The Imperial Seal – an ancient artefact of the Reijin Empire. Whosoever possesses it can claim the Throne of Shiroishi and rule over Higashi-Rei, putting an end to years of conflict and battle. The Seal had been thought lost forever in the great battle of Ozu, but now rumours of its reappearance in the far-flung deserts of Gracia have sparked a race to find it and restore the Reijin Empire to a unified whole.
In your investigations you met Felipe Cortez, an automator who knew the whereabouts of the late Emperor Katsuyori Takeda, who was previously assumed to be dead. Persuading him to share his information, you have joined his caravan as he leads an expedition into the Gracian deserts to find the lost imperial.
You are currently travelling as part of Cortez’ archaeological caravan. It consists of a few key characters as well as half a dozen mercenary guards on camels and two automated beasts of burden (Constructs superficially similar to bulettes). The significant members of the caravan are as follows:
Male N Automator
A famed automator and personal friend of Cid Hermenegild, the current Caliph of Aldebaran. In his youth he sheltered a gravely wounded Takeda before he went into self-imposed exile.
Aurelius de Labran
Male N Duskblade
Cortez’ brother-in-law and bodyguard. His arms and shoulders were replaced with automated limbs after they were destroyed in a particularly gruesome battle.
Female N Rogue/Cleric
The bastard daughter of the late Emperor Takeda. She was born out of wedlock to the matron of one of the ninja clans serving the Emperor. She has come to Gracia to recover the Seal, but has no interest in claiming the throne herself.
Male CN Ranger
A gunman famed for the number of assassins he has killed. After killing his best friend to stop the Seal from falling into the wrong hands, he has vowed to make sure it finds its way to a worthy successor.
Male NE Fighter
An enforcer who once worked for the crime lord Farouq Nazari. Following Farouq’s demise, he has since shifted his allegiance to Lucia whom he serves loyally.
Male N Undead Samurai
A former soldier of the Reijin Empire who perished during the Kaneda Campaign. He was resurrected as a ghoul by the taint of the Black Lands. He was freed from servitude following the death of his master and has followed Evi as a guardian ever since.
Lucia de le Cruz
Female CN Sorceress
A capricious enchantress whose curiosity and desire for recognition has put her in pursuit of the Imperial Seal. Common interest has caused her to come to an agreement with Evi – They will work together… for now.
The home of the Reijin Empire, a country plunged into civil war following the (supposed) death of its Emperor and the loss of the Imperial Seal during the Kaneda Campaign. The main states vying for control are Elbon, Nori and Arebis.
The Kaneda Campaign
A grim period of time when the Throne of Shiroishi was seized by a dark warrior named Kaneda who raised an army of demonic creatures to usurp the Emperor. His rule lasted for four years before he was finally defeated by the allied forces.
The Iron Citadel – capital of Higashi-Rei. What was once a glorious beacon of majesty and power is now an abandoned ruin filled with rust and evil spirits.
The late Emperor of Higashi-Rei. Was thought to have been killed in the Kaneda Campaign, though rumours of his survival are not uncommon.
Also known as New Suel, it is an arid country inhabited by the descendants of the ancient civilisation of Suel. It is south of Higashi-Rei, across the Sahuagin Sea.
The capitol of Gracia, a relatively new city. The current Caliph is Cid Hermenegild.
The Unified Guild of Assassins (U.G.A)
A powerful organization of the world’s greatest assassins, believed to be based in Aldebaran. Rumour has it that they too are after the Imperial Seal, for reasons unknown.
The Aldebaran steppe is an unforgiving place. Beneath every stone lies death in the form of a glistening black scorpion or a venom-filled adder. The ground crumbles beneath your feet with each false step, giving way to jagged pitfalls and long-forgotten caverns. The sun beats down from above, fracturing the desiccated ground. Broken spires and gaping chasms form as the earth trembles and shifts, rearranging the surface world. Nothing is permanent here.
You have been travelling for a little over a week now, and yet your objective still seems so far away. In the distance you see the ground suddenly drop off, forming a steep cliff down to the ground below. As you draw nearer, you notice that a vast forest of cacti stretches across the arid plain from the base of the cliff. Something seems to stir within it, though you’re not sure if it is something real or just a trick of the light.
”The infamous wandering Saguaro forest,” Usman whispers, a hint of awe in his voice. His amber eyes scan the horizon, taking in the vast panorama before him. ”Never would I have thought I would see it in person.”
”You will do more than see it, my friend. It seems we must cross it to reach our destination.” Cortez comments, adjusting his spectacles. Despite the cloying desert heat, he seems quite cool - no doubt a result of his arcane talents. ”Though it surprises me also… I would not have guessed it this far north, not this time of year.”
”An unwelcome inconvenience.” Aurelius mutters. “I will scout a route down.”
He folds his arms as he walks towards the cliff edge, the metal of his shoulders gleaming in the sunlight.
Evi shifts uncomfortably on the saddle behind Haig. It seems that her wound still has not healed properly.
"What now, boss?" Siraj asks, turning to Lucia. A dribble of sweat runs down the muscular man's dark brow before being wiped away by a ragged sleeve. "Just take a break, mm?"
Let's get an initial post down to make sure everything's shipshape before we get started.
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Haig stares into the unforgiving desert, his dried-out eyes unblinking in the lashing desert sand. "Your wound, lady. It pains you." he rasps. A statement, not a question. He sounds thoughtful, as if trying to remember what pain feels like. He lurches from the saddle as the caravan stops, taking the reins in hand with some trepidation. It had taken a good deal for the beast to so much as come close to the ghoul, let alone bear him across the desert.
