The Stacked Deck Chapter 6

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"You cannot outrun this.  It will keep on hunting you until you face it."

Webs of Intrigue: Part 1

As they walked into camp after being gone for three days they saw the prospector trying to cinch the last pack onto the mules. The mules were not cooperating and kept moving and shaking. He was mumbling to himself and scolding them.

"Sit still ya' ornery packer!"

"Where do you think you are going with my mules?" Frynia asked.

The prospector yelped and jumped nearly out of his boots. The pack slid off the mule and hit the ground.

"Wh- what in the Pales took ya s'long?" the prospector stammered.

"Haf, had to finalize the negotiations," Paul replied with a smirk as he glanced at Haf.

The prospector's brows wrinkled up in confusion. "Negotiate wit' who, the bats?"

"With Mooklok, our new business partner," Haf responded.

That answer confused the prospector even more.

"Unpack those mules. We will explain it over a hot meal." Frynia answered.

"A business partner?" The prospector's mind was swimming. "What business?"

With a laugh, they all got busy unloading equipment and setting back up the camp.

The prospector's eyes were wide open and his voice was filled with disbelief. "So let me git it straight. You fought wit' spiders and a frozen undead skeleton. Parri made friends wit' a grizzly bear that you rescued from a cave in. You found silver, negotiated ownership o' the mine and arranged to have mined wit' two trolls?"

"I think that pretty much sums it up," replied Parri.

"Oh! Don't forget that Yau fell into a big covered pit," Haf added with a grin on his face. He reached out and pushed the monk on the shoulder.

Yau pointed his finger back at Haf, "You were only one step away from going in first, and you wouldn't have fared near as well."

"What about those cavewings?" The prospector asked.

"Mooklok said they keep away the local denizens," Haf told him. "They mostly stay in a cavern near the back, and there isn't any silver in there anyway."

The prospector sat there quietly for a little while trying to absorb it all.

Paul got up to put some more stew in his bowl, and when he sat back down he pointed his spoon at the prospector. "We would like you run the operation for us."

The prospector looked around the fire at the party and they all nodded their heads in agreement. A large smile grew across his face. "If you want me to do that, I will need an extra ten percent cut."

Without even looking up from his meal Paul said, "Done!"

Again the prospector looked around at the other members and again they were all nodding and trying hard not to smile. He wrinkled his brow trying to figure out why that was so easily given.

Paul finished the last of his stew and got up to go clean out the bowl. "Mooklok will be arriving in the morning to be introduced to our new foreman."

The prospector slipped off his log and spilled his stew all over him but by the look on his face they could tell he didn't even notice.

After having said all his goodbyes to the rest of the party, the prospector was talking alone with Paul.

"So you are sure twenty guards and four wagons will be enough to bring back the ore?" Paul asked.

"We'll only need that many fer this run," the prospector answered, "two wagons n' a dozen guards 'll work after that. The extra wagons 'll pick up the stock pile o' silver Mooklok already has."

"Well, you are the foreman," replied Paul. "Remember, if you find yourself in need of any of us, get in touch with Tyron."

"Will do," said the prospector with a nod. He turned and headed down the road that would take him the rest of the way into Kelfor's Landing.

Just before the prospector was out of sight, Parri headed off to Kelfor's Landing as well. She was going to stick to the brush and trees and sneak her way into town to get in touch with Gerdar and find out if the heat is off yet. She expected to be back before morning with any news.

After the evening meal was finished and cleaned up they all sat around the small fire. There was a bit of small talk but everyone was too excited and anxious for Parri's return to be thinking about much else. Paul decided to take advantage of the quiet time and got out his pack of cards. Frynia looked at him curiously as he unwrapped them and began to shuffle.

"What are those?" she asked.

"These are called tarot cards," Paul responded. "They are used to answer questions and to divine the future."

Frynia spoke as she got up from the log by the fire. "The shamans from my people have dreams about the future and consult spirits. I have also seen the casting of bones used by some." She came around the fire and stood by Paul. "Would you use your tarot to read my future?"

Paul looked up at her, smiled and nodded. "I will." He spread his cloth over the log next to him and invited her to sit on the other side.

