Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Summoning – Chapter 2

  1. WATERS DEEP AND RED WITH BLOOD.

Joined by a Ranger, one of the Duke’s trusted men, the party pursues the raiders into the Westholm Wilds. The trail is clear and soon it brings the Adventurers to a swift, unnamed river, deep in the forest. Nearby stands one of the province’s many Border Towers, usually manned by a small company of the Duke’s troops. Some distance away, a rugged stone bridge spans the river’s dark waters, while on the far bank the party spies a Waystone, one of the ancient, rune-etched markers said to protect the kingdom from the Dark Gods Cronach and Cruenor. Legend also holds the Stones will bestow treasure, knowledge, even special powers to those deemed worthy.

The path ahead seems easy, but an unnatural tension thickens the woodland air.

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The reinforced party trying to rescue the Duke’s niece.

The game opened with no visible enemies and two visible Plot Points, the Guard Tower and the Waystone. The party advanced.

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A walk in the woods.
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Knock, knock?
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A bridge over troubled waters?
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Which way, stone?

The Mage and the Ranger went to check on the guard tower while the Skald and the Barbarian trudged through the trees toward the old stone bridge. At the tower, the Mage reached for the doorknob only to have a werewolf burst out, spitting and snapping. (Strange creatures are said to haunt these border lands)  The fight is on.

The Ranger lends some timely assistance and the noise draws the Skald and the Barbarian hurriedly back to help. (Better late than never?) A Search of the Tower reveals four dead guards, a healing scroll, and a map of the area with a notation for a ford a stones throw from the tower.  A quick debate and the party elects to try the ford rather than cross over to the bridge.

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Heel, damn you!

The party follows a path to the river, disturbing a lone Ork warrior guarding the ford. The Skald moves to engage (not a fan of greenskins) but Brekr the barbarian hacks the brute down first. With no further enemies around, the party crosses the river.

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First across the river, Brekr searches the area around the Waystone and finds a piece of jewelry, a broach with the Duke’s emblem, something a young girl would wear. A fresh trail nearby leads north.

However, their splashing and talking alerts a warband of Orks who were waiting near the bridge in ambush. Enraged, the Orks charge along both sides of the riverbank, bellowing war cries and swinging massive weapons. So much for this being a quiet walk in the woods.

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Combat swirls on the riverbanks and even in the water, but having lost the element of surprise and forced to come at the Adventurers in a line rather than from all sides all at once, the Orks are disadvantaged.

An ugly brawl erupts between Brekr and the Ork Warchief, and Brekr is drien, stunned, back in the river. The Ork is about to deliver a killing blow when the Ranger looses and arrow into his neck. The greenskin falls like a sack of rocks, much to the dismay of the rest of the attackers. Panicked, the remaining Orks flee into the woods.

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Come back, you cowards!

Turns out the Ork Warchief was a third plot point. A Search yields an Amulet of Courage (+1 to Morale rolls) and a letter from an unknown person that describes the Adventurers, and gives the name of a man in a nearby border town who will pay the Orks a hefty sum once they deliver proof of death. (a head or other important body part will suffice)

Enemies dispatched, loot scavenged, the Adventurers now face a choice: Follow the fresh trail in pursuit of the kidnappers, or Confront the man named in the letter in the nearby border town, and gain better information on this mysterious situation.

Which will they choose?

Lo, the spirit of Leeroy Jenkins was heavy upon them.

Getting back in the regular gaming schedule, we re-ignited our ASoBH campaign last night with Matt and Derek’s parties supported by additional adventurers under John’s command. The three of them created a 7-person party with characters from their own teams, and together braved the outer ring of the Lich King’s domain.

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Facing them were Ebramon Hex, the dreaded Necromancer, with his legion of zombies, Imor, the Dark Sentinel, (Ghast champion) a nameless spectral warrior, and a swarm of vicious Plague Rats.

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Things started well, with the intrepid adventurers advancing through the ancient gateway, boldly striding to meet the forces of decay and death.

But alas, whom the gods destroy, they first make mad, and lo, the spirit of Leeroy Jenkins did come heavily upon them, much to their eternal loss and shame.

The bards will wonder if it was Matt’s bravado that led to their demise, charging forward heedlessly as rats, a ghost, and a ghast spilled from the ruined church. Or perhaps it was Derek’s decision to separate his two clerics from their comrades and angle toward the zombie-infested graveyard by their lonesome. Or was it John’s misplaced confidence in his Elf Spellcaster, evidenced by placing him directly out in front of the party without a fighter bodyguard?

Who knows what fantastical delusions, what insidious deceptions, devil-spawned hubris prompted the adventurers to reckless abandon and death? (Perhaps the zombies who ate their brains) No one will ever say for certain.

Next week, the survivors will face the Lich King himself.

If you’re not familiar with Leeroy Jenkins…

Game Night: ASOBH

What little hobby time I have lately has been dedicated to Fantasy figs and terrain for our upcoming Advanced Song Of Blades and Heroes campaign. Also, I plan on entering three of the human warbands in this year’s Lead Adventure painting contest. While I can’t post pics of the pjs before the official entry date, I do have some shots of last night’s table, the Gnoll warband, plus a couple extra fantasy characters on new terrain pieces.

