Sleep did noy come easy to me, but with having transmuted Tupp into a badger – a creature more akin to my liking – and with the calming felt of Sir Ambergris beneath my meat paws, I did eventually drift into a restless slumber.
The still morning was broken by a cacophony of horns and alarum that we did not expect to be met with on such an island as this mysterious Isle of Shadows. At Vain Gate we were often roused by the clatter of an armed force, the blasting of arcane projectiles; the clittering of arachnid mandibles; or the tocsin of attacks upon the Barachial in Ludivar; but that was of no surprise in that cesspool of corruption and villainy.
These call to arms were sparked, we were told, by the sighting of some goblins and a worg – a fowl beast, much alike a wolf, but twisted and oft aligned itself with the depraved actions the goblin warbands enacted upon caravans and towns. It, along with its rider and accompanying footmen, had been seen to the north upon a hill that overlooked the camp, towards the wall-side of the island. We agreed we would assist in ridding the elves of its malignant, lurking presence. Most of us would have been satisfied by having it turn tail and scurrying off into the Underdark, but we would not be met by such little resistance.
Adrik led the way with his keen eyes, picking up the tracks of the great pawed beast as well as the minute prints of the goblins that strode alongside it. It was as Solem-Pingal crested the hill above us that we saw, a terrible horned helm worn by some armoured goblinoid figure. It sat atop a wolfish beast of incredible size – the worg.
Its grey, gnarled body stood starkly silhouetted against the radiance of the first sun; ratty fur covered its rotund form, parting to expose the skin about the snout – though it seemed more like an elongated face than that of a canine’s muzzle. There showed no sign of a neck, as its back rolled like a withered knoll down to the top of its head. Flanking the cavalier and its steed were two unmounted goblins. The fierce monstrosity reared, its rider held aloft a shaft of thin iron, and the four charged.
Gudael, with the speed and grace of a hummingbird, swiftly loaded a bolt into her crossbow and loosened it towards the worgsman, and with a wispy clatter, the projectile skimmed its mighty horned helm and fell away behind it. Leith arced two blasts of eldritch energy towards the goblin boss and its mount, striking them both. Adrik sent a harpoon of Ostorian lightning careening towards the mounted goblin, but it quickly barked a command at its nearest goon, and the two – with some strange, practiced tactic – side-stepped Adrik and replaced one another, leaving the footman to fry by the dwarf’s hand. One of Brixton’s poisoned arrows skewered the second goblin, and as the mount charged forth beyond Leith, he fired off a bolt of flame, singing its hind. I hurtled an ice-knife at the rider, sending a blast of numbing frost at the master and the mount, and as the worg came sprinting up to me the reigns dropped from the horn-helmed goblin’s limp hands. Gudael tore through the beasts’ hide with her weapon, and the worg too was now dead.
Leith spied a couple more goblins, who had seen the fall of their leader and had just crested the hill, began now to flee back into the tree line. Testing out his new staff, Leith sent a small bulb of potent magick towards the two. There was a flash, as if a third sun had just erupted before us, and in a twenty-foot radius was a circle of singed grass and earth, with little to no sign of the goblins. The trees too now started to alight. With swift thinking, Leith cast upon the affected plants a cone of cold, and thus quashed the blaze he himself had started.
With both the scouts taken care of, we returned to camp. Breakfast was all laid out for us and we sated our aching appetite as minstrels played soothing elven ballads for us upon their lutes. We were – once our morning meal had been consumed – approached by Maith, Leith’s old mentor. He, supposing we had spent a day here and showed little to no sign of leaving the isle – if anything we had showed an interest in staying and aiding Prince Braegan in his fight – asked us if we were ready and willing to take the First Oath of the Servants of the Fox. Naturally, the elves – Gudael, Leith, and even Brixton – expressed little issue with pledging their allegiance. I myself was unsure, so when Maith asked me if I was willing, I returned to Mister Fogdar and in his native tongue asked what he made of this oath. To my surprise, Maith himself replied in polished dwarvish that the three of us had better discuss this privately, and we moved inland – once again, after having turned our potential trajectory away from the shore.
