Chapter #252

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                                  +
                                +   +
                              +       +
                            +           +
                          +               +
                        +                   +
                      +                       +
                    +      THE ADVENTURERS      +
                      +                       +
                        +      Epic II      +
                          +               +
                            +           +
                              +       +
                                +   +
                                  +

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+    Many of the locations, non-player characters, spells, and      +
+  other terms used in these stories are the property of TSR, Inc.  +
+  However, this does not mean that TSR in any way endorses or      +
+  authorizes their use, and any such items contained within these  +
+  stories should not be considered representative of TSR in any    +
+  way, shape, or form.                                             +
+    The player characters contained in these writings are copy-    +
+  right 1995 by Thomas Miller.  Any resemblance to any persons     +
+  or characters either real or fictional is utterly coincidental.  +
+  Copying and/or distribution of these tales is permissible only   +
+  under the sole condition that no part of them will be used or    +
+  sold for profit.  In that case, I hope you enjoy them...         +
+                                                                   +
+                                  Thomas Miller                    +
+                                  tmiller@cimmeria.oit.gatech.edu  +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+  Date:        1/575 C.Y. (Common Year)                            +
+  Time:        early morning                                       +
+  Place:       the southern edge of the Burneal Forest             +
+  Climate:     freezing                                            +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
+  "We can make it if we run."                                      +
+  "No, we can't."                                                  +
+  "Why not?"                                                       +
+  "Because we're being hunted..."                                  +
+                                         - from _Jurassic Park_    +
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++





                 CCLII.  The Most Dangerous Game





  At the edge of the great Burneal Forest, many leagues from any
form of civilization, a small band of people had stopped in their
march, to examine a rather grisly find.

woodsman:  (examining a body)  The girl is dead.
priest:  Yes, and it would seem that she died...badly.
soldier:  Ugh.  They must have killed her for some reason, and left
  her here.
soldier:  Like they needed a reason.  Animals!
other priest:  The evil ones are still moving, aren't they?
woodsman:  (eyeing the tracks)  Aye.  They have journeyed northward
  ...into the trackless wastes of the Burneal.
scout:  We'll never find them in there...
priest:  They cannot get away with their crimes!  They must pay for
  what they've done!
woodsman:  Aye.  (he opens his horse's saddlebags and begins moving
  certain of their contents into his backpack)
priest:  What are you doing?
woodsman:  What does it look like?  I am going after the villains.
scout:  But nobody's ever explored the Burneal - the place is a
  damned expanse of nothing!
woodsman:  Aptly put.  And that is why I shall find the criminals.
  They cannot outdistance me.  (he regards the looming trees to the
  north)  Not in there.
soldier:  (wondering how deep the woods are)
priest:  But...we can't go in there.  We're not equipped or trained
  to roam the forests.
woodsman:  But I am, which is why I shall go.  I am not asking you
  to come along.  Indeed, I will not allow it.  This is my fight now,
  and my fight alone.
priest:  Very well.
scout:  Surely you aren't planning to leave me behind as well?
woodsman:  Even you, good fellow.  The Burneal is a dangerous place
  to be.
scout:  No!  I've made this quest my own-
woodsman:  I said no and I mean no.  You shall return to the town
  with the priests.  Vengeance shall be mine to seek.  I have not
  come all this way for nothing.
priest:  How many of them do you think there are?
woodsman:  Seven, maybe eight.
scout:  And only one of you!
woodsman:  One is enough.  They shall be brought to justice, for
  their foul deeds.
priest:  (mumbling)  All the innocent victims...and dead...and even
  worse.  Foul deeds, indeed.
scout:  A lot of wild mercenaries have come through our village, but
  never any as vicious as these.
woodsman:  Have no fear, I shall find them.  (he looks to the vast
  forest again)  Wherever they are.
priest:  Our blessings go with you, noble one.  We entrust the
  mission, however it may end up, to you.  And remember, they still
  have one of our village's girls with them.
Halbarad:  Aye, I will remember.

