Sunday, April 17, 2016

Uhrbum Mhortuorum



Xoniuqé explained that a blanket counterspell lay over the entire town. His magic was useless until the party either escaped or the source of the counterspell was destroyed.

That source lay directly ahead, up the street before them.

The imperial horse got on the road, and the wizard's own household and friends formed up around him. Xoniuqé stayed on the back of his horse, Cinderfoot. Myrdagyn and Ahnxst were acutely aware that he was now the most vulnerable member of their party.
Leading the way, the Imperial Knight captain and his three comrades in arms walked their horses slowly forward. Ahead of them they could see townspeople pausing in their routine to look at them. The townspeople slowly got off the street and lined the sides of it, and paused in alleys and side streets, watching silently. Something in the intensity of their faces made the Knight and men-at-arms wary and they gripped their lances tightly, ready to charge.

Behind them walked Horgand and Nouvzé. And behind father and son came the wizard's sword and crossbow. Xoniuqé was flanked on his right by the three Drulathim, and on his left by Myrdagyn and the girl Sehlinah, who led the string of pack mules. With the trio of great war hounds, Bruno the handler screened his lord. In the rear came the axmen, the rearmost turning to walk backward, facing the street that increasingly filled with a throng of the town's denizens, silently shuffling in their wake, pressing slowly closer as the party of adventurers moved deeper into the town.





Soon the horsemen came to an arched way that led on the other side into a spacious square. That open place was filled with a gathering, many of whom faced a tall column in the center of the square. And they were in the attitude of chanting or hymning, their faces lifted to gaze upon a huge carving of a plague fly set on the top of the column.

The Knight and men-at-arms passed beneath the archway and walked their horses to the right of the column. They pushed slowly into the loose crowd before them. Behind the horses came the father and son duo, taking care to keep close. On either hand the denizens of the place watched them from a short distance. The first of the swordsmen and crossbows entered the square. Progress forward began to slow down, as more townspeople were encountered forward. Hands began to reach for bridles and to tug on stirrup leathers.

"Pilgrims!" said the nearest men and women, "welcome to the worship services. Please dismount and you can put your fine horses over there." Hands indicated a place to one side where the horses would go. Rather than submit to this, the four horsemen brushed at the hands that reached for them and kneed their steeds into the throng, which was bumped and jostled aside but continued to implore them to dismount and join the prayers going on nearby.




Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and the others had by then reached the square. Myrdagyn took in the situation at once and shouted to the captain of the horsemen to clear the square ahead. "Do not stop!" he added with emphasis.

It was done immediately. There was no room to charge, but the lances went down and the first casualties were crushed under hoof.

"Sacrilege!" screamed those who saw this. "They are not of the body!" shouted others. The shouts were taken up all around the square and in the street behind. The side streets began to disgorge blazing eyed defenders of the faith. From the crowds issued armed men intent on eradicating this band of imposters posing as "pilgrims."


Xoniuqé pointed up at the statue of the plague fly squatting on its column. "There is the source of all our troubles," he said to his nearby companions. "It must come down, or we will likely never see another day."

Myrdagyn took the grapnel and rope from his belt and swung it high. The grapnel hooked up there and he gave it a stout tug. The hook came down, narrowly missing his own head. He cursed under his breath and swung again. The result was the same. A third try was fouled by the press of combatting men on either side of him, and the grapnel soared clean over the column, carrying the rope with it into the milling, shouting crowd on the far side of the square.





Ahnxst and Sehlinah and the rest had faced outward, left and right and went at it, hewing and thrusting and clearing a space up to the houses on the right, and around the base of the column. Howling like demons the fanatics gesticulated and cursed them. Many did not seem inclined to follow up their imprecations with action. But a sizeable number did just that and the entire party was either engaged in the melee or were standing in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the threatening mob.

A sudden disturbance in the mob occurred as a large, squat form pushed everyone out of the way. And then the armed person stood there breathing heavily, pausing in some confusion. It was Auhxalys. She had been intent on following the sound of fighting and screaming. Sensing the fear and anger of the townspeople she had naturally leaped to their defense. But instead of seeing enemies here she saw before her the familiar forms and faces of her almost forgotten friends.

Xoniuqé moved his horse toward her. "Alys!" he shouted. "We are here to take you away. Fight for us woman!" He exerted all the persuasion and affection he could muster, tinged with an even more powerful desperation. If the "moving mountain" went into action against them it would not go well!

Their situation was even more acute at that moment. The horsemen were flanked in the press ahead. And one of them panicked and wheeled about, fecklessly striving for more "fighting room." He was dragged from the back of his mount to the cobbled ground and pummeled mercilessly. Bruno the handler snatched a glance over his shoulder at his master, wondering if now was the time to loose the hounds. But Xoniuqé wasn't watching. His whole attention was on Auhxalys, locking eyes with the feverish woman over the heads of the men between them. Bruno backed out of the way of the riderless, plunging horse and the surge of irate defenders, until his arm was bumped by the wizard's right stirrup. The dogs were straining and snapping at those townsmen who drew near, practically driven mad by the shouts and screams, the scent of fresh gore, all around them. Into the breach turned Horgand, and Ahnxst suddenly appeared at his left side. The pair of them pushed into the crowd, slaying, and the space around the wizard was cleared of enemies. He had hardly noticed the growing danger, so focused was he upon the fighting woman from his village.