Here Maith spoke to Adrik, and in an attempt to sway him over to the Servants’ side, brought up what he called “the Curse of the Banakaia,” something that evidently Sehanine Moonbow had placed upon the dwarves for their reluctance to aid when the Pa-Kad hit. Adrik, and myself, were shocked; not only as Adrik seemed previously to have thought this malignant hex to come under the power of Moradin – the chief deity to the dwarves – but also because this curse was in retribution, and still continuing, from an event that occurred nigh sixteen-thousand years ago. Over three-score generations of dwarves have suffered under this malediction because they expressed the one sentiment we shared with all sentient – even non-sentient – beings: fear.
The elven mage suggested that, should Adrik, as a representative of his people, help restore the Erothani line, Moonbow might find it in her heart to remove the curse placed upon the dwarven people. Maith proclaimed that if these actions did lead to the end of the curse, he – almost singlehandedly – would be responsible for saving Banakaia. On one knee, Maith saluted the dwarf, calling him “most admirable” and that he would save countless lives. Yet, I could tell this did little to help the fact sit well with Adrik. If he did not help, he would be turning his back on his own people; people whom he had seen hurt by the Curse of Banakaia. Yet if he helped, then he would be aiding the very deity who cursed them in the first place and had damned countless dwarves to whatever end this malison takes hold as. Not only that but his actions would be close to asking for forgiveness where I feel he believes there is none to be asked for.
I, personally, had several questions. As you may guess I am not one for blindly following causes, causes that ask hundreds, if not thousands of impressionable lives to so carelessly sacrifice themselves; or to so ruthlessly exterminate the force of the other. For I have seen war, and war played upon the stage of humans or dwarves or elves is war nonetheless. I have seen the young carted off in piles of bone and flesh that melded as one beneath the heat of their still smouldering wounds.
Firstly, I asked for their main objective.
‘To restore the Erothani line that once so long ago protected the world and, as the last direct link to the primal elves, restore their own spirituality to Sidarhael’ as best as I can remember it. They want peace, a return to the Golden Age, even send emissaries to the Pa-Kad rift to seek the orcs and piece together a collective history of events. They also wish to once more unite the humans – which I can only give my utmost support of. I asked, if Braegan were to fall, who would take his place? Maith replied that his sister, Nolmyra would take his place. I inquired into why it was Braegan whom they were fighting to place upon the throne instead of she, and Maith stated that she was not fond of the day to day ruling of a monarch – which makes me think how well a replacement for Braegan she would be, but with such a threadbare family line left, I suppose so long as they are not Ivran, they will be an improvement.
He also spoke of potentially combining forces with one Kagi-Mingal, an orcish barbarian of Koban Dur who has been building an army to seek the destruction of the patriarchy and the useless chieftains than run the barely cohesive tribes of the orcs. She has, apparently, been attracting women from all around the world who wish to come fight with her. This would be good, as Maith did also mention that perhaps both the hording nature of the Black Guard and the Barachial Mages, as well as their detestation for us, would lead them to making an alliance with one another, so many allies as possible would be most beneficial.
I was swayed, I am not ashamed to say. The prospect of meeting with orcs and learning about a history as extensive, if not more so, than humans that occurred utterly without our knowing, to interact and discuss and record and study their ways is exciting. Not only that, but to unite the humans, which they are in dire need of, is of great importance – to me, at least. We returned to the embankment of the island and entered a tent, in which Braegan and other ranking officials in the Servants of the Fox stood. We spoke our pledge.
“I,” here we spoke our respective names “swear, here in the presence of the Servants of the Fox, representatives of the Seldarine, the Primal Elves; in the name of Corellon Larethian, whose eye watches over us in his image, Solem-Pingal, the Bright Sun above; and in the name of his lost love, Sahanine Moonbow, the Shattered Disk who has been reborn as Ida-Solem, the Faerie Star; I hereby vow to protect this land, its beasts and flowers, its peoples and all that is good in nature. Mortals and fae from evil, from tyranny and corruption. From fiends and the undead, from the monstrosities of chaos and the slavers from the deep. From disease, famine, war and other acts of evil gods. In the name of Solanor Thelandira may the arrow of my aspiration be true.
“I vow here in the presence of the Servants of the Fox, to uphold the will of Correlon that his/her avatar shall be made manifest, as it always has, through the Elder Kings and Queens of Sidarhael Tu Lerathian. Dûrion Erothani. Orym Erothani. Vandar Erothani. Taenarin Erothani. Iyrandrar Erothani. Elthark Erothani. Braegen Erothani. Edyrm Erothani. Imdalace Erothani. Gilan Erothani. Usunor Erothani. Bialaer Erothani. Jhaeros Erothani. Melisander Erothani.
