Monday, 20 June 2022

The Heirs of Britain - Game Eight

The Heirs of Britain

Session 8: 482; The Demon of Imber

__________ Summer 482 – Uther’s War Camp, Summerland __________

 The knights awaken; Vandagild and Iwan in a large tent, not far from the Prince. Despite our heavy night of unexpectedly heavy indulgence, the days of despicable Summerland harassment, and the general wretchedness of this place, The Aquitanian, Vandagild, is hale and hearty, his Constitution holding against this broadside of causes. Iwan, alas, is less used to drink: He is not well. Sir Myles also, though an exceptionally tough man, has also rendered himself low; he retches horribly when prodded. Sir Elvorix, the Roman, raises, feeling quite well but for his hand, which, he discovers, has a quite deep but adequately treated wound across the palm. He is covered in blood, snuggling a snoring pig, and quite confused. He groans, stumbles to his feet, and searches for a trough for some water.

Sir Elvorix emerges to find his friends; he soon finds Vandagild washing at a basin. They greet warmly, huskily, and the Roman asks what happened with that woman? The Long-haired Vandagild laughs heartily, for he was hence to ask the same of the Roman. A confused shrug from Elvorix, though some inklings start to dance their way into the front of his memory… He burps grossly, cleans his face in the basin, and asks what else happened. Sir Vandagild tells briefly of the Demon wolf, the luckless sir Cadel, and our quest with the Prince. They wonder at the legitimacy of Sir Cadel’s plight; they trust him little. Elvorix shrugs; his last worry proved true, and we slew the bear truly! And the Saxons, which, he admits were likely the true source of the misery. At the mention of Saxons, Vandagild grumbles outwardly; he wonders with frustration why we're out here fighting fellow Britons in this ungodly swamp instead of those Saxon Demons in the South! Sir Iwan stumbles from the tent, waves, throws up, and sits heavily against the canvas once more. He has been caught unaware by the power of drink, and his typical temperance justified once more.

The two healthy knights set off to find the Prince. He is near the King's tent, by a campfire, dressed loosely in his casual way. Sir Vandagild greets the prince happily and, after talking small, wonders when we ought leave for Imber. The Prince is surprised, and keen, to learn we were serious. He looks to his father’s tent, and tells us our Holy Quest of Demon Slaying sounds more fun than whatever else he has planned; the Demon Wolf is interesting and glorious enough for him to spend his time slaying it. Sir Elvorix notes his tentward look; he suggests to the Prince that spending time with some knights his own age might do him so good, regardless; Madoc nods slowly, agreeing heartily. The stuffy courtiers are boring. Madoc is indifferent to learn that Iwan can't make it, afflicted as he is by the curse of Summerland and wine. Madoc shrugs: It happens to the best of us, he says; we've all been there. It is true.

Lo! Though Sir Vandagild’s gut is healthy, his memory ails: He only vaguely recalls the directions Sir Cadel gave him... something about a flag and a tree? Yet if the flag has been pulled down then.. a tower? Shrugging once more, Vandagild leads Sir to… a tower. Prince Madoc arrives around thirty minutes later, his two squires in tow. Sir Cadel is nowhere to be seen. We wait, awkwardly, for some time. Sir Vandagild apologises, blaming nought but himself for misremembering... The knights talk through the last evening, trying to find an anchor for their memory. And it is found: A tent with blue and gold! The three knights approach!

Last night Sir Cadel looked bad; dishevelled, grubby and anxious. This morning, somehow, he looks worse. When asked, he tells us he is doing better now that.... and then he fumbles his words; he espies the Prince, standing beside us; and panics. Cadel is a mess, he tries desperately to fix himself and fumbles his phrasing awkwardly. We inform him gently that the Prince Madoc will join us; for he would not miss the opportunity to slay a demon in his own lands. Cadel kneels and is appropriately, or perhaps excessively, sycophantic. Madoc looks uncomfortable. The Aquitanian , eager to smooth the situation, notes that Cadel seems absent a squire. Sir Vandagild offers him the use of his own squire Golistan’s son Uvan. Clearly, he says, Cadel’s was lost in the raiding. Sir Cadel, fumblingly, lets that explanation stand; he is not convincing.

