Rise of the Thrall Lord
Knights of the Couch - Part VII - Journey to the Dark Monolith - Section 4
The birds were chirping their earliest greetings to the morning as Martin made his way from the campsite the short distance down to where a bend formed a pool in a nearby creek. He had a waterskin over his arm and held a pile of dishes that were not washed the previous evening due to the fading light.
Elistra was already there, seated on a large flat rock that tilted into the water. She was dressed only in two bands of black silk, strategically wound around her breasts and loins. Her bright red travel clothes were laid out on the dry end of the stone. She was slowly combing her long golden hair which was currently damp from washing. It wasn’t much less than she normally wore, but it made Martin pause in indecision as he came upon the scene. He had never seen her without her black head scarf and crimson hood.
“Good morning,” she greeted him with a small friendly smile, and not a flicker of concern.
“Morning,” Martin muttered in reply, averting his eyes and deciding to head downstream a little ways. It wasn’t so much her current state of dress, but the odd stare of the Seer’s violet eyes that unnerved him he decided.
Three strides were all he took before he noticed the second set of clothes; a pile of dark grey fabric folded exceedingly neatly was on the bank near the deeper part of the stream. A sword and dagger lay next to the clothes. He froze for a second, uncertain what to do. He of course recognized the outfit of the mercurial young girl Ruka, and immediately decided there was something that urgently needed his attention back in camp.
But it was too late. When he saw her head rise from the stream, his eyes went wide and his feet felt firmly rooted in place. Like a mouse that knew the cat was about to strike, he couldn’t move.
Ruka had a pair of fish in each hand and she was completely naked. Striding calmly past Martin, she laid her catch out on a stone. As she turned towards him, she raised one hand and sparks jumped across her finger tips.
“What’re you staring at with that look on your face?”
It was surprising the aura of menace the slight young girl could produce. Martin could feel the small hairs on his arm stand on end with the building static charge in the air as he desperately tried to keep his expression neutral.
“N… n… nothing” he stammered.
“Your hair,” Elistra said with an amused tone, “it’s ridiculous.”
Somehow this morning, Ruka’s hair had become a startling, garish pink color.
Martin felt an almost palpable release as Ruka’s gaze shifted to Elistra, he debated running while her attention was diverted.
“I didn’t get it right?” Ruka asked in a flat, neutral tone that sounded like a death threat to Martin.
“No.” Elistra chuckled and shook her head. “Horribly, horribly wrong… unless you were going for the carnival jester look.”
Martin tensed again, anticipating the explosion; he was still in easy reach of Ruka but didn’t want to attract attention by moving.
Ruka just sighed, her hand going to her hair. “I was going for red. I couldn’t tell from the stream reflection. That bad, huh?”
“I’m afraid so,” Elistra agreed sadly. “Also, I have it on good authority that a certain swashbuckler prefers blondes. Although he may go for the other enhancement you are working at.”
“What do you mean?” Ruka suddenly seemed like an embarrassed young girl for a second; then sighed again. “Never mind, it was a pain holding this change anyway.”
Elistra nodded knowingly and said “morphic resonance.”
“Huh?” Ruka looked askance at Elistra.
“It’s just a term scholars use to describe a common effect of shape change magic. Shape changing requires altering your spirit image and invoking the magic to match your physical form to that image. The maintenance of an altered form is primarily handled by the subconscious mind, and the more the altered aura is in synch with your psyche, the easier it is to maintain. Forms that are fundamentally in synch with your self are easier to assume, become familiar, and gain morphic inertia.”
“That was as clear as mud.” Ruka muttered irritably.
“I mean just be yourself and let the magic determine the form for each creature type.”
“Myself?” Ruka laughed. “That is the one thing I can’t be in front of…” She paused, shook her head and said, “He sees me as just a plain little girl.”
“You are hardly plain, but you are just a girl child regardless of your form.” Elistra said quietly.
