Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Four Melees to Hell

Melee 1

… It was a dark and evil night. A bitter wind blew through Harrowsgate, banging nearyby window shutters and whistling hauntingly through the roof beams of the remote mountain village. The only light in the vicinity was coming from the flaming hay stack in the mule barn, where our heroes were frantically organizing their effort to put it out under Hermel’s calm, decisive, albeit somewhat petulant, leadership.

The barn was beginning to fill with smoke, and so it was getting hard to see, and for those nearest the flames, hard to breath. Hermel ordered the archers to line up in their ranks, defend the two exterior doorways, and sent a group of six to try to smother the flames under the heavy wool blankets they had been using for bedding. Fortunately for them, it had been raining the past few days, and so there was a general dampness in the air. Unfortunately a side effect of that was the production of thick choking smoke, and crackling sparks that floated in the air from burning hay. The voracious fire had already leaped onto a nearby haystack from the pool of fire that had formed where the torch had landed, and was hungrily consuming it while looking for it's next meal.

Chickenhiemer, who knew something of these things, recognized the fire right away, and clucking frantically, scuttled himself and Turkenator into a small stone room on the side of the barn. It was a temporary haven, but self preservation was not actually chief on his mind. Something puzzling was going on in that room and he wanted to investigate it. Turkenator was happy to assist, also recognizing the fire as a particularly voracious breed. He scowled as he leaped into the dark room after Chickenhiemer. The fire mocked them with a hiss, crackling sparks high into the air, and began it's attempts to leap onto another hay stack towards their position. This was an angry fire.

Bantum, concerned for his little friends, went to find Chickenhiemer and Turkenator, and followed them into the dark corner room. It was very dark in that windowless place, and Bantum had difficulty locating the two busily pecking fouls. They were clucking and gobbling away while working frantically at the floor along the northwestern wall.  Yes, there was definitely something odd going on, and this time Chickenhiemer was determined to find out what.

Outside Arik put his back to the wall and unhitched his ax. He watched the large double doors along the tall and wide western wall keenly in expectation that the enemy would soon bash through one way or another.

On the eastern side of the barn, Star stepped out from the stone stall where he had been brooding, and watched the open doorway through which he gazed into the indecipherable darkness. Outside, somewhere, he knew there were shadowy Brigands. He had no idea how many, or what their disposition would be. He wished that Hermel had followed his initial suggestion of attacking the Black Dragon Inn to begin with, and surrounding the enemy before they themselves were surrounded. Now, with the barn on fire, and no safe escape route, it was too late for that. He wondered if they would survive the ordeal.

The two monks from the Bear Claw Village, Moose and Lee, stood up, brushed the hay from their dingy yellow robes calmly, and prepared for whatever may come. Hormel was already dashing towards the fire with another heavy blanket to help extinguish it.

In the next stall over, the one below the stairs that went up to the loft, Ishcandar had grabbed Lido’s infamous backpack and was rifling through it looking for his silver brandy flask in the hopes that his friend had thought to pick it up from the street earlier where he’s dropped it. He was not, you might say, in his right mind entirely. For Ishcandar, being without brandy was a kind of worst-case-scenario. He was feeling desperate.

“Ishcandar,” said Lido reproachfully, “be careful in there! You don’t want to fall into hell again, do you?”

“No, no, of course not,” replied the Hobbit earnestly, “but I was hoping beyond hope that you might have stashed my silver decanter in here.” However, it was not meant to be. The silver flask remained where Ishcandar had dropped it outside the barn in the street, unnoticed by anyone in the darkness.

Meanwhile the fire had caught hold on a second bale of hay in the fourth stall; smoke billowed out into the barn filling air with a choking, eye-stinging fume. Yet, as the barn was large, the smoke dispersed into the rafters, and so most everyone was still able to see, and only the archers close to the fire began choking.

The barn itself, Hermel thought to himself, was a bit odd, for a mule barn. First off it seemed rather enormous. For second, it was made, like every other building in the town, of large stones mortared together to form very thick and solid walls. The windows where narrow rectangular slits through the stonework that allowed light and air through, but a man could not squeeze himself through it. Nor, he realized to his chagrin, were they particularly good for giving the archers a vantage point from which to fire their arrows the walls were too thick to allow for that. Lastly, he wondered why there were no mules in the barn. It occurred to him then that perhaps the mules had been taken elsewhere before they had shown up a the Inn. And perhaps, as the Brigands controlled the town, and the Black Dragon was the only Inn, they'd planned for this trap from the beginning. This thought irked him considerably.