I’m sticking with Reaper figs. Doing good so far, what with the huge variety and excellent quality of the sculpts. We’re still running one-of games to familiarize ourselves with the ASOBH rules. Someone once noted that you know a particular rule set is good if after the game, you talk about the game rather than the rules. By that standard, we are extremely  happy with ASOBH.

I will also say the change in genre from Sci Fi to Fantasy has reinvigorated my painting. I’m very much looking forward to these games.

 

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Homestead raided by vicious Gnolls
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The aforementioned vicious Gnolls. Reaper Bones hold detail and paint quite well.
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Reaper Viking/Barbarian badass

 

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Face off at the Shrine of the Skystone.

 

The Grim Fall 4 – STUNTIES

Still deciding which fiction project to pursue in the new year. In the meantime, this is the latest from my post-apocalyptic fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.


FOUR: STUNTIES

The mine’s entrance was little more than a low, round cave lit by flaming torches. Inside, it turned into a narrow passage that ran roughly fifty paces before opening abruptly to a second, larger cavern. From there, three more passages led to different areas of the mine; the North, West and South shafts that dove into the gnarls of cramped shafts, caves and grottos carved in the mountain’s heart. A forth opening next to the main entrance led to the Chief’s Grotto. Guarded night and day by a pair of heavily armored brutes from his warband, no one went into Largash Goretusk’s presence unless specifically summoned. Anyone who tried otherwise was butchered on the spot.

Addas had only met the Chief once, the day Chalk presented him to the clan as his drudge and apprentice scavenger. Addas remembered the orc’s sinuous bulk, how he’d leaned forward in his throne of bones and fur, a huge hand adorned with iron rings closing around his throat, yanking him closer. Goretusk had looked him over and shook his head, laid a blade on Addas’ throat. Addas remembered hard, bloodshot eyes narrowing in a flat slab of a face, yellowed lower tusks curling up in a snarl, the stench of cruelty. The sinews in the Chief’s arm had coiled and Addas squealed, certain he was about to die, and pissed himself. Goretusk’s nose had wrinkled in scorn and he started to laugh. He threw him back at Chalk’s feet. “You want this piglet, you feed him. He stays useful and stays out of my way or he gets slit. Clear?”

Chalk had nodded without a word, cuffed Addas on the head and dragged him out. The memory still made his stomach knot.

Stretches of each section in the mine were claimed by different orc families, yards of dank burrows guarded fiercely, bitter rivalries measured in inches. Scorch the world, orcs still found a way to fight over territory. Stronger, bigger families lumped near the surface, outcasts and the weak were shoved deeper where the air was foul and the light dingy. Addas guessed hundreds of greenskins, orc and goblin, lived like pale blind maggots in the deep dark below the main shafts. He only saw those he scraped past in a tunnel, gaunt faces illuminated by guttering, stinky torchlight. The rest he calculated by feel, and smell.

Except for a council in Chief Goretusk’s grotto, the central cavern was the only place one could see more than a dozen orcs at a time. Before the Fall, a gathering like it wouldn’t be worth a pitcher of spit, more riot than anything else, but now it was the height of greenskin endeavor. It was the Swap, the clan’s one and only marketplace. More than that, the Swap was the Black Sand’s lifeblood and lifeline; their source of food, goods, news, and their only contact with those outside their walls.

Addas hesitated, picked his path before plunging in. He wanted to get through as fast as he could, hide in the crowd’s convulsion and noise. The wide cavern floor was a maze of crude stalls, threadbare awnings, and vendors’ tables. Most were iron-mongers offering weapons, tools, or armor, but several advertized rough-stitched hides, mangy fur capes, even bowls of lumpy gruel and sticks of greasy mystery meat. Dozens of small braziers spit and flickered, emitting more oily soot than warmth, their brume mixing with the roar of orcs arguing, bartering, bellowing in their guttural tongue. Smaller, faster goblins scurried through the sea of burly bowed legs carrying goods, messages, picking pockets… Addas counted as many brawls going on as trades. A few worn paths wove through the mess to the far side of the cavern where the main shafts were. Addas stepped into the flow of chaos and despite the clamor, immediately sensed a strange pressure in the air. Thicker than smoke it was, and ready to pop.

Another dozen steps, Addas saw the reason.

Stunties. A dozen of the little bastards.

A veritable troop of Dwarves stood guard over a string of ponies and pack-mules on the north side of the cavern. The track-makers.

Twenty paces of open space separated the Dwarves from the greenskin mob, and Addas felt the ancient grudge between the two races seething around the cavern. Even felt it stir in his bones. If it weren’t for the Treaty, there’d be blood soaking the dirt right now, sure as shit stinks. Still, desperate times need desperate measures; however surly, both sides were abiding by the terms.

Tired and hungry as he was, Addas took the long way to the hole that led to his burrow. Wasn’t every day he saw outsiders in Black Sands territory, let alone Dwarves.

Their usual stoutness long since burned off, the Stunties were gaunt and looking serious as a knife in the belly. Their armor was black, gleaming and smooth like it was new from a forge. Every Dwarf held a naked blade at their side, casual but ready. Addas thought about his one good javelin head and wondered what it would take to get his hands on steel like theirs. More than he could scrape together in a lifetime, probably.

