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Tales from Mystara 2300 BC - Man of Warby John Calvin
Chapter 1 – The Frozen Wilds
Puffs of white smoke escaped Tyragk’s mouth with every exhaled breath, and icy ground crunched underneath the tread of his hobnailed boots. He could feel the stares of the others penetrating the back of his neck like needles. This was the site… he was sure of it. Their prize could be around that outcropping of granite ahead of them, or through the next copse of snow laden trees… if only he could see it.
Darkness came upon them quickly at this latitude, and the small band of explorers made camp for the night. As always Jagrid lit a small fire and set an iron tripod over the top of it. Tyragk watched her scoop up several handfuls of snow and pack them into the silver teapot that normally hung from her rucksack. Now she hung it underneath the tripod and let the flames beneath provide her with something warm to drink.
"Do you sense anything out there?" Tyragk asked her.
Jagrid sat back on her heals, closing her eyes and brushing thin wisps of grey hair from her face. Silence took the camp for several minutes. Tyragk suspected that the old dwarf already knew the answer to his question and was simply waiting for her water to come to a boil before answering.
Despite this ludicrous pretence of tea in the middle of the wilderness, or perhaps even because of it, Tyragk knew Jagrid was an experienced veteran, and had probably seen more campaigns against the giants than the rest of them put together. You could always tell real veterans from the play acting novices. Jagrid’s boots were well made; their soles thick and treaded so as not to lose footing in treacherous terrain. Her cloak, despite being lined with fox fur, was also oiled and probably just as waterproof as a duck’s back. She came prepared. None of her gear was lacking, and none of it was damaged. Tyragk noted that she could pack and unpack nearly in the blink of an eye.
"Anything?" he asked again.
Jagrid rocked back and forth on her heals, slowly opening her eyes. "No deary," she said with a wink and a smile, dipping a pouch of tea into the pot to let it steep. "Oh… there are the odd chipmunks and squirrels asleep in the trees, and a screech owl flying overhead," she said pausing just at the moment the bird let out a screech, "… and there is an elk buck wandering on the other side of the hillock, but nothing with any more sense than that."
"All of which you knew ten minutes ago," Tyragk spat, "lest you wouldn’t have lit that fire."
The old woman only smiled in response, adjusting the spectacles on her stumpy nose before pouring herself a cup of tea.
Tyragk took a deep breath, holding it in for several seconds before releasing it into the cold night air. The old burn scars on his neck and shoulder began to itch again, as they did whenever he grew anxious or upset, but Tyragk fought back the urge to scratch them. He turned finally, meeting the eyes of his other companions. Prahem had dismounted his war mastiff and was already securing the camp. Stony Krendym stood impassively while the giantkin Chelak mulled about impatiently, shuffling from foot to foot.
"I’ll go see about that elk then," Chelak mumbled, shouldering his warclub. "If we’re going to light fires tonight, then maybe we could do with some hot meat as well…" Tyragk nodded in approval, but the giantkin was already gone. Despite his girth he managed to disappear into the underbrush without a sound.
Tyragk made his way to the far perimeter of the camp, motioning with his head for Krendym to follow. He had to make the motion two more times before the stoic Krendym understood what he wanted. The soulbound was intelligent, one of the smartest people that Tyragk knew, but still there was something missing. Sometimes Tyragk thought that whatever portion of the soul controlled common sense got lost during the binding process.
His body appeared to be made from sandstone, but Tyragk knew it was much stronger than it appeared. Steel plates inlaid with precious metals bound his torso, and most of his joints, and a soft green glow emanated from a large gem set in the centre of his chest. Unlike Chelak, Krendym made a horrendous racket when he moved. In addition to the whirring and clicking gears that ran inside him, he was also oblivious to anything underfoot. "You wish to speak?" the stone man rumbled.
"I need to find the site soon, or I’m likely to have a rebellion on my hands…"
Green fire flashed briefly from Krendym’s eyes, but otherwise his face remained inscrutable. "Prahem and Chelak trust you. They will continue to follow," the soulbound rumbled, "as will I. Sallisa as well," he added almost as an afterthought.
"You I don’t doubt, my friend," Tyragk said without meeting Krendym’s gaze. Instead he strained his eyes against the quickly blackening horizon. "The others however, I’m not so sure about. Chelak seems increasingly on edge, and even Prahem may not stay the search much longer."
