Secrets of Mystara

Post 43 - Tired of hectic city life, the party takes a jaunt in the countryside

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As soon as Xanathon disappears from sight, the party rushes forward to Morgan’s body. Ember checks her neck, but it is not broken, and Morgan regains consciousness.

[Morgan was at 8hp, took 10 from the mace to be at -2; a medicine check from Ember restored 3 hp and she is now at 1].

The shore of the fjord behind the temple is free of dwellings, but the huts of the Ethangari are not far off. The crash of the glass may have attracted attention, for they can hear men and women shouting to one another in the distance, and dogs barking.

Morgan shakes her head gingerly and pushes Ember away as she sits up. “We need to get out of here.”

“Back to oldy-moldy house?” asks Fluffy.

Morgan stands, sees Bhelgarn folding and pushing the tapestry as far into his pack as he can. It is sized for a wall, and the brightly colored folds of cloth still stick out despite his efforts.

“No,” she says resolutely. “We need to get out of town. Marching order.”

The party organizes themselves, goes down to the water’s edge, and then begins making their way south along the shoreline. It is late at night, but not yet midnight – the moon has not risen, and it is dark except for the stars and the muted lights coming from the houses of the Ethengari.

“Where’s the wharves?” whispers Ember.

“A hunnerd paces more,” replies Odleif, “course it’s on ‘tother side o’ dem houses an’ sech.”

In front of them loom the Ethengarian houses – a jumble of wood and hides like a tent city that is being slowly lignified. The houses press flush together. Morgan knows there are alleyways that could take them through to the other side – but she doesn’t know where they are. Somewhere off in the darkness, a man’s voice shouts orders, and a half-dozen voices respond in chorus. There is the distinctive rasp of weapons being drawn from sheathes.

Morgan tells Fluffy to get on Thrud’s back, and then she leads them into the water of the fjord. They go out until Bhelgarn is up to his waist, and they are all gasping with cold. “Go slow and don’t splash,” she hisses. Together they walk out and around the cluster of houses at the water’s edge – some of which are even built on rickety platforms that extend over the water itself, at least at high tide. The water begins to smell foul – no doubt the closest houses have open-hole privies on their balconies. Despite the cold, Morgan makes sure they stay in the water far past the last house, glad that they are moving upstream and washing any filth away.

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The west fjord: wharves, Ethengari quarter, and back of the Temple of Cretia

It is a scant fifty feet from the last house on the shore to the first dock of the west wharves. There are any number of fishing vessels, but only a few that can hold the eight of them. They choose one that has several large bundles under tarps, hoping they are supplies, and set out. None of them have sailed a boat before, but Thrud and Ember have been on boats enough that they know what they are supposed to do. Thrud grabs the tiller while Ember passes out oars and shows the party how to pass the handles through the twisted hemp oar locks.

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It is a good two miles across the fjord, but Thrud is just working to get them away from the shore for the time being, using the current to propel them and steering them further out. The cries of alarm from the Ethengari have spread to the rest of the city, and many Nordic voices are raised as well, including those of the ducal guard. They are fortunate indeed that the Duke’s last edict has ensured that no one dares use lanterns to find them, and it will be hours before the boat is discovered to be missing.

Thrud takes them further from shore until the cries of the city grow faint. Under Ember’s direction, the party has begun to row, and Thrud has brought the boat about so that it now points upstream. It soon becomes apparent that while the rowing is slowing their movement downstream, the inexperienced and ill-matched rowers are not capable of actually moving upstream. Thrud passes the tiller to Ember and has Fluffy hold a lantern for him so that he can see about setting up the step-down mast. Having never done it before, Thrud surprises himself with his competency, and soon has the mast up and sail snapping in the wind.

Ember smiles at him. “Det er i blodet ditt – blodet av sjøfolk,” she says.

With a strong north wind at their backs, they are able to bring the oars back in and make both for the far shore and upstream. Once the moon is up, Thrud steers them so that they will make land directly across the fjord from Rhoona, where there is a small community and the start of the caravan trail depicted on the tapestry.

Freed from the oars, they now have time to pull back the tarps, but find only piles of fishing nets and one lobster trap. Morgan orders them to take stock of their supplies by lantern light. They each have about ten days’ worth of food – but no idea how far away the red mark is, the red mark that was on the side of the mountain between Vestland and the Ethengari lands, whatever it means.

