A Monster for Every Season: Summer 2
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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Default Southern Comfort Campaign recap

    One of my players in the PbP Southern Comfort Campaign has been tirelessly assembling our IC posts into a coherent narrative. Thought some more people than us might find it entertaining.
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    Prologue



    The morning was as clear as could be wished for. The sun was shining, the birds were singing like the silly young fools they were, the dew has not yet faded from the leaves. The mountains to the north shone like ivory. It was the last week of spring.
    Standing in the sacred grove of Whitewater Rip, which, against the urges of barbarian cliché, was actually a quite well-built, if largely wooden, and permanent town which would not disgrace a small trading town anywhere. Amongst the oaks and ashes were the carven images of the gods of the tribes people. Thor had a comradely arm on Loki's shoulder. Loki looked embarrassed. Sif was staring at the pair of them with the expression of one who's not going to say what she's thinking. In a well-meaning and totally misguided attempt at religious open-mindedness, images of the Imperial gods had been added to the grove. Odin and Fharlanghen appearred to be glaring at each other suspiciously, Wee Jas looked bored, and someone appearred to have recently used the image of Hextor as a urinal.
    Freya and Hel were absent from the grove. Their images guarded the north gate of the town with their signature longswords. Freya looked as though she hadn't had time to find a decent robe. Hel was presenting, as people who think they're funny say, her Good Side.
    The town was prosperous from trading with the Imperials to the north, and was an easy day’s travel to the mountainous, fjord-cut coast to the west. This was as close to civilization as the party had ever been. Their heads still a little fuzzy from the previous night's feasting, they awaited the arrival of the town's shaman to present the traditional farewell. Which usually took the form of "Are you STILL here?"
    ***
    Grath mostly stayed out of the way during the festivities of the night. Knowing his temper, he kept himself to only a gallon of freely flowing ale during the feasting. He awoke at dawn in his tent just outside of town and donned his clothing and armor. In a practiced manner he dropped his tent, folded and packed his gear, and prepared for the day. He wandered into the sacred grove, knelt at the feet of Kord, and waited for inspiration to see what the day would bring. Grath felt warm and got the feeling that Kord really liked it there. Then he heard a voice ring out behind him. It formed words.
    Grath, an orc with blued skin, stood nearly seven foot tall and weighed nearly three-hundred pounds, mostly muscle. He carried a great sword, axe, daggers and a shortbow and managed to carry his belongings in a bag on his back as well. His chain shirt hung over his body as the only protection he had in a fight.
    ***
    Marn Ortul stayed out of most of the festivities, sticking to water to drink and eating his fill but avoiding social situations as best he could. Marn was six foot tall and slender, his hair red and eyes green. He carried a light crossbow, a backpack and no armor, which was strange for the lands he came from. He took a walk around town to see what was going on in the aftermath and see who or what he would encounter. The town was collectively still nursing its hangover for the most part, but some citizens were up early and preparing for the day’s more family-friendly celebrations. Today was officially the day the Whitewater stopped becoming a roaring torrent of meltwater and became a broad highway to and from the north, and citizens were looking forward to traders so they could get rid of all that useless gold dust and amber and gems and valuable hides and junk to buy something useful.
    Some maidens, young women, girls and adolescent females of various races were chattering together in the town square. Occasionally they practiced dance steps, wearing neck to knee-length dresses somewhat rudely dyed with wode and plant juices. Next to them, some men were assembling a wooden platform while trying to make as little noise as possible.
    ***
    Horbin, had partaken in the drinks and food as well as any other had. He could hold his own but did get rather sloppy in the late hours. His hangover pushing him to hate the morning he would look around at the others with a blurry haze. A six-foot tall, black-skinned, white haired woman wearing clothing apparently looted from every battlefield in the last forty years stepped by and shouted something at the halfling lying on the ground. He didn’t really register what she said, he just knew it hurt.
    ***
    Lying down in the grove and looking up at the sky Gregor was contemplating about past and future activities in addition to his main current activity of lying down enjoying the place, the weather and all that, with his dogs doing mainly the same. Most of the previous night's party time Gregor considered well-spent, especially the time spent ogling, winking and otherwise making passes at Delphi, but pissing on that Hextor... with all of the dogs following the lead... well, he would agree that was a bit too much and hoped no one would fix onto the issue.
    Gregor was a Halfling at just above four foot tall with brown hair and eyes. He wore studded leather armor and carried a multitude of weapons. He also frequently smelled of dog, as one would when they travel in that company.
    "Well, I'm glad one of you has some sense to get some proper rest before the big adventure," said a voice like a scourge hitting chain mail, "some of you have already wandered off. Well, we'll start the moot without them." The voice apparently belonged to a tall, dark-skinned woman, elderly but still quite spry, dressed like a vengeful ghost and casually bearing a shortbow.
    He was not so full of admiration with the setting that he didn’t recognize the town's head shaman, of the spirit variety. Her name was Olga or Ilga or something like that.
    ***
    The sun shined upon the sleeping brow of mighty Korgoth causing him to stir from his dreams. Opening his eyes he soon realized that he could not move either of his arms, and as he looked to both sides, discovered that two women lay atop of his arms. He smiled to himself thinking, ‘Ah, last night was a feast to remember, praise Thor in all of his splendor and glory! Hey one of them even has all of her teeth, truly an auspicious and kingly gift granted by Thor!’
    Still groggy from the massive intake of mead, Korgoth tried to ponder a solution to release him from his situation. Amidst his thinking he remembered that he hadn't seen Skuz yet and so using his limited vision he searched for his companion. Luckily the party animal was passed out just slightly over to the side. Korgoth recollected his friend also getting drunk and also him giving a piggy back ride to Skuz... wow what a party. Not wanting to disturb the lovely sleeping damsels, Korgoth spat out a mighty loogy that raced out and struck its target. Skuz stired and looked up irritably to find Korgoth motioning him over with that thick skull of his.
