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The worn trail wound through the deep copse of evergreens, spreading out like a mossy blanket across the hills to either side. Swaying gently in the late autumn breeze, the setting sun turned their reddish-brown trunks the color of burnished copper. Thin, wispy clouds drifted lazily above in the fading blue sky. One could already feel a chill in the air, heralding the coming snow and ice of winter.
Quiet voices and the clop of hooves broke the placid silence of the forest as a group of riders came into view, moving steadily toward a nearby hilltop. In the lead, a small pony carried a halfling clad in a faded sage green cloak, his keen eyes scanning the terrain ahead. He subtly nudged his mount periodically, directing her to the smoother, easier portions of the trail. Behind him, a grim-faced elven woman, slim but toned, sat astride a white horse, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of a fine longsword with the relaxed confidence of a skilled swordsman. Her gray-blue eyes flicked quickly to the trees on either side, alert to any sign of danger
A bearded dwarf and three humans followed the two in the lead. The dwarf, Dorin Feldspar, wore a finely tooled leather jerkin over his chain shirt with a small silver anvil, the emblem of Kügnir the Thunderdelver, dangling from a chain around his neck. He chatted quietly with one of the three, Christian McAdder. The young man wore simple leathers and a homespun shirt, perpetually fidgeting with a small dagger as they rode along. The other two guarded the rear, both more heavily armored. The first, Peckenridge or Peck, regularly kept a sharp eye on the darkening trail behind them. The older man, Seir D’Arcana, kept his attention on what lay ahead, occasionally raising an annoyed eyebrow when the dwarf and Christian made too much noise.
“Don’t misunderstand me, my friend.” The dwarf’s deep baritone echoed off the trees around them. “All I meant to say is that Theo up there should have let you set the ambush for the beast. Rangers make all the difference in a forest but sneaking into a dragon’s lair requires a rogue’s cunning.” Christian nodded absently in agreement, more interested in the growing shadows around the group than in adding to the conversation.
“You are mistaken, I think, Feldspar.” The elf, Ari’ell, turned slightly in her saddle to look back at the cleric. “I should think a dwarf would remember the all-consuming greed of blue dragons. I’m not sure she would have negotiated with us had the rogue first caught her attention.” She nodded in Christian’s direction. “This one may yet bring down her ire upon us if she notices a missing gem. Or ten.”
The dark-haired rogue turned in her direction, an amused grin on his face. “Ah, poor Ari’ell. I’m beginning to think you don’t find me completely trustworthy. What difference are one or two emeralds among so many?” He deftly sheathed his dagger and, in the same motion, pulled a palm-sized green gemstone from one of his many belt pouches.
Her withering gaze discouraged his attempt at humor. “I expect we may find out exactly how much difference should our paths cross with the wyrm again,” she replied. Christian, with a cocky smirk, flipped the emerald into the air, catching and returning it to his pouch. Dorin’s face took on a sober expression, recalling their encounter with the blue-scaled beast.
Christian grinned rakishly at him. “Aww, don’t look so glum, Dorin. Just over the rise is what we’ve all been longing for. Warm baths, warmer stew, and a soft bed. Ember and home, my friend. With any luck, Morweena will have everything ready for us.” The dwarf’s gloomy expression lightened a bit. Morweena Pastepot had traveled with them often in times past. She chose to stay closer to home when the group ventured into the desert of Erg Chebbi, seeking the ancient ruined temple and the dragon who called it home several weeks earlier
From behind them, Seir suddenly reined in his mount. “Quiet! All of you,” he hissed. The group stopped, looking around in confusion. Seir slipped off his horse, tossing the reins to Peck. He carefully skirted the path beside his fellow travelers. Drawing a deep breath, he gazed intently at the path further up the slope. “Something burns nearby. Do you not smell it?”
Theo slid off his mount and silently slipped ahead of the group, studying some tracks along the trail's edge. Something about the shape concerned him but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Looking up, he could see a wide column of smoke rising to mingle with the clouds and fading sunlight above them. “I see the source of the smell, Seir,” he called back as loudly as he dared.
He continued up the slope, motioning for the others to stay back. He hugged the trees to one side, staying out of sight as much as possible. Rounding a bend in the trail, he spotted a dark shape lying back in the trees just before the crest of the hill. He gently pushed back some low-hanging tree limbs for a better look and froze.
A slain pony lay just off the trail, its wide eyes frozen in a rictus of fear. Deep gashes marred its side, soaking the ground with dark blood and offal. He muted a gasp as his eye focused on the beast’s leather harness, woven with familiar strands of multi-colored yarn. This animal had borne Morweena on their travels on many occasions.
