A warm return:
The party returned to Mbrëmja e Vërenjtur and was greeted by Zjarr. He welcomed them back and ordered the acolytes to prepare a hot meal.
“You’ve already started rebuilding,” Orsik noted.
“Yes. Unfortunately, these two acolytes, well, they aren’t the brightest pair of students. They believe that if they serve their time here, they will be on a path to immortality. They simply don’t understand the fundamental role that death plays in worshipping the Raven Queen.” Zjarr looked over the otherwise empty monastery. “I suppose progress is progress.” He continued to stare blankly around at the monastery, envisioning what it must have been like before the group had arrived and what he hoped it would become. There is a tremendous amount of work to do, he thought. His eyes slowly turned towards the group of weary adventurers. “I just remembered, a traveler arrived the other day and asked for you.”
“Asked for us?” Kir said.
“Well, not by name, but by description. The acolytes brought her in and had her settle her things. She’s traveling alone and she seems harmless enough. But, one can never quite tell what will spark an ardent’s anger. Anyway, why don’t you meet her and we’ll discuss what you found in the caverns over dinner. I believe she is in the library.”
“Descriptions of us, huh?” Gwyrd said suspiciously.
“Yes. I believe she described you as a shorter than average gnome with stronger than average arcana.”
Edwulf laughed, “Gwyrd is short.”
“You, my friend, were described as an aimless boulder crashing wrecklessly down a mountain destroying everything.”
Gwyrd chuckled, “Whoever she is, she’s definitely heard of your charges into my stinking clouds.”
Edwulf simply crossed his arms, “We survived didn’t we?”
“Let’s go, you two,” Kir said as she started toward the library.
- * *
“Back in Stonerapids, something happened to me. It’s not like I haven’t seen destruction before, but for some reason, the suffering in Stonerapids seemed magnified. Perhaps Pelor decided that it was time for me to confront atrocities in the world. Anyway, I worked with Griswold Oreshaper and his militia. We fended off remnants of the group of demons that you encountered when you were in Stonerapids.
“One day, a trader came through Stonerapids. He brought household supplies that helped the town feel normal. It’s strange how much difference a pinch of salt on a meal can make to a person’s morale. I convinced him to present fair prices despite the desperate situation in Stonerapids, and in exchange, I offered to travel with him and protect his wares as he traveled south to Qeynos. Along the way, we encountered several groups of bandits, but none of the demons. The trader was a good man, he was the one who gave me my ritual book and started my training.
“When we reached Qeynos, we heard rumors of demons—listen to me, I’ve been traveling this whole time thinking that these are demons—the Hollowed, as you call them, were attacking local villages. There a call to arms and the town hall was littered with posters for enlistment in the militia. They were planning to find the source of some of the demons and strike back. The trader, relinquished me of my duties and we bid farewell. I hope he is still safe during these times.
“The Qeynos militia was not well trained, nor was it well led. My experiences in Stonerapids quickly set me apart from the average militia member. I was selected to be second in command of the assault on the crypt where the Hollowed were coming from. There was a sorcerer, not a Hollowed, but an elf. It is still unclear whether he was possessed or whether he was simply deranged and was summoning Hollowed into the crypt. I’m still not sure how these Hollowed are formed, so perhaps you might be able to provide me with some explanations of what this sorcerer was doing.
“Regardless, we assaulted the crypt. It was much larger than any of the Qeynos militia had thought. We became separated and other groups lost several men. Eventually, we stopped the sorcerer. There won’t be any more Hollowed from that crypt.
“The Mayor of Qeynos presented each of us with a Lion’s Breath Medal. She also presented me with this armor for my role in the battle. She said that the armor had once protected her, and wished it to continue to be useful for those placing themselves in harms way for others. She then told me of rumors that she had heard from traveler’s from Breland. So it was that I learned that the Hollowed are present in Breland. Unfortunately, these rumors also meant that few ships wished to sail to Breland.
“I finally found a group of smugglers who were willing to take me aboard in return for favorable winds that would get them to a lucrative delivery on time. On the boat, when I summoned winds to speed our travels, there were sighs of relief. Someone whispered something about a mindflayer’s orders.
