A caravan flees through a scarred land. A message must be sent. Everyone dies.
The creatures converged on the wagon tracks. From from a distance they appeared like any person of Aoeth, but up close, the riders atop the wagon could see their bones were loosely held together like blotted ink. Their voices rattled, their armor clanged, and their archers let loose a great volley upon the wagon. Arrows flew into the sky, arcing down, but slowed on entering a shimmering field around the wagon. In the center of the field on the wagon’s crest stood a grey man, ash and coals sparkling across his face. The wizard drew on the power of a nearby node; the arrows would do little harm. His nose flared in concentration as he gripped hands tightly together, casting a protective spell around and over the wagon. Next to the wizard, a kobold archer pointed her bow at the advancing horde, peering through the protective sheen with slitted eyes. She fired three shots in succession from her shortbow at the nearest ink creatures. Unhindered from inside the field, two arrows flew true to their mark; one into a dark face, and the other straight through a leather doublet into a shadowy chest. The arrows vibrated in their targets, and the two creatures toppled onto the ground. A black mist rose from their crumpling bodies, and the others nearby drew back in fear. The mist dissipated into the air, blowing away in sheets of inky powder. They could be killed. The wagon riders could see more creatures across the plains closing in, at least thirty howling, hooded, mad monsters intent on stopping them at all costs. In front of the wagon, a train of four Ken strained their harnesses, pulling wagon and crew in a dash to reach the city ahead. The Ken could sense their destination five miles north: city gates, safety, and the end to a long journey across Aoeth. But immediately ahead not fifty feet was a cluster of inky monsters, gathering in formation, spears thrust out against the wagon. The other three riders were two warriors from Nordak and the kobold leader, merchant and owner of the wagon train, and the holder of a terrible secret the monsters would not let escape at any costs. She spied the obstacle ahead and cried in desperation. If they did not make the journey to Certisport alive, the source of the monsters would be hidden, and Ra would crumble into oblivion. Perhaps the very nodes, mountains, lands, and seas of all Aoeth would cease to exist. It had happened once before, long ago; she must not allow this fate to befall her land, and her people. They must survive. “Kartha, ahead!” the leader shouted at the warrior above her, transfixed on the creatures enclosing from the sides. Kartha started from her shock as she spotted the enemy ahead, noting their spears entrenched into the ground, ready to skewer the Ken and stop the wagon cold. She drew two swords and leaped from the wagon crest, over the leader sitting with the reins, directly onto the middle trace of the harness. “Demi, don’t let these Ken spook -- they are about to bathe in the blood of these demons!” The leader let the reins slack and spoke in a low, even voice to the wagon pullers. Even though they did not understand speech, Demeta could impress on them an emotion through the tone of her voice: perseverance. Don’t spook. Stay focused. And for the love of Peace, don’t stop. The Ken stared straight ahead, their eyes shifting focus between on the far horizon and the trail directly ahead, but nothing in between. The creatures on the trail fixed their spears into the ground and braced them upward against the wagon’s approach. Kartha tensed for the clash; there would be bloody work before the day was done. The wizard and archer above, Demeter desperately guiding the wagon, and Kartha’s brother stopping any approach from behind. The rest was up to her: clear a path to the city, or die trying. The Ken galloped along the trail into the waiting mass. Kartha swung both swords outward, knocking the first spears aside. Three creatures were trampled underneath metal-shod hooves, but their companions redoubled. Monsters of ink and bone leapt onto the harness, balancing on the reins and tracer, jabbing at Kartha. A parry and thrust dispatched one, but another from behind slashed a great red sweep into her back. She stumbled forward onto a Ken, surrounded by five hooded monsters, keeping her at bay while others slashed at the reins. One creature had almost freed a Ken from the harness, as an arrow sprouted from its throat. Two more companions were pierced in their chests, and the remaining two maneuvered behind Kartha. The archer above returned to repel the side invaders, Kartha grappled with the harness, the wizard tightened his fingers on his spell, the second warrior slashed at monsters approaching from behind. Demeter relaxed the reins and climbed behind into the wagon. Desperate times are coming. They are already upon us. Inside the canvas, the noise of battle muffled against the thick hemp and sturdy wooden frame. Demeter would only hinder her companions; the Ken knew the way, and if not, the creatures would take them all. But they must not take their secret. She unlocked a bronze cage, and a color dancer emerged, 8 inches high, large antennae and multicolored flashing wings. It hovered in front of her expectantly as she held a deck of colored cards. As she placed each card in front of the color dancer matched the color with her wings. The color pattern repeated as each new color was added, imprinted in sequence onto the wings. “I have the message -- the dancer must escape. We cannot let it die with us!” Demeter shouted to the companions outside. The color dancer flitted expectantly on her wrist, eager to fly out. Demeter drew the canvas aside; the creatures had stayed their assault, regrouping for a final push. Now was the time. She raised her wrist to the sky and the color dancer glided up, flashing patterns on its wings. The wizard nodded and shifted a portion of his protective sphere to enclose the flier. It wouldn’t hold forever, but possibly enough to escape. In the distance, a low humming chant began. Above the creatures of ink and bone towered a new menace, a ten foot tall hulk of inky sinew hefting a broad oaken staff. It hurled the staff and the wagon, shattering a front wheel. The wagon splintered to a halt, companions thrown to the ground. They rose to their feet, all five in defiance of the monsters, weapons ready to repel their foes or make an end worth of renown. A broken wagon, five adventurers in a circle, splayed against dozens of creatures, hooded, armed with spear and bow, led by a towering hulk intent on death and destruction; and far above, a color dancer on the wind, its message carried free and unhindered.
When the dust cleared, nothing remained.
Next -- Chapter 1: The Shopkeeper's Nephew