The odd tracks surrounded the pony. Theo knelt for a closer look. There was no mistake. Though humanoid in shape, the prints resembled those of a large canine. He slowly stood up, his hand drifting to the yew wood short bow at his saddle. He whispered to himself, “Gnolls.”
Theo rushed back down the trail. “I think there’s trouble in Ember,” he huffed. His companions leaped into action, drawing weapons and urging their mounts forward. They covered the remaining distance to the top in seconds. The evening sun spread reddish-orange light across the valley below. The ranger slowed as he took in the view, the bow falling slack in his hand. Shock and horror slid across the faces of all in the group.
Ember, their home, lay in utter ruin, heavy plumes of white smoke rising from dying fires throughout the village. Carrion birds circled low over the ruined hulks of familiar buildings. A few already pecked and prodded blackened, motionless forms upon the ground. Only the whistle of the evening breeze broke the eerie stillness hanging over the horrific scene.
Seir and Peck scouted ahead of their companions. A shadowy mass hanging from a large elm on the slope leading down to the village drew their attention. Nearing the spot, familiar features emerged in the evening’s light: leather boots and breeches followed by an embroidered linen shirt under a light blue cloak. At last, rounding the trunk, they stood facing their beloved friend, Morweena Pastepot, pinned to the tree trunk with a heavy spear, the wispy blonde hair framing her face floating like gossamer threads in the gentle breeze.
Peck, tears welling in his green eyes, slowly stumbled forward, to gently cradle her broken body. Seir stared in shock for a long moment before he grasped the spear shaft. With a single movement, he wrenched the spear from his friend’s body. Her corpse dropped lightly into Peck’s arms. The younger man gently knelt, leaning her body against the tree, his hand carefully closing her eyes.
Christian, Ari’ell, and Dorin hurried to catch up while Theo trailed behind, an arrow nocked in his shortbow. Christian sank to his knees beside Morweena’s ruined body, all sense of bravado drained from his face. Ari’el and Dorin stood in shocked silence just behind him. Theo uttered a quiet cry, his bow slipping from his grasp with a soft thump. The sight of their slain childhood friend left the party paralyzed. How could she be dead? The journey to the desert had only taken a few weeks.
Sier, his face seething in anger, carried the spear to the edge of the road. He stared fixedly at the stain of his friend’s blood on the blade of the foul weapon. The emblem of the owner’s abyssal patron dangling from the spearhead mocked the big fighter. Giving a deep anguished cry to the heavens, he snapped the shaft across his knee and tossed the pieces into the nearby trees. He returned to the others, wringing his hands helplessly.
None of them recalled the slow ride down the hill into what remained of Ember, any hopes of rest and comfort dissipating with the wispy plumes rising above them. The hyena-like bodies of many gnolls lay, intermingled with many more friends and neighbors as they slowly searched for any signs of life.
Theo rushed to his parent’s home, stumbling to his knees as he reached the razed structure, the ruin still smoldering. Dorin, Peck, Seir, and Christian huddled together, processing the shocking scene around them. Ari’ell just stood, withdrawn from the others, stoically staring at the sky as the first evening stars slowly emerged.
Here she remained, lost in thought for what seemed a lifetime. Theo eventually wandered back to them, looking as drained as the others. The others stirred soon after, checking their gear and preparing to depart, suddenly realizing how vulnerable their ruined village had become. There seemed to be little else to do. At long last, Ari’ell turned toward her friends.
“Ranger, can you find their trail?”. Her flat, emotionless tone sent a chill down Theo’s spine.
“I think so,” he murmured, looking around. Long shadows crept over the remains of Ember but enough light remained to make out some details. “They weren’t even trying to hide their trail. I even found wagon tracks on the far side of town.” Ari’ell opened a pouch, pulling forth some sharpened shards of metal and obsidian. She absently stroked her silken hair and methodically began braiding it, carefully weaving the shards into the design. The others watched her, curiously drawn to the ritual.
The braid finished, Ari’ell spoke, her voice like the whisper of steel clearing a scabbard. “Then, we can follow. And some may still live.” She slowly turned and faced her companions. “I have voiced my pledge and now display my war braid. I will have my vengeance on those who did this. This is my duty to my family and kin. None of you need follow if you do not wish it.” She shouldered her pack and stalked toward her mount. The horse stamped the ground, whickering nervously, as the elf mounted.
Looking back, she found the others already climbing atop their animals, brows furrowed with grim resolve. Theo spoke, “Lead on, Ari’ell. We too would end those who took our homes and the lives of those we hold dear.” The elf smiled briefly before flicking her reins and turning toward the road leaving Ember. In moments, darkness and a heavy evening mist swallowed the riders as their hunt began.
-Roger H, DM and Player
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