Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.
emo_snal

The Unmarked Path

   This is written to work as a stand-alone piece but is the latest installment in my dungeon's and dragons adventure (though there's three sessions since the last one posted here, the only event in the missing time that's particularly worth noting is when Krusk wrapped his flail in his cup-bearer's boxers to protect it while fighting an acid blob).

   The trail seemed to abruptly end amid some shrubbery. On either side a white skull gleamed atop a stake driven into the ground. A small song bird twittered atop the one on the right but flew up into a tree as they approached. They stopped briefly between the skulls and Percival, looking left and right could see more stakes with skulls spaced out to form a border between the darker forest ahead of them and the cheery forest they had been traveling through.
   "There is no path to the temple," Krusk, his large companion, explained. "It's symbolic, it's all symbolic. We have to find our own way there"
   "And we must tread carefully so as not to make a trail?" ventured Percival.
   "Ah, yes." answered Krusk, "very good."
   They carefully picked their way in the general direction the trail had been headed, careful not to disturb the grass overly much or walk where it appeared maybe someone else had. Percival reflected how this necessity made one more considerate of the natural environment and felt pleased with it. The forest past the skulls was thicker and darker but not really in a depressing way. There were if anything more birds about and generally the environment seemed more undisturbed. Percival noticed Krusk had taken his kite-shaped shield off his back, and was holding his flail at the ready.
   "There's some dangerous creatures in here," Krusk explained, "that can surprise the unready."
   Percival put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Technically Krusk's sword, but Krusk almost never used it, probably only owned it for symbolic reasons. Designed for an orc like Krusk, it was a bit big for Percival, a teenage human. Percival wondered what kind of "creatures" lurked in this forest. Sometimes the difference between a monster and an animal seemed very subjective, and Percival disliked killing things he didn't have to.
   He thought back to some of the creatures they had recently encountered. The undead creatures he didn't doubt were worth scourging away, but what about that giant vulture thing, the "vrock?" [illustration of the event] It had attacked them sure, but maybe it felt they were threatening its territory or was hungry? Percival looked forward to visiting the Geographic Society in town where he could converse on this subject with people interested in natural history.
   "That group of thieves we encountered," began the usually untalkative Krusk, "do you think we should have fought them?"
   "Oh, um, uh, I don't know?" ventured Percival, mildly surprised how closely Krusk's question matched the theme he was already thinking about.
   "Why not?" prompted Krusk, not looking at him.
   "They hadn't attacked us, there were more of them than us?"
   "Yes but they were clearly thieves, it was our duty to oppose them. We probably could have taken them"
   "Maybe?" offered Percival meekly. He thought back to the time the previous day when they had hidden in the bushes as nine humans who looked very thievish had come down the road. Krusk had wanted to confront them, but Malek, the lizard-man had held Krusk back urgently hissing to just stay hidden. Percival had to smile recalling how Krusk's cup-bearer Davidge had skillfully defused the situation by thrusting a horn of strong mead into Krusk's hand at just the right moment to console him.
   "But the rest of our group didn't want to fight them" offered Percival
   "Yes but they would have gone with it if it came to that." speculated Krusk. "I think we should have. One must have courage to fight one's enemies but also the courage to go against what others think is best for you" mused Krusk. He wasn't usually this philosophical, thought Percival, but since they were on their way to Krusk's initiation into the Third Degree of the Order of Azetlotlex, Percival supposed he was thinking a lot about his duty. Percival briefly questioned whether he really wanted to follow in Krusk's footsteps and become a paladin, the path his parents had proudly put him on. His chest swelled with pride as he thought of the honor of the righteous path and he squashed his feelings of doubt.
   "What if they weren't thieves at all?" asked Percival
   "Well I would have confronted them and probably if they were criminals they'd fight or run. If they had nothing to hide we could have discussed it." Percival nodded, remembering how Krusk had tried to talk to the goblins they had encountered, before others had taken the initiative and attacked.

   Presently they came to the temble complex, delineated by another row of skull stakes. There were a few stone and wood buildings around a square with a grove of trees in it, and the imposing blocky edifice of the temple building beside it. Many members of the order of various races, human, dwarven, elven, orcish, and more, stood around or sat at tables, wearing black robes. Several cheerfully greeted Krusk, who soon disappeared into one of the buildings to change into a black robe himself. Percival noticed an attractive human female not much older than himself and found himself wondering if she was wearing anything under the robe, which caused him to be particularly flustered when a dwarf with a fiery red beard introduced himself ("Tyler") just then with a friendly but overpowering handshake. The dwarf then introduced Percival to the "dread master" of the lodge, a grey haired centaur whose face was lined with age. As Percival was introduced around everyone was very friendly, though he felt meek and intimidated. He was grateful that despite his feeling of awkwardness no one seemed to talk down to him. Some meat was roasting on a spit, which smelled delicious. Percival recalled being told their the Dread God Sithrak, whom the Order is dedicated to, was said to particularly love a good barbecue ("even now Sithrak oils the spit!" being one of their common sayings), and had even forbade them to eat an entirely vegetarian meal. On a table near the middle several gold coins lay apparently unattended, which Percival suspected was another symbolic test of the order. As the evening darkened, tallow candles were set out for additional light.
   "These are tallow candles, laddie, but inside the temple I can tell you we use only beeswax candles," offered Tyler.
   "Oh," answered Percival, watching how the twenty-sided gold coins glinted in the candle light.
   "The beeswax burns bright and doesn't splutter or smoke" continued Tyler, "but Sithrak is pleased by tallow candles as well. So tallow candles without and pure beeswax candles within"
   Sithrak does like burning animal fat Percival thought to himself.
   Just before midnight the members of the Order entered the temple (The Dread Master seemed to determine the time from the stars). Tyler took a position beside the great door with his sword grounded. "Your role doesn't begin just yet" he explained to Percival, "so yea may as well sit." Percival gazed at the large carving of an upside-down skull above the door, lit dramatically by the flickering candle-light.
   After about half an hour several members of the order, including the young woman, exited the temble. "They are the one's who aren't yet of the Third Degree themselves laddie" explained Tyler, "but now the ceremony begins, so you come up here and take position on the far side of the door. Percival took a posiiton in mirror of Tyler on the other side of the door, grounding the sword between his feet. He had hoped the young woman would stick around but the members who had exited departed didn't hang around. Over the next several hours he sometimes heard chanting from within the temple and at one point he thought he heard a muffled scream abruptly cut short. Tyler didn't seem opposed to talking but after awhile seemed to settle into an abstracted thoughtful state. Percival himself was soon lost in thought. Did he have what it takes to join this order himself in time? Would he join a different order? Aspects of it terrified him but he urgently wanted the respect of Krusk and the friendly members he had met tonight. And that woman..
   Finally just as the sun rose, the members of the order started to leave the temple. Krusk looked tired but pleased. He appeared to have a steak of blood smeared across his forehead.

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