“I’m older than you!’ Ruka snapped. The crackle of electrical power was back in the air, and Martin took a step back into the stream.
“You might be surprised.” Elistra stated calmly. “But regardless, I was speaking of mental and spiritual maturity. The magic knows what it is doing; after all, it comes from within you. It manifests one of your true forms for that type. It would be a feat, but with practice you could overcome morphic resonance; you are a natural shape shifter and could make yourself appears as anyone. But what would it gain you? The greatest risk of shape shifting is the risk of losing yourself. Would it be worth it to get him to like you when you are just pretending and not being the true you?”
Martin was sure lightning was going to strike this time, but Ruka let out a long breath and said, “I guess you’re right…”
Her form blurred for a second, then Ruka’s hair returned to pale blond, and Martin noted one other obvious change.
“Hey, your chest is actually pretty small… oof!” The air was driven out of Martin by a little fist like a pile driver to his stomach. His feet were swept out from under as the world seemed to spin. The tin camp ware clattered on the creek stones as he landed in the deep part of the stream with a splash.
“He deserved that.” Elistra commented with a chuckle.
Martin righted himself in the water and decided the stream was a good place to stay for a while. He imagined he could almost see a small storm cloud gathering over Ruka as she glared at him.
Elistra looked towards the trail to camp and said, “Donatello is that you?”
With barely a flash of pale posterior, Ruka snatched her clothes and dived into the bushes.
“I heard a crash, is everyone alright?” Alana asked as she stepped onto the little bank area.
“Just Martin being a klutz,” Elistra said with a grin. “Apparently no one told him this is the girls’ bath time.”
“Well I think that is just stupid,” Alana said as she pulled her tunic over her head. “Aren’t we all comrades on the campaign trail?”
Martin was busy moving downstream and trying not to look back. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Ruka coming out of the bushes, and he doubled his pace.
“Good morning Ruka,” Alana said cheerfully.
Ruka stared at Alana’s half naked form for a moment, then blushed and ran off.
“What was that about?”
“I think you won this battle lady-knight,” Elistra chuckled.
The party reached the infamous town of Garrotten the next day. The settlement had a notorious reputation mostly due to the rumors that the Assassin’s Guild made its home in Garrotten. The first hint that they were close was the smell coming from the swamp north of lake Farmin. It was a strong musky smell that rose up from their right as they traveled south along the Old Knight’s road. A few minutes later they got their first glimpse of Lake Farmin. According to the maps, Garrotten sat on the east shore of that lake. The Old Knight’s road ran along the east side of the lake and entered the town from the north east.
They lost sight of the lake behind a large hill as they got closer to town. Then they saw the first building off to their right signifying they had reached the town. It was a General Store. Behind the store was a rather large wooden building on a stone foundation. As they passed it they saw a sign that read The Theater Of The Mystic Celebration. “Now that’s an interesting name for a theater,” Elvisda commented.
There were a few more buildings now as they reached a cross road. And up to the left, on the top of another hill, was a castle. They continued south down the road and soon came to a large wooden building surrounded by a fence. There was another sign here that read House of Abraham: Food Lodging and Ale. “Looks like a decent enough place,” Donatello said.
“We should probably get some rooms,” Aksel told them. “Once we settle in we can start looking for a boat to take us upriver into the Darkwoods.”
“Consider it done,” Elvisda declared. They road into the courtyard and dismounted. Elvisda headed towards the main building. An middle-aged man walked out of the building and stopped him. “This is a fairly large party,” the man said. “Indeed,” Elvisda replied. “And good day to you friend. I am the bard Elvisda. And whom might you be?”
“Why I am the owner of this establishment,” the man replied. “Abraham if you can read,” he said pointing to the large sign above the inn. “Pleasure to meet you, Abraham,” Elvisda told the man. “We are in need of quite a few rooms. Let’s sit down inside and talk about it over a glass of ale,” the bard told him. “Very well,” Abraham replied. “Follow me.” He turned and walked back to the main building. On his way he called to a young boy by the stables. “Falpir, help these folks unsaddle their horses.”
