|Tales from the swamps|
My friends, what an amazing adventure I had! Three days ago, we set out for Stillbog, a new Fortress city deep in the western swamps. Since that region is technically beyond the border of Erathia, and therefore hostile, an armed escort was hired by the University to protect our group, which consisted of myself, my assistant, Gregor, and another colleague of mine, Professor Marcus Finch.
The journey to the TaTalian Lowlands normally takes two weeks, but our guide, Korbac, a Lizardman native of the lowlands, knew of a travel gate that would cover most of the distance and reduce our travel time to just under five hours. An interesting fellow, this Korbac. He calls himself a Beastmaster, which if I remember correctly is what the male leaders are called in the Lowlands. Our escort consisted of a dozen halberdiers and twenty heavy crossbowmen from the nearby town of Highcastle, plus one mage from the Tower city of Silverwing. I'm sure we looked like a motley crew, but as the sun rose, we departed.
By mid-morning we had reached the travel gate. It crackled with a strange energy, and through it we could see a dark forest. Apparently, morning had not reached that part of the world yet.
Korbac took half the pikemen and crossbowmen through the gate. There was a loud *CRACK!* as each person stepped through, but we could see them safely on the other side, peering about the darkness in search of any hostile creature that may be lurking in the shadows. Before long, we were given the signal, and through we stepped, first Marcus, then Gregor and I, and the mage. There was no sensation as we passed through, it felt no different than stepping through a normal doorway. On this side, as I watched the remaining soldiers come through, the gate made a soft "bubbling" sound as each person emerged.
Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could see what Korbac had told us earlier. The gate had taken us deep within the TaTalian lowlands. All around us lay murky, reed-choked pools. Our arrival had obviously surprised the local animal life into a cautious silence, but now as we stood there in the deep shadows created by the canopy of great, moss covered oaks, the nighttime sounds of life slowly returned. The deep booming of bullfrogs, the background noise of insects, and the occasional hoot of an owl created a grand chorus as we lit torches and set out to the north.
It was perhaps half an hour later that we found ourselves on some higher ground which allowed us to see the sun peeking above the horizon. In the dim light, we could make out a large cave mouth in the hillside above us. Korbac peered inside for a moment, sniffing the air. Without warning he cursed, hurling his torch into the cave's maw and drawing two long daggers that I hadn't noticed earlier. In the light of the torch, I could see several eyeless figures charging at us. Troglodytes!
An order was barked, and the halberdiers moved to meet the charge, but it was too late. In an instant, two dozen troglodytes had poured out of the cave and were heading toward us, and I realized that my own curiosity had put us directly between them and the crossbowmen who were now taking aim. I could no longer see Korbac, but I did spot a woman with a bow who appeared to be leading the troglodytes. She looked toward me, and I realized, too late, that I had just met the gaze of a medusa.
When I finally came to, I discovered a gruesome scene around me. The fight was over, and as I struggled to my feet the mage informed me that I had been quite solidly turned to stone, but that he had been able to revive me that very moment. He also told me, much to my relief, that I was lucky that I had not shattered into a hundred pieces when I hit the ground, pointing out what looked like the broken statue of a halberdier at the feet of two more statues near the mouth of the cave. I felt a sudden chill despite the warm presence of the sun that had by now risen above the trees.
The dead included seventeen troglodytes, three halberdiers (besides the three who were stoned), and five crossbowmen. Professor Finch told me that the remaining troglodytes had fled back into the cave after our guide, Korbac, had slain the medusa, apparently from behind. I realized then that I didn't see Korbac anywhere, and was relieved to learn that he had taken the medusa's body down to the edge of the marsh for proper disposal. While we waited, the mage revived the two intact guards.
Troglodytes and medusas are denizens of the underworld. I have been able to study both in the past (safely, I might add), but they were always under heavy sedation and not much of a threat. To see them in the wild like this was quite a treat, though not something I really look forward to doing again any time soon.
By the time Korbac returned, the rest of us were ready to move on. He told us that we were perhaps less than an hour's walk from Stillbog, and that we should expect to see the first of the town's scouts in half that time. Sure enough, not twenty minutes later we spotted a dozen gnoll marauders keeping pace with us. Korbac said nothing, though Marcus, Gregor and I quietly chatted and scribbled some hasty notes. While this was another opportunity for me to view these creatures in their native habitat, I have to admit that our experience with the troglodytes that morning had left me more than a little frightened.
Finally, we arrived at Stillbog. The place was bustling with activity, and I was impressed with just how much had been built in such a short time. Korbac chatted with a human woman named Verdish, who he introduced to us as the town's leader. Her hair was unkempt and her face was painted with wild colors, and she wore garb similar to Korbac's. She also had long strings of beads which would around her arms from her shoulders to her wrists which made a strange clattering sound as she moved (it wasn't until later that I realized the beads were teeth from probably twenty different animals).