Of all the races, the Dwarven folk had weathered the Fall the best. It was said their Gods warned them by rune and seer, that they sealed the massive doors to their underground cities and feasted until the fires burned out. Some even whispered a Dwarf God or two survived, hidden among their people, and the Stunties were scheming to take over what remained with the help of their housebroken deities. Addas figured that was a steaming pile of envy and rot-gut hooch talking.
The Gods were dead; ashes and bone scattered across the Three Worlds.

Besides, who in their right mind wanted to reign over a scorned and broken land?

The Dwarf leader was an odd one, easy to pick out. Taller than average, maybe up to Addas’ chest, he radiated authority like a white-hot coal. With flaming red hair to match his attitude, and sharp green eyes, the strangest thing was the thorn tattoos coiling across his clean-shaven cheeks. Addas had never heard of a beardless Stuntie. Must be some kind of Fall sickness, he thought. Or a punishment.

Big Red had a wicked double-head axe head standing upside down beside his right leg. His fingers caressed the handle like he was itching to snatch it up and put it to use. Addas spied runes on the broad steel, chunky marks marching below the edge. Chalk used to boast he could cipher Dwarvish scratchings, and a bit of Elvish too. Addas never learned the whole truth of that claim, but the old bastard did live long enough to beat a few runes into his head. Which was why Addas started when he saw the icon on the buckler that rested against Big Red’s other leg.

An anvil: a Dunak dwarf from the White River. A long way from home, these Dwarves were. He wondered what, by Gruumsh’s Shattered Balls, would bring them all the way here in the dead of winter?

Big Red caught Addas staring and gazed back. The look was more curious than hostile, but Addas turned away quickly anyway. If the Chief caught wind of him eyeballing visitors, he’d get a kicking, no doubt. Lifting the sledge like a shield, he went straight into the South hole. Stunties were trouble, and he had enough of that in his life already.

Deeper in the mine, each turn, each drop, the stale air grew heavier, rank with damp, mold and piss. Caves yawned off the sides of the main tunnel, wretched dens filled with squabbling orc families. In an especially wide stretch, the rock walls were notched floor to ceiling with sleeping cubbies like human tombs, studded with guttering torches and rude lanterns.

Stepping aside for oncoming traffic, none of the orcs greeted him or gave a second glance once they saw he wasn’t carrying food. Addas’ place in the pecking order long since fixed, the piss-soaked sledge warded off any other problems as well. Everybody had their own stink to worry over.

The shaft sloped down and down again, deep into a new section of the mine, ending in a tiny chamber bristling with limestone devil spikes. Addas twisted through them, ducked into a partially collapsed tunnel on the far side, then slid down a length of loose shale to his burrow.

Snat had found it for him the day after Chalk went in the dirt. Little more than a stone ledge with a ratty hide for a curtain, the best thing about it was it difficult for full-size orcs to reach.

Addas misered his lamp oil worse than a Dwarf with silver. Deep and isolated, the place was syrupy dark when you snuffed out your wick, thick and heavy enough to choke you if you thought on it too hard. But the air was cool – a touch cleaner somehow. Sometimes as he fell asleep, Addas even heard the sound of rushing water echoing in the hard black. There was a tall fissure in the granite face a few paces past his shelf. He studied it once with a candle stub, saw that he might squeeze through in a pinch, but never found the time or inclination to explore further.

Home.

Lighting a battered tin lamp, Addas began the careful removal of his armor and gear. First he set the cleaver, javelin and skinning flint aside. Next his belt, the pack with its carefully wrapped horn, and his vest.

Finally, he began to undo his mail shirt.

He winced as he tugged the buckles open, the pain shooting across his chest, ribs. The dried blood pulled his skin, the gash weeping as he pulled it off. The undershirt was ruined, little more than a rag to start. Definitely one now. He’d have to scrub the mail straight away if he wanted to keep the iron rings from rusting any more.

Get to it now, he heard Chalk say. Fight don’t let you sharpen your blade once it starts.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” Addas murmured. “‘Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you.'”

It took several painful tries, but eventually he held up the mail shirt and studied it in the feeble light. Thin, dull brown with age and use, the front glistened where the rings were severed and still sticky with blood. Odd loops of copper or tin, even leather cord, betrayed half-a-dozen older repairs. A pair of kidney-low holes in the back must have done in the original owner. Mark of a hellspike, Chalk claimed, Hades’ minions known for being backstabbing little feckers.

Chalk had bequeathed it to Addas the morning he died. The old tracker could have paid off a debt, the Chief’s boys already gathering like vultures to divvy up his gear. But Chalk passed it to Addas on the sly, the warty old brute bubbly-blood whispering he should tuck it out of sight.

Worth more’n you, runt. Smith could melt a dagger or three out of it.

He’d grabbed Addas’ shirt. No one gives a runny shit to saving your skin. You’ll have work harder, smarter. Earn the right to keep it. Make yourself valuable so they think twice before they gut you. Gotta be worth more alive than dead.

Addas set the mail shirt down, emotions tearing him two ways. Cruel old bastard was worm food – good riddance. But what did it mean when a ghost’s scorn was the only kindness left, and letting go looked easier than going on?

No answer came to mind. Even Chalk was uncharacteristically silent.

“Might as well pray to the dead gods,” Addas growled, and jabbed his fingers in the wound. He probed his side, ignoring the pain that seared along his ribs. He cuffed back the welling in his eyes.

“Less think – more work.” That had been Chalk’s solution for near everything.