Auhxalys stood there facing them for a small moment that seemed far longer, then shook her head is if to clear it, turned about, and with a shriek of joyous release laid about herself with her cudgel. Bodies dropped left and right and she moved back the way she had come, hewing a path as wide as her reach. More bodies went down, desperately falling to get out of her way.




Sehlinah found herself facing a narrow street, and alongside a swordsman the two of them cleared the opening and held it against the pressing throng that filled it as far back as they could see.


As if the appearance of Auhxalys had swung the balance, the pressure on them eased. Now most of the milling, shouting throng were keeping their distance. Only a few belligerents still crossed weapons with them. So far, casualties had been slight, only a single horseman, crossbow and swordsman had gone down. Horgand, Nouvzé and Ahnxst had ranged ahead in support of their horsemen. The son had carved his way deeply into the mob and back again. He saw Myrdagyn trying to get his grapnel to stick, and he decided he'd like to try his hand at it too. But reaching down to his belt he discovered that he was unequipped. He went to the pack animals and rummaged for a rope and grapnel, but had no luck. An axman kept a fanatic off the heedless Nouvzé while he sought what he failed to find.

Now Ahnxst was freed up and saw the situation at once. The "greatest swordsman who ever lived" was having difficulties even getting his second grapnel to stick up there. In a moment the Drulath youth was at the base of the column, had swung his own grapnel to the top of it, tugged on it, and pulled himself hand over hand up until he stood atop the grotesque image of "the god of flies and plagues". As he straddled the carven legs and wings he wondered aloud what he should do: "Use my ax and chop this thing up?" He gestured to the backup weapon opposite his sheathed sword. "Or rip it off and toss it?"

"Cast it down! Cast it down!" shouted the wizard.

Without another moment of hesitation, Ahnxst did exactly that. As he seized upon the angled legs of the statue and ripped up on it, he felt a powerful shock course up his arms. He shouted in pain and anger as his muscles bulged with the effort. The statue of the gross fly tilted and then toppled in ruin on the cobbles below.




"That did it!" shouted Xoniuqé exultantly. "I am a wizard again!"

The Drulath swiftly descended his rope beside the captain of their band. He tried not to look smug.

Stung in his pride, Myrdagyn put a humorous face on it. "I never claimed to be the greatest climber who ever lived, you know." Ahnxst let it go and looked around. A transformation in the crowd dynamics was taking place.

The instant that the totem protecting, and deluding, the town had fallen to destruction, the illusion of "glorious ones" had shattered. Those who were already fully enthralled under the effect of the plague flies were now seen in their true guise: nothing more or less than zombies without wills of their own. Those as yet uncorrupted and among the living, at least half of the denizens of that place, drew back in horror for the most part. Then in the next instant, the first of them began to join the adventurers in hacking the undead to bits. Soon, all over the square, and out in the streets that led to it, undead in the midst of the living were being dismembered with alacrity.



The party of adventurers left the townspeople to their task as the good work of violence against the evil sorcery in their midst spread throughout the entire place. Xoniuqé tended to the wounded who had fallen. No one had perished. Auhxalys's malady was not as far advanced as the wizard had feared, given the passage of time since her having been bitten at Tarn Chasm well over a moon ago. Such was the strength of her natural goodness that she had fought the illusion of "glorious ones" tenaciously. She could not deny its apparent reality. But she would not willingly join herself to it, being repelled by how those afflicted with it caused her to feel. So Xoniuqé was able to administer the healing balm to her bites and in a few days she was fully restored to her right mind.

Into the midst of these proceedings came an unlooked for encounter. The brigand host besieging the west gate was driven off by a much larger force of imperial troops. And soon these were admitted into the town. Lorinkh had found them at last. And with him were the Drulath captain Khrohm and a good sized force from the Drulathim Legion. A battalion of Imperial Knights and men-at-arms there was also.

The townsmen of Uhrbum Mhortuorum, now eager for vengeance upon Ahkrysyohs the Disciple for his lies and exploitation, armed themselves and joined the imperial host. Together with the adventurers, this determined army proceeded without delay to the outskirts of Melinarth the Dead.

There, drawn up before its ruined gates, walls and towers, and in the shadow of Mount Khuzgaudh, lay the whole force of Ahkrysyohs the Disciple of Qurosh'g. The imperial army, with its auxiliaries of former followers of the Disciple, were in greater numbers. But the outcome would be uncertain, for the main strength of the Disciple's army lay in the fearless masses of undead. Their seeming as "glorious ones" was dispensed with, now that the lie had been exposed. Only those who did not need to be fooled, those evil of heart enough to follow the Turtuk in open rebellion against the goodness of life, still sided with the Disciple of Qurosh'g, or Ghrusoq, as he was known to Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and Lorinkh....


