Battle Among the Hill Ruins

This tale follows from the events of Tracks on a Moonless Night.


Image by Iwona Olczyk from Pixabay

Background

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue have been in the region around Blackwater Lake for months now, searching for Sir Garrett’s lost ancestral estate, named Falconridge, which once lay somewhere near the shores of the lake. After several adventures and misadventures, the Winchester party is now split into several groups.  Several members of the retinue are down south in the bustling city of Yarrvik, while others remain at Blackwater Keep or the nearby village of Lakesend. One remained near the ruined Temple of Pholtus, which the party recently explored. The rest of the Winchesters and their new unlikely allies, about two-dozen pilgrims of Pholtus, were to advance on the abandoned temple in force.  The Winchesters were to serve as an advanced guard that would lie in wait, hoping to flank the evil forces that would certainly attack the pilgrims of Pholtus, who formed the main body.  However, this plan derailed when dozens of strange, robed men ambushed the Winchesters in their forest camp at night, dragging off Master Gimlet and an allied man-at-arms named Brother Marcel.

After the battle, the Winchesters regrouped. Garrett sent three of his companions with all the horses toward the temple, where they hoped to meet up with the pilgrims. Meanwhile, Garrett, Alinachka, Brother Rolf, Ragnar, and Brother Carloman spent an hour plowing through the forest at night, following the enemy’s tracks and searching for their missing comrades. A small band of dark-robed figures ambushed this small group at a steep ravine, killing Brother Carloman and wounding several others. Several cultists slipped away during the fighting. Frustrated, the Winchesters continue the pursuit.

From the DM

I waffled on whether or not to lead the PCs to one of the villains’ lairs, where conversions are typically done. I decided that this would push them too far off course so instead I allowed the party to catch up to the captors and to rescue their companions. If the party is astute, they’ll realize that the fast-moving villains had ample time to escape. Just what did they do to the captives, and why did they allow the captives to be rescued? Next session, the PCs may be in for a surprise.

Cast of Characters

Sir Garrett of Winchester: Paladin, Head of House Winchester
Lady Alinachka: Magic-user, Garrett’s widowed sister-in-law
Booj: Alinachka’s faithful hound (a Frangian shepherd)
Brother Rolf: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, Garrett’s younger brother
Odo: Fighter, Garrett’s friend, ward of the Winchester family
Master Gimlet: Fighter, dwarven friend to Sir Garrett (missing)
Ragnar Fjordbottom: Ranger, ally of Sir Garrett
Brother Marcel: Fighter, brother of St. Cuthbert (missing)

Narrative

Tenth Moon, Day 32

Breathing heavily, Rolf plodded through the forest wilderness, using his shield and mace to push aside snow-laden pine branches. The gloom of the night was overwhelming. Disgruntled, he peered upwards, looking for the larger moon, Arcanus. Being only a sliver in the night sky, it gave off little to no light, and he could not locate it. Peering behind him, he sought the smaller and dimmer moon, Entropa. Through the gnarled branches, he could see that this moon was full. It illuminated little, however, for a shroud of thick clouds floated lazily overhead, allowing only occasional glimpses. Moreover, the thick canopy of trees blocked whatever scant light penetrated the cloud cover. Only the snow-dusted ground provided contrast to the blackness all around the young priest. Indeed, the whiteness of the snow, when viewed in such darkness, seemed strangely luminescent. Rolf could see little, but he followed the tracks and the sounds of his companions in front of him. The chill air burned his lungs a bit, and his hands were still stinging with cold. “I almost wish that they would just go numb,” he muttered aloud to himself “though with my luck they would blacken and fall off.”
Rolf slipped on a patch of mud and ice, nearly landing on his back. He caught himself before he fell, but it did little to improve his mood. Losing his patience, he now argued aloud with himself.

“’Give me your blessing, good brother,’ they’ll ask. Alas, I cannot, for my fingers fell off in a god-forsaken forest,” he spat with disgust.
Out in front of the group, Ragnar saw that the sloppy tracks in the snow made a sharp left and ran uphill through the trees. How many are they? he wondered to himself. His mind continued to churn: Several, no doubt, but how many? Too confusing to tell. Four or five, maybe, but I cannot be sure. Damn!

