The paladin and his companions laid to a proper burial,our heroes continue on the trail of the bandits who destroyed the Vistani caravan. With every passing day, Alar becomes more frustrated. Though he still finds goblin and demi-human tracks, sometimes even missed, he is ever more certain they have lost the trail that led them into the Heldast Wood. When they discover a fairly fresh battlefield littered with goblin and gnollish dead, they fall back to a secure campsite and discuss their options. Nithauk lags behind slightly, plucking up a few more of the gnollish weapons for his growing collection. What they lack in sophisticated materials, they compensate for with insidious cunning. Natural toxins, dirty tricks, and ferocity take the place of metal and technology. The rogue is fascinated by the dichotomy, and by the practical worth of knowing how to fashion a weapon in the wild.
At some length, through most of the afternoon and evening, our heroes debate their course of action. They do not wish to abandon the meager trail they have lightly. If it is the right one, backtracking might mean they never catch their quarry. On the other hand, if they are following the wrong trail now, they face the same problem. At last, they reach a majority vote to backtrack. One additional factors weighs on this decision, and that is the ever increasing gnoll presence. It is unlikely the kidnappers have traipsed deep into gnoll territory. If they have, our heroes have lost their chance at direct vengeance, for the gnolls will have done the job for them. They are keenly aware that even a small gnollish war party, as opposed to a hunting party, would be the end of them.
So it is that a few days hence they find themselves almost back to the site of their battle with the gnoll hunters. Alar now chooses one of the other trails, discarded as less likely at the time. He mutters to himself more than once in elvish, and finally reveals the source of his concern around the fire one night. The kidnappers seem to be deliberately mixing their tracks with others, taking a less efficient route so as to better obfuscate their trail. This means that they are aware they might be followed, and possess the skill to protect against it. Both are worrisome prospects. “Bandits” skilled in a tracker’s craft is yet another indicator that these are no simple thugs, but well-trained mercenaries on a specific mission. And they will not be easily taken unawares, overconfident in their sense of secrecy. They are expecting trouble… preparing for it.
These thoughts make Alar grumpy and tense, his longbow constantly strung, with an arrow loosely knocked. The ranger and his weapon travel under equal levels of tension. Kane Raziel notices that the ranger hunts often in the evening and morning hours, supplying them with a steady diet of rabbit, squirrel, and even a small deer. The meat is always a tiny bit dry, and the kill is always dressed far from camp. For his own part, the warlock is forced to concede in his private thoughts that his vengeance for the slaying of kin might not come quickly. This fills him with a quiet rage, falsely calm and laced with a sort of morbid clarity. It is the sort of anger that takes root down deep, like an arrowhead left behind in a wound. You learn to almost savor it; and in the half-dreams before sleep, you imagine the shape it will take when it finally comes forth. By the time he catches those who killed his brethren, it is safe to say proportionate will not describe the justice he metes to them.
Nearly two weeks after first entering the Heldast Wood, they see the trees thinning to the west. They are nearing the Splitrock Dale. In truth, some of them still remember other motivations than vengeance, and are excited. From Rathlaris to Karipur, all who have mentioned the Dale have painted a fascinating picture. An inexplicable rift carved into the land for miles, as if a titanic creature of legend had struck an axe into the earth. Sheer rock walls, and a rolling valley. Flora and fauna almost entirely unrelated to that found on all sides of the Dale, just 60 feet up. In short, a mystery of nature. It would be safe to say that our heroes, to varying degrees, love a good mystery. One does not endure and risk what they have to leave home, without possessing curiosity in near measure to courage. There are places to skulk on the borders of Arkandia, without making the near-suicidal journey across The Anthalp Vast.
However, their collective anticipation is brought up short by yet another obstacle. A very large goblin war party is encamped on the fringes of the Heldast Wood, right in their path. In the fading twilight, they can see no less than a dozen bonfires. The kind of war party that could half-destroy Tilburne, and rob it of most able-bodied men in the town. The kind that could lay waste and slaughter to every farm north of the Churnwash. Thankfully, the goblins seem to have an older axe to grind, and are marching into the forest rather than out. For many hours, our heroes deliberate. They could harry the goblins for a time, killing sentries and scouts with relative ease. A frontal assault is foolhardy, but they could whittle the force down over days. Days they don’t really have. And a risk they might not be able to afford.
In the end, discretion is ruled the better portion of valor, and our heroes leave the goblins to their vendetta. Let the gnolls and goblins do as they have always done, killing each other in numbers enough to leave the more civilized area of Farandale mostly unmolested. Slipping around the war party to south, their trekking is at last rewarded just a day later. As far as they can see to the north and south, the land is split. A towering cliff drops into the valley of Splitrock Dale. It is immediately evident that this is not the ideal place to descend. Especially not with horses. While Nithauk is over the side before anyone realizes his intention, and standing on the grass 60 feet below in less than a quarter-hour, most of them would be hard pressed to make it down safely. Grudgingly, the Goliath revers his path, climbing back to the top with equal ease. His rope and climbing gear never leave his pack, and the rogue looks like he might have been born on a cliff.