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Battle Through the Pass


Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and Ahnxst made final preparations to depart Klyph. To the wizard's satisfaction, even joy, Bruno his dog handler appeared with three large war hounds on the leash and a backpack of provisions for himself. His account of escape from the hills above Tarn Chasm was laconic in the extreme: He had regained consciousness in a welter of his own blood, surrounded by the corpses of dismembered foegim and dogs. He had managed to staunch his wounds and drag himself down from the heights. A peasant hunter had found him and taken him to his hut, where the good woman of the hunter had seen to Bruno's injuries with rough competence. He had healed quickly and returned to Klyph. The acquisition of a trio of large hounds had occupied a small investment of time and service to someone, but Bruno didn't bother to explain. As the party set forth, the handler was training his new charges as they went.

Myrdagyn led them into the mountains northwest of the city and they camped. Morning saw them well into the highlands. And soon enough one of the Knights of Mytros, riding well to the rear as a scout, caught them up and informed everyone that a pursuit was on their trail: a very large mixed band of thuggish types and men in full armor, bearing halberds. Warriors!

Myrdagyn increased the pace. But their foes gained steadily on them throughout the day.

They arrived at the summit, on the east side of a marshy pond which drained out to the southwest, the stream increasing in depth and swiftness as it went through the pass ahead and dropped by descending twists and falls to the wild plains of the Masterless Quarter.

A quick decision was made and the party bent their course around the north end of the pond. Bruno and the dogs scouted ahead. Xoniuqé kept a close watch on their progress a short distance behind. The infantry, mounted Knights and men-at-arms and baggage followed. Bruno came up short and pointed at the mouth of the pass. There could be seen squat, powerful shapes emerging from the rocks and lining up in the opening between the north cliffs and the stream to the south. The way was blocked.

Nouvzé spurred his horse further to the north and went up into the hills to scout the trail that all could see that ran above the main pass. He was met at the top by a pair of thugs who quickly sent him back down. Their position was a strong one and the young swordsman did not fancy a battle against two to one odds on that ground. Myrdagyn said that he would lead the company of sturdy axmen up there and clear the way.

Meanwhile, the Knights and men-at-arms, with Horgand in the lead, formed a column and trotted along the north bank of the stream toward the waiting enemy: a clot of Urtukim and a supporting band of thugs coming forward from the rocks where they had been keeping themselves from sight.

Xoniuqé rode Cinderfoot alongside Ahnxst and his two companion Drulathim, The girl Sehlinah was on his other side, and together they all followed the half dozen swordsmen and four crossbows in the wizard's employ.


The cavalry spurred into the waiting, howling Urtukim. Horgand tried to ride down the Urtuk in front of him. But this fellow simply fell to one side and got up again to face the rest of the oncoming cavalry. As Horgand rode on he was met by another Urtuk and several thugs, who thronged him on three sides. His position was suddenly desperate and he tried to ride down the Urtuk before him. But this foe stood his ground and Horgand's horse balked. Forward progress was stopped and in a brief exchange of blows, the hero was unhorsed and left bleeding for dead on the ground.








 The cavalry charge was stymied by flank attacks. Soon both Knights were down and a man-at-arms routed back past the wizard and his men. He urged them forward and soon a stiff little melee filled the pass from stream to cliffs. Casting a worried glance back the way they had come, his fears were confirmed: their pursuers were close! Thuggish types were splashing through the marsh, and Warriors were taking the same path around it that the adventurers had chosen.

When two of his hired swordsmen broke toward him in a panic before the ferocious Urtukim, Xoniuqé cast a spell over himself again, augmenting voice and appearance to fill his men with confidence. Those already fleeing turned about, and everyone renewed their efforts to break through the pass. Even the girl Sehlinah threw herself into the fight and brought down a thug after much cut and thrust.
On the heights, Myrdagyn and his axmen pushed hard up the trail against the thugs plugging the narrows. An axman died and Myrdagyn risked pushing into the midst of three at once, and was momentarily beset and hard pressed when he fell down on the loose rocks. He struggled to defend himself and struck at legs and upward at the bodies of his foes. One fell back dying on his feet. The rest ran away with axmen in pursuit. The closest thugs were cut down. The two or three that were fleet of foot escaped. Myrdagyn regained his feet, marveling at his bad luck
Across the stream more Urtukim could be seen coming down from the rocks and the hills. The nearest ones already were exploring the edge of the water for a passage across. Nouvzé trotted his horse over there and dismounted and decided that wading was doable. He started across. Two Urtukim moved toward him and stood on the bank waiting with weapons at the ready.
One of Xoniuqé's swordsmen was down in his gore. But most of the dying was on the other side. Suddenly fortune shifted and the mounting casualties amongst the defenders of the pass caused the thugs to turn about and flee. In an instant the remaining Urtukim also panicked, and then the rest on the far side of the stream turned to flee as well. Nouvzé sloshed ashore and beheaded the two who had a moment before been waiting for him. He pursued his way into the hills but no foes stood for him. He forded the stream again and got on his horse. That was when he first learned of the fate of his father.

Xoniuqé saw Ahnxst bending over the fallen Horgand. Swiftly the Drulath raised the father of Nouvzé up and threw him over the wizard's saddle. Horgand hung unconscious and still bleeding heavily, his arms and legs hanging draped over Xoniuqé's knees. As he rode, the retired physician of the imperial court checked the man's wounds the best he could. The bleeding he could arrest for the main part. The rest would have to wait. Their pursuers were very close.


