:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Blackhill Saga, Part One ::

Part One - Arrival

A crash of thunder pealed through the air as a muted flash of lightning dimly illuminated the landscape. Driving winds, saturated with soot and ash swirled around the valley, howling over the flattened remains of the forest, years of growth uprooted by the concussive blast of the meteor impact. Here and there, fires burned in spite of the heavy rain, a legacy of the firestorms that had ravaged the area.

A hawk wheeled and twisted through the ash-choked air in a vain attempt to ride the chaotic winds that swirled about. It beat its wings hard, slowly gaining altitude until the true scale of the devastation was laid bare beneath it. Huge cracks had appeared in the land, and here and there the shattered remains of towns and homesteads lay, blasted apart by the force of the impact, shattered by the earthquakes and ravaged by the flames. Far to the south, a column of swirling dust clouds spiralled around the epicentre of the impact, still visible through the more diffuse dust that saturated the landscape. The vast cyclone of debris was a terrifying sight, one that the bird had no appetite to see any closer.

Wheeling north once again, the hawk forced itself against the howling currents of air, beating its way back away from the epicentre. As it tracked north the landscape began to grow less ravaged; some trees remained standing and there was less sign of fire damage. Even some buildings had been spared the full fury of the quake, though they were few and far between.

Eventually, the hawk found itself over the ruins of what had once been a large town. The Blackhill capital of Eriadna had sustained serious damage, but was the only major population centre reported to have survivors. The hawk circled downward and landed awkwardly just outside the ruined city walls, exhausted by its journey. It staggered on the uneven ground and collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily in the cloying, choking air. Blue swirling energy coruscated over the prone bird, and an eye-watering second later a man lay in the same spot, coughing and hacking, covered in dust and grime.

Karnus pushed himself to his feet, swaying from exhaustion, his lungs burning from so much effort in the harsh air. He spat out a mouthful of ash and took a swig of water from his canteen before looking around him. The great city walls of Eriadna had collapsed in this area, and would be easy to clamber over. Karnus gave one final sigh, wary of the task ahead of him, and set off towards the rubble, picking his way through a gap in the debris.

Making his way through the ruined streets, Karnus was awed by the sheer scale of the human misery laid out before him. The bodies of the dead yet lay in the streets, some entangled with the destroyed buildings. Wounded survivors picked their way amongst the rubble, staggering like zombies and coughing in the foetid air. Karnus came across a young woman, cradling the still form of an infant in her arms. He knelt beside her, intent on comforting her, but seeing her stare into eternity, realised there was little he could say and moved on.

Around the corner, he collided with a sobbing woman who fell to her knees and clutched at his cloak. “Please, m’lord,” she cried, “help us, please…” As Karnus mutely stared at her she continued to plead, and was joined by several other survivors. In a short while he found himself surrounded by ten or twenty desperate people, all clutching at him and pleading with him for help.

Karnus gently extracted himself from the grasping hands of these people, apologising to them as he stepped backwards. He considered enchanting the supplicant crowd, but soon saw that it was unnecessary; the people made no move to stop him as he stepped away, though some continued to follow him for a few paces, their faces full of desperation. When he finally extricated himself most people looked dejected, but here and there a few faces took on a bitter aspect.

Continuing further into the devastated town the wizard picked his way through the rubble of the once great settlement. Eventually he came upon a square, which in better times would have been a pleasant, statue lined space for the locals to relax in. Now, the various sculptures and columns in the area were cast to the ground and shattered. In the centre of the park stood a large folly in the form of a round, columned shelter, now roofless and missing several of its ornate columns. About this structure there sat, stood or lay perhaps a hundred people, a crowd of dejected humanity, some weeping, others simply staring.

At the head of the congregation stood a man, leaning on a makeshift lectern and dully reciting from a book in front of him. Beside him sat an older man, holding his head in his hands and staring dejectedly at the floor.

As Karnus walked through the depressed crowd the speaker stopped himself and tapped his sitting counterpart on the shoulder, pointing at Karnus as he approached. The older man stood, looking at Karnus with narrowing eyes. He suddenly dashed forward to intercept the young wizard with a hungry, desperate look.

“You,” the old man cried. “Get me out of here! Send me to the capital, now!” As he closed with him Karnus noticed the ornate robes and clear white crystal which dangled on a chain around his neck.

He favoured the Shepherd with a quizzical look. “You seem in an awful hurry to abandon your flock, Shepherd. I would have thought that they required the guidance of Rad now more than ever…” Karnus left the sentence hanging in the air, aware of the eyes of the crowd on the pair of them.

The older Shepherd looked around him guiltily for a second, then drew himself up to his full height and stared at Karnus. “I… I must report to the Council. I have… information for them.”

“Indeed,” replied Karnus, “what information would that be?”

“I… I… that is for the ears of the Princes alone.” Behind the jabbering elder, Karnus noticed the younger man at the lectern, also dressed in the robes of a Shepherd of Rad, was staring at his elderly counterpart with barely concealed contempt. “Besides,”” continued the octogenarian Shepherd, “I have meditated upon my fate, and determined that my report is essential to… er… the safety of the nation! Yes. Send me to Glantri City now!”