He continued to shuffle as he concentrated on clearing his mind, after which he offered Frynia to cut them.

"No, I will not touch the mystical tools of sight. They are not of my realm, but of yours."

Paul nodded and then fanned them out face down on the cloth. "Pick one then."

She pointed near the bottom, "That one."

"Here?" Paul asked as he put his finger on one.

Frynia nodded.

Paul cut the deck on that card, and then proceeded to lay out three cards face up: Eight of Chalices, Five of Blades, and Four of Chalices.

Webs of Intrigue: Part 2

Paul looked over the spread he drew for Frynia a moment to take in what cards were pulled and get an overall feeling for what they said. He was careful not to let any emotion cross his face so as not to taint his presentation of the message. When he was ready he started to speak in a voice just loud enough for her to hear.

"The first card talks about an absence made by necessity. You are far away from your home and loved ones because something or someone has forced you to. This is a situation you brought upon yourself, for somewhere along the line you pulled a double-cross and earned the wrath of the one you duped."

Paul noticed that Frynia stiffened up as he spoke. Knowing he was on target, he continued.

"You cannot outrun this. It will keep on hunting you until you face it."

Frynia's eyes grew hard and cold. "To face this would mean my death."

"And if you don't you can never stop running," responded Paul. "You are not alone in this, we all can help you."

"So I can have your blood on my claws as well? I could not live with that on my conscious," Frynia got up from the log and started to walk towards the mules. "No, I will avoid it until I can no longer." She took a few more steps, paused and said, "Thank you for reading your cards," before continuing on.

Paul started to get up to go after her, but he stopped himself and just watched her walk away. Somehow he would help her realize that she didn't have to do this alone. He would stand by her side and was pretty sure the rest of them would too.

He picked up the cards and replaced them on top of the rest of the deck. After a couple of shuffles, he wrapped them up in the cloth and put them away. The young mage turned back towards the fire, picked up a stick, and started poking at the fire while he considered recent events.

By the Midday quintar they were all pretty antsy. Their camp was not too far off from the north trail leaving Kelfor's Landing; just on the other side of a small hill covered with evergreens. They took turns keeping an eye on the road because until they knew the situation in town, keeping a low profile would be their best bet. The group had expected to see Parri before now, but she still had not arrived. Frynia brushed her mules and fed them carrots. Yau worked on his katas, and both Haf and Paul sat on logs around the fire pit and studied their spell books. Over the last few weeks Paul had figured out how to cast some new spells and had doubled the amount of essence magic he could retain. This growth would continue as long as he took time to keep up with his learning.

When he finished, Paul put away his book and went up the hill so he could get a view of the trail. There was not much activity going on so he really didn't expect to see any travelers heading in or out of town, but they wanted to keep tabs on what they could. When he reached the top of the hill he positioned himself behind some trees that hid him from view by anyone who happened to be upon the trail, but it still offered him a pretty good view. After a few moments, Paul heard the sounds of humanoids coming down the path away from Kelfor's Landing. He crouched down and moved into a place where he could see the trail as it emerged from the trees and scrub to the open area before the creek. A dozen armed men on foot, wearing the colors of the town guard marched down the path; half of them sported crossbows that were loaded and ready. Paul could hear two of them having an angry conversation but he was too far away to be able to make out what was being said. Their march took them right past where the mage was hiding and they didn't so much as even look at the ground for any recent tracks. Paul wondered what might have happened that would cause armed guards to be sent out of Kelfor's Landing. He watched them until they disappeared behind the foliage and waited just a bit more to make sure no one else was coming before he headed back to camp.

When Paul got back he quietly got them all gathered up and explained to them what he saw.

"So what do you make of it?" Paul asked.

"It seems like the typical response to a local raid," Frynia responded. "Maybe trolls, Ice Krall, or some inland group. They send out large patrols to do sweeps."

Haf said, "That makes sense, but if it were trolls I am not sure twelve men would be enough." He set his bow next to his foot and started to string it.

"Well, I would suppose that with all this chaos we could pack up camp and head to town to find Parri. The chance of us getting noticed will not be too good," Yau suggested as he tucked his nunchucks into his belt.

