The Unshackled

The Warrior opened his eyes, and listened to the steady breathing of his sleeping companions lying on the floor near his cot.  It was dark, the flame of his magical torch safely tucked away beneath a leather sack, yet something had awoken him.  Instincts developed in the Fighting Pits of Minos and honed after months of survival in the lightless Underdark compelled him to heighten his awareness.  Listening carefully, Haerak heard the faint scrape of a booted foot on the stone floor beneath his doorway.  Muffled voices, nearly too faint to discern, whispered outside the small circular and shuttered window on the other side of the spare chamber.  Swiftly and silently Haerak nudged his companions awake with his bare toe while simultaneously readying his trusted blade.  The dragon-blooded half-orc K’Larsh, son of Mogha Larsh, prepared himself for danger with a quietly uttered  shield-ward-spell, while the pallid and frail healer Ardel followed suit.

The wicker mat that functioned as the room’s door suddenly exploded open as a tall ladder thrust through the portal, it‘s bearers realizing that the element of surprise had been lost.  Behind, a bestial roar heralded an attack from the window, as a monstrous humanoid smashed a maul through the surrounding clay wall, expanding the aperture.

Haerak slashed at the intruders, a trio of battle-hardened Army-of-the-Resurrection Hobgoblins, as they clawed their way up the ladder and into his room, while defending his flank from the two bear-like Quaggoth that had burst through the rear wall.

In moments it was over, the three elite goblinoids lay in expanding pools of blood on the hard floor and the shaggy quaggoth put out of their misery by the shining heavy sword of the Warrior.  Security personnel employed by the proprietor moved swiftly to contain the situation, ordering the rudely-awaken guests to convene with their host in his quarters below.  Haerak and his party left the servants to dispose of the mess, and gathering their meagre possessions, followed the head guardsman, a sinister looking half-orc named Gleric, down into the bowels of the labyrinthine inn to treat with Gobedge.

When the black-cloaked Gleric led the Warrior and his companions through the stained leather flap that served as the door to Gobedge’s suites, Haerak was assaulted by a wave of oppressive heat generated by a blazing hearth situated in the centre of the large chamber and the pungent stench of incense, which almost succeeded in covering the foul sweaty odour that otherwise permeated the air.  His eye was immediately drawn to the enormous bulk of the inscrutable hobgoblin-innkeeper , lolling grotesquely amidst a sea of brightly coloured cushions and surrounded by platters heaped with every sort of decadent provision.  Grease slithered down the creases of Gobedge’s  fleshy jowls and pooled on the neck of his befouled coat as his piercing beady gaze dissected his visitors.  He stuffed a fistful of dripping black meat into his toothsome maw, licked the juices from his sausage-fat fingers, and motioned for the party to enter.

Aside from the repulsive Gobedge, the room was occupied only by a hapless hobgoblin lashed naked to a blood-soaked table near the back wall, (whose pitiful screams periodically punctuated the conversation that followed between Haerak and Gobedge), and its tormentor, a slight razor-bearing orc with twitching fingers and an ill-fitting smock.

Gobedge praised the fighting prowess that Haerak and K’Larsh had demonstrated in their recent battle in his establishment, and revealed that he would be willing to assist such resourceful champions in their quest to gain the surface world, if only they would agree to deliver a secret and sensitive package to his associates in a small nearby town called Witchcaves after they arrived.  The bloated, but palpably dangerous hobgoblin, warned them that failing to deliver the goods would not be advised, and claimed that even the surface world was not beyond the grasp of his certain vengeance.  Upon their acquiescence to his terms, Gobedge instructed his minions to place a long, shallow, locked metal chest in their possession, and cover Haerak’s broad shoulders in a luxurious black cloak. The garment was crafted by expert hands from a strange, almost rubbery leather, and lined with soft ebon fur, and would supposedly act to identify Haerak to the surface associates to whom he was to relinquish the precious box.

After gathering up some necessary travelling supplies from the accommodating Gleric, and gaining a bit of needed rest in a fresh suite of secured rooms, Haerak and his unlikely band made at last for the long-denied surface world.

 

Trusting in the promised assistance of their prodigious patron,  Haerak’s party rushed past the first Army-of-the-Resurrection outpost that barred their path to the world above.  Although they were challenged and detained by a suspicious hobgoblin Captain named Thulsk, a convenient nearby slave-uprising distracted their inquisitor long enough  for them to slaughter two guards and make their escape.

