Showdown At Dunesend
They traveled through thorns to barren sands,
Where many men had died,
T’where forgotten, Dunesend, grimly grey yet stands,
And the place the desert’s Warden plies.
Where drake faced them, a lion at bay,
Seeing its head up-flung,
And brave Bingus did say, “Today we dare not die.”
When others fretted or held their tongues.
Showdown At Dunesend
The village of Dunesend marks the frontier of two equally desolate lands. To the north lies the forbidding Thornwaste, across which only the most experienced or most desperate explorers venture; to the south, endless desert dunes march to the far horizon.
Dunesend was built on the ruins of the dwarven supply depot that once served Clan Ironfell’s hidden mining operations in the desert. All that remains of the original dwarven enclave are scattered foundations and a single watchtower. However, the dwarves carefully constructed system of spring-fed wells and cisterns still functions, allowing the villagers to farm the scrubland and eke out an existence in the harsh landscape. In years past, trade caravans made Dunesend a waypoint for southbound travelers. Today, the road is sand and the caravans have vanished. The handfuls of families remaining in Dunesend do so because they have nowhere else to go.
As the Brigade approaches the edge of the village from the north they find the brambles tightening until they find themselves passing through thorn laced tunnels that eventually emerge in the village.
Cresting over a low rise the thorns, a rustling in the thorny bracken reveals the presence of your horned shadow. Jimmy catches a glimpse of its bearded face. It snarls and races south quickly disappearing within the briars. Beyond the crest, the expanse of thorns suddenly ends, as a great sea of sand takes its place. At this transition, the drab, decrepit village sprawls, its huts and fields spreading to either side of an ancient stone tower. Seeing the village, Jimmy races forward even as he hears a sudden cry of pain.
In the center of the settlement, a sun-darkened man, obviously a villager kneels, pinned to the ground, by a massive gnoll; one of the beastly creature’s dirty clawed hands firmly gripping the villager’s throat, while he raises a blood flecked frail high over the struggling villager with the other. Other villagers observe in angry silence as the murderous gnoll swings the flail down, breaking upon the man with a crushing, sickening thud and a rain of fresh blood. As Jimmy emerges from the thorns the gnoll turns to face him, releasing the villager who falls in a cloud of sand and dirt, dead at the gnoll’s feet. Only then, to his horror does Jimmy take note of a massive coiled, serpentine creature, with glittering blue scales and a dozen legs which stands massively as a backdrop behind the gnoll, Jimmy having previously been blinded by the gnoll’s violence and realizing his oversight, freezes as the behir views Jimmy hungrily.
Jimmy pauses, too late to plan, almost too late to think … Certainly, too late to flee, rushing in as he had, the scene and circumstance giving him pause to question even his faith … undesired thoughts, doubts, and questions all at the speeds known only to the dying … those times when lives are revisited within split seconds. What opportunity did the god of healing offer him here … Jimmy’s god, Berronar Truesilver, consort of Moradin, goddess of home and truth — not travel and battle? But no, these people’s home are being threatened and they must be protected. Finding himself so far out in the wilds, beyond anything previously imagined in his short life as he stares up at the monster twice again taller than any man he has ever seen into golden eyes that are so cold, alien and expressionless both beautiful and hideous; a creature still hunched, fixing Jimmy in shock and with the inevitability of the demise poised swift upon him when from out of out no where Bhenedict leaps in front of Jimmy startling him challenging the monstrous behir. Reacting like greased lightning the behir bolts downward at the dwarf, like a great snake, snapping like a trap–rising to reveal empty space where the dwarf had stood–marking Bhenedict’s passing with a gnashing of dagger-like teeth and a lump in the she-beast’s gullet.
Slack-jawed and numb, Jimmy stares wide-eyed and the gnoll salivates, turning toward the young priest, its own spittle laced with blood, its own mixed with the blood of its victim, eyes – yellowed, glowing orbs, void of any iris, and clearly marked with madness. The gnoll vocalizes in odd, croaks – guttural and grotesques like a demon’s laugh or the croaking as someone dies … lurching it swings its massive flail at the stunned priest who pulls clear at the last possible moment.