“Yes Abraham, at once” the young boy cried. He ran over to help the travelers. “We’ll give you a hand”, Donatello said. He and Alana assisted the young boy with the horses while Lloyd and the others carried their gear into the inn. Elvisda was sitting at the bar in deep discussion with Abraham. They sat down at a table and waited for the bard to finish his negotiations. Meanwhile, a barmaid came up and brought them drinks. They ordered lunch, and as they were settling in, Elvisda came to join them.
“We have large rooms for the night at a very reasonable rate. We will have to double up though,” the bard told them. Glorfindle and Elistra announced that they would share a room together. “Didn’t see that one coming,” Donatello quipped. As for the rest of the rooms, Elvisda would bunk with Donnie, Aksel with Seth, Lloyd with Martin, and Alana with Ruka. The young shape shifter told the knight, “Don’t expect to see much of me. I’m used to sleeping outside most of the time anyway.”
They all adjourned to their rooms to unpack. When they were done, Aksel, Elvisda, and Donatello went down to the docks to look for a boat to take them on the next leg of their journey. As they made their way across town, they passed a few more shops and some cottages. The buildings all seemed in various states of disrepair. It was in stark contrast to Restenford, which was not necessarily a rich town. But in Restenford the houses were all pristine, with flower beds in the front yards, and all the houses were well maintained by the owners. This was obviously not the case in Garrotten. “Nice place to visit…” Donatello quipped. “But you wouldn’t want to live here,” Elvisda finished.
The three adventurers continued their walk towards the docks. On their way, Aksel noted a church off to the right. “Guess I’ll visit that on the way back,” the little cleric said.
They were down near the lake now on the south east side of town. They passed a few boathouses and then finally saw the docks. There weren’t very many ships there, and the few that were did not look all that seaworthy. “We might just need to get out and paddle,” Donnie said looking at some of the boats. “Let’s hope not,” Aksel replied. “It’s still a long ride upriver to the monolith.”
The stood at the docks and tried to find a ship that did not look like it would fall apart in a heavy breeze. There was one that looked reasonably seaworthy. “Let’s try that one,” Elvisda said pointing. They walked up the pier and saw a man on the ship in leather armor and a tan cape. He was rather tall and lean, probably about 6 foot and maybe about 170 pounds. He also had long black hair and was wearing a captain’s hat on his head. The captain was not old though. He only looked to be in his thirties. At his waist he had belted a short sword and a dagger.
“He looks prepared for a fight,” Donnie commented softly.
“Ahoy!” Elvisda cried up the gangplank.
“Ahoy yourself,” the Captain replied gruffly.
“Sounds friendly,” Donnie quipped.
“We’re looking to hire passage on a ship,” Elvisda cried.
“I’m not taking any passengers right now,” the Captain yelled back. “In fact no one is on these docks.”
“Why’s that?” Donatello called.
The Captain came down the gangplank and looked them all over carefully. Then he said, “You must not be from around here or you would already know. There’s monsters in the lake. The little beasties are attacking every ship that sails the waters of this god forsaken lake.”
“That’s gotta be bad for business,” Donnie said moving forward.
“Aye,” the sailor replied, “It’s been impossible to move anything on the lake or the rivers in the last few weeks.”
“So you’ve been stuck in port the whole time?” the swashbuckler asked.
“Yeah,” the Captain told them. “A few of the other merchants tried to make it past them.” He leaned in and quietly said, “They’re all sunk, every last one of them; sitting at the bottom of the lake, cargo and all.”
“Why that’s a crime!” Donnie declared. “How’s a good sailor supposed make a living if the waters aren’t safe?”
“Aye, that’s the truth of it,” the Captain replied. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Donatello good Captain, at your service” the swashbuckler bowed. And these are my friends Elvisda and Aksel.”
“Well met Captain,” Elvisda said with a bow of his own. “Nice to meet you,” Aksel also replied.