The party force-marched at a gruelling pace to reach the second Army post before tales of their deeds at the first could follow.  Instigating the ruse devised by Gobedge, K’Larsh convinced the post guards to allow them to enter the fortified camp and meet with the Innkeeper’s agent, a sergeant named Attalar.  When they were alone in his tent, Attalar informed them that news of their murders at Station Two had reached them here at Station One, and that they would have to proceed with the utmost caution.  Attalar disguised the massive Haerak and the equally brawny K’Larsh in the uniform and hooded cloaks of his monstrous hobgoblin troops, and concealed the piteous Ardel with magical invisibility before leading them past the final gates between them and the human controlled fortress of Deepgate that lay but a single day of marching beyond.

Attalar proved to be an affable travelling companion, not burdened by the air of superiority borne by the majority of his militaristic race when dealing with non-hobgoblins.  The Sergeant revealed that he had previously served and been mentored under Gobedge, who himself had formerly been a highly respected member of the Army-of-the-Resurrection, and who was also reputed to be a Warcaster (the ranks of which are mined for the development and training of new Warsouls, the rulers of the hobgoblins).  According to Attalar, their shared acquaintance had run afoul of the Warsoul Gattax, who in spite had stripped Gobedge of his rank and lain a curse of gluttony upon him.

Sergeant Attalar led the small party for a few hours outside of the hobgoblin fort, and then bid them a fair journey and departed.  However, before he disappeared back into the darkness of the tunnel beyond Haerak’s ever-burning torchlight, Attalar implored the Warrior to not underestimate the power of Gobedge, nor his wrath…

Pressing on, Haerak, K’Larsh, and Ardel surged ahead through the inky blackness of the tunnel, picking their way through  the scattered debris and rotting casualties of countless skirmishes between the Army-of-the-Resurrection and the Knights of Deepgate, with the rhythmic sound of the rushing waters that bisected the width of the tunnel their constant companion.  Nearing the limits of their endurance after nearly two full days of marching, Haerak and the group were caught unawares by an ambush of Deepgate scouts.  Materializing ghost-like out of the darkness, the soldiers commanded the party to surrender their weapons and submit.  Overjoyed and overwhelmed with relief, Haerak was only too happy to comply.  The Captain, a young man with the haunted gaze of one who had seen far too much for his years, identified himself as Sir Darcy Winterscull, and his laconic lieutenant, a stone-faced cleric of St. Anders, as Shane Coal.  After listening to their tale, the scouts insisted on delivering Haerak and his companions to their superiors at Deepgate Fortress, a demand to which they enthusiastically agreed.

 

Deepgate Fortress proved to be less impressive than expected, but a more-than-welcome sight none-the-less.  Conquered and sacked by the Army-of-the-Resurrection and recently liberated by its former and present occupants, the great walls that guarded the surface realms from the indescribable horrors of the Underdark had been blasted apart and hastily rebuilt.  Beyond the battered barbican rose the famed fortress itself, a massive, squat, and ugly tower-keep surrounded by the ruins of once-sturdy support buildings, and the military tents that replaced them.  Haerak, K’Larsh, and Ardel were led directly through the thick iron gates of the grim tower by Sir Winterscull and presented to a portly castellan who sequestered the exhausted trio in separate quarters to rest and await the pleasure of the Lord of Deepgate, whom Winterscull named Knight-Commander Plankman.  Sir Winterscull left them there with a hopeful blessing and a reassuring smile that promised the worst of their ordeals were finally at an end.

 

In a short time, Haerak was summoned to audience with the Lord of Deepgate.  Alone and unarmed, and clothed in a simple but comfortable shift provided by the castellan’s steward, the mighty warrior was led into a sparsely furnished  study, illuminated by a warm crackling fire, and populated by two men.  The first, and most imposing, was a tall and gaunt middle-aged soldier.  He had thin black hair combed back from his stoic face, which was disfigured by three parallel scars running from his forehead to his jaw, and was armoured in polished black plate embossed with the shield and crossed spears symbol of his god.  The second was an elderly grandfather, with a bald head and gentle visage from which peered clear, brilliant green eyes beneath bushy white brows.  He was dressed in a pure white robe encased by a beautiful, though clearly ceremonial, suit of tooled white leather.  The men introduced themselves as Knight-Commander Douglas Plankman and Marshal Emmett Quill, respectively, and then questioned Haerak about his trials in the deep of the Underdark, and his past in bondage to Minos.  Seemingly satisfied with his responses, Lord Plankman offered Haerak a position on the walls of Deepgate, if he was so inclined, as they were in desperate need of proven fighters.  Failing that, he offered to send Haerak and his band to the surface where they could petition the High Protector of Deepwatch for their freedom.  Wishing whole-heartedly for a chance to feel the radiant sun wash again upon his face, and to place the cold wickedness of the Underdark forever behind him, Haerak graciously accepted the opportunity to entreat the High Protector, and returned to his chambers to await the morning, with the parting blessing of Marshal Quill ringing comfortingly in his ears.