    Skuz slowly got up and walked over to his friend to better evaluate the conundrum Korgoth had gotten himself into. The mule then proceeded to move to the lady on the left and gently nuzzle her arm which successfully caused her to roll over and away from Korgoth. With one of his massive arms free, Korgoth himself rolled the other one over carefully and soon freed his other arm. Standing up he felt a cool breeze on his body, thinking it odd he looked down and discovered he had no pants. Frowning, he tried to remember where they were but it was a futile attempt. As if reading his mind, Skuz walked away and came back, bearing the man's pants in his mouth as well as his tunic. Offering thanks to his most loyal companion, Korgoth dressed and exited the barn he was sleeping in.
    As he departed, one of the maidens sat up and yawned hugely, letting the blankets fall to her waist. In the light of the morning she definitely was a little orcish around the eyes and jaw, and chest, not that there was anything to complain about. She looked at him a little blearily.
    "Hey, you know to get to the sacred grove? Ingva Soulflayer wants to have a little chat with you and your party before you leave," she said to him.
    Korgoth winced as the maiden spoke after he tried to not so stealthly sneak away. Scratching his head he replied hurriedly, "Ugh... sure, I will get on that... definitely could have done better last night. Oh well, right Skuz?” Moving quickly he found his belongings and made his way to the grove, as he approached he heard "Do you have any questions so far?" and without giving much thought, he swaggered out into the open and proclaimed, "Yes I have a question, do you have breakfast ready because I am famished. I could also use a breakfast brewskie if you have one love." He gave a winning smile and hoped that the ghost hound found his antics charming or at the very least mildly amusing. As he waited for a reply he began to put on his armor.

    ***
    Grath, startled by the unexpected noise, quickly looked around without saying anything or moving. He was still trying to maintain a calm, cool demeanor in that town. He was used to prejudice based on his race. ‘I didn't hear anything approaching,’ he thought to himself. ‘I still need to maintain a low profile, people might be grumpy with their hangovers, last thing I want right now is an incident to occur.’
    Grath pushed aside the moist leaves and saw a tall, dark, white-haired woman dressed in shreds of armor and cloaks addressing, in a voice like mangled iron, the party gathered in the grove, which consisted of Gregor, Horbin, and himself, as far as he could see. He had the feeling that the others couldn’t be far.
    "Listen well, all of you. That includes the orc in the bushes, thank you. I am Ingva Soulflayer, the Ghost-hound of Whitewater, and I come to give you counsel and advice before your speedy departure. Here we stand in the north-west corner of the People's domain. To the north is the Empire, to the west the sea. Some of you have already travelled long from the south and the east, so I'm going to assume you're not heading in either of those directions." She spread her arms hieratically. "Any questions so far?"
    ***
    While Gregor did have a question of why the woman was telling the "news", he decided it would be for the better not to ask it instead he just lay where he was, expressing undeniable interest all over his face. The dogs seemed to listen too. "Thats a big woman," Horbin let out, "perhaps she could shut her trap!"
    The self-declared Soulflayer dipped into her haversack with a flick of her wrist and a slight rattle of bone on metal. She then threw Korgoth a travel ration and a wineskin, probably not containing wine. "For future reference, you should arm yourself more quickly on these mornings. Your longspear is suffering weapon shrinkage. Now," she sat cross legged between Baldur and Heironymous, who appearred to be ignoring each other.
    "As you might know, I got around a bit when I was younger. Also I travelled. To the south you might seek adventure, if you feel like fighting Orca to become kings and queens of the Penguin people. To the east there’s a thousand leagues of back-the-way-you-came to enter the steppes of the Dog People. No. They aren't called that because they ride dogs, are half-dog, or keep dogs. They're called that because they won't shut up, they smell, and they suffer from fleas. To the north of the steppes there's the Plateau of Yamigul, said to be Demon-Haunted. I have it on good authority the Demons resent this insinuation bitterly and avoid going near the place.
    If you head west, you come to the sea, before nightfall if you move quickly, and should be able to take passage on a trading dragonship. Maybe even charter one yourselves. If you do this, be wary not to stray too far into the western ocean. The Nicely-Painted Fleet of the Administrate patrols the outer ocean as far south as the polar ice, and is very particular about protecting their territory. Which they appear to define as anything they're looking at at the time. Do not under any circumstances stray within site of their towers. Landing on their soil would be...ill-advised."
    Korgoth smiled broadly at the mention of his 'longspear' and gingerly caught the trail ration and wine skin. He listened to the droning of the woman and he indulged himself in his morning meal. After finishing he looked up with a raised eyebrow, "Excuse me, do you have a point to this story or did you just bring us here to spin a yarn about your travelling days? As for getting around... that's a matter best kept to yourself milady. If you want us to randomly select where we go, then my vote is north or south. The dog people are rather mangy for my liking and there isn't a lot of women and mead at sea..."
    "Yammering on, Yamigul sounds like a good a place as any," Horbin said holding his head with one hand.
    Ingva pulled out a pipe while Korgoth spoke, stuffed it with something they hoped was tobacco, and lit it with a sudden flash of flame. She held it in her left hand, keeping the flame burning in her right. "Ah, the young Korgoth. Not Odin's Favored Soul, I see," she breathed through blue smoke. Her eyes narrowed as she leaned forward. "This is the bit where you get to ask questions."
    Grath stepped out of the bushes slowly and approached those gathered. "What can you tell us about the Empire? Grath's village did not speak of them. Grath only hear rumors and murmurs."
    Ingva nodded politely to Grath. "The Empire is a glorious tangled mess. There has not actually been an Emperor for two hundred seasons, and those for a thousand before that were wandering pretenders, adventurers and warlords who used a faintly justified title to put a bit of legitimacy to their reaving. Still, the states that make it up can stick together against the outside. The Republic threatens, and The Adminstrate...abides. We profit by providing convenient heroes. And not attracting attention. I sometimes wonder how long this can last. I've seen things, read things, talked to things-" she broke off smoking.
