Previously, the group was running from bandits that had ambushed their caravan on the way to Blackwater Ford, read all about it here. You can also read more about the Year of the Demon Lord campaign on Marc Plourde's site.
Be sure to check out the Year of the Demon Lord summary that I'm updating. You'll find a list of the characters as well as a history of all the posts regarding the campaign.
Guess Who's Coming for Breakfast?
Everyone was in surprisingly good moods in the morning considering they had just spent the night in a ruined, haunted castle. There was an ecstatic urgency in Reudan's step as he hurried about camp getting breakfast prepared. Sage noted the euphoric glaze in his eyes as he built up the fire and whispered constant prayers to the New God in thanks for the fire, the food, the protection from the elements, and nearly everything else that came to mind it seemed. Perhaps the spirit had done more damage than they had suspected. Sage would keep an eye on the young priest.
Everyone began to gather near the fire and collected dishes as Reudan passed out the food he'd been preparing over the fire. Runt began dumping eggs and sausages into his mouth, barely chewing as he swallowed the meal. After his first helping he noted the goblin, Buckets, was nowhere to be seen.
"Fox, where's Buckets at?" Runt asked the clockwork who was adjusting his gears away from the fire.
"Buckets has business to attend to, but he will be back," Fox replied.
"Business?" Reudan looked up from the cook fire with confusion. "Why would he want to leave? The past night was a religious experience for all of us, was it not? What could be more important than that?"
Sage nearly burst out laughing, biting down on her fork to avoid hurting Reudan's feelings. Something had changed in the group the night before, but Sage wouldn't characterize it as religious. The Lord and Lady may be looking out for her, but she wasn't deluding herself that they had intervened in any significant way. She looked at the dagger tucked into her belt and wondered how her gods would feel about the artifact. Her thoughts were starting to wander when Holgar bellowed a warning and tossed his plate aside.
"New God, protect us and guide us," Holgar prayed. As he scrambled to his feet, five men in brigandine burst from the trees and descended upon the camp.
Reudan stood at the fire and squared his shoulders toward the approaching bandits. He called upon his New God to strike the bandits down, and much to Sage's surprise brilliant light arced from Reudan's hands and struck one of the men. The bandit staggered slightly, but shook off the holy blast of force and raised his sword high as he charged in.
Three of the bandits fell upon the camp with swords, backed up by two of them bearing long bows. Arrows whistled, finally shaking Runt out of his shock at the sudden arrival of the bandits. Reudan was also struck a nearly mortal blow by the other arrow, but his faith was strong and kept him on his feet. Sage, also slow to react, was cut badly by one of the swordsmen. She pulled the dagger from her belt and lashed out at the bandit with necrotic energy, dizzying the man and buying her some room to breathe.
During the rush, Fox seemed to freeze up and stood stock still at the edge of camp. Perhaps he was attempting to fool the bandits, but his whirring mechanics continued to tick. Best not to overlook a ticking clockwork as they say, and these bandits heeded that adage. One of swordsmen began bashing the clockwork with his weapon, but was not getting anywhere quick against the resilient creature.
Sage staggered back away from the bandits, lashing out with another blast of necrotic energy. Seeing Sage's distress, Reudan called upon his god again. This time the holy energy flowed through him and Sage and their wounds began knitting up. Unfortunately, the dagger Sage was wielding was a greedy beast and was feeding off of her life force. Whatever healing Reudan was providing, the dagger was benefiting from it and was not keen on sharing with its bearer.
Runt lumbered to his feet and broke the arrow in his shoulder to prevent it from getting in his way. The bandit in front of him, who was busy chasing Sage down, didn't notice the massive orc as he reached out and wrapped an arm around the man's throat. Runt jammed his sword through the man's abdomen and sliced it through his side, spilling blood and intestines to the ground. The scattered entrails were strikingly similar to the grotesque drapery Buckets had donned when they were ambushed on the road the day before.
"Woah! He just tore that guy in half!" Fox shouted. The bandit who was hacking away at him glanced over to see Runt flicking blood from his blade while standing amidst a pile of guts. It was the opening Fox had been looking for. The mechanical creature brought his club down on the bandit's head with a bone crunching thud. The bandit collapsed to his knees under the force of the blow as his eyes lurched out of their sockets and brain matter blasted out of his nostrils. Holgar retched in revulsion upon witnessing the blow.
The other bandits began to panic and run after seeing their companions cut down and crushed in such brutal fashion. Before they can all escape back into the woods, Runt catches up with one of the archers and lops his head clean off, while Reudan bashes another to death. The last bandit is chased off. Armor and weapons are scavenged just in case more bandits are lurking about the highway. Reudan's head seemed to clear, and regret washed over him as he realized what he'd done. While he prayed for the men’s' souls to reach their final resting place, Sage knelt down with one of the less mutilated corpses and started putting the magic dagger to work.
The Nature of a Soul
The highway was not safe for them, and there was still a lot of road between them and Blackwater Ford. Sage was not willing overlook any opportunity to help her companions and she knew she had one here. She murmured the words that came to her as she held the dagger to the corpse's chest. Once the words were completed, the body sat up and got to its feet without a sound. Reudan did notice this, as did Fox. The two of them seemed a bit startled by the suddenly animated corpse.
"Sage, what have you done?" Reudan cried out as the corpse swayed slightly on its feet. "This is an abomination! You've trapped that man's soul!"
"No! No, no, no," Sage sputtered, trying to find a way to placate Reudan. "This would not work if the man's soul was still in there. It's an empty husk, his soul has departed and is safe."
Knowing absolutely nothing about souls and their transient states did not prevent Sage from arguing with conviction. Her history as a wise woman in the local towns had reinforced that confidence was more important than knowledge in many situations.
