Leaving behind their companion, Lem’, who succumbed to the sickness of withdrawal and returned to the trees, the adventurers made a somber trek further into the foothills toward the quiet village of Heksaag. The temperate winds that howl through the pass beyond the foothills promised warmer days ahead, and their guide, Entan, claimed that villagers in Heksaag brewed the best grassland rose mead in all the Empire. But before they can rest, the adventurers will learn of a nearby group of ruthless bandits who have holed up in an abandoned redoubt beyond the western thicket. Heksaag needs the adventure party’s help to make life in the foothills safe again.
The following player characters made their way into Heksaag:
- Hodjai, the Djenndan warrior, played by @Evan
- Sookta, the Djenndan blacksmith, played by @xSubNuke
- Bubby, the human survivalist, played by @Terri
- Nysteld, the human seer, played by @saelbrin
- Jamia Copperdrum, the Pulnagá mercenary, played by @katherinehunter77
The party also included Entan, the Djenndan guide and exotic animal collector, Roth’is Thobal, the noble ais’lun and expert on Djenndan culture, and traveling Veteran Gur’oru, wielder of Cleave Hand and teller of stories. Dyrakos, the group’s longtime companion and facilitator, drove their supply wagon joined by Kishsahat, their mysterious but trusted associate. The adventurers entered the village of Heksaag from the south road at the apex of the foothills. Heksaag is a small village populated by a few hundred Djenndan, ais’lun, and humans, many of these latter two groups are failed farmers from the Eastern plains of the Protectorate, and former refugees from the War of the Forklands. Life in the village is quiet, pleasant, clean, and happy despite their few numbers and their isolated locale.
The village rests along three foothills situated in a triangle shape and surrounded by a dense thicket on the north, east, and west sides of the settlement. Beyond the western thicket lay several hundred butternut, chestnut, and frostnut trees that provide Heksaag with a variety of savory and nutritious ingredients. Beyond the eastern thicket lay a vast field of wild plantain leaf with tall, budded stalks, and strewn about the leaves are many wild bee’s rose. The non-flowering buds of the plantain stalks are dried and pounded into a flour that is used for making a local chapan bread that has no equal in the Empire. And the grasslands roses feed the hungry bees that produce a strong honey, which the villagers then make into an even stronger mead. Many boars and forest pigs roam the tree line beyond the northern thicket, growing fat on the bark, mushrooms, low ferns, and bulbous leeks found among the trees. The village easily sustains itself with little need for the rest of the civilized world. The surplus of nuts, pork, bee’s rose honey, forest leeks, and seasonal gourds make the signature Heksaag cuisine very regionally distinct. The architecture in the area is also distinctly Heksaagian. The West Ranakda Creek that flows from the nearby mountains provides a pure source of water, and also feeds a mineral clay that hardens quite nicely around round stone and log and turns a pale white from the sun. As the adventurers entered the outskirts of the village by mid-morning, they noticed all manner of mineral clay buildings lining the triangled foothills and gleaming in the daylight.
Entan told the party that there are many similar villages along the foothills, as far north as Bright Mare’s Peak and as far south as the Saltlands. But Heksaag was special, he said, because of their famous mead and their hospitality. “When I travel to the Protectorate I always stay here a few nights,” Entan claimed as they began to approach the mid-point of the village. The group saw several merchant carts and food and vegetable wagons rounding the square. They passed an Uskelian merchant trying to sell some odd door-locking device to a skeptical ais’lun farmer. Despite how isolated these villages can be from the rest of the events of the Empire, occasionally travelers from the Protectorate trade with the merchants and farmers in Heksaag. Some goods found in the capitol have been known to make their way out into the Protectorate by way of ship. But very few people in villages of the foothills have any connection to the goings on south in the Empire. The people of Heksaag had their own simple way of living.
Still, sometimes the crime more that is common toward the central cities of the realm finds its way into the distant corners of the wilds. As the adventurers drew their caravan to a halt beyond the village square near the stables, a tall, thin, and sinewy Djenndan approached their group. “Adventurers!” he shouted. “Adventurers, please, I need your help!” The group was somewhat put off by the Djenndan’s mannerisms and demands, but it soon became evident that he was deeply concerned for the safety of his village and his livelihood. The stringy man, who introduced himself as Serkal, pleaded for help from the adventurers, who he flattered and claimed were the only ones suited to the task of protecting the innocent village of Heksaag from murderous criminals. Serkal seemed frantic at times, and as Dyrakos began to situate the group’s cargo, the tall Djenndan explained as best he could.
