The Villains continue sailing north and are ambushed by Tritons, dolphins and water elementals. Eventually they reach the bugbear camp where Shivani sells the Frosthammer crew to Sakkorot Fireaxe wherein which they fight to the death for the amusement of the other bugbears.
Later, Sakkorot invites the party to speak in private where he explains the history of Adrastus Thorn and states what he requires of the party for the coming invasion of the Watch-wall. As this is described, Shivani apparently sows seeds of suspicion into Sakkorots mind and Rythern calls her out on it. In an attempt to prove her guilt, h drinks from the Sakkorot’s goblet which moments ago Shivani poisoned. He takes a ton of Dex damage and Shivani and Rythern are shacked on the ship with Odinkirk, the only man to survive the massacrer of his crew.
‘What is that?!’ a crewman shouted out to sea. He stood on the railing, clinging on to a rigging cable for support as he squinted out across the flickering mirrors of the morning tide. More sailors scrambled to the starboard bow and gazed out to try and confirm the sighting. Vaelus was there too, pulling a man violently from the side and occupying his space for a good view. The light sparkled on the western ocean and gave birth to a bracing morning air of frozen salt. The tide was calm and only an hour before hand, Captain Odinkirk had rejoiced to his first mate that soon they would be approaching the mouth of the river Tiga through which they would head in-land. But all was not calm on deck. A sudden sighting of something breaching the tranquillity of the ocean skin had put everyone on edge. The panting predatory heart of creatures that lurked within the ocean’s flesh would not see such a slow moving and tempting prize as the Frosthammer left unchallenged. Just as some sailors began chastising the man who had made the sighting, a great geyser of water exploded into the air barely fifty feet from their position. It was almost like a whale surfacing, but the crew knew that these were not the waters for whales. Suddenly, a great shape exploded from the water’s surface and somersaulted into the light. Silhouetted in the golden-blue sky was what appeared to be a great dolphin, but the unmistakable shape of a male torso could be clearly distinguished from the great fish-like body before it plunged back into the water.
’It’s a fish man!’ Vaelus shouted in a mixture of warning and horror
‘Guys! Wake up!’ he shouted to his sleeping companions. Shivani, Moruga, Grakas and Rythern were awake and up in moments, desperately clawing at the sleep in their eyes as the light burned at their corneas and sailors began rushing around the deck, most burying themselves amidst the cargo in hiding.
At that moment, another great fountain of water exploded immediately to stern but it did not just spray into the sky. As it left the water, it twisted and funnelled itself and cascaded onto the deck where what could only be described as a rough estimation of a being made entirely of water stood in an aggressive pose before them, its arms open and strong, a leering face sinking and rising in the swirling vortex of the element.
Everyone froze for a few moments before the sound of churning water splashing onto the deck sounded only a few seconds later, more elementals outlining the ship. The Villains were surrounded. As Grakas suddenly began to sprint towards one, Rythern fired a black, oscillating ray towards it. The formless elemental suddenly shifted it’s “body” with astounding agility around the blast and as Grakas lunged, his claw only passed straight through the creatures flank with a splash of water. It seemed totally unconcerned with such a strike and the face only laughed in dark, flowing pools of blackness that rose momentarily to the surface.
The coming battle was brutal. As more Tritons surfaced, they brought to bear heavy crossbows and fired terrifying vollies across the deck, diving beneath the ship when denied a shot and appearing on the other side to prepare for another wave of precision bolt fire. As Rythern sported two painful wounds in his arm and stomach from this, Vaelus roared in frustration as his sword kept passing uselessly through the body of his elemental, the blade carving through the creature’s form so neatly it was little different to just swinging it through the air. Grakas too was struggling to find purchase in the elementals and with each unsuccessful attack, his foes swarmed around him and returned devastating slams, the impact of which were like a war-hammer to the face. But then Grakas began to let fly his fury and it was then he began to find purchase. He plunged his clawed fist straight into the elemental in front of him at chest height and felt resistance. He tore down the length of the body and the elemental suddenly collapsed into a great pool. The devil-born then spun and once again plunged his claw into the next creature at the mid-point.
Moruga had practised striking volumes of water before as part of her initial monk exercises but never before had she expected the water to fight back. She struck and back flipped, she delivered spinning kicks and elbow strikes as she danced and spun and somersaulted over the width of the deck. Even the crashing beings of the most enlightened element found difficulty in matching her grace.
Rythern and Shivani were having a decidedly harder time. As Shivani sent a hastened hand into her belongings, she pulled out a small ceramic bottle and drank the contents. Rythern launched an acidic ray to an elemental that was beginning to bear down on Shivani and it retreated and spasmed slightly at the acid’s touch, giving Shivani just enough time to reveal her ace-in-the-hole. Taking a deep breath her mouth exploded with a great jet of fire which burnt with an unfamiliar presence to these arctic creatures. The elementals “flesh” began to boil and great clouds of steam spewed from it before it collapsed in another pool. But Shivani’s horrifying attack did not go unnoticed and Grakas’ final foe brought round a crashing limb of water which struck like a concrete weight that hit the bard hard around the head, felling her almost instantly.