He pushed on for a few hundred feet, through thick stands of pine and ash, until he reached a clearing near the top of the rocky hill. He stopped short when the tracks ran up a steep rise, leading to a few giant slabs of stone that lay in a cluster at the top of the hill. To Ragnar, they appeared to be discarded building blocks left by some long-forgotten gods. Each slab was somewhat flat, but each was as wide as a barn and twice as tall as a man. Some jutted crudely over the top of the ones beneath. Much of the cluster was devoid of trees, and occasionally the light of the lesser moon broke through the pall of clouds, somewhat illuminating the area.

Next to a large elm, Ragnar squatted in the snow, peering upwards at the hilltop and looking for movement. He spotted none. In some places the rock face of the slabs was sheer, rising about 15 feet. Yet in the center, between two slabs, a snow-dusted slope of earth might allow one to climb to the top of the lower slabs. The tracks that they had been following seemed to run right up that slope. Yet it was not the slope or the giant slabs that caught the ranger’s attention.

Ragnar noticed that between the trees and behind several snow-covered bushes lay the crumbling foundations of some old stone structure. They sat off to his right, at the foot of the rock face. After casting a wary eye up at the slabs again, he slowly approached the hidden ruins. He gripped the flaming dwarven blade tightly as he crept through the snow, his eyes darting about, cautiously searching the shadows.

The foundations were made of old fieldstones—large, moss-covered, and currently dusted with snow. The workmanship was crude, or perhaps the passage of time had eroded once-smooth faces. In any case, the structures must have crumbled long ago. The highest parts rose only a few feet off the ground. He gazed again at the slabs atop the hill, wondering if they were connected somehow to the ruins. He crept quietly around trees and bushes, checking for hidden foes, but he found none. Breathing a sigh of relief, he lowered the ancient blade, which still flamed quietly in the darkness.

The sharp screech of an owl echoed suddenly through the night. Ragnar’s eyes shot back and forth, scanning the top of the slabs for movement. Ambush? he wondered, or a real owl? After a few seconds of silence, it rang out again, and this time the ranger noticed that it was far off to their left. Nothing to worry about, he concluded as he exhaled. Still, he did not trust the ominous, primeval slabs on the hilltop above.

A few minutes later, Garrett, Alinachka, Booj, and Rolf pushed through the trees and joined the Varangian ranger. In hushed tones and with few words, he shared what he saw.

“What are those?” asked the priest, pointing with his flanged mace toward the ruined foundations to the right.

“Not sure,” replied Ragnar. “I see no one there at the moment though,” he continued.

“Congratulations, brother,” laughed the cleric, turning to Lord Winchester. With a wave of his mace, he said, “We have found Falconridge, our ancestral home. Is it all that you expected?”

Ignoring his brother, Sir Garrett raised his visor and looked about. Breathing heavily, he asked aloud, “What is this place? What was here?”

Ragnar simply shrugged, while Rolf stared in silence at the crumbling ruins.

“Giants once walked these lands,” whispered Alinachka, holding aloft her lantern to shed more light on the moss-covered stonework. Leaning on her staff, she added, “Scholars say that, a dozen centuries ago, they made great stone castles throughout this region. This could be all that remains of one such place. If those slabs atop the hill were part of the construction, then this was surely no human site.”

Looking agape at the slabs, Rolf muttered, “By the Saint… How big would you have to be to lift those?”

Alinachka continued, “Some of the giants supposedly wielded great magic and became kings among their kind. The greatest learned to build castles on the very clouds. Of course, some say that these are just children’s tales.”

“If the stories are true, where did they go? Are they still around?” asked the priest.

Impatient at the delay, his green eyes flashing, Ragnar interrupted, saying, “Fascinating story for later, but we need to find Gimlet and the sergeant. The tracks lead up that slope, but I have a bad feeling here.”

As they took in the surroundings, the hairs of the back of Garrett’s neck suddenly stood up, and his chest tightened. Alarmed, Lord Winchester closed his eyes and stretched out his right hand, breathing deeply and trying to calm his mind. His clenched fists eventually relaxed, and he slowed his breathing. After a moment of tense silence, the Frangian knight felt an eerie sensation wash over him. He felt a touch of sinister malice, a feeling that often marked the presence of evil, but mingled with it was a queer and powerful sense of foreignness or incongruity that he could not understand, let alone explain. He had difficulty discerning its meaning, but it was clearly no good. Lowering his hand, he muttered aloud, “Be on your guard here.” Without a word, Ragnar returned the flaming dwarven blade to the knight.