    If you're after local specifics, the Imperial State directly to the north of us is the Margravate of Ashdown. We have good relations. We give them gold and things they think precious, they give us strong steel and workmanship. They are also often at war with their other neighbors, so they have a constant demand for people who are good at bashing skulls. I was a cornet-captain in their military, at one point. If you go along the border to the east, things between The People and the Empire are not so...convivial." As she finished her speech, the flame in her right hand died.
    "So, no robbing of Ashdowners. Got that. How much do they pay to their mercs? Is not it better to work for their private employers,” Gregor questioned.
    Marn stepped out from the behind the bushes where he had been listening to the conversation. "I'm not picky as to where we go, I'm just exploring the world that is open to me, I'm here for the journey not the destination."
    Korgoth shook his head, "Either you're hard of hearing or just dense. I did ask a question to which you didn't respond. You are right, I do not serve the one eyed god but my god is just as wise and noble as any other. If you insult him again you will be treading on dangerous ground. My question was a simple one, you called us here, what was your purpose other than wasting our time?"
    "Hey, you! More respect to Shaman! I mean it," Gregor shouted in response to Korgoth. Gregor stood up and his dogs followed suit.
    "Ashdown's standard rates, in my time, weren't anything to write home about. Although they gave you fifty percent on looted items which was where all the money is. And proper military support as long as you swallowed their line of duty-and-honor-and-tactical-co-ordination-and never give the enemy a sporting-chance aesthetic. They were reliable. Almost tediously so. They still send me fifty-one gold pieces and a masterwork dagger every third summer.
    Private employers, well, up to your own judgment there. You can catch a windfall job, or you can get suckered into a death-trap for a fee they won't even honor. Or, you can find yourself tools of some plot. I do fear sometimes that there are certain people out there that find us somewhat predictable.” Ingva stood up and put out a still flaming hand while breathing on her pipe, mismatched bits of torn martial array jingling. "Sacred Grove, fellows. I don't work through the gods, but I won't dishonor the house of my hosts. If Korgoth sees no value in my presence or words, that is his choice."
    Dardiana sat down on the grass, her head still a bit fuzzy from the drinking that she had done. It hadn't been much, as she always watched how much she drank, but it had been a decent amount. She spoke up, "I really don't care where we go. I'm fine with anywhere, as long as it's not back home." Dardiana was a elven woman with purple eyes and black grey hair. She wore studded leather armor and carried a dagger and back pack.
    Ingva took the pipe out of her mouth and gave Dardiana a look at the last words out of her mouth, but seemed to decide to say nothing. "Well, then, my people," she turned to the north and held her pipe out to that direction. "The Imperial way, if you want, goes through the valley of the Whitewater. At this time of year it is as good as a highway, at others, it's a roaring death trap or frozen, treacherous ice. The river cuts right through the mountains. The mountains themselves are dangerous even in the height of summer. Once through the gorges, it remains Our People's territory until it reaches the conflux with the Stahlmund, which marks Imperial territory. Or, maybe I should say, Ashdown.
    The land south of the mountains and north of the Stahlmund is technically ours, although it is damned difficult for us to get to for much of the year. Ashdown does not persistently intrude upon it. It is called Redside and is a no-mans land. The nearest Imperial town is two days from here. It is called Ethandun and can be reached easily by following the Whitewater, then the Stahlmund. Further questions that deserve an answer?"
    "A cure for the hangover," Horbin chimed in before hefting his oversized blade onto his shoulder.
    "Ice water" says Soulflayer. "If that doesn't work, then a steam-bath, then a flogging with birch-twigs, then then ice-water."
    Grath hesitated, then blurted out, "Will Grath be ... welcome at Ashdown? Grath is not often welcomed."
    Ingva Soulflayer turned around breathing out smoke, and answered. "I fail to see why. I have known monsters, young Orc, and I don't think you are one. Maintain this level of behavior and I don't think Ashdown will care.”
    “And if they do, just give them a, 'I will eat you' look and they should leave you alone," Horbin added.
    Korgoth looked to the massive orc with an appraising eye, he was big and would more than likely be useful down the road. He offered a grin, "No worries Grath, your in company with one of the finest smooth talkers in the land, stick with me and your bed will never be cold again!" Ingva Soulflayer took the pipe out of her mouth. She looked at Korgoth, looked at Grath, the looked at Korgoth again. Then she apparently decided whatever she was going to say would be much too easy and chomped down on scrimshaw.
    Gregor sat back on the grass, not unlike as if struck, and tried his best to keep a poker face as Ingva collected her fallen down jaw. "I guess I'll start with Ashdown military. It should be good to know their ways and get their training, at the very least. While I am not a big fan of duty and discipline, having proper support and reliable guys around is a great deal. Boys, girls... who's going north with me?"
    "Seems like a good start to me," Horbin replied. “Name's Horbin, this is Glenda," he continued as he readjusted the sword on his shoulder.
    Korgoth shrugged "I'm fine with it, it's better than east or west but careful those imperials have stiff necks I hear." He lifted his hammer and rested it on his shoulder then proceeded to walk back to collect the remainder of his property.
    "Well, young people, it's good to see you are thinking about this,” Ingva exhaled blue smoke. "Unless there's any further questions, from the young ladies perhaps? If not, I had best be on my way. Town to run, patrols to arrange, people to shout at. We are expecting traders soon."
    "Gregor McAlister," pointing at the dogs, starting with big one, which is fully equipped with a halfling-sized saddle, bags and leather barding, "Abyss, Barry and Cherry." The dogs lazily wagged their tails. "Hey, Horbin, they seem to like you!"
    Marn walked up and gave the dogs a pat on the head. "I've always loved animals... I think this will be a fun adventure. By the way, it's a pleasure to meet you all."