Haf pointed toward the edge of the clearing, "It looks like our answers are coming to us."

They all turned to see Parri break from the cover of the trees and scrub and head toward them at a quick jog.

She got to the group only slightly out of breath. "Pack the gear we have to head east."

"What is going on?" Frynia asked.

"There was a raid on a farm outside of town. A young girl was the only person to escape. She said most of attackers were dressed in skins and rags and they took most of the family away except the eldest son and the father, who were both killed." Parri opened her water skin and took a big drink.

"What kind of tribe would be raiding a human homestead?" questioned Paul.

Parri finished her drink while they all looked on patiently. "The raiders were led by three men in robes. Tyron believes it was a group of fanatics from the Shrine of Hrassk looking for recruits or sacrifices."

"Oh great, more spiders!!" retorted Frynia

Paul swallowed hard.

"What do we know about this cult?" Yau asked.

"Beyond the fact that they occasionally make human sacrifices for their spider god, not much," replied Frynia.

"We are going to try to follow them while the trail is hot," informed Parri as she took out the map and unfolded it. "Tyron looked at the map and thinks that one of these two marks on the map could be the location of the shrine." They all looked as she pointed on the eastern end of the map about 6 days travel out.

"Let's get loaded up and get moving then," Haf said.

They all got busy packing gear and preparing the mules.

Paul was feeling quite nervous at this point. Spider god? So now his nightmare was making more sense. He knew this next leg of their adventure was going to be a personal mission. He did not have the sense that the presence that had been hunting him was behind this, but why would this Hrassk be coming to him in his dreams? He tried to put it out of his mind as he helped load the mules.

Webs of Intrigue: Part 3

By evening they had gone quite a distance and without any run-ins with locals or town guards. With the information they already possessed, the group decided that there wasn't any need for investigating the farm house or looking for the trail of the raiders. The patrols would already be doing that. By heading straight for the two points on the map, they should be able to arrive days before any patrols or tracking teams found their way there from Kelfor's Landing. After finding a nice clearing among some oak and maples they decided to set camp for the night. They pretty much had a routine down at this point. Paul and Parri got water and wood gathering duty this time. They went and filled the party's water skins and the two camp skins that were carried by the mules before they headed into the woods and started gathering dry branches.

Paul bent up and down as he retrieved branches and began to fill his arms up with the natural fuel. He stayed fairly close to Parri so he could talk without raising his voice. "So what was the word from Tyron and Gerdar?"

"The heat was definitely there, but Sein and his bunch don't usually stray too far away from the walls of the Landing." She stopped picking up sticks for a minute as she talked. "Things were starting to calm down a bit before this raid occurred, but Gerdar said they had put out some extra sets of ears and eyes around town so they would know when we returned."

They spent more time walking and talking then they were gathering wood.

"Tyron also said there was a stranger about town that was asking questions about someone matching your description."

Paul eyes grew just a bit wider and his heart beat a little faster.

"He claimed to be your cousin, and that he had arrived with news from home." Parri continued, "Tyron was sure that the stranger would have no problem verifying that you had been in town, but he was just as sure that no one else knew where you were at present."

"I have only vague memories of my mother, and do not know of any other family. I have knowledge of no such cousin," Paul said. He knew this conversation was getting dangerously close to things he did not wish to talk about, so he steered the conversation a different direction. "Did you get a description of this stranger?"

Parri stopped picking up sticks and stood there as she recalled what was told her. "Tyron said the stranger was taller than he; very wiry with long scraggly locks of dark hair and an unshaven face. His seemed very unkempt, although his clothing seemed new."

Paul took advantage of Parri's pause in activity and emptied his load of wood into her outstretched arms. She gave him a mild look of disapproval. He smiled at her and said. "It doesn't sound like anyone I have ever met before."

At that point they looked around and realized that they wandered a bit farther away from camp then they really planned on.

"How about I run this load back to camp and come back for one more load?" Parri asked, but it was rather rhetorical as she had already started moving towards their camp. "Try not to get lost or killed while I am gone," she added with a grin.