Chaos follows, Asa turning to Bingus, “My Lord, I suggest we move to a position of advantage? Shall I convey you to the top of yonder building?” Bingus, nodding agreement rises with Asa in a burst of the desert wind whisks them off their feet to land atop one of the ramshackle huts used by the townsfolk perhaps twenty paces from behir. From atop the house Bingus still finds himself looking upward at the behir as it rears again. Eoffram, running, takes cover behind the same building, only at ground level. The three of them quickly confer to coordinate their attack on the gnoll and after a brief prayer to the gods from Asa Bingus and Eoffram together strike as one each using their own variety of magical attack as they drop the gnoll to its knees leading to a font of shouted curses and condemnation from the gnoll “Aaah, you bitches … Oh AH … Why can’t you leave me alone. Come on and get me! KILL you!”
In front of the behir and ten paces from each other Jimmy and Bairdyn stare from one another plotting an assault against the blue serpent as electricity suddenly dances over the behir’s body starting at the tail and crackling as it passes off the monster’s body until the dancing lightning leaps from the creatures outstretched claw exploding into Bairdyn who convulses involuntarily as the electricity strikes. Then moving with inhuman speed the behir stomps the ground with a thundering boom of power and sound pounding both Bairdyn and Jimmy while hurling them to the ground.
Finding prayers on his lips, Jimmy collects his wits and summons a healing spirit in Berronar’s name hoping that it might aid them as the battle rages, the spirit hovering around the beast. Rising to his feet, Bairdyn taking advantage of his position homes his dagger within the gnoll’s backside before it can react; the gnoll howling in pain. “Don’t hurt me … I’ll be good, I won’t do it again. Kill you!” the gnoll yells in varied voices, sounding to all like crazed thing unto Hell.
Then, opening its mouth wild, as if to growl; the behir unleashes a maelstrom of brilliant cascade of lightning in a dancing cloud that swallows Bairdyn, Jimmy and Asa. Asa responds through his tight clenched jaw whispering a spell that circles the behir in flames as he struggles through his pain moving backwards to protect Bingus. Cursing the Gnoll, Eoffram throws another spell at the possessed gnoll killing it before it can rise while the behir snaps at the fleeing sorcerer causing new wounds and fresh trail of blood on the dry thirsty ground.
Focusing on their plight, perched on the dwelling Bingus begins wrestling with the frayed threads of a plan before casting a fireball at the blue behemoth causing it some small injury while he moves unconsciously backwards away from the creature tumbling off the edge of the roof but reflexively catching himself with a featherfall spell before crashing to the ground.
Barely alive, Jimmy prays for strength and brings the might of Berronar down upon the snake-like monster causing it to feel weakened, bring forth glassy and brittle looking sheen to the behir and giving it reason to take pause making the monster tentative and cautious. At the same time realizing that the beast’s considerable speed made escape unlikely, Jimmy takes pause to speak a healing word for Asa who was also was suffering mightily under the behir’s attack and was even now being mauled again.
Eoffram attacks the monsters too but his spells prove ineffective against the behir’s speed and power. Watching alertly, a witness to the failure of the warlock’s spells, it comes to Bingus that if they are going to survive the day it would be the inescapable power of his spells that would save them. Yes, it was suddenly clear that he would have to step-up … his friends were falling, being crushed before his eyes and their lives weighed in the balance, but he knew spells that were irresistible, inescapable … much like the monster itself. Steeling himself up, Bingus lifts his orb to the height of his eyes focusing to a laser’s pitch at the twisting image of the monster through the looking glass round sphere which dispatches a flashing, magical missile, sickly violet in color, a light with liquid-like property which exploded on the massive serpent with a rain of acid that burns into its flesh.
Enraged the behir turns towards the gnome to find its path blocked by the priest and the sorcerer, shrieking its frustration it lifts its great serpentine body high, towering over Jimmy and Asa before slamming down a second time in another thunderous display hurling them off their feet again while snapping off lightning flashes into them again only this time to finding the electricity blocked by Jimmy’s protective spells. Crippled and on the ground Jimmy takes pause to tend to his injuries while Asa shields them anew with fresh flames.
Pulling deep from his well of spells, Bingus shouts, “Tyrannical talons, of death’s dirty grasp take hold off this foulest of sparkly wyrms.” In answer a wave of deathly claws rise erupting from the ground one and more for each of the monster’s dozen legs scratching at her with dead claw-like fingernails and holding her fast even as she struggles against them to rip herself free; struggling so hard as to wretch and in a flurry she vomits up the dwarf violently projecting him into the thorns at the feet of a cruel-faced, long-horned satyr, the pursuer from the thorns.