“Arriving in Oscailt, I felt uncomfortable. Everyone, including the half-elves seemed to regard me with disdain. So, I quickly left the port without any information or direction, so I stuck to the roads hoping that travelers would be more amenable. I met an odd man who spoke much about honey and pantaloons. He directed me to Brafferton, where I met Cormac who seemed content to drown his tales of dragons in seemingly endless tankards of ale.
“So, that’s how I had your descriptions and knew the general location of this monastery. It’s not too surprising that you all turn out to be the group of adventurers that Griswold spoke so highly of. So, long story short, I’m here to help you. I hope my story is a sufficient resume to gain acceptance into the group.”
Several of the group nodded, but they are more lost in their own memories than responding to Deena’s story. They had come so far since Stonerapids and her story was bringing them back to each town and city, as well as to each battlefield. Yet they were still far from finding one of the shield fragments that might turn the tide against the Hollowed.
“Look guys, I have no family, no job; so, the world will be my family, protecting it will be my job.”
Kir extended an arm. “Deena, if Griswold trusted you, then you’re welcome to fight next to me,” she said. Deena took her arm in a warm welcome.
- * *
The next day:
When Androk returned back to Mbrëmja e Vërenjtur the following day, Zjarr summoned everyone to meet him at the top of the monastery’s tower. The view from the tower was spectacular, the monastery was set into the side of the mountain and the tower looked out into the valley. The forest grew think in the valley, and the snow from the mountain tops fed small streams of clean, crisp water through the forest. The water would eventually make its way into the Semilli Sea.
“I’ve been tinkering,” Zjarr said as he held out four stones. One was larger than the others. “These three,” he said as he pointed to the smaller stones, “will allow you to communicate with the holders of the other stones. I have not tested the maximum distance, but I am sure that they will be effective for at least five miles. They will also be able to communicate through walls, earth, even mountains. However, their effectiveness may be diminished if used to communicate through such obstacles. I have been trying to create communication stones that can link the Raven Queen Monasteries, but these are clearly insufficient for those purposes. This fourth stone is a much more effective teleportation stone. However, it is connected to a sister stone that will be kept here in the monastery. If ever, you need to return, you may use this stone to create a portal. However, if the holder of the stone steps through the portal, then there is no way to teleport back to where you were. Use it sparingly.”
As the group asked for demonstrations and discussed who should carry these wondrous items, a string of torch lights wound their way through the forests in the valley. They steadily approached the monastery walls. When the group finally noticed the lights, the monastery was completely surrounded. Straining to see past the tree line, the group discovered that the intruders were orcs. Hundreds of orcs.
An envoy broke the tree line and approached the clearing in front of the monastery’s gates. A loud guttural voice shouted, “We are here to claim this monastery as our new home! Surrender and we may spare your lives.”
The orcs in the envoy were dressed for war, but something looked different about these orcs. These orcs seemed lost or passionless. Despite the content of their speech, they didn’t seem as aggressive as orcs typically are. They seemed to prefer for the group to surrender. Then the group saw it—these orcs were famished. They had no supplies beyond what they carried. Their sudden appearance at the gates of the monastery was a desperate bid to pillage the cellars of the monastery. They had no idea that the monastery itself had been recently devastated and was near empty. Even if they had known, it would not have mattered, nothing would turn these orcs away from their objective.
But Zjarr held a similar resolve. “You will never enter this temple of the Raven Queen!” he shouted to the chieftain.
The chieftain laughed, “We number in the hundreds, you seem to be a mere handful. We were prepared to fight a full monastery. You stand no chance. Surrender now and we will not kill you, you will be our slaves.”
“Perhaps you didn’t understand,” Zjarr shouted back. “You will never enter.” Zjarr then turned away from the envoy and instructed the group. “Get down to the front gate. When I give the signal, charge out and kill any survivors.”
“Shall I put an arcane lock on the gate?” Deena asked.
“No, I will take care of it. But, thank you,” Zjarr said.
“Signal?” Gwyrd asked.
“You will know it when it happens,” Zjarr replied.
- * *
Explosions in the sky:
The group gathered at the front gate. Beyond the walls, hundreds of heavily armed and hungry orcs stepped forward out of the forest and formed ranks. They marched towards the walls in synchronized steps. The clanking of metal and the pounding of the ground grew faster and faster until there was no longer a distinguishable beat. Orcish shouts filled the air. The roar seemed like it was just outside the gate. The sound was so loud.