Krendym seemed troubled. His moods were hard to see through a face chiselled in stone, but Tyragk knew they were there nonetheless. "Prahem has served with you before. He is a brother in arms. He will not leave. And Chelak…"
"Yes, I know," Tyragk replied, now lowering his voice to a whisper. "I helped him gain his freedom… but I wonder if bringing him here wasn’t such a good idea. He may feel more kinship with the beasts in these lands than he does with us. And don’t underestimate Prahem. Bonds forged by war run deep, but they have their limits. And I have noticed that on occasion, the bonds to ones gods are stronger than any other. Prahem’s gods may move him towards purposes unknown… "
The two stood in silence for several long minutes until Krendym finally spoke again. "I do not concur with your assessment. You are uneasy, but not with your companions. Perhaps it is this Jagrid from the Controllers Guild who really troubles you."
Now it was Tyragk’s turn for silence. He certainly wasn’t concerned that Jagrid would leave the expedition. He had contracted a large amount of coin, his entire fortune in fact, with the Controllers Guild to secure Jagrid’s services. She would stay with him even if this little venture turned up nothing. It was the only way she would be paid.
"What’s that?" Tyragk hissed, his hand instinctively drawing the single shot belcher that he kept tucked in his belt.
Something within the bushes moved… only it didn’t. There was no rustling of the underbrush, no swaying of branches, no sound of any kind, and yet something was moving under the dark cover of the scrub.
Krendym’s eyes flared once more, sending out a quick gout of green flame as he began making a warding symbol in the air. The war mastiff barked and gave a tug at the chain staked in the earth, but couldn’t manage to free itself. Prahem slid his blade from its scabbard in a flash, nearly leaping from one edge of the clearing to the other in the span of a heartbeat.
Jagrid chuckled quietly from the other side of the camp. "On edge are we deary?" she said between sips of tea.
Tyragk’s shoulders slumped. He shoved the belcher back into his belt as a misty cloud materialised before him. "Sallisa," he said, "I should have know it was you." He should have known that Jagrid would still be scanning the wilderness for signs of danger, and she hadn’t been concerned in the slightest by the shade’s approach. Perhaps Krendym was right after, and it was Jagrid who had him on edge after all.
Prahem shook his head and sheathed his blade. Tyragk could see the gnome rolling his eyes, even as he turned back to the task of calming down the mastiff. "You look thin Sallisa," the gnome called back to her. "Thinner than normal, that is. If you’re not careful, you may just dissipate entirely, and then who would look out for Krendym, hmmm?"
Shadowy mist swirled from the shrubs and began taking shape as it neared. A dark haired woman, pale of skin and pleasing in shape, at least in the shape that a human might find pleasing. Tyragk thought she was too narrow in the torso. Floating closer to Krendym, the shade’s form gathered more definition, until at last she draped one arm affectionately around the stone man’s shoulder and looked down at Tyragk with a large grin.
"Tyragk," she began, her grin widening to show pearly white, if slightly transparent, teeth.
"Can that happen?" Krendym asked, interrupting.
"Can what happen?" Sallisa asked.
"Krendym, not now," Tyragk said.
"Could you really dissipate entirely?" Krendym pressed, ignoring Tyragk’s protests.
"I don’t know," Sallisa said, her eyes growing wide and grin dropping.
"Sallisa…" Tyragk interjected.
"I have noticed," Krendym rumbled in a deep voice, "that you do seem to be loosing more and more corporeality, the farther we travel from the Shimmering Lands. We may not be able to…"
"Krendym!" Tyragk shouted.
"Hey!" Chelak crashed through the brush, swirling his warclub and smashing it into a stone, shattering it. "What’s all the racket? I nearly had us a fresh, hot meal before you scared it off!"
Everyone turned to face the giantkin, their jaws agape in surprise. Everyone except Jagrid. Tyragk could see her calmly taking another sip of tea and warming a hand by her small fire. It was Sallisa’s laughter that finally broke the silence.
"What’s so funny!" Chelak puffed between breaths of rage.
"Sallisa," Krendym resumed, oblivious to the foaming giantkin mere strides away, "I really think we need to talk about this, you could…"
Jagrid took another sip of tea, and Tyragk could feel things falling apart around him.
"It’s all right," Sallisa chuckled, ignoring Krendym and looking directly at the distraught dwarf. "I found it…"
"The giant’s village is at the bottom of a small depression… perhaps a crater or caldera of some kind, I’m not sure. They have guard posts along the two traversable paths that I could see, but I think we can avoid them if we keep along the banks of this stream." Tyragk bobbed up and down in the mastiff’s saddle, but the shade floating next to him stayed at a constant height. Cold winter wind bit at his nose and cheeks, but the left side of his face and neck felt almost warm. The scars were nearly a year old. At times Tyragk could still feel his flesh burning underneath them.
