Tales from Forgotten Europa


Raethe knelt over the mutilated body of some nameless lost soul known only as a Bull. His wounds still pouring blood, and his lungs still burning from the exertion that ended only a few short minutes ago. The moments pass slowly and the tension around him is like an electric charge in the air. Kal approaches cautiously from behind him unsure of how to address everyone’s concerns.

Raethe stays put, hovering over the remains, trying to find some reason that this fight –and these lives- were worth all of this. All the while he can feel his skin crawl as eldritch force begins to weave his shredded flesh back together.

“You were gone there, for a minute.” Whispers Kal, with more than a hint of trepidation in his voice.

Raethe looks around as if he doesn’t know what he means, but Kal’s face told him there was no chance of getting off that easy.

“It’s the only way sometimes…” Raethe replied, not sure how else to explain without betraying everything.

The short conversation was interrupted by Khalid’s advance, he spoke words that should invoke a sense of peace and well-being, but it was not so. The powers that granted these requests for aid were anathema to the forces that Raethe had drawn upon to aid in his quest. The feeling of those powers recoiling was curious, and like so many things, just raised more questions for the dwarf. He almost wished Khalid would show the same contempt that Dorak had begun to harbor. At least then he could simply ignore them both. Instead, Raethe simply nodded in appreciation of the battlefield aid that Khalid so easily provided.

The tension was broken by the unmistakable sounds of an ornithopter in the distance. Kal did his best to pinpoint its direction, but in the damnable place that is the Bellona/Belrael he was only able to get a rough bearing. Kal, being the only one of the group who can navigate at all here, brought them through a forest of the odd slender towers that overpopulate this place. Further on, they realized there was another noise that was quickly rising above the steady whumph of the ornithopter.

The rising cacophony of voices eventually broke into full-fledged yelling as we came upon the sight of the Bulls and Scorpions posturing for a fight. The Bulls had the Scorpions outnumbered about twenty-five to ten, and the latter began to fall back toward the group’s position so they decided to hole up in an empty tower and get a better view of the area.

Kal spotted the Scorpions heading straight for them while getting slowly surrounded by the Bulls. They would certainly be obliterated, so Kal and Dorak decided that it was incumbent on the group to intervene. Raethe objected, as did Khalid. For Raethe’s part it seemed utterly without merit to interject themselves into a fight between two gangs of squabbling urchins who, by all accounts, were already dead.

Kal and Dorak would have none of it, and prepared to enter the growing battle just outside the tower walls. Raethe did the only thing a warrior can do in that position; he backed his comrades’ decision.

The fight was going badly for the Scorpions right from the start. Outnumbered, overpowered, and scared, there was little hope for them. Raethe wondered, as he did his part to even the odds, if at least the fallen would find some fulfillment in this “life” that they so obviously did not find in their past lives. Unfortunately, the Slayer quickly concluded that the same failings that landed them all here in the first place persisted. Even after watching them calling for blood and launching threats and vulgarities at the Bulls, the Scorpions began to flee. First one, then another, and soon Raethe saw half of them desperately trying to escape the fate they had wrought for themselves. It was too much. Here they were, risking their lives in a pointless fight with no more reason than it might be a good fight, and the side they were supposedly supporting was leaving their mess for the group to clean up.

Raethe was incensed. First at his comrades for putting him in this position in the first place, at himself for not knocking some sense into them, and at the Scorpions for their cowardice. Soon the battle was a blur, and anything that dared stand within reach of the Stormhammer was fair game. Raethe could feel his fury pouring forth from his heart, and the enemy was routed at the sight of him.

Kal sped into the fray with blinding speed, thanks to being ensorcelled by Khalid. Abagail and Agatha whipped through the air and found their marks with unearthly speed and precision. As Bull after Bull fell before him without even the hope of a defense, Kal quickly lost his taste for the fight. After all, it wasn’t a fight; it was a slaughter, all we did was change the side that would be hopelessly cut down.

Dorak too realized the error of participating in this bloodbath and pleaded with the gangs to end the pointless conflict. Unfortunately for one of the more headstrong Bulls, they didn’t listen, and he met a gruesome end at the edge of Dorak’s waraxe.

The fight eventually wore down, and Raethe found himself in the ever-familiar position of recovering his strength over the broken bodies of his enemies. As his mind cleared he realized that one of the fallen Scorpions was Red, a young man they had met when they first entered Belrael. A waste.

Raethe was shocked by the sudden sound of gunfire from his flank, and after a hurried conversation with Khalid, they rushed to find the source. Raethe had heard the sounds of Kamargian gunners in Deau Vere, but to find them here was somewhat surprising. They crossed the field, and found Kal and Dorak speaking with the owner of the weapon, Octavius Seebeck.

It figured, Raethe thought as they exchanged greetings, that in this backward place the name Seebeck would surface again. Octavius had all the look of a blacksmith turned big game hunter, and with the Kamarg inspired hand cannon he hauled around it’s likely he bagged his fair share of trophies. As much as his surname was enough to anger the slayer, Octavius seemed far less cryptic than his brothers. After some feeling out, Seebeck admitted he was also searching for the ornithopter, as well as its creator, the Slayer Engineer. This peaked Raethe’s interest, since he knew the dwarfs of Ruus had experimented with such machines, but were unsuccessful in creating a functioning airship of that design.

Octavius told what little he knew of the Slayer Engineer and his fate. It seems that one of the most famed engineers and machinists in all the dwarfen karaks. The “cog-golem,” as he was called, had been working on a prototype of an ornithopter. He was presumed dead after a tragic accident, and that was the end of him. Raethe began working on the assumption that the accident claimed more than the life of one engineer, and that perhaps this was the event that turned him to the path of the slayers.

This speculation was enough for Dorak to draw the conclusion he had been looking for. It was plain that Dorak had grown increasingly contemptuous of his slayer comrade, but still lacked the understanding of what a slayer truly was. After hearing the discussion about the Slayer Engineer, he deduced that a slayer was no more than the killer of innocents, and was worthy of nothing but contempt.

The claim made Raethe bristle as he could feel the accusations behind Dorak’s realization, but this slayer had long since lost interest in the judgments of others. The world, he knew, was littered with those of high-minded ideals who crumble when those ideals are tested. True convictions, he had come to learn in the most trying ways, need no outside approval.

As always though, these contemplations would have to wait, as a dozen or so slayers marched into view, and the conversation with Octavius ground to a halt. With no introduction they moved past everyone and a battle scarred and mutilated dwarf approached Raethe and said: “Can you pay?” Raethe responded: “Yes.” With that they were off to the hall of the Slayer King.

Not far from the battlefield they came upon a cul-de-sac that housed the ornithoper that had eluded them thus far. It was a marvel of engineering (and who knows what else) crafted to look like a massive silver falcon. Octavius was mystified and immediately separated from the rest of the group. Raethe and the others pressed on and eventually down to a door that promised the Slayer King and so many answers behind it.

The hall of the Slayer King was suitably impressive for any royalty, but surprisingly so given the nature of this particular sovereign. Dwarven tapestries depicting any number of clans, and the arms and armor those clans had crafted. Perhaps these were monuments to the slayers pledged to the king of this realm, but truly it mattered very little to Raethe. The history would have to wait… now he would have answers.

Sitting at a lavish and well stocked table was Willem the artist/engineer. Raethe sat, and his comrades each did in their own time. There was some conversation, but all Raethe could think about was the Slayer King’s arrival. After several agonizing minutes, a door at the head of the room opened, and a dwarf dressed in gilded and embellished banded armor walked to the table and sat down. He took Raethe’s coin with no ceremony or explanation, and began to eat.

All was well for the time being, and though Raethe was anxious at being so close to the focus of his search, he felt assured that the answers would not elude him this time. As dinner moved along, Willem excused himself expressing a dislike for “this part” that seemed to make him a bit queasy. With that, the air in the room changed, and all those at the table of the Slayer King knew something beyond words was about to happen.

Each of them experienced the next few minutes in their own, very different, ways. For Dorak the experience was a magnificent reverie that could only be achieved while basking in the glory of Asgard itself. Khalid was quite detached, and save for the fact that he was attuned to the otherworldly aspects of what was transpiring, took little else from the incident. Kal remained fully aware, if spellbound, for the duration of the event, and except for the moment of concern afterward, said nothing.

Raethe, however, was at the heart of this revelation. The Slayer King began to change right before his eyes. Growing larger and larger all the while an unearthly light filled the room blinding all who were caught in it.

Raethe squinted to protect his eyes, but despite the pain he could not bring himself to look away. Then, the once Slayer King stepped into view, filling the massive hall from wall to wall, and hunching down even under the vaulted ceiling.

The being was perfect. As perfect as any dwarf could ever be. It was as if he was crafted by a smith of impossible talents. Every hair, every feature, every aspect… divine.

