And now, a little experiment with a fiction post. I’ll break this up into probably 3 long posts, divided by a few days each
Just another frozen walk in the Ruins… PART ONE
by Walter O’Hara
Minty the Apprentice whistled as he poked his little fire, trying to keep it warm enough so the Master’s fingers wouldn’t freeze up on him in the upcoming scavenging expedition. Today they were heading to the interior of the Resident’s section of the old city, a place yet to be mapped by anyone of reputation. For his part, Fleebus, his master (also known as Fleebus the Good, Fleebus the Blessed and Fleebus the Kindly at some point in his past), was nodding tiredly into the soup Minty had prepared and appeared to be in danger of decorating the front of his dull red robes with broth. It had been a long march inland to the little Temple on the fringes of the great City that served as their expedition headquarters, and Fleebus had insisted they pack heavy and be ready to go at first light. Thus, the small party clustered around the fire was still stamping their feet to keep warm and energize themselves for the day’s work. Minty coughed, delicately, and kicked Fleebus’s boots. The Thaumaturgist blinked twice and opened his eyes wider.. “Eh?” Minty nodded knowingly at the small circle of men sitting and standing around their fire. It would not do to see their employer doze off into his breakfast on the first day.
Fleebus and Minty (from Northstar magazine)
Fleebus started, then put his can of soup down, blowing on his fingers. “Right! Men.. and ladies…” nodding at the giant archer to his left, who vaguely looked female- “As you know, we are engaged in an expedition to search for artifacts and treasures from the Ancient Frozen City beyond us there” he said, gesturing in a direction vaguely towards the ruins behind him. “I have worked with some of you last season and some of you are hired on for the first time, so I’ll educate you on our plan of attack for this season.” Fleebus gestured to Minty, who hurriedly unrolled a larger scroll, with a crude map of the city drawn in brown ink, with notes and arrows added later in red by Fleebus. Fleebus gestured with one shaking finger. “As you can see, our base camp here is on the Southern outskirts. I chose this location because it gets some traffic from the outside world and is still reasonably safe from attack from the Undead creatures that infest these ruins, a byproduct of being sacred ground.” The crew nodded and muttered, some of them touching holy symbols they had on hand. “Sadly, most of the Southern outskirts and suburbs have been rather systematically picked over in the last few years, and I fear we will make few discoveries there. Therefore, my plan of attack is to approach along the Canal leading into the City, cross over the Marketplace and approach the Northern Residential area from the Cathedral gallery. This is a relatively pristine area to search and I hope to be in and out in a day, without stirring up any trouble. Questions?”
“Sir”, said one of the more articulate hirelings, a sword and shield-man from Karth and rated as pretty intelligent, by and large .. “What about wandering Skeletons and Zombies? The approach you are describing takes us two blocks East of the Catacombs. That area is infested with them” “A very good question,” replied Fleebus. “As you know the ambient temperature has dropped greatly in recent weeks.” This was accompanied by nods, grumbles, and stamping of feet. “According to the scroll Malius Malefractum, second half, governing necromantic or summoned creatures, zombies, skeletons and the lesser undead slow down grievously in low temperatures. During the short window of this cold snap, we will be uncomfortable, that is true, but we will also have our freedom of limbs, freedom of our minds, and speed to carry out action. Why, we’ll run rings around them, Sir! Any other questions?” “Um, sir?” began one of the new hirelings, a short second story man from Trevilian. “I heard from the boys that there may be, erm.. competing expeditions in the ruins this time of year. What should we expect?” Minty stared meaningfully at Fleebus, who chose to ignore the hint. “There are no reports of competing bands anywhere nearby, nor do we expect any” Fleebus, said, somewhat ill at ease. “Now, gentlemen (and ladies)..” (The vaguely female shaped archer rumbled, and nodded) “we are wasting precious daylight and precious time. We need to be past the catacombs by the 11th hour of the morning. Let us depart!” Quickly, the camp sprang into action, dousing the meager fire, strapping on packs full of bags, ropes and other accouterments of treasure hunting. Minty took his place at the front of the marching order, with Fleebus beside him. Minty raised his voice and said, in a level tone, “Arlo the treasure hunter, scout ahead. Archers behind us, Quarg the War Dog runs ahead. Everyone else, behind them. For Fortune and Glory, we march!” “Fortune and Glory!” the crew repeated tiredly, and they almost managed to sound cheerful.
Fleebus grinned as they stepped out at a brisk pace. “No competitor bands, master?” Minty muttered out of the side of his mouth. “I didn’t tell an untruth, exactly– I haven’t detected any… technically“.. Minty sighed, and shrugged, and the band moved out confidently. Ahead, Arlo and Quarg the War Hound scouted a safe path for the party to advance into the ruins.
