The Spinning Wheel, Summer 798 AT
There’s this thing about infantry companies, ducal advisory cabinets, labor crews, or any group of people placed together to perform some function. Certainly, the success of any team is based in part on the care one exercises when putting one together; analyzing each member’s skills and weaknesses, and constructing a group where everyone can complement each other. But, there is this one intangible factor, one which cannot be willingly imparted into such groups. One which when present, can raise a groups’ expected aptitude to the extraordinary. This factor appears when only when it desires, stays as long as it pleases, and departs without warning.
When one finds this ‘quality’ present in a creation, it is wise for one to leave what has been created alone. When one starts pulling strings, the fabric that makes up what one has put together will suddenly begin to fall apart at the seams. I have come to see that the one that makes a plan actually only supplies the pattern and the strings, and that what ultimately binds ones tapestry together is a factor mostly out of our direct control. Once the job is in the hands of the artisan, we leave to the hands of fate the resultant form of the product that will be returned to us. And when it comes to masterpieces, it is highly unwise to offend the one who weaves it.
The absence of Huginn was felt quite distinctly. His room stayed locked and untouched, while the small library of his works provided the society a slow and steady income. We decided to keep his ultimate fate a secret, that he was ‘still on travel doing research’, which wasn’t exactly a lie. From a practical aspect, we suddenly realized what a boon it was to have in our group a healer with no ties to the Holy Orders. The desire to avoid their interference hindered our search for a…and I am deeply sorry for saying this…replacement for Huginn.
Agoth would probably be the main facilitator of this, hopefully putting us in contact with someone in the Order we could ‘trust’, though honestly we were still unsure how far we could trust him. Unfortunately, he had been on assignment in Kettin’s Gorge for much of the year. Even if he was to find someone willing to work with us, having two members of the Holy Orders now working closely with MEAD could still draw unwanted attention just by itself.
And, we still had a bottom line to keep. Exploration, and the material wrought from them were still our major source of income, and we had been inactive for almost six months. Jayden’s displacement as Society chair, and at the time his frequent absences made some of us wonder if he might be starting to lose interest in the society, and the financial safety net he represented. It was a cold way to look at things, but we had to capable of thinking pragmatically.
We felt we had to do something soon, or we might begin to lose focus and drift apart. So the decision was made to tackle a smaller objective next, and hope that Agoth’s healing abilities and our supply of potions would suffice.
On Frieztiden 21, we were in the midst of a planning session, in preparation for a four day trip to Olafsburg’s Dellji Peaks. It was the first time we had all been back at the Society house in months. The sounds of industry and a sense of purpose echoed off of the antique wooden walls, and it finally felt like we were gaining some traction again. It was close to midnight, when guard Graegs reported to us that we had a visitor. Even with our notoriety, it was unusual for anyone in sleepy Helmmshold to be visiting us this time of night. After hiding our map, we told Graegs to escort our visitor upstairs. A short, cloaked figure was with him, who remained hidden until Graegs left the room. When he finally removed his hood, Jayden must have realized that something serious must be in the works.
Jayden ‘senior’ had decided to personally pay us a visit. Even after he removed his hood and announced his name, a few of us were still caught up in our work, and didn’t hear him announce himself, lest even recognize him. He seemed amused by our informality when speaking with the Grand Duke, though in our defense, none of us had met him in person in the four years we had lived in his capital. I suppose it was also refreshing to meet a noble not so hung up on himself.
Those few moments of brevity were soon broken by the revelation of why he had come to us in secret, so late at night. Allis, Jayden’s cousin, had been taken captive, the Children of Celde being the most likely culprits. Grand Duke Helmm was in the process of mustering his army to find the perpetrators, but he knew that it might be days before they were ready to move. More importantly, if Allis actually was still alive, history had shown that the Children usually kill their prisoners when they are forced to withdraw. He knew what we were capable of from our success at Oramsburg, and had faith that our small team stood the best chance at doing what needed to be done, quickly and discretely. “Most of all,” he told Jayden, “this is a family matter. And there are only so many Helmms left.”
