The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)





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    The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)

    Well, here we go again.

    It’s been over a whole month since my last expedition through the Story Hour forum ended, a trek that took the better part of three years to complete. Since then I’ve been tinkering with a few novels (one new, one I’d started in 2001), but neither has really fully satisfied the itch.

    Heh, mostly I guess I’m just addicted to the reader feedback I got on my earlier tales. Over nine hundred mostly-positive posts from readers in the Shackled City thread blew my head up to a severely swollen level that was beginning to recede of late.

    So I just got the Rappan Athuk Reloaded boxed set in the mail a few days ago, and naturally as I read I started getting story ideas. I’d heard a lot about the Dungeon of Graves, naturally, and even read most of the first installment in a bookstore shortly after it came out (back then I had almost no money, so actually buying RPG products was a difficult proposition). Seventy-five dollars is still a lot of scratch for me, but when I saw that Amazon had the boxed set on sale for $47 (with free shipping to boot!), I went ahead and decided to get my hands on this classic.

    Like my previous stories, this one is entirely fiction, although rooted in the D&D 3.5e rule system. If you are looking for a more conventional campaign write up, you should look elsewhere at the many excellent summaries posted in this forum.

    The “set up” for this story borrows from one used in a classic module from back in the ol’ 1e days. I’m sure veterans of that era will recognize the source of the plot device I used. This mod is pretty much a big dungeon crawl, so I’m going to write it in a somewhat different style than I used for Travels and Shackled City. I don’t have a goal in mind (in fact, I’m still only a few levels into the module itself), so in a way I’ll be discovering what the dungeon has to offer as my characters do. I may end up skipping over a lot of stuff and focus on what I find most interesting, but most of what’s here should be quite familiar to fans of RA.

    I’m not going to commit to an update schedule at this point, as I’ve got a vacation coming up and I’m not sure how quickly this story will start moving. If you like what you see here, let me know; reader feedback has always tended to motivate me to write more.

    A Rogues’ Gallery thread will follow next week. I’ll post more about the character creation scheme I used there.

    Thanks to all past readers for their support. I hope you enjoy the tale.

    LB
    Last edited by Lazybones; Friday, 15th August, 2008 at 02:18 AM.
    Lazybones's Story Hour Threads:
    Can a rag-tag band of heroes save the Earth from alien invasion? Find out in my X-COM story.
    My foray into 4th edition is Lazybones's Keep on the Shadowfell/Thunderspire Labyrinth. Characters here.
    Can a band of condemned prisoners survive the horrors of Rappan Athuk? Find out in the Doomed Bastards. Characters here.
    Visit the Shackled City, from the pages of Dungeon magazine. Characters here.
    Wander the forgotten byways of Faerûn in Travels through the Wild West:
    Books I and II, Book III (the Isle of Dread), Book IV, and the final thread, Books V-VIII. Characters here.
    D&D fiction, adventures, NWN modules, and other stuff at my web page.

 

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    Chapter 1

    ROLL CALL


    The column emerged from the low hills like a line of ants. The sounds of boots tromping on the dry earth and the swirl of dust in the air above them announced their arrival. There were well over two hundred men in the column, all clad in the colors of the Grand Duke of Camar. The omnipresent dust and the stale afternoon light made the orange and gold of their uniforms blend together into a dull brown.

    Riders surrounded the column, lightly armored scouts mounted upon fast destriers. At the head of the column a half-dozen men clad in finery and mail rode, followed by long lines of armored foot that snaked back into the hills behind them. At the center of the column the formation bulged outward, the soldiers gathered around something not quite visible within the mass of men. Behind that knot came a large iron wagon that creaked loudly on overloaded axles, drawn by four massive Eremite plowhorses that each stood almost as tall as a man from hoof to shoulder. The end of the column was marked by another three wagons, these of a more mundane sort, and about two dozen packhorses attended by wary handlers.

    As the soldiers emerged from the obstructing hills, the leaders in the vanguard broke away, and rode forward. The territory beyond the hills grew flatter as it extended to the east, although one could not quite call it a plain. Hidden from view, beyond the gentle undulations of the region, lay the sea, a mere four leagues distant.

    The six riders rode ahead until they reached the edge of a depression that lay across the company’s line of march. The dell was not large enough to present a real obstacle, perhaps a thousand feet from one end to the other. Its low point was a mere fifty or sixty feet below the rim. But the six men stared down into the hollow for quite some time in silence, before turning to watch the arrival of their men.

    The column split as the leading elements reached them, the men spreading out into positions indicated by their sergeants until the vast majority of them had been organized into rough lines facing the six riders. The knot of men at the center of the formation remained a bit back, and behind them the hard lines of the lead wagon were visible.

    The soldiers had been wary coming out of the hills, but now they all bore expressions that were part caution, part terror. From their formations they couldn’t quite see into the dell, but even so most of them did not look in that direction, even when one of the six leaders, a man clad in the decorative insignia of a full Camarian colonel, turned toward them and spoke.

    “Bring forth the prisoners.”

    The large cluster of men in the center of the company came forward. Behind them, the iron wagon creaked as it too began to move.

    The circle of soldiers emerged from the ranks and opened, forming a semicircle facing the officer. These men carried crossbows, the heavy Camarian arbalests with crossbars of quality steel. The barbed steel heads of their quarrels were pointed at the four men now visible in the center of the circle. While these four were a diverse lot, they had something in common; all were burdened with heavy manacles linked with lengths of sturdy chain. Some of the four met the gaze of the colonel with resentment, or anger, while others glanced away, whether in shame or at fear of what was to come.

    The colonel took out a scroll bound in gold ribbon from a pouch at his waist. He unrolled it and opened his mouth to speak, but another of the riders interrupted him. If the colonel wore a look of military splendor, this man—a full decade younger than the soldier—was clearly a noble lord. His clothes were not merely expensive, they were ornate, and the slender rapier at his belt bore numerous precious gems embedded in its hilt.