Snow fell, accumulating on his head and shoulders but passing completely through Sallisa. Tyragk pulled his cloak tighter. The others felt it too. Prahem fiddled with his gloves before tucking his hands under his armpits, Jagrid pulled her hood tight around her ears, Chelak threw a few extra furs on his back, and even Krendym seemed to move a little slower.
Sallisa of course, was oblivious to the weather. "Once we’re past the southernmost outpost, we can cut west and head up to the eastern ridgeline. I think you’ll be able to get a good look at the basin from there."
The wind picked up as Sallisa spoke, howling through the treetops. Tyragk reigned in his mount. Several of the trees around them littered the forest floor, their trunks smashed and battered, their boughs splintered. Others bore black scars, charred reminders of a violent past.
Tyragk had been here before.
Mist swirled about Tyragk. A thick mist, but dry, almost as if the snow in the sky ceased falling to earth and stayed suspended midair. Holding his hand at arm's length, Tyragk was hardly able to see it. He wondered again what he was doing in this immortal’s forsaken frozen land.
Being the third son of Gherun Drynneg meant that Tyragk was unlikely to ever inherit his father's estate. His eldest brother might stand a chance if their father ever died, but at the moment even that seemed unlikely. The only choices he was left with were to remain on the estate and serve his father, and possibly later his brother, or to join one of the Free Companies. Staying on the estate would insure Tyragk a position of high standing in the Drynneg household, but never one of autonomy. For Tyragk the choice was clear.
As soon as he came of age, he left his father’s estate and joined the Order of the Wyrm. Most of the Free Companies were mercenary bands dedicated to the study and practice of particular martial styles. The Controllers Guild focused on dominating and enthralling its enemies, but since Tyragk showed no aptitudes for mental control that company was barred to him. The Sentinels of the Dusk Shroud were more to his liking. They trained and rode shadow mastiffs into battle, and rumour said that their mounts could carry them through the realm of shadows itself. Unfortunately the Sentinels were based out of Kairhyeld in Karghthyne, and that was much too close to his father for Tyragk’s comfort.
There were many similarities between the Order of the Wyrm and the Sentinels. Both trained in mounted combat, often ranging far from the Shimmering Lands. Unlike the Sentinels, the order had no single base of operations. It was much more a fraternity of brothers, spread out with section houses located at the far boundaries of dwarven lands, and its members were known as experts in the field of alchemy and the use of dragon belchers. All this drew Tyragk to the Order. As the son of an Elder, he rose quickly within the ranks and was given many responsibilities.
Acquiring mercenaries from other lands was just one such responsibility. The Order was small, and often supplemented their forces with beastmen from Urzud, the lizards of Mogreth, and even occasionally Antalians from the Northlands. They would often send small expeditions out to make contact with friendly tribes along the Urzud border, and contract with their services.
"Lieutenant!" Flight Master Dranvis called out. "Whatever the cause, this unnatural fog is hampering our movement. Send out scouts. I don’t want to be caught off guard by anything."
Tyragk unslung his belcher, removing a clip of three fire vials from his bandoleer and plugging them in as he did.
"Third Flight!" lieutenant Leghdar barked. Snapping his fingers, he pointed off into the mist, in the general direction that the trail was heading.
In turn, Tyragk called back to his men, half a dozen in all, and then spurred on his mount. The mist, which had been building up steadily all day, vanished as he approached a small copse of trees on the mountainside. At first he thought he had ridden past its boundaries, but turning back to the men following, him Tyragk could see the fog clearing before his eyes. Tendrils of mist twisted and writhed, like part of some gigantic beast stranded too far from the sea. Pulling apart, they revealed the narrow valley pass on which most of his squad now traversed.
Rays of sunlight danced across Tyragk’s vision. He squinted, trying to ponder this sudden change, but had no time. The earth shuddered under his mount as a giant granite boulder came smashing into the First Flight of troops, crushing one unlucky dwarf and scattering the rest across the clearing.
More boulders flew from the sky, one barely missing Tyragk. With a hiss and the snap of his arm he ordered his men into the copse of trees. At least it would make it harder for their attackers, whoever they were, to target them.
Dwarves in the clearing began to scream, Leghdar shouting his commands above the commotion. Massive men, giants 12 feet tall with grey leathered skin, came charging down the hillside. Tyragk swore under his breath. It was only then that he realised the soldier who had been crushed in the initial attack was Flight Master Dranvis.
"Third Flight! Take aim on Second Flight! Fire at will!" Tyragk shouted to his men as the giants engaged Leghdar’s troops. It was a tactic they had used many times in the past. As the belchers let loose their scourge, balls of fire exploded around the lieutenant and his men. Their… heritage… would protect them from the intense flames and heat. The giants engaging them weren’t as lucky however. Several fell, their charred, blackened skin still crackling with heat. The rest soon fell to Second Flight’s axes.
