Shadow of the Redcap
by Jeff Blomquist
Once more I wait concealed within the dark shadows of the forests all concealing canopy. Next to a well traveled game trail where I am sure that my prey with come, I lurk in readiness with my weapons of death placed methodically within easy reach. The Grumbling Axe complains quietly as it leans against a young aspen, yearning to hew its bark and woody flesh. The laughing bronze flight hatchet and its mirthful brother snicker silently to themselves, enjoying the Great Axes frustration at such inactivity.
Careful surveillance of the village has unearthed many buried stories, which now bear telling in the all-revealing light of day. Days of watching and learning their strange speech and vernacular habits have garnered a wealth of information.
The Witch and the She-Badger both wish their mates restored to them, full hale, hardy and alive! A strange request, once more tilting the balance a kilter! Isn’t it bad enough healing the wounds of those destined for death, thus cheating the pale rider his due quota of spirits? But to call ones back from the Great Beyond, this is a horrific outrage, an abomination, and a dark tragedy. Such arrogant acts of self-righteous, self-indulgence brought down doom upon them in the first place, resulting in the time of darkness. They both have different reasons. The Witch is doing it for love and companionship, as disgusting and repugnant as that may seem. The She-Badger is far more pragmatic in nature. She would not do it for love, and such use of magic is abhorrent to her and her kind but she realizes that the village is doomed without her husband’s skills and abilities.
An ancient formula of arcane ingredients and occult words of great power had been salvaged, no, looted off the corpse of the magician whose spirit my dream self drew power from. From this they have discerned a need for several items of magical effacity. A pair of troll claws was at the top of the list.
For this reason Golden Claws had sat chained and trussed for days, wailing in pain and agony when the Iron Axe of the Great Bear hewed claw and talon from his writhing ichor smeared stumps. They spoke smugly of burning him alive once they were sure the glamour would work, since it would be days before the claws grew back and he regained his full strength.
Their smug sneers changed to outraged astonishment when they found him gone the next day, the iron chain hewed cleanly in twain by an angry white steel axe. Redcaps have no truck with pity, but self-satisfied arrogance from a swarm of insects is far more offensive, Golden Claws will return to wreak his vengeance, of this one can be certain. And I will be along with to reveal in the slaughter and swing my axe into the fray. Such images of ultimate bloodshed fill my mind with pleasant daydreams of blood and carnage.
Shouts, screams, and the clash of arms abruptly awake my mind back to reality. It should not be long now. The Witch and She-Badger have to collect an artifact off the Isle of the Lost Souls, a grim place indeed, even by Redcap standards. A grim skeletal undead apparition guards its entrance across the bridge of the Despairing Last Stand. I wait upon the most accessible trail, ready to spring upon them unawares. The track is the most palatable amidst a sharp incline down to the peninsula off of which the island lays. A narrow causeway flanked by hill, wall, and water is their only way in or out. Perfect!
My anxiety is heightened by my awareness that I am not alone and am being watched and my every movement and decision observed. The pack to which I belong, my clan brothers, watch and stand in judgment of my performance this day. They arrived scant days ago, wondering at my absence, enraged by the splintering of the Grumbling Axe. It was repaired and my tale accepted, but now I must redeem my honor and prove myself worthy of the Redcap blade.
I am no longer a mere blood-letter, one who kills as indiscriminately as the wind blows and changes direction. Such are the basest of our kith and kin, seeking fame by sheer slaughter by numbers. Whether it will be a worthy prey and artistic assassination means nothing to such vulgar things.
I must prove myself as an ambuscader of consummate skill; one who waits in ambush and at the last second attacks unseen. Striking swiftly and cleanly with great sweeping cuts one draws away in mirth and laughter to do it all again until the victim spills his life blood out upon the greedily absorbent ground. Patience is my virtue, death a constant, ethereal companion. If I fail, a final complete death will be my sentence. Our kindred are well versed in the rituals which will drive my spirit-self completely and irrevocably into the after life. Such is, and always has been the way of our kind.
No help will be offered, no advice given. They will lurk unseen and unheard, invisible to even the sharpest eyes. They will observe my performance, witness my actions and lay down judgment upon my ability. Simply not meeting their bloodthirsty criteria means a reduction in rank. Absolute failure, as stated before, means absolute death. My spirit will be cleaved from my body and driven into the spirit world, yet forbidden an afterlife. There it will roam homeless and forever hungry, forever wanting, forever alone.
By the careless footprints left in the mud of the trail, I can see that this trail, which I watch over, has been the one most traveled by their scouts as they blundered their way in search of the Island of Lost Souls. I wait, searching the forest crest at the top of the hill from which the trail begins. The noise of battle is enticing, drawing my attention and calling seductively as a siren singing sweetly from the sanguine crashing rocks.