All who were present agreed to help the Grand Duke. Dakarev was the only one not present at the time, locked in his room with Katrina, and engaged in what we hope were his normal business pursuits. He also agreed to accompany us, after checking with Katrina if he was free for the week, though we were pretty certain his query was sarcastic in nature. The coincidence in timing meant we were already prepared for travel. Down deep we bemoaned that our next mission would need to be put off once again, but in retrospect this was a petty consideration. I’m curious how future events would have unfolded if we had left for Olafsburg only a few days earlier, and not been available in Helmmshold to provide the Grand Duke our assistance.
We reacquainted ourselves with House Helmm’s diplomatic ‘fast carriages’, although this time it we would use them openly, with full permission of their owner. It was different travelling this way free of guilt, complete with a sense of posh and celebrity. It was just as bumpy as we remembered, and being Agoth’s first time, he was definitely taken off guard by the experience. We made only one short stop for a meal, and another for Gloriana to take care of ‘business’, and as a result we arrived in Kettin’s Gorge in less than a day.
Guard Johannes of the royal militia met us and briefed us in on the situation as we made our way to the guardhouse. We were told that Allis had arranged to travel with local ore merchants on his trip back to Helmmshold, bringing with him only a minimal guard on the usually secure roads. Bürgermeister Helmm had been a hands-on administrator, and had hoped to experience first hand the full nature of his town’s chief industry. I felt safe at the time guessing that his first recommendation, if he survived the ordeal, would be to step up patrols.
After discovering the ambush site, the guards searched the nearby woods without much success, and planned to prepare for an organized rescue expedition when reinforcements arrived. In the meantime, they decided to arbitrarily to place every citizen of Zielg descent into detention in the hope that they might find collaborators, or at the least coax Allis’ captors into presenting their terms. Agoth had spent a lot of time in Kettin’s Gorge, and knew more than a few of the Zielg in the area. As soon as he descended the stairs into the jail, one Zielg recognized him immediately.
The Zielgfoke of the north are usually quite hostile to Orcs, but apparently Agoth’s character had swayed more than a few of these immigrants to see him in a more positive light. James treated Agoth like an old friend, and upon seeing him, was more than willing to answer the Inquisitors’ questions. Unfortunately, James knew nothing of any Children of Celde operating in the area, though he made known his contempt for them after learning they may have attacked Allis. Another family of imprisoned Zielg farmers was less cooperative, angry that they had been interred and separated from their children. Guard Johannes assured us that their children were safe, and were being treated well upstairs in the guard’s briefing room.
We went upstairs to check on the children, and they seemed somewhat oblivious to their situation, busy playing a one sided game of ‘hunter and prey’. The young boy however would have important information, describing what we surmised was his interaction with some Children of Celde, somewhere in close proximity to the ambush site. Fairly certain now that the Grand Duke’s hunch was correct, Jayden ordered the Zielgfoke be set free and given meals and compensation for their troubles. We decided it would be best to get rest now, and leave as early in the morning as we could.
We had only one slight delay departing the next day. Dakarev arrived at our mustering late, with a backpack that was filled with what appeared to be potentially ‘ill-gotten’ goods. He ensured that these were necessary supplies, and that he was amazed that the stores were open so early around here. Jayden added this incident to his list of “Things to talk to Dakarev about later”, and dropped the issue for now. We then started east, down the main road towards Helmmshold, to the site of the ambush.
The mists were oddly thick that day.
Upon arriving, Starfyre and Agoth set about discerning what they could from what tracks were left. Starfyre came to some amazing conclusions based on some of the tiniest and seemingly unimportant details; the number of assailants, that one was a female, how many prisoners taken, and even the positions of the enemy bowmen when they opened fire.
Even to the untrained eye, it was easy to see that these attackers made no attempt to cover their trail. It might have been laziness, or even an attempt to coax the local guards to follow them into terrain they had the advantage in. We were going to make the Children regret this decision.
Starfyre led the way up the hill, the lingering fog instilling a claustrophobic feeling in most of us. Starfyre however was in his element, and it came as little surprise that he would detect our quarry before they detected him.