Near the eastern doorway Praymar stood and peered out into the darkness towards the Inn. It was across the wide street, but he could see nothing in the darkness. So he summoned his mystical power of Night Vision, and once the invocation was complete he could see considerably better. It was still, even so, quite dark. Almost unnaturally so, he thought. Out into the street he crept, sliding quietly along the side of the exterior wall of the mule barn running his hand along the cold stones. His Night Vision enabling him to see dimly in a small circle around himself with relative clarity despite the utter darkness outside. Suddenly out of the shadowy night he came upon a large man wearing a yellow robe with a white sash belt looking off in the other direction towards the Inn. The man was half crouched and digging through a pouch for something. Across his knee was a long wooden staff. He didn't notice the quietly approaching albino, and when Praymar saw the man ahead of him, he stopped dead in his tracks and watched him for a moment.

“Are you friend or foe?” squeaked Praymar.

“Are you kidding?” asked the man whirling around and standing up suddenly, quite surprised. He smiled.

“Friend,” he said reassuringly as he began to walk towards Praymar with on hand out stretched, his staff in the other.

“From where?” asked Praymar with a squeak.

“From across the way,” said the man nodding towards the Black Dragon Inn. None of the lights along the entire street were lit. Even with Praymar’s mystical Night Vision he could barely make out the shape of the Inn. The man continued to approach.

“Keep coming towards me and you won’t be happy,” said Praymar holding up his hands in front of himself.

The man suddenly whirled with the intent of striking the young albino with his staff, but Praymar was faster. He reached out with his hands and touched the man on his arm, smiling to himself with the anticipation of Draining his hapless foe and stunning him. Then, perhaps, he might enjoy a bit of the old gut-blood, he thought. Nothing happened. The man seemed to have warded it off somehow. He swung his staff without hesitation, a cruel smirk on his face.

“Oh Shit,” squeaked Praymar.

“I will crush your little albino skull, and split this red beady eyes of yours,” roared the monkish villain.

Lido, from inside, heard a crushing sound, and then Praymar's unmistakable squeak, and then the sound of cruel laughter. Praymar staggered into the barn, his left arm dangling limply, blood dripping down his white skin, leaving a trail of dark droplets along the ground.

Melee 2

Meanwhile Hermel had been ordering his men to action.

“You archers! I want one man at every window. Throw back any torches as they come. Shoot anyone who appears at the windows. The rest of you, take those heavy blanks and put out that fire!”

Six archers had run to the fire with the heavy blankets and were busy trying to smother the angry flames. The others ran to each of the narrow windows, one of which was located at each of the stalls. They covered every window, but in the confusion one remained unwatched in the far north western corner.

Even the stalls, Hermel noted to himself, were unusually thick walled, separated by the same broad stonework as the outer walls. He was certain that this building was not originally intended to be used as a mule barn. It also occurred to him that it was much larger than any mule barn he’d ever seen. It seemed in fact more like a fortress than a barn. It was odd. And rather bothersome. Had it been the typical barn he would have simply ordered Bantum to bash a hole through a wooden wall and escaped that way. Real farmers, he thought, use wooden walls for barns. But these walls were at least two feet thick, maybe more. He glared at one of the walls angrily.

Star stared brooding as he looked out the open doorway facing the Black Dragon Inn. It was too difficult to see outside, but within the barn the light from the fire cast flickering shadows against the stonework. Hazy black smoke began to waft over his shoulder. Something was clawing at the edges of his perception. Something blacker than the darkness outside. But he could not comprehend what it was, and as Praymar had just come staggering in, he gave up on trying to sense it, and went to help his wounded comrade. The lad had fallen to one knee about ten feet into the barn. He ran over to help him. No one followed Praymar into the barn.

Arik glared at the closed barn doors on the western wall. He thought he could hear the sound of wheels on the cobblestone outside, but he was not sure. It was faint, and the men trying to smother the fire were making a lot of noise with their shouting. Behind him, inside the stone walled room Bantum was calling for Chickenhiemer. Apparently neither the chicken nor the turkey were much interested in answering the gentle giant’s pleas.

Arik decided to cast a spell upon himself. It was something that Dwarves were usually not known for, but this was why he had spent so much time studying it. It was in fact a spell of speed. Arik changed and wiggled his stubby fingers in the exact pattern and design he was taught at the Adventure Guild. It worked.

Bantum emerged from the dark stone room without Chickenheimer or Turkenator. He had told them to stay put, seeing as how they had shown no inclination to follow him or be caught by him anyway.

“You two be good!” he said as he exited into the main part of the barn.

Across the way, “Come,” said Ishcandar to Lido, “let’s go help our friend!” And with that they stealthily moved across the barn floor towards where Star was tending to Praymar. Ishcandar absentmindedly, perhaps, had taking Lido’s backpack. Suddenly it rumbled in his hand, and then it belched a short red flame and a billowing cloud of sulfurous smoke ascended to the ceiling. Ishcandar was quite shocked by this. But with the prospect that his silver brandy flask might nevertheless be stashed in there somewhere he was loath to drop the accursed thing. He dragged it along behind him, trying to keep his distance from it as they continued to make their way over to Star and Praymar.