  Within minutes, the others had bid the ranger their farewells
and mounted up, to return to their village, five days' ride to the
south.  Since he didn't know how long he would be in the forest,
Halbarad sent his horse back with the villagers.  He had retained
only his worn suit of leather armor, his few weapons, and certain
carefully selected equipment.  The weight of rations was not worth
their value as sustenance, for the ranger could always find food
within the forest.  Water, on the other hand, was precious indeed,
and he carried several wineskins.  One couldn't count on finding
a spring, river, or pool within the forest.
  Having made his preparations, Halbarad looked southward one last
time before turning north, into the forest.  The first order of
business was to find the quarry's tracks - a simple matter, really,
since the mercenaries had taken their horses into the forest.  This
had probably seemed a good idea at first, but the ranger knew some-
thing about the Burneal that they didn't:  after a few leagues, the
trees grew too dense to allow horsed movement.  Indeed, the ranger
smiled to himself several hours later, when he came upon four horses
wandering in the forest.  The animals were slightly jumpy, but they
didn't bolt as Halbarad approached.  He angrily noted that the other
mounts must have bolted in other directions; it was a wretched band
indeed that left horses behind.  Halbarad directed the quartet of
horses southward before sending them on their way, and they seemed
to understand; it could be said that he had a gift for such things.
  After this business was taken care of, the ranger found the men's
bootprints, and began tracking them northward.  At the same time,
he also reflected on their stupidity, for the forest was well over
fifty leagues deep, from north to south.  The chances of unskilled
men making it through, on foot, were slim; however, Halbarad had to
follow, in case they did.  Of course, he had no intention of letting
them make it that far.  The men he sought had ridden through the
tiny village almost a week ago, slaying and looting as they pleased.
They had also kidnapped several young girls, taking them along on
the joyride; the pursuers had found various bodies on the way to the
Burneal.  Halbarad had been passing through town at the time, and
had come upon the search party as it was being organized; after
learning of the men's vile deeds, he immediately joined the group,
with the blessings of the town priests, who were all too glad to
have an experienced tracker in the party.
  Ending his musings, the ranger continued the pursuit.  By his
reckoning, the bandits were about half a day ahead of him; he knew
that he could cut that lead in no time at all.  He also knew now
that there were eight of them (plus the captive) and that they were
fairly heavily loaded.  The stride and depth of their footprints
told him everything; he was confident that he would catch up to
the bandits within one or two day's time.  As the day wore on, and
Halbarad continued his determined pursuit, the temperature rose a
bit, though it was still below freezing.  Not much sunlight at all
penetrated the thick cover of the tree branches above.
  It was about midday that things got weird.  As he made his way
through the thick forest, he suddenly spotted it - a large blood-
stain on the forest floor.  Bending down to examine the wet area,
he found that the blood was only hours old.  There was no body, and
no signs of struggle; there was only a rather large amount of blood.
It would seem that the bandits had slain their final captive for
some reason - but then where was her body?  Puzzling over this, the
woodsman continued on his way.
  Of course, now that he wasn't expecting it, he found the body, or
what remained of it, about ten minutes after he had left the blood-
stain.  It wasn't hard to see why that bloodstain was as big as it
had been; besides the missing head, the back had been ripped open
by some sharp weapon.  There was quite a bit of blood here as well,
and flies had settled on the corpse.  Brushing them away with his
axe, Halbarad examined the carcass more closely, and found that the
man had nearly been torn in half!  The gore aside, this fellow had
definitely been one of the bandits; his boots, clothing, and armor
made this obvious.  The armor, tough chainmail, perhaps from the
armories of Perrenland to the south, hadn't stopped whatever weapon
or claw had cut through the man's back.  The metallic mesh had been
practically shredded, and bits of it were buried in the flesh of the
corpse.
  Now Halbarad was truly mystified.  Had the other bandits murdered
this fellow for some reason?  One could only wonder.  As with the
bloodstain, there was no sign of a struggle here, which was another
mystery.  Still wondering what had happened here, he ventured onward
to the north.  Based on the tracks he now followed, whatever had
happened to the eighth bandit hadn't given the others any reason to
slow down.  Doggedly, he continued his pursuit, moving through the
forest faster than most unarmored people could have.  Hours passed,
and much later, almost at dusk, he came across the bandits.  They
had camped in a small clearing, and a large fire raged at the center
of their group.  Halbarad scouted the site from all sides, checking
for possible advantages or avenues of attack; he found none.  These
men, however barbaric they might be, knew better than to leave an
unprotected flank in their camp.  Putting aside for the moment the
question of how to attack, the ranger next turned his attention to
the bandits themselves.
  There were, as he had noticed before, seven of them.  Three were
humans, one a half-orc, one a dwarf, one an elf; the seventh was
some kind of half-ogre crossbreed.  The obvious leader of the band
was one of the humans, a tall, stocky fellow with a bushy moustache
and long, black hair tied in a ponytail.  A well-notched longsword
adorned his side.  One of the other humans carried an axe, a single-
edged weapon, heavier than Halbarad's but not as wieldy.  The third
man, a tall fellow with long, blond hair, carried a longbow and a
quiver of arrows.  The half-orc looked to be the meanest of the lot,
for his fanged mouth was twisted in a perpetual sneer, and a patch
covered one of his eyes.  He carried a heavy bastard sword as if it
were a stick of wood.  The dwarf, a short but musclebound fellow
with a long, bushy black beard, had a medium-sized axe strapped to
either side of his belt; a heavy crossbow was tied across his broad
back.  The elf, a gaunt figure with bone-white hair, wore a heavy
whip at his belt, as well as several throwing daggers.  Halbarad
thought the elf might be a wizard, as well; the way he walked and
carried himself reminded the ranger of almost every sorceror he had
ever met.  As for the half-ogre, there was little to say; at eight
feet in height, he towered over all of his companions.  The gigantic
sword strapped across his huge back was seven feet long if not more,
and its blade was as broad as a man's head.  The monstrous fellow
looked as if he could snap a tree in half with his bare hands.
  After surveying these potential opponents, Halbarad noted the
young girl whose tied hands and feet marked her as a prisoner.
Perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old, she seemed fairly helpless
amongst these killers and thieves.  Numerous bruises and cuts told
of her rough treatment at their hands, and reminded Halbarad of his
true purpose here.  Without hesitation, the ranger drew and nocked
an arrow.  Though the distance between him and the bandits was
rather extreme, he was a skilled bowman, and his bow was of the
finest quality.  He drew the arrow back, carefully aimed it toward
his selected target, and then, when the moment was right, he let
the arrow go, gently.