In just an hour of path finding, we had discovered what appeared to be an advance camp. It was made up of six Zeilgfoke, one of them particularly larger than the rest. Those with some knowledge of Zeilg culture would assume he was probably a ‘barbarian’, a berserker warrior renowned for their ferocity and effectiveness. Starfyre approached the camp under the pretense that he was a wandering hunter, hoping to sit and share information about game in the area. The Zeilg took no effort to hide their hostile nature, the barbarian rising from his nap, flanked by two hungry looking wolves. He made his own growl of excitement, then charged directly at Starfyre.
Luckily, we weren’t too far behind him, and the mist still obscured our presence. The great sword the large barbarian carried was a also deadly work of art, covered tip to hilt with strange markings and runes. But we were able to surround him quite easily, and he seemed to take more interest in killing us than protecting himself. Jayden managed to deflect “the Wolf’s” sword just enough to create an opening for the killing blow.
After dispatching the apparent leaders of the group, those still standing dropped their weapons and ran. We had noted that one Zielg had hesitated when ordered to attack, and ran without ever engaging us. This implied that some of them may have been forced to fight against their will. After binding the survivors, we healed one of the lower ranking Zeilg back to consciousness for questioning.
Igginz didn’t seem very cooperative at first, but his reasons were close to what we had surmised. He seemed fearful of the large barbarian and his lieutenant, expressing his happiness when he discovered that they were no longer with the living. He described how he was initially hired under the expectation he would be defending Children of Celde outposts in the Airlespine. Needing the money and shelter, he had signed on, never expecting to see any combat. It was not his intent to leave the north, or become involved with banditry, but if he had been captured while trying to flee, his fate would have been less than pleasant.
We asked him if he had seen Jayden’s cousin, and he didn’t seem to have the slightest clue who we were talking about. This suggested that the Children themselves may know that they had such a high profile captive. Igginz told us that all the captives from the caravan ambush had only passed through their camp. He asked us to release him, but Bodwinn insisted that he come along, and Igginz froze in fear for a moment.
Apparently, it wasn’t so much the wrath of the barbarians that frightened him, but a Celde witch that commanded the operation. We convinced him that we wouldn’t let the witch harm him, and that we would release him as soon as we dealt with the defenders of the stockade. We didn’t tell him that none of us have ever come face to face with a ‘witch of the wastes’ before.
With Igginz’ direction, locating the stockade was less difficult than finding the initial camp. Although simple in construction, it possessed a relatively efficient and effective design. There was only one easy way into the small compound, which by Igginz’ account could be defended by up to twelve individuals. Sections of wooden walls at each corner provided highly defensible positions from which archers could launch their arrows from. All the trees within forty feet of the stockade had been cleared, probably to enhance visibility from inside the camp, and remove valuable cover an attacker might try to take advantage of.
Preventing people from just walking right into the stockade, a shallow pit had been dug around the entire structure, the soil and rock dug up being used to make a berm right behind it. It would be easy enough to ford under normal circumstances, but would leave you vulnerable to anyone inside who might want to kill you. With direct assault through the small entrance the only viable option, we needed to find a way to thin the defenders we might have to face.
That’s when usually quiet Dakarev surprised us all, out of the blue saying, “I got this.”
Apparently he had foreseen a possibility just like this, and had prepared accordingly with his ‘shopping trip’ in Kettin’s Gorge. He would use his special materials to set up a diversion which would hopefully lure some of them away for quite some time. “It will work great. Trust me!” he said. Most of us thought we were pretty lucky that Dakarev supplied us with this option…all of us but Jayden apparently. I’m still not sure why he had this strange look on his face.
It took him an hour to set up the diversion, and soon after, wafts of black smoke began to drift over the barbarian stockade. We heard a flurry of heavily accented discussion between the stockade’s occupants, followed by the departure of three armed Zielgfoke heading north towards the smoke. We let them wander off sufficiently, then prepared for our assault. That part of the plan did not go so well, and we were detected before we were ready. Starfyre put an arrow right into his chest, and he was forced to retreat to better cover, and the rest of us charged in an attempt to preserve the element of surprise.
