The Stacked Deck Chapter 8

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2006

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"Few are the men who are acknowledged by a man of his significance"

The Fringe of Lunacy: Part 1

He watched as his spirit descended back into his corporeal form. His body still looked stiff as it was lying on the cot. This time there was not any swirling and flying around the room, he just went straight to his mortal host. There was a strange moment as his spirit reconnected and suddenly all physical sensation returned, a slight sensation on his chest ramped up to a throbbing pain as he sat up from the cot. He lifted up his tunic and saw a strange tattoo in the center of his chest. It was a simple design of a broadsword with the hilt on top and the blade pointed down. There was still some blood seeping from various spots around the edges so Paul pulled his tunic off and grabbed a clean cloth to dab it off before enough blood gathered to start dripping. He looked around his room, and it seemed to be just as he had left it. He did notice that his normally clean face had some stubble on it, about three days worth. It did not seem at all like he was gone for that much time.

After the blood stopped, Paul put his tunic back on and geared up for a trip to the Raging Threk. He was famished, but first he needed to speak with Tyron. He stepped outside his room and noticed that the forge was cooling down, and the work area was empty. After knocking on Tyron's door and getting no response Paul decided to head over to the inn, chances were he would find Tyron there at this time of day anyway.

The evening air was cool and moist as usual, so again Paul was not out of place with his hood up and his cloak wrapped around him, not that it would matter much when he got to the Raging Threk. If that place was busy, which it usually was, he would be seen there. Paul figured that if Tyron was still worried about it, he would have left word to stay put.

The inn was bustling with a good crowd. A bright fire lit the main room and the warmth felt good after being in the cool damp evening air. Paul noticed that Millie was working behind the bar but he did not see Tyron anywhere. He made his way up to the side of the bar where Millie was filling some tankards with ale.

"How have you been?" he asked her.

"Busy, as always," was her response. She did not even look up from her work. "What can I get ye?"

"I was wondering if you have seen Tyron?"

She looked over and saw that it was Paul talking to her. She turned off the spigot and leaned over to where he was at the bar. "He's in a back room. Expecting you, he be, third door on the right." With a quick smile, she went back to her work. Paul was glad to see she was keeping herself together.

Paul worked his way around the bar through the evening crowd and down the hallway. He knocked quietly on the door and was a bit surprised to see it opened by Gerdar. He smiled at Paul and invited him in, patting him on the shoulder as he walked through the door.

"So you have found your way back to this realm I see." Gerdar said as he offered a chair for Paul to sit.

Tyron was sitting across the table beside a tall cloaked stranger, his face hidden in the cowl of the large traveling cloak.

"A little warning of what I was about to go through would have been nice." Paul retorted as he took his seat.

"I had nothing to explain to you beyond what was instructed of me, as I have never experienced what you have just done," Tyron explained. He poured a mug of ale and pushed it over to Paul. "What I now understand is that you have survived a harrowing ordeal, some sort of contest of the gods."

"Meeting up with that werewolf in the woods and watching my friend suffer the tearing wounds that should have been inflicted on me was a harrowing experience." Paul reached out and took the mug by the handle. "Other than the unbelievable method of travel, and information I learned during this ordeal, it really wasn't all that bad." He picked up the mug, put it to his mouth and proceeded to drain the contents in one long draw. He placed the empty mug back on the table. "On top of that, I came back to find this," Paul lifted his tunic, "burned into my chest!"

"It is the mark of the forces of life, designating you as a warrior chosen." The stranger's voice was deep, but very melodic and captivating. "You have been awarded a high honor for having only gone through one test. You must be an accomplished swordsman."

Paul's eyes nearly fell out of their sockets and Tyron spilled some of the ale as he was trying to refill Paul's mug.

"Accomplished?" Paul didn't know whether to laugh or yell. "I am lucky not to cut myself every time I pull my blade!!"

"You have improved greatly since we started training, Paul." Tyron reasoned. "Do not underestimate your skills or your potentials."

"I used magic and deception to defeat my opponent. I was surprised my ruse worked so well, although the demon was rather dim-witted." Paul added that last piece with a little whimsy in his voice. His empty stomach was helping that ale reach all the right places already.