Raethe fell to his knees at the word of the dwarf lord. The sound seemed to reverberate in his very soul, and Raethe wept as he knew he was truly in the presence of the almighty Beordin.

The anger of Beordin was like an irresistible wave that even the god himself could not ignore. Cursing Raethe for exacting a vengeance only he had the right to take, Beordin slammed the diminutive dwarf against the wall. Then he made his will clear: There was one Stormforge left. One who escaped the reckoning Raethe visited on his clan. Raethe would seek him out… and save him. Just as Raethe took it on himself to end the disgraceful clan, so now would he have to rebuild it.

Finally, Beordin turned his eyes toward the Stormhammer, and with a word, forged an unbreakable bond. No more could it be brought to bear against Beordin’s children, and the Stormhammer shook on the floor, and for just a moment, it blazed with the power of Asgard.

Again his gaze fell on Raethe, still prostrated on the floor, and he spoke. Beordin bequeathed Munin, one of his ravens to be Raethe’s companion on this quest. Raethe was confused, but far to overcome to do anything but accept in silence.

Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, Beordin strode from the hall, leaving through a door far too small for his massive frame. Raethe took this a small reminder that the limits of Midgard had no hold on the divine. Raethe could hear the finality of the Divine Book of Grudges documenting the price demanded to settle his account.

The rift vanished, and the light of Asgard no longer flooded the hall. As his companions collected themselves, Raethe stood up on shaky legs and wiped the tears from his face. With unsteady hands he clutched at the Stormhammer, and whispered the axiom that had spurred the great dwarfs of his clan to victory “Honor is the Bedrock of Glory.”

The party made a hasty exit from the hall, and found themselves emerging outside of Bellona/Belrael and not far at all from the gates of Arkangyl. Even so, the toll taken by this experience was more exhausting than any battle Raethe had ever engaged in, and the decision to camp for the night was easy, though he doubted there would be any sleep for him this night.

An excerpt from "The Dance of Gods and Men" by the scholar Vladmir Grôber

From Chapter 2: Through a Mirror Darkly

”... it can be truly said for all cultures, all peoples, that the deities worshiped are in fact archetypes, are in fact the very model of stereotype, for that culture. And this is in by no means restricted to the race of Men.

Elves worship gods that represent the best and worst in their culture. Their gods embody worship, knowledge, persistence, honor, and exclusivity. Halfling gods are all renown for their ability to consume, their peacefulness, and their stature is somehow less while still being more grandiose than any mere mortal of their church.

The virtues that drive Men can be found in the spirit and story of each of their deities, and every devil and demon bears the countenance of Men’s own failings. Wrathfulness, infidelity, tyranny are all well-represented. In fact, the argument can be extended to Chaos itself, and in that regard Men stand alone, for to Men chaos can be either devil or god, depending on one’s background and view of life. The Empire and Norsca teach us this is so.

And perhaps it is in the oldest of races that the hypothesis is truly borne out. For amongst the Stout Folk, their Gods walk bravely but only just before where their mortal worshipers tread. Truly, the Dwarf Gods are not omniscient, are not all-powerful, but merely better and more evolved than the folk themselves. A dwarf god bears all the strengths and failings of his people, is in fact doomed to his own role in life and his own inevitable, inescapable conclusion, in their myths of Chaosdawn, the Räkenskap. Traits which be found in a dwarf (from their infamous greediness to their impeccable memory and their sense of honor and history), will be found to unapproachable extremes in his god, this has always been a hallmark of their myths and legends….”

Through the smoke...

Willem feels better with his mask on, it is the simple truth. Such an interesting pathology, that. He muses as to when that actually became the way of things with him, but like so much else, it is lost in the labyrinth of his mind forever now. The maze peopled by slender, beautiful towers and precious little else.

Willem is painting again, here in his studio, the largest room in his white cathedral-turned-home. Gifted with an eye for architecture, and an engineer’s precision, as well as a mathematician’s sensibilities, Willem Murrel has instead always felt most at home, most himself with a brush in his hand and a canvas before him. He paints Amy again, his favorite. She sits posed near him, quiet and still.

His portrait-Amy sits facing away from his painter’s eye, brushing her long brunette hair before a mirror. She sits in a red room with a window over her shoulder. Her coloring favors red, after all. Amy is a young-enough girl, a human and simple, if austere, with a reserved beauty. She is vaguely reminiscent of someone else, in fact.

The portrait-Amy however resembles only one thing. Her face, seen only in the reflection of the mirror, is only bone. A skull with long flowing brown hair, portrait-Amy stares at what could be anything with her deep, dark, and empty sockets. The bone structure is a perfect match for our real-Amy. Willem might be insane, but he is also insanely gifted.

He whistles as he works, his oils staining over older and deeper stains already unmistakable on his apron and gloves. Willem paints often here in Belrael. He is chuckling, remembering some long-ago joke, his slender boar mask bobbing slightly with his amusement. His masked visage somehow conveying a world-weariness and some sardonic humor. His mind’s eye flits from portrait-Amy to the courtyards which give on Fleet Street. Afternoons beyond counting spent just off the shore of the blood-red river Thames. A glorious if dark place.

He slashes more color onto the walls of portrait-Amy’s red room and thinks on the Arabian, the devil in silken robes. He wishes for a moment that he could truly remember how he came here to Belrael, and whether the wizard is the cause. Should he be angered or thankful? What is the difference?

His off-hand moves in a delicate and precise pattern, and a small, grey winged man zips across the room, a goblet clutched in its claws. Willem grasps the offered cup and sips it, ignoring the imp, which immediately resolves itself back into the shadows of the quiet study. Willem sips and sighs and leans back to better see his newest creation, the skeletal damsel primping for her lover.

He decides to pity the Arab. Belrael is no place for one of his mindset. Too focused, too determined. Too sane. No logic can be trusted, no equation relied upon here.

In the very corner of portrait-Amy’s red room, Willem sketches the posts and bottom rung of a ladder. The ladder always seems to find its way into his art, of late. His ladder. Him.

Jakob the liar, descending Jakob’s ladder. Willem adds it into his composition with resignation. Jakob will not be denied. One would do well to heed him, respect him, avoid him.

The dwarf and the fancy robber-baron. They would soon see precisely what that means.

Willem giggles to think of the Arab shaking hands with Jakob and sips ever more of his yellow wine. Welcome to Belrael. Think of it as home.

The City With No Name
excerpt from the Memoirs of Dorak the Axe Bearer, Thane of Karak Belgrin

The following chronicles a part of one of the more famous quests of a mighty dwarf that once lived in Norska. Though he passed over a millennium ago, his legend lives on…

“3rd of Harvestmont, 18,506 Anno Drannorae.”

“Finally our journey has a clear purpose. Finally, the tall, thin towers of The City With No Name sit on the horizon. Finally, I find my heart beat faster with every step we take. We’ve traveled hard the last few days, and the rains that come at night may finally put out the fires behind us. Though I can still see the smoke to the south, I pray to Lofrún that she may protect this land, however cursed it may be, and to Aègnar, for guiding his righteous flame.”

“Today’s march is done, and we make camp for the night. I sit with my back against a mighty old oak, finding solace in its shadow and a cushion in its leaves. Kal sits nearby, lost in thought and somewhat subdued, fiddling with his sextant and gazing far to the horizon. Again I get that queasy just looking at the instrument. It feels… unnatural somehow. My angst only strengthens when Kal asks Raethe for Durnrik’s now-inert coin and puts it in the sextant. He’s convinced that a dead man’s coin will reveal secrets and cannot resist looking through it. I do not doubt that Durnrik’s coin holds silent power, or that it will divulge hidden things. I know of the horrors that lie beyond the realm of man. I try to warn him that some things are better left unseen, but he does not heed my words. So he puts the sextant to his eye and for a moment stares through the brilliant ruby, turning frantically left and right, as if gazing at something not quite there. I do not ask what he sees – I do not wish to know. Yet when Khalid asks to look through it too, for some reason their light-hearted frivolity angers me. I feel a rush of frustration, fury, and irritation just thinking about it, but soon Khalid is done with it, and the feeling goes away. Kal offers me a peak too, as if mocking my reservations… but it disgusts me, and I tell him to put his toy away.”

“I stare at the fire for a while, pondering why Kal’s sextant infuriates me so. I’m not sure if I dozed off or not, but the fire seemed to transform, and before I knew what was happening I found myself in a new vision, though what it meant eludes me so far.”