He fiddles with the saddlebags in silence, offering up the lambskin full of water to the wounded Evi, offering it up in silence and listening to the others as his loose-fitting shawls billow around him. His head whips around with unnatural speed at the mention of the path ahead. "Danger?" he asks, eyes narrowed. He turns to Evi, eyes fixed downward. "By your leave, I will join the scouting party."
Evi gives Haig her silent approval in the form of a nod before he joins the scouting party. For the better part of an hour you explore the cliff edge before finding a suitable path, wide enough to accommodate the camels and beast of burden. Traveling down to the base would be easy enough at a cautious pace, but moving quickly could be hazardous.
"There. Can you see it?" Usman says, pointing down to a small alcove in the rock face. It seems to be filled with dried plants, packed to form a sort of bedding. "A nest. And another over there... And more there, also." He clicks his tongue disapprovingly as he looks over the cliff face, counting the nests along it.
Aurelius scowls, adjusting his topaz-lensed goggles. "More trouble." He growls. "What foul beast awaits us?"
Usman shakes his head, a low sigh escaping him before he retreats from the edge. "I cannot tell. My hunting days are long behind me. We should inform the others."
1d20 + 10 ⇒ (7) + 10 = 171d20 + 15 ⇒ (13) + 15 = 281d20 + 10 ⇒ (6) + 10 = 161d20 + 12 ⇒ (1) + 12 = 13
At the caravan the men take the opportunity to relax for a moment, finding shade behind the large automatons and passing about a skin of local brew. They talk amongst themselves, playing an ancient suloise word game to keep themselves occupied and their minds off the sun. Evi stands by patiently, half-listening to their banter and half watching the shifting form of Svarog on the horizon. Something taps her on the shoulder, and she turns to see Cortez offering her something from atop his camel.
"We all have our moments of weakness." He says, extending a gilded darkwood makila (cane) towards her. A lazy smile sits on his face, his eyes hidden by the glare of his glasses. "There is no shame on relying on others, especially when they are so willing." He nods towards the undead warrior in the distance. "Here, it will help you while you recover."
Evi's hand hovers above the walking stick for a moment before she takes it. "I will... keep it in mind." she says, turning her eyes away from him and back to Haig. "... but I will not repeat the mistakes of my past. Not this time. I won't have anyone else suffer for my sake."
Cortez raises his eyebrows, before straightening up and looking out into the desert. "Now where have I heard those words before?" He lets out a soft laugh, urging his camel forward before calling back to her. "You have his spirit."
The cliff is far from vertical, dropping about 50ft across a span of around 25ft in width. There seems to be at least half a dozen nests about the path that leads to the ground, where it immediately becomes a cactus forest. Nothing is immediately visible in them from above. The top of the cliff is mostly clear of debris: red stone blasted flat by wind and sand. You do not need any special equipment or ropes to descend, a large-size creature can move down safely at quarter speed, a medium-sized on at half speed. Moving faster requires an acrobatics check to not dislodge or slip on any loose rocks or debris, risking a rough tumble down the cliffside.
Haig accompanies the scouting party in silence, wrapped in his shawl and standing stiffly over the shoulder of deLabran and Usman, only vaguely aware that he makes them uncomfortable.
"Hold." he growls, the words slow to form in his dry throat. "We should take a closer look at these nests. Can we reach one from our trail?"
Usman contemplates Haig's words before nodding in agreement."You might be right." He retrieves his longbow from its harness and begins stringing it. "You and De Labran should be able to get down to one without much difficulty. I will keep an overwatch - make sure nothing approaches from behind." He tightens the bow, checking the tautness of the strings before letting out a sigh. "A Soto would be more comfortable for me... But I suppose this will do.
Aurelius grumbles, pulling his hood up over his head. "You get the blame if there's bats." he says accusingly. "Bats. Vermin. With wings. Tch."
It is easy enough to get down to the nearest alcove, and requires no checks or special actions. You can roll a perception check for me if you decide to go down.
1d20 + 10 ⇒ (17) + 10 = 271d20 + 15 ⇒ (4) + 15 = 19
The ghouls thin lips curl and he makes a noise somewhere between a snarl and a smirk. "Bats..." he says. "You will find far worse in the dark places of this world than bats. Take it from me."
Haig lopes down the trail, loose rock and sand crumbling underfoot. He approaches the lip of one of the caves, and presses his ear to the ground. If he hears nothing, he will enter the cave, and see what his darkvision can find. BECAUSE TAKE THAT, DISTANCE PENALTIES!
Stealth1d20 + 12 ⇒ (5) + 12 = 17
Perception #21d20 + 10 ⇒ (3) + 10 = 13
Edit: BEST ROLLS NA, NERF PLZ
"As long as it takes an axe." Aurelius says. He scratches at some phantom pain in his left arm; the scraping sound of metal on metal. "I dislike... swarms of things."
De Labran follows Haig down, revealing an unusual grace for his bulky frame. He draws his axe as he reaches the entrance, standing behind Haig as he enters.
1d20 + 10 ⇒ (9) + 10 = 191d20 + 9 ⇒ (4) + 9 = 131d20 + 9 ⇒ (5) + 9 = 141d20 + 7 ⇒ (11) + 7 = 18
Haig, inside you see two large forms curled up inside a nest. You cannot make out what they are, save from the leathery wings furled up against their sides and the slow rise and fall of their breathing. It appears your presence has not roused them from their slumber. Aurelius stands behind you at the cave entrance, waiting for instruction.
The alcove is 15ft deep and 7ft (2 squares) wide, just large enough to accommodate the two large creatures side-by-side. You do not know what they are.
Haig signals for De Labran to fall back, as he slinks back into the sunlight.