    There is a rustling of bushes, and a slight halfling in hunting leathers burst out of one side of the clearing, with leaves in her hair and bloodshot eyes. She seemed to have dressed herself rather haphazardly, and a variety of weapons were precariously attached to her hips, back, and bandolier. "Wait wait wait! Can anyone tell me what's going on? I woke up in a barn, sore absolutely everywhere, smelling of animals, and you're all gone. I managed to follow the bellowing noises here, and now here I am." She spoke quickly and it seemed that she may still be a bit tipsy; not unusual, of course, considering both her size and the extremely late hour at which she stopped drinking.
    The halfling took a moment to gather her thoughts, during which she noticed the shaman. "Oh, right. Hi there. My name's Delphi, Delphi Fallios, master tracker and ranger, and mercenary." She grinned broadly, and it looked good on her. "Well, I'm still working on the "master" part of it. So, where are you all going? I came late to the party, so you can fill me in on the details later."
    Delphi is a young, agile halfling. She wears well-worn, comfortable woodsman's gear, her brown hair tied back in a simple tail and her gear mottled and camouflaged to suit the forest. She bears a number of weapons. Delphi has dark hair and leaf-green eyes, and when she smiles it lights up the room.
    "Somewhere north. I'll explain later. I'm Dardiana, by the way." The elf shook her head at Ingva's question. "I have no questions. Thank you and good luck with everything." She turned back towards Delphi and let out a sigh. "I'm glad you're coming. There were too many men, not enough females before."
    "Well, then," Ingva stepped forward with a jingle of mismatched mithral mail against bronze dastana, notched spaulders, and black iron gorget. She shifted the scrimshaw pipe to her flaming hand and passed a scroll to, after a moment of looking around the party, Gregor. "Here is a blank piece of parchment. Which is astrally linked to a scroll in my quarters," she said. "It shall at some point become a world map, when I've had time to scribe one. I was never quick or clever at that sort of thing. But I've been around. I shall be able to alter it as things go on and if I should need to send you a message, it shall serve as that as well.
    Go with bravery and wisdom. Remember you carry our name wherever you go. Even if it is unimaginative. And try not to get into a fight with any teenage Administrate Tourist in a dark basement. The gods speed you well, and all that." She turns, and walks off torwards the town square, giving Nerull an old-fashioned look as she goes.


    "Girls, boys, Grath welcomes. Grath is not sure what happened, but all go north soon? North sounds nice, no prejudice there. Is danger north? Grath takes care of danger." Grath doesn't look in Korgoth's direction
    Last edited by Marlowe; 2013-12-08 at 12:41 PM. Reason: title apparently inadequate

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 1
    Trail of Blood


    The party departed the town by the north gate, Freya on their left hand, Hel upon their right. To the north the mountains known as the Godspine rise in an almost sheer wall of granite, cut with a vicious cleft through which flows the Whitewater. It is called Starlight's Razor, for some reason.
    The river was almost at a trickle, broad and swift, but very shallow with the snowmelt of spring having subsided. Much of the water had receded from the bed, leaving the river flowing in winding, cross-connecting braids. The bed and banks were made of white, metamorphic stone worn smooth by the floods of autumn and spring. Their feet made loud crunching sounds as they proceed.
    As they entered the Razor, the walls towered up to a frightening height, blocking out the morning sun. The sound of boots on stone echoed before and behind them. In the blue strip of sky above them between the granite cliffs, hawks were circling.
    Korgoth took the lead bellowing out a loud drinking song and his donkey even accompanied him at times during the chorus. He preferred walking it basically forced him to stay sober or sobered him up if he decided to dip into the mead early. The others seemed shaky or sullen, so Korgoth thought he would cheer up the group with a song it, was unfortunate that no one else sang along, though they were from different tribes. He stared at the scenery dully, not overly caring about his surroundings. People interested him because inanimate objects didn't do much of interest. As Korgoth looked around at the walls of the canyon he noticed that the cliffs had a smooth, half-melted look.
    Horbin will moved to take up next to Korgoth in the lead. Grath adjusted the heavy pack on his back and walked near the end of the party. He had his sword sheathed, but his bow was in hand, arrow notched but not drawn back. He looked a little nervous, his eyes and head darted too and fro as he tried to watch everywhere and everyone at once, it seemed.
    Gregor was riding on Abyss, carrying his lance, rested on a stirrup and wishing there would be better ways of carrying a lance. Delphi was invited to ride with him, allegedly to speed up party movement. With a generally relaxed attitude, Gregor enjoys the ride, the company, and the nature, doing his job of moving up into the front ranks and being aware of surroundings in some consistent manner.
    Delphi gladly accepted the offer to ride atop the bulky riding dog, and she seemed excited to have the chance, scratching the powerful animal's ears with great enthusiasm. The big dog initially attempted to play the same, ‘I am demonstratively ignoring such a familiarity,’ attitude as it did with Marn Ortul before, but soon gives up and is visibly enjoying the scratching.
    Delphi kept her scout's eyes and ears perked up and attentive, but otherwise she enjoyed the chance to get off of her feet. She occasionally muttered off-color jokes to Gregor in Halfling, occasionally poking lighthearted fun at the ranger and his beasts.
    The smaller dogs generally moved ahead, to the sides or wherever they decided was more interesting. Since the dogs considered the canyon itself rather uninteresting and seldom delayed to investigate the things they liked to do in forests. Most of the time they are thirty to a hundred feet ahead of the group.
    "Anyone know any songs that can be sung quietly, in case someone comes along to take our heads," Horbin asked with a smile.
    Grath shook his head and simply said, "No."
    Dardiana walked near the back, not at the back in case of an assault from behind. Marn stuck near the back of the group, he didn’t trust humanoids very much after the way he was treated growing up. He basically fell into the same condition as the others, admiring the scenery. Marn noted to himself that the canyon seemed to have had a very powerful evocation spell pushed through it with little regards to the lasting effects. Fortunately, it looked like it happened a long time ago. As he thought about it, the land around Whitewater Rip did have a reclaimed lakebed feel to it.
