The air was choked with smoke and ash as the flames from the bonfire rose high into the night sky. Dozens of shadowy figures wearing animal skulls on their heads danced and cavorted around a hulking form chained to an iron post in the center of a deep pit. Thick, iron manacles were clamped securely around the creature’s wrists and ankles and bolted with heavy chains to the iron post behind it. The creature’s skin was grey-green and it stretched over a nine foot frame of corded muscle. Two huge, bony tusks almost nine inches in length gutted from beneath the creature’s upper lip that pulled the creature’s mouth into a rictus snarl. The creature had long black hair that hung loosely about its shoulders and his claws where black talons. It had small, hard bony horns and protrusions starting from the ridge of his nose and traveling up and along his eyebrows and terminating at the temples in large, bony horns. The creature’s body boasted additional horns and ridges along his arms, hands, elbows, shoulders, knees and down his spine. The creature stood there silently, its muscles straining against its bonds and from beneath its horned and ridged brow its baleful, blood red eyes glowed red in the firelight as they stared at the dancers with undisguised hatred.
The glade was surrounded by the ancient trees of the High Forest as the Hunter’s Moon sat high in the autumn sky and bathed the entire landscape in a pale, luminescent glow. Several stone menhirs bore elven inscriptions and runes that were covered over with symbols drawn with thick, black blood. These menhirs along with other crude carvings of predatory beasts formed a circle around the pit and bonfire. A stone altar rested atop a small rise that overlooked the stone ring, the surface covered in dried blood.
The cultists beat hide bound drums in a frantic staccato rhythm that echoed across the glade, the dancers and celebrants weaving and moving along to the odd halting cadence. A male figure wearing a headpiece adorned with the antlers of a great stag entered the clearing wearing the hide of a displacer beast across his shoulders. His face was painted black and his hands were covered in clawed gauntlets that gleamed in the firelight as he approached the pit. In his wake trailed two more similarly dressed individuals, a man and a woman who wore similar headdresses and red stoles. As the trio approached the drums fell silent and the cultists quietly began to form ranks around the pit.
The man stopped short of the pit and gazed down at the hulking figure within. He smiled a feral grin and spoke in a booming voice, deep and resonant.
“Brothers and Sisters, we are gathered here tonight in celebration of our Lord’s holiest of holidays. The Hunter’s Moon rises high in the night sky, signifying for the High Hunt to begin!” The man’s voice boomed across the glade. “Each year we honor the Ravager by finding a suitable vessel to be our sacrament to his most holy of rites!” The speaker continued, “Behold! Our brothers and sisters have brought us a very rare treat indeed this year. A horned troll! This vicious and cunning specimen will provide our congregation with much enjoyment!” The two acolytes that accompanied the man bowed and nodded appreciatively at the speaker.
The speaker turned from his congregation and once again faced the troll in the pit. “Beast, do you understand the tongue of man?” he asked.
The troll stood to his full height and stared silently back at the man.
The man continued “Beast, know that you are the chosen quarry for the High Hunt, our Lord Malar’s holiest of holidays. You shall be released and you shall be hunted for a day and a night until the moon meets its zenith tomorrow. If you survive and evade the High Hunt, you shall be given a boon.”
The troll finally broke his silence and in a voice like rumbling thunder asked “What is your name human?”
The man puffed out his chest and declared proudly “I am Huntmaster Gaeros Valkith, Beastmaster of the High Forest and Lord of this High Hunt. I am the Lord of the…”
“That’s nice” the troll interrupted with his rumbling voice, “I just needed to know who I am going to kill first once released.”
There was a shocked silence from the gathered group until the Huntmaster began to chuckle. The chuckle then became a raucous laugh as Gaeros howled “You think you can kill me?” He flung his arms wide and spun to face the gathered group, “He thinks he can kill me folks! What do you think about that?”
The amassed group began to howl with laughter as Gaeros turned back to the troll and took a step forward, “You want to face me eh? You think you can slay Gaeros Valkith?”
The troll said nothing and just stared at Gaeros.
Gaeros turned to one of his acolytes, “clear the circle then release the Beast.”
The cultists withdrew from the glade and formed a ring around the perimeter as two of the acolytes moved to the pins on either side of the iron post and began to unbind the troll. As soon as the first pin had been pulled from the trolls binding, he surged forward in a lighting quick rush toward Gaeros. Black talons ripped through the flesh of the Huntmaster’s torso and hurled him backwards several feet as the troll launched his first attack. Gaeros landed with a heavy thud and laid still. The troll looked triumphant as he met the gazes of the cultists at the forest edge, challenging them to act.