"Two winged beasts. Bats, perhaps. Or I have heard of great winged creatures with the heads of lions and scorpions tails..." he growls, keeping his voice low. "They slumber still, and a fair distance from the trail. We should pray our passage does not wake them."
Satisfied, Haig casts one last look over the ravine below, decayed fingers curled around the unfamiliar blade at his side. A dead man's weapon. Carrion. He returns to the camp with his head bowed, acknowledging Usman only with a "You may want to hold on to that bow."
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Sitting at the back of the group, she'll smile at Siraj.
"Pretty much. Gods, I had no idea this would all take so long, thought I'd just hop down and grab a shiny bit of metal that'd make me a Queen, well, Empress I suppose, it's all the same in the end. Look where I am now, tramping through the desert with some astounding people, bodyguard at my side."
She turns her gaze to Evi, "I do wonder if what she says is true, she certainly seems to think it does..." Heaving a sigh, she'll mutter under her breath, "This was all so much easier in my head."
"At least we get to go through a forest, hopefully there's someone in there to talk to, might be able to find out why it's this far north already.
Haig, Aurelius and Usman return to the caravan, reporting news of both the path and the sleeping creatures. Cortez carefully listens to the report, stroking his goatee in contemplation before speaking once more in his lilting accented manner.
"Hrm. Wyvern. Drake. Manticore... They could be creatures of any manner, none of which we wish to wake. Utmost caution we must take. If I could, I would wish to avoid them altogether."
He calls the rest of the caravan over to discuss what route they should take.
"Circumnavigating this cliff face would add an unknown amount of time to our journey," Aurelius says impassively. "We should just head down the cliff path. If the beasts awaken, then we fight - stun them with a show of force. We've enough power and strength of arms between us to fell a roc; Wyverns and Drakes are of little concern."
Usman snorts a little. "Bold words. I've seen many people fall to hubris such as that. Any threat must be given proper care - Particularly when their numbers are unknown. We don't know how many of these creatures there are, or even what they are. Assumptions at this point are folly." Usman folds his arms and closes his eyes. "Still, I see no other real alternatives."
Cortez nods in agreement. "Indeed. Perhaps someone else has an idea. What are your thoughts?" he ventures, turning towards Haig, Evi, Lucia and Siraj.
"You wish my counsel?"
Haig looks thoughtful. He bows his head and begins to speak, quietly, his raspy voice not accustomed to a large group. "I know not how long the days are in this country, but it would take us some time to see the caravan down the hill, by which time nightfall may come and every beast on the cliffside may be upon us."
"If Jakobi's gaze falters, we either drive them away with arrow-fire or take the fight to them. Their nests are narrow and dark, they could not take wing. If we are swift and silent enough, a few of us could slay them before they strike." He pulls his shawl tighter and folds his arms. "I offer merely an alternative, Aldebaran." he says, nodding toward Usman. "I would not be so quick to abandon our strength of numbers." he says, trailing off and looking expectantly at Evi. "It is not my decision to make."
|Lucia De La Cruz|
At Haigs second suggestion, Lucia looks at him with distaste.
"Well, I might be able to tell you what some of them are, but it seems like a lot of time and effort for a maybe. I say leave them be, if they see us as prey later we just need to show them we're another predator and they should leave us be."
"Not all my decision in the end, if you would feel safer...removing them, then that's up to you."
Cortez nods thoughtfully as he listens. "Unneccesary death would not bring me any satisfaction", he says, looking down in contemplation. "We will risk the cliff face. If we are quiet and give no provocation then, I pray, we can reach the bottom unmolested." He looks up across the caravan, adresssing everyone now. "But if things do go awry, I will rely on you all, our combined might, to deliver us safely. I have faith. We move now, find your camels and steel.
The mercenaries disperse to their mounts, checking pack straps and saddlebags, counting arrows and wrapping turbans.
Evi remains silent still, having only a vague awareness of the discussion that just occured. Much of her time, you notice, has been spent in silent contemplation, eyes fixed on the silhoutte of the monolith. Day by day she grows more distant, more cold, as impassive and emotionless as the shifting desert sands.
"Did 'e say wyvern, boss?" Siraj asks, a hint of curiousity in the olive-skinned man's voice. "Never seen a wyvern before. Not up close, 'least. Most of my time on the Steppe was spent underground."
Anything else before heading down the cliff-face?
Haig sees to his arms and armour, donning his mail and checking his curved blade in his scabbard. He spares Evi a glance, but in truth silence suited Haig. He was not one for speaking.
Haig loiters by Lucia's side, standing stiff and unmoving uncomfortably close to Siraj. "Then you have been here before, thief?" the ghoul asks, slowly. The curiosity is not apparent on his gaunt face, but it is clear in the tone of his voice. "You will tell me of this forest. I have heard them say it moves across the desert as the hordes of the Howling Dukes..." he says, with the bitter tones of a memory he wished forgotten. "But that is impossible. The dead may walk, but a plant cannot."
"No, uh... not this far out, at least" Siraj says, swallowing as he takes a half-step back from the undead warrior. "I don't really know too much about the Saguaro myself, but I can tell you what the men say 'least." He moves over to his camel, speaking as he unties the saddlebag to check its contents. "The cactus, the plants... They say that on nights that la Luna dances with Cuervo and Pantera that they uproot themselves and become as men. Giant things with grasping roots and hollow eyes that feast on blood, travelling many miles through the darkness, as swift as Khagan horses. But come the daylight they bury their roots deep and hide their true nature." Siraj finishes his rather excited description before turning back to look at Haig. "Or at least, that's how the legends go. I am not sure if I believe it myself, but it sounds an amazing thing."
He seems to forget himself for a moment, a dopey grin plastered on his face, not bothering to hide his passion for legends and the fantastic.
Lucia does not have much more to add to this description. She has not heard more than this herself.