“Nice to meet ya,” the sailor said. “I’m Captain Basmar, and this is me ship, the Rusty Nail.”
“Captain Basmar,” Donatello began, “I think we may be able to help you with your lake monster problem.”
“How’s that?” Basmar asked skeptically.
“Well, we have some more friends who are quite good with spell casting you see,” the swashbuckler continued. “The kind of spells which water creatures don’t exactly like, if you know what I mean.”
“Really now!” Basmar said obviously interested. “Why don’t you folks come aboard? We’ll pop open a bottle of rum and you can tell me more.”
“Lead the way good Captain!” Donatello said waving the man up the gangplank. As Basmar passed him he turned and winked to the other two. Elvisda smiled back. As Donnie headed up the gangplank, Elvisda turned to Aksel and whispered, “I knew I liked this elf!” Aksel gave him a broad smile and said, “After you.” Then they both followed the other two figures up the gangplank and boarded the ship.
“Giant Octopii?!” Glorfindle said loudly. “And how are we supposed to fight them?”
“You can do your lightning bolt thingy,” Elvisda told the wizard, pointing at him and waving his hand around.
Donatello, Elvisda and Aksel had returned from the docks. They had met Lloyd and Alana sparing in the yard. The five of them had headed up to Glorfindle’s room. They had found the elf studying his spell book and his companion, Elistra, deep in meditation.
“I’ve only got three of those spells,” Glo was saying. “What if it takes more than one shot to kill these things? And how many are there? Two? Three? Four? Do we even know?” The elf wizard was getting agitated.
“Stop worrying so much,” a voice came from the window. They all turned and saw the little shape-changer, Ruka, sitting on the roof outside. “If you need to fight sea creatures, I can lend you a hand.”
Donatello walked over to the window. He leaned over, looked at the young girl and said, “I know that you can handle yourself young lady, and we appreciate your offer of assistance, but what can you do against a sea monster?”
The girl swung her legs over the window sill and patted the elf on the face. “Are you worried about me?” she asked in a mild tone. Then she entered the room and walked past him.
Donnie stood up and watched after the young girl with a puzzled look on her face. Ruka walked to the other side of the room, away from the others, turned and drew her short sword. Then she said, “Glo, shoot me with a lightning bolt.”
“Are you nuts!?” Donatello exclaimed running to the middle of the room and turning to face the girl. Then Alana walked up to him and gently pushed the elf out of the way. “Trust me on this,” the Knight told him, “she knows what she is doing.”
Ruka flashed Alana a smile and then said once again to the elf wizard, “Go ahead, shoot me.”
Glo looked at Alana. The Knight nodded at him. “Very well,” the wizard replied and prepared his spell.
“Tell me when it’s over,” Donnie said, covering his eyes.
“OK, here it comes,” Glorfindle said, “and he let loose the bold.” It arced across the room straight for the young girl. Then, at the last second, it turned and struck the short sword she was holding in her right hand. The sword glowed brightly and then the bolt completely disappeared. The sword sparked for another second or two as the blade continued to glow, then the blade went dark once again.
“Can I look now?” Donatello asked Alana. The Knight shook her head and moved over so that he could see. Ruka stood at the other end of the room totally unharmed by the bolt.
“Amazing!” Glorfindle exclaimed.
“Nice trick,” Elvisda clapped.
The young girl walked over to the swashbuckler and said “See, I’m totally fine. And what’s even better is this.” She went to the window, pointed the sword outside and then shot a lightning bolt from the blade.
“Very, very nice,” Elvisda commented.
Ruka turned around and smiled. “It can actually hold a few of those charges. If you have any more of those spells saved up, we can store some bolts in the blade.”
“That will come in very handy tomorrow,” Elvisda replied. “See I told you there was nothing to worry about!” the bard declared to the wizard.
“Very well,” Glo relented. “So once we rid the lake of these monsters, this Captain Basmar agreed to take us up river to the Darkwoods?”
