It was mid-evening in the Kaltes Land. A cold front pushed through the mountainous land, but the snow had not come yet. Dark green clouds covered the sky, slowly dimming.
The small boy held the stick with both hands in front of him, shaking in fear. He nearly fell as he took a step back, bumping into the wall behind him. He had nowhere to run. The grotesque shamble of human, decaying flesh lumbered towards him. Its arms reached out, mouth agape exposing sharp, broken teeth. It hungered for the supple young living flesh of the boy.
“Fight!” the boy heard from above.
The boy looked up, his eyes peering at one shadow to the next. He was lost, confused, and didn’t know what to do. The fear gripped him.
“Fight or die!” There was another shout.
The boy sucked in his breath, held his stick high above his head and screamed as he rushed towards the zombie. Cheers and laughter roared above. The stick swung down and bashed the rotting undead on the head. The zombie fell to the ground, face first, and did not move.
The boy breathed heavy, shocked that he knocked the thing down. He swung again and again and again, until he saw the decomposing brain ooze out of the cracked skull. He thought he had killed it. He thought he had won. He dropped the stick and ran to the gates.
The roar went silent.
“Let me out!” the little boy yelled. “I won! I won!” He pounded on the gate door. He was safe now. He had won the right to be sold and had proven his worth. He would be bought by a good man who would train him to be a good hunter. His own excitement prevented him from hearing the roar above going wild.
Claws dug deep into the boy’s shoulder and pulled him to the ground. He screamed as the zombie’s face viciously gnawed into his belly, slowly pulling out intestines. He pounded the zombie with his fists over and over and over again, until he could not pound anymore. The boy went limp; his eyes still open, looking up at the dark sky as the zombie continued to feast.
The crowd erupted into cheers and laughter, and some into angry shouts. Hands exchanged rations, furs, or weapons. There was some shoving and a few violent disputes between gamblers and bookies, but nothing the guards couldn’t handle. The manic crowd began to settle down and new bets were made. The people were ready for the next bout in the huge pit known as the Slaughtering Grounds.
But the two strangers walked away, having seen the slaughter. They had other, more important business.
The first was an old man with a trimmed beard and long, white hair, braided down his back. He wore a dark wine-colored long jacket with a brown tunic and slacks. He sported a wide-brimmed, black leather hat and his black high boots were coated in mud. The other was as tall as an orc, wearing only a gray robe and hood that covered the head and face.
“These people are animals,” said the old man. “No, they’re worse than animals. At least animals live by their nature. These people…”
“Are what they desire to be,” the robed stranger finished. The voice was that of a woman’s.
“And you’re sure this is the right place? From these people?” asked the old man.
“Ye of little faith,” said the woman.
“Faith has nothing to do with it. I just want to know what I’m getting myself into.”
“Rest assured, my friend. She is here.”
The two walked along muddy paths, past makeshift huts, shabby tenets, and dilapidated pavilions. They passed shady merchants peddling worthless goods as priceless artifacts; drug dealers offering an escape from the horrors of the world; prostitutes enticing any passersby to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh; brawlers eager to demonstrate their dominance; and gamblers waiting for their next victims. The whole Horde had gathered this month for it was the Feast of the Turning Winds; an event that only came once every generation. It was a savage festival with much spilt blood, gaudy baubles and glittering wealth, rampant sex, and brutal deaths galore.
But the strangers had not come for any of that. Their interest was in one single thing.
They came to a large stone pavilion with huge cages lined underneath. Various humanoids, orcs, Halflings, dragonborns, elves, humans, and many more, were caged, bound, and gagged. They looked pathetic, suffering from malnutrition, and beaten half to death.
A giant of an orc approached the strangers. He held a chain connected to the collar on a little half-orc girl. She was dressed in a single, dirty tunic and nothing else; shackled but not gagged.
“Is that her?” the old man asked. “She doesn’t look older than ten.”
The half-orc girl was large for her age, and muscular. She was covered in filth and smelled of urine and shit. But her face was wiped clean and her hair cut short, washed and brushed. There was even hasty makeup plastered on her face – rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow. It was always good to present the slaves as best as possible to potential buyers, because each buyer had different tastes in their slaves.
The orc jerked the little girl forward.
“You come. You buy?” the orc asked.
“Maybe,” replied the old man. He turned to the robed companion. “Are you sure this is her?”
The robed figured knelt before the little half-orc. Long, slender fingers took hold of the girl’s chin; the fingers were soft and gentle. It was something the little girl was not used to.
“This is her,” said the woman.
The little girl stared into the hood and felt at peace and strong. She saw something she could not explain. As she would grow, she would forget what she saw. But the feeling would always be there, like a seed slowly growing within her soul.
“She would make a good Sentinel,” the old man said. “She’d have a better life with us than with the Horde.”
“The Horde is where she must be,” the woman replied. “She must witness the sorrows of this world and experience, firsthand, harsh brutality. She needs to be exposed to the unjust torment of all peoples of this broken reality. When the time comes, she will face the choice: to ride the Fire Horse or fall like that little boy we saw earlier.”