Nearly two days ago, Serkal’s assistant, a master forager named Bubby, was out beyond the western thicket gathering bushels of nuts for their weekly harvest. He never returned. Serkal blamed the bandits who have been raiding the south and west portions of Heksaag for a fortnight. During that time the bandits have murdered or kidnapped several people and the citizens of Heksaag are helpless to end the violence. It seems that these criminals have taken up residence in the abandoned redoubt to the west of the village, and they weasel their way into the village and take what they like, when they like. Serkal and other members of the village seemed worried, frightened, and unequipped to deal with the sort of threat that the bandits represented. The Djenndan offered the adventurers a handsome reward to root out the bandits and recover his missing harvest–as well as his assistant, Bubby, should they find the man still alive.
Gur’oru was eager to offer his help. Kishsahat, wordless, took a step forward as a declaration of her intent. Soon, most of the other members of the adventure party stepped up as well. A party formed to bring these bandits to justice, consisting of Gur’oru, Kishsahat, Hodjai, Jamia, and Sookta. Entan sheepishly asked if he could join them. He had no real skills to offer, but he saw this as an opportunity to earn fame and prestige in the village. Nysteld imagined that helping to bring life back to balance in Heksaag was a worthy task, but it became clear to her that her eight ais’lun followers were her priority at the moment. She needed to find out if anyone in Heksaag could help them converse so she could discover more about why they seemed transfixed by her spell, or why they were working for Osusk in the first place. She asked Roth’is to help her see to the needs of her miners. Dyrakos likewise opted to remain in the village and take care of their food stores while they waited for the other adventurers to return.
Serkal was elated, and explained in detail how the bandit-hunting adventurers would find the formerly abandoned redoubt west of the village. When the party asked Serkal how they would know his assistant Bubby, the Djenndan answered thinly, “He will be the ugly one.” By mid-afternoon the Heksaag militia was headed through the thicket, and within an hour they could see the smoke of campfires rising from a nearly rotted fort beyond the edge of the trees. There was a clearing around the outside of the fort, and a crude, unstable lookout tower peaking over the wet, moss-covered log walls, making an undercover approach impossible. The adventurers remained some hundred yards back from the redoubt walls inside the tree line. They had no real sense of how many bandits might be there, so they snuck through the brush to try to get a better angle and plan how they might find a way inside.
Rounding the front of the fort, they could see inside the main gates, which appeared as if they had not been functional for years. Inside the center of the structure, through the gate opening of the outer wall, they saw a crude wooden cage drenched in mud and containing a hideously ugly man with coarse dark hair, a crooked nose, and a full, mud-stained beard. “That must be Bubby,” whispered Gur’oru. Standing around in the center of the redoubt, the adventurers could see at least five, battle-hardened bandits skulking about. They looked hungry and disheveled. There were bushels of nuts–Serkal’s harvest, no doubt–nearby the cage. The most odd sight was that of a bandit face-down in the mud about a yard from Bubby’s cage; there were dark flies shimmering and swimming over the body in waves of decay. The adventure party was too far away to hear much of anything, but it seemed like there could be far more bandits in the structure. And there would be no way to get in there unnoticed. They had to come up with a plan.
Meanwhile back in Heksaag, Nysteld and Roth’is learned that there was an ais’lun from the forklands who owned a goat kennel in Heksaag. The travelers, along with the eight ais’lun who followed them, walked to the north edge of town to meet the owner, in the hopes that he or someone he knew could actually speak to the miners–or at least help to translate their language better than Roth’is could. The kennel was only a five-minute walk from the stables; as they approached the large pen of goats at the front of the establishment, they saw two ais’lun working near the fence outside. One of the men put down his mallet and raised his hand in greeting. “Ho there,” he declared, staring upward some four and a half feet to find Nysteld’s eyes. He was clearly taken with her height and presence, but his poise and calm was evident in his words and actions.
He introduced himself as Bidus, and spoke the common tongue very well. He and his working companion greeted Roth’is as well. Nysteld explained their situation to him as best she could, and was relieved that the rumor she heard about Bidus being from the forklands was true. She asked Bidus if he could find out why the miners seemed transfixed by her. Bidus began speaking quickly in Low Es’ahn to the eight ais’lun. They immediately brightened at the sound of their own language. For several minutes, Nysteld and Roth’is exchanged glances as Bidus conversed with the miners. Finally, with his companion chuckling behind him, Bidus switched back to the common tongue.
“Apparently, they believe that you are a powerful sorceress who has entrapped their souls.” This made Bidus’s companion laugh even more. Roth’is began to chuckle too. Nysteld was dumbfounded. She spoke with Bidus for a time and asked him to help her communicate to the miners that she simply performed a trick, that there was nothing soul-trapping about what had happened to them. It proved difficult, though. Bidus explained that the superstitious farmers of the forklands believed that magic has the power to trap the soul as it rests in the body. Their beliefs claim that the soul is what gives power to the voice, and so logically it rests in the throat. Nysteld reflected that this seemed like a possible reason for why one of the miners had stabbed himself in the neck back in the cave atop the Northern Mountain Pass.
