The Road to Metava

Chapter Six (Part One)

Rastorn yawns and rubs his eyes. When he pulls his knuckles away, the first rays of morning light momentarily blind him. He turns away from the sun and toward the city gate to the sound of chains dragging along metal and wheels churning as the gate is partially opened. A large contingent of guards, some in armor, and some in robes are sent out on wagons. Five minutes later, a horn from beyond the wall signals the gatekeepers to open the gate fully and those in line are given permission to exit Darkuth. As the party rides out, they see the guards loading corpses – some heavily decayed – onto the wagons.

One merchant wagon stops at the crossroad to check the security of their load, but the others keep going. Most head north, one goes south, and three travel with the party west on East Road. Daylight diminishes quickly under the heavy canopy of tree branches and leaves overhead.

Orjulun looks over his shoulder one last time at the city wall and notices two of the men in the stopped wagon looking sternly at him. He recognizes them. They are from Dumas. He had seen them before loading and unloading freight and gifts for King Zane and his entourage. They were not outwardly dangerous, but unpredictable like most people in Dumas and seemingly loyal to their King.

As they ride, Rastorn tells Melias about the college of magic in Darkuth casting a mid-level spell called Onif’s Improved Identify for him, which identified all the group’s potions at once and very quickly. He says the first potion was called Boost and it temporarily increases the range, duration, and area of effect of Wizard spells as if the person consuming the potion were at a much greater skill level. The second potion was Extra Healing. The third was a Potion of Speed. It cost him 330 gold to have the spell cast, but he believes it was worth it.

With his hood pulled down to cover his heritage and intent, Melias studies the three wagons. The first flies the banner of Darkuth and is painted black. It is completely sealed, with arrow slits spaced every few feet. Second is a wagon flying an unknown banner, likely an independent trading company or small village. The men on this wagon look to him to be recovering from a late night of heavy drinking. They are outwardly grouchy. They don’t even look at anyone else riding along the same road. The final wagon is flying three banners which Orjulun later says are from the ASO. The men and women aboard wave and smile at the party whenever eye contact is made. They are in good spirits and their laughing and singing are audible from a quarter-mile away.

“I’d like to be as far away as possible from those Undead when night falls,” Orjulun says. He knows there is safety in numbers, but the wagons move too slow for his liking.

Rastorn nods. “As long as you know how to get us to our destination, my friend. I cannot presume to be familiar with ASO.” He cares not about being in the company of the wagons, believing they will bring increased trouble and the noise they make to be tiresome. He doesn’t want an incident like the one the Dumasses found themselves in while they traveled just a few nights prior.

Smiling, Orjulun corrects Rastorn. “The Allied Sellers Union – ASU – is the center of commerce for most of The Realms and the governing body and almost everyone who lives there year-round is a member of the Allied Sellers Organization – The ASO. There are others who live there temporarily, who are not in the ASO.”

Rastorn listens intently, then responds, “So, as a mnemonic device, I need to remember the people are ASO’s.”

Melias and Arturus laugh.

Orjulun continues, “The only quick way to ASU is through Metava, though, so that will be the first stop. I have never been to either place, but I learned much in my position in Dumas. It sounds strange, but I forgot just how much I had learned. It just never seemed like information I would use.” A thin smile crosses his face, then quickly disappears. “Metava is known for the raw metals they produce and the crude weapons and armor they export to the metal workers in Darkuth, who work them into fine armor and weapons. They are also known to be extremely suspicious, warlike, religious zealots. The entire community worships Crave, god of Destruction. The southern road would have taken us to a city of friendly Paladins.” The smile returns.

“Next time we should hire ourselves out to a merchant wagon as guards, so we can get paid to travel,” Melias says, then snaps his reins.

Arturus snarls then looks toward Orjulun and says, “Well, they do feed you at no cost,” before he and the others also urge their mounts to a full gallop, leaving the three wagons far behind.

The group remains silent until four hours later when SeLiem mentions he is hungry, but he’s not sure he has enough food for the trip. Melias says that he purchased some rations in Darkuth, but not enough for everyone.

An hour after that, the group spots a troop of twelve riders on the road and racing toward them. The riders sport a huge Darkuth banner. Each wears a black cape with the Darkuth insignia emblazoned across the neckpiece. Some look to be spell casters, while others are obviously warriors. They don’t seem rushed. They look road-weary, but alert.