“When the fire faded and my eyes refocused, I slowly realized I was looking down at fine golden sand, as if standing on a very large beach, with nothing but more sand and tall dunes reaching far to the horizon. A fierce sun shone high above my head, though I did not feel its warmth, and I noticed an outlandish lizard sitting on a limestone rock nearby. The lizard was beautiful, and at once I recognized various motifs of many armors made by man. Nature is amazing, and often enough we imitate it, trying to improve on the original design. Ha! The audacity! Still, the lizard sat there, its golden scales reflecting in the sun, shifting many hues of green, red, and purple, basking in its brilliance.”

“Minutes passed, and the creature lazily jumped off the rock, and slowly walked towards a large, calm body of water, perhaps a sea. There was no wind. There were no waves. The water stood still, motionless – a perfect mirror for the sun. I followed the creature, naturally, and it seemed to be unaware of my presence. It stopped by the edge of the water, taking quick gulps with its elongated tongue. Its reflection, clear as day and undisturbed by water ripples, mimicked the real counterpart. But then the lizard spooked, as if its senses finally detected something, and scurried off back towards the rock. Its reflection stayed, however, and it was staring at me with its piercing black eyes! Moments later it too ran away and I found myself looking into the fire once again…”

“8th of Harvestmont”

“We’ve just made a short stop after a somewhat unique battle, and I take a moment to scribble down the events of the last few days. I would normally wait until nightfall to write in my journal but I do not know if we’ll have a chance to make camp, and I don’t want to forget anything (hehehe, like a dwarf would ever forget something!)”

“Three days ago we finally encountered the first signs of the city. We came across a maintained, though seemingly empty watchtower, with a very old and almost altogether washed-out road sign pointing towards the still-distant city. After some deciphering, Kal figured the puzzle out: The sign pointed to a legendary city of Bellona, or City of Truth. Could that be the city we’ve sighted days ago and now head towards? Could that be the City that lost its name to annals of time… or something else? It is quite a discovery, however, and it lightens our mood.”

“The next day we came across another watchtower, and again it seemed maintained, and again it stood empty. Though this time there were no road signs, we instead came across a body of a dead human with strange steel springs and coils covering parts of his body. Kal thought they might belong to the metalspinners (mythical spiders), but I remain skeptical – I think this metal was crafted by man.”

“On the third day, today, we finally came across a much larger watchtower, and less than an hour later we reached the ‘gates’ of the long-lost city. The sign at the entrance read Belrael, or City of Lies. Odd, since we expected just the opposite. I think back to my ‘vision’ and the reflection of the lizard, but quickly the thought fades away.”

“The city is large and strange in many ways, though it is hard to see it all through the thick, throat-scratching smoke of the many fires burning within its walls. The defense walls are… lacking, if not altogether missing. The tall, thin towers of pale blue, pink and green defy logic and one wanders if they serve any purpose other than as a monument of some crazed architect. Still, it remains impressive, and old.”

“At first we see no sign of life, moving slowly through the streets, not sure of what to expect or of what we may find. The streets look unkempt. The buildings look abandoned, once undoubtedly inhabited by those who deeply cared about them, but now boarded up, with crumbling exterior and cracked walls. They all look very old, though it is hard to gauge their age. This entire place seems to be ageless yet clearly man-made – located to the north of The Winter Gate yet mostly unheard of – with a straight road yet one easily lost upon. Initially I thought it was chaos but now… I’m not so sure. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels almost like sorcery of the worst kind.”

“Finally we hear ‘clicking’ sounds up ahead. Not sure what to make of it we move cautiously, and before us we find a group of bantering scorpions, larger than any of us in size. Observing them for a moment there is an obvious flair of adolescence and foolishness, and soon we notice that these scorpions are an arcane illusion used by young hooligans playing in the streets. These have the same kind of steel coils around their arms and torso as we encountered a day before, but the coils end with a metal claw at the hand. Each boy carries an amulet around his neck, and it appears this amulet has the ability to create the illusion of the scorpion. I find it intriguing and disturbing that such powerful Craft found itself into the hands of simple farm boys. Perhaps there’s more to them than meets the eye?”

“We finally approach these boys, and a courteous, though cautious conversation resulted in more questions than it answered. These boys obviously know much more than they let on, and hinted about many dangers within the city, but seemed as confused about its state and purpose as we were on the way here. I started to get the feeling that this place is some weird prison, but for whom and to what end I have yet to figure out. It briefly reminded me of what I’ve read of Nilhelm – a place where the unworthy roam aimlessly with no purpose or reason. But we’ll see – we’ve only scratched the surface of this place, and I know this is just a stop on my journey, not its final destination.”

“We parted ways with the scorpions, a self-identified gang of many rivaling forces in this city. There are others, apparently, like the ‘Bulls’, and perhaps more. Caution is advised, and weapons at the ready. But we continue on, looking for something to tell us where we need to go, or why we are here. I’m certain our path will reveal itself in due time. Ehem… hopefully soon.”

“We slowly move deeper into the city, hoping we’ll find something there. A tall white building – a bleached cathedral once upon a time – sits at the center, and it seems as good a ‘target’ as any. When we reach its walls, we encounter a flamboyant, though clearly crazy man, who identifies himself as Willem the Architect. He claims to be the brains behind the many odd-shaped towers, and that by itself set the stage for his mental health. I would have dismissed him right there and then but in an odd twist of fate he recognized Khalid, our wizard from Araby.”

“Now, this architect has been in the city for quite some time, having built all those towers. And mental state puts in question anything he says or does, but, he accused Khalid of murdering someone, and seemed to realize that it was Khalid that ‘sent’ him here – however a person, or soul, is sent here. That gives me pause – for in a possible moment of clarity he could have told the truth. Or not. We are, after all, in the City of Lies. But it is worth remembering. Next time we have some time, it might be prudent to ask Khalid questions that should have been asked weeks ago. But for now we move forward, leaving behind this wreck of a man to keep wallowing in self-pity and ignorance.”

“We walk around for a little while, seeking something to give us direction. We weren’t looking for trouble, but as it often happens, it found us instead. After passing one of the large multi-building fires that no one seems to do anything about, we finally came across the ‘Bulls’ that the scorpion boys mentioned when we first entered the city. It seems a little misnomer, for they are in fact another group of thugs masquerading as Minotaurs. Clearly they are no such thing, for I have seen a real Minotaur, and these are simply too short and not bestial enough. We have a brief discussion, trying to avoid the inevitable, but alas, Raethe’s patience runs out quickly, and soon any further diplomatic resolution is unfeasible.”

“With blades drawn, we have a violent scuffle with these thugs. It would be a lie to say it was easy, and even Khalid found his match in one of the bulls, who too seemed to have mastered the Craft. But these thugs are no match for warriors of our stature, and soon enough the remaining few fled from the scene.”

“I am once again troubled by the escalating fury that governs Raethe’s actions. I do not know if it is due to the proximity of his ultimate goal, or if the demons within him are gaining control, but it surely worries me. I am beginning to get a sense that he might not know whom he strikes next, and pulverizing a boy into a paste was completely unnecessary and brutal. It is one thing to defeat your enemy – it is completely another to hate him with such passion so as to pound his head with a sledgehammer long after he’s dead. I will give Kal one more opportunity to address his friend – and then I’ll step in. This must be addressed before something horrible happens. What if he turns against us next? What if he kills one of us?”

“We collect a few of the ‘minotaur’ pendants similar to the ones the scorpion boys had. I find the mechanism of the locket simple enough and ‘turning’ into a Minotaur does not appear to have any side effects. Still, I disable it for now… maybe it will come in useful later. And so I’m sitting on a stone bandaging my wounds, scribbling in my journal. I have not cast any blessings on Raethe yet… I wonder if I should. He sits there, exhausted, trying to garner control, and I watch him out of the corner of my eye. But for now it is time to close the book – the journey isn’t over…

Summer in the Far North

Sir Isaac of Mangrove swirls the yellow wine in his bone goblet, watching the smoky torchlight play in its depths. He broods quietly, in his big chair, in a crowded room, but unmolested, as if he is alone. They know not to provoke him when he grows quiet and thoughtful, it happens rarely enough these days as it is.

They sit in the hollows of a ruined keep, a place made by dwarf hands so long ago that it would not recognize the stout folk if they were to return this instant. It has lain in ruins since long, long before Isaac ever drew breath. Which seems as if it was a very long time ago now. He shifts his bulk slowly in his seat and ponders. He came here with a question burning through the murk that has become his mind. He came to this place to seek an answer, and the answer he has found provokes no joy, only more questions.

And more hunger.

His eyes sweep out over the rabble that is his, past the shattered walls and out onto the storm-wracked plain before him. Bodies litter the ground everywhere, but he is already certain that he has more men than he came here with. Funny how that always works out up here. In the North.

He who was once a son of Mangrove, who can only barely even recall the amber shores and quaint towns of that province, rises up from his stone and steel chair, his armor all a-clatter around him. His men snap their eyes to his frame, ready, mindlessly ready to heed him to the next goal, the next slaughter, the next whatever.

