A Lana solo adventure
In the laboratories of the Magicians' Guild, Lana and Karnus spent a week toiling to research Continual Light from specimens of phosphorescent moss harvested from a cavern roof in Lower Dengar, Rockhome. To Lana's delight her formula proved a success on the first attempt. A few days later after tying up loose ends she saddled her mount, bid temporary farewell to her companions and set off for home - the village of Glaston to the east, on the fringes of the Dymrak Forest.
The summer sun warmed her as she rode along the Eastron Road, humming to herself. She had been away from Glaston for two months and had plans for the cottage she had been renting since winter. The renovations alone would have been enough to occupy her, but in addition she planned to invest some of her hard-earned resources in constructing proper defences for the village. At present only a rickety fence and shallow ditch kept out the wolves and goblins of the neighbouring Dymrak.
The deserted homestead
Wishing to stop by a farmhouse to acquire light refreshments, Lana's curiosity piqued as she rode past a homestead whose gates were closed. She observed from afar and discerned no signs of activity. Standing atop the saddle of her horse she peered on tiptoes over the top of the wooden gates. Nobody home. Yet a bar was keeping the gates in place. Something was amiss. Lana pointed her ring of telekinesis at the bar and bid it slide aside. The bar fell to the ground and the gates swung open. Walking up to the dwelling within she knocked politely. No answer. Peering inside she discerned a huddled figure sitting in a dark corner of the main room.
"Hello??" she called. The figure did not respond. "Please, is everything alright? Are you alone here??"
After considerable coaxing the figure approached the front door. Bolts slid aside on the interior and the door opened a fraction, the blade of a kitchen knife appearing between Lana and the old woman. Lana did her best to appear inoffensive and gained the old homesteader's confidence, little by little. The home showed signs of a scuffle - pots lay broken on the floor, stools were missing legs and so on. A tour was made of the dwelling which seemed to be home to at least ten people. All the beds were unmade, as if those sleeping had been disturbed and had not returned. The old woman garbled an explanation of events but sadly was incapable of speaking Thyatian, and Lana was unable to fully comprehend the woman's words spoken in Traladaran.
No verbal explanation was necessary, for Lana's brow furrowed as she realised what had transpired. The homesteaders had been taken by force. Evidently the frail old woman was of no use and had been left behind. There could be no doubt as to who was behind the kidnappings. The Iron Ring.
Slavers at large
Lana pressed a decent quality dagger into the woman's hands, left what provisions she could spare and bolted the homestead gates behind her as she rode onward to the next village. There she bid a villager send men to take care of the crone, and heard reports of similar disturbances. Her lip curled as she heard the familiar accounts; the Ring had come two nights ago with armed men, and had carted away all the able-bodied young folk, leaving the old and incapable. Lana vowed that she would hunt down the slavers and ensure the villagers' safe return.
Lana spurred on her horse, angry that the slavers should prey upon innocent, hardworking folk who did not deserve the lives of depression they would be sold into in Thyatis or beyond. After hours of travel she arrived in the Navilev, the final village before Glaston. As she had feared, here too the villagers were in turmoil, elderly men and women sobbed openly in the streets. Recent wheel tracks could be seen leading through the village square. Most interestingly, a statue stood in the square's centre. A strange feature in such a small settlement, Lana thought as she drew near to inspect it. The artist had captured the likeness of an enraged fighter with tremendous accuracy, battle-axe hefted as if caught in mid-swing.
"A local hero?" Lana asked a passerby.
The man shook his head, chuckling despite the circumstances. "The very opposite. One of last night's attackers. He tried to cart off my daughter but luckily a wizard was passing through," the man winked, "and put paid to the guy's plans."
"A wizard?!" Lana was taken aback.
"Can you describe him? What did he wear?"
"Robes," the villager replied. "Much like your own, only blue."
Surely not Karnus, Lana thought. She had left her companion days before, continuing his research in the Magicians' Guild. How could have Karnus have travelled such a distance in so short a time? And unless Karnus had been keeping even more secrets than normal, she wasn't aware that he possessed the ability to petrify opponents.
"Blue robes," she echoed. "You're quite sure? Not some other colour?"
The man scratched his chin. "They were definitely blue. But now that you mention it, they might have been trimmed with crimson."
In that instant Lana's heart soared. Her friend Hadrian had been here!