Rythern’s eyes went wide as Shivani fell as suddenly, yet another crash of water upon the deck and the sorcerer found himself face-to-warped-face with yet another swirling vortex. Was there no end them?! Knowing that he was perhaps her only hope before death claimed her, Rythern stole his breath and launched himself backward away from the elemental. The sudden burst of agility surprised the new arrival and while it swung, it hit only air. As Rythern sprinted to the stern, Grakas had just gutted Shivani’s foe and charged Rythern’s, his head down, his horns bared like a rampaging bull.
The bard lay just beyond Rythern’s reach as she lay slumped in a pile of debris. On pure instinct, the sorcerer summoned forth his newly acquired healing and stretched futilely for Shivani’s broken, bleeding form —and something astounding occurred.
As Rythern stretched out his hand, the charge of the spell crackling in his palm and sparking with arcane authority, a thin line of blood traced around the circumference of his wrist as if a knife was being drawn around the flesh. Just as the wound began to weep tears of blood, twelve thin tendrils quickly emanate from the wound as if escaping from his forearm. The black, almost blue, tendrils which glistened with a thick mucus as they extend past his hand, writhed and twisted like energetic worms. They pulsed and throbbed and as they continued to lengthen, they twisted together to form into a thick black-blue undulating rope. The thick rope-like tentacle quickly extended and, just before contact was made with Shivani, the “rope” frayed very slightly as each small tendril separated a little to form twelve wiggling fingers that burrowed through the vishkanya’s clothing. The touch spell than fired through the freakish, dripping and slightly bloody limb before it detached and was sucked back into Rythern’s arm again in an instant. As Shivani’s wounds took sanctuary in the care of the arcane energies that began to stitch flesh together again, Rythern began to scream as he stared at his arm, his eyes wide at what just happened. His body’s unannounced challenge to nature and reason by summoning forth a limb so vile, so alien, gripped fearfully at the sorcerer’s heart and it was only a crossbow bolt narrowly missing his head that pulled Rythern’s senses back to sanity.
‘Should I get us out of here?’ Odinkirk suddenly asked timidly, poking his head out of his hiding place amongst the other sailors just before a volley of crossbow bolts embedded themselves into the mast.
‘DO IT!’ Vaelus and Rythern screamed together, the half-elf finally plunging his blade into the elemental’s soul as the dhampir launched another acidic ray with a flourish of his hand.
The captain of the Frosthammer then proved why he was in command. With the deck clear save for one elemental he screamed and beat the crew into their posts. He shouted and bellowed and whipped the men into a fearful frenzy as the bolts flew through the air and soon, the Frosthamer began to pick up speed again as it headed into the mouth of the Tiga.
As the ship moved into the river, the Tritons stopped their pursuit and no more elementals attempted to board. As Vaelus plunged his left fist into the final intruder, he felt his fingers grip something strange. Seeing this as a good sign, he began to pull with all his might from the spasming vortex, like a fisherman pulling his catch from the froth. Gradually, as the huntsman’s hand came to light, with it came a dark grey swirling thing that strained as hard as it could against Vaelus’ power. It tugged and pulled against the half-elf’s grip in vain and seemed almost to strike a resemblance to a humanoid like figure as it has half pulled out of its body. The elemental spirit became more desperate as it found itself struggling to breath and when it’s head had completely cleared the surface of the water, Vaelus brought his blade round and swiped off the head of the spirit. Instantly, anything of the elemental Vaelus had been holding disintegrated into a pool of unremarkable water.
With the boarding party repelled, the Frosthammer found a stiff breeze heading inland, filling the welcoming folds of the mainsail and pushing them towards their final destination. The crew expertly saw the ship round iceflows and through rapids and the entire party breathed a collective sigh of relief as they left the sea behind them and headed south-west.
As Vaelus sat down, clenching his arm around his broken ribs, Rythern limped over and offered to cure his ills.
‘Give it to someone else’ he said quietly, waving the sorcerer away
‘Come off it, man’ Rythern said with some compassion ‘You look terrible and while I am no healer at heart, I can at least take the edge off for you.’
‘I don’t need it’ Vaelus said more firmly, this time looking up at Rythern ‘Give it to someone else… and that isn’t a request’
Unwilling to start an argument, the dhampir shrugged his shoulders and tended to Grakas instead.
The countryside offered gorgeous landscapes in the midday sun, the Tiga meandering past forests of aromatic pine and through sweeping hills as they headed toward the Naridian mountains, a great chain which spanned the entire north-east of Talingarde. As they steadily approached, they saw that the river passed through a great and narrow valley, a pass through the rock which created two enormous cliff faces of granite either side of them, as if an enclave of vast giants had smashed apart the mountain to create it.
The captain came to the Villains and informed them they would reach the camp after dark.