Haig sits himself down to listen to the man speak, laying his blade across his lap and sharpening it with measured strokes. One would think he wasn't listening were his milky eyes not fixed on the back of Siraj's head. Haig lets out a grunt and stares at the darkening sky. "Let us hope nightfall brings no surprises." he says, lurching unnaturally fast to his feet, resting his hand on his blade, and walking away calmly to the head of the caravan, snarling at the merecenaries to make haste as he checks his meagre supplies and mounts up, rearing the camel around with long, swaying steps and offering Evi his withered hand. "We make ready to leave. There may be trouble ahead. Your leg, lady. Will you be fit to fight?"
Evi snaps from her torpor as Haig adresses her directly. "I would think so, yes." she says. "It will be... unfamiliar, but it is no great feat of acrobatics to throw knives or cast a spell." Even the way she speaks had changed since when they first met. Her youthful exhuberance and propensity to speak in (often nonsensical) circles was all but gone.
She quickly checks the knives on her thighs, drawing each one in sequence before deftly twirling them and returning them to their holsters. Haig helps her onto the saddle before climbing up himself.
Lucia and Siraj follow suit, and join with the caravan as they head towards the cliff path. Usman takes point, guiding the group on foot as he picks out the path down the cliffside.
The marching order at the moment is as follows.
~ Lucia and Siraj
~ Evi and Haig
~ Two Automatons
~ Six Mercenaries
~ De Labran
1d20 + 10 ⇒ (6) + 10 = 161d20 + 5 ⇒ (16) + 5 = 211d20 + 9 ⇒ (5) + 9 = 141d20 + 10 ⇒ (19) + 10 = 29
The path is narrow and treacherous, and progress slow. Save for the occasional groan of camels or the sound of skittering rocks, all is quiet. Far above, the shadow of a bird circles against the pale blue sky, the White River barely visible. A shiny black scorpion sits still on a flat rock, slowly opening and closing its claws as it watches you pass.
Things seem to be going well for the most part, until you suddenly hear the braying of a camel behind you. Turning back to see what the commotion is, you catch a glimpse of one of the mercenaries struggling to control his mount. Haig, you quickly discern the cause of the camel's distress: a large adder has crawled from the rocks and bitten the creature. Something must be done - it does not seem like the rider can control his panicked mount, which threatens not only his safety, but the safety of the men around him.
There are two automatons and another mercenary between you and the afflicted man, a total distance of about 30ft. You need to calm or silence the creature in some way - not only does it risk the chance of falling from the edge, but its panicked braying may also wake the slumbering creatures in their nests.
This looks more like a job for Lucia, but I'll go ahead and roll my handle animal to see if I can't silence the thing. Let her cast daze or something if this fails. Or s@#&, do it anyway, I feel like I'm beating ol' Drew to the punch with these posts.
Haig slips from his saddle, passing Evi the reins, he deftly squeezes to the back of the caravan, shooing away the adder. Casting a hollow glance at the rider, he opens his mouth "Don't pull on the reins." he snarls, snatching them from him steadying the mount with his otherworldly strength. "This isn't a horse. You'll only spook the beast more."
Handle Animal 1d20 + 6 ⇒ (20) + 6 = 26
The camel calms itself as it is brought back under control. The mercenary gives Haig an appreciative nod. "That was close." he sighs. "Praise Ozaryel, it looks like she is not badly poisoned either. Thank you."
It appears as though the commotion has gone unnoticed. Nothing stirs in the nests that you can see, nor down below. Slowly, the caravan begins to move once more. For the better part of an hour you descend the cliffside. Rocks crumble as automatons squeeze across narrow routes and step over craggy gaps. There are a few close calls, but for the most part you travel without problem. It seems you've made good time - you reach the base of the cliff with many hours of daylight left to spare.
1d20 + 5 ⇒ (12) + 5 = 171d20 + 5 ⇒ (19) + 5 = 241d20 + 5 ⇒ (16) + 5 = 211d20 + 7 ⇒ (18) + 7 = 25
You stand at the edge of the Saguaro Forest. A vast sea of cacti stretches out before you, ranging from short, sphere-like cacti to towering plants over 40ft tall. The ground here is soft and loamy, givng way easily beneath your feet. The caravan stops for a moment to check inventory and make sure everybody is in one piece.
"Lady Luck smiles upon us," Cortez says, his relief palpable. "I did not expect things would go so well. We break for ten minutes, and then we forge onwards."
Lucia, you know that you are likely to encounter fae of some sort in here. However, the fey of the steppe are cruel and capricious even by fey standards: Like the desert they were born from, they are cruel and unforgiving. Fey you are likely to encounter are Spriggans, Gallow-Hangers (Scarecrows), Sylphs (Air-aligned fey) or perhaps even Salamanders. The legends suggest animated plants could be here too, but you know of none that could thrive in such an environment.
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Lucia dismounts and stretches languidly, staring into the Forest with a tilt to her head, as though observing it.
"I probably don't need to mention this, but we're going to have to be very careful going through that. There are going to be many fae in the Forest, and I can't imagine them to be the kindly type, with the automatons and Haig around they might be more aggressive than usual, we'll have to be on our guard at all times"
Lucia smiles sadly to herself
'I've only been with these people about two weeks and I'm already talking like a soldier, not exactly what I expected.'
"Why do we stop? We were making good time!" the ghoul snarls, dismounting and helping Evi from the camel. He grimaces slightly as he tries to find some words of comfort, but stiffly turns away and stands deathly still by the Saguaro's edge, peering into the maze of green, unblinking.
He makes one final sweep of the caravan, eyes scanning the cliffside above. He glides past Lucia and makes for his camel. "I am always on guard."