Just then, Booj, his long ears pulled back, began growling at something atop the hill. Bow in hand, Ragnar nocked an arrow and drew back the string, shifting his aim left and right, scanning for threats in the gloom. “I cannot see,” he barked sharply. Dropping to his knees in the hopes that his targets would be silhouetted against the sky—an old habit—he saw nothing, as the sky was too dark to highlight anything. Alinachka, her voluminous gray robes swishing as she ran, hustled forward with her lantern, trying to shed more light for the others. As she thrust her arm forward with the lantern, warm golden light bathed the edge of the rock slabs, giving crispness to what had been only a blurry image. Yet there were no foes in view.

Booj continued to growl, and Rolf gripped his mace tightly in his cold hands. Next to him, Lord Ragnar suddenly pointed up to the slabs, uttering harshly, “There!” All eyes followed his finger.

Brother Rolf’s eyes finally spotted a few humanoid figures atop the large slabs, near the center, at the top of the snow-dusted slope. His mind raced: Two of them… no, three. The figures hardly moved, and after a few seconds, the cleric whispered loudly, “They seem to await us! What do they want?”

“Nothing good,” replied the ranger flatly, as he shifted his aim toward the lurking figures. Looking sideways at Alinachka, he whispered harshly, “You make yourself a target with that lantern! Get to cover!”

Rolf waited anxiously, unsure of what to do. His eyes went to his older brother, who looked about calmly to get the lay of the land.
Alkinachka suddenly set her lantern on the ground and rushed to a nearby tree, whistling quietly to Booj as she did so. The initial movement of the lantern caused the shadows on the hillside to dance crazily for a moment, but in seconds, Alinachka was behind cover, grasping her strange, silver-topped, reliquary staff in both hands. She muttered something under her breath, and the hound obediently sat in the snow, though it still looked intently up at the hilltop.

Rolf’s attention waffled back and forth between Alinachka and his brother. Garrett turned to him and said softly, “Be ready to follow me. Stay close.”

Just then, Rolf saw Alinachka’s arms moving fluidly, and she continued muttering words that he could not make out. Making him a hell hound again, the priest thought to himself, for he had seen this before. The hound was terrifying when she caused it to grow in size, and Rolf was certain that it became more feral. Just then, his jaw dropped when he saw the hound appear to shrink in the shadows. At first, he thought it clearly a trick of the light, for the gloom was oppressive. The dog’s whimper, however, assured him that something had gone very wrong.

Rolf then sprang into action, stepping forward and calling aloud in the deepest voice that he could muster, “Woe to thee, O wicked and deceitful ones, for it is written that the Day of Reckoning approaches, when the Almighty shall strike thee down as with a hammer! Feel his wrath even now!” He waived his mace above his head and muttered a few sacred words under his breath. The young priest felt a wave of enthusiasm swell in his chest, and with great faith and authority, he willed one of the dark figures atop the slab to receive a crushing blow from the Saint.

He held his breath in anticipation, but before he drew breath again, an unseen force struck him in the helm like a sledgehammer. The cleric reeled from the blow, swooning as if drunk. To keep himself from falling, he dropped to one knee, placing an armored hand on the frozen ground to steady himself. His head swam, and his stomach grew sick.

Seeing Alinachka and Rolf struggling for reasons unknown, Sir Garrett clapped down the visor of his bascinet and charged forward, shield up and flaming sword in hand. Grunting with exertion as he made his way up the slope, he quickly found the soil to be muddy from recently melted snow. A few times, he almost lost his feet. “Do not fall. Do not fall,” he grunted aloud to himself. Seeing his brother surge forward, Rolf rose to his feet and charged after him, his head still swimming.

Ragnar drew back his string and swiveled left and right, looking for targets. On the highest slab to the left of the slope, he detected a lone cultist and loosed his arrow, seemingly striking the figure, which spun about and disappeared from view. Three dark figures then stepped forward to the lip of the nearest slab, awaiting Lord Winchester at the top of the slope with hand-held weapons of some kind. The gloom made their outlines near impossible to see, but the lantern on the ground provided just enough light for a risky shot.
Ragnar finally spotted a new target, but just as Garrett neared the top of the rise, something small and dark hurtled down from above like a bolt and struck the knight, pealing like thunder when it hit. The reverberation echoed through the trees. Booj wailed in the distance and started barking madly.

“Lady of Fate!” Ragnar exclaimed aloud. His arrow did not fly. Greatly concerned, he stayed his hand, wondering what had happened to Garrett, for the knight staggered and swayed, stopped dead in his tracks at the top of the slope.