When they are within hailing distance, Arturus says, “I hate this part. The tension could be sliced with a dagger. I say we pass them quietly, and just smile and nod when needed.” He remembers SeLiem saying he was hungry, so he says, “When we get past these black riders, I’ve got that wheel of cheese and a bag of jerky. You are welcome to have some. When we camp tonight, I’ll go hunting so we can have fresh meat.”

The riders trot their horses to the right side of the road, so the party can easily pass. Each rider has a hand free and a weapon ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice. Their vigilant eyes keep the party on the edge of their sight even after they pass.

They encounter no other travelers the rest of the day.

The party camps just before nightfall and set the same watch rotation as before. Rastorn quietly sidles up next to the fire and begins studying his spellbook. Arturus’ hunt results in him supplying a small, gutted warthog. He prepares some of it for dinner. There is very little conversation.

Their camp is set in a small clearing a short distance off the road. During their turn guarding the camp, each man’s eyes constantly dart around the perimeter of the campsite, straining (some more than others) to see deep into the extreme darkness of the trees. There are no ocean waves here to muffle other noises. Here every sound seems to pierce absolute silence. A cracking branch sounds like thunder. An animal cry sounds as if it is feet away when it is hundreds of yards away, and the lightly crackling fire is the only comforting sound.

Nothing eats the party that night.

The second day is filled with monotonous travel which threatens to lull them into complacency.

That night, Orjulun takes the first watch. As soon as he is certain the others are asleep, he hears what sounds like heavy footsteps coming from the woods to the south.

It could just be the forest sounds playing tricks with his ears and imagination, but he lightly taps each of the others and points in the direction of the sound, before preparing his Magic Missile spell.

Rastorn silently thanks Orjulun. He wasn’t too keen on the dreams he was having, anyhow. He half crawls, half walks to the edge of the trees north of their camp, and prepares his Spectral Hands spell.

Arturus pulls his bow and aims in the direction of the sound. He cocks his ear and holds very still. “There are seven of them and they are big, like the Ogres,” he whispers.

“Well, they aren’t trying to cover the sound of their approach,” SeLiem comments at normal volume, as he pulls out a handful of bark from one of the many pockets in his cloak. He says a few indecipherable words and touches Rastorn. As the seconds tick by, Rastorn can feel his skin tighten as it begins to take on a slightly brown hue with swirls of tan and gray mixed in. He recognizes this as the Clerical spell Barkskin, which has been cast upon him numerous times in the past.

Melias, sword in hand, silently slips into the woods just west of camp.

Several loud screeching noises explode from the forest to the south, seconds before Arturus lets his first volley of arrows fly into the semi-darkness.

A group of five bear-like monsters crash out of the woods and charge toward Arturus. The first two (one of which has two arrows sticking out of it) are eight feet tall and the rest are roughly man-height, but much more massively built. They each have a head like an owl and feathers in place of fur in some spots.

From the woods Melias hollers, “So much for my ‘attack from behind’ tactic – I’ve got two little ones on me!”

They close too quickly for Arturus to get another shot off, so he drops his quiver and bow and pulls his new magical long sword, prepared to meet their charge with his sword tip.

SeLiem’s loyalty to his training as a protector shows as he forgoes attacking to cast another Barkskin, this time on Orjulun. He completes the spell just as one of the smaller creatures reaches him.

Melias had moved silently through the woods, but these monsters have superior night vision and never lost sight of him. He curses, unsure how they located him, and places his back against the trunk of a nearby tree, ready to strike the first of the two.

Each Wizard has a smaller monster charging at them, but they are ready to cast and will unleash their magic before they are within reach of the creatures.

“Damn,” Melias shouts, as his first attack bounces off the beast’s armor of fur and feathers, chopping off feathers, but nothing more. They tower over him and begin clawing and pecking.

SeLiem turns just as the monster that chose him as dinner drops two large claws onto him and opens its toothy beak, lowering it toward his head.

Arturus swings his longsword in a wide, graceful arc from right to left, catching the darker-colored monster (the one he struck with the arrows) in the belly and splashing its blood onto the ground to his left. It stumbles back a step, then takes two quick steps forward again, swiping its claws through the air, more enraged than ever. The other bear-creature lumbers sideways a bit, so they can each attack him at the same time. “They are Owlbears,” Arturus shouts over the creature’s screeching, finally giving a name to the enemy. “They won’t stop until they – or we – are dead!”