__________ Imber Intrigue __________

We ride briefly south, past the castle Devizes and thus onward to Salisbury and Imber. On the way, we see many of Roderick's men gathered outside border manors. Sir Vandagild spurs his horse yonder to investigate: A footman informs us that these manors, and some castles, were taken several days ago and Roderick is now keen to hold them; his presence hear may help sway the King’s decision. Asking for the battalion commander, Sir Vandagild is directed to Sir Hywell, who he knows well enough from Bedegraine. Hywell is an older knight, well maintained; he mentions Sir Blains as they recap that day, and Vandagild spits. Hywell nods. He explains hence: We wait for recognition from the King that these claims are legitimate. Nodding, Sir Vandagild informs the Banneret that we're off to fight a Demon Wolf with Prince Madoc. Hywell raises an eyebrow, and laughs; these feasts sometimes give us unexpected opportunities. He asks the Aquitanian  for a Demon Puppy if we slay the beast. Laughing along, Vandagild assures him he intends to claim a whole clutch, and send the demon pack against the Saxons! The young hunter returns to the road, informing his colleagues of Hywell’s words; they care little for the story.

Sir Cadel leads us down trails to Imber, on the north side of the hills. The village, somehow, is less well-managed than when we first met it. Many buildings are run-down or abandoned; the folk look nervous and unwell. The manor itself looks intact, but the lands suffer greatly. Sire Vandagild, merciful as always, checks the villagers. They are dirty, but Vandagild is not familiar with the ways of common folk; they baffle him with their grubby servitude. He assumes this is their way, and worries no further.

We approach the manor, where Cadel offers us succour and hospitality. His manor is very well furnished with an array of expensive and esoteric trinkets. The presence of certain Heraldry repeats: Elvorix recognises it; The Saxon Shore. The Roman inquires of this from Cadel for he hopes to reclaim his own family's lands there once the Saxons bloat in the sea. His family is large, Cadel replies; these were all family gifts that have trickled down to him. He values them little, but they're nice to look at; makes the Manor look nice, he explains meekly.

We prompt futher: These lands are in Salisbury, Roderick’s land. This is not the Saxon Shore. Cadel doesn't elaborate. Sir Vandagild wonders if his family is, or was, large and rich, and he has fallen from favour. Elvorix wonders why the manor is so well furnished while the lands are so poorly... though he quickly concludes that Cadel probably bought these treasures in better times, and likely has leftover money from inheritance. This conclusion raises eyebrows; something deep in the Roman’s subconscious knows that this conclusion is spurious.

Cadel tells us more: After we slew the bear, things were good for a while. And then they were... not. We push not further. The beleaguered knight hasn't seen the Demon Wolf himself, though many peasants report the stories. They talk of some large demonic dog; others speak of a curse, where people disappear in the night. Yet others tell many a strange tale… but these two dominate the fable; lizards, snakes, dragons. Cadel doesn't believe it's a dragon, at all, of course.

We depart for the forest armed as warriors, not hunters. We gather some of the manor's hunting dogs, and Cadel furnishes us with rations. We mount, and the man raises a hand and wishes us luck. As we leave, Madoc looks oddly at Sir Cadel, standing by his manor door. Sir Vandagild inquires quietly, and Madoc responds loudly: “Are ye not fighting today, Sir Cadel?”; Cadel melts into anxiety and fear. The compassionate Aquitanian tries to cover; he tells the Prince that he heard Cadel has some vulnerability to the woods, and is not well; Cadel immediately recovers and jumps on the low-hanging excuse, feebly holding it for all he is worth; which, to Madoc, is greater in trinkets than in character. Madoc looks back and forth between us before shrugging: Let the coward be, he says. Our mounts clop west, toward the woods. Sir Vandagild is happy to assuage Cadel’s discomfort; the ambitious Sir Elvorix is pleased to have more face-time with the Prince.

__________ Insufferable Serfs __________

Vandagild accosts a peasant, asking after our last contact, Old Garr. The peasant knows him not, but insists, when Elvorix asks, that the demon is a snake! The hunched man saw its eyes in the woods! He takes us to the edge of a farm, and a stream yonder. Vandagild recognises the brook to which he brings us; we followed it here after we battled the bear by its side, deep in the woods. Sir Elvorix asks other peasants for more information; they each offer various names and descriptions; a Demon Dog, a Shadow, a Hairy Monster; a Demonic Boar... but they all point to the same area; where the stream leaves the forest. We follow our only lead.

The Aquitanian asks Prince Madoc if he wishes to lead the hunt, offering his services as required. “Are ye not the expert, Vandagild, squired to thy Earl's hunter?” Vandagild nods and, introducing Madoc to squire-and-brother-in-law Uvan once more, tells that the young man is also Golistan's eldest son: “Be it young Uvan or I, I give ye faith and promise that the beast will be found. Onward my Prince, onward friends!”