Rather than try and emulate his feat, our heroes decide to seek the easier path mentioned by Karipur. At the southern and northern ends, the ranger had said, the way down is much easier. To say Nithaul sulks a little is to trivialize the emotion. But it would not be far wrong. So it is that the rogue constantly jogs ahead an hour, and then climbs up and down the cliff until they catch up. Bathed in a sheen of perspiration, hands blistered and scraped, granite dust covering knee, torso, and shoulder… they have not seen the Goliath this happy in a very long time. Cuts is reminded of a time he and the Goliath spent half a week near a towering ruins back in Arkandia, while Nithauk tried to find a route he could not climb. Fortunately for the Warforged, sitting and waiting was a skill he perfected long before almost anything he’d learned since. Centuries of practice, in fact.
True to Karipur’s word, the southern end of the Dale proved to be a fairly easy descent. Lead ropes are set to guide and aid the horses, and they are all down into the valley in about an hour. It is every bit as alien as they were told. The grass… the shrubs… the exposed stone… it is as if they had traveled in the hour’s descent across as vast a range as the Vast. It defies their understanding of nature, and is a marvel in its own right. But, they are not here solely to explore, as Kane reminds them in his particular brand of tactful. No, not gentle prodding. Yes, much more the glowering and muttering. Exactly that. Natural wonders could wait until the bandits were flayed of life, and their souls lost in the hells befitting their kind. And other such witticisms.
So they set forth, sweeping east to west as they moved steadily northward. They are looking for tracks, or a hideout, or any other sign of the kidnapper bandits. Along the way, they notice some things about the Dale. Cover is sparse. They are trudging over the most subtle of hills, barely ripples on the plain. Here and there, a thrust of granite carved smooth by wind and rain. Or a slightly thicker copse of trees. Now and then, a shallow cave in the cliffs. In the morning, any fog is gone before the sun is even half risen. At night, there is rarely any mist. A fire would be visible for a long, long way. After weeks in the woods, they feel like they’ve wandered into a town square on market day before realizing they had on only a nightshirt. Very exposed.
Until suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a shadow on the horizon. The shadow resolves into a hill. A real one. The hill reveals itself to be studded with great boulders. And littered with vibrant foliage. Here, in the middle of an almost flat expanse of savanna, a massive geological feature. They race to it, climb it, and get their first good look across the Dale since they looked down on it from the cliffs. It is huge. And flat. As far as they can see. Cliff to cliff. Except here. However, the rolling vista quickly ceases to hold their attention when they find a new wonder. The hill is actually three hills; one large in both height and breadth, further topped by two smaller hills. And nestled between the two hills is the fragment of a god.
Blacker than night, smoother than ice, covered in fine cracks from which spill a rose-hued glow intense enough to combat the sun for recognition. And holding within it sufficient Arcane power to destroy everything for leagues in all directions. They do not recognize it at first. The truth comes slowly, as they discuss all they know about history and legend, magic and myth. Kane speaks of the magic within it, Alar of its alien nature. Mikal offers a wager or two about their ability to move it. Cuts notes that the stone feels to him like he feels to himself. A thing, but more. Made, but then somehow remade by its own hand. Ezio speaks aloud of fallen gods. And finally they know it for what it is.tells of its durability and age, while Nithauk notes how it seems to belong here. The ground is smooth around it, not disturbed.
The gods are not permitted to walk Kor. All things within the world must be of it, and mortal. Gods act through their Saints and Artifacts. This is well known. Ezio does not commune with Kord when he chants his morning prayers and performs his martial katas. He honors his god through his brave actions and wise strategy, but it is to a Saint that he prays, a conduit between him and his god. If Kord hurled himself onto the world, he would be sundered. Dead and broken to pieces. His divine power scattered across the world in pockets and pools. Or perhaps, slabs of stone. Once they say it aloud, they know it can be naught else. Somehow, sometime, a divine being suffered this fate, and here lies a fragment of that being. It is a marvel beyond easy description. Mikal struggles to recall a song that conveys accurately the majesty and tragedy of it. You hear of such things… you never imagine you will find them… touch them.
For the first time in weeks, Kane feels some semblance of peace, and his quest for vengeance drives him less ferociously. All of them note the aura which emanates from the stone. It is not so large. Perhaps 10 feet tall and wide, about twice that in length. within a much larger area around it, they feel… not just safe or merely calm, but… cared for. Nurtured. It is a mother’s embrace when you are sad. A friends’ presence when you are lonely. A healer’s hand when you are in pain. A crackling hearth when you are cold, the scent of baking bread when you are hungry. It is comfort without numbness. Peace without sleep. It is perhaps this aura that keeps them from panicking when Scir sees the dust plumes to the north, approaching fast.
They are in the open, save for this hill. If they run, they will be exposed. If they hide they will be surrounded. There is wood and water here, but their food will run out. They have high ground, but this is no fortress. An enemy would have to fight to reach them, but there is no barrier to protect them save their own weapons. They do no panic. They barely worry. Determined, resolute, prepared… they gather to high and hidden points, and ready their weapons. The minutes pass, and the dust plumes turn dark where they touch the ground. The dark splits into shapes. The shapes resolve into figures. Ezio is the first to recognize the figures. Goblins. And worgs. And goblins on worgs. The worst sort of combination. It might surprise you that our heroes do not quake at this. They certainly face injury and loss. They might even die.
Perhaps it is here, in the shadow of a god-shard, that they remember the truth they forged between them while struggling together across the Anthalp Vast. Together, they are immortal. When they leave their lives on the field of glory, they will enter the realms of gods whole beings. Not broken into relics to be scattered and forgotten. They are heroes; the gods are merely witnesses.