 

The Warrior opened his eyes lazily as a shaft of light crept across his pale face.  Glorious sunlight filtered through the arrow loop in his stone-walled sleeping cell, illuminating dancing motes of dust.  Gathering his gear Haerak rushed out of the tower with his companions K’Larsh and Ardel close at his heels.  The trio assembled on the ground below the fortress and gazed up with wonderment at the awesome circle of light that marked the expansive mouth of the tunnel, the gate to the surface world.  Tears of unabashed joy welled up from the humans’ eyes at the sight of natural light, matched by the tears of painful amazement that streaked down the bestial face of the half-orc.  They stood in silence, drinking in the beauty for several long moments before allowing themselves to perceive their surroundings.  They stood on a gray rocky beach gazing at the edge of a clear circular lake, the wellspring of the river that eventually plunged racing over the dark cliffs at Fuldrom, that lay at the bottom of a five hundred foot cylindrical pit.  The lake was littered around its edge with the rubble and debris of buildings that had crumbled from the perimeter above.  The ruin of a great zig-zaging double-back stair clung desperately to the opposite wall nearly three-hundred feet above the surface of the water, its lower reaches smashed on the beach below.  The walls of the pit were dotted with small caves, some of which Haerak would later learn, were the entrances to catacombs housing the dead of the city above, while others served as sluice-drains from its sewers.  Rising majestically and dauntingly above the rim of the pit was the fabled Deepwatch Citadel, an impregnable fortification encased  by a dozen massive towers, each bristling with arcane siege-breaking weaponry, and decorated by hundreds of fearsome and watchful dragons sculptures.  There were several long cables connecting the surface rim to the beach at Deepgate, and they were navigated by gondola-like cages.  Haerak and his party clambered into one of the cages that connected directly to a wide balcony on the Citadel itself, and with a word from its operator, the elevator quickly slid up the cable, drawn by thick chains attached to massive mule-driven cogs on the beach.

 

The gondola-cage deposited the party upon an expansive stone balcony that provided a panoramic view of the once-mighty city of Deepwatch, which was now reduced to a blasted and smoking inhabited-ruin.  Access to the Citadel consisted of a set of enormous, ornate, bronze-plated iron gates flanked by a menacing pair of thirty foot tall dragon statues.  Two burly guardsmen, clad in shining steel plate and draped with snow white cloaks stood at attention near the portal.  The Deepgate soldiers that had accompanied them from the beach below led Haerak and his companions through the massive entry and into a vast, impressive, hall with gleaming floors lain with fine gray marble that matched the eighty-foot tall sculpted columns that marched in tandem down its hundred yard length.  The guards ushered the wide-eyed companions toward a non-descript side-stair ascending from the corridor to an upper level of the castle.  After a short navigation, the three were finally brought to an airy audience chamber with a columned open wall separating it from a terrace that overlooked the eastern districts of the city.  The comfortable chamber was furnished with thick bearskin rugs, a large expertly carved table complete with eight high-backed chairs, and several low cushioned sofas arranged around the entryway.   Tapestries depicting regal dragons, various knightly standards, and the symbol of holy St. Anders fluttered with the gentle breeze along the inside wall.  Occupying the room were a number of well-dressed courtiers, an armoured knight, and fantastically, a ten-foot tall robed bear inscribing a scroll, all of whom were entirely eclipsed by the woman.  Beautiful beyond imagining, she was perfect of form.  Her long honey hair was tied back and bound sternly, but in no way diminishing her loveliness, and she was clothed in the finest white robe that accentuated her flawless female figure.  Her bright eyes shone with wisdom and compassion, and round her slim neck dangled a silver symbol of St. Anders on a fine mithril chain.  The lady seemed to be surrounded by an aura which imbued Haerak with a feeling of safety and warmth and friendship.  Behind him, the Warrior faintly heard the guardsman present his group to The High Protector of Deepwatch, Lady Katrina Bromwell.

The Lady welcomed the trio to her city, and questioned each about both his past and his future intentions.  She appeared genuinely distressed at the revelation that none of the three had any family to speak of, and graciously offered each of them a place in her city to call his home.  Katrina invited them to consider her invitation while they carried out their obligations to Gobedge and Kernoc, and that she would honour their decision without prejudice, either way.  In confidence, the Lady warned Haerak and K’Larsh about the dark nature of their companion Ardel, for whom she seemed concerned rather than fearful or condemning.

With the audience at an end, the beatific Lady blessed them in the name of St. Anders, and wished them good fortune.  The former slaves left the enthralling presence of the High Protector as free men in a new and free land.

 

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