The edges of the gash were raw, and Addas could see the purple-brown bruising starting to spread. At least the bleeding had stopped. He looked at the rent in the shirt again. “I’m gonna get gouged in more ways than one, getting patched up here.”

But there was no choice at all, not if he wanted to stay alive. Poor armor is always better than none.

Setting the mail shirt aside, he picked up his vest, his pouch, belt, water skin, and skinning dagger one by one, and inspected them in turn. Only when he had gone over every inch, edge, and seam and was satisfied at their condition, did he allow himself to look at the horn.

Carefully, quietly, he fished a slab of jerky from under his bed mat, tore off a hunk, then began to unwrap the rags.

“Ooooh…izzat what I think it is?”

There was a scrunch of gravel and flap of cloth as a small goblin dropped into his burrow.

Addas spun, reflexively jabbing with the horn. “Feck me, Snat. Stop the sneaky devious. I’m gonna shank you one of these days.”

The goblin grinned. “Sneaky devious is what I am.” He yanked the horn out of Addas’ hand. “Besides, shank me, and who’d flip your smuggle?”

Addas clawed for the horn but Snat clambered up on his bed shelf and began earnestly scrutinizing the horn up and down its length.

The goblin was typical of his race; small, about the size of an older human child with pale green skin and a wiry body. Everything about him looked sharp: his cheeks, pointed chin with an arrowhead goatee, hooked nose, pointed ears. Even his bright amber eyes were narrow and slanted. Snat, whose full name was Gezwill Snatterwaul of the Slowshiv clan, was like a cutpurse dagger: short, ugly, and sharp. And occasionally very handy to have around.

He’d been a shaman’s apprentice before the Fall, one of Bargrivyek’s faithful, ironically devoted to peace between the ever-quarrelling goblin tribes. But the treacherous gods being dead, and devotees of any stripe killed out of spite, Snat hid his former vocation. Disavowed it, in fact. Now, instead of spells, poisons, and potions, Snat lugged a goatskin bundle of hand tools. Addas didn’t know how he did it, but the goblin had everything in there from a maul to lock picks. Snat claimed there was nothing mechanical he couldn’t patch up or make better. For a price.

Truth be told, in Addas’ experience, he was annoyingly right. If it weren’t for the little goblin’s expertise, he’d be scrounging beyond the walls with nothing but rags and a wood cudgel.

There was nothing Snat couldn’t find either, seeing as he was the boss of the Nick; the goblin black market. Given enough time and money, if it still existed in this wreck of a world, he could get it. “Keep the silver coming, I’ll find you a bridge to the broken moon,” was his favorite phrase.

Snat kept up the chatter as he inspected the horn. “You see the stunties? Of course you saw ’em. How could you miss ’em? Bold as balls up there in the Swap. I mean I know they’re short and easy to overlook but they’re stirring up shit, big time. Chief Lard-Arse is–”

“Largash,” Addas corrected. “Chief Largash Goretusk.”

“–Lard-Arse is fielding their embassy right now. One of the bearded little feckers is even some kind of Prince. Making demands, he is. ‘Course our Chief is acting all frothy and monstrous, flogging his dog at ’em like he knows shit from porridge and he’s got muscle to do anything other than bend over and take it. Feck no. Stunties got everyone by the short and curlies these days. Still…Dwarves in this weather? Coming here from the White River? What, by Maglub’s hairy sack, what do you make of that?”

“Nothing to make,” Addas said carefully. “Got nothing to do with me.”

Snat was still scrutinizing the horn, but he nodded like he’d heard Addas and agreed. After another second, the goblin cocked his head and eyed him suspiciously. “Slap me stupid. This is real. Where’d you get it?”

“From a unicorn,” Addas said.

From a unicorn, he says. Smartarse. Where?”

Addas said nothing, held out his hand for the horn.

“Fine.” Snat slapped it back in his palm. “Tell me later.”

“Maybe.”

“You will.” Snat spied the mail shirt. “Shit me blind! Prancey pokey pony do that?”

Addas nodded.

The goblin whistled appreciatively. “Using up all the luck left in the world, aint’ ya?”

Addas let out a bitter laugh. “Making my own.”

“The horn for a patch job, half a pound of jerky, half a loaf of barley and an ounce of salve for that slice,” Snat said quickly.

Addas laughed again, less bitter. The post-run haggle was a ritual between them. “Half the horn for a full pound, full loaf, the salve, and iron rings for the mend.”

The goblin grabbed his crotch. “Iron rings,” he scoffed. “Want my stones too? Two-thirds of the horn, new copper rings, half jerky, half a loaf, and a javelin head out of the final third.” He leaned towards Addas. “You know that iron head won’t last forever.”

Addas hesitated for a split-second and the little Goblin smiled. Addas lifted his arm and bared his injured side. “What am I going to do about this though?”

Snat’s amber eyes radiated mock sympathy. “Suffer silently?”

Addas held his gaze. “Throw in half an ounce of salve.” He’d reached bottom. Addas needed everything he could get for the horn, but pus and a fever from infection were out of the question.

The goblin spit in his hand and held it out. “Done.”

Addas spat in his own and they shook.

The horn and Addas’ mail shirt vanished into Snat’s tunic. The goblin winked. “Now to see if me and the boys can’t pinch one of them ponies. Cooks’ll pay good for horsemeat.”