Cortez slowly rounds the caravan, watching over everyone before stopping near Haig.
"Be calm, my friend. We must check to make sure we are not missing anything, and tend to the wounds of our mounts." He explains. "Even the smallest cut will quickly fester in the heat if left untreated. We will move out shortly."
The men work quickly, dressing wounds with ointments and rehydrating themselves. Satisfied, they begin to ready themselves once more, and slowly head into the Saguaro forest.
"You raise a good point," Cortez says, addressing Lucia. "I had been hoping for our group to be too large for them to bother, but you may be right in of the company we keep. I doubt we will be able to pass through in a single day, so we must break camp at some point."
I'll post again when I get home; if you want to do anything in the break you can. Marching order is the same as before. You can alter it if you wish.
"Sorceress." the ghoul snarls. "What manner of creatures live in such a cursed place?"
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Lucia starts, interrupted from her reverie.
"Oh! Uhh, you know, the usual. Scarecrows, Spriggan, maybe the odd Salamander, though I don't know if I'd expect them in the middle of the forest. Sylphs, too, but they tend to be a little nicer than the others. I'm not amazingly familiar with these parts, so they could even have some I've never heard of. Should be some good fun!" She says wryly.
Ciaran is a f@@@+%
Cacti loom around you as you navigate your way through the forest of plants, almost too huge to be true, but even in the shadows of these gargantuan plants you cannot completely escape the scorching heat of the Gracian sun. The plants seem to shimmer with every passing breeze, needles shaking menacingly in all directions. Some cacti clump together, forming massive walls of plant matter, while others are spread further apart. Navigation is simple, however - head towards the monolith. The men are silent for the most part, somewhat awed by these new surroundings.
"Wait, do you see that?" Usman says, slowing the pace of his camel to a crawl. He points at something in the distance. Lucia can't see anything through the plant-life, but Haig makes something out in the distance. "What is that?
Against a cactus, barely visible, is a humanoid figure. Suspended a dozen feet above the ground, he is bound, his arms wrapped about the body of the plant. Needles pierce through his dessicated flesh, stretched taut across his now-skeletal frame - he has clearly been dead for a while.
YOU FILTHY CHEATERS: 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (7) + 10 = 171d20 + 10 ⇒ (8) + 10 = 181d20 + 15 ⇒ (7) + 15 = 221d20 + 0 ⇒ (4) + 0 = 4
"Up there!" the ghoul shouts. "It's a corpse." the ghoul states, calmly, eyes darting to and fro to find another path before riding his camel up to Usman's side.
"Keep your distance. Something tells me it won't be as friendly as I am." he says, with a dry, rasping sound that might be a chuckle. His face straightens almost immediately, but there is some embarrassment in his gaunt features. "It's trouble." he says, soberly. "I know no more than that."
He turns to Evi, only to find her staring mournfully into the distance. His dry, unblinking eyes fix on Lucia, staring in silence before he speaks up. "Your professional opinion, witch?"
As Haig points it out, Lucia too becomes aware of the corpse hanging from the cactus. Read spoiler above.
Against a cactus, barely visible, is a humanoid figure. Suspended a dozen feet above the ground, he is bound, his arms wrapped about the body of the plant. Needles pierce through his dessicated flesh, stretched taut across his now-skeletal frame - he has clearly been dead for a while.
You are not sure what could have done this. It's just guess-work at this point.
Evi turns her head towards the body for a moment, a ring of unnatural blue surrounding her irises for a second. You hear her mutter a short Achaean epitaph.
"This corpse is a corpse." She says dully. "Nothing more. Haig, ride closer - I might be able to determine how he died."
"Damn. Who could have done this?" Aurelius says, looking up at the body. "Does this mean there are others in this forest besides us?"
"I don't like the looks of this, Boss." Siraj says, his fingers idly tapping the shaft of his pick. "Reminds me of the turf wars between the lower western gangs before Farouq brought 'em to heel. Look like someone's markin' their territory. Or maybe something."
1d20 + 7 ⇒ (5) + 7 = 121d20 + 12 ⇒ (17) + 12 = 291d20 + 6 ⇒ (15) + 6 = 21
Haig nods, grimly, and begins to spur the mount, swaying side to side as the ungainly beast reluctantly rides forward.
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Evi dismounts as you draw near the the base of the cactus, with some dificulty. She draws a knife and walks towards it. It seems as though she wishes to scale it.
"H-hey," Usman says, shocked. "You can't seriously expect to climb that. You'll be impaled!"
Evi turns her head slowly and stares at him incredulously before Cortez interjects. "If I may suggest an easier... and safer... alternative," he chants a short phrase and some of the glyphs on his gloves begin to glow. With a steady upwards motion, he raises his hands as if lifting something. Evi slowly begins to rise from the ground. She turns back towards the cactus as she levitates upwards, her arms spread slightly as if to steady herself.
Spellcraft: 1d20 + 14 ⇒ (2) + 14 = 16
Lucia, although you cannot identify the kind of magic he is using, you can at least tell that he is not casting any spells at all. Rather, it seems as if he is relying on the magic of his gloves to do the work for him. And now that you think about it, you don't believe you've ever seen Cortez cast a spell - strange indeed, since a mastery of the arcane is usually required to craft magical paraphernalia as he does.
Evi quickly ascends to the height of the corpse, where she cuts its bonds and carefully pulls it from its position. Just as quickly as he raised her, Cortez returns her to the ground, placing her gently onto the soft, sandy soil of the desert floor. Evi places the corpse down on the soil and begins to inspect it.