Yet, I refuse to move, secure in the knowledge that my quarry will come. Old Custard Face, an ogre chieftain of great renown, has moved into the area with his band of hobgoblin bullyboys, especially the hobgoblin war master Addertongue of the Iron shield. They have driven out, absorbed or killed off the goblin matriarchs tribe of weaklings and now seems to be expanding the scope of their horizons.
A goblin, eager not to be killed, explained the story behind such interesting names. The great ogre chief, his true name sounding like the crash of storm waves on a secluded rock strewn shore, had with just a smattering of goblin skirmishers attacked a large band of adventurers. It was the perfect trap except he had too few troops to carry it off; the goblins had drawn them in, wounding a few, forcing them to commit their forces. He then emerged from cover; blowing a war trumpet made from the horn of the legendary forest Aurochs, last of the giant wild oxen of old. He hurled huge boulders; crumpling shields and knocking opponents clean off their feet, Fairhair somehow escaped a far more lethal fate by sheer luck or intervention by some nameless force. As the great ogre charged forward, his eight feet of ogre’s blade singing sweet anticipation of slaughter; Fairhair realized that he should guard the rear of the party should they be attacked by marauding earthworms and berserking hedgehogs. The Great Bear, the Young Lion, the Mystical Harrier Hound and countless others attacked. Finally the ogre chief, pierced by a dozen wounds, toppled backwards and crashed to the earth with the wound of an axe hewed pine. Yet, he was not dead, although Fairhair was the first to loot his enormous corpse. For three days he lay unmoving and exposed to the elements. The sun tyrant was at its worst, called the month of the burning moon where it is whispered that the heat was so great even moonbeams blistered the skin, his freshly scarred and infected face was further ravaged by the scorching rays of the burning day candle. He crushed the skull of a reckless brush wolf who had come to pick clean his corpse and devoured him whole, flesh, bones and fur. He then crawled to a small spring feed brook and drank his fill, soaking his infected, disfigured face until the swelling burns somewhat subsided. That is how he has earned his present war name, Old Custard Face. His face resembles an egg custard left out in the sun for several days. He was named this by his lieutenant, the Warmaster Addertongue (of the Iron Shield). Addertongue has escaped his chieftains more direct wrath by carefully explaining to him that custard is a vile human concoction of unborn avian embryos, the excretion of bovine mammary glands, and the boiled blood of ancient broadleaf ents. Such an obviously occult formula is of magical significance and is eaten to prove their courage to each other and the world. They even char it over fire to further increase its power. Thus Addertongue concluded triumphantly, his name actually means “Ancient Proven Courage.”
Since Old Custard face is an ogre and not a dark elf, he accepted the explanation with grave dignity and only slight suspicion. When he catches a goblin giggling with glee at the mention of his name, this would usually start a game of goblin tree toss, which simply put, has contestants vying to see who can hurl a goblin over the nearest treetop. Since he has played alone a lot, Old Custard Face has gotten very good at this game.
The goblin also maintains this is an excellent explanation of Addertongues nom de plume, (an elf word meaning assumed name (haughty bastards, all of them)). He is named so because his tongue is that of an adder, forever darting in and out to finally strike with lethal effect. The sniveling, simpering goblin with an idiots grin plastered on his twisted features adamantly insists that the insults, taunts, curses and tongue lashings that Addertongue metes out are far more damaging than any mere beating. He can instantly turn the greatest hero into the scorn of the tribe by his scorching words of distain. Many times his taunts have provoked his enemies into mindless raging attacks, spoiling a carefully laid out battle plan and thus ensuring their destruction.
The story so pleased me that I had forgotten to kill the goblin before he had scampered off. Oh well, opportunity lost today is an opportunity presented tomorrow. So I have little doubt that Old Custard Face, with Addertongue’s skillful advice, will give the whomuns all the fight they are looking for.
The sound of approaching voices induces me to carefully raise my head and peer beyond the foliage. Immediately I realize that once again lady luck has spit squarely between my eyes. A party of whomans is coming down a trail, but it is the wrong trail! A barely used rabbit path coming steeply down the worst of the hillside is the path they have chosen. Unfortunately, it is almost two score paces beyond my position. I cannot move without being spotted, and then surprise will be lost. I grind my teeth in frustration as they pass far beyond me, moving on to the causeway towards the Island of the Lost Souls.
Oh well, no use weeping over blood not spilt. I collect the Grumbling Axe and the Laughing Hatchet, as well as his mirthful brother. I then wait until they have moved around the corner, beyond line of sight and then dart forward, covering the ground in bounding, ground eating leaps. I reach the causeway and clamber up the abutment wall, which keeps the hill from sliding across the road and into the inland sea. Three islands nestle within this cove; the Isle of Lost Souls is the middle of the three. I nestle into the foliage at the top of wall, becoming one with the green.
A nagging discontentment tells me that I should simply follow the stalwart band and attack them from the rear as they attempt to cross the bridge of the Despairing Last Stand. Yet, I must waylay a victim, this is the requirements of my task, not simply rushing in at an opportune moment. “Soon Redcap” I say to myself, “very soon.”