Once they land, they move as silently as they can, tieing up the boat and slipping through the village by moonlight. It is a curious mix of fishing huts and ferries, horse corrals and inns – a place that would be crowded and bustling upon the arrival of a summer’s caravan, but is now long past season and near deserted in the night.

West of the village the trail takes them past farm houses and barren fields harvested weeks ago. When Morgan sees a stone farmhouse with an adjoining barn near the trail she has them stop. Inside the barn she finds an old plow horse which she promptly liberates, along with a bag of feed. There is no saddle or bridle (just harnesses, tresses, and a yoke), but she finds two threadbare horse blankets and a rope halter. She feeds the horse a handful of grain and whispers to it while Ember stares her down.

“That horse is someone’s livelihood,” the priestess says. “How will this hold plant in the spring?”

Morgan slips a gold piece into the feed bucket, then halters the horse and leads it outside. She folds the blankets until they are the size of saddle blankets and then mounts. Inside the barn, Bhelgarn hesitates, then opens his pack and adds another 40 gold into the bucket. “Yes,” says Poncherius and helps him reorder his pack. The tapestry, now properly folded, goes in first, but still sticks out the top.

The caravan trail is wide and obvious in the moonlight – the night is cold and walking makes it warmer – and they had been sitting around the hideout house most of the day. Morgan tells them they will be putting some miles between themselves and Rhoona before they rest, and no one objects.

It is around three in the morning when Morgan calls a halt. The trail has risen up from the coastal lowland to the top of a ridge covered in pine forest. They have been following the trail along the ridgetop for hours. After a bit of scouting, Morgan finds a small ravine, perhaps twenty feet deep and twice that across, with a stream bed in the bottom, running parallel to the trail. With water down in the ravine, within earshot of the trail but hidden from sight, Morgan can’t think of a better spot. She will have to lead her horse quite a ways around to get to the bottom, but the others slide down the bank and have the camp half set up by the time she returns. Bhelgarn offers to take first watch.

Ninmonth 22
(fifth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)

They are up before first light, somewhat rested and readying the camp, preparing their first hot meal since breakfast the day before. Morgan, Ember, and Wolfbane are praying or studying their spells, the rest of the camp either cooking or on watch. Suddenly ten men appear at the lip of the ravine above them, swords drawn and screaming in bloodlust. They have brown traveling robes over leather armor – the party has little time to notice more detail than that before they are barreling down the wall of the ravine and into the camp.

Even as the swordsmen charge their camp, three more men in robes appear at the ravine edge, but their gestures indicate that they are obviously casters. The party responds with missile fire – Morgan quits memorizing spells and launches a magic missle at one of the casters, Poncherius hits another with a crossbow bolt, and Odleif hits one with an arrow, then drops his bow and draws his sword as he uses his boots to leap to the top of the ravine.

The party fighters brace themselves to receive the charge of the robed swordsmen. Fluffy drops back to protect Wolfbane and crosses blades with one of them. Thrud and Bhelgarn are both wounded, but Thrud kills his opponent and Bhelgarn activates his boots of speed, slays two of the men, then scrambles up the ravine bank to stand at the top amidst the casters. With Fluffy throwing herself between Wolfbane and any swordsman who approaches, Wolfbane is able to complete a sleep spell that incapacitates five of the attackers. Ember, not breaking off her prayer chant, calmly rises and moves behind the tethered plow horse to continue her devotions to Glöð.

Together, Morgan and Thrud dispatch the two remaining swordsmen so that the fight is now only on top of the ravine, with Odleif and Bhelgarn facing the three casters. Wolfbane tries to help by shooting her sceptre of paralysis, but she hits Odleif (who fortunately is able to resist the effects). The middle robed man has three pre-cast magic missiles floating about his head, and with a gesture he lets these fly at Bhelgarn. The dwarf is knocked to his knees by the triple explosion of force, and the mage runs forward, wrests the tapestry from his pack, and disappears. Odleif squares off against another robed man, and kills him with his sword, though he has to pierce the man’s chain armor to do it.

The final robed man raises a mace high above his head, preparing to bring it down on Bhelgarn before the dwarf can stand again. Suddenly there is a blur of brown and the man screams in agony – a large dog has grabbed his calf from behind! This gives Bhelgarn and Odlief the time they need to dispatch the final priest.

