Sunday, January 29, 2006

Conspiracy of Shadows (Season Two, Episode Two, Part One)

The travelling party is now quite large. Larsen the scout is leading, followed by the two Alexanders and their mule, Sedziwoj and his squire Sergei are next followed by Anatoli. Lebowski, Mariuz and Kaspar, three of Sedziwoj's father's men bring up the rear.

They swing out east as if travelling to the lands of the Cup Knights. On the way they see that ragged mercenaries (veterans of the war against the barbarians) are keeping a watch on the main roads and crossroads. When one approaches to politely question them Big Alexander deals with the situation, sticking to the story that has been agreed that they are a group of faithful soldiers heading east to fight under the guidance of the friars. The watcher rides off but no-one can say whether he truly believes it or not.

Once far along the trail and away from prying eyes the group turn off the trail and head north and west through the rolling broken forest of Wallvich. Larsen takes the group along the edges of forests and through streams and narrow valleys, anything to make pursuit harder. After some hard riding the group is at the edge of the ancient woodland that dominates Jenka and has reclaimed so much of the country after the devastating invasion so many years ago. They set up camp overlooking the old road into the forest and arrange watches.

On Big Alexander's watch he is alarmed to see a hundred or so burning torches appear in the trees of the woods the group have just travelled through, preceeded by the howling of wolves. As he watches he sees the silhouettes of men and dogs erupt from the trees and quickly alerts his sleeping comrades to the impending danger. Sedziwoj is quick to harness and mount his horse as is Larsen but the others struggle being less familiar with horses, there is no chance to escape the horde bearing down on them.

Sedziwoj wheels his horse and charges the men, as he closes he sees that the dogs are actually snarling wolves. He crashes into the line and as he wheels around three of the wolves leap at him, he is able to bash two of them away but the third lands in his lap and only a degree of iron will keeps Sedziwoj in the saddle.

Behind him Little Alexander sees that the line of figures collapse like smoke or fog, like a bonfire in reverse the figures and torches start forming a cloud around the figure of Sedziwoj. Then as the cloud starts to compress and threatens to swallow Sedziwoj Alexander screams a prayer and charges after him. With the shout fresh on his lips he is awake, having fallen asleep against a tree. The shout disturbs his companions (except Big Alexander who tells him to go back to sleep) but no-one seems to have shared this strange vision. The remaining watches are uneventful.

The next morning the group set off down the old forest road, with the settlements that once lay along its route ruined and abandoned the forest threatens to swallow the remaining road and already small bushes and long grass slow travel along it. Compared to the dark deep forest on either side though the track is easy to navigate.

At midday, with the mist of the forest dispelled by the bright sun, the group encounter a ruined in and rest for a few hours. As they do so two riders gallop past the inn and further north along the road before any can do much but note their passing. When the group move off from the inn Larsen and Kaspar stay behind to watch the inn at a distance and see whether the horsemen are fleeing someone or whether the group themselves are being pursued.

The rest of the group travel on through the flat forest road. The trees seem to have no boundary beyond this narrow pass of fresh growth. In the distance they eventually see what appears to be a naked body lying in the overgrown remains of the road's drainage ditch. The priests remain on the road while the soldiers take into the woods and quickly encounter a broad swept path leading away from the road.

They return to the road and signal to the rest of the group to join them, the analysis is quick. The body in the road has broken many of his ribs and blood still stains his lips, the victim of a fall. The tracks on the road indicates a horse refusing and falling before being dragged through the undergrowth. The wide sweeping in the forest litter indicating that the body has been removed elsewhere with the rest of the effects of the rider. The dead man's partner though seems to have continued through the ambush without breaking pace. It is decided to camp off the road, Sedziwoj is uncertain whether to stop the journey and make after the bandits.

Back at the inn there is no activity and the pair have to ride off before the light fails. However as they ride along the track looking back they can see a pale column of smoke in the air, someone is making camp along the track but it is too dark now to turn back and find out who.