Calling out to the townsfolk Eoffram says, “If your lives still have meaning, make yourselves known … come to our aid people. When the day is over we will be gone, dead or alive but while we are here you fighting for you there is still hope for you and your families. More so than if we fall.”
The satyr sounds a shrill note on his pipes which is answered by a call, “For Queen Shephatiah!” and a hail arrows fired from points in the thorns and behind scattered buildings at Eoffram and Asa while the sharp, painful note of the pipe stuns Bhenedict as he gasps for air, coated in smelly bloody refuse, death, decay and digestive juices … truly wretched, so wholly disgusted that he barely notices the satyr as he comes to his senses and swings wildly at the quick footed satyr who easily dodges the clumsy attack.
Jimmy recovered calls down astral condemnation upon the serpent branding the monster with Berronar’s glowing symbol on it’s head between its spiked horns, setting the beast to renewed wailing as it breaks free of the grasping hand of the dead and retreats stumbling into a cloud of dancing daggers summoned by Bingus and one last especially sharp dagger thrown with deadly purpose by Bairdyn which scores deeply on the behir flank before magically returning to Bairdyn‘s hand. Looking about, Jimmy spies Asa’s ordeal as he targeted by the satyrs one-after-another, taking what shelter he can … as Jimmy lets the healing spirit fade as he places a healing upon Asa.
As the behir flees into the desert, the satyrs turn as a group and dart back whence they came into the thorn … all save their leader the first who turns to run but find his path blocked by the angry dwarf Bhenedict who knocks him upside the head subduing him. Calling for help, Bhenedict moves to drag the satyr into the village but as he does a volley of arrows find their mark skewing the downed satyr yet before the satyr can die Jimmy blesses him with a cure. Eoffram fires back into the thorns with magical attacks encouraging the remaining satyrs to flee while the other members of the Brigade secure their prisoner.
In the aftermath of the battle Bhenedict lays the unconscious satyr up against the stonewall circling the well in the center of the village while he toils washing the burning vomit from his body; Bairdyn keeping guard over the prisoner. Jimmy sees to the injured and Eoffram calls to the township again, “If there is a leader among come out … the monsters have either fled or they are dead. You have nothing to fear from us.”
Setting up near the well, Bingus sets loose a brilliant fiery display … a show with rainbows of multi-color sparks, purples, greens, reds blues and more while calling out in good cheer and celebration, “It is over and done, come out friends for we have won!” Encouraging a number of curious eyes to peek through shutter sheltered windows and waking the tied satyr.
A few bold townsfolk come forward including, a elderly smith who seeing the gnoll’s victim falls to one knee with the sudden onset of grief, obviously deeply impacted by the condition of the dead young man but recovering quickly and standing erect again the aged man walks over to the body and bending gently closes the eye’s of the corpse as his fresh tears fall from his cheeks to the hard ground. From one of the larger buildings near the desert gate comes a somewhat haughty looking man, haughty as one might look in disheveled, tattered clothing that might have one time been finery and a behind him, a plumpish halfling, in bright clothing that contrasts with his darker skin, skin far darker than common amongst the halflings of the Elsir Vale and with jet black hair set in a ponytail altogether marking him almost certainly as a foreigner from the east.
Approaching Eoffram inquiries, “Be one of you the leader I seek?”
“That would be I stranger … I am Lotho Elberesk, the proprietor of the caravansary.” says the man from the building by the gate. “If this place has a leader than it is I.”
“Then I pray thee, what goes on here and why are these monsters tormenting your village? Obviously there is hardship enough, what was it that the gnoll sought to came, or was cruelty purpose enough?”
“That one was the Warden, ‘e shows here bout’s months back makin claim fer the young and strong ‘mongst us. And a foul tyrant ‘e is what served the Queen of the Drylands. The blue wyrm was his steed and enforcer, and it had slain several amongst us in recent months. Those others were creatures of the Thornwaste in league with the Warden. They be the ones what prevents us from fleeing this place or seeking aid elsewheres. The Warden was here to make monthly collection of tribute, save the weather has been poor and our crops delayed, so ‘e accuses us o’ holding out. And ‘e uses poor Vaudnim to set example to us all.”
