The Tale of One-Tree, Chaper VIII: Call of the Dog-Catcher
After William’s ascension to the position of one of the two chieftains of One-Tree and the reclamation of the two magical weapons from the sacral vault of Yokté in Widower’s Wood, the blackclad Samira decided it was time she expanded her own powers as well. Having recently gained the ability to bond to more warbeasts, as well having achieved resonance with living warbeasts in addition to wolds, she had contacted her fellow blackclads to see about where she could claim a warpwolf for her battlegroup. A few days after she had sent her request, Samira had then been informed that Overseer Faro the Wolf-Eyed was currently finishing training a new pack of warpwolves on the southeastern fringes of the Thornwood west of the Black River. When Samira set out to meet the Overseer, she was accompanied by Roza as a matter of course, as well as William, who had often had the opportunity to see the warlock’s forces lend essential aid to the group’s endeavours, and was now happily offering his protection during her journeyin turn. And where William went, Odrys went as well.
It took the group several days to reach Faro’s camp, and while they travelled ever further from One-Tree via riverboat and on foot, Samira and William both noted how that strange pull ever drawing them towards their home village neither diminished in strength nor wavered in its certainty of direction, even as the distance between them and their home kept opening up. Similarly, whenever dusk fell they could clearly see the lambent glow in each other’s eyes that was at the same completely invisible to everybody else.
Finally, skirting around the southern fringe of the Thornwood, the group was near the blackclads’ camp, and the first sign they were near was Roza spotting several Wolves of Orboros standing watch, hidden among the trees and bushes. Soon after the Circle warriors spotted the group too – unsurprisingly, considering Samira had her wold with her, and that William was not particularly adept at moving unseen. The Wolves immediately challenged the group, cleft spears forward, and Samira and William immediately picked up on the unexpected tension in their stance.
Samira easily passed the Wolves’ challenge, of course, and the warriors led the group to a rough compound of tents, with many more Wolves standing guard, most of them watching the Thornwood looming to the north. Samira also senses the presence of another warlock, and soon after they had stepped inside the circle of tents, a burly, wild-haired man with uncanny yellow eyes emerged from one of them, his robes immediately announcing him to be a blackclad.
Samira and Faro exchanged greetings, and though the other blackclad was initially a bit wary of Samira having brought two outsiders to his compound, he also seemed preoccupied. While William and Odrys hung back respectfully, Faro and Samira then went over to a few simple pens of stakes, where several men and women in ragged clothes were sitting around, either staring listlessly into space or watching the arrivals with a strange, inhuman intensity. Samira correctly guessed that these men and women were in fact warpwolves, only currently in their human forms and kept under control by Faro while they were still being trained.
Inquiring about the compound’s state of alert, Samira was then told by Faro that a week ago he had inducted a group of warriors of the Wolves of Orboros into a deeper embrace of the Devourer by overseeing their transformation into skinwalkers, but that they had been missing since running off in the throes off in their initial transformation. While skinwalkers being overwhelmed by their first change was not unexpected, it was unusual that they would not return. Even worse, Faro had realised that a newly-transformed warpwolf had also run off and disappeared in the same area a while ago, though Faro had only attributed that disappearance to accident at the time.
Faro and his warriors had since tried searching the forest, but after following the skinwalkers’ tracks north for a day Faro had decided to return and safeguard his remaining warpwolves in training instead. Now that Samira was here, however, the bearded warlock asked his younger colleague to search the forest one more time and look for the traces of any interlopers that might explain the skinwalkers’ disappearance, like trollkin hunting parties, Cygnaran army scouts, or even Menite zealots. In return for this service, Overseer Faro would give the pick of his current litter of warpwolves to the young Warder.
Not wishing to waste any time and risk any remaining tracks disappearing completely, Samira and her companions immediately set out into the Thornwood after picking up some provisions and waterskins from Faro’s Wolves of Orboros troops, with Roza naturally slipping into her feral form to gain the benefit of improved senses. Soon the trees had swallowed the group, but they still easily maintained their bearings by dint of the unwavering pull towards One-Tree acting on Samira and William.
Spreading out as they slowly advanced north, the group kept their eyes for peeled for anything unusual, but the skinwalkers’ trail had naturally long grown cold, and there did not seem anything unusual in the activities of birds and small animals flitting and scurrying about, nor did there seem to be any damage to the vegetation that suggested the presence of predators or warriors capable of taking down a warpwolf or a pack of skinwalkers.