Tyragk tugged the reigns of the war mastiff, sending it further into the forest and then emerging from the tree line in another location. He didn’t want those boulder throwers targeting his belcher’s blasts. More shouts came from the hillside as another wave of giants charged the Second Flight. Leghdar flung himself from his mount and began drawing some symbol in the ground, while his men formed a protective circle around him. Putting the stock of the belcher to his shoulder, Tyragk took aim at the giant furthest down the hill and let loose another ball of flame.
Making to perform the same manoeuvre a second time, he again tugged the reigns of the mastiff. The beast’s body rumbled underneath him before he heard the growl. A massive form crashed through the trees behind them, clubbing his mount in the head and sending Tyragk reeling from his saddle.
A stone grey giant stared down at him, its face slowly splitting to reveal a grin full of jagged teeth. Tyragk managed to keep a hold of his belcher, but the long shaft caught in the underbrush. The giant lifted his great club above his head, but hesitated. Laughter came instead of a killing blow, laughter like rocks falling down a mountainside. The giant shrugged, letting the club fall from his grip crashing into the underbrush behind him, and swiftly kicked the belcher from Tyragk’s struggling form.
Hands of steel crushed him, squeezing the breath from his lungs as the giant yanked him to his feet, and then hefted him into the air. "Svorga klen," the gravely voice chuckled without loosening its grip. Tyragk fought frantically, trying to break the hold of the giant but only succeeded in getting his right hand pinned against his chest. "Now, little man…" the giant said with relish, "I squash…"
Screams rang out in the clearing behind him, enough to set the giant’s eyes wide in disbelief. It wasn’t much of a distraction, but it was enough. Tyragk slipped a small glass vial out of his bandolier with his free hand and slammed it into the giant’s neck. The resulting explosion flung Tyragk out of his captor’s arms, slamming him into the trunk of a nearby tree.
For a moment everything went blurry. Intensified screams mixed with some terrible roar brought Tyragk back to his senses. The stench of burning hair and burning flesh, a good portion of which was his own Tyragk was sure, assaulted his nostrils. Desperately he clawed at the frozen ground, pulling himself deeper into the cover of the woods and further away from whatever horror had been unleashed in the vale.
He moved forward, inches at a time, constantly expecting some thickly corded hand to grab hold of his legs although none ever did. The screams and clangour of battle grew dim and still Tyragk pulled himself forward, blood and burned flesh sloughing off on the hard frozen ground before him.
Then he tumbled forward.
Looking at his surrounding through blood hazed eyes, Tyragk found himself in a shallow riverbed. The water flowing through was little more than a stream, choked with ice. Snow began to fall from the sky and Tyragk’s bloody red haze was soon replaced by a freezing white one.
Suppressing a groan Tyragk propped his back against the riverbank and fumbled for a small med case, thankfully still attached to his belt. He could feel the blackness creeping over him even as he quaffed the first vial. That one brought pain. Sharp and violent it was, as if he was being stabbed by thin daggers piercing to his very bones. The pain kept him conscious long enough to drink the contents of the second vial.
That one brought warmth… and with it the darkness overtook him.
Tyragk woke up, and shaking, quietly dusted off the thin layer of snow that covered his body. The two potions he drank and the modicum of sleep he managed had done him wonders, but the effects of the second potion were beginning to wear off and already Tyragk could feel the freezing weather creeping back under his skin. Leaning to the side, he tested the weight of his body and found that he could support himself, if just barely.
"I need to find shelter, and soon," he groaned to himself. There was one more healing potion and several elixirs brewed to stem off the ill effects of cold weather, but Tyragk thought it best not to use them until he had to.
"Upstream." This was not Tyragk’s first expedition into the wilderness and he was determined that it would not be his last. He knew that tired or wounded prey often travelled downhill… it was just easier going. Unfortunately, especially in mountainous terrain, that could leave them trapped in some narrow canyon or valley, and that was something Tyragk wanted to avoid right now. Better to find high ground first, and survey the area. Then he could decide on his next course of action.
Despite the cold he was thankful for the snowfall. It did a much better job of covering his trail than he could have done himself. Tyragk only hoped that his luck held out. He followed the streambed towards its source for several hours until spotting a lightly wooded hillside dotted with granite outcroppings. Hoping to find some amount of shelter among the rocks and trees, he left the streambed and began his climb.
The climb up the hill was steep, but not arduous. Several hours ago the clouds broke, leaving the sun to shine down from overhead. It’s warmth on Tyragk’s back was a welcome change from the normally cloudy weather, but still Tyragk cursed lightly under his breath. The lack of any new snowfall meant that their tracks would be easier to find if someone were to actually look.
