Continued from ‘The Portal Under the Stars’
After months of travel, the band of adventurers found themselves in the lands of Musardi, their latest job bringing them into the humid wetlands of Mercy’s Mire. At the time, they were completing an escort contract, protecting an enterprising tinker through the savage plains of the Xanthous Steppe, known for its barbarous clans of Halfling reavers. The tinker had his doubts regarding the stories of ferocious smallfolk, but, as they neared their destination, he was glad to have had the foresight to hire a guard. Once within the small hamlet of Zivar, the adventurers took their payment and continued on their journey.
It was not long after that they came upon an unusual sight; a mob of somber men, marching through the mists in the dead of night. Torches held high above their heads, the mob was escorting a terrified woman at spearpoint, who pleaded with them for mercy. “It matters not how many times ye feed the beast,” the woman cried angrily, “The Hound is never sated! It won’t stop menacing Hirot if ye let it kill me. Please! Don’t do this!” But the mob trudged on with grim determination, prodding the pitiful wretch towards some ominous fate. The adventures curiously followed along, careful to keep themselves hidden, allowing the mists to cloak their presence.
The mob took the woman into an ancient circle of standing stones, at the crest of a tall hill that overlooked the surrounding swampland. Using the weathered rocks as cover, the adventurers watched as the mob struggled to tie down the helpless woman to a monolith, jutting out of the center of the circle. Once assured that the woman could not escape, the mob wordlessly turned and left. As they marched back down the hill, not one of them turned to look back at the woman, who hurled angry, venomous curses at them as they slunk back into the mists. “The Jarl is making cowards of ye all!” She yelled in vain. “It’s only a matter time ’fore he comes knocking on yer doo-!” Her last words were cut short by the arrival of thunderous footfalls, the ground trembling with each step, which were coming from the opposite side of the circle.
Out of the darkness, a hulking, ochre-skinned demon dog came bounding into view, moving purposefully toward the shivering figure tied to the monolith. The woman could hardly stand, let alone make a sound, as the hell hound rounded on her; its weirding-red eyes glowed wickedly as a deep thrum issued from it throat. The beast wasted no time, sinking its needle-like teeth right into the woman face, leaving her motionless after the first bite. The adventurers watched in silent horror as the monster made short work of the woman, flaying her with a repulsive vigor. With its dreadful purpose complete, the creature vanished quietly into the night, leaving only a horrible mess of viscera and bone. Once assured of their safety, the adventurers made haste down the hill, following the trail left behind by the mob.
Dawn was breaking when the adventurers arrived at the gates of HIrot, a modest village surrounding a grand hall, atop a rocky hill. The gates had barely come into sight when they were confronted by the village’s militia, who were skeptical of outsiders but did not antagonize them. After a tense exchange, the adventurers learned of their desperate plight: Over the last few of months, the demon hound has been terrorizing the citizens of Hirot, indiscriminately killing whoever it could find. The Jarl, Breonr Helvird, and the militia could not fell the beast, no matter what they tried. After the first five days, the Jarl turned to his most trusted theign, Barton, who used his gifts as a seer to ordain what must be done to repel the monster.
Barton was aghast at what he divined: in order to appease the demon, a sacrifice was required every three days, lest the beast come back to claim another life for itself. Once it’s appetite for killing had been satisfied, the hound would leave Hirot in peace, though he could determine when that condition would be met. Since then, the villagers have been forced to draw straws to determine who would be sacrificed. Men and women, elders and children; no one was safe from the lottery, and twenty-three poor souls met their end at the circle of standing stones.
The militia plead for the adventurer’s help, the weight of despair heard in their anxious voices. The adventurers agreed to help them all, under one condition: in exchange for their services, the Jarl of Hirot must renounce his title and step down as their leader, effective immediately. His crimes against his own people were unforgivable, the adventures argued, how could he continue to claim that he had the village’s best interest in mind? After an impassioned speech by the party, the militia remarkably took arms and rallied the whole town against the Jarl. Outnumbered, Jarl Breonr was placed in bonds and chained to a post in the center of the village, where he awaited his judgement.
