In Which the Beginnings are Humble
It all started with a brawl in the Feral Dog Tavern.
Freeday night, the miners crawl en mass out of their holes in the earth, weekly pay in hand and liquor on the brain. Freeday night, the night when even Dourstone, the damned dwarven bastard, let his workers get some well–needed diversion. The night when nothing could be heard down the Veiled Corridor but the creaking of bedsprings and the screaming of Zalamandra’s whores, from dusk to dawn. Freeday night, the roughest, most dangerous night in Diamond Lake, where the average resident was just as likely to kick you in the teeth as say “hello.” Freeday night, the big night for the dog fights in the Feral Dog pit: the night when the wolf “Fury” was let out to play.
Gods, that she–bitch could take on anything: one, two, even three dogs at a time; wolverines; brown bears; and, on one memorable occasion, a spriggan captured outside of town. She was unstoppable, wild, savage. She was unbeaten. And hells, Scar–Eater looked forward to watching her do her thing. The teenager, all muscle and shredded flesh, all rage and bile, saw himself in the scrappy bitch: a survivor, friendless, alone, hanging onto life by the teeth. Since he’d been booted out of the garrison for “behavior unbecoming,” Scar–Eater had practically lived in the Feral Dog. Sure, he bedded down in Jalek’s flophouse with the rest of the indigents when he absolutely needed to crash, but the rest of his time had been spent in the Feral Dog, blowing his severance, contemplating revenge on fucking Tollivar Trask, the garrison commander, and pondering the most painful way he could get himself killed. ‘Cuz he sure as hells wasn’t going to end up down in the mines with the rest of the lowlifes of Diamond Lake.
Freeday night, and across the green, business was slow over in Lazare’s. Few people wanted to sit around and play dragonchess and discuss Greyhawk politics that night. Riddle gave up trying to make himself look busy and was hanging out listening to one of the newcomers to town: Khelleck, of the Ashborn. The pompous, scrawny–assed wizard was holding court with miner managers Chaum Gansworth and Luzane Parrin, regaling them with stories of his accomplishments in the field of archeological recovery. The wily jerk was obviously – at least it was obvious to Riddle – trying to pry the names and locations of more local tombs from the unlikely lovers, all while assuring them his team’s attentions were focused on the Stirgenest Cairn. Riddle contemplated the Whispering Cairn once more and kept his mouth shut. Lazare was probably going to let him off early, business was so slow. What would he do with his night? He couldn’t go back to his mother’s room over at Zalamandra’s – “home” was off limits completely on Freeday nights: mommy dearest was getting her brains fucked out by drunken miners for twelve straight hours. He couldn’t go upstairs and see what Lazare’s daughter was doing – Lazare had finally forbidden him from talking to her. “You know I think well of you, boy, but my girl will not be falling for the son of a whore.” Maybe Riddle would head over to the Feral Dog. Tirra, one of Khelleck’s partners in the Ashborn party, was probably there. That elven girl was freaking hot, and she seemed to have no problem flirting with a whore’s son…
Meanwhile, Tyrrell skulked through the alleys of town beneath the shit–smellingest garment he’d ever encountered in his life. He regretted having to steal it from ol’ Crudheel (as the grizzled miner was called), but when he saw the poor guy passed out in the mud behind Jalek’s, still wearing his standard–issue Dourstone hooded burlap poncho–thing, Tyrrell knew he couldn’t pass up such a brilliant disguise. Beneath the heavy cowl, no one would recognize him, especially none of Smenk’s guys. And it was vitally important that nobody let Kullen know that he was back in town. He just needed money, see. And, well, food. He’d thought that hunting would be easy, but after several days living out of the abandoned mining office up in the hills, he’d never managed to catch himself anything. Now, Tyrrell was killer–good in a close fight, a brawl, a rowdy rough–n’–tumble… but it turned out that hunting rabbits just wasn’t his strong suit. And he sure as hells didn’t know which fucking plants were safe to eat up there. That hadn’t been part of his “education,” such as it had been, at the heels of albino half–orc, head enforcer, local terror Kullen Crushskull. Tyrell needed cash. He needed food. And he was going to have to get right amongst the Diamond Lake populace to do a little pickpocketing on the drunkest night of the week. Just in order to survive, of course.
So, to speed things along, fate worked its magic, the stars aligned, blah blah blah, and by a little after 1am, three nineteen–year–old boys all found themselves in the common room of the Feral Dog tavern on Freeday night. (Well, Starday morning, anyhow.) Despite the fact that they were the only kids their age in town (the Red Plague had swept through the region during the year of their birth and killed all the babies but them), they didn’t really know each other. They, of course, knew who the others were. They knew names and faces and general worth… or lack thereof (smallish town, you know), but they’d never really hung out. Scar–Eater, orphan and loner, had spent his formative years sequestered with the stay–out–of–local–politics–and–affairs soldiers in the garrison. Until he’d been booted out last week, of course. And Tyrrell, son of a worthless boozer known far and wide as “Punching Bag” had spent his years as lackey and runner for Balabar Smenk’s chief enforcer Kullen. Until something happened last week and now Skutch, Kullen’s best friend, was dead and Kullen wanted Tyrrell’s head on a pike. And while everyone in town knew Riddle, whore’s son who worked in hoity–toity Lazare’s pub, did odd jobs for the mayor’s brother, Allustan – a reclusive wizard of dubious and mysterious past – and generally could be found everywhere, with his nose in everyone’s business… no one actually knew him. For someone so present, the kid sure was a cipher.