Lord Winchester’s mind raced. A second ago, he had been focused on the dark figure just a few feet ahead of him. Then something small and dark—perhaps the size of an apple—had struck him with the speed and force of a hammer. Following the crack of thunder came a strange new sound, which seemed to come from inside his head—a sound like that of a thousand tiny cascading crystals striking a marble floor. He immediately felt a bone-chilling wave of cold ripple through his whole body, and he shuddered uncontrollably. Momentarily stunned, Garrett looked down at his arms and chest. Through the narrow eye slit of his bascinet, the knight could see scales of frost on his steel breastplate, vambraces, and gauntlets.

His bow in hand, Ragnar hesitated still, trying in vain to discern what had happened on the slope. Garrett, still standing, then seemed to recover. Jerking his head to the right, Ragnar saw Booj barking incessantly, but he recognized it as fear, not fury. In the gloom, the hound seemed smaller and less ferocious than normal. He saw Lady Winchester grimace, gaze up at the dark moon, and mutter a curse. She then scooped up her humbled hound and set him down near her feet. Gesticulating with fluid motions, she muttered several foreign words of power. Then, in the darkness, Booj seemed to return to full stature, though he still looked frightened.

Ragnar’s gaze shot back to Lord Winchester, who now renewed his charge up the hill. Rolf followed only a few steps behind, his mace held high. Down on one knee, Ragnar spied one dark figure on a giant rock slab to the left of the brothers, while another two figures awaited them on a slab to the right. Both brothers turned to the right and engaged the figures there. Seeing their exposed flank, Ragnar loosed two arrows in quick succession at the figure to the left. In the blackness, he could not see the results of his shots. Out of the corner of his eye, however, he saw Booj race past him and bound up the muddy slope toward the two brothers. Ragnar nocked another arrow and took aim, but again he stopped short with surprise. A second mote of darkness, barely visible in the flickering lantern light, shot down and struck Lord Winchester as before, again reverberating like thunder. From yards below, Ragnar heard the knight groan in agony, while Booj slid to a halt on the slope and barked wildly again. Ragnar directed his aim high and to the left, looking for whomever struck the knight. Alas, in the dark, he could see nothing. Frustrated, he raced forward a few steps, looking for a better vantage point.

Lord Winchester realized his danger in a heartbeat. Bone-chilling cold washed over him again, causing more frost to form on his armor, while two dark figures rushed at him in the gloom. His fingers stung with intense cold, and his muscles were sluggish and unresponsive, but through sheer willpower, he forced his arms upwards to block. One figure, clad in dark robes and a black cowl, wielded only a club, but the other, clad in dark chainmail and a great helm, swung a heavy, two-handed, flanged mace. The mace crashed into his shield with great force. Unwilling and unable to give ground, Garrett strained to keep his guard up. Again and again, the mace battered his heater shield, knocking loose the iron edging and crushing part of the wood. His muscles still in fitful agony, Garrett swung his fiery blade with brute force to drive the dark warrior back. Like a blacksmith, he delivered one blow after another. However, a wooden club struck him hard in the chest and in the back. It did little harm, but he lost sight of his armored foe for a second—long enough for the warrior to drive the butt of the mace into Garrett’s neck. Gagging and choking from the impact, Lord Winchester reeled backward, slipping in the mud atop the slope.

Seeing his brother assailed by two figures, Rolf drew back to crush the one in dark robes, but he slipped in the muck and almost fell. Just then, the dark-robed figure struck him hard on the forearm, knocking the flanged mace from his grasp. Rolf yelled aloud as he watched it slide halfway down the slope. The robed figure turned to Rolf again and raised the club to strike, but Garrett suddenly dropped his shoulder and drove him backwards.

Rolf had no time to relax, for he heard rattling behind him and spun about, only to find another dark-robed figure bearing down on him. In the shadows, the figure swung its gnarled club with gusto, looking to brain the defenseless priest. Rolf threw his shield up with such desperation that he slipped again in the mud. As he fell to one knee, the club whistled through the air above his head. The pale-faced figure leaped in front of him and rained several more blows on the priest’s shield. The dark figure wound up again, looking to finish the priest, but an arrow then ricocheted off his club, and then another struck his shoulder and whirled him about.

Ragnar, thought the priest with relief, as he scrambled to get to his feet. Holding his shield before him, he saw the dark-robed figure charging at him again, swinging its club wildly. Twice the club struck the shield hard, and once it smote the priest on the helm. Rolf finally surged forward, bashing the figure with the rim of the shield and throwing it back for a few seconds. Relentless, the figure came at him again, but just then Booj reached the top of the slope and leaped at the figure’s throat.