With Ember praying, Morgan moves rapidly among the sleeping men, slitting throats. Wolfbane helps at first, but insists that at least one be spared for questioning, and Morgan acquiesces. Leaving Wolfbane and Thrud to bind the man before he awakens, Morgan climbs the ravine wall (with difficulty in her bronze plate). Trying to ignore Pooches’ licks and nuzzles, she wants Odleif to immediately check for tracks from the disappearing mage. He checks the ground, confirms that the mage did not go invisible – he actually left. With three missiles, Morgan reasons that the mage was more powerful than she is – the question is, how powerful? If he used dimension door he might be only a few hundred yards away. She hopes they are not facing someone capable of casting teleport.

Morgan takes Bhelgarn and Odleif with her and moves quickly through the woods to the caravan trail. They search up and down its length until she is convinced that they did not just face the scouts of a larger host. Only then do they return to the camp.

With more leisure to inspect the fallen, Morgan speaks aloud what she sees and has Odleif check her reasoning. The bronze skin and dark hair indicate that the men are Ethengari – so the obvious question is whether they are from the temple and were sent to pursue the party, or if they are free raiders. Near the ravine they find where the men dropped their supplies before the attack – empty waterskins and a few pouches of jerky. On the bodies, the two casters have holy symbols of Cretia, and several of the men carry prayer beads. Odlief points out that the men are wearing sandals, not traveling boots. They agree that the men must have been sent from the temple, and traveled all night to find the party. The question is whether they will leave off the attack now that they have recovered the tapestry, or whether the escaped mage will confirm their location so that a larger force can be sent. Posed this question, Odleif merely shrugs, then spits.

Oh pooches, du stakkars søte kjære!” exclaims Ember. The priestess has finished her morning devotions and is now fawning over the dog, who is licking her hands and face contentedly. The dog is indeed in a sorry shape. His barding is gone, and he is gaunt from hunger. His fur is covered in burs and crusted with mud and blood and Ember finds many scratches and two deep, but mostly healed and not infected, puncture wounds. She pinches his skin and is satisfied that he is at least not dehydrated. When she asks him, “where’s Iris?” the dog just whines piteously.

Ember had prayed for all healing spells to redress their damage from the previous night in the temple, but now many people are freshly wounded and Pooches is in need as well. In just a few moments Ember exhausts two of Glöð’s Remedies and all eight of her orisons of heartmending without making a dent in the needs of the party.

Already ravens have come to claim the dead men, and Morgan announces that they will move camp – but not far, and she agrees that Ember can have another four hours of rest for more healing before they consider marching for the day. She orders everyone to fill all of their waterskins in the stream, upstream of where some of the men are lying in the stream bed, bleeding out. With full skins they break camp.

They move a scarce hundred yards away, and make camp on the trail itself, for that gives them the best visibility in the day. They rest all morning and only pack up after their mid-day meal. In the meantime, there are several items of business.

The first of these is determining where they are going. After Morgan asks who got a good look at the tapestry, someone recalls that they still have the parchment version of it made by Fluffy five days ago on their first day in Rhoona. When she is asked to take it out, Fluffy is incensed. “I TELL you,” she squeaks, wagging her finger at each of them, “I tell you ALL!”, but nonetheless she produces the parchment.

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Fluffy’s map shows the borders of Vestland, Rockholme, and Ethengarr

Morgan, Thrud, and Odleif argue over the scale of the document, trying to determine how long it will take to get to whatever the menacing red dot represents on the border of Vestland and Ethengarr. Morgan and Odleif argue for ten days, while Thrud is more optimistic at five. Hopefully after a day or two of travel they should be able to place themselves and figure out the scale – assuming there is a consistent one, as many display “maps” are more pictorial than accurate. They make sure that each party member (excepting Poncherius, for whom the concept of a map is quite new) can give a good accounting of their direction of travel and landmarks, in case they get separated or another mage appears to steal this paper as well.

Once the matter of the map is settled, they turn to that of the prisoner, who is now conscious, but bound hand and foot. Under questioning, in very halting Common, he admits that he is a temple guard and that his group was sent after the party last night. For other questions he either refuses to answer or does not understand enough Common to answer. Morgan suggests that they can “make him talk,” but her voice betrays that she is not keen on the prospect. Ember says they will not force him. She points out the ritualistic tattoos they found when he was searched for concealed weapons, and the way he and his companions were chanting during the battle. She believes that he is a berserker, a religious fanatic who can inure himself to fear or pain. Ember believes that breaking him through torture would prove, in the long run, far more injurious to the party than to him.