    Shortly after noon, Gregor's dogs started barking up ahead, and a flight of ravens, and hawks took off into the sky in a flutter of unnecessary gothic imagery. There was a brown hump on the riverbed, like a large, possibly dead, animal, from which the kites flew. Gregor let Delphi walk for a while and rode forward, ready to charge any sort of large predator or whatever might pose a danger to his dogs with the intent to eventually examine whatever is there and ride a bit past it.
    "Dead stuff up ahead," Horbin called to the others.
    Korgoth lowered his voice to a gentle hum as he drew his warhammer, his spirits were high and he was hoping for some type of scrap. He was a reasonable man that usually used more diplomatic means to solve problems, but he always felt true joy at more 'aggressive diplomatic solutions' where his hammer did the talking. He generally ignored any negative comments directed toward him, but he stored away the odd image of the hills for later discussion. The brown hump on the bank separated from the surrounding of rock and resolved into a mule, lying on its side. Its mouth was flecked with red foam. There was a packsaddle on its back and two red-feathered arrows in its side.
    Grath allowed others to investigate the animal, maintaining his position. He lifted and drew the bow, looking around him intently for any danger. As Grath looked around it seemed like the cliffs were beginning to lower where they were. He thought they were reaching the end of the Razor. Korgoth examined the mule to determine how long it had been dead, to determine whether or not the party was still in danger and whether or not the meat was still fresh for eating. The blood trail on the white quartzite riverbed lead north from where the mule laid. Ravens were screaming overhead.
    The mule, notwithstanding the efforts of the carrion-fowl, was not, in fact, dead. It was still breathing shallowly. As Korgoth watched, fresh tinctures of red bleed into the foam around its mouth and nostrils. Gregor rode up two-hundred feet past the corpse, checking for any dangers anywhere and taking note at what the dogs were barking at. Then Gregor could determine that the mule's blood trail extended quite a bit to the north, beyond his present sight, and also that the cliffs were starting to give way to lower, more accessible slopes. Horbin looked in the direction the arrows appeared to have come from and then scanned around. He could see a massive, towering, but not immediately, threatening cliff of rock. Aside from the birds overhead, it was pretty quiet.
    Marn started to examine the pack and its wares for clues. The packsaddle contained a large quantity of dyed fabrics, silks, cotton, and linen. There were about twenty-four gold worth of coins with an eagle on one side and a head on the other stamped "Ashdown Markgrafen", a smattering of smaller copper pieces, and a black, leather-bound book bound with a red ribbon and a simple clasp in a copper alloy showing a scythe crossed with a lightning bolt. The mule wheezed through punctured lungs.
    Delphi rushed to the mule's side as soon as she spotted it, and she knelt down, and brushed its ears gently. "There now, hard worker. There now," her voice was soft and sad, a stark reversal from her previous demeanor. "Can anyone heal," she looked to the others, worried and afraid for the poor animal. She took out a small vial, filled with a gleaming pinkish-white liquid. "This stuff is expensive, but a life is worth more."
    Korgoth waved at Delphi, “I can help him without using that.” Korgoth did his best to patch the wound of the mule and take out the arrows.
    After a short time Gregor rode back. "Whoever shot this animal did it quite a way north of here. I guess we should try to keep it alive if able, then check what has happened. Robbing robbers might be a good business, right?"
    Dardiana had stayed quiet when they found the mule and, seeing her group handle things there, eventually said, "I'm going to go up the walls and see if I can see anything better from above." With that, she began to climb the walls like a spider, going up them quite easily unless.
    "Whoa! You see that," Gregor said surprised at how Dardiana climbed the cliff.
    "Looks like it was a merchants mule, the pack is filled with dyed fabrics mostly...some coins..." Marn spoke. He then pulled the leather bound book out of the pack and stepped away from the mule into an open space, set it down and began casting a spell.
    "Ingva said a merchant was coming in. Mule belonged that merchant, bet," Grath said as he still scanned for any danger in all directions, including behind.
    Delphi and Gregor were intently watching the mule until it coughed up blood, then staggered to its feet. To restore the indignity the crows had done to its eyes required magic. The mule licked Delphi across the face in gratitude.
    Marn detected a roil of differing varieties of magic about the book, but nothing strongly focused from it. Though he didn’t let on to its suspicious nature.
    Dardiana, from her perch in the cliffs, looked out recalling that this is the Starlight's Razor and it ends in a large, circular depression called the Fall of the Fourth Daughter, though no one explained why for some reason. As she looked around from the cliff top, to the north side of the Godspine, which was a lot gentler than the south. Only sharp ridges of rock descending to the north between dark vales of coniferous forest, instead of a blank wall of rock.
    She then turned north, to the Fall of the Fourth Daughter, it was a teardrop-shaped depression, oddly regular, at least a mile across. Its broad end faced north, suspiciously deeper than its southern end. The Whitewater, took advantage of a chance gap in the terrain and forced its way through the north side, before disappearing beyond. The depression was oddly lacking in trees and there was not enough soil. It appeared that something drove a fist through the mountains and impacted with something about eight-hundred meters from where she was standing.
    Marn finished his divinations on the book then attempted to open it. Once open he began to read some of its contents;
    [Maeve put her back to the wall, her bodice heaving in a moonlit majesty of silk, leather, studs and perfumed, lubricative, oils. He could not find her here. He could not! Or else-
    The window to her left shattered in a convenient fashion, and through he stepped. His marble features glimmering in the torch light, the sparkles on his skin twinkling like stars.
    "No!", she screamed. While her heaving costumage whispered oh hell yes. "No, you can't! Just because we're not blood-siblings-"
    He tore the mask off with a jerk. "Beryl", he said. "This is just stupid! It's not working for me at all."]
    It continued in this way for the entire book. One fantasy involved the couple killing themselves in a pistol duel on a blasted heath over a disagreement about coffee. Another involved them poisoning each other over a hiccup in the mail system. Yet another ended with the phrase "here's your handkerchief, Othello!"