The woman extended a finger and drew lines of fire on the little girl’s forehead, leaving a trail of flames. The little half-orc felt nothing and was not afraid. The flaming lines flared and then disappeared. The orc did not seem to notice.
“So, you buy?” the orc asked again. “She not strong; too much human blood. She make good rumpy pumpy. You buy and take. I give good price. You not buy, I sell to Breeding Pits.”
“You are wrong, my orc friend,” the woman said, standing up. “She is strong – stronger than all of the greatest warriors combined from this rabble you call the Horde.”
The orc laughed. “Then you buy?”
“We buy,” the woman said. “Wolfgang, pay him.”
As the old man rummaged through his pack, a young man came running up to them, out of breath and excited. He wore gray breeches and tunic, leather boots and black cloak. His long, silvery-white hair was disheveled.
“Grandfather!” the young man shouted. “You won’t believe what just happened. This filthy goblin piece of shit tried to steal my dagger. I gave him a good thrashing though. You should have seen it! I think I even impressed some of the orcs!”
“Yes, yes,” the old waved the young man away. “We’re a bit busy here.” He handed the payment promised and orc looked satisfied.
“Are you buying a slave?” the young man said in distaste. “This thing? She smells and she’s rather ugly. Are we taking her with us?”
“No,” said the woman.
The orc looked shocked. “What you mean?” he asked. “You buy, you take. Them’s the rules.”
“No,” the woman repeated. “We buy, but not take. Not yet. She will live among the Horde until the time of her calling. She will not be put into the Slaughtering Grounds or the Breeding Pits. She will not be defiled in any way. She will grow up and learn the ways of the Horde. And when her time comes, I will return for my slave.”
“She will die,” said the orc.
“If she does, then I will return and demand reimbursement ten-fold. But I do not believe it will come to that. Our payment is more than enough for this agreement. Is this to your satisfaction?”
The orc looked at the payment again. “It is,” he grumbled.
“Then the deal is done and her destiny is set.”
“Fine,” the orc huffed. “I give her to Grimlock. He is good trainer.”
“I sure hope this plays out the way you think it will,” the old man said.
The woman laughed. “My old friend, you have so little faith.”
“Comes with age, I guess.”
The young man looked confused with the whole interaction. He was about to turn and leave when the robed stranger suddenly took hold of him arm.
“You may have lost your sister,” said the woman, “but you are not without hope. The dark may be full of terrors, but this fire will light your way.”
The young man looked more confused as the hand released him.
“She your slave, you name,” the orc said to the robed stranger. “What her name?”
“Tamar of Kaltes Land.”
“Where’d it go?” Tamar asked, looking out over the field of portals.
Tisthorrak was gone and we waited for its return, ready for a fight. But he did not return.
“Maybe he teleported?” Tamar theorized.
“It didn’t look like it used one of these portals,” I said.
“Magic?” Tamar offered as a solution.
Digby shook his head. “No,” he said, “I didn’t sense magic. I don’t know what this Tisthorrak is, but he didn’t use magic to teleport out. I think he may not have really ever been here.”
Tamar scratched her head.
“A mental projection, if you will,” he continued. “An illusion, of sorts.”
“Oh,” Tamar shrugged.
“Well, if that’s the case, we don’t have to deal with him,” I said.
“It would seem, you’re quite the popular person.”
“No,” I said. “Just born into the wrong family in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyway, if he’s gone, then it’ll make it easier to deal with the giant eye. It’ll be returning soon.”
The Raven circled around the chamber, looking for another exit. We only found more inactive portals. I had hoped we’d find something before the giant eye returned but it looked like we’d have to deal with it.
“I could make you fly,” Digby said to Tamar. “You should be able to reach that thing if it comes back.”
“It will,” I confirmed.
“That sounds like a good idea,” said Tamar.
“First, take this feather,” Digby said as he handed it to Tamar. “You’ll need to wave the feather in your right hand, suck your left thumb, hop on your left leg. When you’re ready to fly, jump off the ship and cluck like a chicken.”
A low grumble issued from Tamar. She seemed unimpressed.
I rolled my eyes.
Reluctantly, Tamar followed Digby’s instruction. While she looked the fool, she did take flight. She hovered toward the area where the giant eye would appear. She held her sword at the ready.
“Shundara, sail the Raven closer to the center,” I said. “That’s where it’s going to reappear.”
The Raven stayed at a distance behind Tamar. I released my banishment spell and the giant eye reappeared.
Digby shot off a fire spear and missed. I released two Umbral tendrils – this time they worked and hit their mark.
Tamar was a few meters shy from the giant eye and flew towards it. But the thing saw her and fired three beams from its eye stalks. Two of them had no effect, but the third…. Tamar’s primal scream told me enough of what she had experienced.
“Call that pain?” Tamar snarled. “I’ll show you pain!”