He turns his head west and steps towards the gateway of the keep. He now knows that the Dreamer’s Axe is not here. But his path lies west.

As the army leaves, a figure perched on a crumbling wall turns and watches the men march off to chase the setting sun. It seems to consider, a long-fingered hand reaching up to stroke a hairless chin.

The Lost Road

The ship jars as it drops anchor, rousing the unconscious dwarf below decks. Raethe steadies himself as the ship rocks and turns. It takes a several minutes, but finally all is calm. “Lower the gangway!” a shout from Dart, the captain’s right hand, and everyone knows it’s time to go ashore.

Raethe collects himself, puts on his boots, gloves and furs, takes up his gear, and bids farewell to the cargo hold of the Mercy with a dwarfen curse. Tired of being on the water, he looks forward to an extended stay on dry land, regardless of what the fates have in store for him over that time.

Raethe stands on the steps with one hand on the hatch leading out to the main deck. He waits until things up top have quieted down, takes a deep breath, and pushes open the hatch. The sun is bright, and it is warm, for Ruus. It is high summer, and they are not so far north that the permafrost would resist the thaw. Again he takes a deep breath, moving to the gangplank. The air is invigorating, and the same rush of energy and nostalgia hits him again. No matter the difficulty associated with being back in Ruus, it is very good to be home.

The rest of the party, and a number of the crew are assembled on the docks organizing the caravan that will bring them and the cargo to Arkangyl. Raethe spots the pony that has obviously been designated for him, as Dorak has mounted the only other. It takes some time for the crew to offload whatever goods are being transported, so Raethe takes his time securing his pack to the animal. He also stows his furs as the summer sun is actually quite pleasant. He paces and wanders a bit, wrapped up in his own thoughts, and within a couple of hours it was time to set off. The pony balks a bit as Raethe begins to mount the saddle (with a certain lack of skill and grace,) but soon he is settled in and on the road north.

The party rides ahead of the caravan, with Kal and Dorak leading the way. Raethe keeps to the rear, as does Khalid the former to be alone with his thoughts, and the latter because he has his nose in some odd tome and keeps drifting behind. A few hours in, however, Raethe’s drifting mind is shocked back to the here and now. His eyes narrow behind his opaque goggles, and he stands tall in the saddle. There is something on the wind… a familiar scent… He spurs the animal and pushes past Kal and Dorak who are engaged in an exchange of daring tales encumbered by far too many pleasantries for Raethe’s taste.

Their conversation trails off abruptly as the slayer takes the point, leaning forward over the mane of the pony, with the oversized maul clenched in his right hand. Suddenly, Raethe pulls hard on the reins and leaps to the ground. He scans the horizon and growls over his shoulder “greenskins…” With that he is off.

The party reacts quickly, each making haste to engage the unseen enemy. A minute or so up the road and the party can see several orcs playing the part of highwaymen. Raethe is certain there are more laying in ambush in the surrounding brush, but before he could flush them out there was a terrible wailing roar from just around the bend. He knew the sound all too well, a troll. Instantly the bloodlust consumed him and he bolted toward the sound, answering it with an unnatural roar of his own. As the battle began, Raethe disappeared down the road.

Once again the small group acquitted themselves quite well on the field of battle. Khalid continued to amaze as he proved he could not only master the elements, but the planes as well. Calling to distant realms to provide aid in his journey and hurling bolts of eldritch energy into the trees to scorch the life from his enemies. Kal managed to keep several of the raiding party at bay with his Florentine fighting style, the twin blades flashing a pale blue and white under the glow of the moon. The captain’s expert fencing (aided by dwarfen craftsmanship) again won out over the brute force of the greenskins. Dorak “Grimface” also wasted no time in cleaving through the marauding orcs. While it is true that all dwarfs succumb to a more primal rage when dealing with their ancestral enemies, there is truly no substitute for an unwavering belief that the actions you are taking are just. Dorak fights with that certainty, if not with the practiced and perfected form of a soldier, then with the ardent belief that each strike is landed for the righteous glory of Thorain.

Fifty yards or so past the main skirmish, Raethe charged the enraged troll with all the hate and disgust he could manage. Several orcs were there to keep the thing under control until it would be unleashed on their enemies, but soon they realized their mistake. A single troll was no match for a slayer who had earned his markings in the shadows of Felkirk, and without breaking stride, Raethe planted his boot on a fallen tree trunk and launched himself at the troll. The Stormhammer crashed through the twisted creature’s shoulder and into its ribcage, enough to kill most things, but trolls are tricky enemies. Following the blow, Raethe put his shoulder into the reeling troll knocking it back and exposing the two nearest orcs. They came at him swinging wildly, and slashing his skin with their rusted blades. The slayer whipped the Stormhammer with one hand in a wide arc, catching one of the orcs off guard, another quick flurry of exchanges between him and the orcs left Raethe again one on one with the troll who had snapped his ribs and clavicle back in place with a sickening series of oozing clicks. The troll slashed across the slayer’s chest with its black claws, but it was far too little far too late. Raethe wind-milled on the thing until the resulting pulp could not manage to right itself again. The remaining orcs fled into the woods, and the battle was won.

Soon the party was back together, and after licking their wounds a bit (and recovering from near total exhaustion in Raethe’s case) they were again on horseback and moving quite well towards Arkangyl.

The next several days passed without event save for some careful management of the party’s mounts. A week and a half of hard riding was a lot to expect from them, but there was a growing sense of urgency that could no longer be denied. Finally, on the morning of the eighth day they could see the smoke rising from the many chimneys of The Winter Gate. The fortified walls and main gate of the Arkangyl are visible from a great distance, they are massive, dwarf inspired feats of engineering and construction. They are as beautiful and ornate as they are foreboding to the would-be enemies of their inhabitants. These massive fortified cities or gates as they are known throughout Ruus were built not simply to facilitate trade (first with the dwarfen karaks, and then with the rest of Europa) but to stand against the incursions of the many threats that stalk these lands. Indeed, the scars of countless battles are borne on nearly every inch of the walls, and only serve to enhance their aesthetic appeal.

A few quick words (and wheels) from Kal to the guards monitoring the incoming traffic eases the modest caravan’s passage into the city. It is a busy place with all manner of trade shops, guilds, and people. Though it is a human city, the dwarfen influence can be felt throughout, and it is, for the slayer, the next best thing to being home.

The party will only spend the night here, but it will give them all the opportunity to gather what information and provisions they will need for the next leg of the journey. In addition, it will give Kal the chance to catch up with his love, Ashka.

The night wears on without incident. Most of the party sets about their business, and Raethe settles in to a chair with his back to the fireplace at the inn. Dorak has again secured fine lodging, but the slayer prefers to be closer to the food.

Raethe had no idea how much he missed the fare of his homeland. Pit roasted elk and spiced potatoes, rich cheeses from Norsca, black bread from Kazan, and alas, the spirits. He sits alone for some time, with two platters of elk and other assorted dishes. Again, he taunts himself with a stein of frost ale, a fine malt beer made from winter wheat. In recent months he has lost his taste for the brewer’s art, but at least here, he can tolerate the smell. In truth, his heightened senses drink in the aromas of the frost ale and the bouquet is enough to make him at least consider a taste, but he decides that it would be a mistake to ruin this magnificent meal by pushing the issue. So he is content to close his eyes, eat his fill and more, and imagine that the fire warming his sore back is rising from the braziers of his family’s mead hall.

Later in the night, Raethe is joined by Dorak, and eventually Khalid as well. As they eat and discuss the matters at hand, a serving wench arrives with another round of chilled frost ale, heralding the arrival of a guest, a dwarf by the name of Storn Twin-Tooth.

Storn looked the part of the stout dwarf warrior. He wore fairly heavy armor, and bore two fine military picks at his sides. He sat down and introduced himself to the table. He was curious, as are most, but he actually had some reason to approach one who he knew to be a slayer. It seems he had travelled with a trollslayer by the name of Dornrik in years past, until fortune smiled and he met his end on what they would learn was called the lost road.

Raethe thumps the massive head of the Stormhammer on the floor twice in appreciation for the round, and sits up a bit in his chair. It takes a few moments for the apprehension to fade before he introduces himself. Fortunately, any awkward silence is easily remedied by Dorak’s courtly nature. Raethe knew of the Twin-tooth clan, and in fact had met several in years past, once on the arduous journey back home from Frostfell, and once after he had left Ruus for what he thought was the last time. They were a modest clan centuries ago, warriors bred, but small in number. However, as the human settlements grew and trade throughout Europa and demand for fine dwarfen crafts expanded rapidly, the need for capable road wardens could not be ignored. The Twin-tooth clan filled that role quite expertly, and their name became synonymous with safe passage.