It was Freeday night, so things got a bit crazy. The ale flowed freely. The testosterone roared. The air reeked of smoke and sweat and a dismal lack of self–worth. The dog fights raged. Fury bested every foe pitted against her. It was a rough and ugly night, but it was business as usual. Then entered Kullen. And Rastophan. And Todrik. And Bask. The whole crew. And in a foul temper. They’d all been in a foul temper since Skutch died, bleeding to death in the mud of the commons after his arm had been torn off by gods–knew–what. Kullen entered and the albino half-orc cried for whiskey.
And more whiskey.
And soon he was calling for a “real fight” down in the dog pit. “Fury against ‘em all!” he cried. “The she–bitch on a dozen!” The crowd roared its approval. Not Tyrell, of course, under his cloak – he was trying to sneak out the door before Kullen spotted him. Not Riddle either – he was too busy talking–up a fetching young elf playing at dagger–tossing in the corner. And definitely not Scar–Eater. He loved that fucking wolf and wasn’t about to see her torn apart in the most unfair fight he could imagine. As a matter of fact, Scar–Eater stood up to Kullen.
That’s right. You heard me. The kid stood up to the meanest, nastiest enforcer in town.
Everything stopped. Tempers flared. Insults were hurled. It got ugly. So ugly that the Fury–versus–pack–of–dogs fight went on. And Scar–Eater was thrown down into the middle of it. Blood and fur and flesh flew. The crowd screamed and roared.
Riddle had no particular love for Scar–Eater, but he wasn’t about to stand by and watch what was about to happen. He knew what could stop it. He charged at Kullen.
Meanwhile, Tyrell had the same thought. He knew the risk, but he also knew that Scar–Eater didn’t deserve to be torn apart. And fucking Kullen had it coming.
Both boys smashed into the half–orc’s back at the same time, intending to bowl him over into the pit. If Kullen went down there, his crew would call the whole thing off. They knew it.
Things didn’t quite go down that way.
Kullen toppled over… but damn, that bastard was quick. Almost as if he sensed the boys coming, his hands lashed out at the last second and pulled Riddle and Tyrell down with him.
What followed was a riot. Tyrell evaded Kullen while evading dogs who were rampaging over everyone as Riddle tried to pull Scar–Eater out of the pit who wouldn’t leave without the she–bitch. Upstairs, the miners went insane. Punches were thrown. Along with bottles. And furniture. And bodies. Sweaty, bloody men rained down into the pit. The screams and howls were deafening.
Long story short, somehow, someway the three boys managed to cling together and escape the nightmare scene, slipping through, under and past the rest of the mob. Dragging Fury as they went. Bloodied and battered almost to death, they needed a place to hole up. Tyrell, acting on impulse, offered his den – an abandoned mining shack outside of town. The boys followed. And there they crashed. And to their surprise, when the raging, foaming, savage Fury finally slipped into unconsciousness… the she–bitch was no wolf. She was a young girl. A human girl. A girl their age.
A long night and day and night passed as the four teens healed, helped each other, and marveled in the bizarre connection that had been formed between them. The four loners suddenly found themselves a part of… dare they call it a burgeoning “family?” Perhaps that was a word too lofty for what they felt. But they definitely felt something. As they rested in the rotted–out shack amongst the high trees of the low hills, they shared little pieces of their lives.
Tyrell talked about the rift that had formed so suddenly between him and Kullen’s crew. Seems that a “friend” of Balabar Smenk’s had come into town about a week back and Smenk had assigned Kullen and his boys to do a job for him. Tyrell came along to the meet–‘n–greet and left a changed young man. This friend was named Filge and he was truly repulsive. Pasty skinned, lisping, foul. And there was this sense of derangement hovering about him. Now, Tyrell had been involved in plenty of not–so–nice dealings while working for Smenk: thuggery, some battery, blah blah blah. But the victims had all been bad men themselves. And the violence had been more “rough stuff” than anything else, plus some sneaking about and spying. These things Tyrell could handle. However, the sense of truly repulsive Evil that oozed from Filge’s pores actually turned Tyrell’s stomach. Filge wore a necklace of bloody sinew around his neck, capped on each end by lidless eyeballs. This necklace was alive. It twitched and shimmied in the air and it stared at everything. “My little hunter–seeker,” Filge called it. And Filge had a second pet: a man–shaped, doll–sized conglomeration of oozing, pussing organs and flesh. “My little fetcher–gatherer,” Filge called it. Tyrell was disturbed enough, but when an offhand remark between Filge and Smenk made it clear to Tyrell that he had been promised to Filge as a “boy–toy” when the mission was done, Tyrell knew his days with that crew were done. He never showed to the job the next morning. Kullen’s best friend Skutch took his spot. No one knows for sure what went down, but everyone in town knew the result: Skutch dying in the mud on the green with Kullen howling Tyrell’s name to the stars in rage.
