The party makes its way through The Parade. One would never know that an attack had just happened moments before. The people seem oblivious, likely many of them are, happy to feast and celebrate without a care in the world. It takes roughly an hour to reach The Great Pavillion, which is now blocked by Parade guards. They admit you to a clearing, where the Parade Council waits with Segwyn. Eight long columns of uniformed drummers are standing roughly 100 meters behind them, forming an aisle roughly 10 meters wide. The outer columns on each side are made up of base drums, the inner made up of snare drums, and the columns between them of various other percussion instruments of all sorts, though an astute observer will note that they are perfectly symmetrical. Each drummer stands at attention, none of them yet playing, and they seem to stretch for an entire kilometer.
“Eight hundred of them,” Adempha beams. “Don’t they look sharp? And all so talented, I can personally vouch for that. We’ve spent months seeking, auditioning, and training them. Nothing is more important than your quest, and we’ve put all our effort forth to make sure that you start with a good, proper bonding. It’s the least we can do for you.
I’m so glad that you were able to stop those awful beasts from ruining the ceremony and hurting the innocent Parade-goers. It is a pity that you had to kill them, I so abhor violence, even when justified, but justified it was. They surely would have killed dozens, the monsters. But let us put that behind us. The Parade marches on, and so shall we! Segwyn, my dear, if you please?”
Segwyn shoots Adempha an icy look of contempt before addressing you. “What your about to experience will not be as pleasant as ‘my dear’ Adempha suggests. The Rings of the March are capable of harnessing great power, and must be strongly bonded to you. Otherwise… well, just be glad that we know what we’re doing. In a moment, the council and I shall head into The Great Pavilion where they shall assist me in facilitating the bonding. Once we are safely within the pavilion, the drummers shall begin playing in sequence, starting near the pavilion. When the final row of drummers has started playing, you must walk, not run, from that point, where you shall be waiting, to The Great Pavilion. Once inside, the enchantment we have placed upon it will shield you from the drumming, and the bonding shall be complete.”
“Assuming you make it that far.” Karick chimes in.
“Indeed,” Segwyn says. “These are no ordinary drums. They have been enchanted to draw the power of The Parade, and with each beat you shall be assaulted with it. The rings will absorb some of this energy, as will your bodies. The energy will act as a bridge between you and the rings, and it is in this way that the rings shall be bonded to you. However, as Karick alluded to you may well be torn apart by the energy before you make it to the end. This is an unfortunate, but necessary, risk, as the rings must be bonded to you in order for them, and you, to perform the task at hand.”
“Pun intended?” Jora asks with a grin.
“This is no joking matter,” Adempha says. “The power about to be unleashed is so great that we’ve had to keep The Parade public back this distance, and to outfit all of the guards and the drummers with special ear pieces to protect them. I only pray that it is enough.”
“It will be,” Segwyn says with confidence. “Now, do you have any questions before we proceed?”
Rico steps forward. “If this is going to be damaging, then perhaps it is a good idea to be at full strength before we begin this endeavor. Can anyone heal the wounds I took in the battle against the scorpians? Otherwise I would wish to wait until they heal themselves.”
“Oh, of course!” Adempha says. She places her hands on Rico’s shoulders, closes here eyes, and chants softly. After a moment, she opens her eyes again and smiles softly. “All better?” She asks. Rico nods.
“Will there be a need to fight during this ritual?” Karl asks. “If not, I choose to pass or fail lightly clothed.”
Segwyn shakes her head. “You’ll be fighting for your lives, to be sure, but steel and leather will not aid you.”
“Have you checked the background of these drummers?” Aadkias asks. “There is some debate as to whether the Scorpion Men we vanquished were being driven by an opposing force. It would behoove us to be wary. What better way to prevent the renewing of the Parade than by preventing or modifying the bond to the rings?”
“I can personally assure you,” Segwyn answers, “that there are no traitors among that lot. They are simple musicians, without the knowledge to, nor the means of, betraying us.”