‘Best guess would be in around eight hours. I am sure we have passed the danger and some of you look as if you could do with the rest.’
No one really argued and most in fact did settle down under their seal skins. The captain had the initiative to warn the crew that it was not a good idea to disturb these powerful people from their slumber through the usual excessive shouting and song.
True to his prediction, the sun had long set as the Frosthammer began to pull towards the dock just outside the Bugbear camp. By now everyone was relaxed and refreshed, particularly Rythern and Shivani, the casters breathing in their revitalised arcana as it swam through their veins. While the Frosthammer remained quiet as it began to slow, across the dark plain, one could see the orange glow of a thousand torches, camp-fires and bonfires flicker in the darkness beneath the blaze of stars. As one listened past the gentle lapping of water against the side, everyone could hear discordant chatter, roaring and cheering that rolled through the night from the camp. The smell of roasted meat was in the air and none could deny a streak of silent excitement which ran through the party at finally reaching their destination.
There were half-a-dozen bugbears waiting for them on the jetty and as one of the sailors threw a mooring line towards them, the goblinoids did not catch it and merely glared at the new arrivals.
‘We are here to see Sakkorot!’ Odinkirk shouted out. He was met only with suspicious growls and snarls.
Shivani then mounted the side, holding onto a rigging cable for support and assumed an authoritative pose ‘Listen here you idiotic excuses for vermin! We’ve risked our lives to make sure that you can get some half decent equipment. We’ve sailed hundreds of miles to make sure you can do your jobs properly and I am in no mood to be disrespected.’ The bugbears looked up at this woman with a new found sense of nerves at her commanding tone.
‘Oh, so you’re the ones who have brought us weapons?’
’That’s right, and you’re the ones who are going to unload it! So get your butts in gear right now!’
One of the bugbears instantly felt shamed enough to pick up the mooring line that lay on the jetty and tied it off.
‘Go get Sakkorot’ a large bugbear said to his accomplice
If there had been any wondering as to how a single bugbear could amass a force of creatures, who, by their very nature, resisted in assembling in large groups, there was no more doubt as Sakkorot Fireaxe strode onto the dock. The man was enormous, standing almost eight feet tall and covered in short matted brown-black fur like a bear. His large bat like ears were partially torn, his small red eyes burned with an almost demonic light and his mouth was filled with dozens of small, triangular teeth that looked perfect for scissoring through thick muscle. He was suited in black studded vambraces and greaves and wore a dented steel breastplate across his massive chest which sported a faded emblem of a flaming axe.
‘Who sent you?’ Sakkorot growled, looking at each Villain suspiciously ‘Was it Thorn?’
‘We are the trusted servants of Cardinal Adrastas Thorn, yes’ Shivani jumped down from the ship and onto the dock. She stood confidently on the jetty as Sakkorot stepped closer towards her, his size truly terrifying as he placed his enormous hands on his hips as he studied the little woman before him.
‘I expected you to have arrived sooner’ the chieftain growled menacingly
‘We thought the coast was too dull and needed some colour in the water, the trail of bodies we’ve left should brighten things up a bit.’
There was a pause before Sakkorot’s apparently mean and suspicious nature dispelled completely. He began to laugh and his lips broke out into a great smile as he clapped a hand on Shivani’s shoulder, the force of which caused her knees to buckle. He climbed aboard the Frosthammer (the ship dipping dangerously towards the new weight) and made for the large collection of crates in the centre. The bugbear ignored the crowbar that was offered to him by one of the sailors and simply tore off the lid of the nearest crate. Inside, the gleam of metal shone in his darkvision and he picked up a large and impressive looking double-headed battleaxe. He held it in both hands for a moment, examining it closely with a frown before running a blade across his palm where it left a thin line of blood. He suddenly smiled again. He lifted the axe high in the air and addressed the large retinue of bugbears that had collected on the shore.
‘They bring us STEEL!’ he roared in delight and a great bestial cheer rose up from the crowd. Sakkorot tossed the axe back into the crate and jumped from the ship back onto the dock, the boards underfoot cracking loudly as the bugbear chieftain’s weight impacted.
‘Friends’ he turned to the party, you have my utmost thanks. For your actions, you will be our honoured guests this night. We will feast and sing great songs of the coming battle.’
‘Thank you, Sakkorot, you are truly a generous leader’ Shivani bowed ‘and as tribute to your greatness, we offer you these brave sailors as slaves.’
Everyone but Moruga (who could not speak common) looked at Shivani in shock as she said this. The crew of the Frosthammer, who were in the process of reefing the mainsail, suddenly froze in their actions.
‘Thank you’ Sakkorot smiled ‘I see your fighting skill and wisdom is matched only by your generosity. But I would advise you not give us all of them, no doubt you will still need a crew for your ship.’
