Krowlen's Tower: Chapter 1

There was no trail through this part of the swamp. And for as many times as Maldred circled through the sucking mud and grass, none of the terrain looked familiar. The crooks of the trees and hanging clumps of violet Saramin blooms had become indistinguishable. She squinted into the hanging mists.

“Even at noon, my sight cannot pierce far into the fog”.  The voice next to Maldred was Issene’s. It was not unlike the sound of a shovel scraping along rocky soil. “Where is that druid?”

She looked at the Alva. If not for his undisturbed burgundy robes and the shimmering blue-green opaline mail peaking out from beneath, the creature could be mistaken for a stalky tree amid the swampy landscape. His gaze had a feral quality and shone intensely from among his snout nose and long, bat-like ears.

“I don’t know,” replied the warlock.   Her bony pale fingers brushed a thick black braid off of her thin face. Maldred stooped and appeared crow like. Her tall frame bent at the waist as she strained to listen through the gurgles and creaks of Saramin Swamp.

Nearby on a chipped stump, beneath a grey arch of interwoven branches reposed the battle chanter. Einen’s lanky toad-like legs hung off the stump; the pointy toes of his boots scraped the ground as his legs slowly swung. In one of his leathery hands was clutched his tan colored wooden tankard. His other thumb rested on his broad hide belt, just alongside the white soapstone buckle. Beneath his breath he hummed and murmured a rhyme in his gruff, cavernous speech. His eyes were black eggs in his moon like face—reminiscent of the depths of a deep well.

“I think I hear him coming.” A voice said from the woods. At first the speaker was just a blurry shadow silhouetted against a web of gnarled, leafless branches.  But soon Tarowill’s green patchwork cloak separated from the dim landscape. She cast back her hood as she walked toward the group. The Roadwatcher took care to ball her cinnamon hair up beneath a brimmed traveling hat of earthy leather. Her saunter was boyish and rugged but her footsteps made not a sound as she slung her bow onto her back with a sleek smoothness.

Tarowill turned to face the swamp with her back to the group. Splashes and the snapping of branches grew louder as someone moved towards them through the mists.

The Dverge grunted and pursed his lips as he hopped off the stump and landed in the shallow slop with a “splotch”.

Issene spoke again and planted a limb-like hand on his waist. “You live in this place, Warlock?”

“For my whole life,” said Maldred. Her eyes shifted sideward while she strained to listen.

“You know not the way into the mires?”

“I’ve traveled far into the swamp picking blooms and mushrooms, but not here.  Even for me, it has never been safe to go alone.”

Einen let out a snorting laugh and drained his mug. He clipped it onto his belt.  “Mistress. How can you say the swamp is your home? You speak not to tree and rock.  This is why you know not the paths we set out to roam.”

The warlock squinted and wrinkled her nose at the toad-like dwarf.  “These trees and stones have gone wrong in recent years, Skald. The place is full of the dead and old magic. My sight reaches more deeply into the land here than your stone speech.”

The Dverge hissed. “Indeed you lead us into a fouled place. But stone is stone. Mud is mud. And I can still draw chant from this earth.”

“Quiet!” Tarowill snapped at them.  The group silenced, waiting expectantly as the movement grew near.

“It is about time…” Issene’s hollow voice sounded nearly human in the attempt at sarcasm. Then his almond eyes grew wide.

“Straka!” The Alva’s voice cracked like a lightning strike as he called out his blade’s name. It leapt from his back into his hand before the rest of the heroes registered the threat.

It was not Calwin the druid, returned from scouting. Instead a tall, muscled, scaly form broke through the mist. Many more things peered around the trees and slunk forward. Beady orange eyes blinked as the creatures fixed upon the heroes. The snarling rasps and spiny head crests belied their reptilian roots.

A whistle cut the murky air as Tarowill’s arrow landed between a set of gleaming eyes. The Lizardman clutched at the shaft as it slipped down into the muck. Even before the creature fell flat, the Roadwatcher had loosed another arrow into the shifting brush.

Gurgles and snarls erupted from the group’s flank. Issene turned to face two more Lizardfolk. Straka’s silvered blades danced and spun at the end its master’s fingertips. A splash of red dotted the nearby trees as one of the creatures slumped down. Issene stood straight and still - awaiting the rush from the woods as the Fae blade melded back to his grasp.

A single strike of the drum boomed over the sounds of battle. Einen’s voice had lost all human quality, becoming a hypnotic grind like the sound of a slow growing tree. The words appeared as a wash of lines and circles in the minds of the heroes. Only Issene recognized the syllables, as the Alva and the Dverge shared the tongue of the forest world. Electricity burst in the air. With another drum roll all the heroes now keenly saw into the mist; the forms and voices of their foes distinct within the shadows. Einen followed his song with painter-like stroke of his wrist. His axe – shining with a moon-like glow - spun through the air and embedded into the skull of a charging Lizardman.