Ember explains that he will be put under the care of Thrud (chosen as the most physically intimidating of the party). So long as he does not betray them, they agree to return him to the temple. After some talk amongst themselves, the party agrees that he will be given a half-ration of food and a full ration of water each day. That should give him enough energy to walk, but not enough to be interested in fighting.

After their mid-day meal, Ember prays for an hour and a half or so, then administers another two Glöð’s Remedies and eight orisons of heartmending. The party then sets out on the trail for what part of the day remains, another five hours or so of marching.

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The party’s progress after half a night and half a day of travel.

Morgan calls for a halt at dusk, but as they set up camp, Pooches is obviously nervous, sniffing and growling, hackles raised. Fluffy sets out upwind, over the next rise and down to the bottom of a hillside, where a large grizzley bear is turning over logs and rocks. Fluffy returns to the party and gathers up all of the jerky that was taken from the berserker party. She returns to the bear, throwing the jerky at it, a piece at a time, and leading it farther and farther from the camp. The bear is agitated, smelling but not seeing her, but it is more hungry than curious and eventually accepts its mysterious benefactor.

[DM’s note: Ember has been ministering to the party all day, with herbs and medicinal mushrooms. She makes 8 healing checks to restore 1hp to each person. There are many stream crossings the first day of travel and all waterskins are full at day’s end. 120 skins, 44.5 food rations.]

Ninmonth 23
(sixth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)

Ember makes the rounds in the night, for another two Glöð’s Remedies and eight orisons of heartmending.

[DM’s note: After his first full night of rest since the temple battle, Poncherius is now at Level 3]

[DM’s note: After having attained 24,000xp and had a full night’s rest, Ember now has the ability to cast a new spell: Gutter, Flicker, and Flare.

[DM’s note: Having used his boots of speed for the sixth time, during the battle with the temple berserkers, Bhelgarn has now aged his body to 61 years. Although his mind is still that of a young adult, his body has become that of a mature dwarf. His strength increases one point, to 17. This does not affect any of his combat modifications, but it does allow him to carry more weight.]

In the morning, the party sets out along the caravan trail. As they move further from the fjord, the land rises until they enter a high valley between higher mountains. The forest thins and the land dries until they are in brown, grassy hill country. Visibility is great and Morgan stops worrying about ambushes, but the streams they find to refill their skins are smaller and farther between. They make their camp at the entrance to a high mountain pass. In the evening, after their meal, Ember makes a final round of healing. Everyone in the party is now fully recovered from the last two battles.

[DM’s note: At day’s end: 101 skins, 35 food rations.]

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After a second day of travel, the party enters a mountain pass.

Ninmonth 24
(seventh full day since the expulsion of the dwarves – Bhelgarn estimates that the dwarves have reached Rockholme by now)

With no immediate need for healing spells, Ember asks for a Speak with Animals in her morning prayers. After the camp is packed and as they are about to head out, she calls Pooches over, and asks him what happened to him and Iris. His response is illuminating, but also confusing – much of what he is describing is based on smells, and Ember simply has no context to understand it.

Simplified and distilled, the tale is thus: When the moon rose, Iris lost control of the crickets and they began to follow the moon. Although this took them east at first, eventually as the moon rose, the crickets began to fly higher and higher. The wind carried them off-course, so that they were no longer over the desert, but over high mountains. They flew so high that Iris and Pooches had trouble breathing in the thin air. By the time the moon was sinking in the west, they were far from the desert and hopelessly lost. At this point, one by one, the crickets began dropping from exhaustion, dangling from the ropes, smelling foul and twitching. Those still flying struggled to keep going west as they sank lower. Eventually the few crickets remaining could not support the weight of what they carried and they fell, crickets, Iris, Pooches and all. Fortunately their fall was broken by tree limbs rather than rocky ground. The crickets were scattered or dead or dangling from ropes in the trees, Iris’ gilt chair was smashed, and their supplies were strewn all around the forest. Iris and Pooches and Blackcloak the cat were banged up a bit but not seriously hurt.

The next morning Iris gathered what supplies remained and they set out. She told Pooches that they were trying to return to the desert, but every path she tried eventually ended in a high mountain they could not cross. Iris kept them fed, and together they fought off predators like wolves and baboons and even trolls (though they mostly ran from these). They kept working their way along the face of the mountains, always trying to get back to the desert but never finding a pass through. Eventually Iris ran out of arrows, and then food was harder to find.

