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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #706229
His completed story, first draft (This was one of the first games of 3.0 D&D.)

         "Alastair Framingham was the only son of merchant parents, whose trade wagon was robbed while traveling through the Karneley Forest when he was ten years old. He had a goodly if simple upbringing to that point, and he had even learned to read and write.
         The bandits killed his parents, but they did not get the boy.

         The Rangers of Karneley later found and took him into their fold, training him in their skills of wilderness lore. It was they who called him, "Straggler," because he seemed to have been left behind. He accepted the name, partly on the superstition that true names can be used to gain power over a person. As 'Straggler,' with the rangers, he felt safe.
Now begins his first adventure..."


From the journal of "Straggler" :   Alastair Framingham, Ranger of Karneley  --

I.   Late Summer

         The morning was bright and sunny as we approached the docks. I had been appointed to lead the representative of our forest allies, Jio the Elf, on a mission across the Lake Nire. Why I was leading him was a mystery to me. He looked somewhat less reputable than your average elf, which suited me just fine. In fact, Jio and myself became acquainted rather quickly, probably due to our mutual affinity with nature and the grace we both demonstrated during our journey to those waters. I had no trouble guiding us to our destination, while Jio made no great noise and neither did he slow our progress.

         As my left foot touched down upon the boat's deck, a solitary gray cloud passed before the glorious sun; I would have done well to remove myself from that mission at that moment.

         "Sir Guile! I've finished loading supplies for the journey. May I take my leave now, sir?" said an armored warrior who was obviously overworked. His superior was similarly clad, and he motioned his servant away.

         "Excuse me," said a black robed man, bumping into me.

         "I saw you, there," I replied, honestly. This was no sailor or hired hand. He carried himself regally, and although he wore no armor, he seemed a dangerous fellow. I could tell our meeting was no accident.

         "We're to be quartered here during the voyage," called an elvish-accented voice. Jio was standing in a doorway and motioning to me.

         As I strode toward the stairs leading below deck, I questioned a deck-hand: "Are there any animals down there?"

         "No," said the sailor.

         I carried on as Jio and I descended the stairs by the dim lamp light. "Good," I replied, "I can't stand the smell of animals."

         Some time after the crew had set sail the weather became violent. There must have been a severe storm above, for in the boat's hold, Jio and I were being thrown to-and-fro like pollen in the wind. Then everything was upside-down, and as the vessel capsized, it's beams struck upon my forehead. The lanterns had also toppled over and their burning oil was spreading fire and even more smoke.

         As my lungs choked and my eyes burned, I clambered after Jio down the now upside-down stairs which led to the Captain's quarters. I burst down the door to find three drenched men in the upside-down room.

         One of them, Squire Guile, is chopping the Captain's mattress to pieces with his sword. Through the windows I see water all around as the ship begins to sink further in the depths. Looking about for something to save us, I ask, "What floats in water?"

         Without skipping a beat the unarmored man with a black cloak replied, "Empty barrels."

         As someone else spoke, I thought of the kegs of wine in the hold below -- which was by then above us -- and I pointed to the first man, saying, "Follow me!" and heading back up the stairs.

         "I am Oaf, the Shadow-Fire," said the man as he resourcefully emptied wine from two barrels in the same time it took me to empty one barrel. Jio tied the barrels together as the ship broke apart; we clung to them as they carried us to the surface.

         That scene was not much more reassuring,as the storm continued to rage, surrounding us with twenty-foot waves which threatened to sink us once more, or worse, sending lightning upon our floating metal-clad forms. The night was terrible and chill. Most of us suffered exposure and the two chain-armored fighters struggled to stay atop their barrels.

         In the morning I thought I regained the direction of our original destination. Oaf told Jio and myself that there were pirates threatening last night as well as the storm. Four sailors floating in the water swam to our group and confirmed this.

         Suddenly, some thing from below the waters bloodily killed a sailor just as we spotted a nearby island. We hurriedly paddled for the shore. Another sailor panicked only to also be picked below. When we could stand in the tide, a large sea creature surfaced and rended the third sailor in two before anyone could attack it.

         "Lure it toward the beach!" I called through the sea-spray, when seeing the water heal its wounds. Upon hearing that plan, the beast returned to the lake, seemingly understanding my words. We regrouped on the Island with the only surviving sailor, a man named Hafbright, who brought our numbers to six. I am also introduced to Squire Guile's assistant: Oziruths the fighter.