On the other side of the thin wood planks which forded the pit, and were greeted by a trio of barbarians and their minions. Perhaps it was their lack of preparedness, and perhaps it was a little bit of luck, but we fared much better than I would have expected. Jayden engaged in a quick duel with a female barbarian wielding two hand axes, deflecting them aside, then subduing her with a slash to the abdomen. Everything seemed to be going well, until Jayden suddenly fell unconscious.
The witch was probably hiding somewhere near.
Kicking Jayden roused him quite efficiently…just in time for Malastian to succumb to the same fatigue. Luckily, we were still doing quite a number on the defenders, to the point where our victory seemed certain. Around that time, we noticed a small fox sprint from its hiding place in a small tent, and disappear over the berm ringing the area. Starfyre ordered his wolf to chase it down, while he ascended the berm and prepared to make a kill shot with his bow.
Unfortunately, the fox was more dangerous than it appeared, releasing a torrent of electricity on his unsuspecting wolf, almost fatally wounding it. Starfyre’s arrow still hit true, and killed the fox outright. Fully expecting the fox to return to a human form, we surrounded it waiting for the event, but it never happened. I’m actually not sure if we should have trusted Starfyre’s superstitions in this case, and writing this now, I feel kind of silly. Who convinced us to believe a witch could turn into an animal anyway?
We were just brushing ourselves off, when the three Celde that had gone to returned. One of them was a huge bulk of a man, probably another barbarian. Seeing they were outnumbered, two of the Zielg up and ran immediately. The large barbarian however calmly put down his sword, uttered, “Orc!” with a smile, and then beckoned Agoth to fight him in a hand-to-hand brawl. Agoth backed out of the challenge, and honestly, I think he exercised great wisdom in making his decision.
After binding our captives, we traded out our informants. Igginz was set free as per our agreement, under the promise that he would go make something more out of his life than get involved with those who would spread terror. Agoth told him to travel to Kettin’s Gorge, look for James, and see if he needed a farm hand. I still wonder if James appreciated Agoth directing strange Zielg criminal to knock on his door, but it all turned out well in the end I guess. To our new ‘guide’, Panzi, we proposed the same deal. He was just as frightened of the witch as Igginz was, but also saw how we had dispatched their camp with ease, and decided it was best to cooperate.
He confirmed that the captives had been moved to a cave about two miles further into the hills. He wasn’t sure exactly how many Children were stationed there, but knew that it was probably more lightly defended than the stockade had been. Starfyre placed the corpse of the fox on a stick as a trophy, and led the way up the path towards the cave.
Our trip to the cave was uneventful, our only visible enemy being the approach of nightfall. Even the outside of the cave seemed somewhat abandoned, and we wondered for a moment if Panzi had misled us. Starfyre left him outside, placing his new ‘banner’ in the ground in front Panzi, and told him to hang on to it while we checked out the cave. It’s something Starfyre probably should have thought out a little better.
Panzi did inform us of a trap just inside the cave, and he was definitely not lying about that. It was somewhat easy to see even to the untrained eye. Disarming it, however, was a little more harrowing than someone of Dakarev’s skill should make it. Basically, he wound up accidentally setting off, narrowly escaping injury from a large pallet of sharpened sticks that fell from above. If someone wasn’t paying attention when they walked into the cave, perhaps at night, I could see how the trap could have been fatal.
As we entered into the cave, we found ourselves in a short tunnel. It didn’t take long for us to determine the cave was currently occupied, as we could hear multiple voices could be heard echoing from up ahead. Although we couldn’t make out exactly what was being said, there was one odd thing that we picked up on about the voices immediately; the occupants had Felusian, not Zielg, accents.
Continuing on, we soon came upon the large cavern that was the source of all the noise. It was illuminated by torches and lamps, almost to the point of it being like a well lit ballroom. Many figures were moving around the room, apparently searching for objects of value. We entered with caution, moving forward apparently unnoticed, until a small man turned around ahead of us, and told us, “Stop! Trap!”
We attempted to ask him questions, and in response told us it was important to remain quiet, as he needed to find the “path safely to us”. He seemed to be using some kind of small bar shaped device with a slight illumination, which he held up close to his face, as he shuffled towards us carefully. We offered Dak to give him assistance, but he refused, as the trap he was speaking of was apparently exotic and magical in nature.