Granite boulders and scrub grass covered most of the hillside, with the occasional copse of twisted pine trees breaking up the landscape. Near the ridgeline at the top of the hills several large granite boulders leaned on one another. Tyragk remembered the dark depression in the hillside that those stones formed. It was there that he found shelter nearly a year ago. It was there that he and his companions were headed now.
Prahem remained below in the riverbed, tending the mastiffs, while Chelak doubled back on their tracks in an attempt to erase as much of their passing as he could. Jagrid huffed and puffed up the slope next to him and Krendym lagged slightly behind. The soulbound wasn’t fatigued in the same way as he or Jagrid were, but he was being extremely cautious of his movements so as not to alert their quarry. Sallisa of course merely hovered up the hill, looking back at the others constantly, exasperation written on her face.
Approaching the ridgeline Tyragk signalled the others to get down. Sallisa drifted between one of the large boulders and a tree and made as if to sit down. Tyragk and the others crawled the rest of the way on all fours.
"It’s just like you described, Tyragk," Sallisa whispered.
Tyragk nodded, but didn’t lift his head above the ridge. He didn’t want to take the chance that something down there might spot him. The others took his lead and stayed out of sight. Jagrid found a relatively flat patch of ground and sat with her legs crossed. Slowly her eyelids drooped until at last they were closed, but Tyragk could still see her eyes fluttering behind the spectacles on her nose. Krendym likewise took up position under the ridgeline and began unfolding a pouch full of bottled ingredients and various other sundry items.
The four sat silently on the hillside for several minutes, the silence only interrupted by Tyragk’s breathing. "Jagrid, have you found anything?"
The other dwarf sat unmoving, unintelligible mumbles coming from under her breath. Tyragk waited patiently. He knew that she was being especially cautious in her astral exploration.
Finally she spoke. "It is not a village… more like a holy site… a pilgrimage for several clans in the area."
Tyragk let out a sigh of relief, "It shouldn’t be heavily guarded then…"
"No deary," Jagrid interrupted, and Tyragk could feel his heart plummet into the depths of his stomach, "there are many warriors present. There is a gathering. Some greater power is calling them here. I don’t know what… yet…"
"I could go down there and scout around," Sallisa ventured.
"No," replied Tyragk, "wait until dark. We’ve made it this far without being detected, and I want to keep it that way."
"Come on Tyragk," she protested. "You all can barely see me as it is, and you know what to look for. I won’t have any problems down there."
"No," he said more sternly. "We’re here. We have supplies. We take our time and do this right. Gather information. I don’t want any false moves. You may be made of shadows and mist, but you’re not invisible. You can wait until dark."
"Fine," Sallisa pouted hollowly. She floated down from the ridge and hovered above Krendym’s right shoulder, peering down at him as he worked.
Unrolling a supple leather cloth on a flat stone nearby, Krendym revealed row after row of small pouches and leather straps, each of which held some fantastical substance. Scanning through these he gently plucked a small glass lens from within one of the pouches, examining it briefly under the light of the sun before pulling out various powders and some amber salve. Dipping his stony finger into each, he applied one after the other to the lens, drawing symbols upon its frame.
Lifting the lens up to chest height, Krendym began speaking words of power in ancient Blackmoorian. He released the lens from his grasp, hanging it in the air before him. Krendym uttered more words, running his finger along the outer edge of the lens, twisting it as if he were unscrewing a jar. It separated into two halves, one of which became ethereal and took on the vague appearance of a vertically slitted eye. As the eye blinked at them, Krendym sent it hovering higher into the air with a wave of his hand. Then he focused on the other half of the lens.
This half he grasped delicately between finger and thumb of both hands and gently began to tug at it. The lens expanded, growing until it was the size of a dinner plate, and then as large as a serving platter. Krendym nodded in approval as he spun the lens around for Tyragk to see.
Tyragk’s face cracked in a half smirk and looked upon a reflection of himself as a bird might see him. The others were there as well. Jagrid sitting cross legged, Krendym working his magic, and Sallisa hovering over his side.
Tyragk’s smile grew wider. "There now," he said, looking up at the eye floating near the treetops, "let’s take a look around, shall we?"
Krendym nodded in the affirmative and made a motion with his hands. The ethereal eye vanished, but Tyragk could tell that it was moving from the images he saw in the lens floating before him.
The ridgeline fell off in a sharp drop, revealing a crater several miles wide. At the western end was a small lake, frozen solid. Pine trees covered the northern and eastern slopes. A larger lake lay in the centre of the caldera, rime encrusted but still liquid, and a small stream flowed from it to the south.