  In the camp, the fellow with the axe lurched, suddenly, as an
arrow buried itself up to the fletchings in his heart.

axe-wielder:  Aaargh!  (he falls, dead before he hits the ground)
leader:  To arms!  We are attacked!

  The entire band sought cover behind trees, basing their estimation
of their attacker's position on the direction the arrow came from.
A second arrow hit the half-ogre as he lumbered along, but only
caught him in the arm; the big lug all but ignored the missile as
he took cover behind a large tree.

  Cursing from his hiding place, Halbarad fired one more arrow,
which sunk harmlessly into a tree, and then backed off, retreating.
The tree cover was too thick, and the remaining day's light too
little, for the ranger to accurately shoot any of the bandits now.
They could move from tree to tree, and he'd never be able to get
all of them; they could have him outflanked within five or ten
minutes.  Though he trusted in his combat prowess, he didn't have
any particular desire to have to melee...not yet.  At least he'd
slain one of them, he mused as he silently fell back into the
depths of the forest.

  In the camp, the leader had already ordered some of his men to
move out, to try and outflank the unseen attacker.  Of course,
they didn't have any chance of catching Halbarad, who was already
long gone, but the leader didn't know that.  Quilvio, the human
archer, and Kroc, the half-orc, had moved out to find the attacker.
Lirras, the elf, was examining the bloody body of the fallen axeman
Gorath.  Yorkis the dwarf eyed the darkness around the camp, cursing
from behind his tree, while the half-ogre Barakkas rested against
a huge tree, nonchalantly working the arrow out of his arm.

Yorkis:  You're bleeding!
Barakkas:  Bah.  Me not bleed much.  Dart not hurt.
Aristotos:  (the leader)  Good.  We'll need your strength if we're
  to beat whoever's following us.
Yorkis:  Could just be one archer.
Aristotos:  Possibly.  But I think instead that there's a squad of
  men out there.  We'll wait until Quilvio and Kroc get back.  They
  ought to know something...if there's any tracks out there, Quilvio
  will find 'em.
Barakkas:  Tracks.  Barakkas crush whatever makes tracks.
girl:  (looking around, confused at this turn of events)  What's
  going on?
Yorkis:  Quiet, you.
Lirras:  Well, one thing's for damn sure.  Old Gorath's done for,
   here.  The arrow took him through the heart.
Aristotos:  (looks around warily)  At least we can understand this.
  Not like what happened to Sergio this morning...
Yorkis:  Aye.
Barakkas:  Sergio got took from above.
Lirras:  Quiet, you dolt!  You must be demented - no one believes
  your story.
Aristotos:  It just didn't make any sense.
Yorkis:  Maybe it was the same attackers who got Gorath.
Lirras:  That would make sense.  Kind of.
Barakkas:  Bah.  Barakkas knows what he seen.

  Shortly, the scouts returned.

Aristotos:  What news?
Quilvio:  Nothing.  We found no traces.
Kroc:  Whoever it was, they know what they're doing.
Aristotos:  Nothing?!?  Damn!  (he eyes the body of Gorath, still
  transfixed by Halbarad's arrow)  Okay.  Get him out of the way,
  and let's set a camp.  It's almost dark.
Lirras:  Aye.
Aristotos:  Kroc, Yorkis.  Set traps around the camp.  I don't want
  anyone sneaking in.
Kroc:  Got it.  (he pulls out a large, sharp knife, to begin making
  sharpened stakes)
Yorkis:  (searching for logs, to construct a deadfall)
Quilvio:  (securing the bound girl's hands to a tree)  Can't have
  you trying to run off.
Barakkas:  (watching)  Girl is tied with lots of ropes.  You think
  she'll run?
Quilvio:  I don't care, as long as she can't.
Aristotos:  (putting out the campfire)  Without light, our archer
  friends can't see us, and therefore can't shoot us.  And those of
  you with infravision will more easily be able to spot intruders.