The barn was starting to fill with smoke, their eyes starting to burn, and some of the men were actively choking. The men at the fire threw the blankets over sections of it under Hermel's direction, trying their best to smother it piece by piece before the rest of the hay caught on fire. Fortunately, since it had been raining, and everything was a little bit damp, they managed to subdue part of the fire, and were working on the rest.

Meanwhile at the windows the rest of the archers kept a keen lookout. No one, however, could see anything through the inky darkness. The smoke made it difficult to see as well and most everyone's eyes were burning.

“There’s a huge guy out there," squeaked Praymar as Star finished binding his wound. "He’s bigger than Bantum!” he said. But looking behind him through the doorway, he saw nothing but the dark shadow of night.

Melee 3

“Are you done yet?” shouted Bantum into the stone room where Chickenhiemer and Turkenator were busy pecking at base of the north wall.

“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” said Chickenhimer. Loosely translated that meant, “Kindly stop interrupting us you gigantic ox!” Bantum's Chickenese was only so good, however, and what he heard was "You are very kind to bother the oxen". Close enough.

The men around the fire, now half smothered, began choking seriously from the fumes of blaze. Smoke was lofting into the air and filling the upper airs of the barn. Hermel ordered them to stand firm and continue smothering the blaze with the blankets. Hornmel had by this time run over to provide his assistance. Moose and Lee meanwhile had made their way to where Star was tending Praymar and stood behind him, watching the door to the barn for any signs of movement. Nothing stirred. Apparently the Brigands intended to wait them out. Under the circumstances, thought Moose, it was quite a good plan. With the barn on fire, they would either be overcome by fumes, burned to death, or have to exit through one of the doorways into the line of fire of the awaiting Brigands, however many there were out there.

Finally the archers were able to completely smother the fire, though smoke continued to billow from the embers of the haystack. Three of the archers maneuvered to the base of the stairs that lead up to the loft above. It was a wooden loft piled with bales of hay. Moose thought that one spark up there and they’d all be goners soon. How relieved he was when the fire in the mule stall was finally put out. The last of the embers died out as it fell to his feet. He stepped on it for good measure.

Then, another torch flipped in through the one unguarded window on the far western side of the barn. It landed on a hay stack.

"What the hell?" shouted Hermel. "I thought I told you archers to guard all the windows!" They looked at one another sheepishly. It was an oversight. Everyone thought that someone else had gone to that window. "Why I ought to execute one of you to teach the rest a lesson!" shouted Hermel angrily, but not meaning what he said, entirely. Bob, who was the Captain of Dectalion A, felt the greatest pang of regret. This was the second time he'd mismanaged his men. The other Captain looked at him disapprovingly. He might lose his commission over something like this. He swore to himself to make up for it somehow.

The hey began to burn below the exposed window. When Arik saw this he ran with truly astounding speed (for a Dwarve) across the room and began stamping on it.

“Bantum! Come help me put out this fire!” he shouted.

“Ok!” called out Bantum as he ran to where Arik was stomping on the fire. Fortunately, Arik’s ultra fast footwork allowed him to put the fire out before it got out of control. Nevertheless Bantum ran over and began stamping on the smoldering hay just the same.

Everyone else stood in silence, and darkness, waiting for the next shoe to drop. It did not take long.

Melee 4

Outside the sound of the wagon wheels had grown louder. Suddenly the large wooden doors on the western wall crashed in with a blaze of fire. A large heavy wooden wagon laden with flaming bails of hay smashed through the opening and spewed flaming hay onto the floor.

“Bantum! Push that thing back out of here!” shouted Hermel. He thought it would be great to get the large flaming wagon outside as it would illuminate the street and give them a fighting chance to escape. They had, as it was, no inkling as to the forces that might be arrayed against them outside. But he firmly believed that there were archers and Brigands galore, and that furthermore, leaving the barn piecemeal was a certain death sentence.

Bantum tried his mighty best to push the wagon. His hand burned, and his shirtsleeves caught on fire. But the wagon would not budge. Through the flames he could see a huge man, roughly about his own size, who was pushing the wagon into the barn from the other side. It was a rather large wagon in fact, the front half of which was piled high with bound bales of burning hay. The huge foe grunted with the strain, and as he and Bantum were equally strong, Bantum could make no progress at reversing the wagon's direction. And he was on fire. So he fell back away from the wagon panting and threw himself to the ground to put out the flames on his cloths. His face was blackened, and hands were burned; the pain was excruciating.

The hulking man on the other side of the wagon growled loudly and shoved the wagon further into room. Arik growled at the man on the other side of the wagon. There they were, two grown humanoids, growling loudly at one another like burly animals.