‘Perhaps they can provide entertainment for us then?’ Shivani offered
‘Ah, an excellent idea! Men, take these humans and shackle them, no doubt they shall prove amusing.’ Turning back to the Villains, he said: ‘Come my friends, tonight we celebrate! Tonight we usher in our victory, we will storm the watch-wall!’ and as the cheering rolled over them, six bugbears stormed the Frosthammer and gathered the sailors together like chickens. Even Odinkirk was shackled and dragged away with his men through the guffawing of the bugbears and the sailor’s curses.
The camp was huge, built at the shore of the northern internal sea, it stretched on for miles. With bugbears being naturally disinclined towards large groups, the camp was largely split into multiple isolated pockets determined by individual tribe. Each tribe harboured a distrust to the ones that adjoined it and so small clusters were created for each tribe to move around in, each cluster having its own territory. If at any point one would venture into another tribe’s territory, the resulting feud would be dealt with swiftly amongst these who were without question the most malicious of all goblinoids. The bugbear does not kill to revel in the slaughter as an orc does, he kills to wound the victim’s kin, to harm those who would feel the loss most. For Sakkorot Fireaxe to unify them beneath a single banner was nothing less that an astounding feat.
Roaring fires blazed throughout the camp and songs of battle, of war, of slaughter and pain delivered rang out as the Villains followed Sakkorot. Wherever the Villains went, pale, milky eyes followed them as well as disgusted snarls at the presence of the outsiders. Amongst the Bugbear number, the occasional goblin sat chewing on a piece of meat or sharpening his blade, polar bears could be seen resting in the darkness away from the warmth of the fires and upon the outskirts of the camp, the silhouettes of hill giants could be seen lumbering through the night, restless and on edge. Yet this was only the bulk of the population, there were stranger and more exotic forms of evil that lurked away from the bugbear territories, eager to join in the slaying of so many people when the time came.
After twenty minutes, their host led the party towards a crackling bonfire, the banners that floated in the breeze denoting the same flaming axe that was Sakkorot’s breastplate.
The feast was brutal. Upon the Chieftain’s command a massive shaggy dire boar, the size of a cart horse, was carried forward, squealing and straining at its bonds as it was brought before the Great Fireaxe. Sakkorot rose to his feet and gleefully pulled out an gigantic axe, the emblem of his family house. He raised it high, uttered an activation word and as the axe blade exploded into a sheet of scorching fire, he brought it down and severed the two thousand pound animal’s head in a single strike. The bestial roars of triumph and applause were stirring and as the boar was placed on a spit (probably once a small tree from it’s size) the sound of drums began to sound. There was dancing, singing and tests of strength and endurance as the meat roasted. There were jokes, stories and wine was consumed by the barrel. Once it was ready the goblinoids tore the meat with their bare hands and teeth. Utterly appalled at the barbarism he saw around him, Rythern disappeared for a few minutes and managed to find a hobgoblin who was willing to sell Rythern a pewter plate for a few silver pieces. When he returned, Rythern sat in silence, slowly picking his meat with distaste which sat upon the only plate there as he stared darkly into the fire.
After most were sated, Sakkorot summoned the crew of the Frosthammer before him and Shivani proposed the rules of the entertainment: a single handaxe would be placed into the middle of the space. The last man alive was permitted to keep his life.
Immediately, all previous bonds of friendship and fraternity that had existed from years of service together were dispelled. The men all dove for the weapon, punching, biting and kicking like savages rather than civilized men. All but one man waded into the fray. The captain stood back from the others, watching the blade claim dear friends. As the crowd began to thin, Odinkirk moved in like a predator. Within the fray, he stayed away from the axe and instead incapacitated people. He broke legs, damaged spines and delivered plenty of swift kicks to the groin, allowing the axeman to finish these in his adrenalin-soaked frenzy. Eventually there were only two men left: the captain and his first-mate. The friends stared at each other and saw the axe that laid in the twitching hands of its dead owner. This single, drooling item was the most important thing to exist now, the blood upon the haft and steel washing any other relationship that might have existed away
‘You will not win, Egthowe’ the captain stated softly. The first mate’s face hardened in defiance. Suddenly, both men sprinted towards the weapon. They both dove for it and scrambled over the piles of bleeding dead so that they could kill each other. Egthowe claimed it first and delivered a sharp kick to his captain’s face before scrambling to his feet, brandishing the axe in both hands with a leering grin. With a winded battle-cry, he charged forwards towards the waiting Odinkirk. With speed comparable to Moruga, the captain dodged the blow and stuck his leg out. Egthowe went flying, catapulted into the cheering crowd and straight into a bugbear. As gales of laughter rang across the spectators of this most despicable of sports, Egthowe was bodily lifted off the ground by two more bugbears and practically thrown back into the ring. The man screamed, half in another bloodthirsty battle-cry as he barrelled towards his former captain, half out of panic as he desperately tried to convince his feet to catch up with his momentum. Egthowe had been thrown with such force that he was a slave to the whim of his inertia and Odinkirk briefly smiled to himself as his opponent came streaking uncontrollably towards him. With barely any apparent effort, he stepped aside slightly and swept Egthowe’s stumbling feet away. The first mate arched into the air like a stone launched at a clear lake before crashing face-first into the frozen earth. He lay there for a while, blood collecting in his mouth, his teeth feeling loose yet strangely quiet in the cold numbness that enclosed around him. He felt dizzy, he commanded his body to get up but now it lay at rest, his muscles rejected his commands. His strength spent from fighting the once strong, dauntless crew of the Frosthammer, the men whom he had served with for decades and which now lay broken and smashed into lifelessness, the efforts he had gone to now to dispatch them had only worked against his chances of survival. As the sensation of pain began to rise into his face through a scorching heat that radiated throughout his broken form, the slow and steady sound of footsteps began to caress his ears. With each agonising beat of his heart, another footfall drew its master closer. A rough, work-scarred hand easily pried the axe from Egthowe’s fingers. The first mate tried to stand, tried to pull his weight onto his aching arms.