The look of triumph faded from the trolls face as the Huntmaster slowly rose to his feet and faced him. The jagged wounds the troll’s talons had caused were quickly closing and Gaeros stretched his shoulders and neck before asking the troll “Is that all you’ve got?” Gaeros then finishing stretching his neck then settled his feet before launching into his own attack. The troll reacted quickly and smashed his left fist into the Huntmaster’s face while his right hand eviscerated the Huntmaster’s midsection. The Huntmaster once again fell to the ground and the troll gave him a vicious kick to the ribs which sent the Huntmaster’s sprawling some several feet away. Wary, the troll circled his fallen opponent ready to attack again at any moment. The troll watched as his opponents wounds began to rapidly close and a smug look appeared on Gaeros’s face as he hefted himself to his feet and the Huntmaster said “I tire of this charade. I think it is time for you to know what you are truly up against. Behold the gift of the Beastlord!”
Before the troll could attack a piercing howl erupted around the perimeter of the glade as one after another the cultists threw off their robes and their bodies began to twist and grow into nightmarish shapes of beast and man. Gaeros’s once again began to laugh, his body swelling and growing larger than the troll. The Huntmaster’s face elongated as his features began to take on an ursine cast. After a moment the Huntmaster had taken the form of a massive werebear and was looming over the troll. The werebear lunged and scored the troll’s chest sending blackish blood spraying across the glade.
“So tell me great warrior” the were-bear growled. “What is your name? I would like to know whom I am killing this night!” The werebear then swiped two more deep gashes into the troll’s chest before its massive paw of a foot kicked the troll with a crunching snap across the glade, slamming him into a stone menhir. The world spun for a moment as the troll attempted to get his bearings; the wounds in his torso were slowly mending as he rocked to his feet unsteadily. The troll staggered and fell against one of the carved stone statues of a snarling werewolf. When the troll leaned on it to gain his balance, the statue moved slightly. Again, the deep mocking laughter echoed behind as the troll turned to face his ursine opponent.
“Our little friend here looks winded already!” called Gaeros to his assembled flock. “Here I thought a horned troll would be a challenging opponent for our congregation but it appears as if I was wrong.” Gaeros’s comments elicited a chorus of laughter from the assembled congregation. White hot fury boiled up within the troll lending his limbs strength as he grabbed the stone wolf statue and in one complete motion hurled the block of carved stone dozens of feet across the glade. The statue slammed into the broad chest of Gaeros and crushed him to the earth. Not waiting for his opponent to once again rise, the troll tore off running through the glade towards the moon.
It took a moment for the action to register with the werewolf cultists then as one the pack loped from the woods and began to converge on the fleeing troll. Fueled by his growing rage the troll lashed out with his claws and gutted one werewolf while smashing another with this fist as it got to close. Blood, fur and teeth flew as the troll fought his way through the converging pack of werebeasts. After a few moments the troll realized he was being corralled and the werebeasts were pushing him towards the massive bonfire roaring behind him.
A feral, guttural roar echoed from the far corner of the glade as the broken stone statue was hurled off the raging form of Gaeros. The werebear’s eyes shone with murderous intent as he fixed them upon the troll fighting his pack. The troll looked at the werebear then at the bonfire. Deciding he did not wish to battle the bear again, the troll ran and hurled himself directly into the bonfire. There was a shocked silence from the pack as the lumbering form of the troll disappeared into the flames. Seconds later a howl of agony filled the glade as the burning form of the troll tumbled from the roaring conflagration and ran directly into the woods beyond.
“After him!” roared Gaeros and as one the pack began to pursue their quarry.
The troll crashed through the High Forest, his smoldering body trailing smoke in his wake. The intense pain of the flames burning his skin was the only thing keeping his anger in check lest he turn and engage his attackers. Limbs tore at his face and skin as the troll barreled through the dark forest. The troll ran for what felt like hours until the moon began its descent and he burst out of the forest undergrowth and beyond the tree line. He could hear the baying of wolves in the distance which prodded him to continue to run across the open field. Within moments a manor house came into view, smoke drifted from the chimney and a tall gate surrounded the estate.
The two human guards at the gate saw the smoldering troll rushing at them and began to lower their halberds in defense. The troll let out a blood curdling roar and he could see the look of determination falter on the guards faces. The two guards dropped their weapons and ran panicking to the house where they entered the manor and disappeared inside. The troll reached the gate but was winded and began to falter, his breaths coming in ragged gasps. The troll forced open the gate and squeezed his tortured frame through it before loping towards the manor house porch.