Dwellings littered the crater floor around the coast of the larger lake. Most were roughly crafted from pine logs and hides, but several stone buildings stood out among the rest. Giants walked among them. Two to three times Tyragk’s height, and grey of skin. Hunters, warriors, and shamans wearing furs and bone. Krendym’s eye weaved and bobbed about, capturing every detail of the caldera, the village within, and all of its inhabitants. But all these things were peripheral.
It lay in the centre of everything. Colossal, even compared with the giants that walked so near to it. It spread from one end of the makeshift village to the other, partially buried in the frozen tundra, partially submerged in the lake and the ice that floated about its rim, but enough of it remained visible for the companions to discern. Sunlight glinted off its surface. A gigantic gleaming form, in the shape of a man. The likeness of a suit of full plate armour, discarded in this barren forsaken land by the god of war himself.
"There it is…" whispered Tyragk.
Krendym shook his stony head in frustration. "I can’t find it. Based on my research there should be an entrance located in the heel, but one foot is partially buried in the tundra, and the other is submerged in the lake."
"We might get lucky," Sallisa commented, "if the entrance is underwater we could sneak in, plunder to our heart’s content, and then sneak back out again undetected."
The wind began to pick up, howling through the treetops and cutting through the warmth of the sun like daggers of ice. "We might," Tyragk agreed, "but even if we do, there are other problems. How much of Earthshaker is submerged? How long would we need to be underwater? I have enough elixirs to protect us from the cold of the water, but no magic that would allow us to survive without air. You and Krendym would be fine of course, but the rest of us have to breathe."
"Krendym," Jagrid said, getting up from her trance and moving toward the seeing lens. "Send your eye up toward the head. I think there’s something you should see…"
Krendym complied, and the group watched the images on the lens as the eye scanned from the feet to further up the torso. Earthshaker did look like a gigantic suit of plate mail, albeit one that might totally enclose the wearer, without openings or gaps between the joints.
"There!" exclaimed Tyragk excitedly. "See, above what would be the pauldron, there between the shoulder and the neck. It looks like railing!"
Indeed it was railing, and as Krendym’s eye approached closer they could make out more details. The top of the shoulder appeared to be some kind of deck with what looked like several shattered swivel mounts placed around its perimeter. "Probably once had weapons mounted on them," Tyragk commented. "If it is a weapons deck, then there must be another entrance nearby. Look at the neck."
It was possible that an entrance existed where Tyragk suspected, unfortunately Krendym’s eye could not confirm it. Huge stones lay piled between the neck and shoulder, the remnants of some long ago rockslide.
"Not there, fool," snapped Jagrid. "Turn the eye around."
Green fire flared from his eyes, but with a slight nod Krendym complied with Jagrid’s demand. The eye slowly turned from the colossal iron man to reveal the makeshift village surrounding it. A small hill stood before them and on that, was one of the few permanent stone buildings. Totems of pelts, bones, and skulls lined the path leading up to thick wooden doors barring its entrance. But Jagrid wasn’t interested in the building itself.
Two grey skinned giants stood before it, gesturing and pushing one another while constantly looking over their shoulder at the stone structure behind them.
"Yes, that’s it," Jagrid said, urging Krendym to get closer to the two. The magic he was using only transmitted what the eye could see. No sound came with the images they were watching on the lens, but the two giants were clearly arguing with each other. Jagrid smiled with squinted eyes and pushed her spectacles back further on her nose. "They’re worried," she said, stabbing her finger at the one wearing a grizzled bear pelt atop his brow. "That one is Cardagh, the elder shaman, and the other is his apprentice, Grundum."
"Why are they arguing?" asked Tyragk.
"Once upon a time Cardagh was master of this place," Jargid replied. "Now they have a new master. One that Cardagh claims has brought a curse upon this holy place. A curse that stalks the land and kills their people," Jagrid chuckled. "Grundum will not hear him. He is blinded by greed and a desire for power. He will no longer follow his old master."
"A curse?" Tyragk asked, his eyes just as intently glued to Jagrid as they were to the images on the lens. "What curse?"
"Something that hunts them," she replied, "but I can not say more. Both of them feel it, though Grundum denies it is his new master’s fault."
As the images continued to play out it was apparent that the argument was not dying down. A crowd of the grey skinned giants formed around the two, watching them intently.
"Kalvaldr!" Jagrid hissed triumphantly. "That’s what I needed!"
Whether she had pulled the name from one of the giant’s minds or simply read it off their lips, Tyragk could not say. Even as she spoke the name, he noticed an imperceptible change in the younger giant, Grundum. His body jerked slightly, as if some unseen puppet master tugged at invisible strings attached to his head and shoulders.