In the morning Sedziwoj has decided that he must pursue the bandits and gathers together his father's men. As he leaves the camp a voice challenges him to surrender or at the least hand over the priests if he wishes to leave in peace. Sedziwoj curses Larsen under his breath, for his was the last watch and despite claims to have been a scout the man has let enemies come practically to the point of warming themselves at the campfire. There is some verbal sparring but the outcome is not indoubt and the bounty hunters and the Koniecpole men swiftly come to blows. Sedziwoj is held by his opponent but in the sharp fray, Kaspar is wounded and two of the bounty hunters are felled. At the same time bandits armed with bows dance between the trees on the edge of the camp firing arrows that force the priests and Anatoli to head for cover. Little Alexander charges into the fight and quickly sets to concussing the bandits with his faithful stave. Sergei is less fortunate and quick and takes an arrow below his left collar bone, a serious wound particularly for a boy.

Big Alexander condemns the bandits for their faithlessness and promises them damnation is fearful terms. As if to accent his words a great wind blows through the forest.

The bounty hunters flee back across the track and into the forest with Sedziwoj and the others in pursuit. Their leader takes advantage of his right to declare the retreat to sprint away, the other is not so fortunate and hotly pursued by Sedziwoj he tumbles over a rise and is impaled on branch that is driven right through his chainmail. Sedziwoj finishes off the alive but fatally wounded man and sees Little Alexander rush into the woods to his left.

Back at the camp Kaspar is leaning against a tree clutching his wound. He looks at the canopy and notices that although the sound of rustling and wind has continued the trees are no longer moving.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Conspiracy of Shadows (Season Two, Opener)

It has been many months since the ragtag group of devil hunters and refugees were forced to flee the city of Kulkuzgrod and make their way back to the passes across the Barran Mountains and back to Wallavich. Hunted all the way by the mercenaries of the Khark and bounty hunters sent by the city.

Now with spring approaching and tempers frayed the group are near the passes. The members of the cell and the refugees are a separate fires but even that cannot keep tempers from boiling over and ill-tempered comments between Little Alexander and Sedziwoj soon escalate into a scrappy duel that seems both protagonists holding their own until Little Alexander manages to crack Sedziwoj's kneecap allowing him to follow up with a number of nasty blows before the Bishop runs in to break up the fight.

Despite Little Alexander's moment of victory, little has been resolved and while Sedziwoj is somewhat chastened he not a man know to forget a slight. This disagreement is certain to rear its head again.

However with their differences put to one side for the moment the group are able to struggle through the pass and the group, cold and hungry make their way down from the forbidding slate-black mountains into the valley that runs into the Little Hills Barony. The refugees quickly turn to foraging to fill their empty stomachs and Sedziwoj takes the opportunity to ride ahead and look for a farm to house and feed the remnant of the Little Kingdom. What he finds are empty farms, fallow fields and two rotting black corpses nailed cruelly to large trees beside the road.

A new banner can be seen flying at the old keep, still ruined and blackened from the sack that started the cell's long journey. The pennet is red and blue split lengthwise, Sedziwoj recognises the colours as those belong to a family from the north in Jenka, strong allies of the king. He rides towards the keep aiming to look for help but as he does a scruffy looking rider in leather armour appears from the woods and asks him to stop.

The stranger identifies himself as a oathman of Sedziwoj's father and quickly informs him that Sedziwoj and the Alexander's have been declared outlaws and that sell-swords are keeping an eye out for their return. He asks Sedziwoj to come to the inn in the larger village in the foothills where there are fresh horses waiting and matters can be discussed in private.

Sedziwoj returns to the group and quickly brings them together and marching down into the valley. Arriving at the village he and the Alexander's hold a quick conference in the inn. It seems that the remainder of the cell have been betrayed and on arriving at the king's palace they were seized and thrown into a dungeon, their evidence of the count's misdeeds disregarded. They were then tried and executed and their bodies hung on the walls of the king's palace. The others were exiled in their absence and condemned to death should they return. Sedziwoj's father is willing to try and help his son but he cannot be too overt for the family must be above suspicion of involvement in the murder of another noble.

The news is grave: Sedziwoj sends the refugees to his father's house in the hope that work or land can be found for them. Bishop Banuch must ride to the Curia to bring news of the fall of the enclave, he promises to try and assist the Cell as best he can.