Sounds of battle at the bridgehead mingle now with the older sounds of the battle up top the plateau that rests upon this hilly peninsula. I risk a glimpse towards the Island of Lost Souls. The Skeletal Guardian is powerful in his own undead manner, but even with his power, he is grossly outnumbered. The assailants of the Land of the Should be Undisturbed Dead are known to me. The balance-tilting Witch leads the rush down the causeway. At the bridge the Great Bear and the Young lion alternate rushing the Guardian on the Bridge itself, the Witch close behind, Fairhair again stays safely to the rear, well behind the conflict.
The Guardian is overborne and they rush past. Fairhair judiciously ascertains that the time is right for his entrance onto the Island. He smugly steps over the corpse, oblivious to the fact that the broken and shattered bones are already knitting and reforming. They frantically search the infinitesimally small island until they gape with amazement as the Guardian lurches to his feet and charges across the bridge onto the island and into their midst.
Again, a furious battle erupts and the Guardian is laid low, yet this time they are well aware that it is but scant moments before he reforms and his undead vitality will bring him back upon his feet once more. Before he had reached his well-worn knees of bone they had cut him down. Finally they find what they are searching for, a small case of finely wrought wood, giving off an aura of great age.
They charge across the Bridge of the Despairing Last Stand and the Guardian regains his feet and with an eldritch wail of frustration, anger and loss, he rattles off in pursuit. Yet, even his instinctual and preprogrammed mind must have known the scant chance he had of overtaking the pack of grave robbers before he reached the mystical barrier that defined the limits of his confines.
As the thieves thunder across the bridge one last time, their armored feet creaking and rocking the time worn structure, I duck back into the foliage and mentally prepare myself for battle. The multiple scenarios which I have labored over time and time again flash through my mind.
At first I had planned on clambering down the quarried stonewall to meet them at the corner and thus barring their path to safety. Since I could sense that this was still within the limits of the Guardians mystical confines, all I needed to do was to fight a holding action until the Guardian crashed into them from behind. Then their forces would be divided and both could wreak havoc and mayhem.
This I reject out of hand once I had reconsider its value. First and foremost, it does not allow me to waylay the party, in other words attacking from ambush and cover. So any kills made would be null and void as of the concerns of my invisible, all seeing brethren. In a more realistically important sense the cause way is wide enough to allow them to advance upon me two to one, and even three to one. The odds are against me, for the Great Bear and the Young Lion are formidable warriors, and for all of his interest in backfield foot racing, Fairhair is no mean handler with a sword, either. They would probably overwhelm me before the guardian reached me, and this time I would not be allowed to reform and return.
My next strategy was to leap down from the wall as they passed, either into their midst or directly behind them, waylaying and backstabbing from behind for all I am worth. This would meet all the criteria that the Redcap brethren require of me but at the last moment I perceive a crucial flaw in my so-called brilliant plan, the wall is far higher than I had first perceived and the causeway is hard packed, unyielding gravel and rock. Leaping down from this height will insure at least a twisted ankle, most probably a sprain or torn knee, at the worst a fractured bone.
Even if I achieved first critical strikes, in a crippled state I would be little match for the four of them. Even the Witch, untrained in battle as she is, shows a tremendous courage and tenacity.
I have no time left for consideration, the thieves and grave robbers have rounded the bend. I rise up and fling the Laughing Hatchet at Fairhair, who is well out in front leading the retreat. It takes a strange curve in the swirling air and only nicks his shoulder. Curses, his mirthful brother follows his path but a moment behind, but the Great Bear plucks it out of the air with his sword. Something in the way he reacts tells me that he suspected that I would put in an appearance; I did not think I would surprise him so easily.
The Witch whirls and advances to the wall, striking upward with her quarterstaff. She is brave to the point of foolish. She wears no armor. She is also the weakest warrior in the group, yet she continually surges to the forefront of any conflict. She should let the heavily armored dreadnaughts take the brunt of my attack. The others follow her immediately and soon all four are stabbing and thrusting up at me. The varied looks of rage, concentration, and sheer hatred contort their features to such an extent that I am laughing outright with maniacal glee despite the fact that I am parrying and dodging and striking for all I am worth.
The Guardian is advancing down the causeway, well off of the bridge. Somebody, I believe Fairhair, mutters; “we are so scr..ed.” I don’t quite understand the word. It seems to be related to one that implies the act of mating. Mating? At a time like this? These creatures truly are twisted! Perhaps I have simply misinterpreted the word.
We are at an impasse. Yet, they do not realize it. They cannot get close enough to me to do me harm because of the wall, and so I can retreat safely up the hill behind it when they strike. Yet, because of the walls edge I cannot carry the attack home to them to be able to do any real damage.
