The mighty goliath stopped short, raising his hand to halt the party. A fetid pool lay before them, deep within the Lizard Marsh.
"Mila, when you encounter an area with water like this, try to follow the line of plants. That usually means there is more solid terrain beneath."
The ranger prodded with her blade, examining the area herself until she was satisfied. She looked up at the goliath with a grin on her face.
"Thank you for zis my friend" she beamed. "I am more used to moving amongst ze forests – in Barovia we have only one swamp and few dare to tread there."
The goliath smiled back. "I've never been in a swamp before, but the deep pools remind me of the snow drifts in the mountains. I learnt there to follow the plants when I can. The snow drifts can get very deep and often I…."
Ugggh. Saria rolled her eyes as Vraal and Mila continued to blather on incessantly, comparing notes on wilderness survival. Both her companions seemed at home in the swamp, with Mila moving easily amongst the vegetation and sky and Vraal surging through the fetid water with a type a measured grace, often with Hal atop his back. It was almost mesmerizing to watch…
Saria's mind drifted back to the day prior when Vraal had challenged to the Blackscale chieftain to single combat – that too had been mesmerizing to watch . The Blackscale chieftain was a reptilian brute, aggressive and uncivilized. Still, the battle between it and Vraal had been a sight behold. The rogue had watched in terror as the Blackscale chieftain and her friend engaged in a furious battle, the foul lizard rending strips of flesh from the barbarian's body.
Still Vraal had won – barely. Saria had watched him fight and saw that part of his prowess in combat was not only smashing his opponents with that massive greatsword of his, but shrugging off his enemies hits and rolling with their blows. He seemed to absorb damage. The rogue had of course seen Vraal fight before, but this time, able to focus from the sidelines, Saria had definitely learnt a few techniques watching Vraal duel the lizardman – techniques she would put to good use next time she rolled for hit points.
Saria's recollections were shattered when she felt her foot enter something squishy. Looking down, she saw her boot half submerged in a huge pile of dung – no doubt from one of the massive dinosaurs that dwelt here.
"EWWWW!!" "I HATE THIS SWAMP!!!"
The rest of her companions stopped, alarmed by her yell, before immediately resuming their journey, smiling at her misfortune. Once defeated, the Blackscale chief had revealed the location of the Shazak idol, on an ancient stone platform in the centre of the swamp, and the others were keen to get there as soon as possible. The Shazak priestess Sasharra had accompanied them, eager to help recover the lost relic.
Saria scowled at them, took a deep breath and dreamed of her happy place – Waterdeep – its grand inns overflowing with luxury, including scented baths, delicious treats and the finest apparel on the Sword Coast. She resolved to get back there as soon as possible – her newly acquired Maztican silver would surely earn her many days of luxury.
Still, Saria pursed her lips in thought. A bit of R&R in Waterdeep sounded divine, but something had been troubling her for a while now that she needed to investigate. Her hand moved towards her belt pouch and reassuringly patted the conch shell she had stored within.
Her mind drifted…Saria had done her best to forget the trauma she suffered when she had lost her parents, only 2 years prior. But now, as she began to find her own path in the world, it seemed fitting to remember them.
Their deaths had been her fault. Her parents had booked passage upon a ship from their native city of Caer Callidyrr on the Moonshae Isles to magnificent Waterdeep, where her father often conducted business, whilst Saria and her mother enjoyed the sights and delights of the grandest of cities.
Two weeks into their journey a furious storm had hit them. Saria shuddered – in her mind's eye she could still see the terrifying mountain of water surging forth from the ocean, smashing upon their ship. Her parents screams still rang in her ears – in a final heroic act they had bound her safely to the ship to save her from being washed overboard.
But they could not save themselves. Unable to secure themselves in time, the wave had swept them from the deck, along with most of the crew, into briny depths below. Even in her terror, Saria had been spellbound watching the wall of water consume their vessel…until she fainted in fear.
When she awoke, the sky was still overcast but the storm had lessened. As Saria watched the worst of the roiling black clouds move towards the Sword Coast, she realised that the ship was still moving. Quickly untying her father's knots, she ran to the railing of the ship and peered over.
Beneath her, a massive figure had lifted the ship, placing it upon its shoulder, and was striding through the water, heading quickly towards a group of small islands. Saria saw other massive shapes deep beneath the surface of the ocean, periodically surfacing and talking in some strange tongue.
She gasped, quickly slamming her hand over her mouth.