"I'm going to smash it," Fox threatened. The clockwork boy stepped menacingly toward the animated corpse and hefted his club.
"No, please, the Lady as given this gift to us to help us on the road ahead. We need everything we can get if we're to make it to Blackstone Ford," Sage pleaded.
"This god of yours is evil if this is the sort of gift she provides," Reudan said. He crossed his arms and seemed resolute in his opinion.
"The Lady is not evil, Reudan. Do you understand every gift your New God provides you? I only seek to help us, and this is one way in which I can do so."
Fox and Reudan relented a bit. Sage did not seem evil. She had been helping the group get through the trials of the previous day, and did seem very concerned with the well-being of everyone they were traveling with. After a few moments, the two stepped back and seemed resigned to the fact that they would now be traveling with a walking corpse. Sage draped a cloak over the corpse to cover its dead eyed stare, just in case they ran into common folk on the road.
Runt seemed satisfied once the argument was settled. In order to figure out where they were, he pulled himself up into a tree to get a better vantage. The smog of civilization at Blackstone Ford could be seen to the south in the morning sun, and the highway was not far off either.
"We're heading to the highway," Runt grumbled as he brushed his pants off after sliding back down the tree. Not needing any further reasoning from their trusty wilderness guide Holgar, Reudan, Fox, and Sage all fell in line as they made their way back to the highway.
A Secret Blend of Herbs and Spices
Reudan was preparing lunch on the side of the highway when Fox noticed a small footpath. It looked like it had been used rather infrequently based upon the single set of foot prints he found on it. Wanting to keep this to himself, Fox slipped down the path while everyone else was eating.
The path lead to a small clearing in the woods, at the center of which was a modest cottage. Flowers and herbs were planted in a small garden in front of the cottage. Fox made his way to a window and peered in cautiously. Inside he spied an old woman who was busy working away in her kitchen. Being a suspicious and untrusting sort, Fox scampered back down the path as quickly as he could only to run into Runt who was heading down the path in search of the clockwork boy.
"Eh, what're you on about, Fox?" Runt asked.
"What? Oh, nothing. I'm not doing anything," Fox lied, not fooling Runt for a second.
Patience isn't a virtue of Runt's, so the orc hefted Fox of his shoulder and carried him back to the highway where lunch was wrapping up.
"Spit it out, Fox. What were you doing down that path? What's down there?" Runt asked again.
"Nothing! There's nothing down there, let's just go!"
"Tell me the truth," Runt glowered at Fox. "Tell me, or I'll take your key."
"Nobody takes my key!" Fox shrieked. The clockwork threw himself at Runt, limbs flailing, attempting to bash the orc. Runt wasn't concerned about the maniacal attack, and brushed Fox aside.
"Fine," Fox said. "Fine, there's a witch in a hut down at the end of the path. She's working up evil magics, and we'd best continue on."
"That so? Sage, is an old woman in the woods somethin' ta fear?" Runt asked, turning to the wise elderly woman.
"Just give me a minute," Sage replied and started digging through her pack. She pulled out a pair of dice and smoothed out the dirt on the ground in front of her. Holding the dice in her left hand she began tracing symbols out in the dirt and whispering strange words under her breath. Once she was satisfied with the runes she cast the dice into the middle of them.
"Great fortune lies ahead of us down the path," Sage said, looking up from the dice.
"Sounds good, let's take a look," Runt said and headed down the path. Everyone followed after the orc, though Sage directed her animated corpse to stay standing amidst the trees when they came to the clearing. There was a brief discussion about what to do at the cabin, but Sage approached and knocked on the door. Her faith in her reading reassured her no harm would befall them here.
"Oh, hello. How can I help you?" The door opened and a short old woman greeted Sage.
"Hello, ma'am. We are travelers who were waylaid on the highway by bandits. We've been making our way to Blackstone Ford, but we are in a very bad way having been attacked by them twice now. We are seeking a bit of rest, could we impose on you for a little while?" Sage asked the woman.
"Of course, certainly. I can help most of you, but not that one," the woman replied, pointing a finger at Fox. "Come in and I'll get started."
The woman started getting busy in the small kitchen of her cottage, pulling plants and herbs down from where they were hanging. As she ground and chopped the plants up the aroma started mixing together in a soothing manner. Reudan offered to help her as she toiled, but he was quickly told to sit down and relax. Before long, she had everything bubbling in a thick paste in a pot over the fire. One by one, she began smearing the thick paste on the wounds presented by the group. The paste was itchy, but as it cooled and dried the itching subsided. Eventually, the concoction began to flake off, revealing knitted wounds beneath.
"Can you teach me how to do this?" Runt asked the woman, amazed at how his wounds had been healed under her care.
"Oh, ho ho. It would take months of work for you to learn the secret to this little recipe," the woman said with a smile on her face. "I have no time to take on any flighty students."
"I assure you, woman, these man cannot fly," Fox tells her. He had witnessed the healing effects of the paste, but still seemed a bit suspicious of her.
There was some discussion about repayment, but the woman didn't seem interested in getting paid for her services. She mentioned the trouble the bandits were causing on the highway, but they didn't come by her place often as the ghouls that laired in a cave nearby kept them away. Finally, she remembered a package she needed delivered to Blackstone Ford.
"Here, deliver this to Honen Dunkel, who runs the inn," she said and produced a small packed wrapped in oiled cloth. "Tell him it'll clear that thing up we had talked about before."
"And from whom do we tell him the package is from?" Sage asks, realizing the woman had not introduced herself.
"My name is Rena," the woman laughed in response, realizing she hadn't introduced herself either.
The rest of the journey to Blackstone Ford was uneventful. Sage directed her corpse to stand in the forest outside of town. After announcing their names and business to the town guard they were admitted without issue and their harrowing journey came to a conclusion.