         I suggested we head for the hills to get an overview above the jungle. After removing much foliage to make our trail, we came upon a circle of small stones at the top of a hill. Within these laid the ashen remains of a campfire. From that vantage point I spied a skirmish being engaged in the grass beyond the hill. On one side stood humans and opposing them: Orcs. I asked Hafbright if he could recognize the humans as sailors or pirates, but he was too afraid to look. Jio and I wagered who of us could first shoot the orc archer nearest us with our bow. Instead of firing, Jio ran off into the grass and hid next to one of the fallen humans.

         Meanwhile, the others skirted down the side of the hill, flanking the battle. I finally convinced Hafbright to look, but by that time both sides had taken heavy losses and our side had already entered the fray. Hafbright said they seemed too richly dressed to be normal sailors so they must be pirates. He was not very helpful. I loosed my arrow, killing the last participant from either side, a "pirate" archer. Upon proceeding down the hill, I recovered his possessions, two pieces of silver and a bow and arrows.

         Oaf had been seriously wounded by an orc in the fight. As we tended to his wounds, we heard a moaning from within the tall dry grass. Nearby we found an old man tied up: the orcs' prisoner.

         He was more frightened than even Hafbright. Although we were able to learn his name was Kiips'ake, the only other thing he was able to tell us was a tale of an old temple where we could take shelter from the island's marauding orcs, and he also told of a great treasure....

         We questioned Kiips'ake thoroughly concerning the where-abouts of this treasure, when he suddenly retrieved a large leaf from the local flora, pricked his skin, and commenced writing upon the leaf with his own red blood. He drew three maps: One was a larger overview of the island, another detailed an abandoned inland temple, and the last showed an old mansion house near the coast.

         Kiips'ake begged us to first accompany him to the temple ruins, where he said there was something he had to have. As we needed to heal our wounded and the bard, Oaf, had been laid unconscious by an orc, we gladly accompanied Kiips'ake to his safe-house.

         The journey claimed much of the remaining daylight, as the sun dipped toward the sea, we were glad to be within sight of our destination and the shade it promised. Upon closer inspection it proved to be an ancient temple of the god, Malor, which was a relief that we need not camp in an evil place. We made a hasty, casual search to find the place was indeed abandoned as Kiips'ake had claimed: the orcs avoided it out of fear. Also it contained nothing of real value save an old statue of the temple's patron, beheaded but still too large to move. We set a small campfire in one of the rooms and rested, leaving only Oziruths the fighter awake on guard duty.

         I awoke to battle sounds amidst my slumber, and quickly sprang into action, hand-ax and longsword at the ready. What I spied was a curious sight: Kiips'ake was frantically muttering and waving his arms behind an old, mysterious woman who reached out for Oziruths. Upon her touch he stood still as stone.
         The Paladin looked pale and greenly nauseous, pointing to the woman and crying, "It is evil!" She quickly charged Squire Guile and touched him. He too stood still and unmoving.

         "No, no, my wife! I said you could only have the sick one, my dear," said Kiips'ake, referring to the still wounded and unconscious Oaf.

         "I will have them all!" said the creature in a high, shrill cackling voice. Before she could turn on me, I flanked the ghoul, my longsword hacking into her carrion flesh.

         She screamed and reeled upon me, just as I ducked out of her icy grasp. Behind her Kiips'ake continued to mumble and motion. I thrust home with my longsword, and as the creature fell, I let swing my hand-axe. It bit deep into Kiips'ake's shoulder, spouting blood as the thing's hapless husband slumped gurgling to the floor.

         "I hope you're happy, for killing a helpless old man," came a voice from the shadows. It was Jio, the elf, hiding from battle.

         As I wiped the ichors and blood from my weapons, I regarded the elf with disdain for the first time. Still breathing heavily from the ordeal, I admonished my friend, "And would you feel the same if he had bespelled me, too? Do you think you a match for his foul sorcery? Look at our companions. It is just you and I, Jio. If you have complaint, let's settle it before mine blades are completely clean!"
         Jio backed away, offended. I would not have wanted to harm the elf, but the battle juices still fired my blood. "Your weapons may come clean, Straggler. But I hope that poor old man's blood should never be washed from your memory."
         Elves. And Jio was a rogue to boot -an odd combination for a conscience.
         "Don't worry," I replied. "I only grieve for them that's part of the group."