They talked for a few minutes, and ate, and most drank. The conversation was light for awhile, but soon the three dwarfs, as they will, cut straight to the point. Storn had travelled the northern roads extensively, for some time with Dornrik, and knew some of their secrets. Unfortunately even he and his kin were susceptible to the strange magics of what he called the lost road. To most dwarfs this is merely legend, a road that will render you hopelessly lost if your focus and destiny are not one, preposterous! The idea that a dwarf could ever hopelessly lose his way, and become eternally lost was just a story to frighten children.

Still, too much of the story resonated in the heart of the slayer. He wasn’t quite lost, but he was quickly losing all sense of direction within himself. All he really had left was the slaughter, the carnage that gave him focus. Could that be an end unto itself? Could that pass for one’s destiny? Suri used to speak of the Demon Slayers with a kind of deific reverence… slayers who had conquered every challenge to be found in this life, and so they sought to take the fight to the source of the dark powers themselves.

Raethe looked up from his plate in time to see the road warden produce a small, fine leather pouch from his belt. He handed it to the slayer in the hopes that it would bring him better fortune than Dornrik. He spoke of a stone burial mound marked only with the massive horn of some great arctic beast… the beast that ended the road of Storn’s friend. That would mark the mouth of the lost road. Raethe didn’t even have to open the pouch to know what it contained. The coin was cold, even through the leather pouch. Its rightful owner was dead. Instantly his suspicions were confirmed, and he was now certain that if a lost karak could ever be found, these coins would be the keys. They would not get lost on the road, he would not wander without honor or destiny forever in the shadow realm, he would enter the hall of the Slayer King and he would find answers!

Again Raethe found himself drifting off in his thoughts for a moment when somehow, without his consent, the conversation was focused on him. He found himself explaining how he had met a pair of Twin-tooth clan wardens on his way back home after he had earned his name, and again as he joined a human caravan leaving Arkangyl many years later under the banner of House Dra’Voro and dispatched from Moskovia to lend aid to the beleaguered forces of France. This seemed to have exactly the effect Raethe did NOT want… it captured everyone’s attention. Soon there was a hail of questions about the Shining Bridge, the forces of chaos, the dark armies, and of course the Gran Brettanians. He was beset, so he had no choice but to elaborate. Raethe glanced over the Bridge and Felkirk and his role there, but he did offer some insight to the armies of Gran Breton. What interested the group most were tales of the great flying machines called ornithopters, which, by the slayer’s account defied all laws of mechanics and engineering, and yet they were certainly a reality. The thought of these impossible flying machines in the vicinity of Ruus drew some panic from the road warden, and rightfully so. He made haste to inform his clans-folk and prepare for the worst. Khalid was fascinated by the design and function of the dreadful machines, and Raethe did his best to enlighten the academic.

The conversation grew tiresome for the slayer, not being used to so much focused interaction without catching a knife in the ribs. As fortune will sometimes smile on those in need, Raethe found himself rescued by the barman, not with a pint, but a note for Dorak. The innkeeper looked as if someone had walked over his grave, and with a shaky hand delivered the small note and quickly took his leave. Well, just because fortune smiles, it doesn’t mean she is smiling for you. The note was simple and familiar, the image of a skull. Apparently Vasilli hadn’t forgotten about the party, and it would seem his reach goes well north of Odessa.

The party exchanged a few looks and quietly agreed that they have only scratched the surface of this matter. As they break to find what sleep they can, Raethe finds himself alone at the table again. The common room has emptied save for a few stragglers, and his nerves are set more at ease in the silence of the late hour. He mulls over the issue of Vasilli and what it will mean for them in the future. Certain that whatever comes he will stand against it, and certain that his comrades can handle themselves, he concludes there is little to worry about on the road… on the road. His thoughts drift to Marlena, the daughter of swords. She will have to be left behind, that’s their vulnerability. If Vasilli wants to get to Kal, he can get to him through the girl. Making matters worse, she is an impetuous girl. In truth it is endearing to watch her test and torment Kal’s attempts to parent her or better yet refine her! But this was different, this isn’t picking a fight with some thug in a dockside bar for a bet. This isn’t rolling the bones in an alley with small-time cutpurses, knowing full well if someone was to cross the line they wouldn’t live long enough to regret the mistake. This could actually be a problem.

He decides to get some sleep and tackle this in the morning with a clear head and a full stomach.

The next day the party assembles in the common room for breakfast. They eat heartily knowing full well that trail rations will be the only thing on the menu for quite a while. Kal joins them looking haggard, like he hasn’t slept, and not with the customary spring in his step that his lack of sleep is usually accompanied by. Raethe looks up momentarily to shake his head at the sight of the man whose heart is in the hands of two women. “What did you expect…” he says. Kal opens his mouth, pauses, and slumps into a chair with an exasperated sigh, and proceeds to drink his breakfast. “I just wanted them to get along…” he says innocently. Raethe laughs just a bit.

Soon the horses are packed, and the party is prepared to make the arduous journey north from Arkangyl. There are no more cobbled trade roads, no more cities, just harsh winds, deep snow, and the looming shadow of the wastes.

All in all the first several days of the ride north are uneventful. The cold is refreshing but not yet unbearable, and as such the trails are not so difficult to traverse. It’s just easy enough for the group to let their guard down a bit.

That night the party rested, and camped as usual, but the things that dwell in the surrounding woods were not ready to grant them another night’s uninterrupted sleep.

The first sounds were subtle, but enough. Raethe sat staring into the fire, Khalid sat pouring over some musty old tome he acquired in Odessa, and the rest of the party slept until it was time for their watch. Then there was the slightest hint of something in the air and the slayer was up and at the ready. As soon as he stirred, he could hear the growling of wolves from the surrounding tree line. The growling wasn’t “big” enough to be winter wolves or dire wolves, but they could have been worgs or the like. That would have to wait though, as something else caught his attention. As the rest of the party readied themselves for the ambush, Raethe caught a faint aura from deeper in the forestry. He bolted into the woods, and disappeared into the darkness.

Quickly, Raethe crashed through into a clearing, and there he saw it, a giant! Once again he found himself face to face with one of the Formorians. These were the descendants of the original giants who will one day threaten Asgard, and from the look of this one and the pack of wolves under his charge, Raethe surmised that this huge beast, six or seven axe handles tall, was the offspring of Kerenos, Master of Hounds, and chief among the Fhoi Myore.

The giant uprooted a sapling at the sight of the incensed dwarf charging him, and they engaged. The giant swung down furiously on the slayer, landing several terrible blows, but Raethe was able to get inside his reach and drove the head of his maul into the ankle of the creature. More blows rained down on the dwarf, who responded with a vicious overhead strike to the inside of the giant’s knee. Raethe saw it buckle, and saw the giant’s weight begin to shift. He sprung back, and as the giant collapsed under its own mass, Raethe leapt straight up and spun completely around driving the Stormhammer in a sweeping uppercut. The blow landed flush under the giant’s jaw, pulverizing it and snapping the thing’s head back, breaking its neck. The crash of thunder and the sound of distant storms resonated though the clearing as Raethe was knocked back fully ten feet into an evergreen.

With his focus on the giant-kin, Raethe had not noticed the considerable carnage being wrought by his companions. Fires bursting forth in mid air, setting the treetops alight, the ever delicate and deadly ballet of the captain’s sabers, and the single-minded onslaught of the virtuous warrior-priest. The ambush was turned back in short order, and the party reassembled at the campsite. They took stock of their condition and dressed their wounds, as was becoming the norm for their excursions. They each tried to settle back in for the night, as all of them knew they would need their rest come the morning.

As day broke on the fifth morning of the journey north, the party broke camp and mounted up to press on. The road was whitewashed with a dusting of snow, as even high summer could not hold it back this far north. The day was passing as most do on the road, each of the party drifting in their own thoughts. The monotony was broken though as Raethe spotted the hint of something off the path. It was tough to make out, but it had caught his eye, and that was enough in this desolate place.

Sure enough, not far off the trail, the slayer came upon what had to be the cairn of Dornrik. As he approached, he noticed a crow nervously perched atop the mound of carefully placed stones. Raethe approached slowly as to not spook the bird. He crouched low, and held out an open palm in an attempt to gain the animal’s trust.

The crow pecked at the mound, and squawked a bit, flapping its wings wildly as the others closed on their position. Raethe gestured to the group to back off. He knelt down in a bit of a lunge, and placed one hand on the cold earth. “Are you here to cause trouble?” He asked the bird, surprised at himself for trying something so ridiculous as talking to a crow. The bird pecked and scratched at the mound again, and then its head cocked upright, and its eyes locked with the slayers. Raethe was drawn in, and for a moment he could see twisted spires and barren landscapes in the crow’s eyes. It was only a flash, but it was unmistakable. The crow looked to the sky and it was gone.