Moments later several shapes burst forth out of the forest undergrowth, their howls piercing the night. The werebeasts saw the troll and charged across the field, their red eyes glowing in the darkness. The troll forced the door to the manor house open and squeezed his frame inside before slamming the door closed behind him. He looked around to see the two guards, swords drawn standing behind a table turned over on its side guarding several human females and children behind it. The troll roared at the humans and they fled in terror out the back door of the manor house. A fire burned in the hearth to the side of the room and there was silverware and plates scattered all over the floor from the hasty construction of a barrier using the table. The troll grabbed a large wooden bench and braced it against the manor door. Seconds later the door buckled as a werewolf hurled itself at the doors frame. The troll looked out the window to see a dozen werebeasts circling the house intent on catching their prey. The door buckled again and the troll held the bench in place bracing it, moments later a furry form burst through one of the windows and crashed into the room. The troll spun swinging the bench like a weapon and with a resounding crack slammed the werewolf’s head against the wall leaving a crimson smear. Another werewolf jumped through the window and landed on some of the silverware on the floor. The werewolf let out a cry of pain as the silver knives and forks on the ground seemed to burn his skin much like flame had the trolls. Scooping up a silver knife, the troll grabbed the werewolf by the neck and rammed the knife into its chest and tore open the creature’s torso in one vicious swipe. The blood left on the knife blade began to bubble and burn as more wolves began to circle the window opening.
Roaring in rage the troll hurled the eviscerated carcass through the window and watched it land heavily in the yard. The werebeasts all gathered around their fallen pack mate as the troll ran over to the fire and grabbed one of the black cooking pots from the wall. The troll placed the cooking pot into the fire and began to quickly grab all of the silverware lying on the floor. Once the troll had two handfuls worth, he tossed them into the pot and watched the silver begin to melt down. As he did this another werebeast crashed through the front door and roared a challenge at the troll. Before the troll could react, the creature hurled itself forward with its jaws snapping inches from the troll’s throat. The troll’s hand closed around the creature’s neck when another of the werebeasts ran into the room and tried to hamstring him before the troll kicked the creature solidly in the ribs. The werebeast went crashing against the wall as the troll snapped the neck of the beast he was grappling with. After tossing the creature’s body out of the manor house, the troll hefted the werewolf body that he had smashed with the bench and wedged it in the window to prevent additional entrants.
The troll went to the bubbling pot of silver and then took a deep breath and stuck his fingers into the molten, bubbling silver. A howl of pain tore from the troll’s lips as searing agony shot through the troll’s hands. The troll withdrew his hands and looked about, silver dripping down his clawed fingers. He shoved his hands into a water barrel in the kitchen and the hiss of steam erupted from the water’s surface. The pain and agony refused to subside but when the troll withdrew his fingers from the water, all of his claws were incased in a layer of silver. Through the haze of pain clouding his vision, the troll looked out the window and grinned.
The troll flexed his hands, the action causing fresh waves of pain to shoot through his hands and arms. From deep within the troll began a growl, his anger at the night’s events cascading through his thoughts. Being drugged while hunting and captured, the humiliation of being chained up like a wild animal, the taunting from the werebear; all these thoughts burned through his mind. The werebear made him feel something he had never encountered before, an emotion that made him feel weak. The troll had run away, he had been … afraid. The notion of fear was alien to him; being exposed to it and made to feel weak was an anathema to who he was. The troll felt a spark of anger, of rage, ignite within him. This spark was quickly fanned into a flame as the troll fed emotion after emotion into it. The pain, the hate, the … fear, all of the emotions went into feeding this flame. The anger made the troll’s exhaustion and pain evaporate, fury fueling him in his call to action. With a roar so primal and feral that every werebeast outside cowered, the troll burst through the manor’s wall and unleashed a storm of violence against the unsuspecting pack.
The troll’s silver encased claws tore through beast after beast. Rending and tearing, the troll’s fury was fueled on by his complete surrender to rage. Howls of fear and screams of pain were a melody to the troll’s carnival of violence as his silver encased claws tore a werebeast in half showering him in a crimson spray of gore. The werebeast pack sensing the tables had turned began an all-out attack on the troll. The hunt had changed from a leisurely kill to a fight for survival, their survival. Claws raked the troll’s hide, blackish blood spilling all over the ground but the troll did not feel it. Berserker rage had consumed him entirely as he engaged in his wanton slaughter.
One werebeast leapt into the air only to have its head torn from its shoulders. Another werewolf and a wereboar charged the troll’s flank only to be ripped to shreds seconds later. Bodies were piled around the troll as the pack began to thin out quickly. It wasn’t until a rage-filled howl erupted from beyond the tree line did the pack break off their attack on the troll.