Almost legendary, few had encountered storm giants, even the famed giant hunters of the Moonshaes.
Hearing her gasp, the storm giant carrying her boat, looked up at her and bellowed in booming Common.
"LITTLE GIRL!!! WHERE IS THE REST OF YOUR CREW?"
Saria fell to the deck of the ship, simpering in fear. She was familiar with the tales of the Formorian Giants of the Moonshaes that plagued the highlands eating people. Had the Storm Giants attacked her ship for the same reason?
"LITTLE GIRL….YOU MUST ANSWER ME!!"
Another voice, clearly feminine, spoke.
"SILENCE CLARION! YOU ARE SCARING HER"
The forecastle of the boat shuddered. Saria looked up, surprised to see that what remained of her vessel had been deposited on a sandy beach on one of the islands.
A humongous figure stood before her – a female Storm Giant, regal in bearing with a benign smile upon her face (to Saria's great relief).
"Fear not human. My name is Neri. We have came to aid your people. Are there anymore of you?"
Saria stuttered a response, shivering from the shock of her ordeal and the fearsome winds of the still raging storm.
"My parents are gone…they are all gone. The waves washed them overboard."
The giantess turned and bellowed orders at a group of Storm Giants who had now began to gather around the wreck of Saria's ship. The other giants quickly strode into water, heading back in the direction their ship had been sailing.
Neri turned back to Saria. "I have sent the others to search for your parents and friends – there may be a small chance they have survived if they managed to grabbed onto some wreckage. My daughter Serissa will stay here with you whilst we search."
Neri motioned a smaller figure forth, a younger female storm giant. At 15 ft tall, Serissa was not even half the size of the other giants. Nor did she have her mother's regal bearing. She was instead shy, almost frightened, refusing to meet Saria's gaze.
Still she had some of the strength of her people and the young giant quickly assembled a shelter for Saria, salvaged from the wreckage of her ship, along with a fire to warm her amidst the still raging storm. Serissa sat and watched Saria silently for a long time, until the human finally spoke.
"Did you cause this storm? I mean…did you attack us?"
Serissa's face contorted in confusion and panic.
"No…of course not!" Serissa stammered, in a voice half as loud as her mothers and utterly bereft of her matron's noble timbre. "Mother said it was the fury of Umberlee that had caused the storm and she bade her warriors to come to the surface to help anyone we could find."
"Come to the surface? You mean you live beneath the water?" Saria asked.
Serissa’s faced paled. "No. Well yes. But I’m not supposed to talk about it."
Saria gave the young giantess a questioning look.
"I would tell you if I was allowed….my parents lead the Storm Giants and they are always trying to teach me stuff I don't need to know…and then telling me not to tell anyone."
Saria laughed and then narrowed her eyes. "Wait…your parents lead the Storm Giants?!"
"Aye. You have just met none other than Queen Neri, wife of King Hekaton, the mightiest of all Jotun." Serissa gestured grandly as she spoke, her obvious sarcasm infusing her words and gestures.
Sarcasm lost on Saria though, as the human's eyes widened as she whispered in awe.
"That makes you a princess!"
Now it was Serissa's turn to laugh – an oddly melodious chuckle that made Saria smile.
"I guess. But it doesn’t mean anything. I spend most of my time in our fortress and I don’t get to leave much. When I do, my mother accompanies me so she can teach me boring stuff about the small folk."
Serissa's face went pale as she realised her faux pas. "I’m sorry" she stammered.
Saria grinned. "Don’t be. We are very boring. I've spent most of my time stuck on the Moonshaes – I rarely get to see anything of the world beyond. Father tries to get me more interested in his business, but it is so boring. I just want to see as much of the world as I can."
"Same" Serissa replied. One of the best times I had was when one of the cloud giant clans offered to take my sisters and I for a tour in their flying castle…we saw Icewind Dale, Neverwinter…even the dwarfs at Gauntlgrym! All from the other air of course"
Saria frowned. I've only been to Waterdeep two times…this voyage was meant to be our third…" Saria stopped as she placed her hands over her face and began to cry. Her grief was odd. Only minutes before she was happy talking to Serissa, barely aware of the only hours old tragedy that had befallen her. And now…her torment was so palpable that Saria was not even sure she could go on living.
Serissa looked away for a minute, desperately trying to think of something to say to distract the distraught human.