‘I told you that you wouldn’t win, old friend’ the whisper was so soft, so gentle, almost compassionate, almost apologetic. Odinkrik bent to a single knee over his “enemy”, raised the blade high over his head so that it could gleam in the firelight and brought it down onto Egthowe’s neck. Again, came another strike, and another and another. Blood spattered thickly in the air as Odinkirk chopped at his oldest friend’s neck as if he were slicing beef with a cleaver. Odinkirk demanded his foe’s head and it took eight powerful blows to claim it. He stood and raised the head up on high and roared at the cheering crowd as they roared their approval in return.
And throughout all of this, with every dirty punch, every savage kick, every barbaric bite and with every spatter of blood and every cry of agony, there was Shivani, her features betraying an ever increasing jubilation of excitement, her eyes feasting on the sights and events she had propelled into motion. She did not hide her joy, nor could she, such was the sheer obliterating exultation of the crowd that she found her composure swept away and for that brief few minutes, she revealed herself as a truly devious manipulator of man in the service of Asmodeus.
Sakkorot stood up from his place and addressed the victor as he began to descend from his euphoric, adrenalin-soaked height and wipe the blood from his face.
‘Eat and enjoy your victory, for tomorrow you will ferry my friends to their own successes!’
As the captain wandered away towards the piles of pre-cut pork, Rythern leant towards Shivani who sat close by.
‘You realise that, thanks to you, we’re going to have to sail the ship, right?’
Shivani did not turn or even acknowledge the comment, as if she did not even hear it.
‘Just so long as you know that you’re doing most of the work’ Rythern grumbled before returning to his personal displeasure.
Within the next hour that passed and after a dozen barrels of ale had been decimated amongst the clan, Sakkorot stood up and spoke to the party again:
‘Come my friends’ he slurred very slightly ‘let us speak in private.’
As they followed the chieftain away from the other bugbears, one could see the distant sight of Odinkirk, now captain over no-one, thrown over the shoulder of a bugbear and being carried back towards the Frosthammer, the glint of the manacles binding his wrists again unmistakable in the firelight.
As they walked, Sakkorot’s stride grew steadier as his head fought against the ale. He continued to thank the party again for the shipment until he was confident he was out of ear-shot from his kin. Looking round for a few moments, he spoke in a deeper, sobering tone as they walked.
‘These are not my men’ he said more quietly this time so that only the party could hear him ‘I have promised to unite them under Asmodeus but I do not trust them for they probably will kill me. But if that were to happen, I would simply kill them first. I am the only member of the Knot in this place’ With that he suddenly stopped and proudly loosed the straps that held his breastplate together and removed it to reveal a scarred etching of an Asmodean pentagram carved into his chest.
I serve Asmodeus just as you all do and Thorn’s ambitions serve the great Devil well.’
He led them to a large oval marquee tent made of stained red canvas, so large in fact that the seven foot gobinoid didn’t have to dip his head as he walked in. Inside, the area was spacious, almost lavishly furnished (by Bugbear standards at least) with one or two chairs, a long table, a large wooden merchant chest and the occasional set of fingers framed behind glass as a cheerful reminder of the bugbear’s bloody past. Half a dozen candles had burnt to the half way point around the space and their flames flickered in greeting to the party.
The great chieftain sat heavily in a grand oak chair which groaned in familiarity of Sakkorot tremendous size and he reached round behind the chair and pulled out two bottles of fine red wine. He uncorked both bottles and set one down, tucking it just beneath his chair, the left back leg sheltering it slightly in shadow. He reached to grab a small side table and dragged it into position by his side as he set the other bottle there before getting up and rummaging around in the large merchant chest. He came out with five tankards and a large copper goblet encrusted with glass imitation gems and offered each of the Villains a tankard. Only Rythern refused, to which Sakkorot merely shrugged as he tossed it back into the chest. He poured the wine gleefully for the Villains before filling his goblet half way. The bottle stood mostly depleted as it returned to the small side table on the chieftain’s left hand.
He raised his vessel and toasted, ensuring that everyone seemed comfortable enough as they found places to sit as he watched all but Rythern appreciate the wine.