    “Bring out the others as well. I want them all to hear this.”

    “I do not think that is a good idea, m’lord,” the colonel began in a quiet voice, but the other silenced him with a shake of his head. Nodding, the colonel made a gesture to his soldiers. The wagon creaked forward again, until the four prisoners had to shuffle aside or be trampled by the massive horses. Its handlers turned it until the back of the wagon faced the six riders. As it turned it became obvious that the wagon had two solid iron doors, one on each side.

    The colonel made another gesture, and the ring of crossbowmen partitioned off the four prisoners while another line of troops came forward to surround the wagon. The nobleman’s face took on a look of anticipation mingled with amusement, but the worry of the soldiers did not ease as they took up their positions.

    “The sylvan, first, I think,” the noble said.

    The colonel nodded. Two burly men armed with iron-shod clubs and rings of keys came forward, and worked the locks on one of the doors. There were three locks and a chain fastening the portal, so it took about a minute to finish the task. One of the guards took up a ready position, as the second tugged the reluctant door open with a loud creak.

    A stir rose up through the soldiers. The noble leaned forward in his saddle to see what the others had; the cell was empty, except for a set of iron manacles lying on the wagon floor.

    “How in the hells...” the colonel began.

    “You imbecile, it’s a trick,” the noble said. “Look out!”

    Even as he shouted the warning, a lithe body darted out from the narrow space above the door in the wagon. The guards, completely surprised, futilely tried to grab the streaking form, which landed in a crouch between them and shot forward into a twisting somersault. More soldiers rushed in, spears lowered to pin in the figure, but it shot past them, leaping into a surprised soldier and kicking off his chest, knocking him down as it catapulted away.

    More soldiers rushed forward to grab the fast-moving figure, but before the situation could develop further, another one of the riders intervened. He’d prodded his horse forward during the brief fracas, spreading his arms wide. He was clad in a half-robe of gray cloth that failed to conceal the fine suit of silvery mail links underneath. In one hand he held a silver sigil shaped into a miniature of a burning torch. The symbol dangled from a short length of chain, jingling slightly as he moved. In the other hand, he carried a light mace with four wide steel flanges.

    Invotatus!” he yelled, pointing the head of the mace at the tumbling figure. Instantly, in mid-leap, the escaping captive’s muscles froze, and he fell hard to the ground. A half-dozen soldiers were on him in a flash, restraining him.

    “Nice work, Valus,” the noble said, with a grin. “I knew there was a reason we brought a priest along with us. Colonel, if you please, continue.”

    “As you say, Lord Sobol.” The colonel wiped his brow with a patch of kerchief before gesturing for his men to take up positions on the far side of the wagon. They repeated the earlier process, and the two guards tensed as they opened the door this time, wary of a trick.

    This time, they were disappointed. The figure that emerged from the cell did not appear threatening at all. He was a mature man, perhaps in his fifties if not older, the effects of long captivity showing clearly on his bony frame. There was a collective titter in the surrounding soldiers, a slight rise of voices that sounded of surprise, dismay, and anger.

    “Order!” the colonel said, his loud voice cutting through the background noise. The soldiers fell silent as the prisoner blinked against the sun, lifting one hand slowly to shade his eyes as he looked around the scene. His gaze fell upon the nobleman and colonel, and hesitated there for a moment before he lowered his eyes and walked forward, joining the other prisoners as they were chivvied forward.

    “Proceed, colonel,” the lord said.

    The colonel used his legs to boost himself in the saddle, as he again lifted the scroll. Unrolling the tight length of parchment, he began to read in a loud, dignified voice. There was still the creak of harness, the slight shuffle of armored men shifting about, but otherwise it had suddenly grown very quiet.

    “Prisoners of the Grand Duke,” he began, “You all stand here having been fairly tried and found guilty of capital offenses against the citizens and the laws of Camar. Your lives are forfeit for your crimes, but in his benevolent mercy, the Duke had decided to allow you to earn remission of your deserved punishments through service to the ducal throne.”

    “Right nice of His Grace,” one of the prisoners interrupted. He was a hard-edged man who did not look all that different from the soldiers surrounding him. Even in a ragged tunic of old wool he wore the look of a veteran warrior, and the smirk on his face did not disguise the hard edge in his penetrating green eyes. His hair and beard had been recently cut in a hasty and irregular fashion, giving him a savage look, but that impression was belied by the calm poise with which he carried himself.

    “Perhaps it is only fitting that we begin with you, Corath Dar,” the colonel said. “You might have had a promising future in the Duke’s legions, had you not been discharged with disgrace for repeated instances of insubordination. Your record as a mercenary was... impressive, but it is doubtful that anyone would have been interested in retaining your services after you’d murdered the four men that took out your last contract.”

    “I did the job. I didn’t get paid,” he said, spitting loudly. One of the soldiers laid the butt of his spear across the fighter’s back. Dar staggered forward but quickly straightened, and shot a malevolent glance back over his shoulder before turning back to the colonel and his mounted companions.

    The colonel gestured, and two soldiers drove the second captive forward. This one was a half-orc, clad only in a soiled loincloth. His frame bulged with muscles, taut beneath a yellowish hide that was slick with sweat and caked dirt. His bare skull was covered with an elaborate tattoo, one that superimposed the features of a snarling bear over his face. The decoration was cleverly done, making it seem as though the man’s protruding, yellowed tusks were the teeth of the bear. He bore twice again as many chains as the other captives, and in his case, it still looked like it wasn’t enough.