         The next morning Oziruths, Guile, and even Oaf were all up and walking around. They were also displeased with me for the old man's demise. But they were all out of the combat and could not perceive the danger I had at the time. Indeed, I regretted the old man's death at my hand. However, at worst he was casting some spell, and worse still he was married to a ghoul -not a very commending character reference.

         When we had finally put our differences aside, Oziruths spoke up: "When I was finally allowed to sleep, a dream came to me. In it the good god, Malor, spoke. He said he is revolted by the presence of these filthy orcs upon his island, and so, He is going to sink this land far below the depths of the Sea.
         "He has allowed our party until dusk to retrieve what we can from the mansion-house. There we can find a boat to make our escape."

         "Well let's get moving, then," I replied.

         For the better part of the morning, I guided our small band through the overgrowth, in the direction indicated on the old man's map. We made one short stop to rest in the shade from the high sun's heat. As we toiled onward, no one spoke -even the insects seemed to have fell silent.

         We neared the coast once again, but it braked the waves far below a steep rocky cliff. The sight discouraged me. For though I spied the building, it seemed too far from the sea to provide a vessel to enable our watery escape. One constant remained: between us and the house was a patrol of orcs.
         As I readied my bow and began to broach a plan for attack, most of the others had already charged to engage our enemies. By then it was too late to risk firing and hitting one of my new comrades. I found one clear shot as most of the orcs lay vanquished, and I felled the brute despite the great distance of that arrow's swift flight.
         There was some quick regrouping while I checked my kill's status. The orc was finished, so I relieved him of the few coins in his pouch -barely enough to buy more arrows. Again, we set ourselves to enter this two storied wooden structure whose age allowed it to blend in to seem as if it had always been here.
         We approached from the south, although the main entrance door was on the sea-facing east wall, and I feared the sea breeze would carry the sounds of battle and our scents to alert our foes.

         Battle set-up - (Island Manse)

------- = outside wall (not to scale)
         < = Open entrance door

         O = orc
         A = Oziruths
         G = Guile
         S = Straggler (me)
         W = Oaf
         J = Jio
         H = Hafbright
         D = Door (east wall)
         d = door (south wall of passage)
         ? = latter doors

 ___?____?___________]A     W     J H______________<
 ?____________OOO_O___G__S_____D     d   d           


         Since I did not feel it was my place to lead this group so much as to guide them by being their ears and eyes, I let the well-armoured fighters enter the mansion first. Squire Guile followed behind his man-at-arms, Ozirtuths; and I, wearing my leather armor, trailed Guile. Oaf followed myself, then came Jio, and lastly, Hafbright. We proceeded down a musty corridor, passing by some sturdy framed doors of strong oak. Leaving these unknown closed doors behind us, a concern came to my mind of a flank attack. I turned to Oaf: “Close the door,” I said, pointing to the open door behind us.
         Suddenly, there is some ruckus up ahead where the hall widens to double the size. This place stinks of orc and soon I spot the source of their stench. Orcs in single-file block the passage ahead. One which is guarding their rear shouts something and kills the orc in front of him. Meanwhile the lead orc charges Guile, while the rear orc slays another of his fellows. Oziruths guards around the corner against more orcs advancing.
         I tell the elf, Jio, to open the door on the east wall. The elf cannot muscle it open. So Straggler strides forth and kicks it down. A dusty old room with nothing of value lay in the darkness. By the time I emerge from the reconnaissance, the battle finishes with the last raging orc, heaving and foaming mouthed over his fallen brethren.
         “Backstabber!” I call him, but he says his name is, “Go-Thah!” a half-orc.

         Now there is some disturbance outside, from beyond the door which no one has closed. More orcs are chasing something, but they become entangled in the grass, as if the vegetation protested their passage. A strong one breaks through to attack. Oaf and Guile run outside. Oziruths is next and then Straggler, waiting to proceed after the rest. Go-Thag charges, running, foaming at the mouth. Straggler bursts down another door to yield the way, and Oziruths is able to let the half-orc through to the outside.
         The first two out there have engaged the orc when the half-orc exits and finishes off the orc. Then they return to the hall after Straggler has searched another room, finding nothing. The others have discovered something, or rather someone, outside. He seems a child from his stature, but he wears a beard upon his chin. This gnome’s name is, “Tatelland.” He tells us that he has more friends outside who need to get off of the island, after being informed of its impending demise.