The heroes turned to face the darkened woods before them. The murmur of creaking limbs and muddy stomps became a din.  Slithering, wiry forms darted between the trees. Their eyes gathered like fireflies in the fog.

Arrows fanned out to the dragonfly-like hum of Tarowill’s bow.  Most hit their mark and shapes crumpled into the muck as shining eyes went dark. But just as they fell, the mists became thick with more skulking shapes.

A spray of whistling javelins burst from the forest towards the heroes.

The trees around Tarowill seemed to spring new limbs as spears missed the Roadwatcher. She ducked and wove through the missiles with acrobatic ease.

The Warlock’s face was calm as she stood, arms raised. The bracers on her wrists crept and shifted like coiled snakes. Each time an incoming spear point would seem to dig into her skin, purple sparks shot forth from the living jewelry.

Issene’s crystal-like armor sent the missiles to the muck with a wave of his arm. He raised and spun his bladed staff. A few remaining spears were hafted in two mid-flight.

Einen was the least fortunate – he had begun a new chant as the javelins flew. One razor-like tip sliced cleanly into his side. The clay-like flesh of the Dverge barely bled but his enraged howl told all that he had been struck. Instead of shrinking at the wound he growled and pulled a thin, curved blade from his belt. He murmured boiling phrases as me moved towards the darting shadows.

The Lizardfolk had fanned out.  They could be heard on the flanks and from behind – moving in a cautious but determined fashion to finally ensnare the heroes. All the other noises were silent. There was only the occasional muddy footfall and an unnerving slithering rustle as the woods seemed to close in. Then another sound exploded.

A bestial bear-like roar shook the innards of all in the battle. With a great crash of thunder the shadows flashed away as a bolt of white fire arced into the reptilian ranks. Singed meat and ozone sourly scented the air. Rasping shouts and hisses exploded as bodies smoldered and fell into the swamp.

“Attack!” Issene yelled as he pointed at the remaining foes, and then rushed into the confused beast-men. His blade traced bloody spirals through their ranks while the rest of the heroes followed with blades, arrows and bolts of gleaming purple.

Calwin appeared at the rear of the enemy’s crumbling ranks. A bear skin cloak hung off of his thick and stout frame; his face twisted and snapped like a fighting wolf. He became a beast spirit in the eyes of the enemy. Vibrant cobalt tattoos adorned his brow, cheeks and forehead. A black oak cudgel - as thick as his muscled calves - swung freely at the fleeing Lizardmen. With each strike another head sprayed like ripe fruit.

The woods clattered and skittered as a few of the creatures made off into the thicket. Even Tarowill’s keen arrows lost their way into the gnarled woods. The Skald’s chant now wore off and the mists of the marsh closed back in obscuring their vision.

Wiping off his great club, the druid moved to meet his companions. He was hunched over, nearly on all fours. “Eh. Heh. I got back in time.” His broad, dark face spread into a wry grin.

“Well what were you waiting for? ”Tarowill snorted and wrinkled her lips. She slung her bow onto her back and pulled off her hat with a distinctly annoyed demeanor. Her folds of red hair spilled out like a cinnamon wave.

“I followed them and circled.” He sheathed the cudgel. “Waited until they grouped. Then. Boom! Hehe.”

The group went silent and turned to a new commotion.

Einen was crouched, silhouetted in the thickened fog. He was standing on corpse of a Lizardman like a frog on a log and furiously driving his axe over and over again into the creature’s skull. He grunted; his normally stony face was wrenched into a mad grin. “Hargh! Argh!”

The skald soon calmly straightened up and hopped off the body into the murk. He walked back into the circle; his silvered blade, hands and face were splattered with blood. “I think that was the striker of the skald.”

“Your wound?” Maldred pointed to the slice in his jerkin, and slight rust staining the leather.

“It is a scratch. The children of stone mend like the sliced mud.” The Dverge barked. He pointed at Calwin. “It could have been worse if more points had struck us!”

“None did. I was close. And my trip a success.”

“You found the trail,” asked Tarowill.

The druid nervously pawed his long black braids and began looking back and forth into the trees. He nodded affirmatively. “I did. I did.”

Then he lowered his voice. “The trail is full of ill. And the ill all comes from the ruin. Where they pass I can smell the rot.” His eyes darted around into the shadows, as if the mists were trying to listen in. The whole party drew close.

“The trail goes deeper. The wood thin and the swamp thick. Many passed in these nights. Too many. They sent the lizards to slow you down.”

“More Lizardfolk?” Issene’s voice was like a breathy breeze. The warrior’s bat-like ears perked. As if a sound far off, unheard by any others, subconsciously caught his attention.

Calwin’s deep, hazel eyes stared wide and he nodded. “More of the lizard people. And more… Much worse…