    “Ukas Half-Orc,” the colonel said. “You are a newcomer to Camar, and yet in just a few days within our borders, you amassed quite a list of offenses. A drover’s leg broken in an altercation on the street, which according to witnesses was unprovoked. Less than an hour later, eleven men critically injured in a brawl at the Dancing Dragon, two of whom would have died from their injuries had not a priest been present in the room. Immediately thereafter: two guardsmen killed, four others injured, during your apprehension. One of your fellow prisoners strangled in lockup, and a baliff’s neck broken in the courtroom where your sentence was pronounced.”

    The half-orc said nothing, crossing his massive arms across his chest. His chains jingled alarmingly, and the armed men around him shifted their weapons warily.

    “You seem to be a violent man, Ukas,” Lord Sobol added. “I think you will find adequate opportunity to express your... feelings... in this place.” He chuckled, as the colonel moved on to the next man in the line. This prisoner was still youthful, likely only a few years beyond twenty, with a pointed black beard, olive skin, and narrow features that bespoke an ancestry other than the fair Camarians.

    “Zafir Navev,” the colonel went on. “You stand convicted of trafficking in the Black Arts.”

    “I violated no law,” the reedy man responded. He spoke the common language with a slight accent. His arms were bound tightly behind his back, drawn tight through iron rings set into the metal band around his waist, the arrangement not even leaving him enough slack to shrug. “My powers are innate, and do not come from any compact with forces from the lower planes.”

    “The elders of the Guild of Sorcery held a different view. You have been convicted of diabolism, and of conjurations of Entities most foul.”

    “The fool masters of your Guild will regret their actions,” the warlock said, but he did not resist as the soldiers seized his arms and drew him roughly back into the line.

    “Licinius Varo,” the colonel said, indicating the next man in the row of prisoners. This one was a plain-looking man of middling years, who if cleaned up might have been mistaken for a merchant or common tradesman. He apparently had not been a prisoner long enough to fully erase the pads of flesh at his cheeks and jowls, although his bindings had mercilessly chafed at his wrists and ankles. “You were a man of faith, respected by your peers and the common folk alike. Yet you threw it away for the chance to offer loyalty to the foul cult of Dagos. Not only did you flout the Duke’s law that proscribed the worship of the Dark Creeper, but you were apprehended in the midst of an unholy rite, covered with the blood of innocents. Just the description of the scene in your indictment is enough to sicken me, and raise the gorge in my throat.”

    “Know that I would have rather seen your entrails cut from your body as you hung upon the Wall of Regret,” the mounted cleric said.

    “Tut, tut, Valus,” Varo said. “Were we not taught that the precepts of the Shining Father were founded upon forgiveness, and understanding?”

    “You are not worthy to speak His name,” the cleric said with disgust. “May the screams of your victims follow your soul down into the pits of Hell, Varo.”

    The next prisoner was the captive from the wagon that had tried to escape, only to be foiled by Valus’s hold person spell. The darting figure that had so confounded the guardsmen was revealed to be an elf, but one so dirty and disheveled that the creature seemed more animal than sentient. He had braided his hair into a tangle of convoluted knots that formed no apparent pattern, and hundreds of tiny cuts, some still covered with fresh scabs, covered his naked body. The elf had tried to escape the moment the cleric’s spell had worn off, and had been bludgeoned by the soldiers holding him. He now hung from the firm grasp of two soldiers, his head lolling, only half-conscious.

    “Elf,” the colonel said. “You stand convicted of the destruction of property, arson, and murder, specifically of a family of settlers from the outpost at Greathold. Your people may not all be appreciative of the terms of the treaty between your race and the citizens of the Duchy, but that is no excuse for the slaughter of innocent people, especially the two children whose hacked bodies you left behind. You have not yielded your name, even under duress, but the soldiers have named you ‘the Mad Elf’, and that appellation seems as appropriate as anything else.”

    The elf’s only response was a faint groan.

    The colonel shifted his attention to the last captive, the old man that had disembarked from the prison wagon. He straightened, summoning up some reserve of dignity that transcended his poor condition and ragged, soiled garments.

    “Velan Tiros. Former Marshal of the Western Reaches, commander of the 3rd legion, victor at Ravenford and Greenrise, holder of the Bronze Cluster, Silver Cluster, and the Golden Starburst for Valor. You stand convicted of the crime of High Treason against the Grand Duke, and the lawful government of the people of Camar. It saddens me to say it, sir. You were at one time one of the greatest among us. Your example...”

    “Yes, yes,” Lord Sobol interrupted. “You made your choice, Tiros, and your bid for power failed. I hope you can sleep with the souls of the men you betrayed on your conscience.”

    “I regret nothing except that I was unsuccessful,” Tiros said. For a moment it looked as though he wanted to say more, but finally he lowered his head in silence.

    The lord reined in his horse, turning the animal around until he stood silhouetted against the lip of the dell, the last rays of the fading sun shining resplendent upon his brightly colored clothes and their bejeweled decorations. “You men are already dead,” he said to them. “But the Duke is giving you the chance to earn your lives, and your freedom. Perhaps even wealth, coin enough to depart Camar forever, and buy your own kingdoms abroad.” He fixed his eyes upon Tiros, although he continued to speak to all of them. “I am sure there are places far enough away that even the storied tales of woe of such a lot as you rogues are unknown.”

    He gestured to the colonel, who ordered his soldiers forward. They came reluctantly, driving the prisoners forward ahead of them until they stood almost on the very edge of the rocky slope leading down into the hollow below. The prisoners looked for the first time upon their destination.

    The depression was a graveyard. Ancient slabs of bleached granite gathered in clusters across the landscape, marking hundreds if not thousands of old graves. Three mausoleums of weathered stone that bore a greenish tinge in the late afternoon light were located in the hollow, each huddling apart from the others. A thick, musty odor hung in the faint hint of breeze that wafted up from below.

