this time.

The GM wrote:
“In Armour…? Not so well at all.”

“If ye cannae counter the magic of the ward, n if we cannae know the degree of the peril, n if we cannae know the radius of danger, nor if there are more… we’d best pitch rocks at each we find and take our chances with them what come to see ’bout the ruckus… No?”

Player the first wrote:
I smile at the Dwarven sense of practicality. “That is, indeed, one method, and some would say the safest in many regards. It should be noted however, that the Kobolds clearly have someone at their beck and call with arcane knowledge, and dare I say, if there be any “wirld endin’ bastards'” within reach, they lie yonder in that cave. Beyond rocks, have we anything to attack the beasts from this side of the river? One can only surmise that they will have primitive bows or slings at the very least.” I pause for a moment as an idea strikes me. “We could combine both plans: you trigger the wards from here and draw them out and I can take up a position across the river and flank them. I can bring fire down upon their heads whilst they are taunting you…” While somewhat foolhardy, it might work to take out both the wards and the nearest guards.

The GM wrote:
“Och… its a wirkable plan… Can’t do naught but wirk or fail~ Le’ss Go!”

And with that the Dwarves hunker down to roughly plan out positions, and timings. The elder dwarf indicates that you should go back downstream to roughly where the troll was slain, cross over, then work your way back up. They will lie in wait here, then when enough time has passed for you to be in position, they will hurl small animals at the ward. He pauses to allow you to give input on times, positions, and projectiles.

The GM wrote again:
He pauses to allow you to give input on times, positions, and projectiles.

The GM then wrote:
He glances at the relative positions of the heavenly bodies compared with the horizon, perhaps as a means to gauge the passage of time…

Player the first wrote:
I yawn as the night deepens to early morning and the feeling of an immense passage of time fades.

“How long will it take you to rustle up some small beasties to use as a trigger for yonder ward? Can either of you fish? Or would squirrels or vermin be a better choice? I can be in position in five minutes. When you are ready, head back and cross the river.”

I take a deep breath and try not to let my nervousness show. This is bound to be a tricky encounter, ley-line nearby or not.
The GM wrote:
“Not long!” the elder dwarf states, and smashes his cohort across the back of the head with a friendly slap. “Get to it, lad!”

The lad, who could conceivably be your elder by decades, despite his young looks, shoots the older warrior a look then nods and slinks off into the shrubbery. He returns after no more than 10 minutes with a small bag, full of some small, squirming things.
“Star-nosed moles,” he offers simply, and passes them over to be dispensed with according to the plan.

“Go, then~” the elder dwarf nods to you. “We will wait til yoo-er in position before tossin’ wee yon beasties to their doom.”

Heading back downstream to the place where the troll was slain is a relatively easy matter, and once deeper into the river, becomes easier still as you can levitate via the ley line.

Creeping forward with as much stealth and concern as you can muster, you ease yourself into a position which approximates what the dwarves intended as best you can – limited by the actual protection and shape of the terrain.

You find a decent place to lurk, about a stone’s throw from the entrance, behind an outcropping of glittering rock topped by a hardy, twisted bush with a fragrant – almost perfumed – scent that reminds you of the best pieces of furniture in the abbot’s office… pieces you grew very familiar with when sent there to write lines, or receive an all-too-frequent whipping for “snot-nosed behaviour.”

As the memory comes and goes, and the sense that the dwarves really should have done something by now begins to take hold, a blinding flash of light catches your eye as a blooming rose of sparkling fire lights the night and ignites some of the tree tops.
The Star-nosed moles have declared war on the kobolds.

Distantly, and with a faint echo as if in a long hallway, you believe you hear an alarm of some sort. Closer – surprisingly close – you hear a startled intake of breath and the clink of armour on stone. A sharp hiss… some sort of query perhaps follows immediately after, as does the sound of running feet.

You suddenly realize that on the opposite side of this bush-topped outcropping, are at least two sentries who have been roused from their boredom by the discharge of the ward.

It seems as though they are waiting for some sign of life before leaving their position…

The sentries, despite their race, appear to have the patience of characters from scripture, as they pause tentatively on the other side of the outcropping… until you realize that your heart is pounding wildly with excitement, your mouth is full of a coppery tang, and your guts are tightening into a tense ball of chaotic emotion… time is slowing into a dilated blur of heightened battle sense and bloodlust…

-Finis-

Continued  HERE

*I know not from whence the image used within was drawn, and if its inclusion here should offend the artist whose work it is, then please do let me know, and I shall with regret remove it.

*”The world, characters, likenesses, rules, titles, names, publications, trademarks and copyrights related to all Palladium Publications are owned and licensed exclusively by Palladium Books Inc.; all rights reserved, worldwide.”

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  1. […] The tale continues here, but is related from Marlin’s point-of-view […]

  2. […] – begins here with this first installment of ‘Promises.’ The first story, ‘ A Single Step ‘ concluded with Marlin and Genrir booking passage on a vessel called the Winter Wind to […]



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