The eight ais’lun were skeptical that this was all some kind of test, that they needed to prove their loyalty more fervently to Nysteld. No matter what Nysteld asked or suggested, they seemed to be motivated by fear and uncertainty. Finally she asked Bidus to tell the group that they have the power to reclaim their own souls. Bidus translated, at times laughingly, while the seer gave an inspiring speech. All the while the miners seemed put out. “They’re all still skeptical,” Bidus told Nysteld, “But if we can convince them to stop following you and stay here and work with us in Heksaag, I think we can convince them that you’re not a powerful sorceress.” He laughed again. “It’s all pretty funny.” Yau’arr, the eldest of the ais’lun followers, claimed that he did not believe that leaving Nysteld’s side would give them their souls back. In exasperation, Nysteld asked Bidus, “Does he question me? Do I have to order them to stay here?” The seer was uncertain if commanding the ais’lun would allow them to regain their own free will to pursue their own lives. Bidus assured Nysteld that the miners could have a good life working and living in Heksaag, and that life in the village has a way of allowing these types of superstitions to melt away over time. “We’ve got a lot of refugees living with us here from the forklands,” he said. After much translation back and forth, the miners and Nysteld came to an agreement, thanks to Bidus. They would remain in Heksaag and work at the goat kennels, where they would be able to be among people who share their language and culture. Bidus gave his calm assurances that Nysteld was leaving these superstitious people in good hands.
Back at the bandit redoubt, Sookta had derived a solid plan for drawing out the bandits from their camp. The adventure party assembled a makeshift campsite, complete with tent and fire circle, in which they started a smoky fire. The campsite was in a rather dense pocket of trees just inside the clearing, so that anyone approaching from the fort would have to go through a narrow passageway between the trunks and there be vulnerable. The adventurers hid just outside the false camp. In a short time, one of the bandits who had been in the lookout tower sounded alarm in his high-pitched voice.
Without putting too much thought into things, three bandits rushed out the front of the redoubt and made their way directly toward the source of the campfire that their lookout noticed. The sun was beginning to approach the sky’s edge as the three foul-smelling ruffians made their way into the brush and began to root around the camp, cursing and shouting profanities. As one of the bandits with a rat-like countenance was peering inside the tent, Gur’oru stepped out of his hiding spot in the brush. The Veteran swung the might sword, Cleave-Hand, right through the closest bandits head. The bandit, who had a scar on his face, died almost instantly as the sword sang through his scar and sprayed blood all over the tent’s white canvas. The rat-faced bandit wailed in horror, sounding an alarm of his own and encouraging more bandits to emerge from the redoubt’s walls. Jamia silenced the screaming bandit with her cleaver. In a fit of fear, the third bandit fled the false campsite before the adventurers could touch him. Hodjai and Sookta dragged the two dead bandits into the brush while they waited for the other bandits to approach.
In all there were six more bandits who rushed into the false campsite, but the narrow entrance forced them to approach at first one at a time. The bandits had no idea what they were stepping into; it was a brutal slaughter. Cleave-Hand hummed as it stabbed and slashed, coupled with the searing sounds of Sookta’s hammer as it sizzled against flesh and mud. The noises all echoed around the false campsite as if in an enclosed space. The bandits cursed and made aggressive displays, and for a time it seemed that they had found a formation around the campfire that allowed them the opportunity for equal ground of attack. But any danger to the adventurers seemed short-lived. The adventurers cut them all down in a bloody and violent display. Jamia even cut one of the bandits in two from shoulder to hip.
When there was one bandit left, Hodjai grabbed the criminal and dragged him to the clearing, forcing him to his knees, holding his great sword to the man’s neck. “Tell us who’s left. Are there any traps around the fort?” the warrior asked, his words huffing through his snout angrily. “Fuck you,” was the bandit’s reply, followed by a grotesquely browned glob of spit projected toward Hodjai’s face. The warrior growled and then cut off the man’s head off with grinding and popping sound that shimmered throughout the clearing.
By the time this was happening, the only bandit left in the redoubt–a tall man wearing a dirty set of armor that looked like a hunting dog with patchy bald spots–had dragged Bubby’s cage out into the clearing and dumped it on its side. The man was threatening to kill Bubby and hurling insults at the group about all of the terrible things he and his company had done. He shouted his name over and over again, “Grochal Painstick. I am Grochal Painstick, and I will slaughter you and rape your corpse!” His attempts to intimidate the group seemed ineffective. And by the time Hodjai removed the kneeling bandit’s head, the whole of the adventure party stood on either side of him.