For a brief moment, all of the shouts were muted by a bright light.
As suddenly as the shouts were silenced, screams were heard.
Screams of pain.
The group looked at each other and put their hands on their weapons. They pushed the gate open and saw dead orc warriors scattered across the field before the monastery.
“Zjarr out-did himself this time,” Gwyrd whispered.
“Let’s go,” said Androk.
“Yeah. I didn’t get to hurt anyone yet,” Edwulf said as he rushed towards the trees.
- * *
A travelers’ feast:
Orsik led the group through the rolling hills. He breathed the fresh air, relieved to have a reprieve from the dank smell of the caverns and the oddly metallic smell of the battlefield. It had been a while since Orsik had the chance to stretch his legs through fields of wild grass on an extended journey.
“I’ve traveled a bit, but never before have I traveled on foot with a dwarf. Dwarven endurance isn’t exaggerated,” Deena said as she met Orsik’s stride.
“That’s right,” Orsik boasted as he continued marching forward.
“I suppose tales of dwarven perception might be accurate as well,” she sighed.
“What did you say?” Orsik stopped and glared at Deena. She glared back, unashamed of her statement. In the brief silence, Orsik heard heavy breathing catching up to them. He turned to face the direction from which they’d come and saw that the group had already used the brief stop as an opportunity to drop their gear and drink water. Orsik huffed, “Well, I suppose we could rest here a bit.”
Deena’s expression softened instantly. “Excellent,” she said. “Let’s stop long enough to have a hot meal.”
Edwulf, the rear guard in their formation, approached Orsik. “Why are we stopped?” he asked.
“The young half-elf means to cook something hot to eat,” Orsik replied.
Edwulf threw his body to the ground with a thud. “Sounds delicious,” he said happily.
- * *
Once a campfire was going, everyone pointed their weary feet toward the flames. It had been a day and a half since the battle with the orcs, and they had been on the move the whole time, only stopping to sleep. They were all eager to get some definitive answers about the shield fragment, so they were traveling to Valkenswaard.
As Deena set about summoning a hot meal, Edwulf took out his axe and realized that he hadn’t fully cleaned it yet. Some of the orc chieftain’s blood stained the sharp edge. As he cleaned the edge, he noticed a slight dent in the otherwise smooth blade. Concerned, he took a closer look at the dent. Realizing that the weapon was still as durable as ever, he chuckled. The axe had left more than a dent on his enemies. “That was a good battle,” he said.
“It sure was,” Gwyrd agreed. “Androk, you’ve got some new tricks. You moved and struck so quickly that the enemies couldn’t even bring a shield up to block, much less take a swing at you. You took down several of those orcs and you were dazed at the time too, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Androk said.
“You’ll have to show me how to did that,” Kir said.
“It can only be achieved by being in tune with oneself,” Androk said. “It is not something that I can show you how to do. The power comes from within and requires the proper balance of focus and strength.”
Kir shrugged, “Then I’ll just stick with my Mordenkrad.”
“Which was quite effective against your marks,” Orsik noted.
“Only because you helped me stay on my feet with your healing,” Kir replied with a grateful nod.
“It was nothing. Besides, I had some help,” Orsik gestured towards Deena.
“Not much,” Deena said as she continued focusing on her summoning.
“Not much? I felt a surge of energy fill me when you took that hit,” Androk said. “That burst of strength kept me alive. Not to mention the healing that you gave when my legs felt like they were going to buckle.”
“Gwyrd looked funny standing on the stump of the tree,” Edwulf grinned. “Even on one of those, he was not as tall as me.”
“Yes, well, because of you, I’ve stopped using powers that could have lasting effects on our enemies, so I’ll take any advantage I can get. Including standing on a stump,” Gwyrd answered.
“That’s true, you used a new colorful power, it struck down many of our enemies. Very effective,” Edwulf said approvingly.
“And you, my friend, remained incredibly focused on the chieftain. I take back what I said about your wrecklessness,” Gwyrd said.
“Don’t take it back just yet,” Edwulf said as Deena handed him a plate full of food. “There will be more battles.” Edwulf started to eat. The rest of the group did the same and the conversation grew quiet as they savored the meal.