The rain ran down Rion’s face in steady rivulets, forming a large cold pool where his neck met the collar of his field plate. Three days of the deluge had left the men soaked to the bone. The mists that usually filled these woods during this time of year had been driven to the ground by the relentless sheets of water falling through the evergreen branches. Water pooled and flowed all about him, turning dirt to mud and from mud into little ponds or rushing streams – changing what had begun as an easy track into a profound challenge.
Jace stood in a three-point stance over a rapidly vanishing track of their quarry, rain rolling in sheets down the folds of his oiled cloak. They were keeping pace, but only just, the weather and hilly terrain conspiring to make the chase as difficult as possible.
Rion adjusted his gloves and checked his sword belt, the days of rain were taking their toll on the fit of his gear. The weight of his bastard sword had begun to stretch the belt designed to keep it on his hip. “Not a surprise,” Rion thought. The weapon and scabbard were a good fifteen pounds together. He sighed quietly to himself as he peered through the trees about him. They were sacrificing their safety for much-needed speed – tactically unsound, foolish, and likely to get them killed.
The brothers had arrived at their commonality from vastly different beginnings. Rion was the son of a wealthy merchant from Orcspire. He had the blessings of good breeding and upbringing, a sturdy frame, a handsome face and an education rarely available to those not of the arcane or priestly professions. Well-liked, competent, and wealthy he had attended the Cabalan College of War when he was but 20 winters old. His father had hoped that the appointment to the esteemed college would lead to a commission in the Army of the Archduke and a well-respected and relatively safe career in the sovereign’s service.
Reaching the lip of a ravine Jace surveyed a large slide caused by their prey quickly descending the muddy surface. If the creature knew it was hunted, it apparently did not care to hide its passing – perhaps it thought it would simply outpace them. Rion watched as the ranger slowly looked across the contours of the opposite side of the ravine, checking for subtle signs of an ambush. They had agreed to be foolish, but not stupid.
Jace was the son of a free farmer from the Yeomanry of Yoth, a small autonomous nation-state based on the principles of hard work and cooperation. The military tradition of the Yeomanry was based on universal participation rather than abstract ideals of honor or glory — a system that worked well for the strange little land. Jace had joined the military at the beginning of adulthood as was expected of him and he had learned the arts of scouting; tracking, reconnaissance, and stealth. For most, the wilds were places of mystery and magic. But not for Jace – he looked at the woods as a merchant looked upon the great cities of Ǻrth—places full of resources, potential, wealth, and delight.
Jace looked at the water running down the steep ravine wall below him. He cautiously looked left, then right, then down again. He turned and smiled at Rion, the childish grin that always made Rion feel as though some jest had been played upon him – a prank that he was only about to discover.
Jace stood, and half jumped, and half fell to a ledge ten feet below him. Rolling with his momentum, he sprang to a tree limb another ten feet down – redirected himself to another ledge 15 feet away, rolled to the ground on his left shoulder, and then over the last ledge and safely to the bottom of the ravine, fifty feet below where he had been only seconds before.
“Easy enough in leather armor,” Rion thought to himself, but in his heavy plate, it would take a week of curing spells to put him back in one piece. As they were fond of saying at the College of War – ‘look to Option B.’
After two years of service in the army of the Yeomanry of Yoth, Jace had found himself possessed of wanderlust. He had seen so much of the land outside the family farm, and he knew he had only seen the smallest of corners of the world. He took his saved money and bid his family a fond farewell, promising to return when the fires of youth had been sated. He had traveled to the great city of Gran Estelle in search of adventure.
Rion cautiously approached the lip of the ravine and wiped rain from his eyes. He looked up and down the ravine and saw Option B about fifty feet up the ravine, near the slide of their quarry. He crouched in a three-point stance. His right foot out in front and his left hand on the ground behind him. He gave a little push and felt his stomach rise into his throat. Ten feet down, his front foot caught on a clump of moss and momentarily stopped – his head quickly overtook his feet, and he completed his journey to the bottom of the ravine sliding like a mad otter.
After cleaning most of the mud from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth, he looked up to see Jace giving him that infernal smile again. Sometimes he wondered why they still traveled together.