  They fortified their camp, and then settled down, confident in
their traps and snares.  From afar, a lone figure watched them with
interest.

Halbarad:  Hmm.

  The ranger had doubled back, returning to this area.  He had never
intended to flee for good, and now that darkness had fallen, the
time was ripe to sneak into the camp.  If he could get the girl out
of the way, there would be ample opportunities to ambush the others.
Slowly, meticulously, he worked his way toward the camp, careful not
to make any noise or leave any tracks.  The quelling of the campfire
made the men practically invisible, but this didn't really bother
Halbarad, though; he was used to the forests at night, and could see
well enough to do what he had to.
  Approaching the sleeping bandits, Halbarad stopped suddenly; he
had spotted a thin rope on the ground, no doubt connected to some
fiendish trap.  Yes, there it was:  a log resting in a tree above,
sharp spikes of wood embedded in its near side.  Gingerly stepping
over the rope, the ranger moved closer into the camp.  Just another
couple of minutes, and he would be amidst the evildoers...
  Without warning, the night around him erupted in blazing light,
as strange bolts of red and yellow fire rained down from above.
One hit the remains of the campfire, scattering burnt pieces of
wood everywhere.  Another hit a tree, taking a chunk out of it and
leaving a charred pit behind.  The bandits leapt to their feet in
surprise, grabbing for their weapons while yelling and cursing.
As the elf whirled about, gesticulating as if about to cast some
spell, one of the fiery bolts struck him in the chest.  Halbarad
happened to be facing the fellow at the time, so he could quite
clearly see as the bolt ripped a hole all the way through the elf's
leather mail and chest; charred bits of leather, bone, and flesh
were sprayed into the forest behind him.  He fell like a rock,
hitting the ground with a hollow sound.

Aristotos:  Holy hells!  They got Lirras!
Kroc:  (the half-orc; pulls the leader down behind a fallen tree,
  as other bolts of energy strike nearby)  Get down!
Yorkis:  (the dwarf, hidden safely behind a tree)  Magi...they've
  got magi after us!
Aristotos:  And now our mage is slain...damn it!
Quilvio:  (the archer)  I'll get them...(he scans the forest around
  him, firing several arrows into the darkness from which the bolts
  are coming)  Hah!  I hit something!  (he fires another arrow into
  the dark forest)
Kroc:  No, get behind-

  Another bolt of energy shot through the night, catching the archer
in the face.  His smoking body toppled to the ground, headless, the
wound completely cauterized and gushing no blood.

Aristotos:  Aie...Quilvio...
Kroc:  Stupid bastard.  He should have listened to me.  (he pulls a
  heavy log between himself and the general direction that the last
  bolt came from)
Barakkas:  (dumb, but not entirely senseless, he stays right where
  he is, not moving a muscle)
Yorkis:  (scanning the forest with his infravision, which is not
  working that well due to the various fires and hot spots where
  bolts of energy have struck)  I don't see anything...wait.
Kroc:  (also looking in the same direction as the dwarf)  What the
  hell...?
Aristotos:  What?!?  What do you see?
Yorkis:  (ignoring his leader)  It's gone now.
Kroc:  Yup.
Aristotos:  What was "it"?
Yorkis:  Not sure.  It kinda looked like a humanoid...a big one.
  It was up in one of the trees.  (he points)  But it's gone now.
Kroc:  How'd it vanish, just like that?  I don't get it.
Aristotos:  (confused)  Was it firing those bolts at us?
Yorkis:  One would assume so.
Aristotos:  So, we've been surrounded by archers and magi.  We've
  got to get out of here.
Kroc:  Maybe we should just stay put.  The attacks have stopped.

  This was true; the strange bolts of energy were no longer raining
down on the camp.

Aristotos:  Okay, listen up.  We're under good cover now.  We'll
  stay here until dawn, then move out.  With the sun up, we can at
  least see our attackers, and fire back.
Kroc:  Aye.
Yorkis:  Then I can nail 'em with my crossbow here.  (he pats the
  heavy weapon reassuringly)  Not even full plate'll stop a bolt
  from this thing.  And I poison my bolts...
Aristotos:  Very well.  We wait for dawn.
Barakkas:  Plan sounds good to me.

  The bandits had decided that whoever fired the bolts at them and
killed two of their number was the same person or persons who had
ambushed them at dusk, using arrows.  The only problem, Halbarad
mused from his hiding place fifty feet away, was that the bandits
were wrong.  Someone else had attacked just now, someone much more
powerful.  The ranger decided that remaining hidden was probably
a good idea right now, especially since the bandits weren't going
anywhere.

