Chapter One part two
Rahg stared at the large dead trees looming on their periphery as they made camp. Near the forest the trees were great oaks, elms and willows but here there was only mangroves and the ancient dead thick with growth. Besides the vast tangles that overwhelmed every tree live or dead, the only living plants were strange shrubs. Some seemed to pivot and sway as they neared, so they kept well away. The rafts worked well and the first day was behind them. Each night spongy moss would be the closest thing to a floor for most of the men. Even so, they would avoid traveling through the Bleakwood, but still it lurked just to the north at all times a tantalizing respite of solid ground. Olga did not need to warn them to stay away, everyone in Beld knew. The Bleakwood came right to the edge of Beld, a place of darkness just beyond Mournguard keep. The woods were the real reason for the keep. Some say the prince was afraid of something within. Tales speak of many reasons for this but Rahg heard one from his teacher Maggot he believed. The prince was not really the prince at all but one of the real prince’s look-alikes. He betrayed the real prince to enemy agents, just who is never said. At a remote-hunting cabin known only to his closest advisers the true prince is brutally slain. However, to the usurper’s horror the agents turn on him next so he flees blindly through the woods, chased by both the agents and his inner demons. By some dumb luck a loyal servant, who knew of the prince’s cabin, learned of the plot and managed to rally help. As they rushed to his aid, they found the imposter being set upon by the agents. The loyalists attacked and slaughtered them to the man, never realizing their mistake. The spirit of the true prince haunts the hunting lodge at the woods center, or so Maggot said. Whatever the case those woods were bad, people who went in died and turned up mutilated but uneaten on the outskirts of the nearest settlement. When the De Silva built their keep they must have lost a thousand men to those trees. Sane beings wanted nothing to do with that place. Sygmand was sick of the damned trees. They did not burn right and his men kept reporting of them attacking. He lost one patrol in the woods after that and he was not going to allow two. He brought some of his best men with him as he headed in the direction his scouts said they had see a cabin. Zad and Olga conferred on what would be the best route. Olga had found and copied an ancient map showing a city called Victory just twenty miles into the swamp. The whole trip would take about four days by raft or half that number through the woods if they had to. After that they could head south to Ragio, northwest to keep Blanco or southwest to an unnamed settlement. Zad originally considered the map a gift from Grawdyng as it was from just before the collapse of the kingdom. He was much less pleased when Olga explained that a nearly two-hundred-year-old human map might not be that accurate. Rahg found the next two days rather enjoyable; after all he loved rafting even if it was the brown water kind. They were making decant progress despite Hurdy’s tendency to fall into bogs. For a hulking stinking half-ogre he was terribly concerned with bathing. Following each and every plunge, after being fished out, he would stalk off to bathe. This was just laughably stupid and so to keep things moving they fashioned a rain barrel and leather tarp for him. Rahg enjoyed everything but the weather; endless rolling fogs making a maze out of the land. This coupled with sudden savage rainstorms soaked everything and only by the skill of their guides could they get anywhere in the fury. Finally on the third day it stopped raining and it was on this day Rahg stopped enjoying himself. Without the downpour the biting insects came, and with them disease. Rahg was lucky but some of the men were not. Olga seemed to have some healers training despite her knighthood and did her best to help. By midday he had another reason to stop enjoying himself, they had reached their destination. They surveyed the half-mile wide bog with the skeletons of old stone works strewn about. “So this is Victory,” thought Rahg. Victory turned out to be on a giant sinkhole so the company was forced to camp about a hundred yards away. Rahg built himself a sort of canvas fort to keep the bugs out while the others worked. Olga had decided to make for the old keep on the map. The journey would take four more days by raft so she let the men rest for the remainder of the day. Zad was exploring the sinkhole using his skeletal minions, Olga had insisted he have a guard. Since the men found him disturbing and unholy it was Hurdy who got the job, after promising not to push Zad in the quagmire that is. Rahg could just make them out from his vantage, and then suddenly they both turned and ran wildly toward the camp. Rahg heard a loud low rumble building as the earth about the sinkhole heaved. Great bones of stone bubbled from the mire, black slime and slithering vermin caking every