“Talk about stirring up shit,” Addas exclaimed. “Chief’ll bust his gut, embassy horse goes missing. Breaks the Treaty. ”

Snat shrugged, started climbing the shale. “Hey, joke ’em if they can’t take a f—” Suddenly a bellowing started echoing off the rock, down the slope from the mouth of the tunnel above. An orc’s voice.

“Hey Piglet! Crawl your hairy little arse out here. Chief wants you in the Grotto. Now!”

The Grim Fall 3: Luck

Three: Luck

The Black Sands was a beggarly name for an Orc settlement. Before the Grim Fall, a war-horde thundering out of the Unaka Mountains would shake the earth and chill the blood of every king within five-hundred leagues. Now the scraps of the Unaka greenskins eked out an existence in an old iron mine bored in the flank of Mount Geichak. No more Blood Tusk, Gate Smashers, or Gruumsh’s Fist; the place was named after the mounds of tailing swathed on the mountain’s slopes.

When the end started, orcs and goblins all over the region sought refuge in the mine’s twisty dark. As the heavens convulsed and continued to vomit ruin across the land, hundreds of refugees like Addas – greenskin or otherwise – streamed up to the headlands begging food, shelter, the slightest respite from the devastation. Thousands crammed into the mine, the swelling numbers spurring frantic excavation. Spent shafts were re-opened, cramped caves chiseled out, propped with scree and dry-rot timber. Desperate survivors clawed out miles of new tunnel, all twisted, looping, jumbled as a mass of chicken guts. The old mine grew into an underground city; a precarious warren of dark, foul-aired safety that offered a mountain of rock between them and the ruinous skies.

The ancient cliff-side forge was fortified, walls heaped ever thicker and higher with fresh rubble until the ledge around the mine entrance bristled with squat towers, crude bastions and craggy ramparts. Orks known more for tearing down than building, the defenses were thick, ugly things of black stone and slopped mortar. But they stood. In fact, walls of the Black Sands were one of the few barriers between the fragments of the old world and the ravenous brutality of this shattered new one.

Wind knifing into his back, Addas trudged down to the main gate and pounded on the iron-clad beams. It lurched open just wide enough for him to squeeze through, the tower guards spitting their welcome as he passed below their windows. Those orcs huddled around the braziers sneered, but made no move to stop him; the sledge was loaded. Addas figured contempt was the softest cruelty. First dibs on his kills guaranteed they left it at that – most of the time. Or perhaps it was just too cold to give up their spot near the coals.

When he reached the center of the yard, Addas drew the sledge around in front of him, slyly tugging the canvas back to reveal carcass’ meaty flanks. It was a ritual, like a whore hitching up her skirt, he realized. Then he plastered a dumb look on his face and carefully wrapped himself away.

The mine’s entrance gaped low and round like a mouth moaning in the dark cliff face. Warm, rancid air rushed out bearing traces of cooking oil and roasted meat, the musk of livestock, wood smoke, and hundreds of unwashed orks and their goblin-kin. The scent of loss, desperation, starvation, cruelty… the scent of home.

The unicorn horn was suddenly heavy between his shoulder blades. He’d snugged it alongside the javelin, out of sight. A search would turn it up straight off, but with any luck, Ogol and Igmut would only have eyes for steak.

‘Ow many times I have to say it boy? Chalk’s voice rasped in his memory. No luck left ‘cept what you make.

To name is to call; no sooner had Addas thought of them, two orc brutes lumbered out of the shadows. Addas would have prayed if there had been anyone listening. Instead, he averted his eyes and hunched slightly as they drew near.

Ogol twirled a thick studded club in his gloved hands while Igmut swaggered ahead with his thumbs in his belt. A warg’s claws had left Ogol with a milky eye and the lopsided stitched face of a rag doll, while Igmut’s jaw and right tusk caught a Dwarf war hammer in a skirmish before the treaties were signed. Twice as stupid as they were ugly, Snat had labeled them ‘Dim and Dimmer’, the little goblin claiming they didn’t have enough brains between them to organize a hump in a brothel.

Before the Fall, Ogol and Igmut were foot soldiers in the Unaka mob. Hearing opportunity knocking in the apocalypse’s thunder, they started calling themselves ‘captains’, riveting shiny bits to their armor and demanding salutes. Now watch commanders, they spent their days bellowing orders and lurking at the mouth of the mine where the air was cleaner but still warm from the depths. Where they could pinch a bit of everything that came in or out.

Ogol’s beefy hand thumped Addas in the chest. Igmut circled behind.

‘Wha’chu got there, runt?” Ogol demanded.

Addas kept his eyes down. “Horse.”

“‘orse, he says.” Ogol smacked his lips. “Rare find, runt. Horse is good eatin’.”

“Where’d you find ‘orse ’round ‘ere, piglet?” Igmut grunted over his shoulder.

“South of the ridge,” Addas lied. “Near the old road from Dumovaar.”

Ogol flung back the tarp and smiled all teeth. He swallowed hungrily and took a step forward, but then his one good eye narrowed. He stopped, looked Addas up and down. “What happed to its ‘ead?”

Addas shrugged, tried to sound tough. “Fecker kicked me. So I bashed him with a rock. Made him stop.”

