Here’s another tidbit from ancient history, back from the days when I was working full-time as an RPG designer/writer/editor for Goodman Games. Like the first vignette in this series, “The High Road,” this one comes from an unpublished manuscript for a player-oriented supplement for 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Also, like the previous entry, this tiny tale is meant to introduce a new rules system for the game in a narrative fashion (the crunchy bits came directly after the vignette).
This one is called “The Challenge,” and, like the “The High Road,” it’s high-fantasy, sword & sorcery type stuff. Oh, and like the last one, this one is in a first draft-ish kind of way.
Karog brought the axe down with a satisfied grunt. His victim’s head came away from his neck in a warm, red spray, and Karog kicked the twitching corpse off the butcher’s block he’d been using as a makeshift executioner’s slab. Two of his men hurried forward to drag the body away.
The half-orc wiped blood from his face and breastplate and offered a tusk-filled smile to the remaining townsfolk of Harvest Tide, herded together before him and staring in open-mouthed horror at the carnage in their town square. His men stood behind the crowd, weapons drawn, faces and armor caked in the blood and soot of their conquest.
They’d ridden into Harvest Tide at dawn, drawn by rumors of an adventurer who had retired in the village with fabulous wealth. There had been little resistance, and Karog and his twenty followers had looted and slaughtered for a full day, but they had not found the treasure they sought.
“Right,” Karog said. “That’s fourteen of you sorry sons of whores dead by my axe because you fools won’t tell me where the treasure is hidden. Will it take fourteen more?” Karog grinned; nothing made him feel more alive than murder. “Or, if one you is brave enough to step on out here and stop me …” He let his last statement sink in–the absurdity of one of these bumpkins actually fighting him was just too rich. “I thought not,” Karog said after moments of silence. “Okay, Yarl, bring me the mayor—“
“What assurances do we have your men will leave us in peace once you are defeated?” a voice called out.
Karog’s yellow eyes narrowed. “Which of you dead men said that?” he said, searching the crowd of frightened faces for the speaker.
“I did.” A slim figure moved through the crowd and into the blood-soaked square.
Karog threw his head back and laughed. The elven man stood just under six feet in height–tall for an elf–and wore a simple leather kilt and a rough spun shirt. His feet were bare, and he was unarmed.
“I am Eodain,” the elven man said. “If I defeat you here, now, will your men leave this town?”
“Defeat me with what?!” A chorus of derisive laughter burst from Karog’s men; laughter tinged with greedy anticipation of more bloodshed. “I’ll tell you what, Eodain,” Karog said after the laughter had subsided. “If you defeat me, my men will leave Harvest Tide like a herd of gentle lambs.” He looked around at the band of thugs and cutthroats that followed him. “Right, men?” More laughter.
“Swear upon Nygor, and I’ll believe you,” Eodain said softly, his emerald eyes boring into Karog’s.
The half-orc reflexively grasped the holy symbol of his god where it dangled from an iron chain around his neck. The joy he had felt moments before drained away, leaving only cold, murderous anger. A promise made to Nygor the Nightbringer, the bloody god he and his gang of bandits followed, was the only thing that would hold them to their word. The fact that Eodain had known that poked holes of white-hot rage in the thin veil of Karog’s self-control.
Karog’s men had grown silent at the request. Invoking the Nightbringer’s name was no mean thing, and all of them, Karog included, feared the deity’s wrath. “Very well,” Karog said between clenched teeth. “I swear upon the wings of Nygor my men will leave this village in peace if you defeat me.”
“Good enough,” Eodain said. “Let us begin.”
“Gladly.” Karog surged forward, axe in a two-handed grip. He meant to end the life of his unarmed, unarmored opponent with one brutal strike.
Eodain had other things in mind.
Karog had never seen anyone move so fast. His opponent whirled away from his blow with a liquid grace, letting the axe flash through the empty air where his neck and head had been a heartbeat earlier. Missing with the heavy strike caused Karog to lose his balance and stumble forward. He was a veteran of a hundred battles, though, and he regained his footing swiftly and turned to deliver another strike with his axe.
This time Eodain did not move away. The elf shout out a lithe, muscular arm and caught Karog’s axe by the haft as it descended, halting the blow with bewildering strength. Then, Karog’s opponent, whom he outweighed by nearly two hundred pounds, punched him in the face.
It was like being struck with a battering ram. Karog’s bones and teeth shattered like glass beneath the impact, and the rough cobblestones felt like a father bed in comparison as he crashed down upon them, stunned and bleeding. He struggled to suck air through his pulped nose and mouth, and only his bubbling breath broke the silence that had bloomed around him. Above, the stoic face of Eodain loomed, his thin lips set in a slight frown. The elf held something shiny between his fingers.
“This is what you seek, Karog,” Eodain said and tossed the single gold piece onto the half-orc’s breastplate. “My treasure.”
Karog fought down a tide of frantic laughter and tried to move, but a sharp pain at the base of his skull and the spreading numbness throughout his body told him Eodain’s strike had done much worse than break a few teeth.
“Quickly,” Karog whispered as Eodain again loomed over him, this time with his own axe in both fists–fists Karog now saw were little more than clubs of callus and scars.
“Gladly,” Eodain said and brought the axe down.