The climb out of the ravine had only been slightly more dignified than the trip down. Rion glowered as Jace smiled. Three days of rain and fifty miles overland from the nearest village, the ranger looked like a young boy about to open gifts on all-saints day. At least the ranger could be counted on to keep an eye open while Rion indulged himself with a moment of grumpy introspection.
They had climbed out of the ravine one hundred feet away from the spot their quarry had. Large and lumbering, it had made a trail out of the ravine that any city dweller could have followed in the dark. The forest here was full of young growth. Pines less than twenty feet tall stood scattered five to twenty feet apart. Long forest grasses covered the mud, concealing tracks to easy inspection, but tracks were no longer necessary.
Jace stopped smiling and crouched to the ground, drawing his shortsword and handaxe. He had smelled smoke through the rain; they had found their prey.
Jace looked to Rion to check that he was ready for action. The weaponmaster had already drawn his bastard sword and donned his great helm – happy to finally be done with the long and wet chase. The ranger gave a quick smile, rain dripping from his nose and chin, and began moving quickly but carefully from tree to tree in the direction from which he had smelt the smoke.
Fifty yards ahead, Jace stopped and lay flat on the ground. There he had found a small knoll topped by the hulking mass of a hideous humanoid. It had put down its over-sized pack and had built a fire on the rise – the only place that could be found without a surplus of puddles from the days of rain. The hulking creature was nearly a man and a half in height, and wider than three. Its brow was huge and sloping and its jaw looked as if it more closely fit the skull of a horse than a man. It sat upon a rock in the rain, roasting something on a stick over the small fire.
Rion came with surprising stealth in his armor. Stopping behind a tree twenty feet from the ranger. It was his turn to smile. Atop a rocky mound, he saw the creature – this was a hideous ogre with an arcane bent. Possessed of a brutal physical presence, the giant was also able to cast a number of deadly spells. The creatures were also known for their infernal preference for eating human flesh.
Rion looked back toward Jace to see him waiting the signal that the weaponmaster was ready. Rion made a fist with his left hand and pantomimed a slow punch toward the ogre.
The ranger had put his melee weapons away and now reached into the magical quiver at his left hip. From it he drew a four-foot javelin. The Quiver of Ibaron stored the ranger’s longbow, two score arrows and a number of magic javelins, all in a space not more than eighteen inches long and six inched wide. When fighting a lesser foe, the ranger would have probably used his longbow to fire volley after volley at the oncoming enemy, but not here. The ranger would be allowed a single ranged attack before the beast was upon him – not the time to be holding a longbow.
Jace stood and with one fluid motion launched his javelin at the ogre’s back and quickly drew his sword and axe. Half way between the ranger and the ogre, the javelin crackled with energy and transformed into a lightning bolt. The bolt struck the ogre square between the shoulder blades and the creature convulsed. The electricity from the bolt arced across the wet ground and caused the beast’s oversized bag to twitch and emit a muffled cry.
The ogre stood and turned, fires raging in its eyes. It bellowed a yell that sounded more like a tortured bull than a humanoid. Then it pointed toward the ranger and returned a lightning bolt of its own. Much larger and forked five feet wide, it struck Jace with brutal force even as the ranger attempted to dodge out of the way. His steaming, convulsing body hit the ground with a splash.
The ogre was pleased with his work and hefted his giant club and closed to finish the ranger. It had closed half the distance between them when Rion attacked with surprise, swinging his bastard sword with both hands. The blow struck the ogre behind the right knee, a stroke that could have fallen any one of the small trees that stood around them – but against the creature’s enchanted hide it barely drew blood.
The ogre spun and faced the weaponmaster, swinging its massive club down at the puny human. Rion deftly stepped to the side as the club blasted into the mud inches beside him. Rion swung again, a blow to gut the beast, but the ogre brought his club up in a parry and the bastard sword sunk deep into it – sticking. The ogre bellowed and lifted his club above his head, swinging it wildly. Rion was pulled off his feet before he let go of his sword. The arc from the ogre’s swing sent Rion high into the air before he splashed down into the wet grass ten feet from the beast, lying flat on his back and without his weapon.
This had gone about as well as anticipated.
The Ogre bellowed with triumph. He stepped closer and prepared to finish the armored human, using the warrior’s own blade as a spike in his club.
Rion tried to gain his footing, but slipped in the mud and wet grass. The ogre took another step and swung. Rion rolled to his left in abject desperation. The club missed him by less than a hand’s width, throwing mud and water into the air around Rion.