In another part of the city, a very different band had already started marching, or more accurately, were engaged in halting, as they clustered around an unlucky soldier collapsed at the base of a pillar in the Leather-worker’s district. Ozick, otherwise known as Ozick the Nasty, Ozick the Indifferent, and Ozick the Defiler, glared down at the wounded treasure hunter in his employ. “Can you move?” he said, in his funereal tone. “errrgh… Nossir, GAH, the pain! M’leg was gnawed sumpin terrible when I was ambushed by giant rats come up from the sewers! I got ’em though, sir!” He hawked and spat, and continued to groan, piteously. Ozick stared at him, unblinking, for a solid minute. “Pity“, he said, and turned away. Squeebles, his apprentice, approached nervously. “Er, masssster? What about our treasure hunter?”
Ozick the Defiler and Squeebles
(also from Northstar Magazine)
“Dispatch him” said Ozick, quietly, so the rest of the band couldn’t hear. “It would be … a kindness, lest he catch the foaming rot from those creatures” then strode away, stopped, and turned back. “And Squeebles?” Yesss, ssssir?” “Don’t waste the body, if you take my meaning“, he said, looking intently from under his bushy dark brows. Behind him, he heard a Schnick! and sickening thud, as the job was done.
Ten Minutes Later, the company of Ozick the Necromancer set out again, this time accompanied by a brand new zombie recruit, which slowed them somewhat– this would become meaningful later.
Two Hours Later, Arlo the Treasure Hunter’s lean, rangy frame could be spotted from the lookouts, heading back toward the party in a frantic run. Minty looked worried. The new route had not gone well. They had lost two men-at-arms to a sudden attack from a swarm of skeletons that had emerged from behind some rubble at a bad moment when they were constrained by an alley they were sneaking through. Skeletons that were not exactly nimble, per se, but there were a lot of them blocking the way out of the alley. With one dead party member and one grievously wounded to the point that they had already expended a healing potion on him and sent him limping back to the Temple base, Minty was hoping for no more unpleasant surprises on this trip. Perhaps Arlo was bringing good news. “Yes, and Owlbears can fly” Minty thought.
Arlo came highly recommended, and he demonstrated his reputation (and extra cost) now, pulling out his treasure-hunters chapbook and laying it out on a collapsed fence so that Minty and Fleebus could follow along. In it was a hurried sketch of a circle, with several boxes noted along its arc, many with a darker black “X” marked on them. “About three blocks over, there’s a traffic circle of some sort. There are many small row houses and single houses with lawns, collapsing into themselves. I scouted about ten possible targets for salvage where you see the X marks. The good news is that this seems to be a very undisturbed neighborhood. There’s little evidence of looters, if any– the buildings are collapsing, but mostly from the elements. There was a fire in this neighborhood at some point, but it was more than a decade ago from the looks of it, and probably started by lightning”. Fleebus nodded approvingly and asked.. “You said good news. People who say “The good news is..” usually have bad news?” Arlo looked serious. “I couldn’t be sure from my position, but I swear I heard people shouting, somewhere. We can’t rule out the presence of one or more parties in the surrounding neighborhood.” Minty was alarmed. “Sir, we’re really not in a good shape to actually fight another party. Our spell collection is not very aggressive. As you have told me many times, a Thaumaturgist isn’t in the business of hurting people”. Fleebus chuckled, but they could see his concern. “Then we shall have to be quiet, good Apprentice. Pass the word, muffle weapons, keep conversation at a bare minimum, and for the God’s sake, touch nothing. If the Gods are with us, the other party, IF there is another party, might just pass us right by.”
About 10 minutes later, and 5 blocks North…
Ozick, pressing his wounded side with one hand, leaned against a post and closed his eyes, concentrating on a spell… he felt the dark energy growing inside him, to the point of release, then touched one of his wounded crew on the head, and said in a murmuring tongue: “Iocanthus Mortem“. The wounded hireling gasped, his eyes leeched color into a milky whiteness, and he pitched over backwards. Ozick looked down. The wound was no longer bleeding. Instead, he felt a rush of vitality that he had stolen from the dead man. It felt great. “Maaaassster?” asked an anxious Squeebles at his elbow. “We are running low on ssstaff, we only have sseven more left!” “Very well, Squeebles, I didn’t want to waste a potion, but I may have to at this rate. We’ve met with unexpected opposition.” That was one word for it. A rogue witch and her band of gnolls had suddenly attacked from the supposedly deserted part of the city to their East. They could only have been traveling underground (somehow) to avoid detection this easily. Unfortunately the witch had a veritable mob in support and Ozick was feeling decidedly over-matched. To begin with, she had a larger crew to start with– sure, they were humanoid (orcs and bugbears), and thus rather stupid, and difficult to reincarnate. Worse than that, though, was the sense that there was a heavy hitter she had in play that he had not seen yet. Not anything definitive.. just a dark mass lurking in the background, and the hint of glowing red eyes. “If she has a real demon up her sleeve, we will retreat as soon as feasible– I don’t have any minions of comparable strength, and nothing to counter that with”, Ozick thought to himself.