Elvorix offers his aid, attempting to make his presence known and valued to the Royalty in the midst; Vandagild, smiling, tells Madoc that mighty Elvorix will surely slay the beast once we find it.

__________ A Dark Trail… __________

The group splits, half the men either side of the narrow stream; the young Pict Uvan searches for tracks on the west bank, Sir Vandagild on the east. Prince Madoc looks back and forth, then declares wants to go with “the kid”; he pulls a wineskin from his bag and leads his horse to Uvan; Lead on boy! 

The search is long, each tracker finding small evidence. After time, The Aquitanian finds something distinct: We are deep in the forest now, our horses manoeuvring carefully; before him a heavy disturbance, like a thick, well-travelled boar trail. The branches either side are broken, high, near height with a horse; some drag marks besides. Vandagild tells this: “Some large thing hath dragged weighty prey along this trail... Hold guard, friends.”

Sir Vandagild recalls Uvan, uniting the group once more: “We will follow this lead, young Uvan. Praise and thanks to thee; you have led a Prince to-day!” He leads down the path, riding single file now; alas, the forest is too thick for horses otherwise. Madoc tosses an empty wineskin aside; it is quickly replace with another. The prince holds high spirits, joking joyfully with the young knights. The forest is heavy and tall, the undergrowth reaches for us hungrily, snagging buckles and nooks. Having travelled for much of the day, it nears the time of supper. We are weary, of course, but the knights persist energetically. Madoc too still sits straight in his saddle.

Alas, soon the path itself becomes unmanageable for our steeds; the trail has more regrowth here, unusually so, and we risk a horses ankle by leading them forward. The long-haired hunter calls to dismount; the squires, he declares, are to wait here. They are charged with defence of these fine mounts; Vandagild leaves them a horn, in case they are accosted by a demon wolf. “Keep thy blades handy, and thy wits sharp. Thy courage may be tested as we hunt yonder; hold firm, and fight together. God speed, Uvan; God speed, young men!”

We march on; Prince Madoc grumbles at the length of our toil, though he keeps apace and tires not. Here, at ground level, Vandagild spies more of the uncommon regrowth; the forest is verdant here, odd in parts, and mismatched to the season. He shakes his head, and strides heartily forth; there is still sun, and his quarry must not be far now.

__________ Long Shadows and a Longer Day __________

The hunter, obsessed and enjoying his element, stays focused on tracking; the journey continues for weird time. Sir Elvorix, less distracted, wonders at the length of our journey; time seems to be moving far too slowly. He wonders aloud if we are in the Fey Wilds now! Sir Vandagild is unsure; his keen eyes mostly cast grounward. He turns to ask of Madoc; Lo! Madoc is still, paying us no heed, eyes cast skyward. Asked whyfor, he points up and out. “Look ye; it moveth not”; Vandagild’s eyes follow, and the Prince tells no lie: The shadows are long, and have been as long for some time. Madoc marks a shadow, and we watch it closely some time; it does not move. Nor the sun, hanging above, ever present.

The knights are awonder; Vandagild curses. There is discussion; Vandagild suggests that God has paused the day for us, to ensure that we can slay the beast, as promised, in this very day. Madoc indifferently agrees; we have food, wine, and each other; we have strong shields and sharp blades; there is nothing to do but venture forth. Sir Elvorix agrees, though he does wonder if he hasn't seen that same tree three times...

The three men trudge through the damp, thickening foliage; it almost writhes as we pass. Alas, the beauty of this strange place is soon lost: a horrendous scent builds, and assails us. It is sour, festering, mouldy; reminiscent of decay. It takes root in our noses: Sir Elvorix grumpily accuses Vandagild as the source; a rough laugh, and the two make jokes of one another's relatives. We persist forth, and soon spy an overturned tree across the path. Sir Elvorix spots hoofprints deep in the earth afore the log, clear evidence of a horse vaulting the barrier. We look to one another, and around: The trail is still unsuitable for mounts; and we are confused. Which reckless man brings steed to this place? Yet we see no other marks, until over the tree lies the impact of an equestrian landing, and some frantic hooves leading left, off the trail. The tracks look less than an hour fresh, and yet still there is some new growth in their imprints. This forest has many wiles.

We are torn; Elvorix wishes to follow the beast trail, the reason obvious; Vandagild considers the horse trail; this is the first of anything new we have seen for many long strange hours; God offers us a sign, and we best listen. After discussion, Sir Vandagild calls out for the valorous cavalryman we seek; he listens carefully for a reply. As he does, he notices that the forest is unnaturally quiet; we hear nothing, not even the wind. A thought; it has been time, and quite, since we have heard a bird or insect. It is deathly silent here. And the sun hangs still. Looking about for further reference, there is alas no obvious landmark before us; we have crossed some tiny rivulets and creeks, perhaps through rolling hills, but nothing to navigate by.