Another swing came quickly after the first, perhaps not as powerful, but with a sideways swing on target. Rion heard his metal breastplate crack along with his ribs – then the pain came.
He was face down in the mud ten feet away from where he’d been hit by the ogre. The taste of blood thick in his mouth and his helm was nowhere to be found. He heard the infernal beast bellow again and sensed it lumbering up behind him. He surged forward, hoping to sprint away, but the pain of his shattered rib cage and the twisted metal of his breastplate allowed him little more than a short lurch in the mud.
Another fierce blow caught him in the middle of the back – wracking Rion with fierce pain. He managed to roll onto his side, and draw his dagger. For what use it would do him, the weaponmaster was not going to die face down in the mud.
The ogre was above him, grinning at him, with its twisted face and large pig-like eyes. It chuckled, and wrenched the weaponmaster’s bastard sword from its club. He let the club drop to the ground with a splash in the mud. It then hefted the large sword with a satisfied look on its face.
Rion looked behind the creature, then smiled up at it. Face bloody and covered in mud, the weaponmaster’s expression confused the ogre. Leaving the creature flat-footed long enough for Jace’s attack to come in complete surprise.
Jace stabbed the creature full in the back, just where its kidneys should have been. Then he spun and delivered a fierce blow to the back of its right knee with his hand axe. The impact of the weapon made a sound like a hammer breaking stone. It was the ogre’s turn to fall to the ground now. Taken by surprise and lying in the mud bleeding profusely the ogre screamed in rage. It lashed out with the stolen bastard sword – not so much trying to hit his attacked, but to keep him away long enough to recover.
Rion took the opportunity and pulled a healing potion from his belt pouch. Uncorked it with his quivering hands, and quickly drank it. The draught’s magic had hardly begun to take effect as Rion quickly drew a second potion and drank it as well.
Jace lunged in under the flailing bastard sword and cut at the ogre’s foot. The wound was small, and to the ranger’s dismay, it began to close nearly as quickly as it was opened.
Feeling his powers of regeneration take effect, the ogre stopped flailing the bastard sword and launched another spell at his attacker. This time it was a wide gout of flame. The ranger dodged backward to avoid the flame, and escaped with little more than a singe. He rushed forward again, swinging his two weapons at the ogre, hoping to keep it down, where it was more manageable.
The ogre parried the ranger’s shortsword, but took a blow from the hand axe square on its shoulder as it stood. It punched at the ranger, hitting Jace in the jaw. Spinning away from the blow, the ranger opened a new wound in the ogre’s arm with his sword. Hardly a good hit, but a fair trade for the punch.
Rion had now drunk his fourth and final healing potion. He still ached and his breastplate was ruined, but he was back in fighting form. He stood, grasped his dagger in both mailed hands and launched himself at the ogre’s back, and the rapidly closing wound Jace had placed there.
The ogre was not to be caught by surprise a second time however, and it brought its elbow back to meet the weaponmaster with a crash. The dagger missed its intended mark, but cut well into the ogre’s arm. The ogre seemed to ignore the wound and while fending off Jace with the bastard sword, it grabbed at Rion’s head. Its long, thick fingers easily wrapped completely around the warrior’s skull. Rion lashed out with his dagger, fighting desperately to keep the beast from wrenching his head off his shoulders.
Jace faked to his right and then rolled up under the ogre’s guard. Striking it in the knee with his shortsword and cutting deeply into its wrist with his handaxe. Screaming again, the ogre let the bastard sword fall to the ground. Again, Jace struck at the ogre’s wounded knee. And then again, and again. Using both shortsword and handaxe in a vicious scything motion.
Rion put the blade of his dagger in the ogre’s other wrist and it let go of his head. Released, he dove for his bastard sword. Falling to his side he raised the sword to guard against an attack he anticipated, but did not receive.
The ogre screamed in pain as the ranger finally defeated his protective enchantments and severed its lower leg. As it fell to the ground, the ranger threw his hand axe at the creature’s head. The ogre attempted a desperate dodge to avoid the axe and the weapon passed by his head, merely severing its left ear. As the ogre impacted with the ground, squirming in pain, the ranger took his sword in both hands and jumped at its chest, ready to stake it through the heart.