As he continued to approach slowly, he identified himself as ‘Justin’, a former Oracle of the Del’cuz. Him and his group had come across the cave four hours earlier, and subdued the three Children of Celde that had been guarding the prisoners. He also claimed that they had been set free, safe and unharmed, and were probably back to the road by now. Finally, he stopped about ten feet in front of us, and made a sigh of relief, or was it of anxiety…
Even though he had freed the prisoners, it didn’t explain why he was here in the first place. When asked, his answer stunned us all. He was here to meet us specifically, he identifying each of us by our names. Though his clear vision had been taken from him, in return he could now see things that others could not, including what he called the ‘threads of fate’. He claimed he knew that we would be here, and that he had to meet us. He also thanked us for saving countless lives in our endeavors, and even eluded that he knew personal details about the internal difficulties we faced as well.
He then asked, “If you could save thousands more, what would you be willing to do?”
Bodwinn answered quickly and definitively, with a sentiment I shared, “Anything. I would do anything.”
Justin turned his head to the side, and there was hint of sorrow and regret in his voice. “What would you do…” he muttered to himself, for a moment lost in thought. He then looked back at us, with his lack of sight now apparent. “It’s what I have seen in your future that troubles me,” he continued,” where your path will eventually lead you. It is why I came to find you, and why it’s hard for me to say what I must say to you next.” The light from the device in his hand began to increase in intensity, though a relative calm came to his face and voice. This is where I should have known something was horribly wrong.
“…that if I must be the agent of your end, it would be wrong of me not to share your fate. But, you must be stopped. I am sorry…”
I don’t remember much of those few moments, my mind being filled with panic and indecision, almost as if I were two people at once. Most of us backed away, though from the rapid increase in brightness, I knew we would have no time to escape from whatever ill Justin planned to impart on us. The last thing I saw was a blurry silhouette of someone jumping in front of the blinding light…was it Agoth?
I’m not sure how long we were unconscious, but when I came around, the rest of us were moaning but alive. Justin and Agoth however were motionless, lying in a shared pool of their own blood. Apparently, Justin’s mercenaries were as surprised as we were about what had happened. There seemed to be some confusion in their ranks, but their leader urged them to ‘finish the job’ they had started. Bodwinn yelled out a warning that Jayden was among us, and to lay down their arms or face the consequences.
The mercenaries began firing arrows at us, and luckily, it seemed they were not the most accomplished archers. Others advanced on our position, shaking off the effects of the explosion, hoping to catch some of us while we were still recovering. It was uncertain if we would survive being outnumbered two to one, and without Agoth to help us. It was probably that focus on survival that demanded we focus our full attention on the enemies we faced. We didn’t see potentially important things that might have been transpiring just out of sight, or right below our feet for that matter.
As we engaged our attackers, a female voice behind them yelled, “I’m not going to be an accomplice to murder!” Suddenly, we realized some of the arrows being shot in our direction were not being aimed at us, but at the back of our ambushers! Another mercenary stood motionless, backing himself into a corner and refusing to fight. Our new ally helped even the odds a little, but something unexpected would happen that would tilt the fight into our favor.
Agoth slowly lifted himself off the ground, his chest full of terrible black wounds that appeared to be sucking in a viscous liquid, which in retrospect was probably his own blood. His face was filled with a silent rage, his eyes darkened and piercing. He advanced towards the nearest enemy, who staggered slightly, stunned at what he was seeing. Another screamed, “Why aren’t you dead?!” and loosened his arrows wildly in his direction. Agoth’s entry into the battle shattered the resolve of the ambushers, some fighting to the end, and others trying in vain to fight their way to escape.
Once the battle was won and the fighting ceased, Agoth suddenly collapsed as unexpectedly as he had risen, and we rushed to aid him. We attempted to use a healing potion on him, but the effects were strangely less effective than would be expected. We also discovered Justin, barely breathing and mortally wounded. Bodwinn ran over to him in anger, but he passed on soon enough, his last words an utterance of self-pondering. “Perhaps I still changed things. Perhaps…it was enough…”
Of the original ambushers, only three survived. The one remaining attacker, a Halfling, hid in a pit spell that Bodwinn had cast, only to be discovered as the spell dissipated and he was forced into the open. He halfheartedly claimed he was “attacking the people behind us” when he threw his daggers in our direction. He was lucky we didn’t kill him outright. The second was a mercenary who refused to engage us; he was quite young, and we let him flee the cave, hopefully learning the lesson that he should be more selective in his employers.