“To what purpose did he take the others?
“’E shows from the desert ’bout a year ago, stating that the Queen o’ the Drylands has come to reclaim ‘er throne, ‘er name meaning nothing to us but the Warden slayed several o’ our strongest when we stood ‘gainst ‘im and no and gin shows demandin’ tribute in goods and food lest ‘e feeds his wyrm yet agin. Of the others, ‘e says not, but takes ’em, anyhow … right. And to those that resist it’s the belly of the wyrm or worse, torture and slow painful death. An now you’ve made things worse, I fear.”
“How so?” asks Bairdyn. “He’s dead isn’t he, no thanks to you. Speaking truly, shouldn’t you be thanking us right about now?”
“What you’ve done is condemn us sirrah. The queen of the desert will be fast upon us and mercy is not of her nature. She will likely slay us all in ‘er fury. You’ve but slain the Warden, other servants has she. Where will you outsiders be when they come, I wonder?”
“Do you speak of the Ghostlord?”
“Nay, the Ghostlord is master of the thorns, the queen is the mistress of the desert, it is her wrath gives us reason to fear. Her anger runs hot like a storm in the sands.”
“And how is she called?”
“Her name is Shephatiah and I can say no more about her.”
Speaking up the dark-skinned halfling says, “Arey! What a good job you did, boss, but, oof, that lady is bad-bad, yes! And the Warden was her godman and she is angered for anything – right. We are ragging for a fagging now.”
“What?” asks Eoffram.
“Y’all have our thanks, there is much of joy in the meeting of well-meaning visitors – right, but we are, and I will speak softly, a tired and harshly used people. Still Baba, I offer my welcome, humble though it be. Y’all are welcome to refresh yourselves in my bakery where I might serve you a cup of sweet tea and a pastry.”
“That sound’s good to me,” offers Bairdyn forgetting the satyr for a moment. “Do you have a name, friend? I am Bairdyn and we are Brindol’s Brigade.”
“My name is Bede, Bairdyn-jee…it is my pleasure, yes-yes.”
Turning fast upon the satyr, Eoffram snatches him up pulling its slouch high and looking it straight in the eye, unblinking says, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way but one way or another you are going to answer my questions, that is a certainty.”
And despite the best efforts of Eoffram and the other members of the Brigade the satyr does not speak other than to renew threats or to forecast the Brigade’s doom. So after a night’s rest, the party takes shelter within the ruins of the dwarven tower, Eoffram wakes the satyr even as a pale blue fire rises over Eoffram’s brow bringing a eerie glow to his eyes, “By the hot blue flames of Khirad’s vengeance…flames burnt over apocalypses on old and no hotter flame than this that which burneth in a man’s heart day and night without rest, ’til quenched by blood, yours if necessary, so harkee me now wanderer of the thorns, for answer me you must these questions now as I’d promised! Tell me exactly who and what be your queen!”
Fighting to resist the warlock‘s spell that satyr answers “My queen is Shephatiah, a dryad.”
“Where does she reside and how do we get there?"
Veins swelling, eyes bulging the answer come unbidden to the satyr‘s lips, “She lives in the fortress, Ironfell, within the trackless desert, found by following rock formations in the desert while one travels south for three days.”
“What are the number and nature of her guards?”
Croaking the satyr replies, "Harpies of unknown number, shifters, smelly man-like reptiles, human villagers and a worm-like creature of massive size.”
Adding terror to his question, the blue flame intensifies as Eoffram demands clarification, “The behir, that wyrm that fled into the sands? Do not think that you might resist me, you but increase your suffering and my pleasure.”
“No there is another…a different sort of creature, not quite so large, softer with tentacles.”
“What does she want with these villagers, why have they been harvested?”
“They mine for the queen, devil inquisitor,” answers the satyr as he finally collapses and Eoffram’s blue flame dies over his brow.
Speaking up for the group, Bhenedict says, “There’s no doubt about it friends, she’s found the mine and it’s to the desert for us! We should be able to handle a three day crossing easy enough, and these papers that Bram gave us picture rock formations I’m sure are those the satyr spoke of. I see little point to delay, let’s pack and be done with it.”