As the figure wrestled to keep the frenzied hound at bay, Rolf pressed his back to the rock slab. Seeing his mace some twenty feet down the slope, the priest ducked around the corner on the giant stone slab—out of harm’s way. Out of the lantern light, the backside of the slab lay in utter darkness. Peering back around the corner, he saw his brother locked in combat with the dark warrior, and he groaned in frustration. “Saint’s Blood!” he cried aloud, “Give me a weapon!”

Garrett’s muscles finally seemed to recover, and he remained locked up with the dark warrior, each wrestling for position and trying to throw the other back. Flaming sword and blackened mace tangled together, clashed, and tangled again. Between the gloom and his foe’s great helm, Lord Winchester could not see the warrior’s face, but the man reeked of something foul, like a mixture of sweat and the pus from an infected wound. His face twisting in disgust, Garrett suddenly drew back. Thrown off balance, the warrior stumbled forward, and Garrett smashed the hilt of his flaming sword into the man’s gut. It stunned him for just a moment—long enough for the knight to deliver a wicked stroke to the warrior’s helm.

The man grunted and reeled backwards, only to charge the knight anew. His charge was stopped short, however, for an arrow struck him hard in the shoulder. Ragnar, thought Garrett. A second arrow then struck Lord Winchester with a loud thud in the side of his pig-faced bascinet, penetrating one of the air holes in the metal snout. Through his eye slit, Garrett could see the arrow protruding grotesquely from the side of his helm. “Nine Hells!” he grunted with surprise and alarm. As the dark warrior came at him yet again, Garrett bellowed down the hill at Ragnar, “Mind your arrows, yeoman!”

Ragnar cursed beneath his breath and reached for another arrow, but then something overhead wrenched his attention away. The thick clouds were rolling across the sky, but for a few seconds, a break in the clouds revealed the distant smaller moon. Against its pale light, for just a second or two, Ragnar saw the silhouette of a man-sized figure with large bat wings gliding above the treetops. “Fhalanghan’s Feet!” he muttered in surprise. Just then, the figure vanished into the gloom above, while the clouds obscured the moon once again.

Atop the slope, Garrett recognized skill equal to his own in his strange opponent. The dark warrior was no weakling, wielding the two-handed mace with alarming ease and speed. He seemed hard as nails, recovering from blows that would have stunned other men. An arrow still protruding from the side of his helm, the Frangian knight now feinted low and brought his blade up suddenly, smashing the warrior hard in the side of the helm. The blow seemed to stagger him, but still he did not fall. Indeed, he drew back and brought the mace down with tremendous force, splintering the top of Garrett’s shield and bludgeoning his helm with one stroke. Garrett reeled from the blow, but the knight stubbornly held his ground. Gritting his teeth, Lord Winchester wound up again and then feinted left before delivered a crushing blow to the warrior’s ribs. As he did so, he could feel the dark-robed man bludgeoning his back and legs once again with his wooden club. His plate harness deflected most of the strikes, but one or two made him cringe. Behind him, he heard screams, growls, and shouts as Booj hurled himself at the other dark-robed figure.

After seconds of indecision, Brother Rolf spun around the corner from behind the slab of rock. “Cuthbert is my war hammer—my weapon for battle!” he cried aloud. He rushed headlong at one of the dark figures attacking his brother. It turned out to be the dark-robed man. Screaming, “With you I shatter nations… with you I destroy kingdoms!” Rolf slammed into the figure, lifting him off his feet and hurling him into the chain-clad warrior. The warrior, his mace mid-swing, fell sideways but somehow kept his feet. The figure in robes fell prone, but he immediately grabbed his club and tried to regain his feet. Meanwhile, Garrett smote the stumbling warrior with another mighty blow to the helm, and just then a goose-feathered shaft buried itself in his side, piercing the chain hauberk.

Down below, in a smooth rapid action, Ragnar nocked another arrow and took aim again. However, his senses screamed danger, and he spun about. As he spun, he heard a loud flapping sound and the heavy rush of air. He whirled to face a thing of horror.