I grudgingly admit that it is Fairhair who comes to his senses and shouts in the Witch’s ear that she must go back to the others and they will hold him (meaning myself) off from following. She jogs away; he waits a total of seven heartbeats and then breaks off after her in a flat out sprint that would make a wild jackass green with envy. The Great Bear and the Young Lion are once more left to do the dirty work.
They are certainly up to the task. The Young Lion has gotten much better, far more sure in his attacks and shield work. He no longer simply depends upon his armor to absorb the damage he takes, which I notice seems to be still rent and cleaved thru with the gashes from the last time we had met in battle, although to be honest, little of it came from me. His sword and shield work become almost elegant in its exchange of attacks, parries, ripostes and that lovely combination of catching my axe on the shield, raising it and then striking under the shield. Simply a delicious piece of work. The heavy broadsword in his hand moves with the grace and delicacy of a rapier.
The Great Bear has not lost his touch either. His exquisitely wrought leather armor is already in strips and tatters. I notice that blood flows freely from underneath already soaked bandages. Despite this he is more than game. He wields his axe along with the faithful round shield in his other hand. The Bear’s axe sends shivers into the very soles of my feet every time the Grumbling Axe blocks and parries his blow. By the Slaughter Lords themselves the man is strong! Having 20 stone of mass to back up the axes swing does not hurt his effectiveness either. He is gauging and judging their attacks and my responses with a cold calculating look in his eye, I suddenly understand. He is simply buying time so that there is no way that I can overtake the others.
As if my realization was the signal he was looking for, he and the Young Lion slowly beat a retreat. I can do little but follow along the top of the wall and take the occasional opportunistic swing. I connect with little besides open air and upraised shields. Soon they break free and jog across the clearing towards the uphill forest path. By the time I clamber down the face of the wall, they are almost out of sight in the foliage.
My beating heart is so heavy with despair that I can barely move; I am dumbstruck. I have missed my chance on two perfect occasions. In my minds eye I can see the axes of my brethren flashing towards my neck. I can almost feel the razor sharp steel biting into flesh and bone and then separating my head from my shoulders. My spirit begins to scream in agony as it prepares for banishment and oblivion. I feel my doom upon me; I can hear their voices summoning me for my own execution.
My eyes snap open at that thought. It is not my brethrens’ voices which are summoning me. I swing about and spy a hobgoblin that can only be the one named Addertongue cautiously approaching. He is in the posture requesting parley, and in my dejected disposition I ignore such arrogance and instruct him to speak his piece.
“Your quarry has not escaped you, Bright Butcher. A spirit sending from the Netherworld has constructed a powerful spell of protection atop the ruins of the old White Tower. They are trapped within. We cannot pass the barrier, although weapons can. Come, Redcap, join in the slaughter, help put your mighty axe in the way of any escape attempt!”
I saw his objective immediately. The whomuns were trapped within the circle but the ogre and his minions were really not strong enough to hold them if they attempted to break out in force. Only one whose mind was as quick as Addertongues’ could see the problem and act on it. His solution, find allies, any allies, even one as dangerous as a Redcap.
“Fool!” I said. “What keeps me from taking your head and those of your cohorts for such insolence?”
“Nothing dread one,” he purred, although his iron shield did move into a higher, more defensible position. “But, if heads are what you seek there are plenty at the White Tower ruins, one as great as yourself should not be satisfied with mere hobgoblin trophies. You should have human heads or even ogre skulls to display and their blood to dampen your cap.”
“Ah” I thought. “So that is his game. He is quick, this one. Not only does he recruit a dangerously powerful ally but he immediately positions him against his lord and master, the ogre chieftain. Rank advancement thru assassination and he doesn’t even have to bloody his hands or risk his own neck. Well, we shall see about this!”
“Lead on foul serpent” I hissed at him to the point of spitting. “Show me that what is worth your miserable head and the tongue within it.” My bravado was simply that, bravado. Hope had begun to blossom within my breast, driving away the dark despair that had gathered there. My head was still on my shoulders, my brethren were still watching and waiting, and multiple opportunities awaited me at the top of the hill at the ruined White Tower. Addertongue here was giving me a way out of this predicament, at his terms of course. Even such daring cheek deserved some reward; perhaps I shall let him live throughout the night.
As we trekked upward against the steep hillside path, the rather loquacious Addertongue filled my ears with a storied telling of the events that had transpired beyond my range of vision. The large group of whomuns and other such mongrel races had proceeded to the ruins of the White Tower. There seemed to have been some agreement reached between the Witch and the She-Badger, presumably about whose mate would be resurrected first. At this point they were set upon by Old Custard Face, Addertongue, and other minions of darkness. The horde also included such notables as the hobgoblin Cloud-Jumper, named for his incredible acrobatics of combat involving leaps, rolls, slides and somersaults, a reckless but truly capable warrior. Also along is Crooked Grin, that unbelievably irritating goblin who, for some reason, I can never quite seem to be able to kill. To his credit, his fleetness of foot rivals Fairhair’s most notable efforts at retreat. Snowtop, a young ogre with the unbelievable adornment of white hair filled out the roster of those worth naming.