inch. The spongy earth heaved then bursts like a drop of rain on the cobblestones. As the vomitus mass settles to the surface a wash of putrid brown air washes forth. The horrendous stench rolled over their camp, making the men vomit with such force they fell flat on their backs. Rahg climbed the nearest tree and managed to stay out of the low creeping fumes. For some reason Olga was completely unaffected and started to aid the afflicted. Hurdy did not seem to notices the small but the effect it had on others made him laugh till he fell over. By the time the air had cleared most of their troops were worthlessly sick. Zad had to crawl back to his wagon and rest. Rahg helped Olga minister to the men, and so no one was aware that Hurdy had wondered into the dripping ruins. Cold damp cobblestones cracked under Hurdy’s huge feet. He had searched a few houses and found only bones and bugs. He found a big building with fancy doors and assumed it must be a noble’s house. It took all his considerable might to force the doors open a crack. As he pushed a great torrents of slime spewed forth inundating him in slippery mire. Slowly it subsided and he forced the door open, inside was darkness, but Hurdy got his eyes from his mother. After adjusting he could see fine and there was a lot to see. Massive pillars, caked with slime, lined the chamber. Great chandeliers hung from the ceiling like ambush predators. Mold clung to everything thick as carpet so the floors and walls could not be seen. At the far end was a raised dais that even now seemed to seep slime. As he approached it he heard the scrap of metal behind him, turning just in time to see the great doors close, plunging him into darkness. Then the sound of thick putrid water poring onto the shaggy floor fills his ears. The hairs on his back stand on end. He feels them all about him, circling, probing, and closing in. He can’t let them make the first move. Sygmand was very pleased; after all he was right like always. A few lesser undead stalked the woods it was true, but his men must have been foolish indeed to fall pray to the slow moving corpses. The cabin was very well kept clearly the property of a man a station. There were no heraldic markings, and this was odd. Still it would be improper for them to proceed unannounced so he kicked his lackey in the head. “Lord Sir Sygmand Bloodhawk son of Sir Johan Bloodhawk of Wartooth pays his respect to the master of this household. His mighty eminence would know who’s guest he has the honor of being?” bellowed the page. No sound, save the wind, came in reply. Slowly the cabin door opened. There stood a finely dressed man in his young twenties. His hair and mustache were black and neatly trimmed. He was perfectly normal till you looked at his eyes. Where they should be he had only holes, and through them light streamed as from a lantern. This unearthly gaze fixed on Sygmand who stood frozen beneath the onslaught of those blazing holes. His soldiers stared at each other in horror; their hair was white and their faces wrinkled. Bones aching they try to run only to find a wall of trees surrounding them. They call to their master for orders and aid but he remains perfectly still. The strange man in the cabin is gone like he had never been. The last thing his men see as they are torn apart is Sygmand riding back toward camp on a horse as white and cold as snow. Rahg was the first to notice Hurdy was gone and told Olga. They gathered up ten of the least ill men and left Zad in charge of the camp. They followed his wondering tracks in the slime down the muck-coated streets. They meandered from building to building following the tracks until they came to what looked like a temple. The courtyard around it was filled with a thick swamp of slime. Oddly enough it looked like the slime had come pouring out the temple doors. Muffled cries and crashed could be heard through the door. They pushed with all their might but only opened the doors a tiny crack. Through this crack slime streamed, coating them from head to toe. They slipped and sputtered but through force of will they held the door till the slime drained. To their horror they saw thousands of bones, crushed and shattered, floating in the sludge. A bone shattering crash could be hear from inside. Rahg lit a torch and ventured in. Hurdy was swaying slightly when they found him. He was covered in slime and fresh blood, all of it his. Ribcages, skulls, and other large clumps of bones clustered near the door like driftwood. A steady river of slime flowed from the altar behind Hurdy. With great care and delicacy Hurdy POUNDED the altar to powder. Then he smiled and howled, “Besdam dayf tehol trp!” While his companions checked the parameter, and Olga tended Hurdy’s wounds, Rahg had a look at the altar. This whole place reeked of dark magic, or maybe that was his paranoia talking. Then he heard a sound that could only be described as not quite a splash. It was more of a wet sucking noise. He heard it again. Pieces of the altar and surrounding dais were crumbling away. The