"What are you doing?" stammered Krendym who must have noticed the change as well. He reached out a hand of solid stone in an attempt to grab Jagrid, but Tyragk was quick enough to restrain him.
"It’s too late," he said with a quick nod, swearing underneath his breath. "Whatever she’s doing we have to let it play out."
"Opportunity… deary…" Jagrid said. Her eyes were opened, but whatever they gazed upon was far away. When she spoke, it was strained but deliberate. "When opportunity… presents itself… one… must… take advantage…" As she spoke, Tyragk could see the mighty doors of the structure behind the giants swing open. Several more giants wearing lion pelts and wielding massive stone clubs marched out of the building and began pushing the others in the crowd around, creating a pathway to the two that were arguing. Behind those warriors, something else stepped through the doorway. Something larger.
A colossal bearded man, ducking his head to clear the portal, strode out among the other giants. His skin had a light bluish tint to it, and his hair and whiskers were bone white. Unlike the others surrounding him, this giant did not wear furs or animal skins, but was instead covered in sparkling finery. Purple silks and deep blue linens trimmed in silver and gold draped over his frame. "Frost Jarl," Tyragk hissed, and even as he said this, the air took on an icy demeanour. "If the forces of Grondheim are here, we might as well turn back now. We’ll never be able to get through."
"I don’t think they are," replied Krendym. The image refocused itself on the towering blue giant, scanning him from silver crowned head all the way to his fur lined boots. That the clothing was made in Grondheim, and not in these wilds, was undeniable. The closer view however, revealed that the threads in the cloth were worn, and the edges of the garment tattered. Then the image shifted again to the creature’s bodyguards. "What Jarl of Grondheim would employ a barbarian escort such as this? He is an outcast."
Kryndem’s logic was sound, and if right, this was the first good news that Tyragk had heard all day.
"Cardagh, is old… weak…" Jagrid whispered. "Grundum serves Kalvaldr… the weak must die!" Krendym’s image snapped back to the two stone giants. Tyragk cringed reflexively, though due to the resulting battle cry echoing across the basin, or Jagrid’s stifled cackle, he couldn’t say.
In the blink of an eye Grundum tore one of the stone clubs from one of the warriors and in one great motion, smashed it right on top of the old giant’s head. Cardagh crumpled underneath the blow and his form lay motionless.
"Grundum will hunt the beast," Jagrid whispered between mad giggles, her spectacles slipping further down her nose, "Grundum bring back its head, for glory of Kalvaldr."
Krendym took a step back. He crossed his arms, and then swept them outward with a muffled curse, shattering the lens.
"What happened?" pressed Tyragk. "Why did we loose the image?"
"He’s a mage," rumbled the stone man. "I felt a tug against the eye and dispelled it. He might know we’re watching. I can’t be sure."
Tyragk instinctively looked toward Sallisa, but the shade was already at the top of the ridge. "There’s a small group of them moving away from the village. Looks like they’re headed for the eastern trail." She paused for several seconds before continuing. "I can’t see the Frost Jarl."
"Come on, come on, I need to know what’s going on down there. Are they on to us or not?" Tyragk could feel the blood rushing into his head, warming his face and ears, as his breaths became shallow. If they were discovered now, there was little chance of success. They would have to turn and make a run for it before the entire village mobilized against them.
Chill winds blew harder, scattering pine needles across the nearby outcropping of rocks. Further down the hillside clumps of snow fell from the trees making wet thuds on the ground below them. Tyragk clenched and unclenched his fists, waiting for Sallisa to respond.
"I don’t know. I don’t think they know we’re here," she finally said from her outpost at the ridge’s edge. "It’s just that one small group heading out on the eastern trail. The rest of the giants seem to be sinking back into their standard routines."
"What is going on?" Tyragk mumbled, giving his unkempt beard a tug. Sallisa continued her vigil and Krendym remained passive near his gear. Jagrid lowered herself into a sitting position with a soft chuckle.
"Opportunity," Jagrid whispered.
"What?" Tyragk asked, his head whipping around to glare at her.
Jagrid’s eyes were wide open, but something told Tyragk that they were not seeing her own surroundings. "Opportunity," she said again with more force behind her voice.
"She’s controlling them," Krendym rumbled.
A wicked smile crept across Jagrid’s face. "Controlling… the one who counts…deary."
"Right," Tyragk said, understanding finally dawning on his face. This was the way Enthrallers worked after all. This was the reason that even one of them could be a devastating opponent. Theirs was always a battle of attrition. Divide and conquer. She had reconnoitered the settlement, found two of its leading members, and in one fell swoop removed them both from the equation. Now she was leading a group of the giant’s best and bravest warriors out of the village where they could be ambushed.