The werebear emerged from the tree line, a metal necklace bearing the symbol of Malar hung from around his neck. The werebear approached the scene of carnage; the smell of death was heavy in the air. The troll stood silently in the middle of the courtyard, the moon light illuminating his form. The troll’s hair was unbound and hung about him in a wild black mane soaked with blood. Rivulets of blood drizzled off the trolls claws and chin as he stood there, chest heaving with each painful breath. The troll was completely encased in crimson blood and gore; his claws shone silver in the moonlight. The werebear looked around and saw the score of fallen cultists. Members of his pack forever silenced during the High Hunt by this hellish troll.
The troll lifted one gore covered hand and pointed his silver claw at the werebear.
“You die next” the troll said before he charged Gaeros.
The troll sprang into action, his silver claw tearing great rents in the werebear’s hide. The werebear howled in pain and countered by tearing a chunk of flesh from the troll’s side. Thick black blood sprayed everywhere as the troll staggered from the attack, the werebear then hooked a paw under the troll’s leg and hurled the troll into the air several feet away. The troll crashed to the ground, his wounds slowly mending as the werebear howled in pain and outrage.
“You dare blaspheme the High Hunt with silver?” the werebear raged.
The troll slowly got to his feet. The troll held up his hand to the werebear allowing the moonlight to reflect off his silvered claws. A feral grin split the troll’s face as the look of outrage was obvious on the werebear’s ursine features. The insult was too much for Gaeros and the werebear let out another roar and charged the troll.
Rather than attempting dodge the oncoming attack, the troll instead counter charged and slammed headlong into Gaeros. Silver shod claws tore into the werebear’s neck and chest as Gaeros howled in pain. The troll’s smoking claws glistened wetly before it again began a flurry of attacks into the werebear. The troll dodged a swipe from the werebear and then slashed both claws down hard on the creature’s forearm sending Gaeros’s paw flying into the night air. An all too human howl of agony tore from the werebear’s throat as the troll roared in satisfaction. The troll slammed a clawed hand into the werebear’s chest and ripped one of Gaeros’s lungs and hurled it aside. The werebear fell to its knee, his breath labored and a wet sucking sound was coming from his chest.
The troll climbed on top of the werebear’s back and said “You wanted to know my name before.” The troll plunged both hands into the werebear’s neck and began to twist the creature’s head. The troll leaned in close to Gaeros’s ear, “I am known as Kronar and I bring you death!” After a moment there was a sickening pop and a wet tear as the troll tore the werebear’s head from its shoulders and held it aloft to the gathered cultist.
“I AM KRONAR!” the troll roared.
The gathered werebeasts all tensed to avenge their fallen Huntmaster when an inhuman roar filled the air. Everyone looked around and saw a massive ethereal sabretooth tiger appear and pad over to stand before the troll. There was an aura of power that surrounded the beast; many of the werebeasts took a step back as the massive sabretooth padded by them. The symbol of Malar was glowing upon the creature’s flank and it’s eyes glowed with a bright crimson light. Kronar locked his gaze with the ethereal creature and the sabretooth regarded the troll for several minutes before turning into a grey mist and encircling the troll. After a moment the mist absorbed itself into the troll and Kronar’s eyes glowed with a fierce crimson light. The wounds on Kronar’s flesh instantly knitted and all traces of fatigue faded from his body. Kronar’s vision was clearer than it had ever been before, his senses seemed heightened. New strength flowed through his limbs as his muscles flexed involuntarily and a low menacing growl began to resonate deep in his chest.
One by one the cultists in their werebeast form looked at one another then at the tower beast of rage standing atop their former leader. The cultists each fell to their knees and bowed prostrate before Kronar, each of them reciting the mantra of the Hunt. Kronar just stood there, watching the remaining cultists kneel before him in worship. One of the two lieutenants of Gaeros stepped forward, the woman wearing the antlered headdress. She slowly reached down and took the bloody medallion that had belonged to Gaeros and offered it to Kronar. The troll reached out his clawed and took the symbol from the woman. Kronar studied the medallion for some time before the woman spoke to him.
As Kronar studied the medallion a chant could be heard coming from the assembled cultists, the low sonorous chant filled the night air.
“You have bested the Huntmaster of our pack. By right and might you are now the leader of the Hunt. An emissary of the Ravagar has marked your ascension with its presence. You truly are the chosen of Malar.” The woman spoke.
“Malar…” Kronar replied thoughtfully his voice reverberating deeply within his chest.
Kronar cast the head of his adversary to the ground and lifted the necklace and placed it around his neck. “Yes…it appears I am your leader now doesn’t it…” Malar looked once again at the symbol of Malar and grinned.
So began the chronicles of Kronar the Destroyer, Red Talon of Malar.
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