This trip does nothing but affirm the old wisdom about deals that seem too good to be true. In the past couple days I’ve nearly lost this weak body to living corpses, one of our carts has been damaged beyond our means to repair it, the horse pulling it mortally wounded, and our ranks have fallen by more than half. And worse still, it feels as though my own past has been dogging us—a fact which all but ensures further horrors to come.
The morning following the attack I was sore, both physically and otherwise, but despite a heavy fog, I nearly let myself believe things were looking up. Finnian had defended us ably, and, although I completely failed to give him the support I should have, we worked together well enough. As the dwarf, Norrund, played lute, and the elf, Vodarr, attempted to entertain us with his “hand experience”, it almost felt like the early days, with Thorman and Hubert and Kitty, too many lifetimes ago. Undead are a bit more ominous than mere bandits, perhaps, but at least no carts were set ablaze.
During a break in our travels, Milo called out to our group, asking who the leader was. I volunteered myself, without hesitation, as the only one of the group with any real experience in these things. I was joined by the leader of the half-orc crew, a particularly tough looking male named Dokken. He informed us that one of the chests in our cart had been tampered with, and that a single piece of the cargo was missing—from the other chest. He couldn’t say when it happened, as this was his first inspection since the previous morning—in his haste to press forward, spurred by the attack on the road, he had become lax in his inspections. He gave us an ultimatum—find who stole the treasure, a small, smooth stone with a natural glow, and return it, or else no one gets paid. He gave us his word that, if the thief came forward, he or she would merely be dismissed without pay. But if he discovered the thief himself, he would kill them personally. Dokken and I agreed the terms were fair and set off to our separate investigations. I wish I could say I knew my companions well enough that they were above suspicion. Still, secrets are difficult to keep on a journey such as this, so I had little doubt things would resolve themselves. All in all, still quite the minor crisis, by my standards.
Then we hit the trap and it began to become apparent just how little my life has changed.
We had pushed on past dusk—I had suggested we stop to make camp as, between the fog and tree cover, it was nearly impossible to see anything, but the others were afraid of more walking dead and wished to continue as far as possible before stopping. As such, we stood no chance of seeing the rut in the road when we hit it. It was clearly placed there intentionally—the perfect size and depth to cripple a cart, and it worked perfectly, destroying the rear wheel at the axel. Milo had no spare, so, lacking other options, we loaded everything into the single intact cart while Finnian, Vodarr, and Dokken headed off into the woods to track down the loosed horse. We had finished loading everything and were standing guard, wary of ambush, awaiting their return, when we saw them. Norrund was the first, his eyes being accustomed to the dark in a way I could so very recently relate to. All I could see were two pairs of glowing eyes—ominous enough by themselves—but what truly chilled my blood was what Norrund said they were attached to, a pair of ghostly figures—young girls—accompanied by a third, a “grown” woman, in the middle. When he returned, Finnian corroborated this story, claiming to have seen them in the woods the night before, after the attack. They made no move toward us, and as the search party arrived, they retreated back into the trees.
That night I slept ill—too many thoughts stuck in my mind. What significance do these girls play. They’re clearly pursuing us, but have made no move against us as of yet. Is this merely their domain we travel through, or is it something about us that draws them? Our cargo? The book of Nerull? Or might it be me they seek? And what do they signify? Are they connected to the undead we have seen? Could this be the doing of Nerull? Or perhaps Doran himself has returned once again. I shudder to think what he could do if he allied with a fully risen god from the beginning. All questions I cannot answer now, and yet I cannot rid myself of them.
When day finally broke, we made our plans for going forward. A small contingent would walk at speed to the nearest town—hopefully not more than a day’s journey away—and try to procure us a new cart. Meanwhile the rest of us would attempt to move forward on foot, with our cargo on the remaining cart, and meet them on their way back. Norrund had bullheadedly decided to take the entire night’s watch and was completely passed out, so we loaded him on the cart as well. Weighing as little as I do, I opted to ride as well, citing that I would only slow our progress on foot. I did, however, have the ulterior motive of looking for Milo’s missing stone. I tried to suggest that the orcs head to town, providing me with ample opportunity to pursue my investigation, but Finnian was dead-set on going, and he took Vodarr and Ursa with him, leaving only Norrund for me to investigate.