Descending from on high, a horrible man-sized creature with gray skin and large bat wings swooped down and struck him with long, dagger-like claws. Ragnar had nary a second to process what he saw, but the creature seemed naked and muscular, and there was a thick tail. It was the thing’s face, however, that seared itself into his mind. It had the crumpled, horrific face of a bat, complete with large fangs. It screeched as it struck him, nearly knocking him from his feet. Curved, black claws raked his shoulders, shearing his chain harness with ease, while the thick tail lashed out like a whip, wrapping about his neck. The speed of the attack and the strength of the tail shocked the ranger. He let his bow and arrow fall, desperately thrusting his hands to his throat. He was just in time, for the tail constricted like a python. Ragnar strained with every muscle to keep the thing from crushing his throat. He could not speak, and he dare not let go. As he struggled in the flickering shadows, he saw Alinachka, just a few feet away, turn and run.

Atop the slab, Brother Rolf’s mind raced. As the dark figures before him struggled to regain their balance, the priest heard a loud flapping noise and a screech behind him. He turned to see Booj savaging a dark-robed man near the top of the muddy slope. Then, the hound suddenly bolted down the slope. A grunt from his brother wrenched his attention away though, and he never saw what frightened the dog.

Rolf turned quickly to his brother, who was still locked in combat with the chain-clad warrior. Just then, the dark-robed figure—the one that the priest had just bowled over—rose to his feet again, club in hand. Still without a weapon, Rolf simply reacted. He charged the robed figure a second time. The man’s club thundered against his shield, but the priest did not stop. He slammed into the figure, throwing all of his body weight behind the shield. Again, he lifted the pale-faced man off his feet, this time clear off the side of the rock slab. For a fraction of a second, the figure clutched desperately at thin air and then plummeted without a sound.

Grunting with exertion, the armored warrior smashed the corner of Garrett’s shield into oaken splinters, its iron edging now crumpled and bent. Breathing hard, Lord Winchester circled his foe, his mind racing: Losing steam quickly. How many are there? Where is Rolf? Where is Alinachka? Have to get the upper hand quickly! Then, out of the corner of his eye, Garrett saw Rolf without a weapon. The knight shouted, “Get down from here, brother! Flee! Leave this one to me!”

The warrior’s mace pounded Garrett’s heater once again, crushing the lower half of the shield this time. The knight responded with a savage blow to the man’s thigh, gashing the mail from hip to crotch. The flaming brand struck home with force, and the warrior grunted hard, stumbling. He surprised the knight, however, responding with a savage blow of his own. The heavy flanged mace shattered the remnants of the heater shield and struck Garrett hard in the armpit. As pain shot down his side like wildfire, Lord Winchester saw red. Despite the debris hanging from his left arm, Garrett attacked with unchecked fury, raining sword blows on his opponent. The ancient dwarven blade, wreathed in orange flame, struck the warrior’s helm once and twice, sending angry red sparks flying into the night air. A third blow cleaved the warrior’s head clean from his shoulders, his lifeless body falling with a thud to the snow-dusted rock.

Rolf saw the armored warrior fall, and his heart leaped with joy and relief. Hoping to retrieve his mace, the priest spun about, only to confront a monster. A winged demonic-looking creature now hovered near the top of the slope, about ten feet away. The force of its flapping wings sent dirt and wet leaves into the air. In the weak lantern light, Rolf saw the dark figure look in his direction, and he went cold inside. He knew now what sent the hound scurrying for cover.

“Saint’s Blood!” gasped the priest, his stomach falling into his feet. Without thinking, he darted back around the stone slab to avoid the creature’s attention. Only then did he remember his brother, now facing it alone.

“I need that mace!” Rolf groaned aloud in frustration. Yet, the nightmarish creature blocked his path down the slope.

Garrett had no time to inspect the fallen warrior, for out of the corner of his eye, he saw the monstrous winged creature land just yards from him. For a split second, his jaw fell open in shock, but then the winged creature came at him. For a few feet, it ran on all fours and then leaped into the air, lunging at the paladin with its clawed feet. Whirling his flaming blade above his head, the paladin counter-charged atop the slab.

Below, Ragnar struggled with the screeching creature, trying in vain to pull its muscular tail from around his neck. It was as thick as his arm, and whenever he struggled with less than all his might, the thing tightened its infernal grip. Red-faced and choking, the ranger finally made one tremendous exertion, using all of his strength. He managed to pry the tail apart just enough, and he immediately let himself drop to the ground, his head pulling free. The monster shrieked and raked its claws across his shoulders again, further gashing the chain hauberk. Desperately, Ragnar grabbed for the bastard sword on his back.