Finishing his Spectral Hand spell, Rastorn darts further into the forest. From there, he can use Chill Touch in combination with the hand spell instead of getting close enough to these foul abominations. From tales he had heard, if they are able to grapple you, they’ll squeeze the life from you. His Chill Touch can weaken them if they do get ahold of someone.

Orjulun releases his Magic Missile into the center of the Owlbear charging him, then braces himself for the attack, not knowing whether he injured it gravely.

Arturus is a whirlwind of action as he dodges and deflects claws and beaks from either side, but each of the Owlbears rakes him with a claw as he swirls around. Minor wounds, but minor wounds add up. He knows he needs to take one of them down quickly, so he positions his swinging blades for multiple attacks on the injured one.

Melias also uses his speed and agility to dodge half of the claws streaking toward him, but the other half slam into him. One of the Owlbears scoops him into its arms and bites him hard on the shoulder. He lets out one grunt before his face is buried in the creature’s fleshy chest.

As he turns, SeLiem runs straight into a claw that draws blood, but not much. The Owlbear’s teeth are not able to penetrate his chain armor – this time.

Rastorn’s attempt to get away from the Owlbear attacking him is hampered by trees, darkness, and the odd swiftness of the monster. Its claws strike branches and air, but its huge beaked mouth clamps onto his chest cutting through his magically armored skin.

The Owlbear is not slowed by Orjulun’s attack, although he knows it must be injured greatly. It continues to attack and catches him with a claw and pulls him in for a deadly hug.

Arturus’ footwork allows him to maneuver himself just slightly away from the fresh Owlbear. He spins and lands a powerful combination on the injured one. As it drops dead, he turns back again to face the second.

Melias struggles, head butts, bites, and tries to use his sword – all to no avail. The monster squeezes him into its 500-pound frame, while the other waits for its opportunity to feed.

SeLiem again attempts to gain the favor of his god, by staying loyal to his brothers-in-arms. He turns from the Owlbear attacking him and uses his morning-star against the one squeezing Orjulun. The monster is not expecting the attack and is easily struck. Its grip loosens for a second and Orjulun kicks, wiggles, and pushes away in a last-ditch attempt to free himself.

Seeing one of his party members in trouble, Arturus yells, “Orjulun! Hold on I’ll be there soon!” and turns to run in that direction. The Owlbear barely catches him with a single claw from behind but is still able to pick him up and smother him in its chest.

Breaking free of the Owlbear, Orjulun steps back and prepares his next attack, as the monster screeches and lunges at him again.

Howling in pain, Rastorn spins, and continues to howl and growl right up to the moment he casts Magic Missile at the Owlbear attacking him.

Melias tries to scream, but can’t, as the Owlbear holding him squeezes the air out of his lungs. His vision is fading and his heartbeat pounds in his head, slower and slower. Through the haze, he sees the other young Owlbear rocking back and forth in giddy anticipation of eating him once the other has slain him.

SeLiem is grazed and then pulled into a hug by the Owlbear behind him.

Rastorn is bitten, but it barely draws blood. He risks a glance toward where the two Owlbears followed Melias out of sight and wonders how the Elf is faring. Forming the intricate gestures needed to cast a spell proves extremely difficult while ducking a large, ferocious opponent’s attacks. He can see his companions need his assistance, but he is too busy protecting his own hide. What good will he be to them if he’s Owlbear food? He needs to cast something with a short casting time. He casts Magic Missile at the Owlbear in front of him.

Orjulun is immediately pulled back to the monster he is fighting and bitten. He knows the creature is almost dead, but it still fights as fearlessly as before. The cracking of his ribs is audible through the din of battle. Blood spews from his mouth.

Arturus struggles to break free, knowing his armor will eventually buckle and work against him. Then he gets the idea to play dead. He goes limp, hoping to fool the last remaining full-sized Owlbear. It falls for his ruse and drops him. As he lands on one knee, Arturus grabs the dagger from his left hip and flings it at the Owlbear holding Orjulun. The dagger flies true, striking the monster’s brain through its eye socket. Orjulun pushes it away and it drops dead. Barely conscious, Orjulun collapses on top of it. Arturus stiffens, anticipating the Owlbear behind him will snatch him up again before he can move.

