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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Last Stand

by Paul Mosher

The tale I’m about to relate was inspired by a short story I read a few years ago involving re-incarnation and things left undone in the past that could only be rectified in the present. This tale is from a game I ran in Peter and Carolyn Savoy’s world of Vahrdee.

It revolved (as these things often do) around the PCs who were assigned the task of helping a Tzikki Bug-Folk envoy and her escorts discover the source of a series of attacks on scattered hives that had been totally destroyed. During the course of the adventure, the PCs discovered an old lost Dwarven Hold. Their subsequent adventures both outside and inside this lost complex, combined with their “mission” led me to do a quick improvisation that worked to perfection. The result was some magnificent roleplaying, problem solving and spectacular combat sequences. The names of the main protagonists in the piece that follows were all eerily similar to the names of the PCs involved. I suggest you do the same name/race/class-wise if you wish to use this tale in your game. The first portion is the dream they all had, the second portion is the scroll/warrant of the Dwarven King from 5,000 years past which helped fill in some missing pieces for the players. I hope you enjoy it and maybe even get some ideas of your own from it.

The scene is a fortified room within the ancient halls. The PCs have bedded down for the night and as sleep spreads her veil upon them all, even the guards doze off and they Dream….

We formed a crescent in front of the large crystal formation at the cavern’s northern wall. There were only 11 of us now and we’d been fighting for hours this last day. Truth be told, none of us had had much rest since the fighting began almost a week ago.

At first the Dwarves had been in shock as their city and upper halls were whelmed on the first day. Then their pride and stubbornness came back and, led by King Ironhelm, they began the fight for survival. But it was evident from the 3d day on that there would be no survival. The enemy were too many, too savage; and the Dwarves were too few. Too few!! Who would have thought that 3700 Dwarven warriors, on their own ground, fighting for their families and their lives wouldn’t be enough?

The Muhrohz, the Tainted Ones, just kept coming. They might be held back for a short space, but then they’d come again and again and again. And where the Dwarves held best, where it seemed they couldn’t be pried from their positions, the filth-spewing Shamen of the Muhrohz leveled crushing, powerful spells against which there was no defense. Then would come the Pale One, the Deathwalker, leading his minions to war.

A Great Manotaur over 12’ tall, albino, his sickly pallor a sharp contrast to the dusky dark hues of his lesser brethren. He’d lead the charge, his red eyes gleaming in the torchlight, his giant axes cutting swathes through the defenders with every rise and fall.

So ever downward, ever inward we retreated. Then came the terrible news that somehow the enemy had entered the lower halls. Now the attack came from below as well. The plan to evacuate was crushed, the families were lost with the rest of us. There was no way out, no place to go.

Hell, it was pure bad luck we were even here! After one hair raising scrape after another while serving Windemere, hiking all over the continent trying to stabilize things while war broke out all around, this was supposed to be cake. All he wanted was for us to deliver the Affirmation Pacts to Ironhelm. So we did. Got here a week ago, handed over the papers, thanks of a grateful ally, blah blah. Then Ironhelm invites us to a feast, and we accept and stay overnight. The next morning all Hell breaks loose.

Finally, last night the King comes to us with his Rune Priest (and brother) Derax. They tell us of their plan, their “trap” as they call it. How they’ve woven a Rune and how the Dwarf blood will feed it and how the Viles (as some call them) will be sealed here once the last defender falls. How the women and children already volunteered to start the process rather than force their kin to slay them or fall into Muhrohz hands. Then the King asks us what we want to do. He says he can spare 50 warriors if we want to try to fight our way out. Or would we do him the honor of joining him in the last defense of Iron Deep?

We take it all in and just look at each other silently. Nobody speaks for a long time, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I don’t want to die. Least of all deep underground surrounded by fiends who’ll feast on my flesh once I’m down. The King offers a slim chance to escape and a slim chance is better than none at all. But then I stop and think about what I’ve seen the last few days. And I know, deep inside, that this Magik is as powerful as the King and his brother say; that if a dash for freedom were to succeed it would draw pursuit. And I for one don’t want any of these Goathead bastards to escape. But I don’t want to die either. I’m scared. And there’s so much I’ve left unfinished and more I never even got to try. I look at my friends; my companions and partners for the last 8 years. Nobody wants to die and if we had a choice we’d all opt to be somewhere else right this minute. But we only have the one choice, and its already been made.