"It is the bear vs. the boar, is it not?" queried the Elkron Minvar of her Emperor, but he just folded his hands before his face with two fingers raised to his forehead and smiled grimly without answering.

“Get out of the doorway,” said Star to Praymar as he finished binding his wound. Praymar stood up to move, but at that moment, somehow, Praymar was struck by an arrow through the open northern doorway.

“Oh for the love of …” cried Praymar as he fell back into Star’s arms. There were in fact archers outside, and by the dim light coming from the flaming wagon on the other side of the barn, one of them got a lucky shot and wounded the white haired serpent-child.

Lido, who also happen to be standing in the line of fire of the open door, deftly stepped out of the way and dodged into a shadow. Four arrows plunked into the stairs where he had just been standing. He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve and sighed with relief, and then ran through the flickering shadows towards where Ishcandar was standing, behind Star.

“It might be time to abandon the western side of the barn,” said Star as he watched the barn doors catch on fire and flames begin to climb toward the wooden rafters, sparks flying high into the dark shadows above. It seemed evident that the hungry flames would soon reach the loft if not checked. Star, although deeply concerned about this, began tending to the arrow sticking out of Praymar’s left leg.

“Archers!” shouted Hermel. “Face the flaming doorway in the Six Brick Formation and prepare to fire!” He expected the man pushing the cart to barge his way into the barn and begin wrecking havoc. There was no way Hermel would let that happen. He knocked an arrow with his bow, his green cape fluttering in the wind that was wafting in the updraft caused by the wagon fire and stared menacingly at the western doorway. His expression was grim and determined. The men jostled into the double-row formation, knocked their bows, kneeled down, and prepared to fire.

Ishcandar, still holding Lido’s bag, felt the cursed thing rumble again, and another belch of short red fire and a sulfurous plume of smoke lofted from its mouth into the air. With that he decided he had had quite enough of the backpack to hell, and threw it outside the barn onto the dark street.

“May the devils of hell plague those damn Brigands!” he said vehemently under his breath.

Star was just finishing binding Praymar’s arrow wound while the burning wagon on the other side of the barn jammed into the stone wall of a stall and came to a sudden thunderous halt, sending flames blazing upward; sparks ascended high into the rafters. Billows of black and green smoke billowed upward toward the ceiling. Arik and Bantum stepped back shielding their faces from the heat. The archers, who were poised to shoot their arrows, had no opportunity. The huge Brigand who pushed the cart, and wedged it firmly into the doorway, never entered the barn.

Hermel scanned the upper loft, looking for any avenue of escape. As far as he could see there were no doors up there, nor windows. Just large bales of hay, and a few barrels. He looked to the dark northern doorway toward the Black Dragon Inn. He imagined that villain, whom he now knew was the very Brigand Chief who had kidnapped his sister and the other villagers of Yellow Clay, smirking, gloating with pleasure in some hidden alcove nearby. He was furious, but their options had been whittled down to a regrettable few, and there was nothing to do about that. He would just have to make the best of things.

As he, and the others who followed his gaze, looked in the direction of the northern doorway, they all noticed the other double doors that had been closed the entire time on the eastern wall slowly open as though by themselves, the bolt that held them shut falling to the ground with a thud that echoed somberly throughout the barn.

The hairs raised on everyone’s necks. Beyond those doors was the room where the Cartwright workshop was located. They’d passed it on the way into the barn, but had taken no particular notice of it. It was a wooden building attached to the side of the stone barn. It had a set of double doors that faced into the mule barn, and another set that faced onto the street. As both sets of doors had been closed, no one had bothered to venture to take a look inside. But now the doors slowly opened of their own accord. Beyond them was an inky blackness, darker than the pitch black of night outside. Far darker. Within, Praymar felt, more than saw, some dread figure standing with two hands outstretched towards him.

Suddenly a gust of wind blew into the barn. It was hot, and smelled of sulfur. On that gust a sheet of yellow paper came fluttering in from the darkness. It lofted in the air, floating, pirouetting, flipping and fluttering past Ishcandar who tried to catch it, until it landed directly on the square Praymar’s back. And there it adhered itself, as though glued to him. The bright red letters almost seemed to glow line the dim light coming from the blazing wagon on the far side of the mule barn.

“Come to me, Praymar,” a deep resonant voice spoke in the hidden recesses of his mind. He shuddered. No one heard the sound of that fell tone. But everyone felt it just the same. It was as if an icy wind swept through them all, baring their souls to the realities beyond the world of warmth and light. The infinitely dark realities of the world of the damned.

Previous Episode: Mysteries Unfolding at Harrowsgate

Next Episode: The Mule Barn Battle at Harrowsgate

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