floor just gave way one tiny bit at a time and all he saw thought the holes was utter blackness. “Run for your lives!” Rahg screamed as he darted for the door. The entire building began to tremble, sending ceiling stones tumbling down. A falling chandelier made a scout one with the slime. Rolling, running, and in Hurdy’s case walking, they emerge just as the falling ceiling collapses the floor. “Keep running you fools!” Rahg raged bolting past them. Then they see it too, the creeping collapse of the floor continues. It spreads with increasing fury, taking slime and stone down into the dark abyss. No one looks back as they flee the city, no one sees as Victory sink beneath the swamp once again. The companions collapse on the first bit of stable ground they find. All are battered, bruised and utterly exhausted, with the exemption of Hurdy who just seemed confused. The city was gone and after catching their breath they trudged back to camp. That night the rains return, cold and wet, drilling into their rest like an army on the march. Zad sat awake as always, listening to the sounds of the swamp. He was beginning to like it here. All around him death was at its’ peak. Every tiny bug and fish devouring and being devoured. Every scrap of dead tissue reused and renewed. It was beautiful. He spent time gathering herbs and roots. He refreshed many of his spell components and found a few interesting specimens. Tomorrow they would head for the keep and with luck, finally have a suitable base camp. Only two days had passed but already they lost five scouts. Worse Zad claimed he saw things at night lurking in the bogs. Late that day they found one of the scout’s bodies, it was not the first they recovered. They were always mutilated just like in tales of the Bleakwood. This one had been pounded against a stump and was utterly unrecognizable. From then on they stayed in large groups and carried as much fire as they could. At night they posted heavy watches, Rahg was stuck with first watch, Zad the second and Olga got the third. Hurdy was technically given fourth watch but simply could not be counted on. On their third night out from of Victory all hell broke loss on Zad’s watch. Zad was perched, eyes closed, on his wagon. Despite Olga’s warnings he felt quite safe indeed, after all they had over forty men still not to mention Hurdy. His watch was nearly over and soon Olga could deal with this boredom. The only offensive spell he memorized was Disable Foot, as ten soldiers patrolled the edges of the blazing firelight. Additionally the heat from the bonfire was a pestilence upon his darkvision. Superior sight thus diminished he contented himself with study not alertness. Thus the attack came swift and sudden, were it not for the dedication of the guards they would all be caught in their sleep. Zad simply stammered for breath as dozens of large slimy hulks rushed the outer guards. The guards held their ground but three took savage blows from the beasts clubs. One fell with his leg horribly shattered; the other two managed to deflect some of the tremendous damage. The guards cried out for aid as they franticly made a fighting withdrawal. The well-trained men landed many telling blows but the raging monstrosities seemed to shrug them off. Zad franticly called out to Olga and Hurdy but neither was in sight. One of the apish attackers batters a guard’s arm off. The limb flies out of the ring of firelight as its’ owner collapses into a shrieking heap. Only two of the guards managed any kind of retaliation, but again it was shrugged off. As Zad screams for help a heavy hand slams him in the balls. “Just making sure you had some.” Said Rahg wryly before leaping to a nearby tree branch and swinging to the ground just beyond the light. As more guards awoke and came to reinforce those already in combat a horrible bellow split the air. “Trs Fihten aNon Cldma!” Hurdy howled as he came running. Zad watched in horror as the apebeasts brutalized four of the remaining outer guard. The last of the guards retaliated with all their remaining strength, and thought their blows were furious not one beast fell. As even more horrors lope out of the shadows Hurdy and the reinforcements slam into the beasts. Hangnail pulverized the jaw of the nearest ape while Hurdy brings KaThumpa round in a low arc, turning the spine of a leaping beast into dust. All but one of the guards failed to ever scratch the ferocious creatures. He caught the ape’s club hard on the shield, too close for a swing he brought the pommel down hard on its’ temple. The dazed beast stumbled and fell, dropping its crude mace. Three more guard were born down by shrieking flesh rending apes, while a fat green furred one came from behind and brought its’ club down hard on Hurdy’s right shoulder. It clung to his back repeatedly slamming the club down. He tried to strike back but he lacked the leverage for a telling blow. Suddenly the beast went ridged then limp before falling of. He spun around to see Rahg, blades crimson, slip back into the shadows. Olga came charging