Raethe studied the cairn, and found that one of the stones had been removed, or more accurately, it was never placed. After weighing the consequences of possibly desecrating the memorial, he placed his foot in the empty space and stood atop the mound. It wasn’t right, he couldn’t see anything of note from here, but maybe…

He called to Kal, and explained what needed to be done. Raethe handed him the slayer coin, and Kal stepped onto the burial mound. Kal looked around, but had no more luck than Raethe. Then with a bit of reluctance, he pulled an ancient and ornate sextant from his pack. Instinctively he slid Raethe’s coin into place where the lens should be, and as it sat perfectly flush in the scope, it became transparent!

Kal could see the path they needed to take and the smoke rising over the horizon. The hall of the Slayer King beckoned… they would not get lost on the road, not today.

Elsewhere in Europa

Somewhere in Southeast Germany, in a town far from the heart of the Empire, there is a gala underway. The dignitaries of the town are all in their resplendent best, gowns and gloves, surcoats and tabards, finery normally reserved for Sigmar’s high holy days, or for the seasonal festivals. Tonight they celebrate their liberation, long and hard and merrily.

Here in the drakwalds of the Empire, lawlessness has a heavy hand. Roadwardens, champions and justices are far too few, and far too distant. This area has languished under the auspices of a Meister who has long abused his power and wealth. He had murdered his rivals, destroyed his competitors, and ruled as a petty tyrant for 25 years, all under the very nose of the Emperor himself.

Tonight this same man, Meister Illbereth, lies in a pauper’s mass grave with his lieutenants and soldiery. The celebration is to anoint the town’s hero of the hour, he who slew the tyrant and gave the smallfolk back their lands and wealth and freedom. Tonight, they all hail the Knight of the White Arrow!

His pennon flies regally from the highest tower of old Illbereth’s castle. He sits in state with the newly elected constable of the town, the young blacksmith, Fallowden. Within a month, Fallowden will have moved into the old offices of Illbereth on the town square, and have 5 men-in-arms wearing the crest and color of the area, deputized constables, with their names on a scroll awaiting the next roadwarden’s visit to be official. Within 2 months, the town will have recovered from their joy and celebration and once again pick up life in the norm, sowing and reaping, hunting and gathering.

6 months from now, Fallowden will replace the faded pennon on the castle’s high turret with a new one, freshly dyed, its white arrow bright and unmistakable.

On the Volga

Raethe sits on a small crate near the bow of Shallya’s Mercy, staring intently north by northeast. After months of travelling through southern Europa and even into Araby, he has the sense that his destination is finally within reach. Not that the extended journey hasn’t been somewhat agreeable. In truth, Raethe reflects, he has enjoyed the distractions of strange landscapes and cultures. Following Kal on foolhardy treks through all manner of strange places in search of fortune and fame was a somewhat welcome change from the constant feeling of fighting for one’s life against insurmountable odds every day. Unfortunately, all of these travels, all of these busy ports of trade, bustling cities, and even the caravans and adventuring parties only served to underscore just how much he doesn’t belong anywhere. Raethe took a deep breath and quietly acknowledged that this disassociation was mostly a product of his own lack of direction. For nearly twenty summers he had absolute clarity of purpose, and a preternatural sense guiding him from place to place as if beacons were being lit to mark his path the whole way. It was time to get back to business, but regrettably, he was now at the mercy of the wind, and worse, the whimsy of his friend and captain.

He smiles and takes some perverse pleasure in that the longer Kal delays the more Marlena will torment him until he is able to deposit her someplace safe. Especially now with the conjurer onboard holding her imagination captive. Raethe is sure he will ask her to stay in his “home port” while they make the journey further north, but who knows if she will have any of that. Raethe chuckles just the slightest bit.

Not a moment too soon, he hears Kal give the order to get underway. With that, the journey up river has finally begun. Raethe spends the next several days mapping out the trip in excruciating detail to himself, as if obsessing about every inch of the voyage will somehow propel them faster… “the Volga River will take us north from Odessa… the first bend comes about fourteen miles… and we will have to drop anchor six or eight hours outside of Arkangyl… should only take two or three weeks…”

Raethe salivates at the prospect of finally getting some solid answers to the burning questions that never seem to end, though the thought of traveling so close to home brings a sense of trepidation.

A few days out from port the Mercy was approached by a small river faring skiff. It flew unfamiliar colors, and was crewed by half a dozen manling rabble. They hail the ship, and Kal is nice enough to oblige a quick negotiation for a toll to proceed up river. They say they come with Vasilli’s authority, and that he controls the northern leg of the river, as well as all trade passing through “his” territory. Raethe resists the urge to scuttle their small ship and drown everyone on it just for slowing them down when they are so close, but Kal loves to feel like he is brokering every transaction in Europa, so they talk. Eventually, Kal decides that their toll is too high, and that we will take our chances with Vasilli’s “armada.”

Shortly after the lookout spots smoke rising up over the horizon… a signal. Since surprise and diplomacy are now out of the question, the ship erupts in flurries of activity to prepare for whatever this Vasilli has in store.

The river bends, first east, then back west. It forces us to slow our pace… the perfect spot for an ambush. Vasilli has a small fortification on the west bank of the river, and we would soon learn that there were several bowmen in the brush on the east bank. The attack was fairly well coordinated, but executed by amateurs… Amateurs who had no idea what they were in for.

By the time the main sails of the three pirate skiffs were in plain view it was too late. They had an advantage tactically: numbers, flanks, and catapults that would make themselves known from behind the small earthen barricade… They were in big trouble.

Since it was dark, and the Mercy’s crew skilled, the catapults had a hard time finding their range, and even with the bowmen using flaming pitch to pepper the hull with fiery arrows, the elements and the gods favored the Mercy. In a matter of moments, one of the skiffs was set ablaze by the wizard from Araby. Whoever survived the fire threw themselves overboard and either swam for shore (a tough swim for most) or toward one of the two remaining skiffs… bad idea.

Soon fires erupted on the second skiff, and then the third. One of the skiffs was helped to the bottom of the river by the bow of the much larger Estallian caravel. Dorak called on the many blessings of Thorain to douse the fires pelting the starboard side of the Mercy, and Khalid again called on the elements to obliterate the catapults before they inflicted any meaningful damage to the ship. In the wake of all of this carnage, several skiffs carried reinforcements down river toward the battle, but they quickly thought better of the plan, and pulled ashore. This wasn’t a fight, it was a slaughter. Vasilli would have to do much better than that if he wanted his cut of Kal’s stores.

All through the battle, Raethe watched as his companions and the crew of Shallya’s Mercy routed the brigands under Vasilli’s flag. Anxious to get into the fray, but not so overcome by bloodlust as these were certainly not worthy foes. They deserved to burn, and drown, and live with their cowardice as they fled. They were not worthy of feeling the thunder of the Stormhammer.

So he stood, seething, but not at his current enemies. Raethe could “see,” standing on a crate near the forward mast, the long road, the wastes, the forge fires, and the ghosts of the past, and those of the future. They would be very near his home soon. Every step, every gust of wind took them that much closer to the atrocities of his youth, and the forgotten wonders of his once celebrated clan. These thoughts, these visions weighed heavy on his heart and mind. Still, with each passing day, the air was fresher, colors were more vibrant, and he could smell the fragrant evergreens as though he were walking through the pristine woodlands outside his homeland. Even the food he ate tasted better. If he didn’t know better, he would swear that he was feeling joyful… but he did know better.

Still, despite his inner protests, something swelled inside of his heart and it was not the all too familiar fury that would so often consume him. So as the battle wore down, and the crew set to repairing any damage and setting the riggings, Raethe made his way back below decks to his small corner of the ship. Clearing aside the mound of cargo nets that he used as a bed, Raethe retrieved his pack and began setting a few items to the side. Careful that no one had followed him downstairs, he removed a large bundle and placed it gently on top of the nets. Meticulously he removed the thick leather straps which buckled in back, and then unfolded the thick white fur that held the precious contents within. The fur was as white as newly fallen snow, and still cold to the touch, and as he moved the flaps to the side his eyes were fixed and he was taken back in time for moment. He could not will himself to ignore the waves of nostalgia he felt. Could his road ever lead back there? Could he ever look upon the halls… no, never. Raethe shook his head violently as if trying to recover from a brutal strike. Still, even he had to admit that there was something in the air that made him long for those days again.

The feeling was quickly washed away as he heard the door of the hold swing open. Raethe carefully repacked the bundle, and replaced the contents of his pack. A nervous looking deckhand (who had so obviously drawn the short straw) came cautiously down the stairs and began looking frantically around the small reserve cargo hold. “Sorr… sorr… sorry, but I… I… need a…” Raethe just snorted and ignored him, and soon the runt found a small barrel of tar. He snatched it up as fast as he could, and made haste up the stairs to begin his repair work.