We follow the horse trail per Vandagild’s argument: If we find nothing in the short term, we can return and continue along the endless trail for the Demon Beast. After a few minutes, we crest a small rise; a steep descent follows, to a very small stream... And a horse, dead, its heavy body wrapped around a tree at the bottom of a steep slope. We descend the hill: The horse has a saddle, which the Aquitanian inspects. Elvorix spots the footprints of a man leading away, from some thick drag marks beneath the slain beast; they end at the stream, heading right, downstream. The saddle is of good quality and fine craftsmanship; and in a saddlebag a stamp, wax, and paper. The stamp has a crude depiction of a heraldic lion rampant; the hunter brings it to the Roman, who does not recognise it for the lack of colour. Sir Vandagild assumes the knight is sorely injured from the impact; and the horse is still warm - we must venture to assist this ailing hunter!

__________ Terror __________

Sir Elvorix checks on Madoc; he looks stalwart but aware. He is no longer drinking; his eyes keen and shield at hand. Vandagild comments that this may not have been the hunting trip the Prince expected; Madoc says the same of the man who owned that horse. We follow the stream, which eventually leads back to the trail above; we see no more prints on the trail, but the wretched, thick stench is awful and pervasive. It gets worse as we proceed. The eerie silence makes every step tense; any sound draws a snap of heads; we are all on edge. Trudging occurs.

Soon ahead, the reek almost overpowering now, the forest twitching with fertility and vim. Ahead, Vandagild spots a hint of a clearing; the dense foliage thins, and the waves of rotten stink wash over us anew: From the suddenly encompassing scene before us, which seems to swirl and lurch... each knight is ripped into the depths of his own soul, his mind filled with evil possibility; pulling at our darkest fears…

Sir Vandagild's mind fills with the image of an enormous, multi-limbed beast; black, with vicious talons; the knight we seek lays slain, his armour rent asunder and viscera gored wide. In each talon, one of Vandagild's children lays, dripping red... He grits himself, sweating, and turns to his friends:

Sir Elvorix breaks, fleeing back the way we came. He mutters wordlessly of fear: We know not what fills his mind, but the spirit of this famously valorous knight is crushed by it. Vandagild calls back, but he is driven from the scene in terror.

Madoc, too, watches him flee; the Prince draws his blade; he looks back to the clearing a turns to Vandagild: “Come then, hunter, let's be men about it”. Sir Vandagild nods, draws steel, and advances.

Vandagild fortifies himself; his jaw tightens and his focus sharpens. As we breach the dense forest into the foul clearing, the scent rapidly dissipates... still present but no longer pervasive. An almost perfectly circular grove, the grass a dead, rotten yellow. In the centre: Collapsed trees, dead and rotting vegetation; and bodies, some armed, piled thick and heavy. Vandagild’s black taloned demon, swirling slain children, is not there. Instead, a black, evil tree; covered with red fungus; a dark, black liquid runs thickly down the trunk, like wretched ichor, pooling at its base. Glop: A large piece of flesh drops from a branch; gooping grossly into the pool, flecks of blood spoiling the perfect darkness. We look upward; a horrible humanoid clinging spiderly, horribly, to the dead canopy. Black hair covers its face but for the mouth; it is agape, fanged evilly, and spewing forth a horrible, hacking laughter.

It laughs not at we, but elsewhere, across the clearing. We spy there another knight, spear held aloft, over a green shield with a golden lion rampant (it matches the stamp); his battered armour holding against two giant black dogs, slavering, massive, awful. They battle urgently these three, before a fourth, wounded man; the latter propped against a trunk, rapid of breath, alongside a slain beast of similar ilk. He bleeds.

________ Bring Forth Thy Blade Unto The Demons of Imber! ________


“Black Dogs” Vandagild, snarls to Madoc. Vandagild recalls tales of the beasts from the Pict Sir Golistan: Nighthounds they also call, named not for their fur, but because they are unseen, black like night, and do not manifest physically in the world, instead unseen to the eye of man. And yet they are here, slavering and snapping at yon Lord. He does not recognise the Knight’s Heraldry, though he rarely does. The monster in the tree is an awful, terrible mystery.