Based on his athletic build, it is obvious SeLiem is in good physical condition, but no one knew just how strong he was – until now. He breaks through the Owlbear’s arms like he was being held by a child and immediately crouches down in front of Orjulun to cast Cure Light Wounds on him. “There is one behind me, quick – blast him,” he says just before he casts.

Orjulun tries to reach into one of the pouches he stores spell components in, but keeps missing the opening. His arm feels weak and he can’t successfully control it or aim his hand. He is seeing double and struggling to stay awake.

From the woods to the west side of the clearing, a voice booms, “For Capra!”

This is followed by a loud thud and a crash as Melias, both of the Owlbears that had attacked him, and a large man in plate mail armor tumble through the small trees at the edge of the woods and land in a pile, with the man on top. He pulls his six-foot sword out of the skull and left shoulder of the one Owlbear and leaves it lying dead on top of an unmoving Melias, then squares off with the other one as it reaches its feet. The man is not wearing a helmet, so his long blond hair, pale skin, and bright blue eyes are visible by the light of the fire. Also visible is the small, clear stone orbiting his head.

The healing takes effect clearing Orjulun’s sight and steadying his hand. He smiles to acknowledge Seliem’s help, then deftly completes a Magic Missile spell sending three bolts screaming into the Owlbear reaching for SeLiem.

Rastorn’s magic dispatches the Owlbear and he is now free to assist where needed. Orjulun is hurling the magic bolts at the one attempting to squeeze the life out of SeLiem. He does not see Melias, so he hopes he got out of harm’s way. He sees Arturus struggling and decides he needs the most help. He casts Chill Touch through the Spectral Hand and sends it to touch the Owlbear attempting to slay Arturus.

As Arturus turns around, two huge paws wrap around him and pull him against the Owlbear’s chest. This time, both sets of claws dig deep into his chest and stain his armor with his own blood. This time, the creature will not stop until it hears bones crack.

SeLiem is raked with a claw as he turns and stands. His morning-star attack swings wide and misses.

A clanking noise can be heard, as Owlbear claws carom off the stranger’s heavy metal armor. He spins around twice connecting with his two-handed sword each time and cutting the monster in two.

Arturus stifled a scream when the claws ripped into his body. He is strong, but he knows he can’t take much more of this kind of punishment. Reversing the grip on his sword, he shoves the blade hard behind him trying to impale the Owlbear. Instead, he cuts only feathers and fur and the Owlbear reacts by pulling him in tighter.

Rastorn concentrates and moves the Spectral Hand over the Owlbear on Arturus, then casts a Chill Touch through the hand. It seems to have little effect.

The stranger stabs his two-handed sword into the dirt with his left hand while he draws a long sword from his left hip with his right. Charging in Arturus’ direction, he yells, “For Homeland and the Queen Mother!”

Seeing this lunatic shouting slogans and running at him with a drawn sword, Arturus feels more desperate than ever to get free of the Owlbear. With all his might, he strains to break free of the deadly embrace – to no avail.

Orjulun’s Magic Missiles finish off the monster attacking SeLiem.

The Owlbear squeezes Arturus with all its might.

Lunging in from behind, the blond swordsman attacks the Owlbear, but it hears him and dodges to the side.

Slipping in as the man attacks, SeLiem casts an Aid spell on Arturus, granting him the ability to absorb more damage than usual.

Rastorn’s final Chill Touch does more damage this time and weakens the Owlbear.

Pulling himself free of the monster, Arturus collapses to the ground and draws his sword.

Orjulun runs to Melias and checks for vital signs. He’s still alive, but unconscious. He starts to come around as soon as Orjulun tries to move him. As his eyes roll around attempting to focus, he stammers, “What’s . . . where . . . hand me my sword. I’m going to kill that bird-bear-thing!” He rises to his feet and staggers toward the battle.

The stranger spots him and shouts, “Come, join the fracas, friend Elf!

The monster directs both claws and a bite at Arturus, but he agilely dodges each attack.

The stranger steps back a bit to give Melias a chance at the monster.