    “There is your mission for the Duke, and your chance to escape the fate that your actions have chosen for you. The task demanded by the Duke is simple: loot Rappan Athuk, the Dungeon of Graves.”
    Lazybones's Story Hour Threads:
    Can a rag-tag band of heroes save the Earth from alien invasion? Find out in my X-COM story.
    My foray into 4th edition is Lazybones's Keep on the Shadowfell/Thunderspire Labyrinth. Characters here.
    Can a band of condemned prisoners survive the horrors of Rappan Athuk? Find out in the Doomed Bastards. Characters here.
    Visit the Shackled City, from the pages of Dungeon magazine. Characters here.
    Wander the forgotten byways of Faerûn in Travels through the Wild West:
    Books I and II, Book III (the Isle of Dread), Book IV, and the final thread, Books V-VIII. Characters here.
    D&D fiction, adventures, NWN modules, and other stuff at my web page.

  • #3
    Huzzah, Lazybones is back!

    Bad guys this time... I like it.

  • #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Qwernt
    Huzzah, Lazybones is back!

    Bad guys this time... I like it.
    Woot, first poster!

    Here's another update. I'm leaving for a week's vacation starting Wednesday, and naturally I have a ton of projects to wrap up tomorrow before I go. But if I get a chance, I'll see if I can wrap up another update (I'm about 3/4ths done with the next chapter) before I leave.

    * * * * *

    Chapter 2

    THE MISSION


    “You’ve got two hundred swords; clear out your own damned dungeon,” Corath Dar said. A dozen crossbows shifted toward him, the steel heads pointed at various important parts of his anatomy.

    “While my companion’s words are hasty, I fear that his sentiment is accurate,” Licinius Varo said. “You are sentencing us to execution, just by a different method.”

    “That is no less than what you have earned,” the colonel said. “This way, at least, you have a chance... if not to survive, at least to offset some of the weight of your crimes in the next life.”

    “Ah, but the fate of my soul is already set—is it not, Valus?” Varo replied.

    “This world will be well rid of your soul, regardless,” the priest said.

    “What about these?” Dar asked, holding up his manacled wrists.

    “Set them loose,” the colonel said. As the jailors stepped forward, the officer lifted a hand. “Not him,” he amended, noting the half-conscious elf.

    “It’s going to be a real bitch if we have to carry him,” Dar said dryly.

    “The Mad Elf will be attended to in a moment,” the colonel said. He gestured to another of the riders, an officer of lesser rank, who dismounted and went over to the soldiers holding the elf, digging something out of a heavy leather satchel at his side.

    “Are you just going to send us in as we are, without weapons?” Velan Tiros asked, rubbing his abused wrists as he was unshackled. The soldiers had formed a half-circle around them, facing the slope that led down into the graveyard.

    “Fear not, Marshal,” Lord Sobol said. He alone seemed to be unaffected by the thick air of tension in this place, and in fact seemed to be taking amusement from the entire scene with the prisoners. “Your army will not be sent into battle unarmed.”

    Four soldiers came forward, each carrying the end of a heavy tarp. The tarp was burdened with a collection of assorted weapons and pieces of armor. Behind them a fifth soldier was leading a packhorse loaded down with a number of old leather packs.

    With a loud clatter, the soldiers dropped the tarp in front of the prisoners and withdrew. Dar was the first into the heap, drawing out a longsword that had clearly seen better days. The crossbowmen tensed again, but if the fighter noticed it, he didn’t show it.

    “This stuff is junk,” he said, smacking the blade with a fingernail.

    “I am sure that a fighter of your talents will make the most of what is available,” Lord Sobol said.

    Varo reached for the handle of a mace, only to be pushed aside as the half-orc barbarian drove toward the pile. He tossed aside a few miscellaneous items, then drew out a chain shirt that he slapped over his shoulder. He walked over to the soldiers that were unlatching Zafir Navev. The men guarding the warlock started turning in alarm, their weapons coming up, but the half-orc ignored them, yanking the heavy manacles and attached chains even as the last lock popped open. Navev cried out and clutched his wrist as the heavy bracer sliced the flesh. Ukas jangled the assembly in his hand, snapping one of the warlock’s manacles through one from his own set. With the two sets thus joined, Ukas swept the impromptu weapon around in a trial arc that would have broken a few skulls had not the soldiers hastily dodged back. Satisfied, the half-orc tucked the ends of the chain into the clout of his breechcloth and began to tug the armor shirt over his ample torso. The garment didn’t quite fit, but the barbarian merely grunted, grabbing onto a seam and tearing a number of the links apart.

    “Our companion will be useful in encounters where subtlety is not necessary,” Varo said in an aside to Dar. The fighter grunted in assent, as he adjusted the straps of a breastplate taken from the pile.

    Velan Tiros had taken another breastplate, but was having difficulty managing the weight. Varo moved to help him, but the old man turned away from him, pulling the armor over his head and tightening the straps himself. The result was almost comical, as the heavy armor hung loosely from his emaciated frame.

    “What of bows?” he asked the colonel.

    The officer shook his head. “No missile weapons.”

    “That will put us at a tactical disadvantage.”

    “Ah, come now, Marshal!” Lord Sobol said from behind him. “Surely a commander of your caliber will be able to adapt to the situation. What is it you military types say... ‘respond to the evolving battlefield?’”

    Tiros did not reply, but merely buckled a swordbelt that might have been as old as he was around his waist.

    “Just for my edification, what’s to stop us from just walking across that valley, wait for nightfall, and just keep going?” Varo asked. Dar bit off a curse; clearly he’d been thinking the same thing.

    “A reasonable question,” the colonel asked. “First off...”

    “First off,” the nobleman interrupted, “we’re not going anywhere, priest. This little army is going to surround this valley, and we’re going to stay until you come out of this pit. If you try to make a break for it, Valus here will demonstrate the persuasive power of a flame strike.”