He looked behind and saw the main body of their foes a mere bowshot away, now fully across the marsh and stream and having skirted around it as well. More of their enemies were emerging from the trees, more slouching Urtukim.


Ahead of Xoniuqé and his swordsmen and crossbows, the cavalry ran down more fleeing Urtukim and thugs. Then the few survivors had escaped into the rocks on either hand. There was no time to keep at them. Myrdagyn and his axmen came down on the far side of the pass and the united party wended their way down ahead of their enemies. The cavalry, and now a remounted Nouvzé with them, remained in the rear, showing fight with lowered spears and lances. Their pursuers slowed down in the face of the threat. On the narrow trail, the horses would have all the advantage, with no chance to be outflanked.


And so the two groups proceeded down to the lower ground of the Masterless Quarter. Out across the plain the adventurers went and angled northward, paralleling the mountains on their right. Their pursuers could now fan out and bring their full strength to bear. They hastened their pace. Hardly bestead in their armor, both parties were breathing hard and near exhaustion.


Then, coming over a low rise, Xoniuqé and Myrdagyn saw an unlooked for thing: a compact town inside walls of dressed stone. They looked at each other, the same puzzlement mirrored in both faces. No towns graced the Masterless Quarter. This place would be on no maps. But if they did not try for it, and the unlooked for safety that the walls offered, they would soon be caught by their foes and brought to battle against heavy odds.


The gate was open. The high houses seen above the battlements had laundry strung between. And the homely sight of a light traffic passing through the gateway heralded a small scale market day. Myrdagyn saw a woman empty a bucket of slop from an upper window. Somehow the commonality of that gesture was reassuring.


As the party of adventurers drew nearer, the townspeople saw them and their pursuers and shortly an alarm of horns rang out. The gates began to move inward. Myrdagyn was the first to arrive and planted himself squarely before a slowly closing door and blocked it with his body. Ahnxst followed suit. Nouvzé and the other two Drulathim blocked the other door and the party swiftly filed through the portal and into the street behind. Then Myrdagyn and the others stepped in behind them and the gates boomed shut.


Outside, the pursuers pulled up and swiftly retreated out of bowshot. From the walls they could be seen talking together. And soon they were making camp. It looked as if they were preparing to beleaguer the place.


Myrdagyn came down from the battlements, ignoring the slight guard of townsmen that observed the newly arrived strangers in silence, holding their weapons ready. He went over to where Xoniuqé was bending over his work to minister to Horgand. Soon the physician to the imperial court (retired) stood up, a satisfied set to his face. "He will live," he said.


Horgand was fully awake and slowly got to his feet, swaying. He seemed more bemused than wounded and kept shaking his head. The last memory he had of being struck from the back of his horse hardly suited his return to the land of the living inside a walled town. He felt fey.


Xoniuqé took stock of their surroundings for the first time. The townspeople were oddly subdued, considering the abrupt interruption to their daily lives that had just occurred. The wizard's suspicions were instantly piqued. He surreptitiously extended his willpower and probed their immediate surroundings. And then he recoiled. Probably his face blanched, because Myrdagyn said: "What is it? Is something amiss?"


The wizard swallowed hard before answering: "From frying pan to the fire, my friend. We are in the bowels of the beast...."

 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Tarn Chasm


(The terrain is abstract: each level is 50 to 100 feet of elevation. Passage was only possible along slopes; or, the characters had the option of trying to climb and rappel, which they decided to not to do. There were only a few tortuous ways through the hills to safety. That was the object of the scenario: "escape from the zombies". Red dots indicate foegim - zombies. The yellow line and arrows show the path the party took to get in and out of trouble.)

The camp was guarded by three watches, of four pairs of men each. Prior to retiring for the night, Xoniuqé employed two of his men to carry several large, opened sacks of a mysterious granular powder, of the consistency of fine salt, in a full circumference of the closely erected tents and tethered animals. The resulting ring was continuous, he made certain of that. He brought everyone together and instructed them to not disturb the ring, and also to not move beyond it. Then he bade his friends, followers and mercenaries a "goodnight".

Along about the middle of the second watch, the south-east pair of guards, a Drulath legionary and crossbowman, heard some plaintive wailing away in the stygian gloom of the surrounding trees. The sound was so pitiful and imploring that both Drulathim stepped unthinkingly toward it and outside of the protective ring of powder. Then the legionary stopped himself and tried to halt his companion, recollecting the last orders of "The Boss". But the crossbowman was already disappearing into the darkness, determined to investigate the cause of the distress and do whatever he could to remove it and rescue the source of the cry, for it was clearly a woman's voice calling wordlessly.

The legionary went to Myrdagyn and told "the greatest swordsman who ever lived" that one of their number had broken orders and vanished into the forest to help some woman in distress beyond the camp. The captain of the party forbad any follow up or reinforcing of the disobedient crossbowman.