Heal: 1d20 + 16 ⇒ (20) + 16 = 36
"The neck is broken," she says, running her fingers across the leathery hide. Up close, the body is even more horrific, covered in puncture wounds and its mouth agape as if locked into an eternal scream. Black marks stain the face, as if some thick ichor had run down and dried from the place where its eyes had been. "Abrasions across the neck. It's almost as if he was hanged... At any rate, he was dead before he was put on display."
Lucia knows immediately what the cause of this is. Cortez seems to draw the same conclusion. "Gallow-Hangers." he says. "This will be troublesome."
Knowledge (Nature): 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (17) + 7 = 24
Lucia, you know all too well about Gallow-Hangers. They are wicked and cruel spirits associated with the ancient death deity Grimnir. In their natural form they are incorporeal spirits, little more than wisps of smoke on the wind. However, the form most people associate with them is that of the scarecrow: a collection of wood, bones, hay and old clothes bound together into some mockery of human shape and then possessed by the Gallow-Hanger. Once they have bound themselves into a physical form, they are permanently sealed inside of it until destroyed. They constantly seek to murder and abduct humanoids to provide the frames to create more of their kind, making them a menace to all humanoid races. Their preferred method of execution is, as their name suggests, hanging their victims with a noose of rope or vines. You know that the gallow-hangers of Gracia were different to the ones found elsewhere, but you lack the GEOGRAPHICAL KNOWLEDGE to remember how exactly.
POST HALVED. There's more stuff to be done before moving on, but we'll discuss this first.
"Gallow-Hangers?" Siraj asks, scratching his neck. "I don't like the sound of that. What're they?"
Cortez folds his arms. "You might know them better as scarecrows - bandits that adbuct travellers in the desert and hang them by the neck, using the bodies to make more of their kind. I had once thought they were animated constructs, but that turned out to be wrong. Their magic is different from an automatons... They may be some kind undead." he says, pondering the question. "I'm not too versed with the creatures of the desert... well, at least not the ones that do not pertain to my work. I'm afraid it's not part of my expertise."
|Lucia De La Cruz|
"They're a type of fey," Lucia interjects, "Restless and malicious spirits, they roam around until they possess a bunch of scraps, and mimic a humanoid form, that's when they become scarecrows. Their drive is to abduct and kill humanoids to make more of their kind. They're cruel, vicious, and can't be bargained with, steer clear or destroy them."
"Fey?" Cortez says, somewhat surprised. "I must say that is unexpected. As is your expertise, and I mean that in the best possible sense. I am glad to have someone who knows more about this than I." He turns towards Evi. "Are you done inspecting the cadaver? I expect we should give him a proper buri-... Evitaerc? What is it?"
Evi seems to almost be frozen in place, staring at the piece of cloth in her hand, pulled from the folds of the corpse's tattered belongings not a moment ago.
"This man wasn't a Gracian." she begins, slowly unfurling the cloth. She slowly turns around, looking over at Haig. "He was Reijin."
Though the cloth is tattered, the seal emblazoned on it is clear: A black half-sun behind a stylized diamond.
The sight makes your blood boil. Visceral emotion fills you to the brim. You can hear the sounds of battle, the sight of banners fluttering in the wind. For a second you are there again on the fields of Ozu, black clouds roiling above as man and monster clash in bloody combat. You can feel the splatter of blood on your skin, the sound of creaking bones and scraping metal. Giant brutes tear men to pieces with wicked spikes, scythes slice through armor and flesh alike. A horn sounds in the distance. You can see him there, atop the hill, backed by his monochrome banner. He stares at you - into you - and somehow it feels as if he owns you completely. The warlord Kaneda. The sight fills you with hate. You draw your sword. Enemies swarm about you. It is kill or be killed. They must die.
Will: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (5) + 2 = 7
Knowledge (Nobility): 1d20 + 4 ⇒ (18) + 4 = 22
Despite your rather rudimentary knowledge of Reijin affairs, you can still recognize the symbol as one of the most infamous in all of Reijin history: that of the warlord Kaneda.
Haig lets out a vicious roar at the sight of the cloth. He draws, swinging it about as if slashing at some invisible foe. His camel rears up, throwing him from the saddle as he viciously pulls the reins. He staggers to his feet, clumsily slashing at the air as he rises. His features are completely bestial - some fury seems to have consumed him. If you cannot calm him in some way, he might seriously hurt someone.
Evi tumbles backwards away from him, drawing a dagger, readying herself in case of an attack.
"Haig!" she shouts. "Stop this at once! There are no enemies here!"
Haig turns towards her with a snarl, his focus now on her.
"B-Boss! He's lost it!" Siraj yells, drawing his pick. "What d'we do?"
Initiative: 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (4) + 7 = 111d20 + 3 ⇒ (9) + 3 = 121d20 + 8 ⇒ (19) + 8 = 271d20 + 2 ⇒ (6) + 2 = 8
Post your actions for the first round of combat. Haig, you can make a will save each round to come back to your senses.
1d20 + 2 ⇒ (16) + 2 = 18
Haig lurches upward, torso contorting unnaturally as his limbs seize up as he seems to stare through Evi. He doesn't see her. He lashes about in a panic, surrounded by spikes and shadows and warm meat. He flings his blade to the ground and collapses into the loamy sand, shielding his eyes from the sun. His clawed fingers dig deep troughs into the ground as he lets out several rattling breaths as he clutches at his throat, the snarl dying in the back of his throat.
He stares around, eyes glazed, at the faces watching him, the drawn blades. His eyes fix on Evi, the confusion still lingering on the edges of his voice. "Those eyes... The screams...I..."
"I was there... lady. On the fields of Ozu. Did I ever tell you that?" he says, with an unsettling calm in his voice, and all of a sudden his anger seems to flood back into him. "You swore to me. You SWORE." he snarls, pounding his fist into the dirt. "You swore that next time..." he begins, with a rattling breath "Next time that you would run me through."