Vandagild, his Grandfather’s medal at his breast, is nonetheless stunned by this terrible, chaotic scene. The Lion Knight thrusts again at a dog, shouting as he does: This battling, beleaguered knight, outnumbered by demons, spurs the hunter to action: “Sir Knight! Worry thee not; we come to aid with steel and brawn! For God!” The two men start across the clearing but yet, from nowhere three more Demon hounds lunge viciously upon them! Curse their fae tricks and savage maws!

The Prince and the Hunter fight side by side, each sending his blade against such foul foes as he can reach, aiding one another! Vandagild lands first, his blade thrust perfectly into one monster’s ribs; The howling creature is transfixed. Prince Madoc, thick muscle rippling beneath fine steel maille, with a mighty overhead strike cuts at the struggling beast; the blade hammers down on its neck, Madoc's prodigious strength driving the blade deep into the bone! It thuds instantly to the ground, motionless; His shield keeps the other at bay, and he now turns to square off against this other assailant.

Alas, Vandagild’s blade is briefly pinned by the fallen creature’s bulk; The other Dog takes advantage of this, sinking its rending teeth into Vandagild's leg: The agile hunter keeps his feet, but has no blade! He steps cautiously, shield battered by the monstrous, leaping hound, as he gets a good grip on the lost weapon and rips it free. Madoc is slammed against a tree by the other beast, his shield interposed, but a slashing claw rips him from his feet and gashes his thigh! It leaps atop him, but with great strength and deft shieldsmanship the Prince regains his feet!

Vandagild, armed once more, plunges his blade into his beast's flank; the creature has fur like wire, but the tall man has the strength to punch his blade through; he keeps his grip this time, spilling dark blood into the sickly grass as he pulls it free from the howling monster. 

Meanwhile, the Stranger Knight has been battling valiantly against his own savage foes: One monster bleeds from a deep wound, but the Knight has acquired another of his own. The Golden Lion ducks beneath one leaping beast, driving his spear into its belly... it is badly wounded, but still battles! The other monster latches its evil maw upon the man, though his fine armour keeps the worst out yet again.

The battling is savage; slashing and lancing blows from the men of Logres trade evenly with darting bites and ripping claws; The black beasts are soon drenched in red, and Sir Vandagild suffers numerous small wounds. Madoc’s great strength brings him the first victory, his mighty blows repeatedly hacking in the monstrous face and jaw before him; it is his third blow that carves through the beast's weakened skull and laying it to evil rest.

Across the clearing, the Strange Knight of the Golden Lion has put one monster down; it lies twitching at his feet, unable to fight on. But the man is hard pressed himself, many gashes leak into the vile yellow grass. He moves slower, but still holds his shield high.

Madoc turns to help his friend; Vandagild insists that Madoc aid the other knight, but the Aquitanian is bloodied, and he cannot hide the exhaustion of the day and battle; The Prince respects the man's honour, but he will aid his friend first!

Nodding, Sir Vandagild launches a deceptive attack, catching the beast in the ribcage, which has gripped him in its slavering jaws! It stumbles and starts to fall, when Madoc pounces: the Prince rushes to its side and hacks into the back of the beast's neck; it immediately limps, releasing Vandagild from its foetid maw and slumping to the muddy grass.

A word of thanks, and the two knights start to sprint across the sickly clearing: The distant knight battles still against a final foe! The Knight of the Golden Lion slams his blade heavily into his last beast, the jarring blow aimed with might and precision; the behemoth yet battles on!  Reaching the man at least, the men of Logres swarm the monster! Vandagild and the Stranger cut the monster shallowly again, which doesn’t fall. But the hunter slips to the flank, waiting for its balance to wane; his moment presents, and the young knight thrusts his blade through thick ribs and into its heart. As he does, the Stranger hacks at the beast, his sword a butcher's cleaver: Staccato, he roars “Why won't you die!!” But it does not hear his final word; for it is chopped savagely, and hears no more.

When the beast falls, the grotto is once more deathly silent; the men breath heavily, each wounded. The cackles have ceased. “Hark thee!” begins the Hunter, “I am Sir Vandagild of Salisbury, and this is my Prince Madoc; Alas for these brief words, yet I must away; for yon beast, cackling and mocking, begs me to lay waste unto it with this very blade.”

He turns to set upon the monster: A splash yonder; the creature, long and evil, emerges from the goop, from all fours, to two feet; A shadow shifts; another foul hound beside it. The vile tree-thing stands erect, taller than any of us. It draws breath deeply; the next noises pierces the silence and engulfs the clearing; for it screeches horribly, taloned arms spread wide.

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Image 2: Cannot find original source

King Arthur Pendragon RPG 5.2

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