"... very excited, he was," the villager was saying. "Kept going on about how he had to stop them. Mentioned something about heading to Rugalov, getting help."
Good old Hadrian, Lana thought. She wasn't alone in this mess after all. Thanking the villager for his assistance and with her spirits renewed, Lana rode on through Navilev. Next stop, Glaston.
Glaston at last
Lana's horse galloped along the Eastron Road and as the sun was dipping in the sky the walls of Glaston could be seen on the horizon. Drawing near Lana noticed that the gates had been closed and barricaded. More noticeably, armed men were patrolling the outskirts of the village. To Lana's great relief the men's leather armour bore Duke Stefan's insignia rather than the manacles motif of the Iron Ring.
"Halt!" called one soldier as Lana approached. "The village is under siege, Mistress. You should turn back, seek shelter in Navilev until this threat has passed."
"I am aware of the threat, officer," Lana replied. "I wish to lend my support to your efforts here, and protect this village against those who would harm its inhabitants. For I have a home here - I am Lana Budanter of Glaston."
The soldier bowed. "I am the lieutenant in charge of this operation, milady. As I am sure you are aware, the forces of the Ring are at large. The village defences have been raised..."
"An excellent precaution," Lana interrupted, nodding her approval.
The lieutenant looked at her strangely. "Quite. Word has reached Rugalov and Lord Lutescu is travelling as we speak. He will arrive within the hour."
"Excellent," said Lana. "But have we the time to wait? We could send men into the woods to seek out the slavers before they strike. I myself would be happy to lead -"
The soldier shook his head sadly, almost managing a faint smile.
"I fear you do not understand the situation, Lady Lana. The Iron Ring are already in Glaston. It was they who closed the defences. They are holding the villagers hostage within the village until we grant them safe passage, with their captives, into Thyatis."
The blood drained from Lana's face, her mouth gaping open. "Oh."
Lana huddled by the gates watching the sun disappear over the treetops of the Dymrak Forest. Soldiers milled uselessly around her. Operatives of the Ring were inside her village, their knives at the throats of her friends - the same people she had returned to protect against the dangers of the Forest. The thought of the peril they faced burned within her. Why did the Ring insist on returning like a bad kopek, to thrust misery upon those who least deserved it? First there had been Golthar, driven by greed and delusions of self-importance. Then Jolenta, whose irresponsible meddling had unleashed an army of the undead upon Kelvin. Why even Karnus' sister had been sold by operatives of the Ring and transported hundreds of miles across the sea. Now Lana's very home was under threat. She would not stand for it.
A group of horses drew close. From among them a tall man dismounted, clad in robes and armour bearing ceremonial motifs which Lana recognised from her comrade Vasily's armour. The Church of Traladara - here was Count Vlad Lutescu, Lord of Rugalov to the east. Lana rose and forced a smile.
"Lady Budanter," the cleric crooned in his thick native traladaran accent.
"Vlad," Lana smiled, extending her hand. "I am so glad you could come, in my village's time of need."
"Little trouble to ride so short a distance," Vladd murmured, taking Lana's hand and kissing it. The Count's eyes roved along the soft, creamy skin of her arm for a little longer than was comfortable. Lana wondered whether the rumours of the man being a vampire could be true. "Yet your village faces considerable trouble it seems."
All other thoughts left Lana's mind. "Sadly you are correct. The Ring are inside the village, holding the vilagers hostage. No doubt their spies are watching us even now."
Vlad gave a slight nod. "What are they asking?"
"They wish safe passage to Thyatis. With the villagers. I will not entertain such a request."
"As well you should not," Vladd nodded, frowning. "We cannot allow ourselves to be dictated to by slavers, to allow their kind have free run of the Eastron Road would be insanity. Not at any cost will I grant this request."
"But if the cost is to be the lives of my villagers," Lana said miserably.
"Come now." Vlad placed a reassuring hand upon Lana's shoulder. "Their blood need not be spilled this night. Yet the blood of these wrongdoers surely might flow." Whether or not it was Lana's imagination she could not tell, but the Count's eyes appeared to gleam as he spoke. "What plan have you concocted Lady Lana?"
She took a steadying breath. "I am prepared to enter the village, hopefully without attracting attention. I believe a discreet, one-man offensive might achieve a more favourable outcome than launching all the resources we have gathered here. Should the Ring be alerted to any intrusion they will lose no time in slaying their hostages, who are my friends. We must proceed with caution if their lives are not to be forfeited."