‘Enjoy your drinks, my friends, for you have my thanks, but tell me, now that you are traitors of your own kind, what brought you to such an act?’
Rythern lifted his eyes to the bugbear and allowed them to glint excitedly in the light, as if a great and powerful question had just been asked to which he, Rythern, had prepared his entire life to answer now.
‘For one to betray their kind, there has to be loyalty in the first place. No, make no mistake, oh, great Fireaxe that we were not the ones who drew the first blood. We harbour no trust, no love no loyalty for Talingarde or for the hateful Mitra.’ With that, Rythern suddenly drew up his sleeve revealing an example of the runic “F” which each of the Villains sported.
‘We are the Forsaken of Talingarde. We have been dubbed flotsam and wastrels, they call us despicable and filth-filled. Blasphemers, murderers and seditionists they label us. Well, I say they are the blasphemers! Those who spit upon the glorious visage of the Under-Father Below, who crane their heads upward so they can be blinded by the sun. They are the ones who have betrayed us, Sakkorot! They are the ones who pass judgement on the so called “savage species”, who segregate and discriminate against those who worship the one true god of Talingarde as they themselves build spires into the sky so that they can pretend to be close to their landfill of a deity. We did not strike the first blow. It was not us who arrested free citizens, nor was it we who fixed the court’s decision as to the determination of our innocence. It was not us who threw blameless people into prison, nor was it us who needlessly tortured people and sentenced them to be either beheaded or burned at the stake! But I will tell you this…’ his face was ablaze with passion now, anger and pleasure blended together in a heinous harmony ‘It was us who escaped our chains, it was us who rampaged through the prison and smote its burning ruin into the sea. It was us who found favour with our Master, his Grace Cardinal Thorn. Further, it will be us who will move upon the face of Talingarde. Our master has judged it unworthy and it will fall to us to raze it to its foundations. We will be the ones to wield the Under-Father’s hell-fire, we will be the ones who will look on in the Infernal glow and see the vermin of the world scuttle away into the gloom of their own pitiable faith. They will call to Mitra yet he will not answer them. Why should he when he does not love his worshippers? Mitra is a hedonist and will suffer for that arrogance!
Men, women, children; killing them is only a means, it is only the beginning of our work, like a carpenter hammering nails. The edifice we seek to construct is one which will be built upon the mountain of unborn dead, the blood of all those who denied the Father-Below will adorn the walls like paint. We seek the complete obliteration of all that exists upon the Plane! A great tide will scour the universe clean and while the truly guilty and those who deserve to be punished are used to stoke and fuel the flames of Mitra’s own sacrificial pyre, those who are simply unworthy in the sight of Asmodeus will be gradually erased through their inability to withstand the new world’s purity. Then, and only then will the world start to move in the right direction. It’ll be a new world, populated with those that have been judged to be honest, kind and hard-working. There will be no more injustice, no discrimination, no genetic weakness of any kind. And we… we will be the emissaries to the god of this new world! We will stand at the right hand of Asmodeus and he will grant us dominion over Talingarde for our faith! We do this for Love, we do this for the sake of Honour and we do this for the sake of Justice!’
The room remained silent in the echo of Rythern’s proclamations. Everyone stood in various degrees of surprise that this had simply tumbled forth from the sorcerer.
Vaelus cleared his throat to add: ‘Some of us are bloodthirsty, he’s just crazy.’
The heavy veil of Rythern’s ministrations was dispersed instantly as Sakkorot began to chuckle. Smiling into his great goblet, we took another great swig before reaching for the bottle again and refilling.
‘Tell me’ said he ‘What do you know of Thorn?’
‘He is our master’ Rythern instantly stated, as if nothing else could have been simpler to answer ‘He is our master and there is nothing else for us to know. We are his servants.’ There was a note of absolutism in this final element, as if Rythern wanted to remind the group of this, blatantly nailing their collective colours to the proverbial mast.
‘Did you know that he is a Lich?’ Sakkorot tried to sound casual as he took another gulp of wine. The Villains were silent, apparently dumb-founded at this revelation.
‘Did you know he was a priest of Mitra known as Samuel of Havalin, do you know his story of how he became Thorn?’ The question was clearly rhetorical and most seemed hungry for the story.
Sakkorot relaxed his goblet arm slightly against his thigh and leant forward in his great oak chair, the wood groaning very slightly once again. The great bugbear’s eyes gleamed in memory and a small smile played across his lips, revealing the shine of pointed, triangular teeth.