Each of the seven remaining guards of the second watch were relieved soon after that. They were told to be on the lookout for some sneakiness afoot in the form of a woman's cry for help. Several more hours slipped by. Then Horgand and one of Xoniuqé's crossbows, standing watch on the southwest quarter, heard a clear moan of anguished distress not far away in the trees. So compelling was the sound that neither man thought for a moment that it could possibly be a trick. Some woman was being ravished or worse. Someone who had no doubt seen their progress through her countryside earlier that evening and was trying to gain their camp for safety. Both men immediately stepped with resolution out of the camp's encircling ring of sorcerous powder and into the trees. Horgand found himself in the lead as the two of them carefully ducked tree limbs in the dark. The moan of anguish grew louder.

A womanly shape appeared suddenly right in front of Horgand. And without an instant of hesitation the "woman" threw herself upon him, clawing and biting, the anguished cry replaced with a hungry tittering. Behind Horgand three more shapes in the dark fell upon the hapless crossbowman. Both men were sorely beset and Horgand fended off the "woman" with his axe, lopping off an arm and finally its head. The rest of the corpse blundered into a tree and fell thrashing to the ground. By then the crossbowman was down in his gore and now Horgand was pursued to the camp by the three shambling things. As Horgand stepped back across the protective ring of powder the things stopped their advance, seemingly incapable of crossing over the invisible barrier. By then, Xoniuqé was out of his bed and investigating the source of all the noise. Horgand was dressed down severely and accepted the tongue lashing with patience. He tried to explain the nature of the sound and how it had really been impossible to not believe it. "The Boss" said that of course that was to be expected. "Do not disobey me in the future. Use your experience to listen to what I say from this point on."

During the night the three foegim disappeared back into the forest.

In the morning the party broke camp quickly before dawn was more than a grey smudge over the mountain tops to the southeast. In a compact column, arranged by Myrdagyn, they descended into the narrow vale known as Tarn Chasm. The slumbering volcano (Mount Khûzgaudh) formed a massive, towering bulk to the north, on their right. Between themselves and the dead flank of the volcano stood the placid, black waters of the tarn. Away ahead of the party stretched the shoreline between the waters and the jumbled cliffs to their left. These lifeless rocks stood two and three hundred feet high, in some places even higher than that. The craggy face of the cliffs seemed unbroken.

About the time that dawn was lightening the chasm floor, they came to a sluggishly moving stream of brackish water issuing from the foot of the cliff and emptying into the tarn. Prodding with spears and staves the vanguard trepidatiously waded in just past their knees. With nothing worse than soiled leggings from the murky water the entire party passed over the stream and continued for several hours in a generally westerly direction toward the far end of the chasm, expecting to see "Melinarth the Dead" in the plains at the chasm's mouth. Long before that anticipated culmination of their forced march, they saw ahead that the flat ground they were traveling was cluttered with an irregularly distributed scattering of very low mounds and small hummocks. These, as they drew closer, took the forms of bodies of scores of slain men and even horses.

"The Boss" called a halt and rode his horse a short ways further, now out in front of the standing column of adventurers. Xoniuqé felt an unease. This hitherto unknown and thus unnamed field of conflict disturbed him, because of that very quality of the unknown. He had prepared for eventualities such as encountered corpses that would, in all likelihood, prove to be more obnoxious than simply encountering the moldering dead. But so many! This was something worse. He exerted himself, reluctantly, as always (due to the unavoidable risk), and sent his will out over the narrow rocky chasm floor, as far as he could reach. Yes. This was an intentional obstacle, not merely a battlefield of the slain. He could tell that at some point the dead could prove to be troublesome. But at what level? Impossible to say.

He hated to seem ignorant before the eyes of so many who were following his leadership. He had two choices: turn back and try the more exposed approaches to Melinarth, and thus give up any chance for surprise; or continue to press on with his original plan in hopes that he and his companions and followers would be up to the task of breaking through. He estimated that they had less than three hours left before they would quit the chasm and be on the outskirts of the dead city, the abode of their old foe, Ghrusoq.

Without consulting anyone, he made his decision and waved the column forward. Myrdagyn and Ahnxst, Horgand, Nouvzé and Dhorbond with a pair of swordsmen and crossbowmen passed the wizard where he sat his horse. He started "Cinder Foot" and kept pace right behind the squad that formed the van. Soon they were passing over and between the first corpses.

Ahnxst was in the forefront and prodded each corpse that he passed, even pausing to dismember several, until Myrdagyn remonstrated with the Drulath's over-caution. "We'll be at this for a month if you insist on hacking each body we pass to pieces," Myrdagyn said.

Proceeding more swiftly, but with mounting trepidation, the young Drulath nevertheless prodded each corpse that he passed within reach of his sword. At once, one of these emitted a swarm of large flies, as sluggish and sizeable as bumblebees. The uncanny insects began to hover over various members of the party, apparently attempting to land on them.

"Everyone halt!" the wizard called out. He turned his horse about, swatting at several bugs that had focused their attention on him. He managed to crush each one. But behind him as he trotted back to the pack horses and mules, he heard a couple of yelps as the flies scored bites on exposed flesh. Swiftly, Xoniuqé unpacked the clay bottles with wax stoppers in them. He began to toss these to the members of the party, instructing them to put the stuff on at once.