Tyragk shook his head in amazement. It was risky. If Jagrid had not been able to exert control over the younger shaman, they would all very probably be running for their lives right now. The deed was already done however, and he couldn’t argue with her reasoning. They had to clear the giants to get access to Earthshaker, and they couldn’t do that in a frontal assault. Quickly he gathered his gear. "Krendym, you and Sallisa stay here. Watch over Jagrid." The stone figure nodded and Tyragk turned his attention back to the gray haired dwarf sitting on the ground. "Lead them north," he said, already scrambling back down the hillside. "A day’s journey at least, if you can manage. We’ll be ready."
Without looking back for a response, Tyragk sprinted to the base of the hill. Knuckles grew white in one hand from gripping his dragon belcher, while the other was thrown about at all angles in an attempt to maintain his balance. Several times he slid on loose gravel but managed to keep his footing until finally reaching the riverbed.
"You have to be more careful, Tyragk," the brawny giantkin hissed once the dwarf finally tumbled into the riverbed, "I could hear you coming all the way down… and you left a cloud of dust that’s still hanging in the air. If someone were to look…"
"It couldn’t be helped," Tyragk shrugged.
"Hey Chelak," Prahem broke in cheerfully, "tell him what you found."
"No time," Tyragk cut them both off. "Mount up."
Grabbing his war club and slinging it across his shoulder, Chelak went to the nearest mastiff and removed its stake from the ground. The three beasts could sense the tension in the air and were becoming more excited with every second. Even though Chelak couldn’t ride a mastiff himself, all three of the animals would come with them. They couldn’t leave the extra dog here by itself, and Tyragk doubted that it would stay at this point anyway. All three of the beasts seemed ready for the hunt.
Prahem mounted up beside Tyragk, tugging his mount’s reigns and falling into line behind the dwarf, with Chelak and the third dog leading the way downstream along the riverbed. "What happened?" he asked.
"Old girl riled things up…" he replied. Chelak picked up his pace and the mastiff beneath Tyragk had to run just to keep up. The dwarf leaned in closer, clutching at the scruff of the creature’s neck. The beast was sure footed enough, and Tyragk was content to let it navigate the treacherous riverbed terrain without any help from him, but with the continuous leaps and bounds, he didn’t want to be thrown from the saddle. "She made one of them into a puppet… is leading a group of them out of the village on the pretext of hunting some monster."
"What monster?" Prahem called up from behind him.
"Don’t know," Tyragk called back, "but whatever it is, these giants are scared of it. It’s been hunting them."
"Ho!" Prahem called from behind, pulling up on the reigns of his mount. Ahead of Tyragk, the giantkin slowed his pace and turned around. "Now Chelak," Praham said, "you have to tell him. Tell him what you found."
With a nod the giantkin strode back to the other two. "Was scouting out some of the surroundings," Chelak began, not quite out of breath, "when I found it. Carnage."
"Giants?" Tyragk asked.
Chelak nodded in the affirmative. "Wasn’t much left but blood and gore. It was a big fight though, whatever was in it. Trees smashed. Boulders knocked aside. Prints leading in looked like giants, pretty hard to mistake. But there was something else there too that I couldn’t read. Something big."
"And powerful," added Prahem, "and hungry enough to not leave any trace of its quarry."
"That’s about the sum of it," agreed Chelak.
The sun and trees cast dappled shadows across the crew as they stood in silence staring at one another. Once the sound of their breathing subsided Tyragk asked, "Where?"
"Followed a game trail from the settlement. Not to far up. North."
Tyragk swore under his breath.
"This is where they’re going to make camp?" Prahem asked. When Tyragk nodded in the affirmative he added, "You’re sure?"
Chelak cut in, "We passed them not an hour ago. They’ll be just as tired as we are."
"Nearly," said Tyragk between ragged breaths.
"They’ve got cached provisions here. Food, firewood. They’ll be planning to camp here before continuing their hunt in the morning." Chelak’s confidence seemed to satisfy the gnome. Prahem dropped the subject and began inspecting his weapons. "Grrrhmmm…" the giantkin sighed, "… the problem is we’ll never catch them off guard. They came out here to hunt whatever has been hunting them…"
"Chelak’s got a point," said Prahem with a sidelong glance in Tyragk’s direction. "You have a plan?"
Tyragk fingered some of the metal vials strung on his bandolier. Grabbing the glove of his free hand between his teeth, he tugged it off and began running his bare hand across the naked rock of the grotto. "Yeah…"