My search of Norrund’s gear turned up nothing of note, so, once he awoke, I chose to confide in him what had happened, and what was at stake. His words did nothing to convince me of his innocence, but they also failed to betray any guilt. Still, he doesn’t seem the type to value riches over his own life, so I hoped that, if he were indeed the culprit, Milo’s warning would at least spur him to replace it at his first opportunity. But it would turn out I needn’t have worried. Shortly after our conversation, we ran across a traveler in the road—the first other living soul we’d seen in nearly a week. He looked quite harried and had nothing but ill to say of the road ahead. We, in turn, left him with warnings of the dangers behind us and we both set off to our own individual dooms.
Later in that day, the two orcs at our rear, Talwe and Baron, caught up to us and asked to switch places. We had been making good time, under the circumstances, and, although I knew it would slow us down, it does us no good to have worn out guards, so Norrund and I agreed. Our two groups had, to this point, kept to ourselves, but in this brief exchange, I felt some small sense of camaraderie with them. Had we been introduced properly from the start, I would at this point have known them for almost as long as the others. I decided that it was perhaps time to start bridging that gap—the way this journey was turning out, it would be better to be able to function as a single unit when necessary.
With Norrund and I guarding the rear, our pace was, indeed, slowed, but it was not a complete setback. After all, if the roads ahead were as bad as the man we met had said, we had no reason to hurry, as our advance party would no doubt be delayed. And, indeed, it didn’t take long for those premonitions to be justified, as shortly after our swap, Dokken came running back to us, shouting for us to get off the road. We do so, just in time for a large shadow to darken the skies in front of us—the unmistakable silhouette of a dragon. Milo expressed shock, stating that the last dragon he has personally known of in this world was nearly a century ago. We all watched it pass over us in awe. Even in Dracos back in the day, where such creatures were more common than not, they have always had a formidable presence—I can only imagine how striking seeing what might be the only one in your lifetime must be.
A while later, some odd behavior within the cart caught Norrund and my attention. The orcs were conversing in their native tongue, when suddenly the male, Baron, muttered something in common, then ducked down out of site. And when he popped back up, he was holding something in his hand. As I crept up to the back of the cart, to get a better vantage, I could clearly see it was a small, unusually smooth stone, about the size of a walnut. In the light of day it was hard to say, but I could have almost sworn it was glowing. They argued about it for a bit, with Talwe wanting him to leave it where it was, but Baron insisted that, having found it, it was his to keep, and he chose to pocket it.
Norrund agreed with me, it seemed likely to be Milo’s missing treasure, although what it was doing at the bottom of the cart, neither of us could say. Norrund proposed the idea of telling them that we saw it, of trying to convince them to bring it to Milo. I felt this was a bad idea, as Baron clearly wasn’t interested in giving it up, and, as they were Dokken’s men (so to speak), I felt it best to leave them to him. So when we rendezvoused to make camp that night, I told him what we saw, and what my suspicions were. I was clear that they found it and did not seem to know what they had, and that I wasn’t looking to cause any trouble for anyone, merely hoping to secure our payment for this job.
Dokken had words with the two of them for, what seems like longer than it should have taken, then came back to me, asking if I was sure of what I saw and if I was certain it was what Milo was missing. I affirmed I was confident in my report, as best as I could be with the information available. Without another word, Dokken returned to his companions and, with notable swiftness, cut them both down where they stood. He then reached into Baron’s pocket and retrieved the stone, which now in the darkness was very visibly glowing, and handed it to Milo, who silently acknowledged it as his missing cargo. The orc then marched off a way down the road to patrol.
Norrund seemed visibly disturbed by what went down, so I gave him a moment to process it, before enlisting his help in moving the bodies. I didn’t want them attracting predators to our camp. Or reanimating in the middle of the night around us, although I felt it best to not mention that possibility at that moment. We drug them to the other side of the road, a small distance into the trees and Norrund took a moment to… mourn, I guess. I tried to reassure him by telling him that this sort of thing never gets easier. A part of me wishes that were true. As we turned to leave, they appeared again, the girls. Seeing them then, for the first time, I was reminded more than ever of Selena. But unlike her, they made no move toward us, instead they merely stared, with those glowing eyes, and eventually faded back into the trees. They seem to appear whenever we encounter the dead, for whatever that is worth.
We returned to camp and Milo confirmed for me his cargo was once again all accounted for and we were square. Although the questions in my mind were as loud as ever, exhaustion from the road was able to overtake them quickly and I fell easily to sleep. Still, they were lurking just under the surface and, when Dokken woke me for watch, I quickly fell back into them, and to dwelling on the eerie similarities to those times, hundreds of years ago for this world, but mere decades for me. Disaster on the road, pursued spectral girls, an abundance of unnatural dead, and preoccupation with the book of a fell god. Am I cursed to live the same story endlessly? Perhaps I was mistaken—this might be Hell I returned to after all.