Igmut had come around to stand beside Ogol. “That’ll do it,” he chuckled nastily. He slapped his partner’s shoulder. “C’mon. Cooks need to see this.”

But Ogol was on the scent. He took another step, thick muscles sliding under his green skin. “So how’d ya get that gash?” He pointed to Addas’ chest. “Hoofs don’t do that.”

Addas flushed. He hoped it looked like shame. “I slipped,” he stammered. “I tracked it through the Razors. I was creeping over the karst like I seen you do when ice took my feet right out from under me. Damn near cut my own head off. Chased him two miles after that.”

Ogol shoved Addas, sent him backward onto the frozen dirt. “Clumsy git.” Laughter erupted from the gate.

Igmut hawked up a gob and spat at Addas’ feet. “That’s cause you’re only half orc, runt,” he belched out. “Pink little piglet like you will never be good as us.”

Ogol loomed over Addas and hauled him to his feet. He pulled him up until his warty, tusked face was inches away. “Fecking weak is what you are,” the orc growled. “Useless. Can’t hardly kill a mangy ‘orse.”

Addas hung his head. Play the part, he thought. Let them see what they want.

“Piglet and the ‘orse,” Igmut guffawed. “Now there’s a battle, eh?”

Ogol pushed Addas aside, bent and hefted the corpse over his shoulder. “We’ll get this to the cooks for you, runt.”

Igmut on the other hand, rummaged around in his trousers and started pissing on the sledge. When the last drops spattered out, he gave Addas lopsided leer. “Cleaned some of the blood off for you, piglet. See to the rest of it straight away.”

“Will do.” Addas saluted, then watched the two of them disappear into the cave.

Behind him, the tower guards sniggered. An ice chunk bounced off his shoulder. More laughter. Without a word, Addas stooped for the ropes, straightened the load on his back, and followed after.

The Grim Fall, chapter 2

*No sooner do I decide my next writing project, my work schedule fills up with serious commissions. Ah well, “The best laid plans…” Too much work is a nice problem to have, particularly for an artist.

Here’s chapter two of the Post Apocalyptic fantasy, currently titled “The Grim Fall.”

Two: Tracks

The snow stopped on the way back to Black Sands. Hunched against the cold, dragging the sledge, Addas was too busy not breaking a leg to notice the exact when. The ridge trail though the pass was treacherous at the best of times, but the storm had draped a coat of ice slick as lies over every rock and hole. Each step was a wager. Wasn’t until a huge shadow skimmed the ground, something long-tailed and jagged, that he looked up.

It was vanished in a blink, swooping behind snow-piled crags, its screech shattering the brittle air behind it. Addas threw down the ropes and abandoned the sled, floundering through drifts to the nearest ledge. He tucked himself as far back as he could, shivering against ice-ribbed granite, craning his neck, javelin ready. The bloody carcass lay in the open thirty paces away like bait, or an offering. Depending…

All manner of things roamed these mountains now. It was six kinds of stupid to stand and see what turned up. Hide and peek was the smart game, fear the key to staying alive.

Near the end, when Chalk was wheezing, hacking up bits of lung, he would yell at Addas to pack a big dose of it whenever he went outside. The world had turned a darker shade of murderous, the old orc snorted; fear would keep him breathing better than anything else.

Addas was the only scavenger past the gate today. Two leagues distant, he’d get no help in a real fight.

But he was used to that. So Addas studied the grimy vault of the sky while his teeth chattered out a hundred count.

The storm had hammered the clouds into a blanket of dirty wool stretched over the peaks as far as he could see. In the west, a pale sun oozed behind them like a wound under gauze, its sick light bruising their edges purple and yellow. The dark stone scarps of the Unakas rose like walls all around him, a north wind moaning off their peaks. Other than the creak of snowfields on the mountainsides, the uplands felt as still as a crypt.

Not that quiet was ever a sign of safety – usually the opposite – but with no second shriek, no new slice of shadow, Addas finally thrashed his way back to the sledge, warily took up the ropes and shouldered on.

***

Two hours later, he stood bone-tired and shaking in the ruins of Gruumsh’s Henge, overlooking the settlement. Down slope – five hundred paces to be exact- squatted the thick walls and mawing cave, the entrance to the Black Sands. Addas could see the second watch crowded around glowing braziers, weapons stacked, their thick armored shapes bunched like cattle. He watched them as he flexed warmth back into his hands, almost feeling the delicious burn of the coals, smelling the singed hair, the baked iron and body stink. At this hour, cooking smells would be wafting up out of the mine tunnels. Smells of home.

“Home. ” He spit out the word.

Truth was there was nowhere else to go. The thought of going down the slope, through the gate and descending into mouth of the cave chilled him. Addas almost felt safer here, in the big outside, in the freezing rubble. Almost.

At least out here he could catch his breath with no one jeering, booting, shoving him into the next filthy job. Privacy like this, moments alone were rare as eggs, and Addas snatched them whenever he could. He soaked them in, squirreled them away like the memory of sunshine against the dark.

Addas had discovered this refuge by accident years before, in the wretched, blighted weeks of the Grim Fall. The world tearing itself apart, he’d been thrust from despair and confusion straight into Chalk’s cruelty and the orc clan’s contempt. Refugees were boot-scum and a plague; more mouths to feed, strangers who took up space. Anyone not blood-bound to the clan was kicked, lashed, abused. He and the other fugitives fought dogs for scraps and a place to lie down. Only those who worked could stay. Being youngest and a half-breed at that, when Chalk wasn’t beating lessons into him, Addas emptied the shit pits, two buckets at a time.

