Thursday, August 25, 2005

Chapter 2. Mar 19, 2005.

Alas, we did not get far when suddenly and without warning multiple black projectiles pierced the cold air with deadly precision. Rufus toppled forward and lay quite still, two poisoned crossbow bolts protruding from his back, and we knew instantly that he had gone beyond this world. As for our attackers, a small group of orcs, they showered us with bolts from their concealment in the outskirts of the village. Paheri and Luke, angered by the untimely demise of their large friend, charged their position without hesitation. Weakened as we were, this was a battle, which could easily have turned against us. However, fortunately, an unexpected ally appeared to tip the scales in our favor. It was the elf Anarion, whom Taliesin knew remotely from his elf home. After initial presentations, he and Taliesin walked up towards the temple to investigate, while Luke and Paheri having suffered grave wounds stayed behind, guarding a single orc who had been taken as prisoner during the battle. They soon returned to report that three dog-like humanoids, which we later learned were gnolls, were guarding the entrance of the small, square temple on the hill overseeing Dire’s Cove.

Not knowing the exact strength of our enemies or the cause of the attack on the village, Paheri tried to gather all of the surviving 16 villagers, mainly old people and children, in the barn to question them. They proved too scared to be bolstered by his words, however, and their doors remained closed. Approaching a single family only, Taliesin had more luck with his efforts. Meanwhile Anarion’s keen eyes never once left the hill, his bow notched and ready to fire at the first sight of reinforcements. Apparently, the initial attack on Dire’s Cove had been swift and decisive and all able-bodied men and women struck down in the hopeless defense. Subsequently, the village had been plundered for provisions. These had been transferred to the small temple of Asterioth on the hill, leaving the surviving villagers starving and confined in their own houses. The attackers had then split up. The orcs had been left in the village to guard the prisoners, while the rest of the attacking war band had retreated to the temple. There appeared to be little if any contact between the two groups. The fate of the village priest, a man called Germanus, was unknown. As we returned to question our orc prisoner, he turned out to have bled to death, while attempting to break his bonds.

After a good night’s sleep and healing, we set out for the temple at dawn. Choosing to go around the hill in order to avoid the guards, we approached from the side of the bell-tower. From a distance only one guard could be seen, keeping a lookout from the top of the bell-tower. Luke sneaked closer and felled him with a well-placed arrow. Our hopes for surprising our opponents was quickly shattered, though, when we were ambushed by the three gnoll guards right on the doorsteps of the small temple. Emerging relatively unscathed from the ambush, we began to investigate the building. In the bell-tower there was an entrance to a basement, which was found to be quite large and to contain a section that was obviously younger than the temple itself. The oldest part contained a crypt with several stone sarcophagi, which had recently been opened and ransacked. The central one had an intricately carved lid, showing the visage of a knight. It was empty. By close inspection of the lid it seemed as if something had been removed from the knight’s hand! Continuing our search of the basement, we found a magically sealed door, the village provisions as well as a room, which obviously had served as the sleeping quarters of our enemies. As we entered this room, another ambush was sprung. Having defeated our rogue attackers, we discovered a battered body in the room – it was the priest Germanus. In his dying breath he urged us to “save Saint Drayan”, clutching a key to what turned out to be the sealed door. Recalling an old myth, Taliesin explained that Saint Drayan was rumored to be a knight, who fought alongside the god Asterioth against Morgûl and who returned back alive to this world – as one of three - bearing the actual weapon, used by Asterioth to slay the Lord of Undeath. Intrigued by this information, the magically sealed door was immediately opened to reveal a pathway, leading to another door. This door, however, was guarded by more than “just” magic. Blocking our way was the half-ogre leader of the war band and his two heavily armed half-orc bodyguards. They attacked us on sight and a tough fight broke out, where the sharpness of Anarion’s sword in the end turned fortune our way: the half-ogre and one of his bodyguards were both slain, while the remaining bodyguard, who had wielded a serrated sword-axe, was captured.

The door now blocking our path was of superb craftsmanship, engraved with many images of nighttime wilderness and inlaid with costly metals and gems. A cryptic message appeared on the doorframe, which Anarion was fast to decipher.

In the eyes we are of all who dream
though great we are, so small we seem.
A friend to those who roam abroad
the feet of gods, with splendor shod.

It was a riddle instructing us how to open the door: by pushing the stars appearing on the door in the right order - west to east. Behind the door there was a magnificent room with a large stone table and decorated with paintings showing Saint Drayan’s quest: the epic journey and battle against Morgûl taking place at a large ziggurat, and the return of three surviving knights carrying a chest. On the table there was a book and a coffer; according to Taliesin both the book and the contents of the coffer possessed a magical aura. Recalling the words of the priest Germanus, we carefully took both items with us and left the basement.

After further investigating our fallen enemies, we began to make our way back towards the village itself with the book and the coffer. Just as Taliesin and Luke were clearing the impromptu barricades erected by the gnolls outside the temple, it was as if they both saw the transparent visage of father Germanus looking sadly at a particular part of the barricade. A moment later the image was gone. Taliesin went to investigate and found a wooden statue of Saint Drayan, damaged and blackened by fire. The statue had been slightly larger than a normal man but now lacked the legs and part of the upper body and face was damaged by fire. Again recalling Germanus’ dying words, the statue was dragged back to the village, where grateful villagers greeted us. At last they dared to believe that they were safe!

Being the only one of us speaking orchish, Anarion interrogated our half-orc prisoner. He learned the half-orc’s name to be Thark. Vowing to set him free to fight another day, Anarion learned that the half-ogre and his mercenaries had been hired by an elf to take the village and secure the treasures from the temple. Apparently the deal was that the elf would get the captive villagers and first choice from the findings, while the mercenaries would keep all other findings as payment. Moreover, the elf would come for his prizes with more men. This was, of course, dire news. Not only was the elf known to have committed terrible atrocities elsewhere, but rumors Anarion had heard and followed told him to be nearby. Unwilling to leave the villagers of Dire’s Cove to a desperate fate, we faced a tough decision: to make a stand and await the coming of the reinforcements, which perhaps would run us over; or to lead the villagers down the mountain in the midst of winter, a trip which would undoubtedly cost many lives to the cold. Believing that nothing more was known to the half-orc, Anarion eventually set the prisoner free and let him leave with his sword-axe and his honor. As for ourselves, when the spring came and the snow blocking the mountain passes had thawed, we returned to Hammersdale along with all the villagers in our care.

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