         Go-Thag wants to retrieve some of his tools and possessions before leaving this, “mansion,” which he claims to have built. Guile, Oaf, and Oziruths will accompany him. Myself, Jio, Hafbright, and Tatelland will return outdoors to find Tatelland’s friends. Then we all will meet up together in a room marked on Kiips'ake’s map: “Entrance to Catacombs.”

         While Sir Guile, Oziruths, and Oaf accompany Go-Thag, Tatelland runs all the way to the western end of the corridor and a door. It leads outside, where he finds four or five sleeping orcs. Silently shutting that door, he picks the last door on the north wall. This room has a large double window on the north wall with the afternoon’s sunlight streaming in through the smashed-out glass. Using my whip folded double upon itself, I lower the diminutive gnome five feet down to the ground. Tatelland is to return here with his friends: Animals!? Already the plan is shot.

         After a few more minutes, the others return after having spent the time running, they say, away from orcs. They will be here soon and there are too many to fight. The runners go to the room next door which, according to Kiips'ake’s map, should be the, “entrance to the catacombs.” Soon after they set out, the orcs arrive, heralded by the sounds of their heavy feet beating on the wooden floorboards.
         The orcs test the doors. I put my back into the door and it holds for three of their assaults upon it. In the room next door, Oziruths and Go-Thag are not so lucky when all of the orcs break into their room. Go-Thag fights the orc’s commander. They both draw blood, but only the half-orc is left standing.

         Next door, Straggler hears the sounds of battle. After a moment I can gauge that the pressure from the other side of the door is gone. I open the door, carefully looking down the hall. I cross the fifteen feet quietly under the noise of combat to slay the orc in the hall. Then mine hand-axe fells the orc leader. Straggler beholds the room: Go-Thag and Oaf lay upon the ground dead or wounded, and Squire Guile attempts to open the window to escape; there are four remaining combative orcs, and at them I yell: “Come On!” as their leader drops to the ground before me, whispering, “Avenge me.”

         The orcs all ignore Guile and turn to confront Straggler, the Ranger. The humans: Me, Oziruth’s, Guile and even Hafbright the sailor, are able to cut down the orcs, but not before the closest orc deals to me a serious wound.

         We pile the dead orcs against the door to protect against more of their fellows. I attempt first-aid on Go-thag’s wounds, but it does not seem to help.
         Oaf seems to be conscious again. The fellow is a bit too foolhardy to enter combat without any protective armour, and this is the second time we have had to revive him. He does not seem long for this world. Squire Guile is wounded, but Oziruths is not.
         This room has two bookcases on the north wall, flanking the window. Guile proceeds to remove the books and looks for a secret way to the catacombs.
         It finally reveals itself as the bookcase slides to one side, giving way to a path of rock cut steps. All descend.

         Fortunately we had a few torches among us, and Tatelland rejoined our ranks before we had gone very far. He brought a badger; a hart, upon whose back he rode; and a snake, which we did not see immediately.
         In the catacombs below the main structure, unknown fears taunted us from beyond the dim ring of our torch-light. We were on our own, since Kiips’ake had not mapped out this portion of our escape.
         A palpable air of decay hung about this place, and it seemed to invade my being with every breath. After passing several smaller burial nooks, I noticed a larger chamber opening ahead.

         "I think it’s this way,” I said, heading toward that direction.

         Indeed, a large cavern beckoned, making the smaller passages I had just traversed seem cozy and safe, but there was no going back.

         "I see a mast; and a ship!” whispered Jio. Only his elvish eyes could penetrate the inky void beyond the limits of torchlight.

         Time moved slowly as I made deliberate, unfaltering steps toward the direction Jio indicated, walking as a condemned man to his execution. The beaded sweat began to run and drip from my face, soaking my garments.
         Finally the goal was reached. The wooden ship was surely crafted by a people who had long vanished into memory; however, it seemed vibrant and newly made. I almost felt relief as I neared it, when the piney scent of the forest returned to my nostrils, temporarily obscuring the ubiquitous stench of death. As I slowly peered over the side to see what was within, a glint or reflection answered my caution.