The horde set upon the party with extreme eagerness, Old Custard Face’s eight-foot blade sang murderously as it scythed through the air. By his own account Addertongue accounted for over a dozen warriors. At my skeptically raised eyebrow he amends the number down dramatically to a troll claws worth. They mauled the whomuns terribly and forced them towards the old White Tower. Yet the attack was not without casualties, and the corpses of goblins and hobgoblins littered the ground.
At the ruins of the old White Tower once more eldritch forces intervened on the side of the whomuns. A spectral sending from the spirit world awaited them at the Tower. As they rushed within the ruins, the spirit raised a glamour of impressive proportions. An arcane barrier was raised and no creature of night and darkness could force its way through it. Weapons could penetrate it, however, so the horde circled around the tower like a pack of ravening wolves bringing a wounded elk to bay.
Within the circle they received more instructions from the spectral visitor. This resulted in the Witch and Fairhair deciding to raid the Isle of Lost Souls and steal its treasures. The Great Bear, wounded from Old Custard Face’s less than gentle ministrations, gamely volunteered to escort them on the dangerous journey. The Dwarven She-Badger then commanded the Young Lion (who owes her blood debt of some sort) to go along to guard the Great Bear’s back and side. Obviously her opinion of Fairhair ranks even lower than mine. At this rate he has to reach upward to pat a goblins belly.
This was where they had encountered the Guardian and myself. They had broken free of the circle with the others fighting a diversionary battle to allow the time to get far enough a way from the Tower.
Addertongue halts his narrative as we stop at the sight of one of the recent battlefields. Over a dozen goblin and hobgoblin corpses lay strewn across the trampled earth. Yet I notice not a single whomun body. I inquire again from Addertongue how many he had killed, and he loftily replies that counting and numbers is a whomun pastime and he has little to do with it.
I stop and causally loot the corpses of any available throwing daggers and axes. If weapons will penetrate this barrier then distance weapons seem the best course of action. Addertongue copies my actions and bearing a small trove of assorted weapons we then approach the ruins of the tower.
We can hear the conflict long before we can see it. Ogre roars, hobgoblin war chants and the idiotic tittering of goblin laughter meld with whomun voices shouting alternating commands and pleas for help, usually in a contradictory manner. It sounds like a whole army in battle, rather than a few handfuls of skirmishers.
Addertongue states that as Fairhair’s party returned, the whomuns moved out to cover their return. One whomun in particular named Ringtail showed particular reckless bravery and daring. Addertongue adds that he had overheard human sentries remarking that he is called Ringtail for his namesake because like a ringtail he is curious, reckless, intelligent, and an unrepentant thief.
I mull over this in my minds eye. The band of whomuns seems far less fractious than when I had encountered them last. My brethren who had first scouted out the village had named them as likely to turn on each other as to unite against the night creepers. They seem to be learning very quickly. Old Custard Face’s horde should have broken their resolve long before this.
As we come within sight of the tower my first impression is that it looks like someone had kicked the top off of an anthill, the way all of the night creepers are swarming about. They constantly circle the ruined tower waiting for someone to get near enough to the barrier so that they can attempt to strike through it.
Since the Tower is but a pile of ruins, little more than a foundation really, it offers little in the way of actual protection. Old Custard Face and Snowtop prowl about, lurking and looking (if an ogre can truly ever be said to ‘lurk’) for humans who have been distracted by other attacks. They then rush forward and thrust with their huge two-handed weapons, which are almost as long as pikes. This method is showing considerable success, as I watch Old Custard face scores a hit upon the Dwarven She-Badger. She falls to the earth bleeding freely, but she is dragged out of range and the profane skill of healing is performed on her. Soon, she is up and moving around again. Curse these foul healers, have they no shame?
Then I realize that the White Tower had been built upon a circle of power designed for the obscene acts of healing in the far distant past. It is the spirit of the Healing Circle who helps them, The White Lady of the Tower. The spells and skills of healing are twice as effective here. No wonder they are getting up as quickly as they are knocked down.
I spy Crooked Grin the Goblin running up to us. “Come Redcap” he titters, “come join the battle.” Insolent vermin, as if I needed his invitation. I resolve that I will make at least one attempt to kill this scuttering simpleton tonight. Now, however, my attention is fixed upon the battle and who is involved with whom.
The Mystical Harrier Hound stares balefully at Old Custard Face. He moves his hands in quick, somotic gestures. He speaks ancient words of fell and terrible power. His face furrows with extreme concentration and then sweat breaks out across his brow. He extends his arm and points his finger. An incandescent burning sphere of magical flame streaks away towards the great ogre. By sheer bad luck a hobgoblin steps into the path of the crackling ball of flame. He screams once, horribly as the flame ignites his entire being, clothes, skin, even weapons and armor burst into a too bright fire and soon there is only a small pile of ash to mark were the hobgoblin was.