‘This plot against Talingarde was born in the mind of that one surviving high priest. Samuel of Havelyn always stood in the shadow of his brother Thomas. Born into a noble house, Samuel was the second son of Lord Richard Havelyn and at an early age was given to the clergy of the great god Mitra. He showed amazing promise and proved a brilliant scholar. In time, he would become a great man of the church and was elevated to the rank of High Priest at an usually young age. None of these sedentary deeds impressed his father. Lord Richard always viewed his second son as a layabout, inferior to the knight and commander that his first son Thomas had become. Samuel resented the old man but took solace in his scholarly pursuits and his firm faith. Samuel’s life seemed destined for quiet contemplation and distance from his family. Then Samuel met Bronwyn. Bronwyn of Balentyne was perhaps the greatest beauty of her generation. Samuel fell deeply in love almost instantly and, using all his wit and charm, befriended her. His hope was that with time he could turn friendship into love. And who can say — perhaps, he might have. But fate would not have it so. Instead, the High Priest Samuel brought Bronwyn to a family gathering to introduce her to his kin. There Bronwyn met the handsome knight Thomas and love had its way. Their love was fast, deep, true — the stuff of fairy tale and legend. Samuel was unable to feel happiness for his brother and instead burned with fury and jealousy. This was a personal betrayal of the highest order. Thomas had stolen Samuel’s beloved! When Samuel confronted his father and demanded that Lord Richard speak to Thomas, the old man only laughed. “What would you have me do, boy?” the old man rasped. “Tell Tom to avoid the most beautiful girl who ever loved him?” Samuel was devastated. As he watched the love between Thomas and Bronwyn blossom, devastation festered into hatred and rage.’
Sakkorot paused and took another draught from his goblet. Everyone looked on with rapt attention, eager for him to continue… all that is except Shivani. As the Bugbear chieftain drank, the bard, who at this point was sitting slightly away from the others out of the direct candlelight and close to the small table in which the wine bottle stood, stealthfully flicked her wrist in an arcane motion and bore up a very small vial she had let fall from her coat when she had sat down. It looked entirely unremarkable for it was barely the span of a gold piece and contained only a single drop of blood. Such a small thing was quite unnoticeable given the bits of natural debris that had been trampled in from outside. Telekinetically, the vial drifted through the shadows as if caught in an updraught and quickly and neatly deposited its content through the neck of the second open bottle. The motion was so quick and so natural that no one had noticed it… except for the cunning and weary eye of the dhampir. Rythern narrowed his eyes at Shivani but said nothing as Sakkorot continued.
‘Upon Thomas and Bronwyn’s wedding night, Samuel called upon Asmodeus for the first time. He invoked the powers of the inferno to curse the young newly-weds. The curse would claim the life of Bronwyn, causing her to die in child birth. Still her child survived and was named for his grandfather, who had died the year he was born –Richard Thomasson of Havelyn. This young boy would grow to be a great paladin and will become our band of villains’ greatest nemesis. As for Samuel, his first use of infernal power would not be his last. He diligently pursued the study of the infernal to increase his personal might. He collected a great library of banned and blasphemous books. Even as he did this, he rose to become one of the princes of the Mitran faith — a Cardinal. But in time he was discovered for what he truly had become — a cultist of the Lord of Hell.’
sakkorot reached for a new wine bottle and filled his goblet generously. Evidently the leaf had completely dissolved in the alcohol for the bugbear apparently noticed nothing.
‘During the Asmodean purges, Samuel was captured, tried, condemned, branded and burned at the stake with his library heaped at his feet. His name was forever stricken from the roles of the church and his family. For any normal man, this burning would have been fatal. But Samuel, thanks to infernal pacts and the resistance to fire they granted, survived the pyre. Barely alive, this once great man of the cloth crawled naked and scarred from an unmarked pauper’s grave into a sacred mausoleum. Cold and alone, the burned husk invoked a great and terrible prayer to the Prince of Hell. He whispered to the darkness promises of fire, death and retribution upon Talingarde, and the darkness heeded. He was reborn that night merciless and immortal – a lich. He kept his rank calling himself a Cardinal but took the name Adrastus Thorn. He would have his vengeance.’
‘Impressive resolve’ Grakas said quietly, nodding in approval
‘But he has proven himself to be one who aspires for treachery, striking out against those he holds little value for’ Shivani said quietly
‘True’ Sakkorot agreed ‘I am not entirely sure I blame him’
’That’s understandable’ Shivani said a little louder ‘after all you yourself have admitted you do not trust your fellow bugbears here. If I were in your position, I wouldn’t be particularly trusting of a lich. He has shown a penchant for recruitment as well as a tendency to dispose of anyone he no longer finds valuable’
‘What are you saying?’ Sakkorot looked quizzically at the bard, downing what remained in his cup and already filling his goblet with the new bottle that lay in the shadows besides his chair.
‘I am saying’ Shivani said, rising to her feet and holding the bugbears great arm to prevent him from taking another sip ‘that in these uncertain times, when you are surrounded by people you do not trust, if I were you I would hesitate before so readily trusting a fresh bottle of wine.’
‘Shivani, you truly are scum.’ Rythern said, his voice filled with the appalled anger that coursed through his body as he began to glimpse the bards plan. ‘Do you really think this… childish ploy has any chance to succeed? Did you really seek to betray the master so readily?’