    Marn looked up obviously confused about the book but decided to hold onto it for awhile, and study it later, for there are more important things to do at that moment. He put the book in his bag and went back to the rest of the group.
    Korgoth frowned at the poor creature. “Such a noble beast should not be left here to die, you shall make a fine companion for Skuz... Now are you female,” he said to the mule. As he worked his fingers he said sacred words of power and a pattern formed in his mind that his fingers unconsciously began tracing. Warmth flooded through Korgoth and light flared from his body. The light and warmth moved from his core and flowed out from his hands, into the hurt mule. The mule’s eyes were restored and Korgoth was relieved.
    "So, what should we do? Try to find the merchant? or continue on our way,” Marn asked the others as he walked up.
    Delphi gave the mule a hug, which looked a bit ridiculous due to their difference in size. She then turned to the others, drawing out her sling and a smooth stone. "I have an archer to kill. You can go on if you want to, but I may be a while." Her mouth was set in an angry line and her eyes were filled with a fire they hadn't seen in her before. "I intend to leave him just alive enough to feel the crows, if I can manage it, which may take a while. I would appreciate any help I can get, though." Her voice was filled with a cold anger and they got the strong feeling that the little woman could and would do exactly as she said, despite her usually jovial nature.
    "I'll go with you, leaving an animal to die a slow agonizing death like that is just cruel, and someone needs to pay,” Marn replied.
    Dardiana climbed back down the wall and told the group what she saw and knew about the area.
    "Enemies cannot be behind us. Merchant cannot be behind us. Only one way to go, unless rather go back to Ingva," said Grath.
    Before them lay a blood trail over the white rock. Horbin followed the obvious trail to it's end. Korgoth, pleased with his work, announced, "Skuz come here and greet your new friend! Now don't be shy, now you can have someone to lay with at night. I suppose we have an animal shooter to hunt." They followed the blood trail down the Razor. The mule was obviously a tough beast, even bleeding a good rate and with a perforated lung it managed a decent distance.
    After an hour, the walls of the Razor finally gave way and they emerged into sunlight, at the southern end of the Fall of the Fourth Daughter. The Whitewater pooled into a small lake at the deeper northern end, then broke through a flaw in the rim of the Fall to flow on to meet the Stahlmund to the north. The blood trail continued to follow the Whitewater, leading towards the lake about half a mile away. There seemed to be a lot of birds wheeling over the lake today, for some reason.
    Grath peered down at the lake from his position near the tail of the party. Keeping his bow ready, he said, "Shall all go down? More bird mean more bodies, yes?" Nodding at Korgoth he asks, "Can bring back from dead others?" Grath saw that there were seven black, unmoving shapes by the shores of the lake, birds clustering around them. They stood out really well against the quartzite and gabbros. "Grath sees seven still shapes lying on the white rocks, with birds all around. Danger is very close now."
    Korgoth heard the words of the orc and sadly shook his head, "Nay, I have yet to be granted that kind of power by Thor, it requires a heavy price to bring back someone from the dead. Aye we should use caution I don't like the smell of this place, perhaps we should take a look around in the surrounding area before approaching the lake?"
    "Something tells me there is more death to come," Horbin said as he looked at the birds overhead. "Let us advance as a group but everyone keep your eyes peeled."
    Gregor stopped and took his time looking at the lake, the area around the lake, the area around the area around the lake. He generally tried to guess what could have happened and how to most safely approach whoever made it happen. Gregor could tell the area was a teardrop shaped crater about a mile across. The floor was largely devoid of topsoil and supported only some scrubby plants. The rim of the crater, on all sides bar the northern breach through which flows the Whitewater and, to the south, the Razor from which you've come, was fused stone slightly elevated above the dark, surrounding forest. The Lake of the Whitewater would provide a convenient water source but it also cut down movement options.
    He feels he wouldn't camp there, it's a perfect place for an ambush. The rim of the crater made a perfect hiding spot for any ambush and it's a little large. They'd have some time of warning, but what would they do with it? He also noticed that the blood trail is more spread out here. The mule still had the strength or the terror to run.
    Marn began looking around see what he could, and also thought hard to try remembering anything he may have heard about the lake. Not a place to linger in was everyone's judgment. Of course, Whitewater Rip and Ashdown were at peace, so maybe people were a little more careless than might be considered normal. Also, bypassing the area would have, by the look of things, lead to wasting several hours moving through the surrounding forest.
    Gregor decided on what he thought was the best way to approach a place where he would camp if he were to set an ambush and proposed to go that way. He'd liked to either ambush the ambushers or see them from afar. Delphi moved about ten yards away from the main group, her sling out and her movements soft and quiet. She tried to think like an ambusher, imagining how she would slip through the low-lying cover and attack unsuspecting prey. She looked around the rim of the crater, attempting to spot anything moving.
    While the troupe crept along trying to stay hidden, nothing moved by the lake, except the wings of ravens. The only sound was the rustle of leaves in the wind and cries of the ravens which were barely audible from where they were. The lake abutted the crater rim very close on the west side, so the way around was to the east of the lake. Unsurprisingly, that's where the shapes were still and the birds were circling.
    "I doubt it now, but they may still be alive," Horbin said as he started toward the figures.
    "Wait, Horbin. Whoever is there, they'll wait a bit more. I guess we take a bit east, moving on the outer side of the rim with Dardiana and Delphi leading the way. I do not want to get to the position of ambushee before I visit the position of ambusher. Let's play it safe," Gregor said to the fighter.
    Grath pointed toward the forest and whispered quietly, "Grath can't help hurt creatures like Korgoth can anyway, but can fight ambushers who want to kill."
    The worked their way around the rim taking a while, but it all seemed quiet and it’s good to be cautious. The trees there were the same as south of the mountains, tall, brown, and spiky.
    They worked their way around the rim of the fall until they approached the north-eastern "corner". Then, they saw bloodstains and drag marks across their path. The tracks of men and mules. They also found a copy of "Half-Orcettes Half-Dressed" monthly. Which somebody appeared to have left there. Grath couldn’t read, but noticed there was a picture on the cover and he picked it up without thinking through the situation. Upon opening it, it was rather graphic. The "Half-dressed" part of the title was technically accurate.