He has grown strong, this one, even I would have suffered from that bolt. He is more a Magical Mastiff rather than simply a Mystical Harrier Hound. He can do far more than hamstring and bring foes to bay for others. This is pleasing.
The Rainbow warrior is in residence today. I do not see him immediately but I can hear his constant chatter. He reminds me of a giant multi-colored squirrel. Ah, I spot him now. He has muted the colors of his armor. Perhaps he has learned that such bright colors only serve to draw unwanted attention to ones self on the battlefield.
A lean, dark visaged being hoves into view within the circle. He moves stealthily and with great purpose. Ah, I know this one. Fellbrand, named for the dangerously mystical blade that he carries. I have felt the bite of that venomous piece of steel and I am lucky to live to tell about it. Even incapacitated by its poison, his cohorts declined to close with me to finish me off and I was able to get away and recover. Why is this one here? He is a hunter of his own kind, for profit. He must have a mark he has followed here. Oh well, good hunting Fellbrand, and stay out of my path.
Another mage moves into my line of sight. A gawky, awkward, spindly creature, he carries what I assume is a weapon but could be a scepter or a wizards staff, the way he flails about with it I am assuming that it is a weapon. Wizard Eye is a good name for him, for his overlarge round eyes reflect the fading light in a strange, eldritch fashion. He, too, sends out magical bolts towards offending hobgoblins, but not the same as the mage born Mastiff.
The ambulatory corpse lies in the center of the towers ruined circle and beside it looks like a freshly dug up corpse wrapped in a blanket, food for the creature or more magic, probably the latter. The Witch and the She-Badger are in close proximity to the center of activity.
Enough of this sight seeing. I have a task to perform. I skulk around the edges of the circle until I am at a point where the Great Bear’s back is presenting me with a perfect target. He is well inside the circle beyond my axe, but no matter. The Laughing Hatchet slides easily into my grip, I pull back and let fly. The distinctive chuckling sound it makes while revolving in flight ends abruptly as it sinks into the Great Bears back with a meaty ‘thunk.’ The hatchet’s mirthful brother follows suit and in an instant rests beside him in its fleshy sheath.
Surprisingly the Great Bear crumples to the earth. He must have been wounded far more grievously than I had anticipated. I am jubilant! A clean waylay kill! Yet, I cannot advance to soak my cap in the blood of my victim. The frustration builds to an almost unbearable level as the Great Bear is dragged out of range and then ministered to. Soon, he too is bandaged and back on his feet, although he is very wobbly, to be sure.
Cheated again! Is there no justice! In fury, I lash out at the creature closest to me, which just happens to be Old Custard Face. Surprise flashes across his blighted features, but he is still quick enough to parry my attack, the shock of that iron-gripped block runs all the way up my arms.
“Cease Redcap.” He rumbles, “Kill whomuns.” It was a clear warning and I take the hint. I stalk away in fury around the circle. The hobgoblins and goblins, Cloud Jumper for one, are flinging every conceivable missile weapon into the circle. A few hits are made; Ringtail picks a dagger up and flings it back at his assailant.
“Excellent,” I think. “They are giving our weapons back to us. We can take more casualties than they can, and most of them are sorely wounded.”
I am not the only one who thinks about this scenario. The Great Bear staggers over to the place where Ringtail stands and putting his sword point to his chest, he rumbles ominously “Don’t throw anything back at them ANYMORE!”
I am beginning to tire of this stalemate. This is not getting me any closer to my goal. I spy Crooked Grin the Goblin and begin to make my way over to him when I hear a screaming battle cry of rage, defiance and absolute insanity. It could only be one person. The Rainbow Warrior breaks ranks out of the circle and is charging pell mell through the close pressed goblin waves. He is flailing around himself manically, screaming like a banshee, running at full speed. It is like running the Gauntlet and almost every goblin and hobgoblin he runs past are able to get a clear swing at him, he is using no defense but speed, it is not enough. Bleeding from a dozen wounds, blood gouting from between his lips he still advances upon me, literally dead on his feet. He just doesn’t know it yet. The Grumbling Axe swings once and his head leaps from his shoulders. It comes to rest staring hatefully up at me and the lips are still faintly moving. Talking right to the end and even beyond. This does make me feel better, as I dip my cap for my trophy, but it hasn’t solved my problem.
Oh yes, I was going to kill Crooked Grin. Still it will not solve my problem, but it will make me feel much, much better.
As I make my way towards Crooked Grin, I glance over at the circle ruins of the White Tower. In the fading twilight I can see the Young Lion majestically battling members of the Horde. His white surcoat ablaze, the cape swirling majestically about him, the shield emblem glowing with an almost arcane fire and his sword arm rising and falling again and again, he cuts a most dashing figure as he does battle. I will have to watch this one. He is showing definite promise.