"However you wish to perceive it, you have passed a test that many have failed. You will find the rewards worthy, but the tasks ahead of you will be a far greater test with little personal rewards beyond your continued existence." The stranger reached into his cloak and pulled out a bundle wrapped in fur. "I am heartened to hear of your care for your friends, for they are the ones who will truly benefit from your trials."

He laid the bundle down next to Paul as he stood up from the table.

"I have business to attend."

The stranger backed away from the table, and gave a slight nod to those present in the room.

"Safe journeys," was all he said and with a little spin of his index finger a magic archway appeared, the stranger stepped through and they both vanished.

Paul lifted his mug to take another swig of ale. "He seems like a real friendly chap!" The sarcasm dripped like the foam off his pint.

"Few are the men who are acknowledged by a man of his significance," Tyron replied.

Paul set the mug back on the table. "You act like he was a Loremaster or something."

Tyron and Gerdar looked at each other with eyebrows slightly raised and then back to Paul who began to cough and wheeze as the ale went down the wrong hole.

The Fringe of Lunacy Part 2

Paul sat in the room at the inn all by himself, looking at the now empty mugs. After some more discussion and tales told, Tyron and Gerdar excused themselves for the evening. The room was his until morning but he was to be back on the road by dawn. Paul stood up and walked over to the hearth and stoked up the fire for the last time that night. Then he tidied his room, washed himself up, and prepared for some sleep. As he finished packing all the rest of his gear in his rucksack, he looked around the room for anything he might have forgotten to stow before his eyes settled on table. There was now a second bundle lying next to the one given to Paul by the Loremaster. It contained a small fortune in mystical herbs of healing and enhancement, as well as a stronger mixture for preventing lycanthropy. Paul retrieved both bundles and put the herbs in his pack as he sat down on the mattress and looked over the mysterious gift. He untied a worn strap and unrolled the leather sheet to find a set of craftsman's tools etched with glyphs and instilled with the essence. He carefully packed his presents away and took out his spell book for a little studying before sleep. He was astounded to find that he completely understood all the new spells he had been working on.

The street was dark and empty at the early hour, only a few guttering lanterns still cast a feeble glow against the damp night's embrace. With his cloak on and the hood up, Paul headed towards the eastern gatehouse. No guard came forward as he passed through the gate and that struck Paul as odd, so he stopped in front of the door to the small room that protected the sentries from the elements and listened very carefully. A muffled snoring could be heard coming from behind the entrance. With a shake of his head, Paul set out to find his friends.

When Paul arrived at camp it was near dinnertime and his friends were busy preparing the meal. Haf and Yau were dressing out some rabbits while Frynia was busy with the stew pot over the fire.

"Just in time for a meal." Paul announced as he stepped into the clearing.

The three of them looked up and smiled.

Frynia put her paw on her hip. "You just up and leave without a word and come back nearly a week later expecting dinner?"

Paul was a bit taken aback. "Keltos knew where I went and..."

"Quiet your tongue, and help me with this wood." It was Parri's voice coming from behind him.

Paul turned around and she not only looked completely healthy, but she had an armful of firewood so large he doubted he could carry it. He helped her unload and the party proceeded to cook their dinner.

"So where is Keltos?" Paul asked after he finished his bowl of rabbit stew.

"He headed out after the morning meal." Yau said in between mouthfuls of stew. "He told us you would be along sometime today."

"Yes, and please be so kind as to explain why you were gone so long." Frynia said.

It was obvious this story was of interest to them all as they gathered around Paul and their evening fire for a tale of adventure and Paul began to reiterate his past few days, but he omitted the parts about meeting a Loremaster.

The group had decided to break camp in the morning and continue on their search for the spider cult. Frynia volunteered to keep first watch so everyone else went to sleep except for Paul. So they sat watch and made some small talk for a while until Paul's curiosity got the best of him.

"Parri looks so healthy, considering how much damage was done." He kept his voice quiet. "I don't even see any scars on her neck."

Frynia's demeanor grew a little somber as she looked off into the dark night.