Standing next to the cage, Grochal Painstick became suddenly quiet. and overcome with fear. He screamed, “oh, shit!” and started to run away. Kishsahat gave chase, followed by Hodjai and Gur’oru. Grochal screamed and ran faster as Kishsahat tried to trip him, but Hodjai caught up to him and slashed his great sword through the man’s right knee. Grochal’s gait buckled and he collapsed, the lower half of his leg only hanging on by a few cords of fabric and skin. The bandit leader clutched his leg and howled in pain.
While Hodjai and Kishsahat dragged Grochal back toward the entrance to the fort, Jamia and Sookta approched Bubby’s cage and broke it open. Bubby emerged slowly, having been stuck in the small prison for nearly two days. The man smelled foul, and his crooked smile made it difficult for the adventurers to realize he was smiling in gratitude for freeing him. The three entered the fort to find the haul of nuts that the bandits had stolen, and while he was inside Bubby searched the fly-ridden bandit to reclaim the small pebble that had been stolen from him two days prior.
Outside, Grochal Painstick begged for his life through tears of pain and bubbles of snot. The man claimed that his real name was Pelar Velard, and that he comes from a nearby village. Pelar began to tell his story and beg for mercy, but Hodjai was still seeing red from battle. He showed no care or interest in showing mercy to a cruel man who committed so many heinous crimes. The warrior tore his claws into Grochal Painstick’s throat and ripped out the man’s tongue. Pelar’s eyes grew wide with surprise as his shouts became overshadowed by the sounds of gurgling blood. Then Pelar’s eyes grew heavy. Kishsahat bludgeoned him in the skull with her war club, ending his twitching.
After the party collected the haul of nuts and regrouped, Kishsahat tossed one of the torch sconces into the straw along the back structures of the fort. The adventurers watched the redoubt transform into a mountain of amber flames and billowing gray smoke. Finally as dusk approached, the group turned and headed back toward Heksaag. Along the way, Bubby thanked the group and told them how he came to be locked in a cage. Two days ago, he was out gathering nuts among the trees west of Heksaag. He wandered a bit too close to the redoubt, but was filling his baskets so he kept gathering. He searched the ground near a frostnut tree at the edge of the nutyard where he had found a strange, pale pebble in a clearing. He was investigating the pebble when he was approached by bandits who had taken up residence in the redoubt.
The bandits could not fathom his ugliness when they first encountered him. And then, they tried to rob him. For the first time in a long time in his life, Bubby was compelled to hang onto his pebble. He wouldn’t give it up. So the bandits bound him and took it by force, bringing him and his bushels of nuts back to the redoubt. By the time they arrived, the man who had stolen the pebble from Bubby and had been staring at it in fascination out among the nut trees, now began stumbling around in a stupor. An hour later, he fell down dead in the mud. The other bandits rushed to their comrade’s side and noticed he had nasty welts on his hands. They all pointed at Bubby and started shouting, “Witch, he’s a witch!” That was when they forced Bubby into the crude wooden cage, in a small redoubt just outside Heksaag. For a time, Bubby thought they might cook him and eat him. The survivalist thanked the adventurers once again for saving him.
The adventurers returned well into the evening mealtime, bringing the nuts to the square where they first met Serkal. The tall Djenndan thanked them and stood atop the edge of the well, praising their heroism for defeating the bandit threat that plagued their village. By night’s end, through a celebration full of music and much delicious mead, the adventurers were named the “Heroes of Heksaag,” a title that would no doubt find its way into a song before the end of the week. As a storyteller himself, Gur’oru was especially excited; Heksaag is a place where people want for nothing but value heroes and stories from other parts of the Empire above all else. He seemed to be relishing in recounting the events of defeating Grochal Painstick with his animated storytelling style. The evening was long and full of happy reflection.
Over several days the adventurers rested in Heksaag and enjoyed their time. Nysteld visited with the ais’lun now under Bidus’s care, and saw that they were beginning to settle in; even the young Zadalury seemed less overcome with sickness and sadness. Bubby decided to leave his job as the master forager for Serkal and travel through the Great Giants toward the protectorate with the adventurers who had saved him. And Gur’oru decided he wanted to stay here in Heksaag. The Veteran took Hodjai aside and imparted some words of battle advice. “Anger is a great tool in battle, but never let it linger, as a tool becomes a weight when left to hang about your neck.” Gur’oru gave his family dirk to Hodjai, and wished the warrior safe travels. Nysteld, who witnessed the gesture, told Gur’oru that she was moved by his wisdom, and thinks it is wonderful that he is staying behind in the village. “May you seek balance in all you do,” she offered.
After bathing in the hospitality of Heksaag for a time, our adventurers will leave to travel to the Protectorate. How will they fare in the windy pass? We will find out in our next installment.