"It's going to stink to the heavens," he said urgently, "but if you don't apply the full contents to all exposed areas and the edges of clothing and armor, the alternative will be much the worse for you! These are 'plague flies' and their bite is often fatal!"

"Augh!" "Ugh!" "Phew!" and other explosive expressions of disgust filled the air as each man (and the two women, Auhxalys and Sehlinah) unstoppered their bottles and sniffed the contents. (For comparison, one could liken the wizard's demand as akin to smearing a watery paste of vomit or days-old feces and urine upon oneself.) Most of the party members hesitated. The wizard demonstrated what he required by wasting not a moment more in covering himself, head to foot, with the ichor from his own jar. He ignored the horses, mules and dogs. And sure enough, the flies did not pay the slightest attention to any of the animals.

More plague flies were now issuing from the corpses that they passed. And many of those unwise enough to not subject themselves to the antidote suffered bites. Finally enough flies were afflicting them all that those untreated as yet were waving their hands about and swatting and doing nothing else. The column began to unravel. Myrdagyn had applied the wizard's ward against the flies and went about the vanguard persuading most of them to put the yucky stuff on.

Most objectionable was the antidote to the Drulathim in particular. Hardly a man among them had applied the stuff to skin and armor. And the swarms of huge plague flies were drawn to the most exposed part of the company, the rearguard, where the Drulathim were. Several of these unfortunates suddenly lost all composure and sprang across the rocky narrows to the tarn, struggling to reach the biting insects which had worked their way in under armor and tunic and helmet. Weapons fell and helmets dropped left and right and the Drulathim leaped finally into the frigid, motionless water to escape. But there was no purchase for feet: the water was unfathomable with no shallows near the shore. Drulathim screams were drowned as each man sank beneath the disturbed surface. Only one managed to regain the shore. Two drowned outright and a third struggled briefly before also succumbing to the water's embrace.

On the shore, chaos and pandemonium had broken out. With the plague flies were added corpses of the dead, slowly stirring into motion on the ground, rolling to a crouch and standing up. This prodigy occurred slowly enough to instill utter terror into the vitals of most of the fighters.

The Drulathim sergeants rallied their men and all of them now applied the unguent of salvation to their bodies. All those in the party were now protected from the plague flies, which hovered a suitable distance overhead and were no longer taken notice of: there was a greater foe at hand! The foegim were rising up in their very midst and all over the chasm floor.




Where she stood, transfixed, Auhxalys had at last heeded Sehlinah's imploring to obey the wizard and "the greatest swordsman who ever lived". The palpable bite of a fly on her neck decided the huge woman at last and she wasted no more time polluting herself with the ichorous substance. No sooner had she completed this task than the first of the foegim were upon her and the girl. For a long moment, all they could do was parry and squeal in disgust and alarm. More and more corpses - around where they stood with the pack animals in the middle of the column, and even underfoot - began to stir and get up. When a bony hand fastened itself to Auhxalys' ankle she finally collected her addled wits and hacked down. The fury of the blow pulverized the arm, and stomping repeatedly broke it off. The corpse continued to roll away and struggle to rise. Her cudgel shattered the skull and the feog lay down quivering. She could then dispatch the pair of foegim that assailed her still. This she accomplished with a few carefully administered very heavy blows, leaving the broken bodies to twitch on the rocks.

Sehlinah was pressed back between two pack horses, trying to fend off clutching hands and probing weapons. Her hewing spear was practically useless in the close confines of her combat.

The vanguard formed a fairly sturdy line of the "quatuor", Myrdagyn, Ahnxst, Horgand and Nouvzé. But for a time they fought alone, because at the appearance of the foegim nearly all of the swordsmen and crossbows panicked where they stood or tried to flee to the cliffs, seeking a way out. Here fell the captain of the swordsmen, Dhorbond, along with several of his men.

A bunch of crossbowmen found a narrow defile in the rocks and went up, finding themselves on a ledge that wound along midway up the cliff face about a hundred feet overlooking the chasm. Even here, a few of the restless dead were encountered and the frightened crossbows fled back the way they had come.

Myrdagyn, seeing the general rout, and observing the ledge above, which was now made apparent with fleeing crossbows and pursuing foegim, quit the battle below and went up to protect their rear. As the fighting raged below, he pushed his way into their enemies on the ledge, dispatching them one or two at a time until he had quite advanced back the way they had come, only a hundred feet higher up.

All hung in the balance. Foegim multiplied massing, impelled toward a dimly perceived annoyance that demanded answering, putting down, destroying. The ache of "Life" animated each disturbed undead brain, and each moved to attack the source of that ache. Scores of the things were now moving slowly toward the embattled party, which was vulnerable in its scattered state.

The three heroes in front were not enough and their resistance was being overwhelmed. Xoniuqé "clothed" himself in a glorious glamour. His voice rang throughout the chasm, his face practically shined with power and confidence. "Hold!" he shouted. "Fight for your lives!" Other things he said, and the effect was like lightning. His men rallied and returned to the fight, joining Ahnxst, Horgand and Nouvzé to form a ragged line around the pack animals and the wizard. The way behind them all was cleared of enemies by now and crossbowmen were calling down to their fellows to escape above. The line fell back as they fought off the bodies and weapons of their countless foes. 