On the slope above, the winged creature launched itself at Garrett, meeting his charge with full force. Its powerful legs kicked the knight square in chest, halting his charge, while its clawed hands raked the knight’s face and shoulders. The wreckage of his shield still dangling from his left arm, the paladin drew back and delivered the most powerful blow that he could muster. The flaming blade cut deep into the thrashing creature, which screeched loudly and writhed in anguish. Black ichor sprayed forth from the grotesque wound, spattering the knight’s helm and plate harness. The creature collapsed on the rocky ground with a greasy, wet thud, writhing in its death throes. Black, syrupy fluid seeped from its hemorrhaging wound, filling the knight’s nostrils with the odor of raw sewage.
Garrett gasped and fell back a few steps. Spinning about, he scanned the field with haste. Rolf was nowhere to be seen, nor was Alinachka. He saw Ragnar, though, down below, struggling to free himself from the grip of another winged demon. Garrett lurched into action. Slipping twice on the slick, rocky surface, the knight plowed down the muddy slope towards his struggling companion.
Halfway down the slope, Garrett spied Booj off to the left, at the foot of the slabs, savaging a dark-robed man that lay prone on the ground. The paladin continued his charge, though he saw Ragnar finally squirm out of the creature’s choking grasp.

Ragnar grabbed desperately for the bastard sword on his back, but the creature was too quick. As the ranger fumbled with the leather strap and scabbard, the gray demon’s claws again shredded his neck and shoulders. Ragnar screamed, feeling the blood now sheeting down his side and back. He finally slipped the bastard sword from its scabbard and took a high guard. The creature’s heavy tail lashed out again, but this time it missed his throat, and Ragnar saw his opportunity. With one powerful downward stroke, the Varangian crushed the creature’s collarbone and gashed open its colorless gray skin. Black ichor spurted from its chest, filling the night air with a foul stench. The writhing creature stumbled backwards from the force of the blow, finally crashing into a tree. Seeing the knight still lumbering across the field toward him, the ranger yelled hoarsely, “Kill the wizard! Kill the wizard! I have this one! Rolf may need help above!”

As the writhing creature struggled to regain its feet, Ragnar rushed toward it, roaring in anger. The muscular beast leaped into the air, trying to take wing, but Ragnar closed too quickly. Its tail lashed out again, but Ragnar slashed it repeatedly, sending the thing to the ground and hacking off half of its membranous wing. With a powerful downward thrust, he impaled it for good measure, causing more pitch-like ichor to spew forth, spattering his face and chest. The creature finally grew still, lying in a pool of black filth that stood out in stark contrast to the snowy ground.

Gasping for air, Garrett slid to a halt in the snow, finding reason in the ranger’s words. He exhaled forcefully, wheeled about, and looked up the slope for any sign of his brother. The gloom was oppressive, for the lesser moon had vanished behind the clouds once again. Lord Winchester knew that Rolf was up there somewhere, and during his charge down the hill, he had spotted his brother’s mace. His mind raced: Rolf… unarmed… Have to get to him! This is ridiculous.

Exhaling loudly again, the knight charged back up the muddy slope, albeit slower this time, stopping only to grab the mace. He noticed Lady Alinachka and Booj also running forward to join him, and with her came the light of her lantern. The deep shadows on the trees and rocks lurched fitfully as she ran. Atop her staff, gleaming in the lantern light, was the ominous, silver skull of his deceased brother, Sir Edward. We have become the Saint’s madmen, thought Garrett as he ran.

Above, from behind the rock slab, Brother Rolf heard a soft moaning sound, like that from an injured or dying man. More cultists, or whatever they are! This is ridiculous! he thought; I HAVE to get a backup weapon!

Trusting in the Saint to deliver him, Rolf crept up the side of the slab, where it was less steep. The moaning continued, and he continued to climb. The priest eventually thrust his head over the lip of the slab to take a peek.

Up above the lantern light, the highest point of the slab lay in utter gloom. Yet, after a few seconds, Rolf’s eyes adjusted enough to spot two dark figures, lying prone and largely motionless on the snow-dusted rock, just a few feet from him. One figure, which looked unconscious, groaned weakly.

Feeling weak and vulnerable, Rolf ducked down to avoid being seen by any dark-robed figures that might be atop the slab. He then steeled himself for whatever might come. Cuthbert, guide me, he pleaded silently. Feeling renewed, he raised his shield above his head and clawed his way to the top of the slab. Just then, an opening in the clouds again revealed the small moon, which shed just enough light by which to see. Rolf’s heart leaped, for before him lay no wounded cultists, but Master Gimlet and Brother Marcel, each with his legs and wrists bound by rope.