         The others were also interested in the ship’s contents, and the room seemed to impossibly brighten as the reflection of the torches played across their faces. Within the bottom of the ship lay a metal-clad human form. The full suit of armor was solid, and shiny, and engraved with waves and shells and dolphins.

         "I have heard of this man,” said Oaf. “I believe this is Prince Renarok, of the Seafarers. He died more than two hundred years ago.” Oaf often spouted obscure bits of lore, but whether he just made it up was hard to tell.

         More than one gasp of awe at discovering such preserved beauty in this horrid place was heard. The fascination turned to panic as the shape slowly sat upright and stood!
         In its hand, it held a mace, which was deliberately raised over its head. Just then, a violent tremor shook the entire cavern, as though a great pit should open and the bowels of the earth would swallow us whole.
         If the undead prince was distracted, we did not notice, since the torrents of white foaming water rushing in through the many opening fissures suddenly took precedence. Pools of water quickly formed and expanded and joined together, creating a line which menacingly approached and rose. Another shaking of the foundations caused a wall of the cavern to collapse, allowing sunlight to stream in along with more water. We were forced to climb into our attacker’s ship, risking his ire over the wrath of nature.

         I was astonished and yet slightly pleased: the problem of getting the ship to water was now solved. However, the ship’s original owner was now trying to kill us and the only alternative was drowning. Our weapons did not seem to cause any harm as they bounced off the metal plate as easily as the light. Again the mace raised; and again it fell true upon one of our number. The boat was not that large and there were too many occupants to avoid the aggressor, while still clinging to the gunwales or risk being tossed overboard into the turbulent raging sea.
         Ultimately, unable to damage the undead prince, Oziruths and I devised a plan of attack. The prince was lured toward the bow of the ship by the few of us still able to move. One more blow from his mace and I would surely join the fallen. As the mace drew back, Oziruths charged headlong and pushed the too long dead prince over the side. There was a great splash as I watched his form sinking into the unknown black depths of the Lake Nire.

         The fight has exacted a terrible toll: Jio lies dead at the bottom of the boat. He is given a burial at sea, like the armor, a great heirloom now lost to the ages, never to be seen again. I will miss my elvish friend and the positive influence he demonstrated. One treasure has been recovered from that legendary age: the long ship. Which was fortunate for us. As we scanned the horizon, there was no trace left of Malor’s Island.

         Soon after that, the sea calmed and the stars appeared. Hafbright regained his senses to guide us toward our original destination across the lake. We reached the southern shores the next morn, which proved to provide another warm day.

         Straggler suggests and all agree to leave the ancient magic boat in the care of the sailor, Hafbright. He is pledged to offer any of the island’s survivors free passage o’er the Lake Nire for life. Oaf draws up the contract. All may seek the vessel, “Malor’s Wroth,” at the ports along the lake.


II.   The Statue, the Wolf, and the Black Knight

         I proceed to guide, with the help of Go-Thag, across grasslands, then through farmlands. Go-Thag is not as pleasant a companion as Jio, but he proves to be skilled in woodcraft. Then a crying child runs up to Straggler and the half-orc. The boy passes all the others in the party until reaching Squire Guile, who marches last. The child asks for all to help his father, who may be dead –he is not moving, according to the boy. I think it is a medusa because the boy had mentioned something about snakes. Oaf thinks it may be a gorgon.

         The boy leads them all to his home. Outside in the field is an amazingly accurate stone statue of a peasant. The party discusses this for a moment. Straggler circles the farmhouse looking for tracks or any traces of the creature. Meanwhile Tatelland, the gnomish druid, sends his badger friend into the chicken coop to flush the remaining birds out to safety.

         I then cautiously enter to fight the beast. I gag on the foul stench from the chickens. Through the slats only dim light enters the coop, but I avert mine eyes to avoid the creature's gaze. Had I not done this, I may have had greater accuracy in my sword strokes. I dealt one serious wound to the yellow chicken-like thing, before myself being turned to stone by a single peck of the beast’s beak.