Slowly, he reaches for his sword, fingers digging into the hilt as he tears open the front of his robe, a solemn expression on his face, the tip dancing below his ribcage as he prepares to plunge the blade into his abdomen, head hung and eyes fixed on the ground.
|Lucia De La Cruz|
The use of bigger and smaller text is beautiful. I had forgotten it exists.
Haig's body freezes for a moment as Lucia's spell takes hold, a wave of lethargy washing over him holding his body in place.
"Y-yes Boss!" Siraj says quickly. He hesitates for a moment, unsure of how to approach, but turns his head to the right as he hears the sound of footsteps coming from Evi's direction. A flash, a glimmer - the distance between them vanishes in an instant. A knee is brought up into the base of Haig's chin with a crunch, sending him flying onto his back. His sword skitters away into the sand, landing at Siraj's feet. Something heavy lands on the ghoul's body with a thud. Evi's shadow looms over him, framed by the Gracian sun, her boot planted on his chest.
"Idiot!" She roars the word, her expression invisible in the darkness of her silhouette. "You would die for this? For this?" She winces in pain as her bad leg seems to give way. She collapses to one knee, pressing down on the ghoul's chest. The disgust in her voice is almost palpable. "... For something like this..."
Something drips onto Haigs face from above. "I swore! I swore that if need be, I would kill you myself." she says, anger in her voice. Her hands tighten into fists around his collar, lifting his head from the ground. "But that day is not yet here. No! And until that day comes you will not fall. By your own blade or the blade of our enemy, Haig, you will not fall. I won't let you." Their faces only inches away, he sees her eyes, burning with emotion. Anger. Grief. Determination. Hate. They pierce through him, deeper than any sword could ever reach.
She drops him back into the sand and stands slowly. Beckoning Siraj over, she takes the sword from him, planting it into the ground beside Haig's head. "Pick yourself up, Orotoshi-dono. I have need of your blade yet."
Evi turns her face to Lucia as she begins to walk away, giving her a silent nod of thanks.
Haig picks himself up slowly. Reeling a little, he draws his shawl over his eyes and clutches his chest, and looks, if only for a moment, as if he would be weeping if he could. He stands tall, almost regal, for a moment the stately warrior of old. "I apologise." he says, without so much as a glance at the others. "You need not worry. The madness will not come again." he says, drawing close to Siraj, noting as the Gracian backs away as he picks up his abandoned blade and sheaths it.
"I shall take point for a while, to put some jarred nerves to rest." he says, head bowed, and makes deeper into the forest on foot, head bowed in shame and confusion, but face grim and resolute.
Haig will remain 20 feet ahead of the caravan. He's immune to fatigue, so if he needs to run to keep pace, so be it. At the first sign of trouble he will drop into stealth and fall back to warn the others.
The day wears on as the caravan makes its way through the forest. The men chatter idly with each other, the earlier incident still fresh in their minds. Aurelius grows impatient with their gossiping and snaps at them.
"It's over!" he growls. "Leave it be. Don't you think he gets enough without your blathering?"
De Labran didn't seem like the considerate type before this. Perhaps something about this whole thing seems to have hit a nerve. The men quieten down for about twenty minutes, but eventually start up again, playing another suloise word game to pass the time.
Cortez calls out to Usman at the front.
"Darkness comes soon," he says, "We should find a clearing to make camp." Usman gives him a nod before riding forwards to Haig's side.
"This forest is too thick to traverse within the day." he says, pointing to the cacti in front of you. "The others will wait here while I find a good place to break."
After a moment of silence he turns to the ghoul, a friendly look on his face. "If you do not mind... I would have you join me. I could use the company."
If you decide to go with him, survival and perception rolls plux
1d20 + 15 ⇒ (4) + 15 = 191d20 + 10 ⇒ (7) + 10 = 17
Haig seems taken aback. He nods thankfully, and follows on foot, in silence. His eyes easily adjust to the coming darkness, and he loses himself to his task, walking in silence for some time.
Survival: 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (15) + 10 = 25
Perception:1d20 + 10 ⇒ (13) + 10 = 23
"That is twice. Twice in as many weeks. She bears enough burdens without bearing the burden of undeath..." he lets out a guttural sigh. "... and twice I have endangered you, Gracian. I am sorry."
Usman shakes his head. "You needn't apologize," he says nonchalantly. "We all have times when we lose ourselves. At least there is a reason for your doing so."
He lets out a self-deprecating laugh. You can still remember the fight in the town square, the look of terror on Farouq's face as the bullet pierced his throat.
"I still wonder if I did the right thing." he says, quietly. "But this girl... Somehow I want to believe that she can bring this Seal into hands more deserving than my brother. Or rather, I have to believe that... or else he would have died for nothing."
He sighs. "Forgive me, I ramble."
There does not appear to be much in the way of shelter in the Saguaro forest, but the pair are undeterred. You soon find a rocky area and begin scouting it out for a good area to lay a tarp.
"You are kind, but I must master myself. I must not be conquered by dead man's memory and a tattered rag." he spits. "It was the banner of the warlord, Takeda, and his army of horrors. He slew many, myself and my fellows among them." he says, shaking his head and biting his tongue.
"You follow us still, to the cruelest of places." the ghoul says, with a glance at the long shadows and the wicked barbs that surround him. "We... owe you a great debt. But tell me, was this man... Farouq... was he truly so close to the Seal? Some days I begin to doubt it's existence, it is as if we are chasing a specter."
Haig buries himself in his work, shifting the rubble to find a suitable spot, working in somber silence.