Crooked Grin sees me coming about six paces away and he instantly knows what I have planned, running away shrieking, howling and pleading. I dash after him as Old Custard Face shakes his head in disgust. I pursue, yet am well aware that I am doomed to failure. He is just too fleet of foot to be able to overtake. The demented little vermin will live on at least one more day, curse my miserable luck.
I stop and gather my wits. I step off into the wood line that starts at the edge of the peninsula’s plateau and continues on down the hillside. Putting my hood up and gathering the dark cloak around my shoulders, I am almost invisible to all eyes in the gathering dusk. I slow my breathing and bring the Grumbling Axe into an easy, ready position. I am alert and on guard, waiting for the most opportune target.
I do not have long to wait. Snow Top, the young ogre with the startling white hair, is trotting away from the conflict around the White Tower circle. Perhaps he is leaving to summon reinforcements. Perfect. Although, certainly not as large as his presumed sire, Old Custard Face, he is a fine specimen of an ogre. He wears no armor except for an array of tattered and moth eaten furs, which were badly cured. Some scalps dangle from his belt, and he carries a shorter bladed two-handed sword, more for speed and accuracy rather than sheer brute force application.
This close to the battle he is completely at ease and wastes no time scanning the terrain for possible dangers. His forces control the area and he has an ogre’s natural arrogance, which means they are continually surprised that any creature would actually dare to attack them! Obviously he has forgotten that I joined in on the assault, or he never noticed me in the first place. He is a formidable opponent, but I am a Redcap, and this time surprise is on my side.
He trots past, barely two paces beyond my position. I dart out, plant my feet and give a full, complete swing that starts with arms behind my ear and ends with the Grumbling Axe gleefully planting itself between his shoulder blades with a tremendous “thwack!”
The blow would have instantly killed any whomun, hobgoblin, or even black bear. The ogre staggers and jerks suddenly, pulling the axe from its wet, red embrace. He turns on me, eyes blazing with pain, anger and hatred. They widen in surprise and disbelief.
“What do you butcher??!” He thundered. “You side us with!” Ogres never did take the time to phrase their words correctly. They were usually to busy hitting things to bother with it. I take the chance to scan the area. Good, no one has noticed us yet.
“Thick skull, boulder with legs, despicable muscle with mouth!” I shout at him with maniacal glee, the hot-blooded excitement surging through my veins. “Redcaps NEVER take sides! Redcaps take lives!”
With that the battle joined in earnest. He was wounded badly, but not incapacitated. That’s the problem with ogres. Just under their skin and over all the vital organs and vital areas of the body are bony armor plates that make an instant killing blow near impossible. At least my axe had not gotten stuck in the ogre; otherwise I would be trying to wrestle him to death. Not good odds when dealing with an ogre, even a wounded one.
Snow Top is game; I give him that. His sword strokes are far faster than most ogres and he knows the rudiments of hand-to-hand combat. In other words, he could block, parry, and riposte rather than the usual ogre method of hit it until it falls down. He has three notable factors going against him, however. One, he is wounded. Two, he is still an ogre and fights with that single-minded ferocity and reliance on strength that marks his kind. He has no thought of retreat, withdrawal or even simply putting his back against a tree. Three, he is fighting a Redcap, and we as a race have put weapons skill and fighting specific opponents upon such a hallowed pedestal that our one on one combat is unsurpassable. I personally, in my youth, went through months of specialized training that targeted ogres and giants.
I stay low to the ground and swing at his knees, shins, and ankles. This way he has to raise his sword over his head and then strike down on me from above. If he misses (and I was counting on this) he will drive it into the earth. Then he will have to draw the sword out of the earth to raise it over his head. This takes a lot of time and effort and it allows me to get several strikes in if I time it just right. If he swings side-to-side I will be more vulnerable to being struck, so I have to keep him enraged in order to keep him pounding at me like a carpenter hammering at a defiant nail. I try out a few choice phrases. “Snow Top fight like elf!” and “Ogre eat flowers!”
That got his attention. He threw back his head and howled in fury as he drew his arm up and back to drive me into the ground. This was what I had hoped would happen. I dart slightly to one side and swing the Grumbling axe with all my might at the spot behind his mighty knee. It drives in right to the bone and for a brief moment I am afraid that it has lodged there; but then I am able to wrench it loose.
He screams in pain, a high-pitched undulating sound, which I am sure has reached the ears of Old Custard face and Addertongue. I have to end this quickly. He turns to swing at me but the leg crumples and instead of toppling over, he goes to one knee. He’s a tough one, to be sure. I circle and duck under his swinging sword and give him a swing right below the ribs. I sink into deep soft tissue and heard him groan. I have him now.
He falls to his hands and knees and I swing repeatedly at his head, and neck until he finally collapses. Decapitating an ogre is not an option as the bones are too thick. Finally his eyes glaze over and the life force leaves his body.