         I am told five days have passed before Straggler is returned to flesh and blood. In that time I was carted to a village, then back to the farm, and then to yet another village. There is an old man, some wizard named, “Burn,” who has restored my livelihood. Upon awakening I am asked to swear an oath to my gods that I will kill the Black Knight, “Sir Tharel.” The request was made to all, who agreed on condition that the wizard undo the cockatrice’s effect on me. I swear to three gods that I will do all to end Sir Tharel’s threat to the villages.

         I am informed of the events of the past five days: how the cockatrice was finally beheaded, how my friends searched for the wizard, and how they convinced him to help. Burn required the cockatrice’s beak to undo the magic, so they had returned to the farm. I am also introduced to a new member of our group: a holy man of the god, Malor, named, “Brother Machlizdek.” He seems noble and honorable enough and is largely responsible for their success in restoring me, or so I am told, since it was he who retrieved the severed head’s beak from the farm’s waste pit.

         After leaving the wizard’s tower on the outskirts of the village, Hemmloct, we travel a short distance to visit the grove of Tatelland’s friend and superior, a human druid named, “Yarew.” This man seems as old as Burn the wizard, but he is more pleasant to deal with. I decide to stay in the grove with Gothag and the druids when the others leave for Hommlect.

         Night approaches. As I have not eaten for five days, Straggler asks the half-orc if he wants to go hunting. I find a rabbit, but my bowshot misfires since I am stiff from days of inactivity spent standing still. Later I notice that we may have become the hunted when I see a wolf preying upon us from a thicket.
         The wolf leaps forth and attacks!
         Straggler slices this unusually large wolf with my longsword, but my eyes unbelievingly behold the wound seals itself before spilling even a drop of blood. The wolf’s maw opens and bites and misses me, snapping shut. Straggler runs and climbs into a tree. As Go-Thag follows, he is bitten on the leg as he jumps into the tree.

         ”Find your own tree.” I said.

         "Go-Thah’s leg burns!” said the half-orc, sounding worried for the first time.

         I see that the wound is serious indeed. With the two of us in the swaying and bending tree, the wolf circles and waits below.

         I am able to strike my flint to steel and to light a torch, suspecting that normal weapons will not harm this wolf beast. Then, when trying to put torch to wolf fur, I slip and almost fall from the safety of the limbs, so instead I drop the torch when catching myself. It is burning the grass below slowly; it should not spread but go out and not threaten the healthy, sturdy tree which is our refuge. However, the wolf collects and adds tinder, and it blows carefully upon the fire, increasing it beyond its natural course. Straggler attempts to hinder the wolf’s progress with mine whip, but I can do little to discourage the beast. When my tree begins burning, Straggler leaps for a nearby tree, but I miss a branch and instead crash to the ground.

         The werewolf is upon me, but before its fangs can close about my neck; the half-orc leaps from the burning tree and strikes a mighty blow with his axe. The unnatural wolf scampers away in the moonlight, yelping like a pup. Meanwhile the fire has become too engrossed with the surrounding forest for us to extinguish.

         Clouds gather shortly after the fire is raging, and with the distant preamble of a mysterious voice intoning a strange language, they give way to torrential rains which put out the flames. Go-Thag’s leg is badly wounded, and he wants to visit the druid.

         When we arrive, the druid, Yarew, questions us: “Who started that fire?”

         ”He did,” says the half-orc. After curing him, the druid becomes angry.

         ”But –It was the wolf!”
         I try to explain, but Yarew too quickly believes the half-orc barbarian. Plants begin to twist and crawl toward me as the druid speaks his strange tongue. I flee without fully relating my version of the events. Still hungry, I try to get some little rest through what is left of the night.

         In the morning’s light, I see that there is more of a town surrounding the wizard’s tower than I first suspected, and I go to the armory. There I meet up with the cleric, Brother Machlizdek; the paladin, Squire Guile; and his henchman, Oziruths, the fighter.
         I desire to buy silver arrows to see if the legend is true concerning their effectiveness on werewolves. They do in fact sell silver arrows, lending partial creedence to the myth, unless they seek only to trade on the fears of the superstitious. The prices are so inflated, that it is likely they are more interested in profit than in people’s safety.

         ”Oh, it’s a werewolf you’re after is it, lad?” said one of the shopkeepers. A bald, older man so accustomed to comforts that he took them for granted, disparaging others not so fortunate as himself. Straggler disliked him immediately.