  All was silent until morning; Halbarad awoke at dawn, resuming
his vigil over the camp.  The bandits didn't move until a couple
of hours later, although they were undoubtedly far from asleep,
considering the horrific events of the night.  Quickly packing
their equipment, they broke camp, heading northward.  Halbarad
wondered why they were traveling even deeper into the forest; he
assumed that their woodsmen or trackers were among the dead now.
As soon as they moved out, the ranger followed, keeping several
hundred feet back.  The bodies of their slain comrades were left
behind; Halbarad had expected nothing more from the bandits.

Aristotos:  Come on!  We've got to keep moving...maybe outdistance
  whoever's ambushing us.
Yorkis:  If only Lirras hadn't been killed, we'd have the power to
  fight magic with magic.
Kroc:  Well, he is dead, so shut your trap.
Yorkis:  (looks angry)
Barakkas:  Me not like it here.
Yorkis:  Yeah, a good idea - let's turn back, and leave the forest.
Aristotos:  And run into the posse that's no doubt waiting for us?
  No.  We have to keep heading northward - we'll eventually break
  free of the forest, and move into Blackmoor.
Kroc:  If we're smart, we'll ditch this bitch.  (he gestures to the
  girl)
girl:  (silent)
Yorkis:  Maybe if we leave her, they'll stop following us.
Kroc:  Maybe...but I doubt it.
Aristotos:  Still, she has value as a decoy.  And I have an idea.

  Soon, they moved on, having left the young girl tied to a tree.
As the bandits passed out of sight, she squirmed in her bonds, but
without success; they were too tight.  Fearful, she looked around,
scanning the forest for terrors she could only guess at.  The past
days' events didn't make any sense to her.  There was nobody in her
village who possessed the skill to fire arrows like the ones that
had killed the big man with the axe...much less someone who could
summon up magical bolts of energy.
  Her musings were interrupted by a sound, from behind her.  She
strained to turn in her bonds, to see who or what was approaching,
but she couldn't get a good look.  She started in fright as a stout-
looking fellow appeared in front of her, silently and suddenly.

Halbarad:  Calm down, I'm here to help.  (he begins cutting the
  ropes that bind her, with a sharp dagger)

  She quickly decided that this man was, indeed, no bandit; he
had an air about him, almost noble.  He also looked very competent,
for his armor was well-worn, and a hefty battleaxe hung from his
belt.  He had the look of someone with years of experience tucked
under his belt.

Halbarad:  (eases the girl to the soft ground)  What is your name?
girl:  I am...I am Lena.
Halbarad:  Are you injured?
Lena:  No, not really.  (shudders)  Not anymore.
Halbarad:  Hmm.  Listen, then.  We have to get you out of here,
  back to the village.  Normally I would chase down those villains-
Kroc:  (emerges from the woods)  You're no wizard.
Halbarad:  (whirls about, his axe in his other hand now)
Kroc:  The girl made such an unwitting decoy.  Now I can meet you
  face to face, and deal with you.
Halbarad:  'Tis you who shall be dealt with, scum!
Kroc:  Only one of us is walking away from here, that's for sure.
  (he hefts his bastard sword)  Too bad your sorcerous friends
  aren't here to die with you.
Halbarad:  Sorcerous friends?  I have no idea what you speak of.
Kroc:  (considers this)  I believe you.  I don't know why, but I
  believe you.
Halbarad:  Someone else is attacking you, as well.
Kroc:  That may be...and we'll deal with them later!  (he charges)
  Let's get to it!

  The half-orc's huge sword came arcing down, but Halbarad blocked
it with his axe-head, stabbing with his dagger while the two big
weapons were locked.  The blade cut a shallow gash in the foe's
arm.

Kroc:  You're pretty quick.  (he pulls his sword free from the
  axe, and backs up)  But you'll still die.
Halbarad:  I think not.  (he moves in, axe swinging)

  Their weapons danced to and fro, seeking to bury themselves in
soft flesh.  The girl Lena watched in terror as both combatants
received minor wounds and gashes.  Every time it seemed that one
was about to be felled by a clever blow, he would parry, or dodge,
escaping gory death yet again.  Sweat ran down their brows, and
blood pumped in their veins, as the melee continued.  And then,
suddenly, it was over; as Halbarad danced aside, Kroc's bastard
sword bit into a tree.  The half-orc tried to free the weapon,
without success, and Halbarad's axe clove his helmed head in two
like a ripe melon.