There are not many options but the group decide that the only thing they can do is try to unravel the identity of the traitor and to do that they have to start with the details of the trial. Travelling to the king's court incognito will be hazardous in the extreme but seems the only way to answer this new injustice.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Conspiracy of Shadows (Season Finale)

The two Alexanders and Bishop Banuch make it to the Patriarch's palace but the mood is dangerous and volatile on the streets. The Patriarch is alarmed by the news the friars bring and immediately calls for his council to assemble with news from the temples and their surrounding districts.

The temple leaders arrive and the council starts with speeches and discussion about the situtation. The two Alexanders also speak trying to save the Little Kingdom from the mob and instead seizing the situation to try and bring down Bey Calan and the Kharks. There is a lack of consensus until a proposal is put forward to send a command to the Sultan to hand over his troops to the Temple Leaders so that order can be retained (essentially asserting the primarcy of the theocracy in the current crisis). All sides agree and Temple Leader en Behendu volunteers to take the message to the Sultan personally, Quanaid proposes to go with him and to immediately take the troops to the Old City and restore order.

Little Alexander still urges the Patriarch to go directly to the people and stop the riot with his personal authority and the backing of the faith. The temple leaders however feel the risk of an assassination attempt is too great. Little Alexander has overheard en Behendu plotting to contact the Kharks but there is little he can do at the moment.

Behendu and Quanaid march to the palace with their bodyguards but Behendu declares that he would like to commander more troops in case there is trouble at the palace and Quanaid agrees to a detour to obtain more men. Behendu takes him to Bey Calan's house and as soon as the gates to the house are shut Behendu denounces Quanaid and Calan's men attack, killing Quanaid's bodyguard and taking the Temple Leader prisoner. Behendu then informs Calan of his plan and tells him to send more men to the palace so the Patriarch can be removed quickly before the betrayal is revealed.

Behendu then continues on to the palace and gaining an audience with the sultan shows him the letter and claims that it is proof that the Patriarch is trying to overthrow the Sultan's rule in the city and that the current Patriarch must be removed immediately. The Sultan agrees, his court filled with agents of the Khark's he is out of touch with the real situation and is easily swayed. The leaders of his bodyguard already take huge bribes from the Kharks to keep the Sultan a virtual prisoner in his palace so they are swift to follow Behendu's orders when he offers them the chance to loot the Patriarch's palace.

Following Behendu and Quanaid's departure the council continues and the Alexander's and Temple Leader Quelkoria (a radical Amdati) both take the opportunity to denounce Bey Calan and ask the Patriarch to allow them to search Calan's house for proof of his degeneracy and involvement with the Count. Swayed now that there is little dissent the Patriarch agrees and Big Alexander and Quelkoria are sent along with Temple Leader Sur to search Calan's house.

They arrive not long after Behendu has left and Calan tries to bluff the group out. However Quelkoria seems to hate Calan as much as the Alexander's do, if not more and Quelkoria's hardcore Amdati followers tear his house apart finding both the Count's wooden box and the imprisoned Quanaid. Caught red-handed in the act of kidnapping a Temple Leader Quelkoria immediately arrests Calan and the group return to the palace with Quanaid telling them of Behendu's betrayal.

Meanwhile back in the Patriarch's palace Calan's black clad warriors are infilitrating the building and slowly disposing of the Patriarch's bodyguard. Little Alexander raises the alarm when he notices strange scars on the arms of one of the Patriarch's guardsmen. Calan's men try to kill the Patriarch but Alexander fights them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive (using a Doom point in the process). As the remaining loyalists clash with the Khark's mercenaries the Bishop runs for the Little Kingdom. It is clear that enclave will fall and the Bishop orders the Valdorians to flee as best they can to the Patriarch's palace. He also tells Sedziwoj that the palace is under attack and that Alexander needs help.

Big Alexander, Quelkoria, al Sur and Quanaid arrive at the palace first and put the Khark's men to flight. Calan is taken before the Patriarch for questioning and confession of his sins. Calan however proves stubborn and warns that his powerful friends will soon crush the remaining theocrats and free him. He also scorns the Alexanders for being as much a puppet as he is only they are even more foolish for being blind to their true masters. The Count's box turns out to be empty but there is no chance to quiz Calan on its contents.

