The Tyrant of Kepala
Book 1, Chapter 3 - The Prophecy
Dawn broke, and only Tala, keeping a silent watch with Echo, was awake to witness it. They sat together, backs to their campsite, watching the sun rise. The wolf pressed his muzzle to the cheek of his companion, and Tala giggled.
Rodrigo stirred and sat upright. “Are we clear? Are there still wolves everywhere?”
“Just this one,” Tala said, placing a loving hand on her companion. “We’re safe.”
“I think whoever taught you the meaning of the word ‘safe’ had a cruel sense of humor. Usually for me, ‘safe’ means not in a hostile environment where we’re being hunted day and night by orcs, clangers, nightmare witches, and whatever else The Trickster throws at us,” Rodrigo said, pointing a finger mockingly at the sky in accusation of the gods.
“You and your superstitions,” breathed Zerkanti, emerging from her reverie. She gracefully uncrossed her legs and stood up, facing the group. “So where from here?”
A morning fog pervaded the forest where they had camped and kept them from seeing for more than a few yards in any direction. Gia rolled over and stretched her arms. She opened her eyes and looked up to Rodrigo. “I dreamed we were flying,” she said serenely.
“Your Highness,” Zerkanti acknowledged with a hint of sarcasm. She looked about the campsite,seeing only Brehon still asleep. “Odd for him not to be up first, hm? What’s the matter, too much excitement?”
The Drow stepped over to Brehon and nudged him with her toe. “Wakey-wakey, hero.”
Brehon groaned but did not move. Zerkanti nudged him again. “Come on, Veld. We have breakfast to catch and we might need someone to knock over a tree or something.”
The group chuckled and Brehon sat upright. He was pale, and perspiration covered his exposed skin. “I’m up, I’m up. I just need to… I need…” the wind escaped from Brehon and he collapsed back onto his back. His breathing was shallow and labored.
“Oh, no, not again,” said Zerkanti as she knelt over him. She started to pull off his armor, inspecting his torso. She found a rip in the fabric just below the breastplate on his right side. She tore his tunic aside, exposing his bare chest.
“Ah, I knew it. I knew I sensed something between you two,” said Rodrigo, looking over his shoulder at them.
“Not now, you ass,” Zerkanti said, her tone ice and ash. Beneath the torn fabric she had discovered a deep gash in his chest that had turned black and was spreading a black necrosis over his side.
“Oh. Oh, that does not look good at all,” said Gia.
Tala made her way over to the prone warrior and inspected the wound. “Wait here,” she said.
“He must’ve taken a nick from a poisoned blade when the Orcs jumped us,” said Rodrigo. Zerkanti nodded in agreement.
A moment later, Tala returned and pressed some moss she had gathered into Brehon’s wound. He groaned in agony. “This will slow it down, maybe,” she said.
“Can’t you cure him? I thought you were some kind of ranger who knew all about nature things!” said Rodrigo, beginning to panic.
“That I am, and that I do. But this is not natural,” said Tala. “We’re going to need medicine.”
“One of us could run ahead to scout the next town and return." said Rodrigo.
“No. We stay together,” said Tala.
“She’s right,” Zerkanti agreed. “If we split up, we risk a lot. A scout could get captured and expose the location of the group.”
“I wouldn’t talk,” Rodrigo boasted.
“I could definitely make you talk,” Zerkanti said coolly.
“Stop it, you two,” said Gia. “He needs help, and we’re going to get him help. Rodrigo, you and Tala find us two strong branches. Zee, help me make a stretcher out of his cloak.”
The group looked at each other in amazement at this sudden display of forcefulness from the little princess, but after a moment moved into action. After a few minutes, they had fashioned a crude stretcher, and hefted the ailing Brehon onto it.
“We should make for The Crux. It’s only a few miles that way,” Rodrigo pointed due east, “and from there it’s straight on to Fel’s Hope. There’s an alchemist who’s set up shop there. If he’s as good as the folklore, he can probably get our man some help.”
Slowly through the morning, they made their way east through the forest, Zerkanti and Rodrigo hefting the unconscious form of Brehon with them. More than once the slumbering man let out a muffled grunt as he was jostled over the uneven ground.
The morning fog cleared and morning sunlight broke through the trees. They could see the treeline giving way to an open field in the direction they were heading, and they quickened their pace, eager to be free of the arduous terrain of the forest. As they approached the edge of the trees, they heard a loud shuddering noise and the unmistakable rattle of chains.
Rodrigo and Zerkanti exchanged a knowing look and quietly put down Brehon’s stretcher. Catching Tala’s eye, they signaled for her and Gia to stay put. Staying low and hidden from view, they approached the sound of the rattling.