Halbarad:  (watches the corpse fall to the ground, then wipes his
  axe on the slain foe's tunic, leaving gory stains)  Whew.
Lena:  Thank the gods!
Halbarad:  Perhaps.  There, one less foe to worry about.
Lena:  I never thought they'd send one back to wait for whoever
  came along to rescue me.
Halbarad:  That idea had crossed my mind.  So now there are three.
Lena:  Yes.  The leader, and the dwarf, and that big ogre-thing.
Halbarad:  Ogres I can deal with.  Whatever threw those bolts of
  energy, now that is another matter entirely.  (he ponders)  What
  exactly happened to the eighth bandit?
Lena:  The one called Sergio?  Only the ogre saw it.
Halbarad:  (leans closer)  Saw what?
Lena:  (shudders)  They were making camp...split into groups to
  go get firewood.  The ogre wasn't watching when it happened, but
  he said he heard a choking sound, and turned around, and saw the
  other, Sergio, being pulled up into the trees.
Halbarad:  Hmm.
Lena:  Nobody really took the ogre seriously - not to say that they
  didn't believe his story, just that they didn't understand it.
Halbarad:  (trying to make a connection here)  Magic-throwers...and
  tree-climbers...damn, it makes no sense at all!
Lena:  No.  And they found the pool of blood, but nothing else.  No
  body, no Sergio.  Nothing.
Halbarad:  (decides not to mention the body he found, though its
  presence presents yet another mystery)  Hmm.  Strange indeed.
Lena:  I'm scared.



  Meanwhile, Aristotos, Yorkis, and Barakkas were moving northward,
for Kroc had told them he'd catch up with them later.

Aristotos:  Stop.  (listening carefully)
Yorkis:  What-
Aristotos:  Shh!  (he hears, or thinks he hears, a distant clashing
  of metal on metal)  I think I hear swordplay.
Barakkas:  Kroc maybe killing someone?
Yorkis:  Yeah...
Aristotos:  He'll rejoin us later, in any case-

  There was a muffled "thump" as something heavy landed on the forest
floor behind them.

Aristotos:  (turns)  What-

  They couldn't really see it clearly, but a slight ripple in the
air marked its presence.  The dwarf Yorkis, who was closest to the
spot where it landed, stared in amazement.  There was a loud "snik"
as of metal on metal, and something heavy swung through the air...

Yorkis:  AARGH!  (nearly sliced in two by the invisible foe, he
  falls, blood spraying everywhere)  Glurg...
Aristotos:  Aie!  (he turns and flees)
Barakkas:  (likewise)  Shit!

  The bandit leader ran as fast as his legs could carry him; he
leapt over roots, ducked under low-hanging branches, and deftly
avoided trees as he sprinted through the forest.  The half-ogre
Barakkas wasn't quite as swift, however, or as agile.  Tripping
over a dead tree, the big creature fell on his face.

Barakkas:  Hey!  Come back!
Aristotos:  (blind with fear, he keeps going, and quickly vanishes
  from sight)
Barakkas:  (gets to his feet)  Damn chicken.  (he remembers why he
  was running)  Err...

  There was a slight snapping behind the huge bandit, the sound of
a twig crushed beneath a heavy foot.  Barakkas turned, slowly, his
gigantic sword held in both hands.

Barakkas:  Okay then, Barakkas fight.  (he eyes the shimmering air
  before him)

  Slowly, as if by magic, the hazy area rippled, changing into a
tangible figure at last.  For the first time, Barakkas saw exactly
what he was facing, and his eyes went wide with awe and fear.  Yet,
he held his sword high as he approached the opponent; he had never
backed down from a fight in his life, and he wasn't about to start
now.



  Some distance to the north, the panting, exhausted Aristotos heard
the half-ogre's death scream.  It chilled the blood in his veins,
and he paused for a moment before resuming his frantic running.



  To the south, Halbarad and Lena also heard the death cry.

Lena:  (covers her ears)  Aie!
Halbarad:  Someone else has died...  (he grabs the girl by the
  shoulders)  Listen now!  I want you to stay right here.  I will
  come back and get you.  (he presses a sharp dagger into her hand)
Lena:  Wh-what if you _don't_ come back?
Halbarad:  I will.  Just stay put.  I may not have time to waste
  searching for you later.
Lena:  Okay...(she cowers beneath the dead log that she and the
  ranger have been sitting on)
Halbarad:  (disappears into the trees)

  Running through the forest at a rapid clip, the ranger headed in
the direction the death scream had come from.  Minutes later, he
found what remained of the half-ogre - and a strange trail, leading
northward.

Halbarad:  (bends down to examine some of the green drops on the
  ground)  Hmm.  'Twould seem that the ogrish one wounded the foe.
  (spying the bandit's huge sword on the ground, he quickly confirms
  this theory)  Hmm.

  Looking around the silent forest, Halbarad considered the options,
and then headed northward, following the blood trail.  He hadn't
walked more than fifty feet when he heard a second death shriek, to
the north.