‘You see!’ Shivani stated triumphantly ‘it is as I said, Thorn’s puppet already begins to shift blame away from his “master” so you will not suspect the truth.’
The others looked from one to the other, confused as to what was happening
‘Very well, I can prove you are a traitor.’ Rythern said stiffly, rising to his own feet ‘I can prove that you just poisoned that wine and that you infest this space with lies. Do I have your permission to do so, great Fireaxe?’
Sakkorot looked suspiciously at his goblet, the wine showing no outward sign of treachery.
‘By all means’ he consented
Rythern opened his arms, raised his face to the canvas and spoke in a loud, confident voice.
‘Oh, great Infernal Master, oh Imminent power of the Ninth, your gaze sees and bares witness to all that occurs. You see through mists of time, death, space and reality and you have bared witness to the treachery that has occurred here tonight, treachery against your designs. Oh, Infernal Master, deliver us a sign of your displeasure, let those who serve you faithfully enact your justice this night!’
There was another brief silence as people looked around, half expecting something to happen.
Sakkorot began to laugh ‘I can’t believe you’re trying to address the unholy one!’
’Didn’t I tell you?’ Shivani whispered ‘He is trying to divert blame. You know, oh wise and worthy Sakkorot that there is only one way to test the validity of your drink.’
‘Indeed’ Sakkorot suddenly frowned ‘If the mouth piece of Thorn wishes to provide real proof that his master is worthy of my loyalty, then by all means, drink.’
Rythern took the goblet that was offered to him without ever taking his eyes off Shivani. They were narrowed, hard as steel and as piercing as a blade.
‘I will do this, Shivani despite my knowledge of what you have done to this drink. I will take it but I know that Asmodeus will never let me come to harm this way. My heart is faithful, my soul resolved. He will not allow my flesh to succumb to such dark deceit…’
‘He stalls for time’ Shivani audibly whispered to Sakkorot ‘He seeks to delay’
‘Shut up, woman!’ Rythern was more annoyed at being interrupted than the bards continued pandering to the suspicions she had planted within Sakkorot. He held the goblet before him in both hands to support its enlarged size and began to pray
‘Oh dear Asmodeus, protect now your servant as he…’
’He’s still not drinking it…’ Shivani almost sang, her voice playfully teasing at the sorcerers frayed patience.
‘FINE!’ Rythern roared ‘Here is your proof!’ and with that he drank the goblet in four large swallows. He threw the empty vessel aside, a little dizzy at first from imbibing so much alcohol at once but then the dizziness began to worsen. Suddenly, Rythen collapsed heavily to the floor and his entire body began to spasm with violent tremors. Apparently having some sort of fit, Moruga bent low and tried to think of a way to counteract the agent, but it was too late, the poison was already coursing through Rythern’s muscles. He let out a cry of pain as his entire body convulsed horribly. Finally, after half a minute, the tremors stopped and Rythern lay on the floor, breathing hard and sweating profusely.
‘I have seen enough!’ Sakkorot stated authoritatively ‘Guards! Take both of them away and lock them in irons. They shall sleep aboard their ship tonight. I do not care who is the traitor but they will not share in my generosity any further!’
‘Asmodeus will not let this injustice hold for long! You will suffer for this Shivani, I swear you will suffer for this! Praise be to Asmodeus, may his might be felt across all that exists!’ Rythern began to shout.
Almost instantaneously, two bugbear guards in full mail rushed in grabbing Shivani and picking the limp, unresisting form of Rythern from the floor who seemed incapable of walking but all too conscious of it.
‘Shivani, I will make certain that you are sent to Asmodeus himself to explain your treachery! He will feed you to his servants in a banquet reserved for the devouring of treacherous souls!’
‘And gag the loud one!’ Sakkorot shouted after them.
As the bard and sorcerer had a set of large manacles locked around their wrists (and Rythern had a wad of oily cloth stuffed into his mouth) and carried roughly back towards the Frosthammer, Sakkorot sat back down in his chair, once again at ease now that the two “chattiest” people in the group had been removed. He breathed in the silence for a few moments before he revealed his intended plan of action for the fall of the Watch-wall.
In short, he needed the Villains to infiltrate tower Balentyne and weaken its defences, allowing his troops free passage past the main gate. Once the way had been cleared, they were to alert him with the firing of a red rocket.
‘But be warned’ Sakkorot said grimly ‘The Hoard is fickle and I can only exert a limited amount of control over it. I sense that the ties that bind it will begin to degrade sometime within the week. If you have not softened the wall for us by the end of the month, I feel certain that the Hoard will have fractured into in-fighting and disperse. They need the taste of man-flesh to be sated, and they will have blood whether you can provide it or not.’
While the air was cold outside, the fires burned bright in the camp as the party settled down for the night not far from the Frosthammer. While the others slept beneath woollen blankets and upon flea covered matting, three lonely figures shivered beneath the stars as the Frosthammer bobbed gently on the water, the figures only warmed and comforted by their insidious plans for the near and distant future.