He studied the calluses on his palms and kicked a lump of brown ice. It skittered and smashed against a stump of carved granite. Two rows of them, broken pillars, lined either side of the hilltop. Gruumsh’s Henge had been the heart of greenskin power for centuries, the orc deity’s stone colossus bellowing perpetual defiance from its sacred plateau across the circle of the world. Hordes of pilgrims would gather every year for his bloody, brutal festivals, pledging blood, strength and eternal fealty.

Part citadel, part arena, part temple… it was one of the first casualties in the war, smashed like an egg by some Elvish godling’s wrath.

The temple’s massive stones had been heaped into walls around the settlement’s entrance, but the feet were rooted too deep, too solid to break apart.
Out of sight, out of the biting wind, ankle deep in filthy slush, Addas squatted in the lee of the Boots, two gigantic mounds of marble – all that remained of Gruumsh One-Eye’s great statue. The Black Sands clan dumped their filth there now. And Addas had brought most of it up the slope two buckets at a time.

The wind bit into his skin and the shadows were lengthening on the mountains. Addas sighed, turned to pick up the ropes. Then he spotted the tracks.

They came straight up the valley, made a wide path churned by riders. Lots of riders. Whoever it was had scuffed through the icy crust down to the mud; a shit-stain on a swathe of frozen linen, arrowing right toward the main gate.

Caravan wasn’t due for another month, Addas mused. Raiders then?

He crept out of the stones’ shadow to peer down at the walls again. Cocked his head for screams and ringing steel, but the only thing drifting on the air was oily smoke off the fires. Everything was business as usual.

Not raiders. Then who?

Forewarned is forearmed, he remembered Chalk saying. Addas coiled the sledge’s ropes, set them down, then slid down the reverse slope out of sight of the walls and crouched beside the trail.

He traced a deep print with his finger. Not paws, so it wasn’t wargs. Not that there were many of the giant hyenadons left alive, but a few had survived with the orcs and goblins who fled underground. They were reserved for clan chiefs and favored warriors.

The tracks weren’t split-toe great boars either, so it wasn’t Orcs from the Craters either. Weather this time of year ruled them out anyway. No, the hard crescent imprint meant shod hooves, which meant ponies. And ponies meant Dwarves, and Dwarves meant trouble. Graspy, bearded little feckers.

Dwarves any day set the Orc Chief on edge. Large bunch of stunties pounding at the gate unannounced would make him nastier than usual. And seeing as slop runs downhill, the Chief would vent his spleen on the clan, and the clan would take it out on him.

“Shit and shit again,” Addas spat.

He almost turned around right then. Almost.

Chalk had told him about his ‘bolt hole’ the week before he died; a tiny hollow on the western cliffs. There was enough kindling and unicorn to hold him a while, providing he was sparse about it.

Addas looked up at the sky and wondered how much daylight was left. Enough to reach the cave before night? Time ran strange these days, sometimes greasy fast, other times the sun seemed nailed in place. Freezing was better than a beating any day.

But if the Chief sent anyone to round him up and they found him, not only would the beating be worse, but he’d lose a good hiding spot. And maybe get kicked out for good.

Between the sword and the cliff, ain’t you? Chalk sniggered in his head.

“Even dead, you don’t leave me be,” Addas muttered.

The wind dragged a wheezing cackle off into the crags. Resigned, Addas clambered up and shouldered the ropes.

Maybe Snat would have something up his sleeve, he thought as he started downhill.

Teaser: Latest Fiction Project

Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy.

Figured I’d try this on you guys, see if you liked it.

Prologue: to Conjure Destiny

Ragnarok. Twilight of the Gods.

Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad… but when Gods purpose their own annihilation, what lunacy preludes that ruin? What malefic visions bring forth gibbering deicide?

Ragnarok… The end of all things.

It was an end, yes. But not final. A conclusion, not a consummation.

The savagery raged for days, no realm spared as celestials expended their very essence, destroying themselves to harness the primal energies needed to murder their kind. Their fury sent doom crashing across the three worlds like great waves of the deep. The heavens rent, the earth scorched, the underworld shattered… terror, woe, and havoc. Continents heaved, oceans boiled, stars exploded… for when gods make war, who can escape?

Time, space, day, night lost all meaning. We huddled and hid and dared not pray. All turned to rubble and ash – an utter desecration.

And then one day, the gods were dead.

Ragnarok ended.

And we who survived blinked in horror at what remained – that we remained – and called ourselves cursed. Remnants of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, scattered across the blighted landscape, fated to still draw breath, forced to sift meaning from desolation.

Minor powers remain, few, feral and precarious, their minds overthrown by pain and loss and dismay at the hells they helped unleash. On themselves. On us.
We shun them.

Ragnarok… The word twines from two roots, their true meaning: ‘to conjure destiny’.

The Gods abandoned us, took their capricious favor, their lofty scorn to whatever afterlife Gods go to. If there is such a place.

The only destiny that remains is what we conjure from the remains.


One: All the time in this ruined world
Year Three after the Grim Fall

Pain and more pain.