"Sometimes I think my parents are embarrassed of me. Father sometimes hosts the other giant kings in our court, to try and keep everyone in peace. The frost giant king brings his daughter Skilli to show her off to everyone. I think she's mean, but my sisters fawn all over her. Everyone thinks she's great. But Father never introduces me to them."
Saria looked at her confused, delicately wiping a particular gruesome tendril of snot emerging from her inflamed nostril. "Aren’t Frost Giants evil? Maybe he's trying to protect you from them?"
Serissa shrugged. "Maybe. They are barbaric but father does his best to keep the peace. I think he just wants me to be some noble princess who says 'thou and thee' to impress the others."
Saria nodded in agreement. "My father is sometimes embarrassed of me. I think he thinks I'm stupid and only interested in fancy things."
Saria stopped short and tears began to once again fall from her eyes, as she realised she was complaining about her parents, who probably lay dead on the ocean floor.
"Don't worry Saria, Mother may be annoying but she's smart – she'll find your parents."
Saria smiled, the warmth of the fire and Serissa's words giving her hope.
Misplaced hope as it turned out, as the other Storm Giants returned a few hours later, empty handed.
Saria's grief had been overwhelming. For days she lay in her shelter, her anguish as wild as the storm that continued to rage over the little island, the same storm that had claimed her parents. During all that time Serissa sat by her side, tending the fire and telling her tales both of her folk and of various legends of the Sword Coast. Anything to take her mind off her torment.
Eventually Serissa enticed Saria out of her shelter to speak with her mother. The other giants had left except for another female and a male who stood away from Neri, but watching them none the less. Queen Neri smiled and spoke.
"I want to tell you again my dear how very sorry we are that we could not save your mother and father. All children should know their parents love, and that you have lost yours pains us greatly."
Saria wiped the tears from her eyes and curtsied. "Thank you your majesty"
Neri's eyes widened and she turned quickly to glare angrily at her daughter. "You told her? Why?"
Serissa looked up at her mother defiantly. "She deserved to know. Besides I won’t lie to her, she's my friend"
Saria's blushed and grinned at Serissa before turning to Neri.
"Please your majesty, I pushed her to tell me she meant no harm."
Neri's expression softened as she looked down upon the tiny human. She seemed to approve of Saria standing up for her daughter. "Understand that I am glad my daughter trusts you Saria. But it is for her own safety that we must protect her and conceal our home. We have many enemies."
“But what's done is done. I only ask that you keep what Serissa has told you in your highest confidence. Oh and enough of this 'majesty' business!"
The giantess smiled. "That's better. Now to a matter of some importance. As you are probably aware the storm blew your vessel many miles of course. These islands we are on lie 200 miles north of the Moonshaes. Too far and too dangerous for us to carry you back ourselves. We have sent one of our people to alert the leaders of Caer Callidyrr of your predicament and send a vessel to take you back to the Moonshaes."
Saria paused and then her eyes met the giantess'. "Please Neri, I would ask you a favour."
The storm giant queen nodded
"I have nothing left now in the Moonshaes, there is no reason for me to return there. Might I ask to be taken to Waterdeep?"
Neri's eyes narrowed and she shook her head, her opinion of Waterdeep quite clear. As she began to object, Serissa interrupted.
"It's where she wants to go Mother and we can help her get a new start. If we take her back to the Moonshaes, she will eventually leave anyway. Who nows if she'll even make the crossing with all the poo pirates in that area…"
Neri’s face softened as she chuckled softly. “Stubborn as always my daughter. Very well Saria. We will approach some of the humans near Waterdeep to arrange safe passage for you. But it will take some time until a vessel arrives. Weeks even. Until then you must remain here.”
Serissa spoke up again. “I will stay and help her mother.” The queen of the Storm Giants looked briefly annoyed at being commanded by a stubborn, smaller version of herself, but she quickly relented.
“An excellent suggestion my daughter. I too will remain. This islands hold significance for us Saria. We ask that you enjoy your time here and explore them, but always be mindful of the value and significance to us."
Those had been Saria's halcyon days. The tragedy of losing her parents was softened as she spent her weeks with Serissa, learning about her people. The Storm Giants fascinated her – in some ways they were just like humans. They fought and argued, but they always protected their kin. In other ways though, they were clearly different. Noble in bearing, Storm giants stood above most other creatures, literally and metaphorically. They wielded power that most humans could only dream of and their physical strength was unmatched. Saria especially enjoyed spending time together with Serissa and her mother Neri, keenly though it reminded her of her own loss.