"You owe me nothing," Usman begins with a smile. "If anything, it is I who owe a debt. Had you and your allies not freed me from my cell, I would be there still: A man with no purpose, destined the stand against the wall." The saying is unfamiliar, but his meaning is clear.
"As for Farouq, he seemed to think so. 'Almost in the palm of my hand, brother...' He had said those words to me, and I had believed him. If you had seen the expression in his eyes, you would have too. I had known Farouq for all my life, but in that moment... he was a stranger."
Usman's eyes meet Haig's. "Farouq was greedy, but he wasn't a fool. If he believed he could reach it, then I do too. That's why I had to stop him. I had intended to bury the Seal before it was even uncovered."
He looks away, his brow furrowed. "I miss him, still."
A soft breeze whistle through the forests, the needles about shivering as if in reaction to the steadily declining temperature.
"But enough about me," he continues, surveying around the area before. "Here should be fine."
He gestures for you join him as he starts back towards the caravan. "Sometimes I wish I could forget. Start anew. I wonder if I would be different, or if my nature is inescapable..." he waxes, as much to himself as to his companion. He turns his head slightly, casting a glance back at the ghoul. "Your past... Is it something you want to remember?"
"Want? It has been a long thing since I have thought about what I want. You'd be surprised how little things matter when one's heart stops. I think only of what must be done." Haig says stiffly, but his dry, milky eyes look thoughtful. "My past..." he says, pained. "No. Before my death I remember nothing but horrors and war, but I know there is nothing for me there... Not anymore."
The sun begins to set as the group set up camp at the base of a rock formation. An automaton lies motionless in the sand as Aurelius opens its hatch-like back, revealing the supplies contained within. Pitons are dug into the rock and sand-coloured tarpaulins set up against the rock face. A fire is started and bedrolls unfurled as the men make ready for the night. Preserved meats sizzle as they're roasted over the open fire, and men exchange stories of previous forays into the desert. Siraj listens intently, clapping his hands and roaring with laughter at the absurd and amazing tales.
Usman sits atop the rocky outcrop, trying to gain some sort of vantage point, though it seems he does not clear the treeline. His hawk-like amber eyes scan the surroundings, ever wary of some hidden threat. Shadows hang on his face, his expression dour.
Aurelius sits away from the group as Cortez inspects his left arm. Without his shirt, you see just how far the extent of his automation goes, spreading not only from his shoulders but to the entirety of his back and chest as well, riveted directly into his body. Cortez slowly lifts the shoulder plate off and begins to unscrew the joint about the top of De Labran's arm. With a hiss and a click, it seems to come loose. Cortez begins to pull it slowly, and with a soft scraping sound he detaches it completely. The men gawk from across the camp, nudging each other and muttering rumours. De Labran's gaze catches them and with a snarl he sends them back to their own business.
"How long has it been like that?" Cortez asks, his voice low and far away. "Two days." is Aurelius' simple reply. Cortez tuts at him, retrieving his tools from within his vest. "It will take a little while," he says, sparing a glance away from the arm and up at the man. "Go and stretch your legs."
Aurelius lifts himself up slowly with a scowl, stumbling slightly as if he is finding it difficult to balance. He steadies himself, and begins to pace back and forth the length of the camp, savouring the feel of the air on the few parts of exposed skin left on his torso.
The air quickly cools with the setting sun, and the White River grows brighter and brighter in the sky. The shattered Lunap hangs still in the sky whilst the silvery moon shards Cuervo and Pantera slowly drift by it, their brothers Toro and Lobo hiding past the horizon. A pulse of bright blue lazily spirals through the aurora before bursting, sending a ripple of blue sparks across through the river before they too fade. To the south, a spark seems to fall from the sky, landing in the somewhere far in the desert with a distant thud.
All around, the forest seems serene and silent; there are no insect sounds, nor bird calls or the howling of wolves - just the voices of men and the crackling of the campfire.
Any actions before everyone rests? I assume Haig will volunteer for watch.
|Lucia De La Cruz|
Before Settling down for the night, Lucia will walk up to Haig, rocking nervously on the balls of her feet trying to find the words to say something. "I...I'm sorry I cast a spell on you earlier, you warned me not to and, umm, I just got desperate. Sorry." She says, before turning away.
"I'd do it again, though," She says, before starting to walk away.
"Thank you." the ghoul mutters, as he leans against the rocky outcrop in silence.
"I said a foolish thing. I feared your bewitchments would make me lose control of myself. I do not want more blood on my hands than the lady deems necessary..." he says distantly, returning to his weary silence. "I will return the favour, spellcaster. No Gallow-Hanger shall get past me." he says, as she walks away. "You have the word of a dead man."
Haig spends the rest of the night in silence, watching the fire and Siraj's roaring laughter with disinterest. He glances at Evi, across the campground, staring pensively at the starry sky, alone with her thoughts. He makes to approach, but seems to think better of it, standing still as the stone pillars and holding his vigil, staring unblinking into the gloom.
1d20 + 10 ⇒ (11) + 10 = 211d20 + 15 ⇒ (19) + 15 = 341d20 + 5 ⇒ (1) + 5 = 68d4 + 16 + 16 + 16 + 16 ⇒ (1, 1, 4, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1) + 16 + 16 + 16 + 16 = 83
The night is cold and dark, but passes uneventfully. For a moment, you thing you hear something, but realize it is just one of the men turning in his sleep. Nothing seems out of place, and the morning comes without incident. The sky lightens before first rays of light creep over the plant line, illuminating the campsite. The others have not awoken.
The sight of fresh meat is titillating, and Haig can barely suppress his instinct to feed. It has been so long since he last fed on sentient meat... With so much scattered around, surely it wouldn't matter if a pound or two of flesh went missing...
What do you do? Spoiler it up, if you like.