    “Second off. Any of you feel a ticklish feeling over the last week, the feeling like someone’s watching you? Well, you are being watched. The Duke is taking an interest in you... and likewise the Guild,” he added, with a telling glance at Navev. “Do not think you can skulk off and evade your fate.”

    “Why do I get the feeling I am not going to like ‘third off’?” Dar asked, stabbing two daggers into sheaths tucked into his belt.

    “Third off,” Lord Sobol said, with a wry grin, “We’ve been dosing your meals with crystal death powder during this expedition.”

    “Bastard,” Dar said, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. An inch of metal slid free; several spears were lowered, and Valus lifted his holy symbol in readiness.

    Varo stepped in between them, his eyes narrowed. “So the antidote is another reward for our service, I presume.”

    “Indeed. I would say that you have about four days before you start to feel its effects. Maybe a full week before the shakes start in earnest. The end result is quite... unpleasant, as I am told.”

    “I am half minded to see how many of you I can take with me,” Dar said, standing easy, but with his hand still resting on the hilt of his sword. The half-orc grunted, as if ambivalent to whether he got to bash heads here, or in the dark tunnels of the legendary dungeon an arrow’s flight away.

    “Consider your options, mercenary,” Valus said. “The Dungeon of Graves is said to contain a king’s fortune. And the Duke has sworn that you may keep the excess of what you bring out, minus the standard treasure-tax of seventy-five percent.”

    “How generous of His Grace.” But he let his hand slide from his hilt.

    Two of the soldiers had unloaded the packhorse during the exchange. “We have provided enough food and drink for six days, along with lamps, rope, and other things you will need,” the colonel said, indicating a half-dozen worn leather packs.

    Varo had gone over to a leather satchel laid a bit separate from the other supplies. “Parchment, quills, and ink,” the colonel said, as the cleric bent to examine the bag. “The Duke would like a map of the complex.”

    “Looking for another summer chateau, is he?” Dar asked. “A nice, quiet place where he can get away from the stresses of the capital?”

    “I require my vestments, my sigil, my other relics,” Varo said. “Without them, I am far less effective.”

    “Your unholy devices were burned,” Valus said. “You will do without their taint.”

    “No healing at all? Do you wish to even make a pretext of letting us complete this mission successfully? Does the Duke want the Dungeon of Graves sacked, or not?”

    The other cleric just sat his horse stoically for a moment. The others had paused in their preparations, and were watching the exchange, obviously interested in its outcome. Finally, Valus drew out a small case of polished ebony from one of his saddlebags, and tossed it to the other cleric. “Very well. We spared these from the flames.”

    Varo caught the oblong box. He popped it open for a moment, and scanned the interior. He looked up at Valus for an interval, then packed the case into the satchel, and slung it over his shoulder.

    “Let’s get this over with, then,” Tiros said. Something subtle had shifted in the marshal’s attitude. He still looked a bit ridiculous in the oversized armor, and the tightly-cinched swordbelt dangling at his waist. But there was something else, too, a hint of an old fire that burned in his eyes as he walked over to the packs.

    One of the soldiers picked up the lightest of them. “Here you go, Lord Marshal,” the young man said quietly, helping the old veteran slide his arms into the straps. As Tiros was adjusting to the weight, the young soldier squeezed his arm before they separated, so quickly that none of the others noticed.

    “What about elf-boy?” Dar asked.

    Two soldiers still held onto the elf, who was now conscious and standing on his own two feet, if a bit unsteadily. Another two men stood behind them, their swords drawn and jabbed into the prisoner’s back. The officer that had dismounted earlier had fixed a heavy bronze collar around the elf’s neck, which the elf was trying unsuccessfully to dislodge. The collar bore no obvious lock, and now appeared to be a single unbroken band of metal.

    “Every general needs an adjutant,” Lord Sobol said. The officer that had installed the collar upon the elf came over to Tiros, and gave him a bronze ring.

    “What is this?”

    “The collar contains a binding enchantment,” Valus explained. “It was created by the Guild. The ring is the focus. If the elf gets more than twenty feet away from you, it will start to feel a great discomfort. If it persists, at about forty feet it will start to feel an agonizing pain, sufficient to incapacitate it. The ring will also protect you from it; any pain it inflicts upon you will be reflected tenfold through the collar.”

    Tiros looked down at the ring in disgust.

    “I would wear it, if I were you,” Lord Sobol said. “You’ll need him, in there, and if you don’t wear it, you’re like as not to get a dagger shoved up your ass while you sleep.”

    The marshal put on the ring. The guards holding the elf released him and backed away; the elf merely stood there sullenly, his body tensed as if ready to explode in any direction.

    “If he breaks again, a hundred royals to the man that puts a bolt through his heart,” the nobleman said.

    “You don’t have much daylight left,” the colonel said.

    “Well then. Let’s go find some trouble and kick some ass,” Dar said.

    “May we meet in the next life,” Varo said, with a mocking bow at Valus.

    The half-orc rattled his chain and followed. Navev looked sullen, but he went with the others. The elf followed Tiros, his long fingers still probing at the collar around his neck.

    The six doomed men started down the slope, moving into the outer reaches of Rappan Athuk.

    Behind them, the riders watched, as the foot soldiers began to fan out in squads around the perimeter of the vale. The sounds of sergeants shouting orders vied with the quiet gusts of the afternoon breeze. Those that remained began organizing a camp, unloading the pack horses and getting entrenching tools out of one of the wagons.

    “Do you think they will find the others?” Valus asked.

    “I do not want to think about what they will find,” the colonel said. “Doomed bastards,” he added, in an undertone.

