There I was, strolling through the forest, appreciating the rays of the morning sun that cascaded down through the canopy, illuminating the branches, the trunks, the roots and the fallen leaves piled densely on the forest floor. I had just left the market-city of Orythia that morning, so that I was about an hour out from there. The sunlight like a gentle caress wiped away the last remnants of the night and the city.
I filled my lungs with the earthy smells around me – a delightful composite of dark soil, damp leaves, moss and bark permeating the air. My chest expanded and strained against my leather armour as I inhaled. It was then that I perceived another scent lacing the pure smell of the forest, one that I had become all too familiar with in my adventures – the coppery scent of fresh blood.
From what other travellers I had met along this road had told me, I recalled that this part of the forest was popular amongst hunters. Any other person would have taken a semblance of comfort from this. Not me, though. Something just didn’t feel right.
If there’s one thing my adventures have taught me, it’s to trust my gut and my gut was never wrong. I shifted my right hand to where my sword dangled in its scabbard on my left-hand side, readying myself for whatever was causing this now growing sense of unease. With my free hand I threw back the hood of my cloak so that I could scan the area unimpeded. My senses no longer focused on the beauty and tranquillity around me; instead I darted my gaze around the forest and tensed my grip on the hilt of my sword. With my left hand I reached for my shield, bringing it around to my side – my grip on its enarmes firm, the muscles in my arm readying to raise my shield to swiftly bash or block any threat.
I stopped walking, standing firm like the ancient trees around me, their strong roots anchoring them. I was ready; whatever creatures chose to pick a fight with me today were going to wish upon their ancestors that they had not. Grogg Hammerfist is not to be trifled with. I do not run from danger – danger inevitably runs from me.
My instincts were right, as usual. Humanoid shapes formed ahead of me, moving past the trees and brush toward me. The smell of fresh blood assailed my nostrils. Hyena-like laughter emanated from the shapes; their movement had something feral, bestial about it … gnolls! I counted four of the awful creatures – they probably reckoned I would be an easy target, walking by myself in the forest. Clearly they failed to heed the image emblazoned on my shield – a dragon’s face with its gaping maw, which depicted the ferocity with which I fight.
Gnolls are not known for exchanging pleasantries. They’re there to kill, brutally and utterly – fuelled by their raging bloodlust. Their pace increased. The path they followed converged on me. One of the creatures pulled the bowstring of its longbow taut, preparing to fire an arrow meant to incapacitate me. The other three rushed at me with their glaives. The single-edged blade at the end of each polearm caught the rays of the sun, which illuminated the blood of a fresh kill still dripping from it.
One of the remaining three broke away from the pack by increasing its pace and made a beeline for me. It growled and it bared its stained canines. Its left eye had a scar trailing from its forehead down to its cheek.
My body instinctively leapt into action – my senses fired up; my mind clear and battle-focused. I raised my shield and raced to meet the scarred gnoll head-on as it closed in on me. Once it got within striking distance, it steadied the polearm in its claws and lunged at me.
I may look like I’ve been painstakingly carved from ruddy stone by an artist with a deep appreciation of the male form – herculean musculature resembling the topography of undulating hills, set in a swarthy six foot, three inch frame. Many of the foes I have faced are startled by the grace and speed with which I can move for someone of my towering size. The scarred gnoll was no exception.
I waited until the last second; as the bloodied blade was about to make contact, I jumped out of its way with the speed and grace of a displacer beast and bashed the glaive with my shield. The sheer force had my assailant struggling to gain control of its weapon. I spun my body around to face my opponent – an unwavering, seamless motion from the previous movement that allowed me to evade the gnoll’s strike, and then thrust my blade forward until it connected with my staggered foe.
My sword pierced flimsy armour, bristly fur, then dense muscle, then bone, until it reached innards. The blade plunged so deep that I could feel the creature’s fur touch my fingers, just past the hilt. The scarred gnoll howled in agony. The warm blood from the wound splattered onto my hand as I withdrew my weapon.
The surprised look in the scarred gnoll’s eyes gave way to an emptiness as its life seeped from its body, until it lay motionless at my boots. The growls and hyena-like laughter from the remaining gnolls abated. There was now hesitation in the way they moved.
The one with the longbow let loose an arrow that I evaded with the same confidence as I had the scarred gnoll’s glaive. I felt the trail of air from the arrow as it rushed past my ear. The next arrow met my blade as I struck it from its trajectory. I continued forward, bearing down on one of the glaive-wielding gnolls, its partner about ten or so feet behind it. Our blades connected, both of us pushing with all our might to try and get through the other’s defences.
I stopped pushing and retaliated by raising my sword and striking downwards. With a swift motion, the gnoll grabbed either end of the polearm, attempting to block the blow. I let out a guttural roar as I consolidated my might, increasing the force with which I pushed against the polearm. I continued to roar and grimace as the force collapsed the gnoll down on its knees. I saw the desperate strain on its face as it struggled to keep its defences up.
It wrinkled its muzzle and exposed its canines, a fetid stench coming from its jaws. It growled savagely until finally it dropped the glaive, a look of intense hatred relentlessly pouring out at me from its bloodshot eyes as it realised I was about to end its life. In one last attempt to change its fate, it angled its head, opened its mouth wide and lurched forward to bite me.
It was like time slowed at that point – the gnoll’s face coming toward me with its teeth bared and strands of saliva dripping from the roof of its mouth. My sword angled down, then sliced through its gaping jaws – until it exited the back of the gnoll’s head. I put my foot against the gnoll’s chest and pushed its corpse off my blade – its limp body hitting the ground with a thud.
I raised my head and glared at the remaining gnolls. The realisation that I could categorically end them rushed over them. Their fight or flight instinct kicked in and they made the only sensible choice, given what they had just witnessed … they fled.
As I watched them retreat at high speed through the forest, crushing twigs and leaves underfoot, the corners of my mouth start to wrinkle. I began to smirk, and then I let out a loud and irreverent guffaw. If only the people back home in Forest Peak could see me now. I continued on my journey, thoughts of my mother and the home that I had left behind me years ago, brought freshly to mind.