Karnus briefly locked eyes with the younger of the two Shepherds, then turned his attention back to the elder. “Well, far be it for me to contradict your meditations, but I’m afraid I do not have the capability of teleporting you to the capital.”

“What? Then how did you get here?”

“Overland, mostly – I took a horse as far as I could then flew the rest of the way. Unfortunately navigation was nearly impossible given the wind and ash so I was swept towards the centre of the disaster zone.”

“Well, then escort me back to the city! You can enchant me with flight and we can go together.”

Karnus looked around him at the weary congregation. “I’m sorry, I don’t intend to abandon these people,” he leaned in close to the aging Shepherd and continued in a low, accusatory tone, “and I don’t believe you should either….”

The Shepherd whispered to Karnus, “please… I’m begging you. I’ll pay you to take me out of here…”

Karnus stared at the neglectful cultist and simply shook his head. The Shepherd turned, disgusted at Karnus’ refusal. He stalked past his onlooking congregation, and disappeared into a makeshift tent erected nearby, grumbling and exclaiming all the way. As Karnus watched him go, the younger of the two Shepherds closed the book he had been reading from, offered a votive to Rad, then moved towards Karnus.

“Lord Wizard. Would you walk with me?” Nodding assent, Karnus was led out of the congregation of people, who, despite having been dismissed continued to suit around dejectedly. When the pair was out of earshot of the crowd, the Shepherd turned to Karnus and said “I suppose I should apologise for my colleague, though in truth no excuse can be offered for his selfishness.”

“There’s really no need,” replied Karnus, “I can’t blame him for wanting to escape all this…”

“You are too kind, Master Mage… he has responsibilities that he is neglecting.” The man turned to regard the jury rigged tent with a dark look. “A flock needs it shepherd in times such as these…”

The Shepherd proceeded to introduce himself as one Tanthalys. He had been a junior member of the Cult of Rad, serving in a nearby town before the meteor had struck. Having travelled to the city the only other Shepherd he could find had been his elder counterpart, Brother Faralmyr. Unfortunately, the older man outranked the younger, more pragmatic Shepherd, so he’d been forced to follow his less than enthusiastic lead.

Sighing, the Shepherd looked at Karnus with interest. “Are you here seeking succour, Master Perdissium?” asked the young man. “Were your lands ravaged by the disaster?”

“No, no – I have come from the capital. I have no holdings at all.” The Shepherd favoured Karnus with a quizzical look. “I thought I would see if there was anything I could do to help.”

Tanthalys’ eyebrows shot up. “Really? You entered this horror voluntarily?”

“Yes – I thought perhaps there was something I could do to aid the people. In truth I’m surprised that others aren’t here doing the same…”

Tanthalys regarded Karnus with a thoughtful expression. “Perhaps others know what a hopeless situation it is. What do you think you can achieve here?”

“You’ve obviously got a crowd of people together, but I don’t see much sign of activity. What have you been doing with them?”

“We minister to their spiritual needs. We encourage them to help themselves through this crisis.”

“What about the wounded?”

“We help as best we can, but our means are limited.”

“What about finding more survivors, organising search parties?”

“We didn’t see much point.”

“I see. Well, without wishing to defame the sterling work you’re doing, I don’t see the point in those people sitting there wallowing in self-pity. You should put them to work finding other survivors, then head out of here – I don’t think that this place will sustain human life for too much longer.”

“Most of those people are in shock. They’re traumatised. You can’t expect them to be scrabble around helping others when they’re half starved. There isn’t even any water!”

“Then find some. Organise scouting parties! Find food stores, underground streams, anything! You are their Shepherd – you need to give them hope. Without that, they’ll never survive…”

The Shepherd hung his head. “You speak of instilling hope. Yet I feel none myself. How can I inspire those people when my own hope is gone?”

Karnus smiled at the dejected man, “that, my friend, is why I’m here – let’s see what we can do, shall we?”

Karnus returned with Tanthalys to the fringes of the gathered crowd of people. With a few passes of his hand, he dropped two charm spells into the heart of the crowd, then, making a different motion cast one further spell on himself and strode into the heart of the crowd.

As he walked through the throng the hubbub and noise of the dejected crowd died to almost silence, as all eyes turned towards the wizard. Even those who had been staring off dejectedly now looked towards Karnus, who noted with interest that the Stage Presence spell had snapped them out of their shock, at least partially.

Satisfied that his spell had worked, Karnus ascended the short flight of steps towards the lectern, turned, and began to address the people before him.

”Men and women of Glantri, my name is Karnus Perdissium. Darkness has fallen upon us. The tragedy that has struck this land is a blow to all the peoples of Glantri, but it is you that bears the brunt of the horror. It would be easy, in the face of this disaster, to turn away, to abandon the common bonds of civilisation and society that bind us all together, to sink into depression and dejection.