Near the edge of the treeline, they spied the source of the noise. An enormous man-shaped form, at least sixteen feet from head to toe, slumbered on the forest floor. Shackled by the neck to his wrist were two obscene parodies of human shapes, standing ten feet tall with distended bellies, pointed ears, and fangs. They spoke to each other in a guttural language of mumbled grunts and high pitched whines as they foraged through the bushes, making swatting gestures at smaller animals that scurried away from the behemoths’ reach.
Tala approached the rogues from behind. “Ogres,” she whispered, matter-of-factly.
“Watchdogs, more like,” Rodrigo breathed. Zerkanti shrugged.
“Think we can slip them?” Tala asked.
“Not dragging him,” Zerkanti answered, indicating Brehon. “We’re gonna have to figure something out. What if we…”
“Uh, ladies, I do believe Her Highness has decided to assert herself,” Rodrigo said, pointing to their right. Gia had risen from her hiding place and was creeping silently toward the ogres. The noise the two brutes made covered the sound of her approach. Rodrigo, Zerkanti, and Tala shared a look and held their breath.
Gia looked deep into herself and searched for the calm place, the one she could give with a word to others to make them fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. She found it inside her and readied it, like holding a butterfly in the palm of her hand. It was delicate and intricate. She readied herself to breathe the words at the two fearsome ogres, and she moved forward.
Then a loud, dry snap shot out from beneath one of her feet as it crushed a dry, fallen tree branch.
The two ogres stopped moving instantly, pricked up their ears, and in unison turned to face Gia. As one, they let out a gut-piercing scream and lunged for her. It was only the collars about their necks that arrested their motion, but the chains pulled violently on the wrist of the slumbering giant. The groggy colossus roused from his slumber, lifted his head in surprise, then flared his nostrils and let loose an earth-shaking bellow.
“Bugger me sideways,” Rodrigo cursed. “RUN!”
The rogues dashed to Brehon’s stretcher, grabbed it, and followed Tala, Echo, and Gia as they broke into a sprint for the treeline. The twin ogres strained and struggled against the chains that restrained them as the giant rose to a sitting position, grumbling loud and throaty curses in an impossibly deep voice.
The group broke from the trees, running across an open, green field. In the distance, they saw the hill-flanked passage of The Crux ahead of them. They made it halfway across the field when three titanic shapes violently tore loose from the forest. The ground thundered as the giant plodded forward, the chained ogres scrambling ahead of him, screeching and grunting at their fleeing prey.
With renewed vigor, the adventurers pressed forward toward The Crux. In the distance, Tala spied a circle of stones lying between them and the pass. “Look!” she shouted as she called their attention to it.
“It must be a trap!” Rodrigo yelled hysterically. “They’re herding us in!”
“I don’t think so,” said Zerkanti. “besides, what could be worse than standing up to these beasts? Let’s get to cover!”
The group renewed their flight, hastily running for the stone circle. As they closed the distance, they noticed six hooded figures standing, heads bowed, inside the circle. As they drew closer still, the figures turned their heads to face the fleeing rogues, and they realized by the long snouts and scaly skin on their faces that these were not men at all. Behind them, the brobdingnagian giant bellowed a terrifying curse in a voice that shook the sky and his ogre sentries continued to drool, gnash their teeth, and howl after them.
The fleeing party closed to within earshot of the hooded, reptilian-faced figures and Tala shouted a plea in draconic to the six statuesque figures. They pulled back their hoods in response without uttering a word, looking first to the party, then to the trio of hulking pursuers behind them.
The giant and his ogrish familiars closed to within fifty yards of the band, the soil of the ground coming loose beneath their feet with the tremors of their footfalls. Panic and fear gripped the party as the giant let forth another deep-throated curse and pointed a menacing hand in their direction. When the beasts had closed to twenty yards, the six reptilian-faced figures raised their hands in unison and emitted a low chant. The air around them crackled with a violent energy, and in a wave, air rushed away from the circle of stones and stopped with a boom, midway between the fleeing rogues and their pursuers. The titanic beasts paused for a moment, looking quizzically at the hooded, reptilian figures. Then a look of fear and loathing came over them. They shrank in horror from the invisible force before them, and then as quickly as they had come, they turned and rushed away, shrieking in hysterics. The shaking of the ground subsided as their thunderous footfalls retreated to the treeline.
Exhausted, Tala, Gia, Rodrigo, and Zerkanti collapsed to the ground, dropping the inert Brehon with them, Echo circling around them. Tala raised her head to their stoic benefactors and asked, “Who are you?”
