Dendroubena Staunchkeel’s story begins far in the past, in the ancient port city of Urn. In that dim and distant time, she was born to a clan renowned for their shipwrights and lumber operations, and enjoyed much esteem. Dendroubena herself was a logging captain, working deep in the mountain passes and harvesting the long, straight pines so necessary to the construction of ship’s keels.
One terrible winter, the Staunchkeel clan began finding members of their logging team turned to stone. It began here and there, but grew more frequent, until the clerics could no longer provide sufficient relief, and a militia was assembled to find and eliminate the threat. Dendroubena, as the head of her camp, walked at the front of the mob, draped in a cape from her family’s special holdings back home – the specially-prepared hide of a displacer beast that refracted her form and (it was hoped) would deflect the attention of whatever was responsible for the attack.
It was not enough. Her people found the culprit in a mountain chateau so old that the forest had grown back up around it. After the first scout failed to report back, Dendroubena decided that a mass charge was needed. Surely, whatever was waiting inside couldn’t direct its attacks at everyone.
It proved to be the worst judgement call of Dendroubena’s life. The last thing she saw as she charged forward was the face of the medusa – an image that haunts her to this day.
An eye-blink later, midday had turned to evening, and the roar of the charge was silenced. Instead of the Medusa, an elf in flowing blue robes stood before her. The chateau was nothing more than a rotting square of wood-pulp and a nearly-toppled hearth. Dendroubena’s skin burned, as if afflicted by a terrible rash.
In short order, the elf introduced herself as Abjurist Starcaller – a scholar who had come seeking certain items that were said to have been owned by an ancient noblewoman named Euryale Gorgon – a woman who had been cursed by the gods for her vanity and fled into seclusion. The abjurist had with her a book that contained an image of the noble’s likeness, confirming that she had become the medusa.
As the abjurist questioned Dendroubena about what had transpired, the dwarf looked about herself. At first, there were no signs of those who had travelled with her. However, she soon discovered weathered bollards of stone outside the cabin, bearing the shape of squat humanoids. These were her men, weathered to the point that restoring them would mean momentary agony and death. Inside the cabin, those at the head of the charge had fared little better; the roof had protected them from weather, but had eventually fallen in and shattered most of them. Only the fact that Dendroubena had been frozen in the doorway had protected her from the same fate. Even still, her skin had been bitten by the wind and rain, and still bears pock-mark scars from centuries of standing in the weather.
She sat, numb with shock, as Starcaller sifted through the ruins. Her mind refused to believe that there was no logging camp in the valley until she returned to see for herself – and found a sixty-foot tall conifer growing from the spot where she had taken breakfast. It was the same story when she returned to the site of her family’s shipyard, and instead found a fishing village run by humans on the site. The inhabitants confirmed that they found dwarven relics now and again, but that no dwarves had lived in the area for over a hundred years.
Dejected, Dendroubena descended into deep depression, for what is a dwarf without her clan? She felt bereft; but, more than that, she felt angry at herself for ordering her men into a suicide run. In her mind, she imagined the now poorly-defended camp being overrun, and the supply of lumber collapsing, and the shipyards succumbing because of it. Logic told her the notion was foolish, but emotion and logic seldom dance the same tune, and she blamed herself for her clan’s disappearance. Every night, her dreams were plagued with the faces of her friends and ancestors, howling for justice, for vengeance.
She followed Abjurist Starcaller across the sea. The elf had discovered clues that Euryale had had dealings in the Ophidian Isles, with a colony that was forming there in ancient times. It was a long shot that the medusa had moved there, but Dendroubena went along, in hopes of taking vengeance on the creature.
Apparently, vengeance involved a fiendish amount of research – a task that Starcaller relished, but which filled Dendroubena with a grinding sense of impotent confinement. Weeks became months, and then a year, as Dendroubena assimilated into the culture of the city of Monitor, barely taking note of her test of knighthood to be accepted among them. However, “assimilated” was really too grand a term. She felt apart from the tall folk and their flashfire notion of society, and began to take greater and greater solace in the “usequebaugh” liquor made from the local grass seeds they called maize. Growing ever more bitter, she began to lash out, feeling a certain catharsis and release in the drunken brawls that often erupted in the rougher taverns around town, and soon became infamous. Eventually, Starcaller could endure it no longer, and left Dendroubena behind – with a purse of gold and an urging to “clean herself up.”
The note didn’t do much good. The loss of her friend compounded the loss of her clan, magnifying her hurt and anger. Weeks at a time vanished into blind drunkenness as she tried to block out the dreams, until no tavern would have her inside. Even still, there were times when she could have sworn that the ghosts of the dead were watching her in mirrors, judging her for not joining them in death. Paradoxically, she felt their presence at her side during her bar-room scuffles, like echoes of the old times.