SeLiem, seeing Melias back up, but quite injured, runs to his aid and casts a healing spell. “Careful with that sword. This should help you,” he says.

Melias half dives, half falls at the Owlbear’s back and cuts it slightly with his sword, then stumbles back, preparing to attack anew.

The Owlbear has sustained very light injuries, so the large stranger hacks at it from the side, making certain not to unintentionally harm any member of the party. As he strikes, he shouts, “By the nine gods, die – you feathery monstrosity!” His attack cuts only fur, but he doesn’t seem bothered by that, he just growls out to Arturus, “Cut the life from this foul beast, swordsman, for he surely wished to do the same to you!”

Melias takes a deep breath, feeling his ribs bruised, perhaps fractured. The feathery beast would pay, he vows. He positions himself on the opposite side from the stranger, hoping for an attack against the beast’s vitals. “Die you foul monstrosity!”

Rastorn chuckles. “Fowl beast.”

Orjulun’s final Magic Missile spell rocks the monster, just as Melias slices it from behind. As it wavers, the newcomer stabs it with his long sword through the ribs, finishing it off.

The final monster is slain.

The large man in armor exhales and looks around smiling and nodding his head as if to say, “good job.” He abruptly stops smiling when he realizes everyone is staring at him like he just crashed a party. “My name is Percy,” he states flatly. “I was looking for a place to camp when I heard the sound of battle. I apologize if I stole any of the glory. I just wanted to help.”

Melias blinks at the stranger, “Shoot, Percy, steal all the glory you want, as far as I’m concerned.” He wipes his blade off on the feathers of the final Owlbear to fall, before sheathing it and holding his hand out in greeting to the party crasher. Melias’ hand looks like a child’s hand by comparison. The man is big. Six feet eight inches tall and nearly 300 pounds of mostly muscle. His chest is like a barrel and his belly is round.

“My name’s Melias. This is Arturus, Rastorn, and Orjulun. And if you don’t mind me saying, you’ve got a bug flying around your head.”

Percy smiles and bows slightly as he repeats each name in turn as Melias introduces his companions. He then waves at SeLiem, whom Melias didn’t introduce. When Melias mentions the ‘bug,’ Percy laughs heartily saying, “This is not a bug, friend Melickus, it is a rare magical item which allows me to live when deprived of food and water. Quite handy in travel. I won it in battle with a Fire Giant on The Lava Trail half a month ago. He won’t be needing to covet it any longer.” Percy keeps eye contact as much as possible as Melias speaks to him, looking away only once Melias has finished. He wipes his long sword with a cloth he pulls from his belt.

Melias notes rune work on the blade of Percy’s sword.

Slumping and staring at the ground, Arturus mumbles, “Yeah, thanks.” He glances up at Percy, then back down, never making eye contact.

Percy smiles and nods.

Melias kicks the dead Owlbear once for good measure then grabs his aching side. “Damnable thing. Do you suppose they live around here?”

“As for the Owlbear family, I know that in caverns they don’t travel too far, I suppose their forest counterparts may be the same.” He looks thoughtful for a moment as he retrieves his two-handed sword to clean and adds, “But I find it peculiar they’d survive this closely to such a well-patrolled road for very long. Perhaps they are new to this area and looking for a new abode.”

Orjulun limps over to Percy, holding his sore ribs with one hand, and extending his other in friendship. “My thanks to you, Warrior of Capra,” he says. “I follow Scorses, and his humble servant appreciates your timely intervention against these beasts. It would be our honor to have you join our camp this evening. We have some food, which we will gladly share.”

Percy politely turns down the offer for food, since he has no need for it because of his magic item, but he very excitedly agrees to camp with the party and starts looking for a place to sit while he cleans his armor and sharpens his weapons. “Should we find a site without the stench of death so near?” he asks in the softest voice he can muster, as he continues to work on his weapons.

From the distance where he had been standing and casting spells, Rastorn peers out at the newcomer. “Percy? Poor guy. Who would name their son Percy?” he mumbled to himself, as he released a little rage and anxiety on the dead Owlbear at his feet by giving it eight good kicks in the torso. Coming near enough to the group to get a good look at the newcomer, he simply nods and gives a friendly wave. He’s grateful for this man’s intervention, but not too keen on strangers in their midst – although mere days ago these people were all strangers to one another.