into the fray, though to look at her you would not know it was she. She wore white plate mail with the shining white two-headed-falcon of Janid on her chest blazing in the firelight. She leapt into a breach in the lines and struck out with righteous fury, splitting the ribs of her foe wide open. Such was the sight even Zad felt a tad of renewed courage. He began casting the only spell he had. Before the beasts could regroup the rallied men struck hard and fast. They ganged up, focusing their attacks on one then the next. Two brutes fell from multiple wounds while Olga lopped the head of the nearest simian beast. Hurdy struck with bone-crushing authority, Hangnail turned the left side of an unfortunate ape into mulch then KaThumpa tore the knees out from under another. Zad’s spell goes off numbing the leg of a passing monster. The beast flails about desperately trying to move it’s now feeble leg. The renewed assault of the monsters was devastating. They stampede over the front ranks, pure muscle plowing through all resistance. Three guards are ground into the mire while seven more are savagely bashed about. Olga’s shield took many determined blows but she never gave an inch of ground. Hurdy however was being ganged up on; four of the beasts were pounding away at him from all sides. They struck like wolves’ one side attacking, then pulling back out of reach while the other side moved in. “Hurdy close your eyes! Close your eyes Hurdy!” commanded a voice from the bushes and so he obeyed. Three small white stones flew out of the darkness, two struck the apes around Hurdy, and one struck Hurdy. They exploded with a thunderclap and flash of brilliant light. The four apes around Hurdy fled in blind panic, tripping and clawing each other as they went. Hurdy lashed out blindly splattering what he hoped were foes. Finally a voice said, “you can open your damn eyes now Hurdy!” so he did. The guards were fairing terribly; they could barely hold back the beasts let alone retaliate. Olga was fighting her way to the wounded Hurdy, shield-rushing foes from her path. Eight guards fall to blows or internal bleeding as the apes’ grind the human mulch beneath their paws. Three of the beasts beat the bushes apparently clever enough to know what was hiding amongst them. Olga reached Hurdy and to Zad’s astonishment, placed her hands upon him and healed some of his wounds. Soft white light surrounded her hands like faeriefire, running down her outstretched fingers to mend and knit the flesh of her injured bodyguard. As more apes swarm in on the pair Hurdy thundered, “Tankchu Oga!” before plunging into the fray. He brings Hangnail and KaThumpa together, scissoring two very unlucky apes between them. The force of the blows collapses their lungs not to mention driving their ribs out their backs. The remaining soldiers were doing their best just not to die. But six more would fall to the awful grind of the shaggy apes. The remaining beasts circled Olga and Hurdy cautiously, launching probing attacking to draw Hurdy out. Zad saw what they were doing and cried out a warning but it came to late. One of the beasts maneuvered around behind them and as Hurdy kept the others at bay it struck. It swung its’ club two handed, bringing it down on top of Olga’s right shoulder. Pain then numbness shot through her arm, her sword clattered to the spongy morass below. Only by some incredible inner will did she remain standing. Hurdy bellows with rage as he comes to Olga’s defense. Hangnail sends the guts of the ape cascading across the battlefield, while he tried to shield her with KaThumpa as best he can. The soldiers are too disorganized to help and so the remaining apes leap at Hurdy’s exposed flank. Or they would have. Back when Zad saw the flanking maneuver he knew something had to be done. He had no spells of use at the moment so drastic measures needed to be taken. He opened his spellbook to the eighteenth page and began to cast. A whirling mass of shadows springs forth, anchoring perfectly to two dead trees and a stump just between Hurdy and the apes. Five of the things run into the adhesive webstuff, thrashing wildly but hopefully in vane. To his horror the savage monstrosities are only slowed by the sticky tangle and rapidly begin to tare free. As three more soldiers die gasping, lungs and throats crushed, Rahg franticly circled the searching apes. Hurdy had helped Olga onto a nearby wagon, where she was safe at least for a moment. He turned, eyes blazing with fury, Hangnail and KaThumpa at the ready. The apes tore free and rushed him howling for blood. Of it looked that way, if was impossible to hear them over the bestial roar unleashed by Hurdy as he dove to the attack. Hangnail sent one sprawling, vomiting blood, while KaThumpa battered a second’s face into its’ ribcage. The best the troops managed was a few minor scratches as three more lost their lives to the savage apes. Hurdy spun his clubs with such fury none of his foes could close enough to land a telling blow. Rahg leapt onto the back of the nearest ape, daggers