Myrdagyn proceeded eastward along the track, and looking down, after dispatching the last foeg in front of him, he noticed the effect his presence above was having on their foes below: sensing closer "Life" than that in the distance to the west, all the nearer foegim had angled toward Myrdagyn's position. He moved yet further east, pulling a large number of foegim after him, yet separated by the 100 foot cliff.

Down there, like a thickening flood, the foegim came from further ahead, west of the party. The invisible, animating force that drove them reached ever farther away and brought them now, as it appeared from above, in their hundreds.

There were too many. Despite the carpet of bodies and severed limbs and decapitated heads, there were more arriving every minute.

The rearguard of Drulathim formed a sturdy wall, but slowly their numbers dwindled, even as they withdrew backwards and arrived at a narrower place between water and cliff.



Auhxalys and Sehlinah moved to the left and joined the line of heroes and swordsmen.



The word was spread that everyone needed to fall back and go up the defile to the ledge above. But as they attempted to do this, a difficulty arose over the youthful Drulath, Ahnxst, who perceived this rearward movement as personally degrading. He had not shown himself as valiant enough! Roaring incoherently he gave into his battle lust entirely and practically vaulted into the midst of his enemies. Hewing them and driving them back, he soon found himself surrounded and out in front of the rest of the defensive line. He put his back to the cliff and defended himself desperately, receiving some slight wounds even as he slashed the clot of his foes to pieces.

Obvious to the rest of his companions, they could not simply keep withdrawing as they fought and abandon him. So the line stayed, and even advanced itself a little in order to reach the place where Ahnxst fought.

Ahnxst finally collected himself enough to force his way back to his friends. Now the line could complete its fighting withdrawal to the defile and to the relative safety that the ledge above offered.
Horgand was wounded but counted it as little enough. The hurt made him even more angry. He and Nouvzé fought side by side, hewing with might and main, practically exhausting themselves in their furious efforts to sunder foegim heads, legs and arms from bodies. So desperately did they strike that at one point they blundered into each other and fell together upon the rocks, where they struggled for a long moment beneath a welter of foes.

Seeing their need, once again the vainglorious Drulath youth gave into his need to show bravery before others. He leaped over the supine bodies of the "father and son duo" and slammed into the nearest pair of foegim. By the time he had driven them back and felled them, Ahnxst was again considerably out there all by himself. His foes closed in around him and wounded him again. So far, his hurts were not serious and yet sufficed to cause him to reconsider. He fought his way back a second time to the place where the other heroes and swordsmen held the line. Just before he could regain their ranks he was struck down from behind. Horgand fought off their enemies while Ahnxst got to his feet.



The defenders had by then formed a semicircle around the opening to the defile that went upward, and had started to withdraw the pack animals and rearmost fighters. Xoniuqé was already up there moving along the track to where Myrdagyn and a handful of crossbows were busy distracting the large pack of foegim down below. The throng attempted to get at them, but kept falling down as they scrabbled fecklessly at the base of the cliff face. Myrdagyn, and later Nouvzé, dislodged several large boulders which crushed a number of the undead satisfyingly.








Ahnxst, seeing that the wizard had ridden his horse out of the fight and was in apparent danger above, focused his whole attention on the withdrawal. He was now intent on catching up with Xoniuqé. Behind himself and the others, the last of the swordsmen held off the throng of foegim long enough to give some separation.

The last man holding the mouth of the defile perished as he turned to ascend. The shambling throng came on the heels of the rearmost swordsmen, who barely managed to keep their distance as they went along the switchbacks.

Xoniuqé proceeded upward as the track angled back to the west between shallow eminences. Before him went a crossbowman leading a string of pack mules. And out in front of these went Bruno with the three great war hounds. They were at the top of the cliffs. And ahead came a solitary foeg, almost as if it were on a casual mountain stroll.

"Loose the hounds, Bruno," said Xoniuqé. The encounter was swiftly concluded and they proceeded on and now down to the left and through another narrow defile. The track continued westward. Around a bend came a foeg, better armed than most and with dull glints in the eye sockets. The hounds were loosed again, but this enemy was skilled and slew them each one by one. Bruno shrieked in fury at the loss of his precious pets and charged the foeg with quarter staff. Before any crossbowmen could come up the dog handler had joined his charges in death.

Xoniuqé skirted this little battle to the left and started to flank it. But suddenly a second foeg appeared close behind the first. The wizard, in the presence of so much sudden death, and so close at hand, came close to panic then, and focused his will upon the dim brain matter of this second enemy. His intent was to take control of it and walk it off the nearest precipice. But instead of gathering his will securely, he lashed out, like a tyro with a sword will do unthinkingly, with faulty instinct. The spell rebounded from its intended target, like a ricocheting missile and felled the old man as if he had been struck by lightning. Xoniuqé landed face-down in the rocks.



Coming down the opposite slope, many in the party could see this catastrophe occur, but had no indication what had unhorsed the wizard. They hastened as quickly as they could to get to his side. The pair of foegim had dispatched dogs, handler and a crossbowman, before finally being overwhelmed by the heroes.