When Sedziwoj arrives with the Valdorian refuges the situation looks positive but swiftly bad news arrives. Behendu has seized the palace and now the Sultan's bodyguard (barbarians from the West with no faith in either branch of Albinism) are marching on the palace, eager for loot. The palace is made ready for a seige and the prospect of sacking the palace brings the hordes of the Slums, the Sultan's army and the Khark's men together. The place is surrounded and despite fierce fighting the situation seems hopeless. Quelkoria demands that Calan be executed for being part of this conspiracy against the Patriarch and with everyone in agreement the Patriarch agrees and Calan is beheaded. His head is thrown into the mob to discourage his men.

The Patriarch, realising the hopelessness of the situation and finally decides to take Little Alexander's advice. The people must believe in the Patriarch and follow his teaching or else the position is nothing more than a figurehead to be manipulated by ambitious men. He asks for volunteers to join him in confronting the horde but refuses those not of the Amdati faith. He urges the loyal temple leaders and the Valdorians to flee through the tunnels and escape the city. Then the doors of the palace are thrown open and the Patriarch and his volunteers march to meet the rioters. While his display of personal bravery does sway many of the commoners an arrow is fired from the ranks of the barbarian troops and the Patriarch falls as a general melee breaks out.

Inside the temple Quelkoria pauses within the catacombs of the palace and announces that he will stay in the city and fight the betrayer until either the faith prevails or he is dead. He smashes into a nearby wall and removes the foundation stone of the palace. Effectively removing the blessing of the Albin until such a time as a Patriarch worth the title again rules there. He asks the cell to take the stone and to return it only when word reaches them that Behendu has been brought to justice. The stone is placed within the Count's box and the cell, Banuch and the Valdorian refugees leave through the tunnels to hide in the marshes surrounding the city.

Behind them the city burns and there are the sounds of a massacre taking place as the Kharks help their new Patriarch to establish his hold on the city.

Conspiracy of Shadows (Season Finale Synopsis)

The Patriarch is dead, as is Bey Calan! The city has fallen to a coup by one of the ambitious Temple Leaders and the cell have been forced to flee the city and return to their own lands.

Season Two will start with the group returning across the mountain passes early in the spring.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Vinegar's Log (Castles and Crusades Session Two)

The stupid halfling managed to not just attract the attention of one of the passing minotaur lords but excelled himself excessively by apparantly giving him his entire share of the loot from our previous excursion. I say apparantly as as soon as it became apparant that the little loser was taking an interest in the Lord Cattle I decide to scarper out the back of the inn with the two new recruits. I have been unable to remember their names as yet (perhaps I could have them paint it on their armour back plates?) but they seem able and easy to blind with the gold made from our encounter with the giant frog.

Anyway with my diminuitive "companion" so rapidly halving our prospects there was no choice but return to ruined castle on the hill, this time in the company of my new mule, ready to loot anything that might raise coinage in the poxy settlement that passes for a village here.

This expedition was much more successful than previously and we managed to butcher the band of annoying goblins that had eaten our previous friends (the dwarf and the other one). Just rewards for such filthy and whiny things.

Even better their chief was found in possession of a plan of attack on the general environment. I have dispossessed him of it fatally but intend to make good its content. Instead of taking the loot to the village why not loot the village and take the resulting lucre to the dungeon?

There were also some chained prisoners that the goblins were in possession of, including an elf. I have high hopes of a reward in returning these two fortunate survivors to civilisation.

The worst aspect of this particular jaunt into the cold and dark was that the goblin's were under the thumb of some sordid, unpleasant and (worst of all) hostile priest of some god or another. He filled the room is unpenetrable darkness and in the confusion made a rapid escape calling for aid as he did so. He was wearing armour that would surely be worth 30 pieces of gold if not more and it's loss still stings me now.

Gloomier still it seems this fellow was seeking aid further into the ruins of the fort and that implies that there will have to be yet more effort expended to extract the next profit from the place.