"Then do so with my blessing Lana. You know this place and these people. I trust in your abilities and in your judgment."
Lana smiled warmly at Vlad, and he pressed his hand into her own. What a kind soul he was, she thought. Surely he couldn't be a vampire... Could he?
Her thoughts were disrupted by a flare of orange light accompanied by a deafening explosion a short way off. All gazes turned in the direction of the eastern gate. Vlad's expression registered concern. "Go, Lana!"
She lost no time. Murmuring an enchantment her feet left the ground and she flew quickly to the eastern gate, which she found to be smouldering and blackened but still intact. To her horror twelve men lay dead and burned on the ground. A single youth stood quivering just a few yards away, half-concealed behind a tall oak.
"You!" Lana barked. The youth looked at her through tear-filled eyes. "Did you witness this?"
The boy nodded. "It happened so quickly, Mistress! A man in red walked out of the woods and pointed something. A ball of fire went up, and it, oh Mistress! It burned them." He collapsed into uncontrollable sobs.
Lana cast her gaze around. "Where did the man go?"
The boy fought to speak through his tears. "He vanished. He stepped backward and was gone."
Lana was about to ask a further question, but was cut off as a voice called out, seeming to come from atop the gates. She pressed herself against the oak tree and pulled the boy close to her, out of sight.
"Who hears me?!" called a man's voice. The tone sounded haughty. "Who remains who would challenge me? Speak now if you dare!"
Lana covered the boy's mouth and said nothing herself.
The man's laughter sounded. "None remain! Behold my might! None shall withstand the might of Karlag. Know that I am in control here, and none shall stand against me. Co-operate in my demands, or watch the killings continue!" The laughter continued then eerie silence descended.
Karlag. Somehow the name was familiar. Of course. Jolenta had mentioned an associate in the Iron Ring by that name. And now a confrontation with that individual seemed inevitable. From the haughty and self-important tone of the wizard's speech, Lana found herself almost looking forward to taking the slaver down.
Into the village
Pausing to summon a protective shield and four illusory images, Lana quaffed a potion and vanished from sight. Invisibly she flew over the village defences to where she knew the slavers were bound to be holding the villagers. The village hall stood in the square, a small distance from the well which served as the central meeting point. Listening at the door, Lana discerned two voices having a heated argument:-
"Silence!" came a voice which she recognised as belonging to Karlag. "It is I who make the decisions here! I will not tolerate your insubordination."
A woman could be heard to sigh. "I was simply pointing out that the hour grows late. The soldiers have not responded to our demand therefore we should send them a sign."
Karlag remained silent as if considering the woman's words. "Very well. What manner of sign?"
Lana sensed that the time to act had come, lest further delay should cause harm to befall her fellow villagers. She rapped on the door of the hall. Silence fell. The door opened a fraction, and an eye roved the scene. It saw nothing but an empty street since Lana remained invisible. Grinning she flew up to sit on the roof.
"What's happening?" she heard Karlag demand.
"There's no-one there," replied whoever had opened the door.
"We clearly heard some-one knock."
"It could have been the wind?"
"Nonsense! Send the Hounds to investigate."
Lana had expected such a response. The door opened beneath her and five leather-clad minions emerged into the street. Levelling her Wand of Fear she took aim and expended a charge. As her form became visible, a sparkling cone erupted from the wand's tip and enveloped all five individuals. Two of the men cried out, turned and fled. After a second cone billowed from the wand so did two more in the direction of the eastern gate. A lone hound stood looking around in confusion, finally noticing Lana perched on the roof. He reached for his quiver to nock an arrow to his bow but his action proved too late. Hurling a dagger, Lana's blade lodged in the man's neck causing him to gurgle and collapse.
Lana dropped to the ground and rapped the door a second time. A further group emerged, this time led by an individual wearing a yellow sash around his neck. Lana spread her hands and cast down a phantasmal Ice Storm to envelop the six. Four of the men keeled over, believing themselves frozen by the blizzard. Two of the hounds saw through the illusion, yet a spread of Amber Shards soon saw them off.
Lana allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction. So far so good, but these had been only the Hounds, the Ring's mindless drones. The Masters remained to be dealt with and would prove far more dangerous foes. She stepped close to the door and prepared to rap a third time. But...