Neri seemed to have a soft spot for small folk – as the giants called humans and the other races – and she spent time showing Serissa their value despite their relatively diminutive stature. Once Saria had overhead Serissa and her mother talking, her mother extolling the virtues of humans, who although short lived can accomplish great things, with hearts as noble and pure as her father's. Saria has blushed furiously when Neri used her as an example of the good that lies within humanity.
Saria regained her strength as she consumed a daily smorgasbord provided by the giants – deep sea fish, fresh oysters, crustaceans and tender meat from the small herd of goats on the island. Saria even spent time with Neri's bodyguards – Clarion and Neela. The commanding giants were initially dismissive of Saria and seemed to resent her – particularly the male, Clarion. Serissa explained that they had very little time for small folk, seeing them as nothing more than greedy nuisances. The storm giants soon changed their opinion though (at least of Saria) as they grew to know her through the many hours they spent fishing, hunting and playing games.
Saria soon learnt the value of these small islands, as she came across numerous ruins in her explorations. Fallen pillars, massive marble tiles – even a gigantic tomb set into the side of a small hill, marked with a huge rune. Serissa had been very reluctant to say anything of the ruins significance - beyond that Storm Giants used to dwell upon these islands eons ago. Saria sensed Serissa's reluctance to talk further upon the matter, perhaps at Neri's insistence – so she questioned her no further.
When she was ready, Serissa and Saria prepared burial markers for her parents, placing them near the entrance of the tomb. All of the Storm giants somberly watched as Saria bid her parents farewell – each saying a few words of respect. Neri helped tend the burial markers, planting several beautiful orchids around their base. Saria couldn't see any such plants on the island and she wondered where Neri had found them.
All too soon Saria's 'exile' was over. On the 40th day of her survival, sails appeared on the horizon rapidly growing until a ship anchored not far from the edge.
Neri looked down at Saria with a sad smile upon her face.
"Your time here is at an end Saria."
The giant queen sat cross legged before the human, her eyes almost level with Saria's, swelling with tears.
"I truly have enjoyed our time together child. Know that I will always count you as a friend…and a daughter."
Saria stared at her saviors. They had saved her from a terrible fate and helped her come to terms with her parent's passing. Saria flung herself at Neri, sobbing as Serissa wrapped her arms around them both.
Eventually Neri broke their embrace and handed Saria a small pouch. Inside Saria could hear the clinking of coins. "For your new life my dear." Before Saria could respond, Serissa also passed her a conch shell, marked with a strange rune.
"Mother made this for us – so we can talk."
After yet another round of sobbing and embraces, Neri bade Saria to climb upon her shoulders, before wading out to meet the vessel. Standing shoulder deep in the water, Neri addressed the ship's captain, who had appeared on the bow of the ship. Serissa flinched as Neri's normally placid, wisdom-infused voice morphed into one of booming strength.
"Here is the passenger. And thy payment as agreed."
Neri's passed a sealed package to the captain – a rough looking cad, with a rambling beard. Oddly enough he seemed unfrightened of Neri as he greedily examined the contents.
The queen's voice boomed, as her bodyguards surfaced on either side of the ship.
"Knowest that thy passenger is under our protection. Our might we befall thee if thou dare to harm her."
Simultaneously three lightning bolts slammed from the sky into the waters around the ship, lightning roiling over the ocean's surface. The captain made a grand bow to the Storm Giant queen, but Saria detected a note of mockery and defiance in his gesture.
Serissa surfaced next to her mother, treading water as she wrapped her arms around Saria once more.
With that the storm giants left, disappearing beneath the surface of the waves.
Saria's reverie was shattered when she hear the guttural hiss of Sasshara, the priestess of the Shazak tribe.
"We are here my friendssss…"
Before them lay an open stretch of swamp, with massive a set of ruins thrusting upward into the air. The air hung heavy, infused with a slight scent of decay.
Mila crouched, defensively scanning the area.
"I do not like zis. Something is very wrong…."
Saria quickly pocketed the conch shell in her belt pouch. For a time, she had been able to communicate with Serissa through the conch. If Saria held the shell to her ears she could hear Serissa talking, and was even able to reply. A few months after the conch shell fell silent – all Saria could hear now was the sound of the sea.
The rogue hurriedly pushed those thoughts out of her mind and focused on the task at hand. She drew her weapons and waded into the water, towards the set of massive stairs leading to the ancient stone platform….