Then there was Sarna, a blonde-haired archer who refused to attack us, and turned on her former employer. She had a certain savvy about her, and a snarky manner that instantly reminded me a bit of Starfyre. I suppose that it should come as no surprise that he trusted her from the start, and offered, her on the spot, an opportunity to be mentored under him. I’d have to say when Starfyre makes his move in anything, he does it fast.
After securing what valuables we could find, we prepared our return Kettin’s Gorge. We utilized our three Zielg prisoners to help carry Agoth, and went to free Panzi to fulfill our part of the bargain. Unfortunately for Panzi, someone else found him first, and ‘freed’ him. Permanently. He sat in the same position that we left him in, covered in blood that came from his cut throat. The ‘fox banner’ that Starfyre had improvised from the witches’ familiar was notably missing…
An hour later, Starfyre and Sarna caught up with Allis and the other caravan abductees. They were on the road, safe and unharmed, making their way back to Kettin’s Gorge. For what little we knew of Justin at the time, there was one thing that we had to concede; he appeared to be slavishly a man of his word.
Once back in town, Allis almost immediately returned to work, virtually unfazed by his experience. We wasted little time as well, loading Agoth back into the Grand Duke’s carts, and speeding back to Helmmshold with all due haste.
One thing I will always remember from the trip back is the blank, beaten look on Jayden’s face. For someone who had just months ago stood face to face with two Orc armies, I found it hard to fathom why these events in particular would affect him so deeply. Perhaps it was just the last straw, or maybe this time the hit was too close to home. It wasn’t until later that he would confide in us about what he was feeling at the time.
Agoth we brought to the small Church of Aethir in Helmmshold, the one he had been assigned to. It took him weeks to recover, and weeks more before he seemed back to normal. Bodwinn made frequent visits to the church to check on Agoth’s progress, which when I think about it now, was a very risky prospect considering. The actual scars he carried from that day gave no indication of the seriousness of the injuries he actually sustained. We weren’t sure exactly how to act around Agoth after that, which wasn’t really much change from the norm I suppose.
Grand Duke Jayden however, felt such a deep sense of gratitude, that he almost adopted him on the spot.
The Grand Duke made it a point to provide to Agoth all the assistance he could with his recovery. He made it a point to gather us all at the Church one day, and declare us honorary ‘Protectors of House Helmm’, in recognition of us protecting his kin. It was apparently a title that hadn’t been awarded to anyone by house Helmm since the Felusian Hegemony, and he had spared no expense to ensure that our medals would meet the exact specifications listed in their charter. Duke Helmms award of five thousand platinum, and our Societies’ new tax-exempt in the duchy, really didn’t hurt much either.
Although the Children of Celde would remain active in the future, they would in the years to come steer clear of Helmmshold for some unknown reason. Allis’ continued to expand his involvement in governing western Kettin’s Gorge and the villages in western Helmmshold that were his charge. He gained the affectionate nickname ‘little Duke’, earning a reputation and popularity based on his visibility and hands-on approach. Apparently, it’s a trait that runs in their family, one that makes their lives always at risk. Eventually Allis would have us back for dinner, and would surprise us with a celebration much like we experienced in Thistlecreek years before.
And as for MEAD, this event only further enhanced our popularity. Everyone that knew of the Society had their own idea of what we were about, which was ironic. In actuality, we were still almost as directionless as a compass without a needle. This last vestige of innocence would not remain with us long, and its passing would not receive proper mourning. I am not sure who would want to invite the events of the coming years. But I have to keep telling myself, there was really nothing that could be done to stop them.
That is, as we believed, that Justin was wrong.
By the voice of Vei, recorded by the hand of Berugi, I attest this to be my true and faithful account of the events I have witnessed.