“Yes, the stench of blood here is unbearable to me,” SeLiem says as he steps closer to Percy. “By the way, my name is SeLiem, the person Melias forgot to mention. A pleasure to meet you.” He nods, then turns towards Orjulun and sighs, then laughs. “Well, you look like a hell and a half, don’t you?” He casts a Cure Light Wounds on Orjulun.

Melias’ jaw drops after SaLiem spoke. “Oh my gosh. Here I thought you were just my imagination.” He chuckles. “Sorry, friend. I guess you’ll just have to work extra hard to be more memorable. Yes, yes, a new campsite seems in order. These creatures will probably attract scavengers. He’s intrigued by Percy, and his obvious magical items. “A magical stone. Who’d have imagined it? I’ve been passing them by the last few days without a second thought. And your sword, it’s got an interesting mark on it as well. Also magic?” He blushed. “Forgive me my inquisitive nature. Naturally, you’re welcome to keep your secrets as you see fit.” He took another look at the Owlbear at his feet, kicked it once more, then picked up his belongings to move to a new spot.

“My sword is magic, yes,” Percy says as he checks his belongings. “I know your race is fond of magic, so – here – swing it for a while if you’d like. Just remember where it came from when you are finished.”

“Maybe later,” Melias says, as he soothes the anxious horses.

“Percy,” Melias says later, as they are looking for a more suitable campsite. “I hear the Lava Trail is heavily occupied by Fire Giants, and many northbound travelers are attacked, though hardly any southbound travelers meet such a fate. I am curious if you might know why that could be?”

“Let’s talk around a new fire, my Elf-friend,” Percy replies.

They leave the original fire burning, although Melias plans to assure it is out before they leave in the morning.

Thinking about the stranger camping with them, Arturus rolls his eyes. He tells himself he had the Owlbear just where he wanted it and then the big brute crashed in yelling cliché slogans. They don’t need this man’s help. When Orjulun offered Percy food, Arturus wanted to speak up and say if the giant wanted to eat, he could crush something himself, but decided he didn’t care enough to comment. He follows the rest of the group but remains silent. When a new camp is set, he slinks away to stand watch away from the group.

Noting Arturus’ apprehension at the newcomer’s welcome invitation into their midst, Rastorn joins him outside the party circle. “I feel your apprehension. Wait right here and I’ll get the priest.” He heads back to the group and calls SeLiem. “Hey healer, come help me gather some firewood and herbs.” Waving SeLiem to him, he walks to Arturus and the three of them duck beneath a canopy of tree limbs. “SeLiem, we need to cast Know Alignment on this freak and find out if he’s safe to have around. He doesn’t smell right to me, and I think Arturus feels the same way. I’ll be behind you loudly searching for firewood and such to keep up the ruse and make noise to cover your spellcasting. You keep where he can’t see you.”

Back at the newly built fire, Percy hands his sword to Melias. Melias says, “Don’t worry about getting it back. I don’t have a habit of taking things that don’t belong to me, unless it’s from dead people, much like that stone you got from the Fire Giant. You still look rather healthy to me.” He tests the longsword, checking its weight and balance, swinging it about and trying to mimic some of the moves Percy had used in the last battle.

Percy says, “As for your earlier question, yes, there are a lot of Fire Giants where the lava flow covers the road near the West Sea. I’m not sure if they attack one direction more than the other, but I do know that Her Majesty’s wagons are often targeted. Do you think there is some evil plot behind it? Maybe we should go take on the Fire Giant Tribes!” He looks to be serious about this suggestion.

“I don’t think I’m ready to take on any Fire Giants, personally. I’m a politician, not a hero; not yet anyway,” Melias says matter-of-factly during the practice. Once finished, he hands the sword back and says, “Thank you. It’s quite a marvel. I could use a little something like that myself, maybe I could have finished off that Owlbear on me quicker. Then I wouldn’t be in so much pain.” He glares toward the far side of camp at SeLiem.

SeLiem is oblivious to Melias’ stare and turns his attention to Rastorn whispering, “I agree, I should take a closer look at Percy. But I don’t want to get caught casting on him sneakily.”

Arturus walks from SeLiem and Rastorn and positions himself behind Percy but facing away toward the already sleeping Orjulun.

Then he listens.

Continued next week . . .

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