One day, Dendroubena awoke in the Monitor greensward, with a head full of thunder and a bellyful of ferrets. As she gulped usequebah to dull the throb, she noticed that she was not the only vagrant stretched out on the green. Nearby, an old halfling was seated, looking serene despite the fact that his limbs seemed to have been tied in knots.
Mystified, Dendroubena asked if the old fellow was alright. He assured her he was, and asked the same of her. For no reason at all, she found her entire story falling out of her mouth, spewing out like the intoxicants that had erupted from her on many mornings before. When it was over, the old gnome nodded sympathetically, and said that he might be able to help – however, he was forced to ask a favour in return.
When she dubiously asked what he wanted, the gnome related a tale of his own. The nearby city of Fawn was known for its reverence of beauty – and also its extremism. Recently, the government there had passed a law, decreeing that all persons above a certain age (as determined by race) would submit themselves for examination. Those found “lacking in the virtue of beauty” were to be “humanely euthanized.” The gnome himself had managed to escape, but his wife was among those who had not. Fleeing to Monitor, he had asked after the most ferocious fighter in the area and was pointed toward Dendroubena, but told that he wouldn’t want her; that she was a lazy, crazy drunkard.
Incensed, the dwarf set off immediately, thundering about the quality of her character. On the way back to Fawn, they recruited a few others – a rotund mastermind, a good-hearted goliath, an obsessed duellist and a charming swashbuckler – who collectively became known as The Brute Squad. Together, they managed to free the captives and save many lives. A play based on their adventure (and the swashbuckler’s marriage to a princess bride) is still performed in taverns and squares, and often quoted – though the telling is outlawed in the city of Fawn.
Upon their return, the old halfling monk – who finally introduced himself as Miraculous Max – held true to his promise. He related that he had seen the name Staunchkeel on small metal placards, on items in the lairs of one of the Seven Guardian Spirits who oversee the natural order in the Tempest Keys. It was centuries ago, when he was a young gnome and had made the pilgrimage to prove his right to lead his monastic order. As such, he could no longer remember which Guardian’s dwelling it was. However, he described the seal of Dendrubena’s clan in reasonably accurate detail. He assured her that the Seven Guardians were beneficent creatures – though aloof from humanoid contact, and fond of testing those who would try to reach them. Having met them himself, he was confident that Dendroubena could also manage.
The rescue mission to Fawn had been the first genuinely fulfilling thing Dendroubena had done since her petrification, and it gave her some clarification. Likely, so had the time away from the blessings of maize, yeast and distillation equipment. She thought of the request of her friend Starcaller, and realized that she owed her life to the abjurist. As such, she should have been just as grateful to the elf as the elders from Fawn were toward her. Without the alcohol, the nightmares had returned, and she wondered if she might not deserve the judgement that the ghosts of her dreams were foisting upon her. It had been months since she had looked for signs of her people, even though she was still not able to accept in her heart that they were all gone. Perhaps a return to her personal quest would offer a bit of clarity.
In a way, it has. Dendroubena (“Den,” as she allows monosyllabic humans to call her) is still far too fond of her cups, and routinely astounds people with a capacity for drink that would even leave other dwarves agape. She also still has a temper that some would describe as madness. However, she also has a purpose of sorts – or at least a distraction to keep at least one foot out of the gutter.
To her own amazement, she has even located and bested the challenges of two of the Guardians. The Great Crab, a wise crustacean the size of an island and father to all his ilk, had not heard the name Staunchkeel since the dwarves plied the seas in centuries past, but he gifted her with a mystical shield made from a flake of his shell for her endurance. He also bid her to speak with Albatross, who flew far and wide, and might have seen signs of her people. The huge bird had not heard her family’s name, but often flew high above humanoids. She consoled Dendroubena with a pair of boots that let her stride upon the wind, so that she could look in places that others could not reach. She also told Dendroubena what signs to look for, when locating the other Guardians’ lairs (deliberately left vague for DM usage).
Since then, Dendroubna has been keeping her bloodshot eyes open, alert for more Guardians – or, indeed, any news of her people or Euryale Gorgon. When none can be found, she does her best to forget her troubles and find her release where she can.
Dendroubena is an Ancestral Guardian barbarian in the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition game, whom I created for a pirate game that a friend of mine is running.
Created in GIMP, using a Wacom Intuos Pro Large
Creation Time: 24 hours
Thanks to www.obsidiandawn.com/category/… for their “Animal Prints” and “Clouds and Mist” brushes.