Before her knuckles touched the wooden surface, the door opened to reveal a muscular individual clad in chainmail armour. "You can knock as many times as you wish," he snarled, "but you're not coming in." The door slammed in Lana's face and to her horror she heard a shout on the inside. "Start the killings!"
Confronting the slavers
Panic spread through every fibre of Lana's being. With concern for her villagers flooding her mind she set aside any thought of her physical frailty and charged headlong at the door. Amazingly it burst open upon impact. Inside her gaze fell upon the familiar faces and figures of her friends the villagers, most huddled in the corners of the hall, some others with their arms and legs bound, and others tied to chairs along one wall. Their miserable expressions appeared to brighten upon seeing Lana burst into their midst. There was little no for pleasantries however as Lana surveyed three individuals with whom she was not on such as friendly terms. Inside the door stood the warrior in chainmail, seeming surprised that Lana had been able to barge through the door which he had put his back against. A brown-haired man in red robes stood in the centre of the hall, and by his side was a tall female wearing leather armour with a shortsword at her side. In front of these two was a villager bound to a chair. Karlag appeared to have been interrupted. He had evidently been whiling away the hours by inflicting dozens of tiny incisions across the villager's face. The man's face was now a network of intercrossing cuts. To her horror, Lana realised that the cuts had been arranged so that the man's face would split apart if here were made to laugh. Karlag twirled a razor sharp dagger in one hand, pleased with his own handiwork.
"Lady Budanter! We finally meet! I must confess I have awaited the pleasure of your company for months."
"You have me at a disadvantage, sir," Lana said frostily, "for I know nothing of you."
"I am Karlag," the red-robed mage announced, "Master of Wizardry and of the Iron Ring. I believe you knew my former associate Golthar."
"He died by my hand," Lana growled.
"Indeed he did," Karlag smiled, "and I thank you for disposing of the wretch. Only he stood in the way of my rise to power through the ranks of the Ring. Eventually I would have finished him myself of course, but you saved me the effort. And now I have gone to great pains," his eyes glinted evilly, "to prepare a special gift to thank you."
Karlag outstretched one palm, in which he held a small wooden box. Eyeing the box with distrust, Lana raised the hand on which she wore her ring of telekinesis.
"So very suspicious!" laughed Karlag as the box floated across the room. "I suppose I would be the same in your predicament. I assure you it will not harm you."
Once the box was in her grasp, Lana gave it a shake. A dull rattle could be heard within.
"Understand when I say the assurance of a criminal has little value," Lana muttered. All the same her curiosity got the better of her. She prised open the lid and looked inside. It contained a severed finger. Bearing a signet ring which she recognised instantly. The ring of her father?
Lana dropped the box, aghast. "You monster!" she squealed. Karlag howled with delight at her reaction. "If you have harmed one hair on his head," Lana began.
"I assure you he is safe, for the meantime," said Karlag. "But the same cannot be said for your friends here. Their lives are in your hands. An open road to Thyatis is all that we ask for. Deny us this, and the lives of those present will end at my command." Lana eyed the wand of fireballs at the man's belt. Given his love of inflicting pain, coupled with the firepower of that wand if nothing else, his threat seemed far from empty.
"You?ll have to go through me," she responded defiantly.
Karlag gave a scornful look. "Come now Lana. To dispatch my Hounds must have expended much of your stock of tricks. You must have very few spells remaining. You are outnumbered, and no threat for us. Surrender now, while we remain prepared to negotiate."
Lana lowered her gaze and drew a deep breath. There could be no negotiating with this monster, especially when he would delight in ending the lives of her beloved friends. Under her breath she began to speak words of magic.
A wave of magic washed through the hall, plunging the minds of all present into magical disarray. The villagers might be affected, Lana knew, but were physically bound and could do nothing. Hopefully the three slavers had been affected. The warrior and the woman stood dully staring at the weapons they both held, evidently confused. Karlag shook off the spell's effects and drew out a scroll from which quickly recited an incantation. The air around Lana shimmered and her protective images disappeared. So too went her shield and her ability to fly. Karlag cackled as his Dispel removed the confusion from the mind of the warrior in chainmail also. As the man regained his senses, he swung his axe in an arc in Lana's direction. Startled Lana outstretched her hands, from which issued a mass of sticky strands, webbing her attacker from head to toe. She had no time to feel any relief as Karlag summoned three bolts of ruby magic, which sizzled as they burned into Lana's flesh. Karlag had too many tricks up his sleeve, Lana decided. Calling upon the power of the Staff of Lucinius she sent a ray of sparkling light to hit Karlag square in the forehead, in an attempt to Feeblemind the wizard and rob him of any further spellcasting. Karlag doubled over clutching his head, but with dogged determination he managed to shake off the effects of the spell.