One evening at camp they were attacked by a flying creature that shot long barbs at them – that’s how Pooches got his puncture wounds. Pooches had been pinned to the ground with a barb completely through his hind leg so that he could not move it, and the thing landed to come finish him off. Iris charged the monster and pulled the barb out that had kept Pooches from running, then told him to run and hide and that she would find him. The monster turned on Iris as Pooches ran away. Iris backed up and gave ground every time it lunged at her. Finally she turned and jumped into a river, going below the water where it could not reach her and being carried away by the current. That was the last Pooches saw of her. He has been wandering this wilderness since, and only recently come upon the caravan trail. He is very glad that the party is here now and will feed him and help him find Iris.

Ember says that she is glad they have found Pooches but says nothing about Iris, not wishing to forswear herself even to a dog.

After they descend from the mountain pass this day’s travel is very different from the previous two. Yesterday the caravan trail took them mostly along the ridgetops between washes, or occasionally down into the bottom of a wash, sometimes with a stream, sometimes dry. The trail ran mostly flat, and parallel to these features, Today the trail cuts across these valleys. They spend the day laboring up and down slopes as they work their way over the rugged terrain carved into the landscape by spring floods. Some of the broader and deeper valleys have thick stands of pine and fir trees that line the trail, but the hilltops and ridge crests are just dry, dead grass. Fortunately, previous years, perhaps generations, of caravans have selected the best routes from among those available. If they had to decide themselves where to travel instead of following the trail, it would easily take twice as long or more to travel through the same terrain, as they would have to force their way through pine stands, go around cliff faces, and backtrack after mistakenly selecting dead-end side-canyons. In all the day’s travel they find no source of water, and are traveling considerably lighter at day’s end.

In the evening, Morgan says they will camp down in a forested valley. The ridge tops have impressive vistas, and she doesn’t want their campfire seen and attracting all the Ethengarians, or worse, for miles around.

Most of the night passes uneventfully, but when Morgan is on the pre-dawn third watch, she sees a large form on all fours slinking about the trees in the distance. She alerts the camp and then goes out to intercept it, but it is gone.

In the morning, she and Odleif look in the light, and the woodsman finds a clear set of panther tracks, moving in and out of the edge of a stand of trees, almost as if it wanted to be seen by Morgan. Back at camp, more tracks are found in the trees only twenty or thirty yards from where the bedrolls were.

[DM’s note: At day’s end: 63 skins, 25.5 food rations.]

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On the third day, the party has to travel across many rugged valleys, up and down slopes

Ninmonth 25
(eighth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)

The first half of the day’s travel is spent in and out of the same dry washes as the previous day, but each ridge rises slightly higher than the one before. After mid-day they are on a long, rising slope. Here and there springs have created alpine meadows where the grass is still green and a few late-season flowers bloom. They can drink from the springs and seeps and not have to use as much of the water they carry, but they find no streams large enough to actually fill their skins.

[DM’s note: At day’s end: 44 skins, 16.5 food rations.]

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By the fourth day of travel, the party is ascending into the mountains

Soon after breaking camp, the party finds a clear mountain stream and fills their skins. They are grateful for the water, but it does make the long climbs up the steep slopes more difficult. The terrain grows more and more rocky as they travel, until they have left nearly all vegetation behind. The trail is treacherous, with many switchbacks, and often times a sheer cliff face and a fall ending in certain death on one side or the other of the trail.

With perhaps an hour to go before dusk, at the time they would normally make camp, they arrive at the summit of the great pass over the Makkres Mountains.

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After five days of travel, the party has reached the highest point of the caravan trail

To the north and west, more than fifty miles away but still visible, are the great, flat steppes of Ethengarr, a sea of grass as far as they can see. To the south, the mighty peaks of Rockholme thrust into the sky. As Bhelgarn looks upon them, his face lights up and a tear streaks down one cheek (from the stinging mountain winds, he claims). He names the peaks to Poncherius, and then starts to describe each and every city and principality that lies beneath them before the rest of the party loses interest.

The caravan trail itself descends the other side of the pass, wends among the forested foothills, and then is lost in the steppes. However, here at the summit of the pass, two narrow trails climb up the mountainsides, one to the north, one to the south. The trails are perched on knife-edges of broken rock, and would have to be undertaken single file, and carefully at that. Morgan doubts her old plow horse could keep his footing there. Odleif scouts around the trailheads, and then up and down the first hundred paces or so. He finds mountain goat spoor on both, but a clear boot print on the northern trail. Ember is carefully watching the reaction of their prisoner, and she is sure he seems more tense when Odleif is on the northern trail.