In the later afternoon, the adventurers did happen on an unusual thing, with William noting how there was a spot where the plant covering on the forest floor looked strangely wilted. Examining the area, they realised that the plants were dying because they sat on a thin coating of soil on top of a covered ditch. After scraping away the dirt and smashing a hole into the rough wooden planks underneath, Roza immediately dove into the darkness below – quite aware that few things would be hiding in there that would be more scary than her – followed by an equally eager Odrys and the much more reticent William, while Samira and her wold kept watch aboveground.
The ditch was unoccupied, however, with the state of its ends suggesting that parts of it had already collapsed. The one unusual thing Roza and Odrys found was the imprints of large feet in heavy boots, and they also noted how these booted feet seemed to have stood facing the wall in the narrow ditch for a prolongued period of time, as if their owners had been possessed of some kind of nigh-inhuman patience and been content to stare at a rough earthen wall for hours on end, without so much as fidgeting.
Crawling back up through the hole they had made, the adventurers marked where the ditch was and resolved to tell Faro about it later, but were unable to come up with an answer to this mystery. Not soon after, night began to fall, and they set up camp in the place Roza had scouted out for them.
Night in the Thornwood was very different from night in Glimmerwood, with no luminescent lichen dangling from the branches of the trees and no swarms of fireflies, and also different from nights in Widower’s Wood, with the absence of the low mists and gurgling ripples of the bogs all around, and the adventurers were a bit disconcerted at first by how different this forest was from the woodlands near their home, and especially by how dark the night was here. Still, their fire kept them warm, and William was glad for having used the easy access to luminescent extracts at One-Tree to furnish everybody in the groups with bottled lights.
The night passed without incident, and after breakfast and covering the remains of their fire the group continued their search. The morning mists had not completely dissipated when Roza spotted a group of hulking shapes towards the west, which she identified as a group of armed trollkin. Gleefully using her preternatural stealth, the Tharn snuck up on the party, and made them jump by growling a guttural “Good morning, darlings, we are missing some humans” at them as she emerged from among the trees.
Alarmed, two of the trollkin immediately raised javelins, but their leader had wits enough to realise the Tharn woman had talked rather than struck the first blow, and probably had other plans than to begin a fight. Introducing herself as Vessos Sharpaxe, the trollkin hunter uneasily admitted that her people, too, were missing some of their number, and that she had been tasked to search this area for any evidence of what might have taken them. Roza did not reveal that the “humans” she was looking for were skinwalkers and warpwolves, but she told Vessos about the covered ditch the group had found the day before. Vessos warily accept this new information in turn, musing that they would now need to search for similar ditches too. Vessos also told Roza they had not seen any strange humans in the forest, nor had any dealings with them, but also warned the Tharn not to go further into the forest to the west of where they were now, as that area was her people’s, and they would not brook the presence of Tharn or blackclads there. And with those words Roza and the trollkin hunters parted ways, with Roza rejoining her companions and the trollkin retracing their steps west.
Continuing north, it was already getting late in the day when Samira and her group suddenly heard gunfire pierce the natural sounds of the forest. Abandoning caution, they rushed towards the sound, but when they arrived, they only saw several human bodies strewn about underneath a cloud of blasting powder smoke, with no trace left of the attackers. Examining the bodies, however, they noted that the men wore the uniforms of the human kingdom to the south, Cygnar, and that one of the men was still barely clinging to life. William did his best to save his life, but soon realised the man was in dire straits indeed, and even moving him might easily spell his death. The best the gatorman bone grinder could do was stitch up and bind his wounds and hope he would last the night, after which he might regain sufficient strength that the group could begin moving him.
Examining the bodies in the meantime, Samira had established that the men had been shot or struck in their backs, with some of them also having received some additional injuries on their arms and chests as they had survived the initial onslaught long enough to turn around and face their attackers. Their weapons were still on them, and from these Samira could further deduce that they had been attacked by their own, as the injuries the bodies bore matched their own armaments.
Odrys and Roza had also found tracks leading east, suggesting that was where the attackers had run off to, but could not spot them among the trees any more, and decided to stay with William and Roza instead of giving chase, wary of the attackers returning at some point and overwhelming their companions while they were away.