Ahnxst hastened to Xoniuqé's side and could see that the old man had regained consciousness, barely, but was completely incommunicado. Picking the slight body of the wizard up, the Drulath set him on Cinder Foot and led the animal down from the broken hills. Behind them, Auhxalys steadied "The Chief" as he swayed in the saddle. Horgand went in the lead, encountering and dispatching another two or three foegim before they finally arrived at the valley floor and entered the trees and relative safety at last. The necromantic glamour of the Chasm did not reach any further than the edge of the forest.

The party was safe, but it was also half gone. Among the survivors hardly any of them had escaped without hurt. Sehlinah bore a slight wound and was practically out of her mind with excitement and unspent adrenalin. Auhxalys had a single plague fly bite as her only hurt. Of the entire party, except perhaps Myrdagyn, she had dispatched the most foes. They argued about that in friendly banter for a brief while, as they wended their exhausted, relieved way through the trees.

They made camp soon and tended to their injuries. Nothing could be done for Xoniuqé. He wasn't badly hurt from his fall. But his mind was severely muddled and his strength noticeably diminished. He got around camp better if one of the women held his arm, which he would only allow them to do, none of the fighters.

Epilogue:

In the morning, the party cautiously made its way back to Klyph Town, where they stayed for many days, waiting for the wizard to make his slow recovery.

Over a moon had passed when Xoniuqé emerged. He appeared to be his old self again. Other than occasional relapses into what seemed almost witless reverie, he did not evince any ill effects of his "epic fail" casting of the control spell. But that observation of his friends of his condition was going on outward appearances only.

Silently, Xoniuqé continues to battle self doubt. He knows that his powers as a magician have been compromised. He was guilty of making a tactical error before that, which led to the deaths of half their numbers, and to his encounter with catastrophic failure as a user of magic. What will happen the next time he tries to use it?

Meanwhile, the first thing that he tries to rectify is the effect of the plague flies. Since the party survivors have split up his inquiries don't get him very far. Now he is very worried about the few survivors who were bitten. He asks Myrdagyn and Ahnxst what they know about those bitten by the plague flies. Neither man can offer much information. Other than a positive confirmation that Auhxalys and Horgand were bitten, nothing more can be said on the matter. But the "moving mountain" and the "father and son duo" have gone off elsewhere while the wizard convalesced.
With no time to spare in the first place, this setback has compromised their mission even more. There is still no word of the whereabouts of Lorinkh. Of the party, only Myrdagyn, and of course Ahnxst, remain with the wizard as he spends his month of convalescence. Nearby a solitary swordsman, from the "village chieftain" days, stays with a crossbowman, awaiting events and remaining in touch.

Other than Ahnxst's two remaining boyhood friends, the Drulathim have abandoned the "quest". Most have returned to the Vale, no longer interested in following the orders of a vainglorious youth who has shown himself to be inexperienced and a potential hazard to his friends: such is the reputation of Ahnxst spread by those who have recently served under his command.

Horgand and Nouvzé have wandered off but are presumed to be somewhere in the town still, perhaps helping Fulkh Marshal with his stalled out siege of baron Nhyrblas.

Further inquiry reveals that Auhxalys and Sehlinah were last seen leaving the town together, returning to Sehlinah's home and the survivors of her people. The girl has no family and that makes her the headwoman of the tiny community. When Xoniuqé goes there with Myrdagyn and Ahnxst, Sehlinah greets them warmly, but without Auhxalys. The headwoman cannot say what has become of the "moving mountain". But Sehlinah is concerned, because Auhxalys was behaving strangely: alternating between sleepiness bordering on lethargy, and sudden fits of energetic irrationality. Once the massive woman actually attacked a man who appeared to be angry with Sehlinah, almost killing him. And afterward she had no memory of the incident. The next day, Auhxalys had disappeared. That was more than a week ago.

Xoniuqé returns with his friends to Klyph Town. There is no way to track down the woman from his village and administer to her symptoms. They are far advanced. Plague fly bites, if not treated expeditiously, will often result in the victim's death and subsequent alteration into a foeg. "Everything that Sehlinah said sounds very, very bad," the wizard tells his remaining companions. And then he will say no more on the matter.

"Are we still going to do this?" asks a much subdued Ahnxst. The wizard and Myrdagyn look at each other and the Drulath. There is a lengthy silence between them. Xoniuqé finally moves to a window and looks out on the market day traffic below. Without turning to face the others he says in a low voice. "I must. But neither of you has any obligation. We failed, over forty years ago, to put paid to that devil properly. I mean to see him incarcerated, and that permanently."

The other two quickly vow to keep the illusionist company to the end. When the young Drulath almost timidly asks how he plans to go about "incarcerating" the wraith Qurosh'g, Xoniuqé is quiet for a long spell. Then, still without looking at them, he simply says, "I'll think of something."
Myrdagyn goes to Randahl Korydohn, the regent, and reports on the failure, so far, of the attempt to neutralize Ghrusoq. The regent provides a squad of Imperial Knights and pays for a company of hearty axemen to accompany Myrdagyn back to Klyph.

Furthermore, Randahl sends more messengers out to find Lorinkh, to inform the erstwhile imperial counselor of how things stand with his old enemy and to request his assistance at once....