One: Ordered by Gods
Blood in the Marsh
Cuthberta Mentefreeday, Mentesularday, Claireselunday & Clairedakarday
"…Bless my steps Moradin and those of who travel with me. Though I fail to understand everything that is happening to my companions and myself, I lay my destiny in your hands and wield Unity for your greater glory. I have basked in your light and yearn to one day return to you, yet I accept with thanks and humility the tasks that lay before me. Praise Moradin, praise the Soulforger."
Arek finished his daily morning prayers to Moradin and slowly raised himself. Since his days in the mountains near Lake Dakar, he had always enjoyed praying to Moradin as the sun was rising. While he often thought and prayed to Moradin at various times during the day, the morning prayers seemed to be those where he felt closest to his god. Arek had felt more than once Moradin's grace mingled with the warmth of the first rays of the sun. As Arek looked around the makeshift camp he and his companions had been staying in for two days, it appeared he would again need Moradin's favours soon.
As Arek got up, his gaze fell upon Unity, always in his right hand as he prayed Moradin. Such a weapon! he thought. Yet am I worthy to wield it? Moradin has clearly chosen me to care for it but will I be the one to regroup the Claimers? Surely more experienced leaders would be better suited. I had barely become and inductee an now must care for one of the holy relics of the clans? Arek examined Unity and again marvelled at its intricate detail and its perfect balance. It was a beautifully crafted weapon of war, yet its power not only came from the steel stone it was made of, nor from the blessings that granted it divine properties. Unity was powerful because of what it represented. Unity, in the proper hands, could rally the Claimers once more and perhaps even more dwarves than that, far beyond Riot's Gate. Will my hands guide Unity on its true path? Since receiving Unity, Arek had decided that he would die trying.
Arek tightly held Unity. The Dream. Bithtal Bithtat. Guhl-Thundarr. The Fall of Axes Bithtat. The Claimers disbanded. Woden, dragons, and Unity. Lake Dakar. Dead serpentine religions. The One and his followers. The pillars of Sentar. What incredible weeks these had been for Arek! Despite heroic tales of his own, even uncle Ulgar would be impressed. Yet despite all this, for Arek, it always came back to Moradin. All praise for Moradin! Twice now had Arek been admitted in the golden halls of the Dwarfather. Twice! The first time had disturbed greatly Arek. Though he had clearly joined the Creator as he and his companions waged battle at the Riot's Gate mechanical lift, Moradin had seemed distant. In fact, Arek had only seen Moradin from afar, his back turned to his followers. Prior to falling, Arek had faced a loneliness he had never felt before. Moradin had not acknowledged his prayers, let alone answer them. This was not the same case the second time after the engagement in Sss'Raast's temple. Moradin had returned and answered some of his calls. But not all of them. Moradin was present, yet distracted.
As he thought this, Arek turned to Tiberio, who was still asleep near the small fire. Arek thought of the discussion he and Tiberio had had a few days ago, leaving Saltwater Barrows. They had talked of a prophecy Tiberio had been blessed with. Perhaps Apollo, the bard's deity, was right. Perhaps the gods were involved in some form of fighting and were unable to attend, as they usually did, to affairs in the mortal realm. And perhaps it was true that this group had a role to play in these divine conflicts. Their shared dream might be connected to this godly confrontation. The Bard, as with all the others of the group, had his secrets and seemed to know more than he let show. But Arek was happy to have earned the trust of this man who had proven his worth on many occasions since their first meeting. A divine revelation was not an easy thing to discuss or reveal to others.
The drop of a metal tool against a small boulder made Arek look towards Frankie. She was working on the Clockwork again, trying to figure out how it worked as much as finding clues to the mechanical creature`s past. Arek could not hide his smile as he looked at the young gnomish engineer. Female engineer! Clearly you could not judge a scroll by its case. Arek was very impressed by the way Frankie carried herself. She had single-handedly saved hundred of lives and was deadly with that automatic crossbow yet, as soon as she could, she would plunge into a manual or fiddle with the many items of hers pouches, oblivious to what was happening around her. Arek had noted her obvious disinterest for religious matters. She would have made a worthy addition to any dwarvish engineering crew in Axes Bithtat. May Moradin protect you little one. I suspect we will need your inventiveness yet again.