While setting up camp, William then decided to attempt to trick any future attackers by having Odrys and Roza prop up the bodies in sitting positions, while concealing the unconscious survivor under a thin layer of twigs and foliage. After these preparations had been made, William then sat down in front of one of the bodies and cast the spell that would enable him to speak to the dead, and soon the thin, croaking voice of a spirit emerged from the corpse’s slack jaw in response to the bokor’s prompting. The dead scout, who gave his name as Flynn Garrity, confirmed what Samira had found out: Rather than being attacked by another party, the men had been attacked by their own, without provocation or warning, though the dead man also cryptically said that it had felt like something was missing in his comrades’ eyes as they laid into him and the others. The dead man also said the attackers had been newly attached to their unit recently, but knew nothing else about them, nor could he recall anything unusual about them in other ways during the few weeks they had served together as Cygnar’s scouts in the Thornwood. As for the covered ditch the group had found a day earlier, the scout claimed to know nothing about it, but mentioned smugglers would craft hideouts and caches like that. And with that the adventurers decided they had got all the useful information they could want from the dead, and William allowed the man’s spirit to depart again as the group settled in for the night.
And night had not long fallen when a fearsome howl pierced the dark among the trees and the unmistakable shape of a warpwolf emerged into the far reaches of the campfire’s light. Quickly, Roza and Odrys rushed to engage the creature before it could reach the campsite, and Samira ordered her wold to advance as well, wishing to capture rather than kill the warpwolf, suspecting it to be the untrained warpwolf Faro had reported as missing.
While the warpwolf was a fearsome opponent and its shifting body gave it whatever swiftness or strength it needed at any given moment, Odrys and the wold were soon engaged in wrestling the large monster to the ground so Samira could bind and subdue it. It was while they were thus engaged that William, who had been hovering near his concealed patient, suddenly realised that there were other shapes moving among the trees to the south, and the bokor did just have time enough to call out a warning to his companions before four more feral shapes rushed forward. These lanky, wolf-headed attackers – skinwalkers, William reckoned – immediately began to lay into the propped-up bodies with axes and fangs, making William glad that he had thought of that ruse, as otherwise the skinwalkers would easily have identified the survivor and slain him before the bokor could have intervened, especially with the warpwolf having successfully drawn off the other defenders.
With the warpwolf having become pacified under the Samira’s touch in the meantime, Roza was running at a full tilt to support William, and was soon joined by Odrys and Samira’s wold, but even so they were too late to prevent the skinwalkers from cutting down all of the propped-up decoys. Thankfully, with William being an obvious target, the skinwalkers did not take the time to do a thorough search of the campsite afterwards but ran straight past the concealed body of the survivor to engage the bokor, and even in spite of his tough hide the fight could easily have gone badly indeed for the gatorman. In the end, the skinwalkers did manage to knock William down, out cold from an axe strike, but before they could finish him off Roza and Odrys had arrived, and the skinwalkers simply wilted under the gatorman warrior’s might and the bloodweaver’s magic.
William was not truly worse for wear apart from feeling weak as a nipper snapper while having a headache the size of a wrastler, and to Samira’s relief the skinwalkers were similarly battered but still alive. Tying them up while keeping her will clamped down on the untrained warpwolf, Samira did wonder why skinwalkers would dare to attack a member of the Circle, but decided to deal with this in the morning.
The rest of the night passed without further attack or incident, and when William examined the survivor at the break of dawn, he was gratified that it look as if he had indeed regained a little strength, and might even wake soon. The skinwalkers, too, had transformed back into human forms, and were indeed the four skinwalkers who had gone missing from Faro’s compound, but all they could tell Samira that they had been told to attack, without seeming able or willing to reveal who it was that had told them to attack.
It was at that moment, when William was busying himself with reviving the Cygnaran survivor, that Samira suddenly noticed something disappear from the eyes of the skinwalkers. Immediately afterwards, they began to transform back into their feral forms, and to her horror Samira also felt her bond with the warpwolf break as the creature struggled to its feet. Still, the warpwolf was still weak from its injuries, and was knocked back to the ground as soon as it could regain its feet. Realising the skinwalkers, too, were out of control, Roza and Samira grimly obeyed the demands of the Circle and put them down before they could struggle out of their bonds.
Examining the bodies of the skinwalkers, William then spotted strange, identical scars on all of their heads, so the bone grinder and the blood weaver began to unceremoniously strip the flesh off their skulls, revealing well-healed incisions in the bone underneath those scars. Cracking open the skulls, the two then proceeded to examine the brains, and found tiny devices of metal and glass that had been inserted into the pulpy grey matter.
Samira, in the meantime, had reestablished her bond with the unconscious warpwolf, but after hearing what William and Roza had found examined the creature’s head as well and found the same incisions still visible under its fur. Coming to the conclusion that the warpwolf had been subverted in some manner by manipulating its brain in the same way the skinwalkers had been subverted, which also explained why her bond hadn’t held, Samira then struck off the warpwolf’s head with her voulge. To no-one’s surprise but everybody’s growing horror, William then removed the same tiny glass and gold needles from inside the warpwolf carcass’s skull before returning his attention to the scout now slowly regaining his senses.