Many villagers, feeling the foreign effervescence of hope, stepped forward to offer whatever they could to help. Rumors about what the hound could be and how it might be bested ran the gamut, but one story stood out above the rest. An old crone spoke of the legend of Ulfheonor, the hero of Hirot who slayed a demon to save his people from its wrath. Using his mighty spear, Ulfheonor pinned the demon to the earth and dealt the killing blow, never to return. “His tomb lies in the woods to the north of our village,” croaked the crone, “Seek out Ulfheonor’s Wolf-Spear. His sacred raiments may help you slay the hound once and fer all.” She warned them that many villagers held superstitions about disturbing the tomb, but it was the only course that no one else dared to try.
Stocked with a full compliment of supplies, the adventure trekked out to the Tomb of Ulfheonor, bringing along Jarl Breonr in chains to guide them. Once inside, the Jarl truly proved his usefulness, ‘volunteering’ to cross a greased decline surrounding a dark pit. The Jarl impaled himself on spikes at the bottom of the pit, but his corpse provided a much-needed support to anchor a rope across the gap. The party cautiously delved further, clashing with hellish ghouls, exterminating vicious snakes, and narrowly avoiding a collapsing ceiling. Ultimately, they found the resting place of Ulfheonor, hidden behind a false wall deep inside the tomb. Signs of recent tampering were everywhere, none more evident than the rotted corpse of a grave robber who fell victim to Ulfheonor’s last defense against theft; a poisoned needle placed on the shaft of his spear. Nonetheless, the adventurers took his raiments for themselves, setting out to kill the hound where it seemed to dwell: the standing stones.
Near midnight of the next day, a swirling wall of mists surrounded the circle of standing stones, where the adventurers awaited the arrival of the demon hound. It came without warning, the circle sudden filled with the booming of its footsteps as it rushing directly towards the harried party. It fought viciously, gnashing and clawing wildly with an unholy fury, yet the adventurers stood their ground, using the raiments of Ulfheonor to stay the beast. With the Wolf-Spear held high, one of their number pinned the hound to the earth, where it thrashed savagely but could not escape. They drove their weapons into the demon, over and over, until its eyes ceased to glow; its flesh melted away, leaving only its skeletal remains surrounded by a hideous black ichor. The mists had dissipated and the moon seemed to glow brighter as the adventurers marched victoriously back to Hirot, with the skull of the hound as proof of their concord kept.
Upon their return, the entire village greeted them as heroes, taking to the streets and exalting their deeds. A procession of grateful townsfolk lead them to the steps of the great hall, where theign Barton awaited them with an appreciative smile beaming on his weary face. Before the great hall, the heroes turned to face the citizens of Hirot and held up the skull of the hound. Thunderous cheers broke out all around them as the sun rose steadily into the morning sky, its golden rays casting away the shadows that permeated within the village walls. As the party stood their taking in their well-deserved praise, theign Barton stepped forward to address them and the villagers.
“We stand before you humbled and in awe, for we could not see an end to our living nightmare. I, for one, am thankful that you had the courage, ingenuity, and fortitude to find a way to defeat the demon hound. My own gifts failed me, failed all of us, and I am indebted to you.” A silence fell over the scene as Barton gathered himself and continued, “I speak for the citizens of Hirot, and it is their will that you all be made the Conclave of Jarls, to rule over our village and it’s lands. Do you accept this great burden?”
Again, the villagers broke out into cheers and applause, calling out to their heroes, their honeyed words lifting the adventurers up from the exhaustion in their bodies. The party accepted and the villagers cried out wildly, invigorated with renewed hope. Barton withdrew an impressively large precious stone from a cloth sack, deep crimson and glittering beautifully in the light of day. “This is the Jewel of Hirot,” proclaimed Barton. “It is customary that the new Jarl of Hirot takes into their hands, to show how they will treasure their new charge as rulers of our fair village. This is rightfully yours.” Barton held out the massive jewel, offering it to the party with his head bowed.
Adventures did not hesitate, reaching in unison to hold the brilliant jewel aloft, their reward well earned in their minds. However, as soon as their fingers touched the warm surface of the stone, an unnatural darkness fell before their eyes and the scene around them faded away. Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet gave way and they began to fall, rapidly and silently, into the black…
continued in ‘Intrigue at the Court of Chaos’