sinking into its’ leathery hide as he climbed to the ape’s shoulders. With a swift left to right slash he ripped out the beast’s throat, then kicked off the toppling beast to somersault into the bushes. Hurdy advanced, twin clubs arcing wide. He brought them across in unison, driving the three apes back. The beast had no concept of military retreat so Hurdy slammed Hangnail into one straggler, and then KaThumpa into another. The remaining ape ran shrieking away on all fours. The seven apes still in melee with the troops faired better. The guards we witless by this point and only managed to down one of the brutes. The savages repelled their attacks and drove them back against the wagons. With nowhere to maneuver the horrid apes popped them like grapes. As the last five guards fought for their lives, Hurdy and Rahg charged and crept respectively into battle. The last of the guards wheezed his last breath as Hurdy hit the apes like an avalanche. Arms crossed Hurdy swung his clubs out like a great bird taking flight. Hangnail slammed into the right side of an ape’s chest, forcing splintering ribs into the lungs, causing it to cartwheel through the air to land gasping like a fish out of water. KaThumpa caught an ape on its’ left between the neck and shoulder, shattering its’ collarbone and rupturing the beast’s jugular. Hurdy kept attacking, forcing the apes off balance and onto the defensive. They landed a few grazing blows but nothing of note to the enraged half-ogre. Hangnail shatters a defending club thrust overhead, pounding wood and bone deep into the ape’s skull. Hurdy steps back just out of reach of a raging ape, bringing KaThumpa down on the beast’s brow. Suddenly one ape finds itself alone, its last friend falling to the ground howling and groping at its’ ankle. The last beast swings with all its’ might but Hurdy easily parries. He smiles as Hangnail and KaThumpa turn its’ head into a pancake. As Hurdy pounded away, Rahg dealt with the wounded apes. The entire battle had taken only a minute and a half, but they had lot all their remaining soldiers. From Zad’s count they had killed or driven off thirty-two of the brutes. ..r inspection the beasts seemed to be a cross between pig and ape, horrifying to say the least. They buried the dead as best they could and nursed their wounds. Olga mourned the massive needless slaughter and considered what they should do next. Surely the Goddess would not guide her all this way to allow it to end like this. They could regroup, rehire mercenaries, but where would the money come from? May the Queen forgive her for thinking like this, but they needed to fine something of value and fast. They had to reach the keep, it was abandoned when the land was cursed, and something of value must be left. Rahg reported with disgust that they had no valuables while Hurdy was busy repairing his armor and clubs. Olga had instructed Zad to select better spells for defense, he acted haughty but she could see the shame in his eyes. After resting for seven days, ever fearful of attack, Olga had recovered. While she convalesced Rahg organized the scouts, while Hurdy and Zad took charge of the watch. Olga overheard Rahg joking about the whole thing, calling their band, “The Doom Brigade.” “I can see the recruiting campaign now, “sign on with us and get torn to pieces in some unnamed bog!”” No one but Hurdy found his jokes funny. Hurdy had renewed his trained with frightening vigor. He demolished a great circle of vegetation around their camp, if it grew Hurdy put a stop to it. As Olga and Zad planned the constant pounding of Hurdy raged like great waves against the shore. “Does that imbecile ever cease his needless ravaging?” Zad growled, the noise was giving him a horrible headache. ” Trust me,” replied Olga coolly, “It’s best for us all that he stay occupied.” Rahg spent his time with the scouts, trapping and surveying the surrounding area. Most of the scouts were ill at ease with the devious lethality of Rahg’s designs, but given the situation none complained. Many wondering predators fell to his genius, but none of the ape beast ever turned up in a trap. Rahg hoped this meant they were giving them a wide birth, otherwise it meant they could avoid his snares. Rahg was worried that the pigapes, as he called them, were anything but stupid brutes. He hoped they would get the Abyss out of this place. The body of Sygmand smiled, it felt so good to be respected again. Well to feel anything at all for that matter. This Sygmand was the first man of worthy enough baring and heritage to be an exceptable host. He felt the old temple was beneath his station however and that Blanco keep would be a more suitable command post. Sygmand’s men were loyal, but he suspected this was out of fear of the man more then anything else. The SwampApes made excellent fodder and had already reported intruders in his realm, not that this mattered. He had planned for over one-hundred-and-fifty years and his birthright would be reclaimed, even if he had slay every single living one of his beloved subjects.