The man, who gave his name as Maddox Carruthers, was initially – and understandably – terrified at being surrounded by towering toothed gatormen and gore-drenched wild folk, but he was grateful enough that they had saved his life three times now, and readily volunteered further information. While he could only confirm the information given by the spirit of Flynn Garrity, the testimony of the living was still better than that of the dead. Maddox also told the group that the Cygnaran scouts had merely been in the area to monitor trollkin activity, and that nothing in their orders had indicated that they were doing anything but general reconnaissance. When shown the devices recovered from the dead skinwalkers and warpwolf, Maddox claimed not to know what they were, but he did say their general configuration reminded him of mechanika. The wild folk of One-Tree weren’t really familiar with the city folks’ gadgetry, so Maddox happily offered to show them to his superiors as well as to some mechaniks at Corvis university as soon as he got back to civilisation, and get word back to the folk of One-Tree. Last but not least, Maddox knew he owed the group a deep bond of gratitude for saving his life, and said he would aid them in any way he could if their path should ever lead them to the cities of the Iron Kingdoms.
Gladly accepting Maddox’s offer, Samira gave him a handful of the devices they had recovered, while keeping the rest for herself, to pass on to the Circle as well as to maybe present them to a civilised mechanik for an examination herself. Odrys then fashioned a travois for Maddox, and Samira set her wold to carefully drag Maddox on their back to Faro’s compound with William walking beside him, keeping a watchful eye on his still weak patient.
Even though they were not attacked again by man or monster, and even though they were still aided in navigation by that unfailing sense of direction pointing to One-Tree, it still took the group a few days longer to return to Overseer Faro’s compound than their outbound journey had taken them , as William insisted on making cautious progress so as to not jostle his patient unnecessarily and risk any of his wounds reopening.
Once they had finally reached Faro’s camp, the blackclad overseer was not really happy with sparing Maddox, considering him an intruder into the Circle’s affairs, but he did bow to Samira’s advice that the Cygnaran scout was actually a good avenue for having a real expert examine the strange devices they had found, and was of course immensely grateful for the young warder having uncovered an unknown threat to the Circle’s activities in the area. Aware now that even his own forces might be compromised, Faro then asked William to examine them for evidence of the same kind of tampering, and under the ruse that the dead warpwolf and skinwalkers seemed to have been inflicted some kind of rabid disease, the bone grinder-bokor proceeded to examine all the warpwolves and Wolves of Orboros at the compound for the telltale scars on their heads, but thankfully found none. Still, with the origin and reach of the threat unknown, Faro decided it was wiser to abandon the area, and relocate the training of new warpwolves to a site where the Circle’s presence was stronger and at least not already contested by city folk from the south and trollkin from the west.
But before the Wolves of Orboros began to strike down the tents, Overseer Faro of course led Samira to his trained warpwolves, and presented a surly bald, bearded man to her – “Barkbiter” Bacarl, one of Faro’s recently trained warpwolves and known for suffering from toothaches after transforming into his beast form or back into his human guise, and as a result often chewing on sticks or strips of leather to assuage the pain, but apart from this small idiosyncrasy in all respects everything that a warpwolf should be. Standing at Samira’s side, Faro then released his hold on Bacarl, and then Samira put her hand on the man’s head, clamping her will onto the slowly roiling core of feral instincts at the man’s true heart, and making him her own.
After returning to One-Tree, the group gave some of the devices they had taken from the skulls of the subverted skinwalkers to Terys Lloryrr, but the Iosan could not reveal any new information on them, except that they were not of Iosan manufacture and reminded him of what he had seen of the works of Western mechaniks, while still being distinct by dint of their advanced construction and diminutive size.
William also determined that, with Samira now strengthened by having a warpwolf at her side, they would soon have to take another look at the stele-encircled ruins of Nemnoc in Glimmerwood, and might also have to travel downriver to Corvis themselves in the not-too-distant future to gain insight into what they had found both on their own doorstep and in the Thornwood. At the same time, Odrys also wished to turn One-Tree’s eyes east, as so far recent events had been focusing all of their attention west to the Black River, north to Glimmerwood, or south to Widower’s Wood, and the gatorman warrior was wary of the village possibly having neglected to pay attention to any goings-on on the plains to the east.