         The man continued, “I’ve just the thing for you: a female dog. She’ll attract that ‘wolf in no time. Lure it right into your trap.” I begin to loathe this man even more, for his ease with the idea of putting the dog at such cruel risk, something a brave man would not even consider.

         ”No,” I reply. “I don’t want your dog.”

         ”It’s a good looking dog,” protested the salesman, as if the dog’s looks were the reason for refusal.

         ”Good,” Straggler responds, “You’re gonna need it.”

         Outside, Oaf guffaws at my insult and intimation to the salesman. Oaf is finally considering buying some protective armor, but he finds his funds are insufficient. Then I offer to make a loan to Oaf Shadow-Fire of fifteen pieces of gold for armor purchase. Oaf declines.

         When our party regroups, we are now eight members strong: Straggler the Ranger, Oaf, Squire Guile, Oziruths, Go-Thag the half-orc barbarian, Tatelland the gnome druid, the Brother Machlizdek of Malor, and the newest member. This is an elf girl named, “Endica.” She is an apprentice to Burn, and she is sent by him to spy on or aid us against the evil black knight, Sir Theral. We discuss strategies for his defeat. There is a legend that he can only be killed by a true Paladin, but it does not tell if others may bring him harm.

         I guide us over a short journey to a decrepit moat house which is some distance south of Burn’s tower. Straggler the Ranger tracked one group to this point, while two other groups of tracks separate out into the wilderness.

         The decision to first investigate the moat house is agreed upon by all. The state of decay betrays its many years of abandoned neglect. There is a rotting drawbridge beckoning across the now swampy moat, and it leads to a crumbling tower whose gateway appears as a grinning death's head extending a putrid tongue for a welcome mat. All are wary to tread upon it, for it appears unsound and dotted with voids. It would seem that I am the best suited to test it, since the others are too heavily burdened or too vulnerable and valuable to risk. Go-Thag agrees to assist me. He may be a crude, annoying orc, but he has never lacked in bravery. We slowly make our way across to the other side, and as we motion to the others, many dark shapes spring forth from the overgrowth!
         The things smell as though they live in the swamp, and although they are the size of a small man, I realize they are actually frogs. It doesn't take long for Go-Thag, Oziruths, Guice, and I to strike them down while suffering only minor injuries to ourselves. Once again, Oaf has been unlucky; however, the Brother calls upon Malor to heal Oaf's bruised head, and he seems to recuperate.

         After passing through the gate tower, we reached an inner courtyard which was overgrown with many varieties of weeds. I noticed the clear glint of metal from a darkened doorway and quickly told the others to stay back. I knew someone there was on guard. We planned for Go-Thag and I to approach silently to scout it out again.

         Before they are able to raise an alarm, we attack the two guardsmen. Unfortunately, another set of guards from across the bailey witnesses our melee. As they advance upon us, they are intercepted by the rest of our fellows and the grasping weeds which Tatelland commands to entangle them. Not all of these foes are killed, and two survive to be taken as our prisoners.

         We locate an empty room inside one of the remaining towers and set up for interrogation. Oaf, Guice and Oziruths are to question the men. I am more concerned with staying on the look out for an unexpected ambush.

         Some screams from the prisoners issue forth, risking to reveal our location. When I investigate, I find that some distasteful methods have been employed. Indeed, it seems that Guile has been disenfranchised as a Paladin for witnessing or participating in the torture. He was necessary to slay Sir Theral, now he is just another sword-slinger.
         Oaf relates the prisoners' information: they have revealed where to find the black knight and also some details of his defenses. They also disclose that Sir Theral wears black plate armor forged of adamantite -the strongest metal known and nearly indestructable.
         I am incredulous and I verbally barrage the two men.

         "So you have told us all that you know of your lord and master? Why should we believe anything you say? You could say anything, more like you lead us into a trap." I said.

         "Are you drunk?" said one of the men.

         "Maybe," I replied. "But I feel sober enough to know not to trust my enemies."

         We agreed to leave the two tied up and to release them upon our departure. The information they provided proved to be accurate enough. The first obstacle was a guard's barracks. Thanks to their betrayal, we caught our prisoners' comrades by surprise. They were unarmored and slow to awake. We easily dispatched ten of the groggy fellows, while suffering only minor wounds ourselves. I would rather have handled it differently, but since we were outnumbered and against an impossibly powerful foe, the odds needed leveling at any cost. By casting their lot with evil, those poor fools had sealed their fate.