Almost simultaneously, 15 minutes later at the Plaza of Light and Shadow:
Arlo was busy pointing out targets to Fleebus in his chapbook, so they didn’t see the much-depleted party of Ozick the Defiler enter into the Plaza, but Minty did. “DOWN”, he hissed, pushing a startled Fleebus and Arlo behind a ruined garden wall. He quickly pointed at the oncoming party. They were not, at first glance, impressive. Ozick’s men were lean and hungry looking, dressed in rags and piecemeal armor, mostly leather bits. “Either cheap, or a necromancer”, thought Minty to himself as he frantically gestured for two of the archers to get up high and lay down some suppressing fire on the oncoming party. Minty cringed as he heard a bolt whistle overhead and impact against the fence behind him. “You, you.. and YOU..” he snapped at a crossbowman, an archer and a thief. “With me, we’ll circle left. Stay under cover!”
Across the circular plaza, the Defiler was also directing his men to fire into the oncoming party as he got behind cover and concentrated on a spell. There were few clues to deduce the power of the opposing wizard. “Red Robes. That means exactly nothing. The only thing I see summoned is an Animal Companion, all that tells me is that he’s neutral to the Witch’s School. He’s not Summoning anything, I would have felt that.. no, wait he’s touching one of his fighters… ” The distant wizard’s hands glowed for a second as he chanted, then the fighter’s clothes glowed briefly, as well. “That’s a shield, or I’m a rat..” Ozick chuckled to himself. A Thaumaturge. It wouldn’t do to get cocky, but Ozick already sensed victory. There was nothing a Thaumaturge had in his bag of tricks that he hadn’t seen already. He was far more concerned with the Witch Party they had fought a running battle with for five blocks. Where were they now?
Arlo the Treasure Hunter climbed up to the second floor of one of the residential ruins to delve into a promising heap of sacking that had congregated in one corner. Instantly two black feathered arrows sped towards him, and swerved around him to bury in the wall. Arlo quickly flashed a thumb’s up to Fleebus, sheltering in the lee of the broken wall below. The shield was working. Excellent. As Arlo dug through the mass of rags and rotted timbers in the attic of the house he was, he felt a telltale hollow space in the timber give below his probing pick, and a tiny hatch was revealed. Inside was an oblong rectangular box about a foot long, covered with leather and sporting two silver clasps. Arlo’s hands shook. A grimoire! Possibly. “Guess who’s getting a bonus, old boy!” Arlo whispered to himself. A thin quivering shriek disturbed his reverie. Arlo’s head snapped up.. What was that? The shriek was followed by distinctive growls, barks, and the guttural sound of the Dark Speech coming out of the wrecked buildings North and East of the Circle below him. “Uh oh, that’s not…”
“GOOD!” shouted Ozick as his last crossbowman neatly put a bolt through the left eye of one of the hired thugs from the party of the doddering old mage across the alley. “Try to heal THAT!” he said to himself.. now sure that he was pitted against a less aggressive wizard, very likely a thaumaturge. Ozick wasn’t a tactician. When he was locked in battle, he didn’t maneuver. He brought everything he had, as fast as he could, against his opponents, and so he was doing now. Squeebles was crouched behind a pillar, making the somatic gestures for The Dart of Bone, the most basic spell a Necromancer can cast. Of course, it was ruined by the dolt being in a crouching position. Ozick strode up to Squeebles, heedless of the two arrows that passed behind him, and hauled Squeebles up by the collar. “Idiot! You can’t fire that spell bent at the waist!”
“Sssssorrrry, Masster! They have archerssss!” mumbled Squeebles, and then his last thief, a Coast bravo whose name he couldn’t pronounce, was at his elbow. “Master..” he said, bowing, and presenting a small amulet. Ozick was no good at reading auras or divining artifacts, but he had seen this kind of thing before. An amulet of protection? Possibly. “Not bad. Was there anything else?” “Coin, a fair amount” the thief replied in heavily accented Common. “A fair job! Take it out of here to the Safe House via the safe route, even if you have to go around for a few blocks. We’ll regroup and do the counting as soon as we are clear of this.” The thief nodded silently, and faded back into the shadows, swiftly getting as far away from the escalating fight as he could. At that moment, Ozick heard the screech and growl of something large and massive moving in his direction, punctuated by the crashing sound of collapsing walls. Ozick looked at Squeebles. “Whatever that is, it’s…. ”
“HUGE!” yelled Minty from across the alley, where he had a clear view at the collapsed fountain in the circle ahead, and several tantalizing objects laying around out in the open. “It’s a huge, damned THING! Likely a demon! And I can hear what I think are Gnolls.. they have that high, yippy kind of language that’s hard to make out!” Fleebus called back. “It would appear that the party is about to be joined by another hopeful! Can you make out what kind of Wizard?” “Not from here, no.. he or she is staying under cover behind the buildings yonder. They are so close together we can’t really track their movement.”
HERE ENDS PART ONE (Stay tuned!)
copyright 2016 Walter O’Hara