“Yes, that was the agreement,” the bard told him.
“Ok then,” the wizard replied. “Ruka, let’s go take a short trip outside town and charge up your sword some more. No sense in taking any more chances in the room, and no need advertising to anyone else around here that you have that sword.”
“Sure, let’s go,” the girl replied. “I’ll meet you up the North road.” She shape shifted into a hawk and took off out the window.”
“Very interesting,” Aksel commented. “A short sword that can absorb and shoot lightning bolts.”
“Yes, that does sound familiar,” Glo said as he gathered up his gear. “I’ll have to look it up when I get a chance.”
The cleric nodded but seemed lost in thought.
It was late in the day. Aksel had left to go to the church and offer up his prayers. Elvisda decided to go and check out the local theater. He took Lloyd with him. The theater was not the newest building. Nor was it necessarily that large. However, there was a good sized stage and more than ample seating to fit the entire town. There was a man standing the middle of the stage holding a lute. Around him were a couple of stage hands and what looked to be two magic users. They seemed to be working on special effects for a performance.
The bard began to play and one of the casters invoked a spell. A cloud of fog similar to the one Glorfindle had used during Elvisda’s last performance appeared behind the bard on stage. Along with the lighting, the effect was nice. Then the other caster began conjuring. Another image of the bard appeared to his left. The spell was cast again and another image appeared to his right. There were now three bards playing in the fog. The lights began dancing around them. All in all it was a good performance. When it was over, Elvisda stood up and clapped. The bard jumped down off the stage and looked up in the seats. “Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t realize we had an audience.”
Elvisda motioned for Lloyd to follow him and they went down to the front of the stage. “That was nicely executed. The special effects blended nicely but did not detract from the song. I find it very important that the music stand out and the effects merely enhance it, not take over.”
“Thank you my friend. That was spoken like one who is used to performing,” the bard said.
“Guilty as charged. I am Elvisda, traveling bard. And this is my percussionist Lloyd.”
“Pleased to meet the two of you. I am Balmorrow and these two folks are Willis, my Illusionist and Phyllis, my Wizard.”
“Pleased to meet all of you,” Elvisda replied bowing. “You are quite good on that lute,” the elf bard said, taking out his own instrument. Elvisda began to strum. Balmorrow sat down and began to strum his lute as well. The two bards continued to play and then broke out into song, first individually and then together in harmony.
I went to a land
Wasn’t it grand
Not too much sand
I want to go back
To slash and hack
My way through Thac
I left the Great Forest to go on a trip to the west
My sword and my senses were sharp on the boat from Essex
I sat in a dive
On the docks of Orllon
Looking for fun
A trader bound for Ilos
She would need guards
And a couple of bards
She told me we’d leave in the morning and started to laugh
She bought me some drinks and she stole my sword and my pack
And when I awoke
I was alone
On a boat bound for home
I’ll get my revenge
When I slash and hack
My way through Thac
“That was fun!” Balmorrow exclaimed when they were done.
“Yes,” Elvisda agreed, “it was indeed.”
The two bards got up and clasped each other on the shoulders. “We should have a competition,” Balmorrow stated suddenly. “Things have been slow around here lately I must confess. And with someone of your ability to compete against, it would be sure to drum up business. We can call it…The Battle of the Bards. What do you say?”
“I say…let’s do it!” Elvisda replied enthusiastically.
“Excellent,” Balmorrow declared. “Is tomorrow too soon?”
“It would have to be in the evening,” Elvisda replied. “We have business out on the lake in the morning.”
“Out on the lake?” the human bard asked. “You do know there are monsters out there?”
“Exactly,” Elvisda said. “But there won’t be by tomorrow night!” Then the elf bard started laughing.
“Well then, I hope everything goes smoothly,” Balmorrow replied. “I wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of our performance tomorrow evening.”
“Don’t worry,” Elvisda told him, “Maybe I’ll bring you some sushi when we’re done!”