As Karnus spoke, he issued a minor mental command to the Staff of Hutaaka which he held in his left hand. In response, its eyes began to glow and a swirling pattern formed in the light. Karnus continued to speak, and here and there noticed some of his audience’s eyes begin to glaze over.

“I have come to tell you of another path. Within each of you yet resides the light of the human spirit, dimmed by tragedy but never extinguished. Before you stands the greatest challenge of your lives. Ask yourselves – how do you choose to respond? By ignoring our shared strife? By abandoning one another? By allowing the light of the human spirit to dwindle further within each of us?”

“I say no! I say there is another way! While we mourn for our lost friends, family and neighbours, we can yet save so many more by working together. By embracing that which binds us together. By setting aside, even for a moment, the pain of our loss and harnessing the light that burns in each of our minds we can work to help our fellow man. To stem the flow of blood and reduce, even if only fractionally, the tragedy of these dark days.”

“Citizens of Glantri, I ask you – raise your spirits, embrace the light in each of you and help me to save as many of your fellows as we can. In Rad’s name I call upon you to help in whatever way you can. Stand with me!”

Karnus command echoed around the square, before being consumed by the howling of the wind. Seconds passed, though to Karnus it felt like an eternity. Then, slowly, the ten people that Karnus had hypnotised stood slowly, climbing to their feet as if not entirely sure why they were doing it.

Seeing these few people standing, a second cohort of people also clambered to their feet. This group of twenty to thirty citizens was much more enthusiastic than the first, cheering, calling Karnus’ name and beaming at him. Karnus once again marvelled at the mass enthralment effects of the Charm Monster spell…

Within seconds, people began to stand up of their own accord, encouraged by the enchanted members of the crowd or simply accepting the speech on its own merits. Though the response was by no means universal, Karnus estimated that he had nearly half of the hundred or so people on his side, with more standing as the herd mentality propagated through the congregation.

As he descended the steps into the crowd, the charmed people in the crowd moved forward to shake his hand and clap him on the back, pledging their assistance. As the crowd deepened around him, reinforced by the unenchanted, Tanthalys broke through the throng with a wry smile on his face. “Nice speech,” said the Shepherd, “you seem to have your volunteers. What will you do with them?”

As Karnus was assailed on all sides by cheering people he smiled and said “let’s save some lives.”

In the days that followed, Karnus worked with the surviving citizens of the town to coordinate some form of relief effort. He took a frontline role in the search for survivors: Using his ESP spell he scanned the ruined buildings for sentient minds, and then set teams of men to dig out the survivors, augmented by Haste spells. While working in and around severely damaged buildings, Karnus would summon Walls of Stone to prop up the fragile structures and where large pieces of masonry frustrated the diggers Karnus polymorphed himself into an ogre, giant or dragon to haul away the worst of the rubble. At the other extreme he used the Polymorph spell to transform into rodent or insect forms and explore the ruins in the search for survivors.

When not actively helping in the rescue effort, Karnus attempted to coordinate the survivors. Amongst the surviving population were a small number of guards and an equally small group of wizards, the most powerful of whom could “summon an illusion with which to confound the minds of men.” Karnus assigned the guards to venture into the city and tell everyone they could find about what they were doing, inviting them to join for their own protection.

The wizards were tasked with helping the wounded, along with the two Shepherds of Rad, and set up a makeshift hospital in and around the square where Karnus had delivered his speech, putting up as many makeshift tents as they had the material to construct.

Karnus asked a group of healthy, able-bodied survivors to head out of the city to nearby settlements, their mission to find whomever they could and also to see if they could secure food stores or surviving livestock. Karnus also asked them to keep an eye out for wagons and carts that could be repaired and used in their eventual exodus.

On the eve of the third day, Tanthalys approached Karnus and told him that several of the scouting parties he had sent out had failed to return. Though physically drained from his efforts over the past few days, and beginning to feel more and more sick from breathing in the choking air, Karnus felt responsible for dispatching these people on their missions and decided that he needed to venture out and find out what had happened to them.

So, on the morning of his fourth day in the disaster zone, Karnus prepared himself to venture out after his missing scouts. He rememorized his spells with adventure in mind, packed his tent away and made his way to the edge of town. As he waited for Tanthalys Karnus noted how cold it had grown over the last few days; indeed, he could just make out heavy flakes of snow falling amongst the ash in the air. It looked as if the temperature was going to get a lot cooler…

Tanthalys approached, and noticed Karnus staring into the sky. “I don’t believe we can remain here much longer,” began the Shepherd, “the foul air is beginning to claim the weak, and the strong are starting to fall sick from it.”

“I agree,” replied Karnus, “besides which we’re beginning to run out of food. And it’s going to get a lot colder.” He turned back to face the Shepherd. “You need to step up efforts to organise our departure while I’m gone.”

“Very well, I’ll see what I can do. Good luck out there,” the Shepherd offered his hand to Karnus, “may the Light of Rad illuminate your decisions.”

Karnus shook the proffered hand with a wry smile and turned, trudging into the darkness. Tanthalys watched him go, shook his head, and turned to re-enter the shattered ruins of Eriadna.

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