Lanced his ribs with every step, with every ragged breath pluming in the frigid air, Addas stumbled through the chaos of snow swirling in the bleak half-light. Warmth drooled down his belly, under his shirt.

He slid-skidded into a clump of scraggly bushes, glanced where his hand pressed against his chest. The horn had scored a long gash clean through the armor rings and hide jerkin. Blood seeped between his thick fingers.

God-cursed fecker near gored me. Add another scar to the batch, he grimaced. If I live.

He had smelt it an eye blink before he heard pounding hoofs. Twisted aside, just barely. Damn thing still bashed the air out of his lungs, sprawled him down the hill. Last he saw was the ass-end vanishing in the gloom.

Addas steadied his breathing. He peered through the bush, desiccated branches rattling in the wind like finger bones. View had dropped to a stone’s throw – maybe less. The beast had vanished. But not gone. Bastard was still out there, stalking him. He could feel its hunger.

The storm had hunkered down to stay; ugly, low and leaden. Bitter winds howled out of the north, bringing the cold that froze boiling water in the pot and a frenzy of large flakes the color of ash that burned skin raw. Dumping a foot in less than an hour, the landscape was disappearing fast. Only a few ragged humps of brush and black boulders jutted out of the icy slop.

Addas cocked his head, listened under the roar of the storm. Nothing.

He jerked his hand away from the wound, hissed as the chill bit exposed flesh. Ignore it, Chalk’s usual advice rang in his head. Bleeding ain’t important now – living is.

Easy for you to say, Addas muttered. You ain’t here.

The old knob used to beat the piss out of him. Three years day, night, rain, shine, blistering summer, freezing winter, Chalk took him scavenging. Learned him tricks, traps, tracks, snares, every skill a tracker needed. He’d cuff Addas at the tiniest mistake, bellowing, “World’s hard now. Get that in yer skull. You needs be harder.” Warty brute had been grueling, relentless. Those lessons had started the scar collection, everyone a jagged little revelation. Everyone a reminder of what was gone and what was now.

Still, Chalk had been his savior – if there was such a thing nowadays – the only one willing to take him in, half breeds being bucket scum even before the Grim Fall. Most of the other refugees from those days were in the dirt, so there must have been something to the cunning old fecker’s brand of schooling.

Addas’ bloody hand gripped the stumpy handle of the heavy cleaver sheathed at his side, the other hand clenched the shaft of his javelin. It was the good one with the iron head. Pitted and rust-scabbed, it still held a wicked edge.

Squinting into the gale, Addas froze still as a stone. He counted thirty heartbeats then reared up. “Come on then,” he roared. “Here I am.”

Good’un, he heard Chalk snigger. Charging the likes of you means it’s starvin’. So control the brawl. Make the ‘ungry bugger come to you.

Twenty more heartbeats. Nothing.

Then, snow scrunched, slithered on his right.

Addas shifted toward the sound, the javelin suddenly twig-thin across his meaty palm. Three fingers to steady, thumb and pointer to aim, like Chalk had taught. Coiled like a spring, he sniffed the wind ever so delicate.

Air was flat, sharp, hard as iron, but a sick-sweet hint of mange spiced the back of his throat. Skin rot on the beast’s coat.

“Oh, you want me, doncha? You royal fecker,” he murmured. Addas slow-stepped forward, half out of the bush, and planted his boots deep and firm.

“Come then,” he hissed.

At those words, a dark shape heaved out of the roiling squall like an avalanche, head down, long horn straight as a pike, fixed to skewer him like a hunk of meat.

Heart in his mouth, storm in his ears, time sludged, stretched like tar; a whole day in a heartbeat. Addas suddenly saw everything chiseled, separate and new; each flake of snow, the twine wrap on the shaft under his fingers, the muscles rippling on the wax-white mass, the snort of fog from its nostrils. That spike tip was mere feet away, but Addas had all the time in this ruined world.

He drove the javelin and pivoted in the same moment, saw the iron head sunk deep in the beast’s chest as it blew past, heard its scream of pain and frustration. Another dozen steps, the front legs folded and it dropped like a sack of rocks, furrowing the snow out into the gloom.

Addas whipped out the cleaver. Crouched. Waited.

Over the wind, he heard it thrash and grunt, raging against Addas, against the blizzard, against death. The cries grew steadily weaker, and he crept toward it, heavy broad blade raised over his shoulder.

He found it fifty paces on, kicking its life out. The javelin wobbled and twitched in its chest like a dowsing rod, snow darkening to a bloody mush underneath. It rolled its eyes, jerking its long head trying to stab him even as it wheezed its last.

That’s how ya live another day, Chalk cackled in his head.

The reek of offal churned in the wind as its bowels let go. Addas watched the creature shudder, slump and go still. A gust blew the stringy mane over one staring eye. It was gaunt, ribbed as a washboard, but there was still some meat to it. Better yet, the horn on its forehead. It was scored and dirty, but unbroken. Addas, hefted the cleaver. He’d drag it back for eats, but that was his.

Rare and valuable thing, unicorn horn. Piece plate armor, it would.

Addas Dashag, hunter, tracker, rover, scavenger and half-breed from the Black Sands Orc clan put his boot on the unicorn’s chest and yanked his javelin out. He wiped it clean, inspected it for bends or cracks. Satisfied, he strapped it on his back then he set to hacking the skull to get at the root of that lovely horn.