The town itself already had most of its basic structures completed. Several gnoll huts were set up along the shore of an inlet that would eventually allow a small shipyard, assuming we were close enough to the sea. Across the compound, what originally looked like the lumpy bases of several trees turned out to be the dwellings for almost three dozen lizardman archers. Behind, the foundation of a large stone structure was being laid. We were told this would be to house the gorgons that would be arriving soon from another part of the Lowlands. In the center of town was a cage containing a great dragonfly. Verdish informed us that they had been completely unable to tame this creature, hoping it would start a hive in a tree that had been specially hollowed out for that purpose. They were unsure now what to do with it, as another dragonfly had already been sent for.
After discovering that there were no other creature dwellings here, Marcus, Gregor and I sat down with the soldiers to eat our lunch. While we were eating, Gregor asked about the large trench that several lizardmen were digging in the southwest part of town. After telling us that it would be a moat, Korbac said that according to Verdish, the frequency of troglodyte raiding parties like the one we had seen this morning had been increasing over the last several months. It turns out that Stillbog had been created as an outpost, as an attempt to stem the ever-increasing tide of raids from the subterranean creatures. He also added that we had been lucky - the raiding parties usually contain beholders!
Whether he was just kidding around or intentionally trying to scare us, Korbac had managed to put most of us on edge. Every sound got our attention, be it a chirp, chop, splash, or thump. As night fell, we were finally starting to relax and feel safe. That is when the attack came.
The sound of a war horn was our first warning. Everyone was alert, and Korbac and Verdish began barking orders in assorted languages. Marcus, Gregor and I were taken to the center of the compound where we were ushered up a rope ladder into a stout tree whose base was nearly twenty feet across. Fifteen feet off the ground, the wide base abruptly ended, leaving a bowl-shaped top ringed by branches which provided us limited cover but excellent visibility of the preparations going on below. I looked down, and could see the crossbowmen and mage climbing up behind us, and the halberdiers forming a defensive ring around the base of the tree.
Off to our left I saw Verdish and most of the lizardman archers climbing into another tree, while in front of us the gnoll marauders were hastily setting up several wooden barricades made from sharpened sticks. A similar activity was taking place to our right, just beyond the caged dragonfly. Korbac stood in the center, halfway between us and the forward barricades, issuing orders. Somewhere he had procured a shield, and instead of his long daggers he now held a heavy, broad-bladed sword.
Another horn sounded, closer this time, and we could just make out several shadows approaching. As they reached the edge of the light from the compound I could see they were more gnolls, probably the same scouting party that had escorted us that morning. They came through the compound, then took up positions to our right. When I looked forward again, I could see that the preparations were complete. Archers had arrows knocked, and the marsh had grown silent around us.
There was a sudden crash through the treetops to our right, and a screeching sound as four harpies made a diving attack on the gnolls at the barricades. The crossbowmen immediately turned and fired, bringing down one of them as they circled upward back toward the darkness. Instantly they began reloading, but no sooner did the body of the fallen harpy hit the ground than all hell broke loose. Into the light charged nearly thirty troglodytes, followed by the round, tentacled forms of what could only be beholders. Still the lizard archers had not fired, but I could see Verdish wildly moving her arms about. Though I have little training in the mystical arts, I could clearly see that she was casting a spell.
The spell took form, and the ground beyond the forward barricades softened beneath the feet of the troglodytes into a thick, gooey mud, slowing their charge. It was then that the lizard archers finally fired, having a much easier time shooting at targets that weren't so mobile. At the same time, the mage with us pointed his staff at the nearest beholder, letting loose a bolt of fire that burnt the creature to a crisp.
To our right, the gnolls had engaged the troglodytes that were coming over the barricades. Though outnumbered, they stood their ground. The crossbowmen began firing at will to help cover them. To the front the mired troglodytes were still pressing on, though they were falling rapidly under a rain of arrows from the lizard archers, and any troglodytes that reached the near side were cut down by the Korbac and the gnolls.
Suddenly, the tree to our left exploded. Bits of wood and fire went every direction, and the blast knocked me to one side. I would have surely fallen out of the tree had I not been able to grasp one of the branches. While Marcus and Gregor tried valiantly to pull me back in, the mage was taking aim with his staff once more. I looked in the direction he was facing, and through the smoke I could see a robed figure riding a black horse - a Warlock! That must have been what had blown up the tree, I thought. The mage fired, but the bolt dissipated before it reached its target. The Warlock, however, took aim at us, and my hair stood on end as a great bolt of lightning shattered our tree into a million splinters.