    Grath was very embarrassed at seeing the graphic imagery, snapped it closed, and put it away in his pack for later review. He muttered, "I always wondered what the fuss was about. I'm starting to get an idea."
    Gregor wanted first to check possible observation points that ambushers might leave on the ridge, then he followed the trail. Delphi did mostly of stealth mode while Gregor rode at a recommended distance behind and to the side. He did not ride directly on the trail as long as the trail was obvious to the others.
    "Mind if I see what’s there," Horbin questioned Gregor as he gestured to the 'site'.
    Dardiana sighs and says, "I'm going to check what's down there." She then proceeds to do exactly as she said with Horbin in tow.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 2
    An Ambush



    At the "site" on the shore of the lake they found a dead mule with no packsaddle and a dead human female, with arrow and slashing wounds. Her had dark skin and looked a little like Ingva's by-blow daughter. She also had tattoos up both arms and no weapons, even in the shortspear quiver on her back. A half-orc man with blonde hair lay murdered on the stone nearby. He had an old scar over his left eye and was still gripping his great axe. Both wore mail shirts and a bronze gorget bearing the words "REICH CAVARANIENSTAFFL.” An older human with a full beard and expensive clothing laid out on the hot stone. His fingers showed signs of having his rings pulled free and a dagger was still clutched in his other hand.
    Two more humans in leather armor and red cloaks were littered about, both holding short swords with discarded shields nearby. One had a cut splitting his head apart, plus multiple bite marks as if from small animals. The other looked like he got a critical eldritch blast to the face, after getting chewed on by small animals.
    The last body they found belonged to a half-elven female in leather armor and red cloak. She was lying a bit apart from the others, like she was sniping from the rim. She had a shortbow, but he quiver was empty. She obviously suffered a short spear to the gut. Ravens still picked at the carrion and continued to squawk.
    Marn approached cautiously, keeping an eye on his surroundings and began searching the area for any missed loot or clues. Dardiana went to each corpse in turn and looked them over. When she was done with that, she spoke up, "There was a battle here. Redcloaks versus the merchant and his guards, most likely. The older male would most likely be the trader." She looked around, trying to find the tracks of more men having moved around this place. On a closer inspection, she noticed an odd pattern to things. Some things of value had been looted and others, like the mail shirts of the guards, not.
    She did find an amulet behind a rock. It took the form of twelve snakes curving counter-clockwise outward from a central hub, which itself took the form of a vertical-pupil eye. The whole amulet had the look of copper, but the iris of the eye was set with some kind of greenish stone. It was bound by a fine chain of steel links.
    Dardiana went back to the corpses and checked the valuable items that were left behind, particularly, what the general weight of the valuable items left behind was. The merchant's clothes might have been worth a bit and his dagger was masterwork. As was the half-orc guard’s battleaxe. Then there were the mail shirts of average quality and some short spears lying around. The heavy stuff was left while the lighter stuff was taken. The Ambushers didn't collect the weapons of their own fallen.
    Everyone, even in the thin soil of the Fall, could spot the bloodstains, drag-marks, hoof-prints, and footprints leading to the north-east, past Gregor's position. Grath, who stayed above the "crater," followed the blood stains, toward the woods, or away from the crater, at least. He didn’t go too far, maybe fifty feet or so to the edge of the woods. He was trying to move slowly and silently, but was ready to shout for help if he was attacked and still had his bow ready and knocked. The trail leaving the ambush was fairly obvious, and included drag marks, but Grath didn't have the knowledge to put it all together.
    Korgoth kept a weary eye with a weapon drawn. His instincts were screaming at him to leave that place but he was torn because he believed the dead deserved a proper send off. With stern resolution he spoke to the crowd, "We should not leave these bodies to the ravens, we should build a pyre so they may go to Valhalla with all of their possessions!"
    Grath returned from his short expedition. "Let the dead bury the dead. Dead need nothing, possessions are for the living. Grath see nothing near, but let all follow trail and kill enemies."
    Dardiana took the merchant's dagger. "Exactly as you said,” she addressed Grath. “He won't need this. And we'll bury or burn them after the guilty have fallen. That is, unless, we want to announce our presence."
    “Animals need to eat too, we have no right to deny them their feast, leave them,” Marn added in.
    Keeping his watch on the rim and watching both directions, Gregor noticed there were quite an amount of heavy trophies left and that generally these redcloaks screwed up heavily, losing three of their own. ‘Good for us,’ he thought. "Grath is right, I guess we better pack the stuff on our mules before it gets taken by some other band of passers-by. The chase could take some time, but we better not waste our time dealing with the bodies. Maybe on our way back. Check the lake, just in case, search the bodies real good, pack, and let's go," Gregor chimed in with definitive resolve.
    Gregor and Delphi could see that there were some patches of sand next to the lake where they found the trail left by the caravan as it entered the Fall from the north. At that point it consisted of four mules and five humanoids. The much messier trail leaving the scene to the north east had the markings of two mules much more heavily loaded, two dragged bodies or objects, and six humanoids. It appeared to be aiming for the end of the first mountain spur to the east.
    Korgoth fowns and is saddened by the lack of respect for the dead, "I told you to LEAVE their possessions, if any of you steal there weapons or armor you will deal with ME. Take the perishables and money but leave their equipment." Narrowing his eyes, Korgoth looked angrily at the halfling.
    Dardiana glared at Korgoth as she took the sheath from the merchant and put it at her own waist. "Feel free to follow your own ideals, but the ideals of others should be up to them. Just like I won't push you until you take something, you shouldn't push us until we don't."
    The male halfling looked at Korgoth from the ridge. “I suggest you openly state you are not joining Ashdown or any other of this world's military. Also, I suggest you not attempt to hurt anyone, or we, indeed, might deal with you. In that case, I'll try to make sure you'll live," Gregor responds to the man’s threat.