    The noble heard him. “Doomed bastards, I like that,” he said with a chuckle. “Good fortune, Marshal Tiros!” he shouted after the departing figures, already fading into the hints of mists that clung persistently to the valley floor despite the afternoon sun. “Good fortune, Company of the Doomed Bastards!”
    Lazybones's Story Hour Threads:
    Can a rag-tag band of heroes save the Earth from alien invasion? Find out in my X-COM story.
    My foray into 4th edition is Lazybones's Keep on the Shadowfell/Thunderspire Labyrinth. Characters here.
    Can a band of condemned prisoners survive the horrors of Rappan Athuk? Find out in the Doomed Bastards. Characters here.
    Visit the Shackled City, from the pages of Dungeon magazine. Characters here.
    Wander the forgotten byways of Faerûn in Travels through the Wild West:
    Books I and II, Book III (the Isle of Dread), Book IV, and the final thread, Books V-VIII. Characters here.
    D&D fiction, adventures, NWN modules, and other stuff at my web page.

  • #5
    Now THAT'S a story...ran this baby a few years back. No one made it out alive... "chuckle". I'm interested to find out how you navigate this monstrosity. Quite the undertaking to be sure.

    You've got some seriously obvious talent though. Should be a good ride. Kudos!
    "I've done so much with so little for so long now that... Well, I can do anything with nothing."

    Denver area gamers? Email me at: jeff_faller@hotmail.com

  • #6
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    Thanks, jfaller.

    I've posted a Rogues' Gallery thread for this story: http://www.enworld.org/showthread.php?t=173268. The character stats contain a slight spoiler for an upcoming chapter.

    This will be the last post for a week, but I'll pick it up again when I return from my vacation.

    * * * * *

    Chapter 3

    INTO THE PIT


    As the nobleman’s shout echoed over the dell, Dar glanced over his shoulder. “When I get out of this, I’m going to show that prick who the real bastard is.”

    “Where are we going, anyway?” Navev asked, as they moved past the first cluster of gravestones. The rough-carved granite blocks were cracked with age, and if there had been any writing on the slabs, it had been worn away by the elements and the passage of time.

    “The entrance is in the south mausoleum,” Varo said.

    “How do you know that?” the warlock asked.

    “Rappan Athuk is the most famous dungeon in Camar, and perhaps in the world,” the cleric said. “There is a fair body of knowledge extant about the place. And in any case, my order tries to pay attention to knowledge regarding our rival sects.”

    “What do you me—“ Navev said, only to be cut off as a loud crash made all of them jump. The source of the noise was Ukas, who had smashed one of the headstones with his chain as they’d walked past. The half-orc offered a toothy grin as they all looked at him for a moment, before they continued their careful descent into the hollow.

    “Bet all those damned soldiers jumped as high as we did,” Dar said with a slight grin. He looked at the elf, who had been roughly paralleling their line of march, but in a haphazard way, skittering around in a ring that was centered approximately twenty feet from Velan Tiros. “Damned bugger’s making me nervous,” he said.

    “As I was saying, Rappan Athuk is a place of legend, rumors, and tales of wild invention,” Varo went on. “By all accounts the complex is incredibly extensive. But what lies below... in truth, you likely know as much as I, wizard.”

    “I am not a wizard,” Navev muttered, but he’d already turned away from the conversation.

    “We should share whatever information we have,” Tiros said. The old commander was having difficulty, and his breath was coming in harsh rasps. He was already slowing them down, but as none of them were yet in the mood for haste, no one offered a complaint. “Even a scrap of useful intelligence, an obscure detail, may help us survive in this place.”

    “Who or what are we likely to find in there, cleric?” Dar asked.

    “If the rumors are even half true, terrible, terrible things, warrior. The place was once the lair of a foul cult of the demon lord Orcus; they once ruled over much of this region, and were finally driven to ground at this place. There was a fantastic battle, after which the army of Good followed the cult’s survivors into the dungeon, to finish the job. Most were never heard of again. A good many lie here still, no doubt,” he added, gesturing to the graves that were now thick about them.

    “Any other ways in?” Tiros asked.

    “I believe that there is a well on the far side of the depression, that provides access to part of the complex,” Varo said. “But the rumors I have heard suggest that the well is not the best route.”

    “Even I have heard that, in the taverns,” Dar said. “Don’t go down the well!”

    “We may heed that advice for now,” Tiros said, as they passed near to one of the smaller mausoleums, still a considerable structure of massive granite blocks tinged a faint green. “But it is a good idea to know all our options.”

    “Taking command, marshal?” Dar asked. “Because you should know I’ve got a slight problem with authority.”

    “I do not want to command anyone,” Tiros said. “But if we don’t work together, we’re not going to be anything more than another mark on this place’s long tally of slain heroes and brave fools.”

    “Well, I’m neither, so I think we’re okay for now,” Dar returned. “Damn it, elf, stop that skittering around!” he yelled, angrily pushing forward, forcing the others to hasten to keep up. He only went a short way, to a nearby cluster of graves that rose up before them, before he came to an abrupt stop. The others came up to find him staring at a particular grave.

    The earth here had been freshly disturbed, the shallow grave lying open and waiting. But it was the granite marker that the fighter was looking at. The stone was in as poor a condition as the others surrounding it, but an inscription had been freshly chiseled in the mineral, precise marks that formed words in the common tongue.

    MARSHAL VELAN TIROS
    1311-1365

    “Well now, that’s interesting,” Varo said, as they gathered around the grave.

    “But... how...” Navev said. Ukas walked by, and shouldered Tiros, knocking him off-balance. The old marshal staggered forward into the shallow grave, only narrowly avoiding catching himself before he pitched forward head-first into the headstone. The half-orc guffawed as he continued past. As he moved out of the way they could see the mad elf watching them from behind another headstone, the creature’s wild eyes shining brightly in the late afternoon light.

