A week later, the day held a hard chill. The color of the leaves had fled and left the world dark and depressing. In this rocky place of hills and stunted growth, the sky promised only hate. Dark clouds roiled and seethed with the promise of icy loathing.
The party of adventurers weren’t happy about it. All the same they were ready. Their time together had made them a familiar and cohesive unit. Their response felt practiced and rehearsed.
“None of this looks like it is going to be any good,” Yenrab growled. “Options?”
As if on cue, rain began to fall and turned to ice almost as soon as it hit the ground. It didn’t start with a gentle patter. Instead it put all of its considerable fury into the opening round.
“We need to find a way out of this storm,” Tracy said, surveying the land in worry. He thought back to the time when, having gone out with a friend to pick berries, the weather had turned violent. They had run back to their commune only to find it empty, as their fellows had fled to the emergency cave. With a funnel of cloud and wind forming in the sky, they had seen no choice. They’d had to take to the ground and hope for the best. The man shuddered.
Yenrab took a deep breath, huffing in the air as he tasted its contents. “This isn’t good at all, guys. I sense hail coming. Soon.”
“It’s cold,” Tracy shivered.
The half-orc leaped atop a large slippery stone, “Bern, can you pop to the top of one of those stunty trees and take a look around?”
Bern shook his head to the negative. Then he realized his fellows might not understand the gesture or might not see it through the murky spill.
“This rain is pretty slick, mate,” Bern Sandros replied shakily, feeling a shiver tear through him. “I don’t think I can get a firm handle.”
Carric Smith piped up, yelling through the tremendous patter of winter’s warning, “I think I see something over there! Right up top of that large hill in the distance!”
Carric jumped up and down. A damp and steaming fog vented from his shirt as a minor heating cantrip tried to keep him warm. Tracy felt disappointed as the man failed to give him any thanks for accomplishing the task.
“Look, up top of that large hill in the distance!” Carric continued, genuinely proud of his accomplishment here in the field.
The icing tundra was decorated minimalistically with rough rocks and boulders, scraggly stunted trees and large, towering hills. It was getting hard to view through the mess that was the storm. However, with hands up to keep the rain out of their eyes, all of them could see something vaguely building shaped. It was distant but it felt doable. Maybe if they took the lead out of their boots, they could make it there before the cumulonimbus clouds above turned this horrendous sleet into life-threatening hail.
Plock. Too late. They heard it. The unmistakable sound of a reconnoitering hailstone, probing the land for victims. Too soon, hard balls of vengeful ice would be battering this landscape and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught within it.
“Run!” cried out Yenrab.
They ran. Yenrab plodded forward in the lead, stomping down small obstacles to help his following companions. And they all weaved, skidded and bobbed as they rushed over slick grass. The tall stalks of it slushed their trousers as they made their frantic way forward. The lot of them took unexpected curves and ridges in the broken ground. At one point in the ice-ridden charge, Carric slipped and was caught before he fell by an observant, sodden Bern. He nodded thanks and Bern nodded welcome. It was not a time for words.
Plick. Plock. Bock. The vanguard had arrived. One smashed hard into Yenrab’s shoulder. The massive half-orc grunted and bent into the wind. Bam. A different one, crescent shaped, slapped Bern on the back of his head. He stumbled and this time, it was the stalwart bard who seized his hand and kept him on his path. A concentrated ball of icy mass smacked into Tracy’s nose, spilling blood and mucus. But the party continued and not so long from there, they succeeded.
They ran up an old rocky path through the sleet and ice, passing boulders cracked and shattered by age and weather, with thunder now roaring through the sky at its fleeing prey. The party persevered, not even looking at the immense, old ruined fort before them before slide-falling into its dry interior. Dazed, Bern lit a torch, with the others following suit.
The foyer was a tremendous room of stone, the walls covered in faded bas-relief scrollwork, scenes and script. Tracy took it all in with wide eyes and open-mouthed wonder. He could see it in his mind’s eye, a palace that bustled with activity and young courtesans, sashaying here and giggling there. Everyone would bow, of course, when the king came in. That’s what the Grand Sorcan had taught him, at any rate.
What you imagine is almost certainly incorrect, Tracy’s female id advised the male id in an arrogant stance. Everything here is so different and so foreign. None of us could possibly know how it was.
His androgynous id concurred. His male id bowed to their words, though it didn’t stop him from imagining. He smiled as he thought about where he would put the tents and the drum circle, were he the leader of this place.
Carric went to one wall and studied it, his body trembling and his eyes alight.
“Guys, I think I recognize this place!” he crowed in excitement.
“What are you on about then?” Bern queried in disbelief. “This place is old old and none of us is old enough to recognize it.”
Carric’s face dropped and he paused. He raised a shaky finger into the air. “I had to study a lot of things growing up, Bern Sandros. I’ve seen this style. This fort dates back at least one thousand years.”
“You sure?” Bern asked with skepticism.
Carric Smith’s face blossomed once more. “I’d bet money on it.”
Carric walked over to the wall and traced some of the script and bas-relief with his fingers. The rest of them held their breath in expectation. The room would have been silent had not the storm continued to thunder and wail from the outside.
“This style, I recognize it. This room, it wasn’t just a reception. So long ago, it would have been multipurpose. It’d be cleared and used as a dining room. Or as a place to spar. This was almost surely the fort of a Goblin thrane. A warlord given land and rank for having accomplished some great deed.”
“Gharag Heartstabber’s empire,” Bern said in awe. The others flinched at the name.
“Ya know,” Yenrab cautioned, “he listens to us mortals. So much more often than the others do.”
Yenrab shivered, thinking back to the words of the strange and perhaps possessed rogue he had killed to get here. He warded himself with his fingers, tracing tribal sigils through the air. “Speak lightly.”
“He can bugger off,” Bern cursed. “The damnable beast tore through this land and enslaved my ancestors.”
Yenrab nodded. “And now you enslave his descendants.”
Bern gazed down at his feet, his face filled with uncomfortable indecision.
“Right. Yeah. We’re doing an eye for an eye. But yeah, mate, I hear ya. I’ll speak lightly,” Bern Sandros reassured them, though his face remained stubborn.
Carric’s head pivoted to the room’s exits. There were three of them, each an upside U-shaped archway that ended abruptly into a face of hard stone. It was clear that they had been sealed.
“I suspect it is now a tomb. Has anyone seen any battle damage?” Carric questioned, brow furrowed.
“Nothing,” Tracy spoke. The others voiced the same.
“Yes,” Carric concurred. “These lands saw plenty of fighting, but nothing here is smashed or broken. This keep wasn’t taken and abandoned. By the customs of the empire, if the thrane died without heir, this fort would have been closed and sealed off, the man and his wives sealed within forever.”
Carric Smith stopped, speechless, as he realized something. The rest of them, already woven into his tale, clustered closer. Carric swept his gaze from eye to eye as he found his voice.
“What is it, Carric?” asked Yenrab.
“If I am right, there is treasure here. Maybe a lot of it!” Carric announced in awe.