Raethe placed his furs on top of the netting as a makeshift pillow, pulled off his steel shod boots, and settled in to get some rest. They would pull in to port in a few hours, and he intended to waste no time getting to Arkangyl.

A tale of two women: Kal's Night
While the party enjoys a night at the pub Kal goes home and introduces his daughter to his love...

Kal stands outside “The Gentle Anvil” and presses his hand on the door. The shop is small but quaint. It’s a cottage style house/store front with strong stone walls and a peaked hutch above the door. The roof is red and green slate, with large double windows in the front for showcasing work. The rest of the cottage is home; two large bedrooms, a smallish kitchen and few rooms for “special” projects. Kal stops for a moment and takes a deep cleansing breath. He’s wearing his “finest” (This is his usual dress except for a deep scarlet sash along his waist). The billowing smoke from one of the three smoke stacks tells the tale. She’s hard at work as usual. The old door gives way and hits the brass bell hung behind it…

“One minute” a woman’s voice comes from beyond the front counter; it’s a deep, sultry tone that’s augmented by the Russ accent. Kal takes a moment to look around the store, “She’s been busy… and gotten better.” He thinks to himself. The shelves are littered with all manner of creation; hammers, tongs, shields, knives, swords and an absolutely stunning buckler above the door. The quality of the work ranges from very good to sheer perfection.

He picks up the rapier hanging on the wall and looks down its edge; it’s balanced, keened and of exceptional quality. But still not as good as his twin blades, Agatha and Abigail, he still has yet to see their equal. They were her masterpiece, the works that got her accepted into the master’s guilds. The first woman to ever reach that level… this means she’s twice as good as most of the men already in the guild.

Ashka walks into the room, she’s about 4’6” and light skinned with dark almond shaped eyes. The description Kal always spun to his shipmates was “Eyes & hair as dark as coal and skin as white as clouds on a perfect day, a waist that I could fit in my hands and a bust that I couldn’t reach my arms around. Her love is like the sea; some moments calm and still like a cool breeze on a hot night and other times she’d capsize you for the crime of looking at another woman. That’s my port, that’s my Ashka”. His descriptions almost made most of his crew fall in love with her but they knew that she was sacred ground for him.

“Kal.” She says in a low tone… “Ashka” he replies with affection in his voice. She walks slowly to him and looks up at his face, her eyes getting a bit glassy at his return home. “Ashka, I’ve mis” SLAP. His face burns from the sting of her hand. Kal knowing what is about to come next instinctively puts both hands up to his head and begins to protect his precious face like a weary boxer in the 10th round. After about a minute or so of hitting and apologizing, he grabs her roughly by the waist and does the only thing he knows how to do to stop a rampaging woman. The Kiss. (Kal has written several chapters about “The Kiss” and its effects, it is his secret weapon and more powerful than any magic) She immediately stops hitting him for that brief moment. Once the kiss is completed, he looks at her expecting the slow release of air and fluttering eyes… only to receive… another slap. He holds his face almost hurt at her stubbornness… her anger breaks immediately; she touches his face gingerly and smiles… “Let me get the kettle on”. As she saunters into the next room, Kal rubs his sore face and says softly… “Good times… good times”.

Kal spends the next hours speaking as he does, quickly and wildly. He explains the tail of the Seabecks and the cursed earth of the southern town. He tells wild stories about orithopters, white arrows the never miss, the golden sexton and more. Ashka hangs on every word… instinctively knowing what’s an exaggeration and what’s the truth. She’s the only woman (before Marlene) that ever could. He tells her of the new travelers he has met. The Slayer Dwarf, his friend and bodyguard, a good man who he feels worried for and saddened by his plight. The Priestly Dwarf, a comical fellow whose armor is a sight to behold and who words bring charms. The Human Wizard, who’s polite and soft spoken and controls flames, earth and all manner of creature, Then… the girl.

“I have to tell you something…I’ve taken in a stray” “What do you mean?” Ashka’s eyes narrow both in curiosity and female concern. “When we were at the town, where the chaos taint was, there was a young girl, she needed looking after and well… I took on the job” SLAP “NO NO NO it’s not what you think! Stop hitting me!” The sounds of beating continuing unit finally… “Well what DO you mean?” Kal takes a deep breath and begins to explain it… The fact that her family was killed in front of her, the fact that she needed him and how much she reminded her of someone else… like a sister or daughter, that he’d long forgot. When he finished, Ashka looked at him and tilted her head in the way she always did. She had an uncanny way of knowing the difference in his truth, tales, stories and lies. She knew it was true. “I think I share you enough…. But when do I meet her?” “Now” he replies.

Kal walks to the door and opens it, he gestures to someone outside and a few moments later Marlene, comes to the door in a pale green sundress, and her hair tied back in green velvet with matching slippers. For the first time she looked like a beautiful young women. Her hair blond and skin bronzed from the months on sea, her body lithe and young, she nodded her head and tired a polite bow. A blind man could see her uneasiness, her hands behind her back and her eyes darting about the room. Kal began the introduction: “Don’t let the nervousness fool you… she’s an unholy terror. Her name is Marlene. Marlene meets Ashka”. The two women look each other up and down and begin to dissect each other as only women do. The temperature in the room actually drops 10 degrees.

Marlene thinks to herself; “Short little thing. My only port, my harbor… HA he’s had a lot of harbors since I’ve been aboard the Mercy, “but this is where I call home”… she made the twin blades, the singing blades. Humph… she’s fat. Frankly, I don’t see the big deal “

Ashka thinks to herself; “Frail little human girl looking for adventures with her dashing “father figure”, better be father figure…. I mean come on Kal, what’s next? Taking in kittens? Frankly, I don’t see the big deal”

Kal thinks to himself; “Wow. This is going really well”

The three sit and Kal begins to talk, telling stories and going on. Explaining the way things are and adventures he’s had with each other. For each of the stories staring the mischievous, clever and strong Marlene, Ashka’s teeth grind, eyes narrow and forehead dampens. For every story staring the beautiful, gifted and fierce Ashka, Marlene shifts in seat making half smiles and rolling eyes.

And for the first time Kal stops talks…. Silence. For those of you know don’t know: Kal is a brave man, some would say foolhardy. He has been caught with 4 twin sisters in a night and talked his way out of it (and more). He has seen his near death and glimpsed at the gods. However, in a room with the two women he loves… this awkward silence and tension has him afraid. Very Afraid.

At the same time in low serious voice…. Ashka “Kal…” Marlene “Can you give us a moment alone” Ashka & Marlene “Girl Talk”

As he is ushered out of the room his blood begins to crawl and sound of the door closing behind him sounds like a long dull thud of a mausoleum door.

Behind the door two women that love the same man in very different ways begin circling each other. “So… you’re Ashka, frankly I expected more. HE talks about you like you’re an angel” says Marlene coolly. “Funny.. He never mentioned you at all” snaps back Ashka. “Well… we were busy” retorts Marlene eyebrow raised.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes insults are thrown about and then silence. From outside the door Kal sits patiently hoping they find a common ground. And then… he hears it. It starts as quiet “CLINK” and then another and then another…soon the sounds of metal on metal pitter pattering like rain on a tin roof. Swordplay. Kal tried to open the door and find it barred from the inside. After a minute he sits back down and waits, his eyes glazed over and questions swirling in his head:

“Are they actually fighting in there? Ashka is going to kill her… Maybe. Maybe Marlene… I mean their both pretty good and almost no ones’ as fast as Marlene but Ashka is an angry little thing. I mean ok ok ok…. If I was placing bets…. 0-9 Ashka… hmmm maybe not. I guess it would depend on what weapon their using. Marlene with twin curved knives… wait we left them in the ship. No… I know she snuck them in… I should of frisked her and Ashka… well she’s got a bloody arsenal in their! Oh man. This is bad. Should I knock? No no no let them work it out… work it out?!? Am I mad?!?”

He stands up. He sits down.

“Hmmm probably better for ME not to get involved… I mean I might accidentally hurt someone… OR more likely one of them will gut me. I should stay. I mean… I’m pretty important.”

He stands up. He sits down.

“Ok… these are the women I love.” He bangs on the door loudly “BOTH OF YOU KNOW LET ME IN.” His tone is defiant & scolding; any hardened man on the Mercy would bow and do as their told with such an order. Twin voices from the room “STAY OUT OF THIS AND SIT DOWN.”

He sits. He drinks rum quietly. He waits.