Paul stood there with a wistful grin on his face as he watched her make her way through the trees. He didn't realize his distraction until a minute after he could no longer see her, then he sheepishly started looking around for some more fire wood. It had gotten harder to see as dusk drew near. The full foliage cast longer shadows that seemed to intensify the darkness. Something wasn't sitting with him right when he made that realization. He stood and put another branch onto the stack he cradled in his left arm. When he paused to take in his surroundings he realized that the natural sounds of the forest were not there. Paul started to feel uneasy and he brought up his new spell that allowed him to feel any living presence nearby. He didn't sense anything and then guardedly bent down to grab one last stick before he turned to head back to camp. After a few steps he felt a presence behind a small stand of maple that was between him and the camp.

"Parri, it is getting dark. I think we have enough wood with my arm load, let's just go back."

There was no response.

Paul's spell faded but the presence was still there until the end.

"This isn't funny." At this point Paul was no longer thinking that it was Parri, and he started to circle the trees without getting any closer. His right arm moved inside the cradled wood for the handle of his sword.

He caught a glimpse of motion from behind the tree as a figure bolted the opposite direction around the maples. The figure did not run away but came around the other side and bound straight for him. Paul dropped his arm load and pulled forth his blade. In the gloom he realized that although the figure was mannish is profile, it was not human. Upon its fur covered body were the tatters of clothing, ripped as if they had been suddenly outgrown. The long canine snout and reversed knee structure could be seen in the final moments before the creature leaped at Paul. Paul brought up his weapon to fend off the assault and as the sword came into contact the blue flash of magic sent the beast off to one side and Paul stumbling in the opposite direction. He quickly regained his balance and faced his attacker.

"So you thought you could hide from him." the beast growled as he started to circle his prey.

"Hide from who? Who sent you?" Paul demanded. He held his sword between them, ready cast his spell when the wolf man came at him again.

"He sent me to find you and kill you, and tonight he will be satisfied."

Paul knew which "He" the monster was talking about. A surge of fear began to swell as the creature rushed him again. Paul lunged in an attempt to put his sword into his opponent's chest but the wolf man batted it right out of his hand as he bowled Paul to the ground. With a howl, he jumped on top of the mage, pinning him to the ground. Paul felt crushed under the weight of this feral beast and pushed in vain at his attacker. The front paws tensed up on his chest and the foul stench of its breath was on Paul's face as the wolf man leaned in for the kill. Paul was shoving desperately at the thing on top of him when he heard a grunt and the weight shifted to one side momentarily. With a snarl, the furred beast jumped off. Paul looked over to see what or who distracted the wolf from finishing him off. He saw that Parri was frantically parrying the clawed paws that swatted at her, with her druid staff. Paul spotted his sword over near the beast and rolled over to get close enough to reach for it. As he reached for his blade he heard the snap of breaking wood. He looked up just in time to see the wolf creature grab hold of Parri with his sharp paws. It was almost like time slowed as he witnessed the broken pieces of the druid's staff falling towards the ground. The claws dug big gouges through her protective leather and were soon stained crimson. Parri struggled to no avail as the beast pulled her in range of his dripping maw. The tarot mage let out a cry of despair as the wolf's teeth sunk into the druid's neck and shoulder.

Webs of Intrigue: Part 4

In a fit of rage and anger Paul recovered his sword and stood ready to destroy Parri's attacker. The wolf man sensing the mage's actions dropped the druid into a motionless blood soaked heap and turned to face his real target. Blue flames of magic flared as the beast parried vicious blows from Paul; each one drawing forth a wound upon the wolf man. The creature was being driven back by Paul's sheer ferocity, until finally the magic no longer flared from the mage's blade.

Paul didn't even realize his magic was used up, until the wolf grabbed a hold of the now mundane blade of his sword while it was in mid swing. With a howling laugh, the creature yanked the blade completely from Paul's grasp and threw it to the ground. Paul was nearly exhausted and could do little to get out of the way as the wolf man caught him across the side of his head with a brutal backhand. The mage landed on the ground after being launched a dozen feet by the blow. His vision was tinted red as he tried to lift his head. Blackness was hovering on the edge of his peripheral vision as he helplessly watched the wolf close in to finish him.