I rise to my feet, look once more at my friends who all silently nod or wink or blink acceptance and stride to where the King waits. I bow deeply from the waist and kneel before the Monarch of this realm. “Your Majesty,” I begin, “My friends and I are in agreement. We’ve been so entertained by your Dwarven sport and hospitality over the last few days that we wouldn’t dream of missing the grand finale.”

He smiles, and rising to his feet says, “We are honored by your Friendship. Now get what rest you may, for on the morrow there shall be a Great Slaying of Tainted Ones, and a great Victory over them.” Then he and his brother move out of the room, back down the hall toward the great crystal cavern where the Dwarves would muster in the morning. The Dwarves and us.

I walk back to the others, sit down and lay back against my gear. “Its all set then,” I murmured, “tomorrow in the Crystal Palace.” There were sighs, snorts, and the rustling sounds of folk bedding down. But no words. I suppose we were each still lost in our thoughts.

For my part I thought about these people I’d led here on Windemere’s errand. 8 years is a long time for a crew like this to stick together. I lost count long ago of how many times we’ve saved each other’s lives. But that’s what family does, I suppose. Yeah, they’re more like family than my own blood. I’d trust any of them with my life, my soul, my honor.

There’s the two Dwarf brothers, Aryle and Angdar. You’ve never heard such bickering or seen such nasty practical jokes as these two constantly batter each other with. But put them in a fight and back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder they’ll Stand, with implicit unspoken trust in each other.

Randall’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. He’s funny and always tries to be polite no matter the circumstance. But back him into a corner with no way out and he’ll not hesitate to kill you with a gesture. Mages are like that you know.

And Cougar. Why he calls himself that, none of us have ever figured out. He’s about as quiet and subtle as a weasel in a henhouse and he’s not the brightest candle in the shop. He’s a hell of a nice guy though, and man can he fight!

I’ve seen Diro gentle horses with a word, and command wild things to do his bidding. He never showed us much in the way of emotion till the other day, when his marmoot and his rock lizard saved his life at the cost of their own. He cried like a baby, swearing over and over he’d set them free and commanded them away. But as gruff as he’s always been I always figured that anybody who cares for simple creatures the way he does is alright at heart.

Then there’s big Tohpang-Khalsah. 9 feet tall and built like a mountain, and strong? We had no idea. Until this started he apparently had never used his full strength. We realized that when he threw that steel door 40 feet down the corridor to cover our retreat. Never saw him mad before either. But the Muhrohz have made him mad. With that hammer of his, blood and bone fly like a fine mist when he strikes them.

Serrico the woodsman is unbelievable. None of us have ever seen such accuracy. I mean we always knew he was good, but Damn! This is the stuff of legend. Always quiet, always looking out for number one, but he still comes through when you need him, always without being asked.

And Shallmut the Priestess. Going on and on about this God or that Goddess, faith, miracles and such. She’s troubled by the talk that the Gods have turned away from Vahrdee, but says nothing. Just goes on going on. She counsels us, makes peace amongst us, heals our hurts, mothers us when we need it and fights like a demon when she has to.

“Guys,” I said into the darkness, “There’s something I’ve gotta tell you.” I continued, “I don’t want to be eaten by some Vile puke tomorrow. But most of all I don’t want to die without saying what you’ve all meant to me…if I have to die, I couldn’t think of a better bunch of people to go out with than you guys.” I paused, “I love you all and wish you well.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Angdar’s voice spoke up, “Well Marco, we love you too….Wanna share a blanky?”

The room erupted in guffaws and laughter, loud, hearty and strong. “No thanks twerp,” I replied, “I know where you’ve been.” And again everybody howls with glee. I turn toward the wall and go to sleep smiling. But with a tear in my eye for these friends of mine, who’ll be gone tomorrow.

And now it comes to this. All of us are wounded, some more so than others. For some reason the Muhrohz have pulled back, but we all know that when they come again it’ll be for the last time. The bodies are heaped waist high in front of us, enemy and ally alike locked in Death’s embrace; terror, rage, shock on every face among the fallen.

Shallmut moves among us, binding wounds, doling out elixirs, healing what she can. As she moves away I see the large, almost black bloodstain covering her left side.