Inside the room, insults fly back and forth like daggers, each comment more hurtful then the last. Then it happens, someone (and as the narrator of the tale… I’ll never say who) takes it a bit too far… first a push and then a slap and then someone reaches steel. Ashka stands a mace in hand, the haft of it pulled up to her chin, like a samurai from the east. Marlene’s twin blades curve against her forearms both he hands in a boxer’s position ready to snap out. The combatants lash out at each other; each one skilled in their own disciplines.

Marlene dancing around the room, moving over obstacles with easy and Ashka taking perfectly timed controlled and powerful swings. They both narrowly miss each other and when they do strike the wounds are superficial. This continues for a time until…

Ashka “Truce.” Marlene “What?” Ashka “Truce on one condition and tell me the truth… have you and him ever…” Marlene “NO! (Said with both horror and disgust)... He’s Kal” Ashka “Sword father” Marlene “I guess so” (In a low and thoughtful tone) Ashka “Ok then… we’ll work this out on our own. He says that you WANT to learn.” Marlene “Yes, Everything.. but here with you?” Ashka “There’s no better teacher” Marlene “You? Would you? Why?” Ashka “Then I will teach you for a time” Marlene “What if I don’t want to there’s a whole world out there and I’m not going to live forever…” Ashka “And you’ll live a lot shorter if your not trained or armed properly” Marlene “… did you really make the singing blades?” Ashka “I did.” Marlene “Their amazing.” Ashka “I know” (She smiles) Marlene “So will your long knives… we’ll start on them tomorrow” <long> Ashka “He loves you” Marlene “You to” Ashka “SO what does he do out there that I’m not supposed to know about…”

Kal sits outside staring at the door and then an even more sinister sound is heard through the door, two girls giggling.

That night was lonely one for Kal. Ashka clearly felt that having a young woman in the house meant intimate movements. And after a long cold shower, the next day the three find themselves talking about what is to come over breakfast. Kal explains what they need to do while they are here and both girls look at him with disapproving eyes. They worry for him so and yet he pushes on, it is the only cruelty that he will ever burden them with but it is quite a load. Ashka warns him of the roads… roads where men lose their minds and never return. The “Lost Road” they call it. But this is Raethe’s quest and Kal made a promise to bring him there.

Kal then show’s Ashka the twin blades, her eyes widen as she sees the long scratch running down Agatha’s side. She explains that to repair it would be a mistake. It would ruin the integrity of the blade. Then she lifts the swords and turns white…

Ashka “What have you done to them?” Kal “Nothing… why?” Ashka “Their different… I don’t know how but they are” Kal “What do you mean?” Ashka “Their light and move more…. On their own.” Kal “I though it was me getting more and more used to them but something is different isn’t it” Ashka “It is, what made the scratch?” Kal “A beast. A Chaos Lord” Ashka “Hmm… could the metal be tainted… could the blades….” Kal “That’s not possible both are changed, why would they both be affected?” Ashka “The blades are sisters. They are from the same ore, the as much family as blood kin. Look on Abigail…” Kal notices for the first time a slight ripple in the steel… only Ashka could have noticed it. It mirrored Agathas wound. Kal “Wow. Is this even possible?” Ashka “It shouldn’t be but it is.”

The morning goes on for awhile and the three of them clean the table and sit be the fire. The two girls curled on either side, Kal wonders if this home. In his mind the conversation begins: “Could I leave the sea for this life? Would it get boring? Wouldn’t it? Ashka and I would fight, Marlene would get old and leave. Why can’t I just bottle this moment?” He kisses both of their foreheads and slowly pulls himself from their sleeping embrace.

He sits at the table and begins to write a note to them both:

Good morning my ladies, I need to go now for a few days. I have promised Reathe that I would walk the lost road with him. Don’t worry about me losing my way, I have my lighthouse in both of you and I will never be adrift again. I love you and will be home soon. Kal.

The door opens and closes quietly as slips outside into the cool air

Smooth Sailings: Voyage North
excerpt from the Memoirs of Dorak the Axe Bearer, Thane of Karak Belgrin

The following chronicles a part of one of the more famous quests of a mighty dwarf that once lived in Norska. Though he passed over a millenium ago, his legend lives on…

“21st of Buckmont, 18,506 Anno Drannorae.”

“Once again my feet lack the familiar feel of earth and stone. Once again my dreams dictate my direction, and I’m off with a group of strangers towards Russ – towards North. Once again the wind, sea, and sun dance upon my face, and my eyes fix to the lost city, to the fallen Holdfast, to the Eastern Mountains. It has now been twenty years since I first dreamt of these places… and I remember them like it was yesterday. My visions get stronger, and I can feel the tension in my bones. I hope, no, I know, that this is where I’m meant to be. They didn’t understand, but my fate has been decided the day I picked up the shield and armor – the day I met him.”

“We sail for a few days with favorable winds, or so the crew tells me. I know enough to stand out of their way, and I take this time to practice with my axe and soak in Thoraín’s blessings high in the sky. We have a brief skirmish with would-be pirates, but our captain fired his guns once or twice and scared them away. And like that we reach our first stop – a smaller town by the name of Hamelin. It is mostly a restocking port, though there is enough trade here to satisfy a common merchant. I take this opportunity to set my feet on the ground, and examine the workings of my Ruus cousins. Their craft is magnificent: swords, shields, axes, you name it – each done with a true master’s hand. I doubt these humans appreciate my race’s dedication & skill, but such is the way of the world. They have coins, and that’s enough ‘appreciation’ I guess.”

“The captain seems to have run into an old friend of his – a fellow pirate/privateer known as Captain Ramius. They banter for a bit, we have a pleasant supper with him, and they exchange stories. I took this opportunity to learn about my odd dwarfen companion – Raethe. Law of Cordiality had been satisfied, and now it was time for proper introductions. To my surprise, he refused to speak of his clan or origins. I don’t know much about his kind – the ‘savage’ dwarfs of Ruus so to speak, though I can’t imagine them being too different from our Norska barbarians. It is odd he hides his true self. It is… undwarfen. I could see anger flicker in his deformed eyes. I can see he’s been… touched. It does not shock me as it would others, for I have seen my share of it. I don’t know what to think of him. But he travels where I travel, as does the outlander, and the captain of our ship. So long as they stay out of my way, we’ll get along just fine. I’m a fairly easy going dwarf and it takes a lot to anger me, but nobody better get in the way of my quest, or they will suffer the same fate those goblins did in Karak Ild twenty years ago.”

“Next day we resume our journey and head towards Odessa, a large port and outpost for the Russ dwarfes. It is high summer, and the ships are now coming with dwarfen wares frequently. I can’t wait to see my cousins. I can’t wait to see the old world. It takes us five days, and again we have good winds, and no trouble on the water. On the fifth day we reach the city, and it is large, by human standards. Captain Deigo takes some unusual precautions here, as if expecting trouble, and if I’m not mistaken he might have even locked up his niece from venturing within. Not my business and I do not interfere with his affairs.”

“Again, the feel of earth & stone – old stone, brings a smile on my face. This time I head out wearing armor instead of tunic, though such precaution among cousin dwarfs may be excessive. I head straight for the gem cutter’s center, and soon enough I find it. My cousins do not seem to appreciate my presence; until they find out I’m selling gems, not buying. I take this opportunity to learn about the ‘fallen’ Karak. Many take offense to that, as they should by dwarfen custom, but I need to know, and though it pains me to ask, I eventually find a dwarf willing (and greedy) enough to learn all I need to learn. He tells me about a fallen Holdfast that apparently some madman is trying to reclaim. That is a very strange thing indeed. We trade, and having enough coin to conduct all the necessary affairs, I conclude my business.”

“I know Captain Diego doesn’t want us to take much time in the city, but I cannot skip this chance to visit the Temple of Thoraín – I know there’s one here, and sure enough, after asking a few dwarfs I find it in the center of town. I sit there for a few hours. I chose a perfect spot – right where the sun comes through the window and warms my face and hands. I sit there, loosing myself in the moment, paying homage and giving thanks to our gods. I dream there, fading in-and-out of consciousness, hearing cheering voices in the Halls of Thoraín, and seeing the smiling faces of ancient dwarfs. I do not know why they talk to me. I do not know what Thoraín has in store for me. But I look forward to it. I leave a gem on the altar and head out.”

“Eventually all dehydrated and sweaty I make my way back to the ship. The crew eyes me with suspicion, undoubtedly hearing the distinct sound of gold coming from the box I carry. But pirates as they are, they can clearly see my axe, and I doubt many would like to taste its business end. Eventually my other companions return from the city too. I presume they too took this opportunity to learn of our destination. I look forward to hearing what they have learnt, and sharing what I know. Maybe together we can piece together enough information to get me to where I need to go. And as the ship’s sails fill and the water begins to move, I fix my eyes North-East once again…”


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