Haf, Frynia, and Yau heard the howls and yells back in the woods and immediately realized it was the same direction that Paul and Parri were gathering firewood. They made their way to the sounds as fast as possible, weaving around trees and thickets. The three of them ignored the bruises and scratches as they rushed through unseen limbs and brush in the deepening dusk. They knew they were getting close as the sounds of battle drew near and flashes of blue could be seen, but then the howl of victory issued forth and with dread in their hearts they pushed themselves faster. They arrived near the scene just in time to catch a glimpse of Paul's battered body as it was thrown away from some mangy haired wolf creature. The wolf man began his approach to finish Paul off once and for all, when a sudden motion from behind the beast drew their attention.

A humanoid seemed to appear from the very esseance, parts of him seemed to scintillate with the colors of the dusky forest. In each hand he had a long toothed dagger. In a fluid and quick motion he swung them both into the wolf; piercing him deeply at the neck, then below the arms, and finally they were thrust into his kidneys. With each quick strike the wolf howled and his claws went to the areas of his body where the blades struck, but it was always too late. The assassin let go of the knives still buried in the creature's kidneys and backed away from the now flailing and weakening beast. The wolf had fallen to his knees and was quickly expiring when the three adventurers came up on the scene. The assassin had already turned and kneeled overtop of Parri with another blade and was cutting away clothing from the wounds the wolf left upon her. Frynia and Yau quickly made their way over to her side.

The assassin looked out at them from the cowl of his scintillating cloak. His arms came up and he folded the hood down, revealing his face. It was none other than Keltos the Bard.

"Quick, we must stop this bleeding and get her back to your camp as soon as possible."

He handed some cloth to Yau and pointed to the claw marks on her other shoulder. "Frynia, we need boiled water as soon as you can get it....", she nodded and took off towards the camp in a dead run.

"Haf, get Paul up on his feet and get him back to camp as soon as possible, we need to check him for wounds as well. Even if there is a little scratch there is a chance he can contract lycanthropy."

Yau stammered, "You mean....?"

Both Yau and Haf stopped and looked at the body lying upon the ground with Keltos' blades still sticking out of him. The soft white flesh of humanity now existed, where wolf hair was while he still lived.

"By the gods, that beast was a human!" Paul called out as he slowly finished standing up.

"Good, he can maneuver on his own," said Keltos. "Haf, get my daggers out of that corpse and then let's going, we need to get Parri to camp NOW!!"

When they arrived the water was already getting heated and Frynia had set up Parri's bedding over by the fire.

"Lay her down and keep pressure on the neck area," Keltos ordered them. He continued on to Frynia and handed a small leather sack as he said to her, "Use this to mix a poultice with that hot water and bring it over in a bowl to me. This is our only hope in preventing the lycanthropy from taking hold. You MUST be quick."

Frynia nodded and got straight to work.

"Paul, come over here by the fire and strip down enough so we can see if the werewolf punctured your skin as well."

After checking over Paul very carefully it was determined that there were no wounds capable of carrying the disease. With a quick dismissal, Keltos went back over to tend Parri, and when Frynia arrived with the completed poultice, he basically told them all to get scarce and leave them to their work.

Paul sat on the other side of the camp outside the warmth of the fire and contemplated on the evening's events. His legacy had caught up to him, even here in Quellborne; a whole continent away from where he came from. If it were not for his presence, Parri would not have suffered those horrendous wounds and possibly an incurable malady that would make her a danger and an outcast to all society. Damn it all to Charon! Why must this always be? She protected him from that werewolf and now look at what happened to her. He left the guild hall because of worry about this exact kind of problem. Stragen was right about him; he was not ready to be away from such a powerful guild. He was not strong enough to protect himself. He was weak and brought nothing but calamity upon those who befriended him. Paul turned away from the fire and faced out towards the blackness of the night, so no one would see the tears that ran down his face.

Never again, would someone else have to make the sacrifice to save him from his legacy. He should be protecting others, not the other way around. He wiped his face off with the side of his cloak and looked back over the fire where Keltos and Frynia tended to the beautiful druid.

"Never again!"