The priest yelled at the top of his lungs, “Garrett! Ragnar! Get up here! I found Gimlet and the sergeant!” However, seconds later, he spied two dark-robed silhouettes about ten feet from him, just past the two, prone bodies. His eyes adjusted just enough to spot a gnarled wooden club in the hand of each figure.

Slowly, they advanced on the priest, and he shouted anew. He backed up to the edge of the stone slab—any further and he would have to step down and retreat. Yet he would not do so. I shall die before I leave them here, especially after such a long chase, he determined grimly.

As the two figures advanced further, Rolf spotted a third robed figure, standing a few feet behind the other two. The one to the rear uttered a harsh guttural command to the other two, who halted. As this played out atop the slab, a golden yellow light grew slowly brighter, while shadows danced wildly. Rolf heard clanking armor and steel only a few yards behind him.

Just then, Garrett clambered atop the slab, coming up beside Rolf. He immediately spotted the two pale-faced, dark-robed figures, but his eyes were still adjusting to the darkness, and he paused. Ragnar came hustling up as well, bastard sword in hand.

Garrett uttered only one word: “Go!” At that, Garrett and Rolf rushed the nearest figure, bludgeoning the figure with flaming sword, gauntlets, and a heater shield. The figure lashed out with the club, but they overwhelmed him with blows. He stubbornly refused to fall, and they continued their assault. Meanwhile, Ragnar rushed the other, thrusting his sword through the gut. Just then, the third figure, barely visible in the gloom, muttered something incomprehensible. There was a purplish-gray flash of light and an audible boom, much like a peal of thunder.

To their horror, all found themselves caught within a chest-high, writhing mass of worm-like tentacles. The purplish-gray mass gave off a foul stench like nothing the companions had ever smelled. Worse, the wriggling tentacles reached for every open orifice—eye slits, ears, mouths, and nostrils. Rolf cried out in horrified surprise, feeling the tentacles tighten their grip about his limbs. He was stuck—held fast. Ragnar, wide-eyed and struggling desperately to free himself, noticed that the robed figure next to him, which he had just stabbed, was also stuck fast. Straining to get free, Garrett pressed the flaming blade to the shapeless tangle of worms, hoping to burn them away like a web, but the slithering tentacles neither burned nor shrank from the flame. A few did blacken, giving off an even fouler stench.

Rolf looked up just in time to spot the third robed figure, which stood outside the writhing mass. Leaning on a stout black staff, he quietly backed away from the foul sea of worms, turned about, and stepped down off the rock slab. He was gone.

It seemed an eternity before they finally cut their way out. Perhaps ten minutes passed, and then the indescribable mass of tentacles dissolved slowly into a pool of noxious, blackish-gray goo.

Covered in sweat and now very cold, the companions gathered together to survey the scene atop the slabs. With his foot, Ragnar rolled the corpse of the robed figure that he had stabbed. The pale-faced man was dead, his gnarled club laying by his side. The figure that Garrett and Rolf had beaten to the ground lay unconscious but alive. Just before the mass dissolved, Rolf had spotted some worm-like tentacles in the man’s ears and eyes. Now there were just sticky black stains in those places.

Meanwhile, Rolf ran to the captives. Both lay unconscious and covered in sweat.

“Are they alive?” asked Garrett, nonchalantly snapping off the arrow that protruded from the side of his helm.

“Yes,” answered the priest, “though they may freeze to death unless we get them near a fire.” His teeth now chattering from the cold, Rolf continued, “We all risk frostbite unless we warm up quickly.”

Ragnar, his green eyes flashing in the lantern light, muttered through clenched teeth, “Fire will be tough given the snow. Everything is soaked.”

Pushing his visor up, Garrett replied, “We may have no choice. Freezing to death is not an option.”

The ranger’s eyes narrowed. “The wizard cannot have gone far. Shall we try to catch him before resting?” he asked.

Alinachka added quietly, “I could start a fire.”

Ragnar turned to the knight, asking, “Do we split up yet again? Whatever we do, we must do it quickly.”

As Lord Winchester decided their next move, Brother Rolf bent over the dwarf and the brother-sergeant. Untying the captives’ legs and arms, the priest mused aloud, “Consider the irony: We find Master Gimlet of Hillcrown as a captive to some strange master on the crown of a hill…”

Sitting in the snow, Booj stared blankly at the smiling priest. With its forepaws, the dog repeatedly tried to wipe the dark gore from its blackened snout.

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