“We may well ask you the same,” the lead hierophant spoke.
“We were lost in the woods,” Rodrigo said breathlessly. “Our friend was hurt when we were jumped by a band of orcish raiders. We think it’s poison.”
The lead draconic figure beckoned with a clawed finger, and Rodrigo dragged Brehon’s comatose body forward. “Yes, this is certainly poison, and he will die if left untreated for more than a few days,” he said.
“Can you help him?” asked Tala.
“We cannot,” he said. “We may be able to make him stable, but we cannot cure him. For that you will need medicine, and our ritual may not be interrupted.”
The dragonborn man raised a hand before Brehon and uttered a word in Draconic, and Brehon sighed. “But at least he will not die today,” reassured the hierophant.
“Thank you,” said Zerkanti earnestly. “But what is your ritual?”
“We meditate and pray for the return of our benefactor, our protector, The Stormbringer,” the dragonborn said.
“The Stormbringer?” echoed Rodrigo.
“Silarrezkanto the Stormbringer,” said another of the dragonborn, “the great master of our skies.”
“I think they’re talking about that dragon that was…” Zerkanti whispered to Tala, but Tala immediately shushed her up.
“Look,” Tala whispered to Zerkanti, pointing to the stones of the circle. At a closer look, draconic writing appeared to be etched into the stones. Zerkanti returned Tala’s hard stare with confusion. Tala mouthed, Later.
“We pray for his return to scourge from this world the suffering blight that has beset all of us. He will come and make all pristine and fertile again,” continued the seer.
The group shared a nervous look, and at last Rodrigo spoke. “We thank you for your protection, then, and we will be on our way. Fel’s Hope is that way, is it?”
The dragonborn pointed to The Crux and nodded. Finally Zerkanti said, “Thank you then.”
The gang made its way past the stone circle and toward the natural valley formed by the two hills of The Crux, beyond which lay the road to Fel’s Hope. When the stone circle was halfway between them and the treeline far in the distance, Zerkanti finally spoke.
“What was it?” she said plaintively to Tala. “Why were you so intent on those stones?”
“It was the writing on them. It read like… it read like a prophecy.”
“Well what did it say, then? Tell us!” demanded Gia.
Tala paused in thought for a moment with the weight of a heavy thought on her mind, then spoke. “The stone said, His stolen throne of blood and stone cannot be felled by blade alone. Guard the last of Hunter’s Moon with the crown of Ironfall’s doom.”
Everyone in the group stopped in their tracks, then looked slowly to Gia. She looked frightened.
“What?” she said.
The band grew weary as they took turns bearing Brehon’s inert weight across the uneven ground. In the valley past The Crux, the landscape grew increasingly uneven and rolling hills gave way to the deep ravines of a broken landscape long ago worn away by an ancient, mighty river, now long gone.
Walking point, Zerkanti heard a thundering in the distance and signaled for her group to drop to the ground. The disturbance was coming from beyond a nearby ravine, and Tala came forward to investigate it with her elven and lupine companions. They crouched like predators stalking prey as they approached the edge. Poking their heads over the side of the gorge, and their eyes widened in disbelief. Below them, marching through the canyon was an army of hobgoblin warriors, stretching far into the distance.
The elven women immediately pulled back from the ravine’s edge to face the others, still laden with their comrade in tow. They set Brehon’s form down on the soft ground and began to walk forward. “What is it?” asked Gia, but she was silenced as Tala and Zerkanti held quieting fingers to their lips.
The elves returned to the group in a hunched posture, staying as low as possible. “Hobgoblins. An army of them, at least five thousand strong,” whispered Zerkanti to the remainder of the group.
Rodrigo motioned for Gia to stay put, and crawled up to the edge of the ravine himself. A moment later he returned. “Five thousand is conservative, I think. But they’re not marching in any kind of battle-ready formation. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would a hobgoblin column be marching through Kepala, avoiding the main roads, and not screaming over the hills, grinding everything before them. They’re just… marching.”
“Where were they going?” Gia asked.
“They’re headed opposite our direction. They’re going west. Toward Sira Kepala,” Tala said.
Tala and Rodrigo shared a look. “What are they up to? Invasion?” she asked to no one in particular.
“If it’s an invasion, why aren’t the rustbuckets coming down to stomp them?” Rodrigo wondered.
“No, this is troop movement. It looks like they’re getting ready. Staging,” said Zerkanti.
“But staging for what?” asked Tala.
Their only answer was the endless footfalls of the hobgoblins marching west.