Halbarad:  By the gods...everyone is dying out here!  (he quickly
  retraces his steps, deciding that getting Lena back alive is now
  the main priority)

  Returning to the spot where he had left the girl, he was somewhat
surprised to find that she was actually still there.

Lena:  What's going on?  I thought I heard something...
Halbarad:  You did.  Come, we must leave this forest.  Death is
  afoot here.
Lena:  Uh...okay...(she follows him, as he grabs her hand and leads
  her southward)
Halbarad:  Faster...we must move faster.
Lena:  (stumbling and tripping as Halbarad pulls her along)  I'm
  trying!

  Suddenly, Halbarad sensed that something was terribly wrong!  He
stopped, looking around frantically, but saw nothing.  His skilled
senses screamed out to him that he was being watched, but there was
nobody out there...or was there?  He spotted something glowing up
in the trees, from the corner of one eye.

Halbarad:  (whispering)  Down!  Now!
Lena:  (hits the ground)

  A bolt of bright energy shot down from above, even as the ranger
leapt aside; the missile caught him beneath one arm, grazing his
torso.

Halbarad:  Argh!  (he falls, rolling under a large log)  Lena!
  Take cover!  (he whips out his bow, nocking an arrow, but sees
  no target)

  As he lay, half-beneath the log, an idea came to him; he put the
great bow down and dug through a belt pouch, finally producing a
small, clear blue gemstone.  Putting this up to one eye, Halbarad
gazed through it at the surrounding trees.

Halbarad:  Aha...(quickly, he rips some lacings from his shirt, and
  begins winding them around his head)

  Using the thin but tough cord, the ranger was able to crudely
fasten the blue gem in place over one eye; the magical stone was
a bit too big to fit in an eye socket, but seemed fairly secure
with the cord holding it in place.
  This task done, the ranger nocked an arrow, and took aim.  His
magical gem of seeing enabled him to spot the attacker, which was
large, humanoid, and perched in the trees, perhaps fifty feet up.
Though Halbarad was lying sideways on the ground, and the gem over
his eye bothered him, he could see the foe, and he could aim, and
he wielded a powerful bow.  The first arrow caught the treeborne
attacker in the upper leg, evoking a weird scream of pain.  The
thing leaped from its tree, swinging along other branches until it
landed on the ground.  Halbarad's second arrow buried itself in the
tree two feet to the left of the beast.

thing:  (looks directly at the half-concealed ranger, and something
  on its upper body glows brightly)
Halbarad:  Uh-oh.  (he rolls around, behind the log)  Lena!  Get
  out of here, now!
Lena:  (already crawling southward, through the underbrush, she is
  a good thirty feet away)

  A volley of energy bolts bombarded the area around Halbarad,
plowing holes in living and dead trees alike.  The log behind which
he had taken cover was quickly demolished, and the attack continued
as the creature approached.

thing:  (surveys the scene, then kicks aside a large chunk of log)

  Halbarad was gone!

thing:  (roars in rage, and begins examining the forest floor)

  It quickly picked up the ranger's tracks, and a trail of blood
as well; drawing itself up to its full seven-foot height, the
creature marched into the woods, tracking Halbarad.  As it walked,
its peculiar form of invisibility seemed to be failing; the aura
flickered and shimmered, and some arcane device on the thing's
chest sputtered and sparkled.  Then the invisibility ended, and
the creature was fully visible.  Covered in leathery-looking armor
and net-like cloth, it had exposed forearms and feet; these were
both tipped with clawed digits.  Its face was concealed by an odd
metallic helmet or mask, and long, braided black hair dangled down
its back.  A gash in its side bled green ichor, as did the arrow
wound in its thigh.  Grunting, the thing pushed the arrowhead fully
through the wound, then snapped it and pulled the tail end out of
the entry wound.