"So that herbal poultice must have worked really well." Paul phrased this as a statement, but he was probing for an answer.

Frynia's gaze wandered over to the resting form of Parri. "It worked well enough to keep the disease from killing her."

"So if she is not dead and not cured....." Paul's question trailed off.

Frynia got up from where she sat. "I am going up into those branches for a better view." She looked him straight in the eye. "You had better get some rest."

Paul watched her disappear into the darkness, with his heart caught in his throat.

The Fringe of Lunacy Part 3

There was a tickle on the back of his neck and then the whisper in his ear, "Paul, I have come for you."

The fuzzy tickle went up from his neck and then teased his ear, the whiskers moved as she spoke to him some more.

"Paul, I have come for you. Give yourssself to me."

He realized that this seemed very familiar, and then when the spider dream memory came to mind he sat up straight away and looked around.

Paul found himself lying in a cave with about thirty other people. There was a chill in the moist breeze that could be felt but there was no evidence of the cave's entrance. A rustling sound brought his attention to a small group of men making their way through the muddle of sleeping forms.

They stopped at a few different figures, unshuttered a lantern to view, and continued on to check others. They started to get far enough back into the darkness that Paul could no longer see what was happening, so he quietly got up and made his way towards them in the gloom.

When he saw them again they were carrying the limp form of one of the sleepers as they continued to head further back into the cave.

The cave grew narrower and started to resemble a large tunnel as it began to slope upwards. A few stalagmites had formed in this area, and they cast eerie shadows upon the walls as the now un-shuttered lantern light bobbed ahead. The forms disappeared behind the cavern teeth, and the aura of the lamp was nearly gone so Paul was quick to make his way up the narrowing path.

As he neared the crest he saw an opening that led to an even bigger cavern. This one was far more immense and the air smelled of age and decay. The aura of the lantern did not even begin to reach out into the inky blackness of this vast grotto.

They made their way down into the dark; only a stone floor was visible in the breadth of the light. The bottom of the cavern started to ascend and the group of men stopped at a flattened boulder that jutted up from the floor. Paul hunkered down in the opening as he watched what he determined was four men in black robes as they carefully laid the body on the stone.

He could see the men involved in some activity but between the distance and the darkness, he was not sure what was going on until all four of them backed away from the platform.

The prone figure of an older woman lay sprawled across the natural altar of stone, tied down with manacles on her arms and legs.

She made no effort to free herself.

Paul had moved part way into the chamber as he tried to determine the condition of the woman, and then suddenly two large braziers lit up blinding Paul for a few moments. As he blinked his vision back into focus the scene left him frozen where he stood.

The area surrounding the altar was massed with webs; huge strands, like ropes in the rigging of a sailing ship, connected to envelop everything that could be seen. As Paul took in the view he noticed a number of very large spiders clinging to the webs, but they just sat there unmoving.

A droning chant started to rise from the black robes; their shadows danced and weaved across the webs as the flames flickered in the braziers. The sound grew until it seemed to fill the chamber and with the change in timbre the black robes tossed something into each of the burners. Puffs of smoke rose from the flames, which were now deep red and the whole scene before Paul looked as if soaked in blood.

The spiders began to advance down the webs towards the altar stone while the figure seemed to have awakened some as she attempted to move her limbs. Paul moved closer and closer as he tried to figure out how to stop this and save that poor woman. He thought he heard her scream as the spiders made their way to the sides of the stone, but the black robes' drone drowned out her voice, so he took another step forward.

The next thing Paul remembered was the ground rushing up to meet his face. He seemed to have stumbled over some unseen obstacle in the darkness and chaos and when he tried to back on his feet he realized that they were somehow tied together.

Straight off the ground, feet first, Paul flew up toward the ceiling. The sanguine image spinning below him as the horrifying man and spider ritual sacrifice continued on.

Something strong suddenly grabbed a hold of him and stopped him mid-spin. Eyes and mandibles were so close to his head as Paul realized that the spider's pedipalps held fast his shoulders.

"Nowww you are MINE!!"