The party takes a brief breather while they unload the horse, check their packs, recheck the bindings on the prisoner, eat some dried fruit, and pull at their waterskins. When all seems ready, they rope themselves together, all but the prisoner. He walks ahead of them, arms tied behind him, with Thrud holding his rope from behind. Thrud is in the lead, roped to everyone else behind him.

The exquisitely narrow trail winds around the side of the mountain until the caravan trail behind them is lost from sight, then passes along a ridgeline with sheer dropoffs to both sides. With perhaps some thirty minutes of daylight left, and the sun already behind the mountain to their west, they round a corner and see that the trail is approaching a large cave mouth in the side of a thin, sharp peak. At the sight of this the prisoner begins to chant. Thrud cuffs the back of his head and tells him to be quiet, but the man does not stop.

As they get closer they can see a smaller cave mouth, above the first, with a narrow ledge in front. The trail leads to the lower cave, while the upper one has no visible access. When they are nearing a hundred paces from the cave mouth, a great beast emerges from the upper cave and takes flight, beating the air with huge, heavy wings.

It dives, levels, and then passes over the party, some hundred feet over their heads. As it passes, it whips its tail around, and six wicked long spikes rain down on them. Pooches whimpers; Fluffy is hit by three and collapses in shock. Only the fact that she is roped to the people before and after her keeps her from tumbling down the side of the mountain. Odleif tries to shoot the beast, but has to aim nearly straight up, and the shot goes wide.

The beast continues far past them, then begins a ponderous turn to come back for another pass. “Shield wall!” commands Morgan, and then realizes that she is the only one bearing a shield. She swears in disgust and begins a magic missile spell.

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With Thrud tracking the beast’s movement in the air, he has let the prisoner’s rope go slack. The man turns to face his captors, lowers his center, and rushes forward to slam his shoulder into Thrud’s gut, seemingly seeking to drive them both into the abyss below. Thrud doubles over, but keeps his feet, then slams his fist down across the man’s back, knocking him to his knees.

As the beast passes a second time, he launches another volley of tail spikes. This time the party meets him with the magic missile, an arrow to the side, and Wolfbane’s sleep spell, which seems to have no effect. After this pass the beast turns again, but is struggling to stay in the air. It finally lands heavily on the narrow trail, between the party and the cave mouth.

The prisoner rises to his feet and again throws himself at Thrud, but this time the northerner is prepared. After his fist cracks across the man’s jaw, the prisoner slumps unconscious to the trail.

The beast is not advancing down the trail – after Odleif hits it once more with an arrow and Morgan with a magic missile, it backs up behind a rock outcrop to shield itself. The party takes advantage of this stalemate – Bhelgarn binds Fluffy’s wounds and Thrud the prisoner’s legs. Thrud hoists the man, holding him up in front of him, and starts advancing up the trail.

Thrud is almost upon the outcrop when the beast’s tail lashes out again. One spike grazes his thigh, but the other five sink deep into the body of the prisoner, who promptly jerks, spasms, and expires in Thrud’s arms.

The beast backs around a corner of the cliff face, so that when Thrud follows he is the only member of the party able to face it. The beast has its tail raised above its head, twitching like a cat’s at each step of Thrud, but the northman holds the prisoner high and in front of him. Thrud considers his dilemma – he can’t draw his axe and attack without setting the man down, but as soon as he does so the beast will fire another volley of spikes. He creeps closer, a half-step at a time.

Without warning, Thrud bellows a massive cry and hurls the body of the man at the beast, connecting solidly. The beast topples, claws frantically at the trail, then slides over the side. It writhes as it falls until, gathering speed, it is dashed against a large rock. After that, both the beast and the man continue their bouncing fall down the mountainside as floppy as rag dolls, down and down into the gathering darkness.

Thrud chortles and advances slowly down the trail, giving the roped party time to navigate the outcrop and corner. “Har du sett min kjøtt skjold, Ember?” he calls back at the priestess, and laughs. “Kjøtt skjold,” he says again, as if he finds the words themselves funny.

In just a few minutes more the whole party, less the prisoner, is standing at the twenty-foot wide, ten-foot high cave entrance. It goes deep in to the side of the mountain, and then gets bigger as if opening into a chamber…

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