Jane, in halting Common, shared what little of her story she understood and remembered. She’d had parents once, and a sister, too, she believed. They died when she was a toddler, leaving her alone in the family hovel in the woods outside of Diamond Lake. The vague memories she had of crying on the floor of her parent’s home are the last memories she had of being human. Somehow, she was found by a wolf pack that took her in. As a wolf. She can’t remember when she had changed – perhaps at the first sight of the other creatures, perhaps after months of living with them – but she stayed a wolf ever since. For years she hunted with her pack mates and grew strong and stealthy. A while back, she felt a strange calling deep in her psyche that she couldn’t ignore. She followed a trail of moonlight to a grove and circle of menhir stones and there became the animal companion to a Druid called Norgoz, a member of the Bronzewood Lodge community. For years she lived among the Druids there, as a wolf, learning – through osmosis – their languages and their ways, hunting for them and protecting them with her life. Then there was an attack: lizardfolk from the swamps to the south. Her master was slain and she ran off… only to be caught by a trapper and sold to the Feral Dog as a savage fighting she-bitch. The rest was history.
Riddle told the party about a crew of adventurers and loreseekers who’d recently come to town: the Ashborn. Tirra, an elven minx hitting up folks in the Feral Dog and Lazare’s for any info they’d spill; Auric, the devastatingly handsome gladiator holding court in all of the alehouses in town – again, hitting people up for information; and the obvious leader of the outfit, a Wizard named Khelleck, a wry bastard prying minds over dragonchess in Lazare’s parlor. They’d come to town to hunt for treasure in the Cairn Hills – a notion that the locals laughed at originally, ‘cuz they all knew the local tombs had been cleaned out centuries ago. However, Riddle knew there was a reason Khelleck thought he had come to the right place. Riddle managed to catch a snatch of conversation between the wizard and the elf, something about a Divination that had been bestowed upon Khelleck:
_In the dying days of the Age of Empires,
Near the sparkling stone in the hills of death,
The children’s tomb, still sealed after ages,
Coughs forth its ancient, dying breath.
The outsiders shall venture in,
Treasures lost will thus be found,
Some seeming small shall save the earth,
Carried by seekers’ hands from the ground._
Well, Khelleck had come to town convinced that the “sparkling stone in the hills of death” was Diamond Lake – a reasonable assumption, Riddle thought. And an off–hand question to Allustan after a day of raking leaves verified for Riddle that the current era was known as the Age of Empires. But where Khelleck had had things wrong was his guess about which tomb was the “children’s tomb.” The Ashborn, after arriving in town, had immediately stormed a tomb called the Stirgenest Cairn, believed to have once housed the ten children of an ancient, long–forgotten baron. They came up empty–handed. And, in the case of Khelleck, furious. Ever since (for over two weeks), they’d been camped out in Diamond Lake, reading old books, prying locals for answers, still hunting for this mysterious “children’s tomb.”
The thing was… Riddle thought he knew what the “children’s tomb” was. There was this place, this hole in a hill in the middle of nowhere. A place, for generations, that only the local kids knew about. It was a special place, a magical place that seemed – somehow – to slip from the minds of locals once they’d come of age. A dark hole, filled with hollow voices called the Whispering Cairn. For gods knew how long, local teenagers would dare each other to enter, to spend the night, to see how far into the earth they dared to go before running out with their tails between their legs. This tradition had stopped when Riddle, Tyrell and Scar–Eater were about 12 or 13 – a local girl had died in there. The adults in town never found the body, and the kids in town kept their mouths shut. Six years passed and it seemed like the Whispering Cairn might just slip out of all knowledge.
Except that Riddle couldn’t forget it. And the mysterious magic that made it evade the communal memory of the Diamond Lake adult townsfolk made Riddle think that perhaps this tomb might be the “children’s tomb” in Khelleck’s divination.
And the more the new friends talked about it, the more they hungered to check it out. They could certainly be “the outsiders” of the poem, just as easily as the Ashborn could. And now that the teenagers had nearly burned all ties with any life in Diamond Lake, they had to look towards the future. Perhaps there was treasure to be found in the Whispering Cairn. Perhaps enough to start new lives with. To move on…
To leave Diamond Lake forever.
They agreed they would investigate.
Riddle and Tyrell snuck back into Diamond Lake to buy and steal some supplies – especially clothes, armor and gear for poor Jane, who owned not a stitch of clothing or anything. And once they were outfitted, once they were healed, the new party climbed up into the Cairn Hills. And at 8am on Moonday morning, the 8th day of the month of Patchwall, autumn in the Flanaess, they found themselves staring at the mouth of the Whispering Cairn… and perhaps, their Future.