“If there are no further questions,” Adempha says, “we shall await you in The Great Pavilion. Good luck, I know you’ll all do great!”
The council and Segwyn turn and walk down the aisle formed by the drummers. It takes them roughly a minute to reach the canvas opening to the pavilion. Once there, Segwyn nods, and the drummers at the end start playing. Every few seconds, another row joins in. When the drumming reaches about the half way point, your ears being to pop. At three quarters, your teeth start to chatter as the thundering sound assails you. By the time the final drummer starts playing, the air has grown thick and intensely hot.
Rico is the first to take a step forward. He brings his hands together in front of him and a look of intense concentration crosses his face. “Nothing shall block my road,” he states simply, as he moves forward, slowly. The rest of the party follows suit.
Karl strides forward seemingly unphased, clasping a small rag in his hands. Jora, smiling, taps her feet to the beat, doing a little dance as she moves forward. Glyra moves forward, steadily, but her eyes reveal the great pain she is in. Dahlia strides purposefully forward, but the lines on her face deepen as the unseen forces taxes her resolve. Adakias stumbles a bit, caught off guard by the power of the drums, but is able to remain standing. He steels himself against the further onslaught. Aelric staggers a bit, but does not fall. Raivik shows an awareness of the power about him, but shrugs it off and moves forward.
The drumming seems to get louder, the farther you go. Stones on the path crumble to pebbles. Occasionally loud pops are heard as pockets of air burst with power. A drum explodes just as Raivik passes by it, shattering the arm of the drummer playing it. He cries out and is replaced with a standby drummer as he limps away.
At roughly half way down the aisle, Aelric staggers and falls. He stands up, resolve unshaken, and continues forward. Glyra strides forward, standing tall with a centered look upon her face. Halfway to the pavilion, Dahlia cries out and falls to her hands and knees. Pain clearly wracking her body, a cold fury appears behind her eyes. She rises and struggles forward. Rico presses forward with barely a waiver. Raivik moves forward, shrugging off the assailing power and pushing a fleeting thought of surrendering to the back of his mind. Jora, finishing a pirouette, suddenly doubles over in pain. She pauses for an instant to catch her balance, a look of sudden surprise and agony on her face. Eventually, she straightens up, bows to the left and right, and does a forward somersault.
As the drums beat on, unending, sending forth their might in dizzying waves of heat and pressure, Karl stumbles, managing to remain upright, but barely able to walk. A look of doubt crosses his face, as he again stumbles, making no progress. Tears begin to well up in his eyes, as he puts forth every effort to keep moving forward. He screams out a fierce, primal curse in Orcish. His legs unable to move, tears now stream fully down his face. He grips his hand tightly and wipes them from his face with his rag, as he continues to stumble. He begins to chant, what one fluent in Orcish would recognize as a lullaby. He goes suddenly silent, turns, and fleeing the bonding ritual and bowling over five of the drummers.
Glyra takes several long strides to enter the pavilion, clearly taxed, but unshaken by the ordeal. Dahlia takes three confident steps before a look of doubt crosses her face. Panic flicks across her features and her steps faulter. As she casts a questioning look at her companions, Dahlia’s head snaps up. Here eyes wide with sudden realization, she takes a sharp breath and collapses.
Aelric attempts to continue forward, but eventually succumbs to the power of the drums, falling to the ground, unconscious. Rico manages to reach the tent. He turns around, offering a small bow, before stepping into the pavilion. Adakias seems to draw on some inner reserve of strength and manages to take the last steps forward into the great pavilion. Once inside, he slumps down to the ground and sobs a little, obviously happy that he has survived the bonding. About 6 meters from the pavilion, a wave of energy drives Raivik to his knees. He barks a laugh of defiance through gritted teeth, and, without pause, rises to his feet with straining muscles. He completes the ritual with the fires of unyielding determination still burning in his eyes, he continues his purposeful stride to where the council awaits within The Great Pavilion.