I was thrown to the ground, twisting my ankle badly as I landed. The top half of the tree had been blown open as if from within, or peeled open like a fruit. My ears were ringing, and the pain in my ankle was unbearable. All of the halberdiers had been knocked down by the blast, and most were now climbing to their feet. I couldn't see anyone who had been in the top of the tree with me, and feared the worst. As I looked around I saw the forward line of gnolls crumbling under the onslaught of the troglodytes and beholders. The halberdiers, now thinking they had nothing to guard, moved to help the forward troops. The right flank was faring better, so I crawled that direction.
Just as I reached the dragonfly cage there was a loud roar from in front of me. I looked up just in time to see a great manticore leap over the barricades, landing in the midst of the gnolls, where it viscously began tearing them apart. My stomach turned.
I looked to the front barricade. More of the beholders were down, and there were a few straggling troglodytes, but the blast of a fireball told me the Warlock was still alive and well even though I couldn't see him. To the right, the manticore was wounded but still fighting, and the gnolls not fighting it had their hands full with nearly double their number in troglodytes while two more harpies attacked from above. We were badly outnumbered, and we were going down fast. I cowered against the base of the dragonfly cage, thinking this was indeed the end.
Over the din of the fighting came the distant sound of a war horn. I couldn't tell from which direction it had come, but looking around it didn't look like anyone else had heard it. The right flank was holding, though only because it seemed like the troglodytes were more interested in finishing off the gnolls than in getting past them. A flash of lightning followed by several screams brought my attention to the front, though I had to peer through the dragonfly cage to see what had happened. The scorched dead, both friend and foe, laying in a straight line meant that a chain lightning spell had been used. I looked for the Warlock, but my view was obstructed by the dragonfly that was moving about inside the cage.
That's when I realized it. The dragonfly! I dragged myself around to the other side of the cage and pulled the pin that held the door closed. Then after tossing the door open, I flattened myself against the ground as the dragonfly emerged from its cage.
Obviously wanting to be the king of the sky, the dragonfly flew straight for one of the harpies, grappling it in midair. They tumbled, but the dragonfly's jaws were locked securely at the harpy's throat, and in a matter of seconds, the harpy's lifeless body dropped to the ground. The other harpy was only slightly more lucky. It and the dragonfly traded slashing attacks as they circled each other higher and higher into the air, eventually vanishing into the darkness.
As they disappeared from sight, I became aware of a deep rumbling sound. As the sound grew, the ground began to tremble, almost as if a stampede were approaching. Suddenly the ranks of the attackers broke, and I could see troglodytes and beholders, with the Warlock hot on their heels, running into the compound, pursued by a pair of tremendous copper-colored gorgons. Directly behind them, some fifty gnolls charged, and I could see a lizardman riding a horse, another Beastmaster!
At that moment there was a rush of wind as a great wyvern dropped from the sky. It swooped low, slashing the manticore with its poison-tipped tail, killing it instantly. A cheer went up from the gnolls, and the wyvern trumpeted its response as it soared upward, preparing to make another pass. But another attack wouldn't be necessary. The Warlock, along with a single beholder and perhaps eight or nine troglodytes, was fleeing into the darkness. We had won!
But what a price we had paid. Less than a dozen of the town's gnoll marauders had survived, and all but two of the halberdiers had perished. Much to my surprise and relief, both Professor Finch and Gregor had survived the destruction of the tree-tower, though Marcus had suffered a broken wrist, and Gregor had a foot-long splinter from the tree through his thigh. The mage was dead, as were all but three of the crossbowmen. The other tree's occupants had not been as lucky. Miraculously, Verdish, though a bit singed,
had survived, but all who had been with her had been burned to a crisp.
Like the medusa from that morning, the dead were taken down to the water's edge for disposal. Little ceremony was given, but even with the reinforcements that had arrived it was nearly morning by the time the place was cleaned up. During that time, Verdish healed the wounded, using a strange combination of magical spells and mystical voodoo, followed up with a strong and vile-tasting potion. I don't know what it was, but I slept until mid-afternoon the following day.
We spent the remainder of the day studying the creatures. The wyvern had made itself a nest in a large tree, and now that I could see it in the daylight I realized that it was an elder wyvern monarch. The gorgons trotted about, shaking the ground with each step, but they seemed almost playful. I was surprised to discover the dragonfly back in its cage, and I was told that during the night it not only returned to the town, but it had climbed back into the cage. Several gnolls had begun work digging a basilisk pit, and others were putting up the fencing for what would eventually be a hydra pen.
The next morning we departed. A strong force of gnolls escorted us to the travel gate, but only Korbac, Marcus, Gregor, myself, and the 5 soldiers went through, bound for home. It was an uneventful trip from the gate back to the University, but I think that we had all had enough excitement for a while!
Thanks to The Nether Gods team for this story. Fortress overview was lost,
if anyone has it saved, I would be very grateful. Creature art by Valera.