  To the north, Halbarad heard the inhuman scream of pain.  He
had his own wounds to worry about, though, as he continued to run.
Slivers of wood from the exploding log had been driven into his
arms and legs in several places, and there was also the matter of
the earlier bolt which had grazed his side.  The ranger knew that
he was leaving a trail of blood drops, but he couldn't do anything
about that right now - he had to keep moving, at least until he
could find some kind of cover from which to face his foe.
  The nature of the creature itself puzzled him.  He had never seen
anything like it, though certain legends and myths he had heard in
his time described mystical hunters sent by the gods.  It was quite
strange, but then again, he had seen seven trained warriors slain
in the last day, so strange though it might be, it was no myth that
was stalking him now.  He cursed as sweat got into his eye; he had
already untied the blue gem from his head.  It enabled him to see
the foe, and that made it too valuable to risk losing as he ran.
  Ahead, he spotted a rocky outcropping amidst the trees.  While
it didn't afford anything near absolute cover, it was better than
the trees; he stopped to rest, looking back the way he had come.
He wondered why the creature hadn't caught up with him, for it had
demonstrated its speed, but then he remembered his arrow hitting
it in the leg.
  Setting his axe and bow down, Halbarad quickly built a fire in
the center of the rocky area.  Though it was midday, the air was
cold, though that wasn't why he was making the fire.  After the
fire was blazing brightly, he opened a flask of oil.  Taking some
arrows from his quiver, he dipped them in the flask, then set them
on the rock, a few feet from the fire.  His bow in one hand, his
blue crystal held to his eye by the other hand, the ranger watched
and waited.
  He didn't have to wait long; perhaps ten minutes later, a slight
sound in the trees alerted him, and he trained the crystal upward.
However, it appeared that he didn't need it, for he could see the
creature just fine through his other eye.  Quickly stashing the
crystal in his pouch, he nocked one of the pitch-coated arrows,
drew the string back to aim it at the foe, and waited.
  The thing had already seen him, and now it dropped to the ground
and faced him.  Its armor and helmet were like nothing he had ever
seen before, and its claws suggested a reptillian origin.  Atop one
of its shoulder was a small, glowing tube, which looked familiar.
Even now, it swiveled in the ranger's direction.

Halbarad:  (without hesitation, he fires his arrow at the thing)

  The arrow flew through the air, true to the ranger's aim; it
struck the strange, glowing tube directly in the open end.  The
device exploded with a tremendous "boom", spraying sparks of
energy everywhere.  As Halbarad covered his eyes, one errant
thread of burning matter struck his arm, causing him to drop his
bow and duck for cover.  While hiding behind a boulder, he took
a swath of cloth and wrapped the burn; it was quite painful, but
he didn't have time to look at it right now.  When the rain of
fire had ceased, he chanced a look over the rock, and saw the
creature lying on the forest floor, unmoving.  A large chunk of
its shoulder was burned and bleeding, the bright green liquid
a stark contrast against the charred flesh from which it oozed.
  Halbarad stood, picked up his battleaxe, and approached the
thing cautiously.  He now saw that its mask had been knocked off
in the explosion, revealing a monstrous face, replete with slimy,
tan skin and a series of fanged jaws.

Halbarad:  You-
creature:  (opens its eyes)

  With a roar of rage, the thing punched outward, sending the
ranger flying backwards, where he slammed into a boulder.  To his
credit, he retained his axe, and as the foe approached, he drew
his dagger and faced it.  With another roar, the thing charged,
long metallic claws appearing above its hands.  It swung these
deadly weapons, trying to slash Halbarad, but he used his axe to
parry as he stabbed with the dagger.  His opponent was tremendously
strong, much stronger than any man, but the ranger had his magical
gauntlets, and was able to hold his own against the multitude of
crushing blows.  Still, the sheer force of these attacks was making
his teeth rattle and his muscles cramp.
  After several ineffectual but spark-filled exchanges, he sensed
an opening, and stabbed with his dagger, burying it in the foe's
good shoulder.  Screaming inhumanly, the creature hit Halbarad with
a backhand, knocking him to the ground, his grip on the dagger lost.
The ranger got to his feet in time to block a claw-blow with his
axe, but the foe kicked him in the stomach, and he hit the ground,
sprawling and spitting blood.  He still had his axe, though, and as
the thing closed in for the kill, razor-sharp claws flashing in the
sunlight, Halbarad brought the enchanted weapon swinging upward in
a deadly arc.
  The creature staggered back, screaming in agony as the cut in its
torso opened wider and gory entrails spilled out.  Halbarad stood
now, and moved in purposefully.  The foe dropped to its knees now,
weakened and apparently dying; it locked gazes with the ranger, but
made no pleas, asked for no quarter.  In its own way, it seemed to
have some kind of code; Halbarad almost pitied it.  Raising his axe,
he ended the confrontation with one final blow.



  The next day, the ranger, along with the girl Lena, emerged from
the southern edge of the Burneal Forest.  Halbarad was exhausted,
mentally and physically; bloodstained bandages and cloths covered
numerous wounds.  Dirt and blood were visible on every inch of his
armor and skin.  His bones, muscles, and joints ached, and he had a
blackened eye, a broken nose, and a split lip.  Yet, he was alive.
Wearily, the two survivors began the long trek back to the village.





next:   back to the "normal" group
ftp:    ftp.digex.net in /pub/access/dpm/rpg/stories/adventurers
www:    http://www.gatech.edu/oit/staff/ns/thomas.miller/adv.html
notes:  Sometimes "what if?" stories become part of reality.  A
  break from the regular group was long overdue anyway.
    My newest outdoor experiment:  paintball.  I killed a co-worker
  and a snotty little kid, while only getting shot once.  Good fun,
  but not in midsummer.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++





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