Tamar zoomed to the giant eye and swung Solemn. The blade sliced through the creature, cutting deep into its flesh. It faltered and swayed, shocked by the powerful attack. As Tamar was about to swing again, magic missiles flew from behind her and hit the creature in its giant eye. Gore and pus spewed against her face and the thing fell to the ground with a loud splat. Tamar wiped her face with the back of her hand and grimaced.
Tamar flew back to the deck and landed. Digby’s spell ended.
“Good shot,” Tamar said to Digby.
“Thanks,” Digby cheeped.
We circled the chamber and found no other exit other than the giant double doors. As we sailed, Digby and Merrill attempted to examine the various portals but discovered none of them were functional and all were beyond repair.
“Digby,” I said, “could you, perhaps, try to use your magic eye to peer beyond those doors. It looks like that’s our only way out and I’d rather know what that mind flyer is doing behind it.”
Digby thought for a moment. “I can try.”
The little gnome chanted and gestured in his arcane ways. His body turned into mist and he flew toward the door and seeped in-between the seals. We waited. Shundara steered the ship directly toward the door and held the vessel in place. Tamar cleaned her sword and re-sheathed it, though I had a feeling she would need it soon enough. Merrill went back down below deck where Crunchy was hiding.
Several minutes passed and I began to worry. Something was wrong. I was about to tell Shundara to fly closer to the doors, but mist flowed onto the deck and Digby took form again. He looked a bit haggard.
“Are you alright, Digby?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Just had a little bit of difficulty there. They noticed me but I was able to get away.“
“What did you find?”
“That mind flayer we saw earlier isn’t there.”
“What do you mean?” Tamar asked.
“Just as I said,” Digby continued. “It’s gone. The fish-men and the brain-dog-thing are still in there, but not the mind flayer.”
“That’s a shame,” Shundara said. “It would have been good to face off against a mind flayer.”
I shook my head, remembering the words of my grandfather. “I wonder where it went,” I asked to myself. Did it go through the portal? Did it leave through another door we didn’t see? Or was it a mental projection, like Tisthorrak?
“Well, that was the good news,” Digby continued.
“And what’s the bad news?” I asked.
“Well, instead of a mind flayer, there was a demon with wings. If memory serves me, I believe it’s a Vrock.”
“What’s that?” Tamar asked.
“They’re a cross between a vulture and a human,” Digby explained. “They have these long legs and arms with very sharp talons and they’re covered in grey feathers. Oh, and they’re very large. They’re not the worst-looking demons, but they have this nasty shriek.”
“What’re we doing, Gin?” Shundara asked.
“So, you can’t get any of these portals working?” I asked Digby.
“Afraid not,” he replied. “They’re beyond repair.”
“Gin?” Shundara was getting impatient.
Our options had narrowed and I only saw one course of action.
“Fly straight toward the doors at full speed,” I ordered her.
“Gin, I’m not doing that. I’m not ramming my ship…”
“You’re not ramming anything,” I interrupted. “Trust me and go.”
The Raven flew towards the closed double doors. Tamar and Digby glanced at each other with uncertainty. I stood at the bow of the ship and held out my staff. I whispered forbidden words and tapped into the recesses of the Umbra, absorbing its power for my uses. I willed the doors to open and they opened.
The Vrock flew out with an ear-piercing shriek, nearly deafening us all. The ship raced past it and into the room. Shundara stopped the ship right above the platform with the portal. The room was smaller than I anticipated as the Raven had a tight fit inside. There was very little room for the ship to maneuver. We saw another door on the opposite side, and the three fish-men and the brain-dog were still there. But because we had the elevation of the ship, they could not easily reach us.
I released Umbra tendrils at the brain-dog while Digby threw fire spears at it. It died relatively easy.
The Vrock came back into the room, flying past us and dropping poisonous spores on the deck. It then flew away, hovering in the distance, and watched the poison take effect on us. The spores made me nauseous and weak. I could taste bile in my throat. Neither Tamar nor Digby appeared to be affected.
Tamar leered up at the demon, Solemn in her hand. She made a small prayer and I noticed power coursing through her body.
“Afraid I can’t make you fly this time,” Digby said to the half-orc.
Tamar growled. All of Tamar’s hatred focused on the demon, but there was nothing she could do to reach it as long as it flew at a distance.
My connection with the Umbra was still intact. Through my sickness, I looked at the Vrock and willed the demon to come to us. The invisible Umbral force encased the demon like a hand and pulled it towards us. To its surprise, the Vrock found itself only a foot away from the holy paladin. Tamar grinned.
In a flurry of moves, as quick as lightening, Tamar slashed, sliced, and diced the demon. Holy flames sparked from each hit. Chunks of flesh stripped from its body and blood sprayed everywhere. Tamar sliced off a part of its wing and the Vrock shrieked in torment, falling into the pit.
The poisonous spores dispersed and I began to feel better. Crunchy came on deck and threw a dagger at one of the fish-men, stabbing it through the neck and killing it. Digby threw a fire spear at another one. It burst into flames and died. With the last fish-man, I directed my thoughts and the thing was tossed down into the pit below. I chuckled.