Jora launches up from her somersault, but something is obviously wrong. At first she appears to be sweating, but the sweat has turned a deep crimson color, as though her the pores on her skin have burst open. In a final act, she propels herself up from her somersault, leaving a stream of steaming blood behind her. In another context, the pattern might be beautiful, and even her downward arc seems to be in slow motion. As she lands, however, she appears to be no longer capable of the modicum of effort that would be required to keep herself upright. She collapses in a bloody, wheezing heap. In the distance, a loyal war pony emits a high pitched cry of despair, audible even above the sound of the drums.
The drumming expires shortly after Jora does. As it does, Karick pokes his head out of the tent, curses, and returns inside. Shortly after, several guards emerge from the tent to retrieve the bodies. Several minutes later, after Aelric, Jora, and Lady Dahlia are resurrected, and after Karl has been coaxed down from a tree, the party sits in front of the council. Healers tend to the many wounds sustained during the bonding, and Segwyn examines each Ring of the March.
Once she is done, she says, “Well, the four of you that completed the ritual were successfully bound to your rings. They can no longer be removed, and they should start speaking to you at some point. Well done, and congratulations on staying alive. The bad news is that the four of you that failed the bonding must attempt it again. However, the council and I feel that that may not be the prudent thing to do. Perhaps had at least five of you completed the ritual, the remaining three could simply make it up, but the fact that half of you have failed has cast some doubts as to your abilities.”
“What my sister means to say,” Adempha says, “is that we feel it may be in your best interest to prepare a little more before attempting the bonding, and the quest to come. This is but the first trial you shall face, and though it is substantial, it is likely that far greater challenges are to come. Perhaps you are not ready for what is required of you.”
Several of the council members nod, and they confer for a bit. After, speaks once more. “We’ve decided to leave it in your hands. If you wish, the four of you may once more attempt the bonding, though of course the risk is much greater, given resurrection’s fading effectiveness. Alternatively, you may go out, see the world, get to know one another, and prepare yourselves for your next attempt. If you choose to do this, you may keep the horses we’ve provided you, and you may return to us whenever you feel you are ready to try again. We ask, though, that you return no later than six months from now.”
“So,” Karick says tauntingly, “do you think you’re ready?”
The party begins discussing their options, but the conversation quickly degrades into an argument between Jora and Rico. After several minutes of escalation, Segwyn throws her “hands” down at her sides, casting some unseen force at the ground that causes the first to fly up. “Enough!” she shouts, wheeling around to face the council. “These are the ones you’ve chosen? They act as children do.” Turning back, she faces Jora. “You, gnome, would do better stir up less trouble. You were no doubt selected for your charisma and resourcefulness, but as far as I can tell, that tongue of yours causes more problems than it solves.”
“And you, monk,” she says, addressing Rico. “Your devotion to your order is admirable, and your discipline will serve the group well, but remember that yours is indeed a task of service. By picking fights and threatening death at the slightest offense, you serve nothing but your own pride! Your mentor should have taught you that no road is perfectly straight. If you hope to accomplish the task, you must learn to be flexible.”
“Now, if you two think you can get along, let us put this foolishness behind us. It is clear from this display, however, that you are not yet ready to undergo this mission. You lack not only fortitude, but cohesion. Forget this ettin hunting nonsense, and head to the halfling empire. There you may not only observe your first Well, but shall likely find a task or two to keep you occupied, and to teach you how to work as a team.”
With that, Segwyn rolls her eyes, waves her “hands” in front of her, and fades from view.
“She always has had a temper”, Adempha says. “But she is right, you must learn to work together, and a trip to the halfling empire will likely do you some good. The halflings have grown mighty in recent years, and they are fiercely loyal to one another. Learn from them. We shall inform them of your pending arrival. They will no doubt wish to prepare a welcome for you, and it would be courteous of you to give them time to do so. You shall head out, two days hence, and maybe you find the strength you require for the bonding, with both the rings and with each other.”