    “Quite the wit, that one,” Varo said after the departing half-orc.

    “Don’t worry about it,” Dar said, as he helped Tiros out of the grave with a proffered hand. “I wouldn’t put it past that twice-damned Sobol to have sent a soldier ahead to mark that stone.” None of them others looked like they bought that explanation.

    “I need a moment,” Tiros said, leaning against the tall headstone.

    “I have some minor curatives available to me,” Varo said, pausing. Dar and Navev had already moved to follow Ukas, and the elf had disappeared once again.

    “I will be fine. Just a moment,” the marshal said, shrugging out of his pack.

    The cleric nodded and followed the others.

    Tiros knelt, grimacing as his battered knees protested. He unlaced the top of the pack, and quickly surveyed the contents. It did not take him long to find what had been added, under the greasy wrappings that contained preserved military-issue trail rations.

    It didn’t look like much. A tattered scrap of old linen, wrapped around a small bulge. As he carefully opened the wrap, Tiros saw that it was in fact a soiled linen glove that had seen better days. It had protected a tiny vial of thick glass that contained a scant quantity of deep blue liquid.

    “Thank you, my friends,” he said, clutching his prize in his fist, tight against his chest.

    The marshal looked up to see that the others had gathered in front of the primary mausoleum. Varo glanced back at him, and he managed to wave—while concealing the glove and the vial in his other hand.

    He quickly resecured the pack and rose. As he got back to his feet, using his body to block the view of his companions, he opened the vial and downed the contents in a single gulp. Then he slid the glove on over his right hand, and moved to rejoin the group.

    The huge mausoleum rose up ahead of them. As Tiros approached, he saw that this one was considerably larger than the other two, but it was sunk into a hollow deeper than the rest of the dell, masking its true scale until they had gotten close. Weathered stone steps led down to a set of tall iron doors in the front of the structure; there were no other exits that they could see from this vantage. The entire building was carved with sinister scenes, culminating in a line of malevolent-looking gargoyles of dark green stone that were irregularly spaced around the perimeter of the mausoleum’s roof. The company watched those decorations carefully, but none of them so much as quivered as they approached.

    “Are you all right?” Varo asked.

    “I am fine,” Tiros said. The cleric raised an eyebrow; the old man did in fact look much improved, as if the effects of his imprisonment had been washed off of his frame. The others, their attentions drawn to the mausoleum, did not appear to notice.

    “I trust this not,” Dar said. He bent down and picked up a piece of rock that had come off a crumbling gravestone. His hand snapped out, and the rock caromed off the face of one of the gargoyles.

    “What are you...” Navev began, but Tiros cut him off with a raised hand. The six of them stared up at the gargoyles, waiting.

    And then the one that Dar had struck slowly turned its head.

    “Damn it, I hate it when I’m right,” Dar said, as he whipped his sword out of its scabbard. Eight of the gargoyles rose out of their perches, wings spreading out wide behind them.
    Lazybones's Story Hour Threads:
    Can a rag-tag band of heroes save the Earth from alien invasion? Find out in my X-COM story.
    My foray into 4th edition is Lazybones's Keep on the Shadowfell/Thunderspire Labyrinth. Characters here.
    Can a band of condemned prisoners survive the horrors of Rappan Athuk? Find out in the Doomed Bastards. Characters here.
    Visit the Shackled City, from the pages of Dungeon magazine. Characters here.
    Wander the forgotten byways of Faerûn in Travels through the Wild West:
    Books I and II, Book III (the Isle of Dread), Book IV, and the final thread, Books V-VIII. Characters here.
    D&D fiction, adventures, NWN modules, and other stuff at my web page.

  • #7
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    Another fan here. You know, I didn't expect that potion to be what it was, in the end; I was wondering if the old marshall had some secret addiction the others weren't aware of. As always, great work, Lazybones! I can already see the usual strong characterization coming through in this new story hour, and I'm watching it with avid interest!
    Back in the saddle again.

    "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it." - G.K. Chesterton

  • #8
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    Thanks, Synchronicity. And don't worry, there will be plenty of twists and misdirections to come in this story.


    * * * * *

    Chapter 4


    THE MAUSOLEUM

    The gargoyles lifted into the air, their intent obvious.

    “Bows would have been right handy about now,” Dar said, drawing his sword.

    “Form a defensive ring!” Tiros shouted. But the gargoyles were already diving to the attack, and his companions were already launching their own counters.

    Navev had claimed a wickedly-spiked morningstar from the weapons provided by the Duke’s men, but he made no move for the ugly weapon stuck into his belt. As he looked up at the green gargoyles, his eyes began to shine with a red glow that cast the lines of his face into stark relief. As his hands came up, each likewise was surrounded by a faint scarlet nimbus that seemed to emanate from within his flesh.

    The warlock’s brought his hands together, and as the heels of his hands slapped, his fingers spread wide, the twin glows coalesced into an orb of coruscating red and black energies. The glowing sphere erupted from his grasp as soon as it was formed, flying up to strike the lead gargoyle solidly across its right shoulder. The creature screeched as the eldritch blast ripped into its unnatural hide.

    Unfortunately for Navev, his attack made him the primary target. Two gargoyles swooped down upon him, lashing out with their hind claws. One clipped the side of his head, opening a bloody gash an inch long in his scalp. The blow staggered him, and he fell back, the gargoyles in hot pursuit.

    Ukas let out a roar as he charged forward into the fray. Unconcerned by any tactical concerns, he merely swept his chain up into the torso of the nearest gargoyle as it dove, putting his full strength behind the swing. The gargoyle was hit hard enough to reverse the momentum of its dive, flying back several feet before it could recover. A second gargoyle swept around and came at the barbarian from behind, tearing a wicked series of gashes in his thick left bicep with a sweep of its claws.