He felt the injections go into his shoulders and the poison quickly coursed its way through his body. As the paralysis set in, all he could do was watch as he dangled in front of this wicked spider goddess. The edges of his vision started to go black as the spider resumed the spin and continued to wrap her prized treat in sticky silk web.

Just as all went black, the incessant chant was interrupted by an echoing howl.

Paul felt a gentle nudge which broke the emptiness. Slowly he came to as the nudge became a shake. He tried to move but he was still cocooned, and with a panic he opened his eyes. Yau Sh'en was on one knee with an outstretched hand shaking Paul's shoulder.

Yau quietly spoke, "It is first light, time to get packed up for a new day's journey."

Paul looked down to see that he was wrapped up tight in his bed roll. His heart rate started to descend and Paul couldn't help but let out a huge breath and chuckle in relief.

The Fringe of Lunacy Part 4

The rocky terrain and near constant cold drizzle made the hours seem endless. Progress was slow and moods were getting sour in the group. Tension was thicker than the cold moist Quellbourne air, but nobody seemed willing to talk about it.

They had skipped the morning meal and when they finally did stop to eat, it was a somber and tasteless repast. Paul noticed that no one made eye contact, and they either stared at the ground or out into the wilderness.

Haf started to look at the gnoll's map and then glanced around the area before he spoke. "We are now within the known territory of the spider cult, so we need to be more wary."

"How much further until we reach their lair?" Frynia inquired.

Haf folded the map and began to put it away. "Within a day's march, barring some misfortune." He replied.

He stood there and watched them as they prepared to continue up the trail. Cold eyes buried in the dark dripping cowls of a heavy cloak watched them as they slowly made progress up the rocky path. The corners of his mouth lifted in a smirk. He now knew he held the favor of his deity, for it was her dreams that brought him out here today.

"Hrassk will be pleased," he whispered out loud, and after a few more moments of watching the party ascend the mountainous path, the Eye of Hrassk headed back to the temple.

"So if all is as you say, Faeldin, we shall be planning a raid for tonight."

The Eye acknowledged the Mind of Hrassk with a slight nod.

A smile grew across Karamon's face. "As Eye you serve Hrassk well."

Again Faeldin nodded to his superior. "I live to serve her."

Karamon pulled the curtain aside from the exit. "Go and tell Askylor to meet me in the Leg of the Mind to make our plans."

Karamon stood behind the High Priest as he reported what the Eye had seen.

The High Priest turned to regard his second and then motioned him over.

"I knew he was coming soon," said Valtar when the Mind had taken a seat.

Karamon wrinkled his brow in confusion, so the High Priest explained.

"She told me about him in a vision. Hrassk showed me his face and promised great rewards for the faithful who delivered him in sacrifice."

Faeldin was still baffled. "Your pardon, my Priest, but I do not know to whom you refer."

Valtar looked off and his seemed to go blank. "The young mage is to be found traveling with the party of whom you speak. He is a Champion of Life and the great Hrassk wants his blood spilt in her honor."

The Mind understood enough to be able to do Hrassk's bidding. "He will be brought to the temple unharmed."

The curtain parted and Askylor presented himself to Karamon. "I have come at your request, Mind of Hrassk."

"The Eye has reported a group of adventurers approaching up the mountain path."

The Venom of Hrassk, stood quietly as the Mind spoke.

Karamon faced Askylor, "We will bring as many back as prisoners as possible, but there is one we must catch unharmed."

"We shall descend upon them as silent as the darkness and bring them all for the glory of Hrassk." The Venom responded. "Which one gets my very special attention?"

The drizzle had stopped about an hour before dusk but the wind now carried an icy chill. They finished climbing the rocky trail and set up camp in a small stand of Windak trees. Even though it was extremely risky, they built a small fire to cook a hot meal and dry off. It was important to remove the chill from their bones to ward off potential illness; they would just have to be extra vigilant for any unwanted visitors it may attract. Haf huddled in by the mules to start the first watch. He watched the breaking clouds going by and surveyed the shadows as the clouds passed over the nearly full Orhan. The warmth of the mules and the hypnotic effect of the moon and cloud display lulled Haf into a light slumber, but his mind still watched the celestial dance.