“Now we give love and thanks to the Seldarine. To Corellon Larethian, for his sympathy, love and thanks. To Sehainine Moonbow, to restore her vessel to the world. To Rillifane Ralathil, the connection to all things, nexus of all life and consciousness. To Fenmereal Mestarine, whose sly gifts we must employ to survive. And to Solanor Thalandira, that the arrow of our aspiration may be true.”
And with that, we rose as Servants of the Fox. Prince Braegan gave us, with a quiver in his throat and a watery glitter in his eye, his heartfelt thanks before leaving. What an emotional thing it must be for one to have another pledged to them – and in his case so many. I think it was then that I truly understood and respected the pressure this young king-to-be must be under. And as he left the canopy, Gudael cried “Long Live the King!” and a chorus of voices echoed her call; an anthem of love and dedication rising behind him as he retired to his quarters.
Brixton, ever the forward-thinker, wanted some time to work on his poisons. I would not have scoffed at the idea of a short break, for both the revelation of the Curse’s origins and the Oath to She that willed it all occurring in one day affected Adrik, and he did wish for some time alone. I took this time to play and cuddle with Tupp – a pastime all but abandoned during our stay in Vain Gate. While absentmindedly dangling a conjured string-on-a-stick for my badger with a mage hand, I decided to revise some passages from my arcane grimoire Hassildril had so generously gifted me. And as I was referring back to notes made along the margins, I turned the page to see the paper was different.
It was aged yes, but the other leaves in the book were decades, if centuries, old; this was millennia old. The mouldy smell it seemed to impart upon my fingers was musty and potent, and a soiled, earthy texture oozed from its skin onto my mine. It felt so fragile in the stiff way in which iot moved to open itself to me, yet there was never a fear in my mind that it would tear or rip or crumble, for I had seen this page before.
Once more I read on about the lich, Zabazius Izralael Darrion, and the creation of a phylactery, the vessel in which a lich’s soul is stored in and a way in which it can return to undeath once its physical body is destroyed. Yet this passage talked not of any phylactery, but one of such power that it could contain the souls of many lichs, combining them into one consciousness. That was enough for me. I closed the book swiftly and distracted myself with Tupp. In fact, I carried on as if nothing had even occurred. It was only in this exercise of raking my brain, combing through my memories, and analysing my thoughts and notes as one, that I even remembered the passage.
Myself and Brixton returned to our main tent to find Leith under the accostment of Gudael and Adrik – who seemed better now that he had let some of the proverbial steam off – for some ailment to do with his neck. Apparently, he had looking at something on the back of his neck in the mirror. It was evident, from Brixton’s prying away of Leith’s guarding hands, that it was some sort of brand burned into his neck. A brand of some eldritch kind yet had traces of celestia about it. Gudael informed us that there had been tales of those belonging to the celestial patrons – and those of darker proclivities – getting protective wards on their person. This must be one such ward from Tozan, as Leith also said that it would do good against the drow in the Underdark. Brixton was of the opinion that it was – at first – a hickey, and then changed his mind to that of an Evil Eye. Regardless, I made a mental note to keep an eye on it.
We agreed to go sort out the rest of these goblins, hopefully by just shooing them from their fortifications and back down into the Underdark. Thorn, the half-orc, suggested we go North to the wall, and that heading East we should find a hole in the wall in which we may pass through.
Traversing on a Nor’East degree towards the wall, we passed that same redundant Ostorian calendar Adrik and I had wonderer off to yesterday. Some great force had seared away a circular portion of the grass around the centre stone. The stone itself had been cleft in twain, a blackened mark denoted on both halves where some strike of lightning had severed the carved rock. I recall some semblance of a booming crash during our short rest, and Adrik assured me that there had been somewhat of an instantaneous thunder-storm during our short break – perhaps it was connected to Leith’s patron’s branding mark.
A zooming bee twirled before us, circling us each thrice before passing to the next in line. When it had no one else to go to, it carried on its busy way into the meadow behind us. The others seemed concerned by this, but I found it magical. Some small bead of nature had taken its time to playful inspect each one of us; I felt blessed by the tiny creature, and amazed, for as you know we have bees in Vanderhold but are not seen for many months, and when they are, they are slow and brown – this bee was set at a swift pace and its striped body was bulbous, bumbling about its day as if it had not a care in the world, while ours are slow yet direct and resolute in their direction. Adrik – to whom it did not buzz about – stated that he too had been subjected to the same behaviour before, and I think he was aligned with me on how wonderful an experience it was.