    Dar and Varo moved back to back as a trio of gargoyles landed around them and leapt to the attack. The fighter adjusted his stance to face two of them, scoring a hit with his sword that appeared to have no effect upon the creature. “How in the hells are we supposed to kill these things?” he asked no one in particular.

    The last gargoyle dove at Tiros, blocking his route to Dar and Varo, its hind claws extended toward the marshal’s eye sockets. The old commander dove to the side, but he could not avoid a painful cut at the base of his neck as the claws tore blindly as his back. For a moment the gargoyle nearly had a grip on him, but then he fell free. The creature flapped its wings and landed a few feet away, turning to grin maliciously at the overmatched warrior.

    “The marshal is in difficulty,” Varo pointed out, narrowly evading his foe’s first rush.

    “I have my own problems!” Dar said, grimacing as he took several gashes to his less-protected arms. Thus far he was keeping his two foes at bay, but only barely.

    Navev tried to flee, but one of his foes flew ahead of him and landed in his path. Behind him, the other was fast approaching, intending to cut him off. With no place to go, the warlock hit his foe with another eldritch blast at close range. The energies of the sphere savaged the gargoyle again, blasting a swath across its torso, but it was clear that the creature could absorb a fair amount of punishment.

    Navev screamed as the two creatures leapt upon him.

    Ukas grunted as gargoyle claws tore at his limbs. Blood was running down his arms and legs from several shallow gashes, but the half-orc, lost within a blind fighting rage, paid those little hurts no heed. The gargoyle in front of him was still hovering, slashing with its hind claws, while the one at his back was coming at him with claws, horn, and bite.

    Taking up his chain, the barbarian swept it up into the injured gargoyle before him. The creature tried to dart back, but one end of the chain, weighted by an iron manacle, looped around its neck. The monster squeaked as Ukas heaved, yanking the gargoyle out of the air, and swinging it around until it collided into its companion. Both creatures fell to the ground, and Ukas released the chain as both of them got tangled up in the improvised weapon.

    Dar felt a cold chill spread through his body as one of the gargoyles facing him scored a pair of hits with its claws. The wounds were not serious, but for a moment he felt his muscles going numb, his guard coming down. A surge of desperation filled him, and he barely fought off the effect.

    “They have some kind of foul power!” he yelled to the cleric behind him. “Can you counter it?”

    “If I had my sigil, perhaps,” Varo said. His foe, seeing that the cleric’s weapons could not harm it, surged eagerly forward. Varo waited, letting it cut him across the body, his armor absorbing most of the force of the blow. The attack still hurt... but not as much as the gargoyle did a moment later, as the priest of Dagos seized the creature’s wrist, and unleashed the power of an inflict serious wounds into it. The gargoyle screamed and pulled back as nasty cracks appeared in its arm and shoulder.

    “You hurt it?” Dar asked over his shoulder, keeping his attention focused on his two adversaries.

    “Yes, but not enough,” the cleric replied, as his enemy snarled and came at him again.

    Tiros regained his footing just in time to meet the gargoyle’s renewed assault. Thus far, he had not even reached for the old sword at his belt, but as the gargoyle leapt at him for another attack, he snapped his fingers—the fingers of his right hand.

    Out of nowhere, a longsword of brilliant blue steel appeared in the old marshal’s hand. The gargoyle, surprised, nevertheless continued its attack, only to scream as Tiros slashed the blade across the side of its body. The sword seemed to sing as it rang against the monster’s stony flesh, and a huge crack erupted in its side.

    The gargoyle staggered back, newly cautious.

    Dar caught a glimpse of the marshal fighting off the gargoyle out of the corner of his eye. What in the hells? he thought. He didn’t have time to consider further as one of his foes, overconfident at the fighter’s ineffectiveness thus far, leapt at him with claws extended toward his throat. The fighter quickly recovered and dodged, driving his sword up into the gargoyle’s side. The creature’s resistances absorbed much of the strength of the blow, but the critical hit nevertheless had obviously hurt it.

    Unfortunately for Dar, the attack gave the creature’s companion an opening, and it leapt at him, tearing vicious gashes in his body as it threatened to bear him down beneath the fury of its assault.

    A final cry came from the direction of Navev, and was suddenly cut off. The warlock had vanished beneath the flapping wings and emerald bodies of the attacking gargoyles. But now he reappeared as the two monsters flapped their wings and lifted into the air. They carried the motionless and bloody form of the warlock between them, Navev hanging limp in their claws as they slowly lifted him upward toward the roof of the mausoleum.
    Lazybones's Story Hour Threads:
    Can a rag-tag band of heroes save the Earth from alien invasion? Find out in my X-COM story.
    My foray into 4th edition is Lazybones's Keep on the Shadowfell/Thunderspire Labyrinth. Characters here.
    Can a band of condemned prisoners survive the horrors of Rappan Athuk? Find out in the Doomed Bastards. Characters here.
    Visit the Shackled City, from the pages of Dungeon magazine. Characters here.
    Wander the forgotten byways of Faerûn in Travels through the Wild West:
    Books I and II, Book III (the Isle of Dread), Book IV, and the final thread, Books V-VIII. Characters here.
    D&D fiction, adventures, NWN modules, and other stuff at my web page.

  • #9
    De-lurking just to say how thrilled I am that you are undertaking a new story hour. So far this one seems to hold a lot of promise. I am particularly happy with how interesting and unique your characters are without them needing to be extra-planar or half-dragons with five different classes. Well done! I can't wait for future installments.

  • #10
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    Lb!

    Hey, LB great to see a new SH. I can't wait to see how it goes!
    Jason 'djordje' Pearson - javahead, lurker and all-around wallflower...all post are MY personal opinion.
    | contact me via email | visit my website | visit my .sig post - outdated, but still look @ it! |

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