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.