I slip off my red cap and soak it in his pooling blood, I speak the words of power that takes the binding spirit essence and cleaves it to myself. Finally! Success! Especially since this has met all of the requirements set upon me by my brethren. And it was an ogre! I am so flush with success that I barely hear the thunderous tread of Old Custard Face approaching. Time to go! I throw up my hood and fade into the tree line.
I have grown bored with my participation with the night creepers and these whomuns, but not so bored that I do not wish to witness the conclusion of the nights’ festivities. I could kill more, but I am weary. Killing an ogre can be compared to chopping down an oak tree with a hatchet. I will simply watch and wait. I have accomplished my goals for the night. The rest can be kept for a later time, to better savor the kill.
Old Custard Face stands over Snow Tops’ corpse, frustrated that his second lay dead on the ground. Slightly behind him stands Addertongue, his eyes gleeful and triumphant. I may not have dispatched his leader, but I had obviously taken care of the competition. Other goblins and hobgoblins come to stare at the corpse. You can see the fight leaking out of them like a punctured wineskin. It’s just oozing away. They have lost a third of their forces and now one of their ogres. They’ve lost the heart for battle.
Beyond, in the healing circle, something is happening. Arcane powers of great magnitude are gathering, and clouds smother the sinking sun. The Magical Mastiff now stands in the center of the circle, chanting words of power from the spell book taken from the dead wizardess, as others combine the necessary ingredients that make up the components of the spell. Rare herbs and spices, pure moonsilver, holy water from the time before the great darkness, and the troll talons of Old Golden Claws, the healers fire, and other ingredients that I could not discern. Ringtail attempt to nonchalantly pilfer the silver component needed to complete the ceremony. The She-Badger is not fast enough (and is too distracted) to permanently administer his just reward, but she does foil his thievery.
Lightning flashes, the wind howls, the Magical Mastiff now commands the powers to do his bidding; and with the Spectral Servant of the Healing Circle lending him even more power, he focuses the immense power at his disposal into a blinding shaft of light and infuses it not into the walking corpse but into the blanket wrapped corpse next to it.
The Magical Mastiff use the appropriate words to regenerate tissue, restart the heart, fill the veins with blood, and bring life to the body. I am well acquainted with this side of the ritual, as I have used it on myself, the power sources are just different. A flapping veil of pure darkness obstructs the light for mere moments and then disappears. The feeling this ‘thing’ gives off curdles the fresh blood on my cap and makes the goblin horde howl with fear. No one in the circle seems to notice its passing. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to know.
The blanket over the corpse begins to rise and fall steadily. A stirring occurs beneath it, a cough, and then a string of guttural but exquisitely wrought curses ushers forth. They deal with everything from braided beards on donkey behinds to unsavory and uncomplimentary remarks about an ogres’ ancestor and his breeding habits. The Dwarf! Yes it is a dwarf. I can see him now. He sits up and looks about owl eyed. The Magical Mastiff slumps back exhausted. The She-Badger runs over to him, “Sindri, Sindri!” She shouts in his ear. Easy, easy, he was dead-not deaf. He looks up at her and then down at himself, “WHAT DO YOU WOMAN?” He growls and staggers to his feet.
“You were dead, we brought you back, I’ll explain later. It was a matter of necessity. Now we have to get out of here.” She explains the situation and describes the besieging black races. The dwarf begins snarling and a red gleam comes into his eyes and then is gone. I know that I saw it there.
“Bah, this cannot hold me. My shield! My sword!” He demands commandingly. “Now,” he shouts to all of the humans in the circle. “If we all go out in tight formation we can break them. All shield men to the front; we shall do a spear point formation. You others gather around back.”
It seems that the whomuns are grateful that someone, anyone, has taken charge. They do as he says and they move out of the circle. Old Custard Face attempts one last attack. The Dwarf shouts “I am a dwarven warrior of the first rank and I will not be denied passage by such rabble!” ‘Dwarven warrior of the first rank’ my axe, he’s a smith, I can smell the coal soot and the iron dust on him.
Organized and with the dwarf leading, the whomuns were now a formidable force. The goblin horde runs away screaming into the night. Old Custard Face and Addertongue are far more dignified in their retreat, but retreat they do. Resurrection magic is big juju indeed, they know it and now they don’t like it. Ogres don’t’ retreat, so Old Custard Face decides to attack in another direction. Addertongue is close behind.
The whomuns march towards their fortified base camp that they use before heading to the village. I overhear the Witch say that they will have to come back on the morrow and speak with the Spirit; meaning the Witch, the Walking Corpse and Fairhair.
It has been a successful day by my reckoning. The contention between the night creepers and the whomuns will provide me with further sport as they test and grow and eliminate the weak among themselves.
And I? I shall be waiting my chance and watching, a sinister sentient shadow underneath the sheltering conifer trees.
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