         Guile still felt abandoned by his deity. Our strategy now turned to the possibility of capturing Sir Theral, since, if the legend had any truth, none of us could deal him a deathblow.

         As we traversed the final corridor, I steeled my nerves and set my resolve. I would still be a stone statue if not for these fellows and the wizard for whom I had sworn my oath. I don't think our weapons will penetrate the adamantite armor, so I suggest piling on the black knight and dragging him down by the sheer weight of our numbers.

         We enter a room with an open door on the opposite side. From it issues lantern light and metal sounds and a voice.

         "Ha! You think to catch me unawares?" came the deep yet clear timbre. "Come get me, if you can." Then the door slammed shut with a thud. We next heard the sounds of a lock clicking and a heavy bar fitting into place behind the door.

         "What do we do now?" asked Endica.

         We quickly surmised that none present could pick the lock, and that the strength of the iron bar would secure the door against any of our efforts to dislodge it from this side.
         I planned as best I could, considering other options. At least our quarry was not going anywhere. Although we had not viewed his chamber, we appeared to have cut off his escape.          From inside, the black knight could be heard donning his reputedly invulnerable armor, all the while making boasts of our imminent demise.

         Suddenly, Oaf's eyes lit up, "The hinges!" he observed. They were in plain sight on our side since the door opened outwards into this room. Without pause, Oaf approached and skillfully removed the hinges.

         We all braced for combat. The door was removed, and no barrier separated our foe from our attack.

         "Surrender now and swear fealty to me, and I may spare your lives," claimed Sir Theral from behind his black helm. I saw now that he wielded a wicked two-handed greatsword, which he hefted with ease.

         As the black armored knight strode forth from his room, Go-Thag charged first, screaming with his greataxe held high. With one wide swipe form that black blade, the half-orc was laid upon the flagstones in two bloody halves.

         Next Guile, Oziruths, and I engaged Sir Theral. He seemed impervious to our swords, while his own strokes dealt only mortal wounds. We were all dispatched quickly. I was the last to fall.

         As I lay on the floor barely conscious, trying to maintain a grip upon my longsword, the black plated boot kicked it away. I was dragged up like a rag doll, and his sword was put to my throat. There was naught I could do as Theral made his demands to the others.

         "All of you, throw down your weapons," he ordered to Oaf, Tatelland, Brother Machlizdek, and Endica. "Or I will finish this one, too." They quickly complied.

         Sir Theral backed his way toward the exit, as the remaining four stood and watched, helpless.

         "You fools," he taunted, "You could have served me. Now witness what becomes of all who defy Sir Theral."

         The blood flowed warmly from my neck as Theral's blade sliced it open. My head was light, and yet heavily it sunk toward my chest, and my vision blurred. I felt cold and chill, and I would have shivered, but I was too weak. I didn't feel the ground hit me, and I couldn't hear the voices of the four survivors as they rushed toward me. I saw dark shadows surrounding them, and then I saw no more.

author's note:  This story transpired in the autumn of 2000 and could never have happened without Keith(DM), Andy, Mike, Jim J, Ivar, Jim F, and a few others. Thanks *Delight*guys!
         I have finally entered in all of my notes but still need to fill in a few details, and I'm sure, to correct some inconsistencies in tone and grammar.

         History of Straggler:  Straggler was my character, a human ranger (I had originally thought of the name and rolled up the character as a wood elf a year earlier [in 1999 -the 20th century! ] for the 2nd edition of D&D.)
         While Keith, the DM, explained his ranger training, the alliance with the neighboring elves, his meeting Jio, and their mission to Hommlect; I devised the back story covering the remainder of the events which led up to his appearance at the docks in Part I.

This story and some of the characters will continue in, "The Barbarian Chronicles."

         "...Very little is known about Sir Theral, the Black Knight, or even if he is human, since he has never been seen outside the protective encasement of his black adamantite armor; for none live who have witnessed the sight. It is rumored he may only be vanquished by a holy paladin. He wields an ebony two-handed sword, which he was last seen using to slit the throat of Alastair, the ranger, at his ruined moat house hideout south of the village of Hommlect."
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