"Freeze!" shouted Karlag's associate, the woman. She held a dagger pressed against the throat of one of the female villagers. Lana concentrated on the blade through her ring of telekinesis and it clattered to the floor a few feet away. Before Karlag could rise to his feet again Lana summoned magic missiles of her own and sent the amber bolts hurtling into her spellcasting foe. Karlag screamed with pain but stayed standing. He read from his scroll once more and with his fist made a clenching gesture toward Lana. To her dismay the spell took effect, freezing her to the spot, dagger clutched in her hand.
The woman in leather armour cast the frozen Lana a scornful look. "You should have listened," she hissed, drawing her shortsword and slicing its blade across the throat of a captive villager. The other villagers screamed with shock as the woman gurgled and collapsed.
Tears clouded Lana's vision despite the effect of the Hold Person spell. She had tried her best but the Ring had outmaneouvred her. At least one villager would die this night, the rest would be sold into new lives of slavery. All her hopes would come to nothing. And to top it all she was blocking the doorway. The Hounds she had sent fleeing for their lives must have unblocked and opened the eastern gate, for outside the hall were standing a handful soldiers, unable to gain entry to the hall because Lana's frozen form was barring the doorway. But as Karlag and his associate turned their backs to discuss their next move, Lana felt a reassuring hand on her back and a familiar voice intoned a prayer to the Traladaran Immortals. Sensation returned to her frozen limbs and she found herself able to move again. Vlad gave Lana a wink and backed silently away from the door.
"Karlag!" Lana called. Surprised, the mage turned to see a dagger whistle through the air to embed itself to the hilt in his chest. He screamed silently, his hands clutching feebly at the blade.
"Does it look familiar?" Lana asked calmly. "That's because it belonged to Golthar." Karlag's eyes rolled in their sockets as the red-robed magic-user slumped to the ground in a pool of crimson.
The woman appeared unconcerned at the man's demise but grabbed a young girl to march in front of her. "Let me go free or this girl will die. Give me your word."
Lana shrugged. "Very well. I give you my word I shall not prevent you from leaving the village."
The woman gave a confident smile and barged past Lana, holding her dagger at the girl's throat. She gave a cry of surprise upon running into the guards in the square outside, but repeated her threat and was allowed to pass. Lana ran immediately to the side of the girl whose throat had been slashed. She was badly bleeding and almost beyond saving. Lana bandaged the wound as best she could, but realised the girl needed more help than she was able to give.
"Vlad!" Lana called desperately. Within a heartbeat the cleric was by her side.
"I will tend to the girl," Vlad reassured her. "But you too are wounded."
Lana shook her head. "It's nothing, really. Please, this girl needs -"
"Have no fear," Vladd soothed, taking hold of her wrist. A feeling of wellbeing washed through her, cooling the wounds which Karlag's fiery magic had inflicted only moments before. "You still have work to do this night."
Lana nodded and took to her heels. Outside the guards pointed her in the direction of the eastern gate, where she spied the slaver dragging her struggling captive in the direction of the Dymrak Forest, the steel of her dagger glinting in the moonlight. Lana ran to the gates, outstretched her hand and channelled concentration through her ring of telekinesis. On the very outskirts of the ring's range, Lana saw the dagger depart the woman's grasp to land in long grass some way off. The woman gave a cry of contempt. The villager took this as her chance to wriggle free and ran off, back toward Lana. As the slaver turned to flee into the depths of the inhospitable Dymrak, Lana closed her eyes and intoned the words to the very last spell she had memorised. With delight she watched the ancient boughs of the oak trees bend and weave, encircling the slaver and cutting off her escape routes on all sides before becoming an impenetrable cage. The slaver's angry screams filled the night air.
Lana gave a happy sigh and leaned back against the village's ramshackle wooden defences. These would need a definite upgrade, she considered. And some sort of lookout system perhaps. The sooner the better. As the sounds of cheering went up, she turned and headed back to the warm welcome of her fellow villagers.
More remained to be done however...
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