A percussion of pops began to start off about us. It was Leith and I – as the only two raised within good proximity of a boundless, open landscape – knew that these were seeds popping, as local environments are want to do so this close to the Summer Solstice. But whilst I was admiring the beauty of Sida’lach, the others noticed a potent stench. Soon I too caught the awful odour, some fowl smelling concoction that in no way seemed natural.
Leaning against a withered and sagging tree, on its side, battered and bruised and bleeding, laid an owlbear covered in a slick, greeny grot. Adrik and Gudael attended to it, the dwarf hoping to calm the creature so that, when Gudael healed it, it would not try to fight or lash-out at any of us. Brixton noticed great tracks in the mud, which had been stained some nauseous hue of viridescent. As the owlbear slowly and stumblingly rose from its haunches and onto its clawed paws, in the tree line began to move.
A face some fifteen or so feet from the ground gazed like some lazy watchman’s lantern. Thin, dark slanted eyes peered over a rough and ridged snout. From behind its eyes, two pointed ears jutted into the air, imitating the twisting tusks that protruded from beneath its flat nose. Its engorged form was covered in course, russet fur, and a short thin tail coiled round itself, tipped with a swollen club. It stood still, and glanced with a maleficent smile at Leith. A reek of the foulest death and most rotten of breaths rushed towards us like a wave of putrid gas. Something wicked in its eye gleamed and Leith stumbled back, having been hit by some powerful magic, he was drained of life, looking hollow and pale.
This, quite evidently, was a catoblepas. An omen of death and doom, even the rumour of such a creature can drive whole towns away from their homes. A harbinger of disease and plague; a place inhabited or even visited by such a creature has darkness foretold in its future.
I grabbed Leith by the collar and began to half-pull, half-drag him away, yelling in time with him for to the others to run. It ambled steadily towards us. As our number fled, it began to break into a charge, but quickly sought predation over the injured owlbear rather than our fellowship of five times its number. It sauntered slowly after the owlbear, sure of its impeding mastery over the creature. Adrik and Gudael felt pained at leaving the owlbear to such a horrendous death, but at least they showed it some kindness in its final moments, rather than it feeling nothing but fear and panic.
It was not long before we reached the break in the wall; where masonry gave way to a sheer drop and cast itself down into the crashing depths of Lake Lockhearte below. It was not this vast wall nor its crumbling or shattered stonework that sent fear rattling through my bones, but seeing the dark waters rise up and down against the shore. The sound of the emptiness of space beyond the beachfront and the impenetrable mist. Again, I ought not to try to relay my sentiments, for they merely exacerbate the already tenuous mastery over my attacks that I have pushed to maintain.
Atop the wall sat two figures, and, literally into thin air, Brixton vanished from sight. We decided to wait down below for him, as no doubt he had some expert plan that would aid us in our infiltration. It was not long before the two figures slumped over the wall – hitting with a cracking thud against the ground – and Brixton stood hunched over their effects. We wished to converse with the half-elf so that we may further strategize. Cursing the lack of the sending stones – which we really must needs organise within the group to maximise its effect – I bellowed up to Brixton to ensure his safety.
Immediately a horn called from the other side of the wall and a clatter of arms and the rallying cries to war foretold the arrival of a goblin army. I, embarrassed at yet another one of my blunders, apologised, and we quickly ducked behind an outcrop of rocks. Near as many goblins as I have years painted across my face, all armed to the teeth, flooded through the gaping hole in the massive wall and looked around for the cause of the alert.
Leith levelled his staff and engulfed all there in a globe of fire. Portions of roasted goblin rained from the sky. I was brought back to the fallout of the Crucible of Fire and felt my hands shake while bile rose in my throat. I remained quiet for fear that any expression might give away my own crucible of shock and horror.
Brixton aided in our ascend of the wall with his rope – which he magically conjured into a roped ladder – and we traversed the length of the wall until we reached a slope.
The slop led to a square amphitheatre-like landing covered with makeshift shelters and old bonfires. Placed in a corner was a large cage, filled with just over a dozen or so goblins, all naked and looking rather pitiful. The palisade and guard house below – which had secured the egress of