I can’t bear to look at Tohpan-Khalsah. I don’t know what keeps him on his feet. He’s too big for the enemy to miss and he’s got such horrendous wounds. But he’s still up, still ready for more. Then he points with his hammer and rumbles, “They’re starting to move.”

Sericco says, “I’ve got about 30 arrows left. Get ready to make room for me in the line.”

Arylle turns toward his brother. “I’m gonna fight longer than you, asshole. I’ll die last and be a bigger hero,” he smugly says.

“You stupid bastard,” growls Angdar. “What if I save the Goatboys the trouble and kill you myself? Then I die last and I’m the bigger hero.”

Randall shouts, “Here they come!” and launches a lightning bolt at a big one with some horrific banner on its back.

My sword, Elvenkyne, sings into my hand as I ready myself. Shallmut shouts prayers to the Lady, her staff glowing with power.

Diro and Cougar are next to each other, silent. Waiting.

The King and his brother lift their weapons in readiness, battle song upon their lips.

And the tide of Darkness rolls forward, barking, bellowing, howling its hate as it comes. Randall shrieks in agony as baleful green lightning strikes him full in the face. He falls wailing to the floor as the flesh boils away and his eyes burst from the hot crack of the lightning. Serrico looses shaft after shaft. 30 time he shoots, 30 times the arrows strike home, piercing heart, throat or eye. Suddenly he stiffens and goes down, a black javelin in his chest.

Now the wave hits and one by one we fall. And as each falls, more of the enemy swarm in. Diro..then Shallmut on the other side…Cougar..Derax…..now me. Then the brothers die almost simultaneously. Only Tohpang-Khalsah and the king are left now. Suddenly Khalsah is hamstrung and falls still swinging his hammer. His last act is to reach out and crush a tainted skull with his bare hand. Then their weapons rise and fall, over and over and over.

Only the King is left standing and suddenly they pull back. As if by magik their ranks part and the Deathwalker comes. Bellowing his rage he charges; Ironhelm raises his axe, but too late. The first blow shears through his spine, the second sends his head and crown rolling to the Pale One’s feet. He stomps down, smashing them both flat…and darkness falls…and wails of terror begin to flood the cavern as the echoing, faint song of Victory from thousands of Dwarven throats is finally heard.

So that’s how it happened and there’s no turning back, ever. It’s just that there’s so much we never got to do, ya know?…If only we’d been able to go on…if only…if..only...

The PCs awoke then and sought out the Crystal Palace. There they found the remains of the fallen and laid them to rest after 5000 years. They found also the following document, hidden upon the body of a headless Dwarf warrior dressed in fine Dwarven plate.

Should any find the words here set, heed them and remember us to Vahrdee, for even in black defeat we sow Victory against the dark.

Battle has raged for 6 days. They struck before dawn on 29 Nessan. We never saw or heard them coming. The alarm bells only rang thrice before the Gate was smashed. Then they swarmed in, Vile Not-Men. We had heard of them, but never have we tasted such blood thirsting savagery.

The city and upper halls fell quickly on the first day. Then we rallied and fought back. Alas, our might of arms and that of our allies is not enough; what they cannot take by blade and talon they smash flat with their wedge magik. Even Yuredon cannot slay them fast enough and I wield my old Doomfriend and companion well indeed.

We do not have long now, yet we do not despair. Our Rune Priests have laid a trap. We fall here, but these foul brutes will not see the world again either. We shall fight them Hall to Hall, room by room. We will sow such death among them while we can that they will hold nothing back and come against us with their full might. Then shall Victory be ours thou we perish before savoring it.

Freely given, our Dwarf blood shall make a Rune. When the last defender falls, the Rune shall be complete. The Priests say the Rune is thus:

SO LONG AS CRYSTAL GROWS AND MAGIK FLOWS
THE VILES WILL EVER STAY; BENEATH THIS MOUNTAIN
FASTNESS, SEALED FROM LIGHT OF DAY.

With AoLe’s Blessing and Vahrda’s Will the enemy shall be trapped here for all time.

Our Rune is strong. Our Wills are set. We die here that Light shall live. Sing our Song, for we are

Dwarven born.
I AM

Thorgrim Ironhelm

KING
Of the Dwarves of
Iron Deep

The seeds of high adventure lay buried in each of us. We only have to find a way to bring them out, bring them to life in the game. Of course you cannot fail if you do not try, but remember: WHO DARES, WINS

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