Without a word, Arek softly walked over to his pack and bedroll. As he came to his part of the camp, he noticed Domaldi and Inigo, talking intently. Both had just arrived a few hours earlier during Arek's watch. Arek was more and more impressed by the young Paladin. He had been struck by Domaldi's words in Riot's Gate as he sent his father off to Heironeous. Arek's respect had only grown since then. The Paladin had saved this group more than once with his feats in battle. Arek smiled as he remembered the powerful (and fatal ) blow Domaldi had struck against the evil sword-wraith two nights ago. Clearly Domaldi could fight but Arek had been most impressed by Domaldi's solicitude for Inigo and his cool head with the Lizard men. While Arek had felt sick to his stomach leaving his two companions to face the trial of the lizard-folk, he had realized it was the only choice if the rest of the group was to survive. Through his faith, deeds and words, the young Paladin had the makings of a great human leader and would surely make his father proud.
Arek was somewhat more worried about Inigo. The fighter seemed capable enough in battle (if somewhat rash) but what had befallen upon him might endanger the whole group. If Domaldi's account was accurate, Inigo had been the target of powerful divine magic. The spell he was under was well beyond Arek's capacity but he knew what it implied. Inigo now had to find the creature (or entity) that was terrorizing the area. Arek recalled his adventure in the swamps surrounding the Sss'Raast temple. The unnatural silence, the stillness still raised the hairs of Arek's neck. Whatever had caused the Gnolls to be so terrified was not to be trifled with. And now the group had to track it and kill it if Inigo was to be spared. Well, if it is your wish Moradin, I will follow. Inigo had fought and bled for the group, he deserved as much. Inigo was not part of the dream, but his destiny seemed intertwined with that of the group.
Sweet smoke, different from that of the campfire, tingled Arek's nose. Thalazzar. Arek turned to see the mage, off by himself at the edge of the camp, smoking and reading intently. If Inigo's current dilemma was cause for concern, Thalazzar's past seemed even a greater liability. Arek had no reason to distrust the mage. In fact, contrary to what Arek had initially thought of him, Thalazzar had been steadfast in his support for the group. While the spellcaster was clearly of a different temperament than most of the group, he had let no one down. Yet Arek felt that something of Thalazzar's past was always lurking, just around the next bend. What that could be Arek had no idea. Thalazzar was more secretive than the others. By Moradin, let's hope that out here in the wilderness, Thalazzar's past deeds will not be as problematic as they had been in Riot's Gate. Well, the tall human was resourceful and the group needed his arcane knowledge to piece together the mystery they were part of.
Arek realized he had thought of everyone in the group in just a few moments, as he often did in the mornings. Perhaps it was his way of taking stock before setting out on the next step of their quest. Not everyone. Nimbus. If Thalazzar's past seemed a mystery, Nimbus' was painfully obvious. Yet as much as Thalazzar had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, Nimbus was impenetrable. Arek stared at the monk who was still resting. Arek had met a few monks in Riot's Gate and had always been fascinated by them. Arek considered Nimbus a man of strong faith. Yet our faiths are demonstrated in such different ways! Never had Arek met a man who could move and act like Nimbus. Arek recalled how Nimbus had swung, dived and tumbled to his aid on the Lusty Wench's deck. Nimbus had jumped from the main mast's crows nest! And then there was how Nimbus acted with others (even with his adversaries in combat.) Arek could only applaud Nimbus' respect for the sanctity of life. It was beyond his own abilities. While respecting a prisoner's rights was one thing, calling out to spare an ogre who had tried to eat him just moments ago was something else entirely. In combat, Arek sought Moradin's inspiration and passion. Nimbus was all about calm and detachment. Perhaps we share our path for a reason that goes beyond the dream? I will look, listen, and learn Moradin.
The sun had fully risen and Arek noticed that Inigo was becoming slightly more nervous and edgy, checking his pack and weapons time and time again.
We should be going then. First, to the pillars. And then? Will we find that which hunts the night?
Arek turned to the sun again and then to the earth, and closed his eyes, gripping Unity tightly.
Bless our steps Soulforger. Though I have doubts and concerns, I lay my trust in my newfound comrades. Humbly, I accept your trials Moradin. Grant me the strength to face them with wisdom and honour.