    Korgoth glared around, looking for a moment like he was tensed to attack. Then turned, shouldered his hammer, and walked off without a word. Heading for the north, and Ethandun. As the party watched him disappear through the breach in the Fall rim, some of them thought they could hear the sound of hurried horse's hooves echoing down from Starlight's Razor.
    "So what’s the next move? If there was to be an ambush I'm sure we'd have heard something by now," Marn questioned.
    Delphi came back to the group, having lost patience with her shadowy stalking. She watched as Korgoth left, and she snorted quietly, "One down, before the raiders even show up? Well, maybe they'll see that as a sign of weakness and finally pounce." She shrugged then requested the saddle pack they had found with the mule, intent on searching it more carefully. She then spent a minute looking it over, careful to not miss a thing. The search confirmed Mart Ortul's story about bolts of dyed cloth.
    Delphi also made a search of the site to ensure they wouldn’t miss anything before moving on. Looking around, she did find the amulet behind the rock as well. She moved over to the rock, and she very carefully picked up a strange amulet. She lifted it, careful not to touch the actual face of the amulet. "This looks really expensive, or important. Or, you know, cursed. What do you all make of it? I don't, uh, have much education to speak of." She blushed a bit at her last statement, clearly embarrassed.
    "Grath did not see ambush either. Perhaps no ambush? Perhaps ambush ambushers? Ambushers not expect ambush! Also, write on paper and tell Ingva trader not coming and why!" Grath spoke enthusiastically, though they did not know if it was because he wasn’t getting ambushed or because he may be the one ambushing soon.
    "I'm afraid the paper Ingva gave me is one-way only, we cannot write on it for her to know. In case I get it wrong though..." Gregor took a small splinter, tipped it in one of redcloaks' blood and put a small mark on the map. "I am done checking the rim and it all seems to be deserted. Whoever did it, did not leave here any rearguard so they are probably marching to some distant site.” Based on general spore, discarded trail ration wrappers, and the remains of a campfire a little further into the forest to the north-east, Gregor surmised that the ambushes were at least ten in number, and were in position at least from the previous night.
    Gregor started searching all of the bodies for hidden pockets and such, evaluating everything that might be valuable. He then rinsed and packed the mail shirts, great axe, short spears and other valuables, not including the merchant’s pants and shirt, but possibly boots, belt etc. if of sufficient value. Gregor will end up packing six short spears, two short swords, a short bow, two mail shirts, three sets of leather armor, two heavy wooden shields and a buckler. He was also able to find seventeen gold, three silver and 6 copper pieces between them, and a length of string.
    He then dragged all the bodies next to each other and away from the road, covered them with red cloaks then suddenly stopped, looking at the large spot of red on white he had just assembled. "I wonder if these red cloaks should mean something. They are extremely non-practical for any sort of forest warfare."
    Upon seeing the amulet as Delphi held it aloft, Gregor responded. “Snakey, hmm...either it's magical or it's a symbol...or both. No idea what it could mean."
    "I already used my detect magic spell for the day but I'll see what I can tell from it, if you don't mind.” Marn then held out his hand for the amulet.
    Delphi offered it gladly, clearly not trusting the amulet. "It's odd, and it seems strange that the bandits or raiders or what have you would just leave it. I suppose they may not have noticed it, but it seemed to leap out at my eyes." She looked at the taller folk around her, and she smiled. "Then again, perspective accounts for a lot."
    Marn started to examine the amulet trying to determine if any of his lessons would help in identifying its nature. The amulet was definitely magical in nature. It was not made of any natural element he had seen before. It had the weight and color of copper, but none of the softness, as a sharp rap with a rock attested. The greenish, iridescent iris appeared to have been achieved using polished mollusk shell, cut to precision. The chain was finely-tooled steel of masterwork quality.
    As Gregor looked around at the ambush site he found a faint set of humanoid footprints that came around from the north side of the Fall and followed the departing trail. It looked like somebody with good dexterity trying to be cautious but with no woodscraft whatsoever. The tracks were light and quick, but whoever it is kept stepping in all the wrong places. It appeared to be somebody shadowing the departing ambush party rather than joining them.
    "Have got what is needed from here? Grath will carry whatever the mule cannot. Follow trail, or not? More stuff if find end of trail," Grath said as he looked almost bored.
    "Do you mind if I hold on to this for awhile? I'd like to run some more tests later,” Marn asked Delphi. And thinking about it, he pulled out the leather book and opened it again and cast Read Magic to see if anything became clear since he had detected magic before. The spell did not reveal any hidden information. However, the scythe and lightning-bolt clasp appeared to be the same alloy as the amulet.
    Grath took the masterwork great axe and helped to load the mule with the rest of the salvaged equipment. He also took a long look at the half-orc.
    Horbin silently took the length of string. "Well, looks like we best not be standing here when someone arrives, especially if they are lawmen," Horbin said plainly as he made a path to the wooded area.
    "I am not afraid of any lawmen, so far. But indeed, nothing to do here unless we want to waste some time. Speaking of which, I propose we hustle for an hour to catch up with cloaks' lead. This could be dangerous, but I guess they are farther away," Gregor addressed the group.
    With Gregor and Delphi leading the way, they moved at double speed through the forest along the trail of the ambushers. The lighter members of the party hitched rides at times on the back of the mules. Delphi's pet, though not in the best of health still, seemed quite keen to follow. In spite of its really bad day, it was still a strong animal, obviously well kept.
    It was obvious the two mules the raiders were driving were overloaded, and not helping their pace. After a short distance the two sets of drag marks vanished, but the mule prints became deeper and more labored. The lighter trail of the shadower winded along, almost invisible at times, but remained around the raiders’ main trail. The trail appeared to be heading for the end of the nearest of the jagged spurs reaching north from the Godspine. Near the end of their hustle they stepped around some rock and found themselves between the towering knife-edge of the spurs end and a deep, broad, swift river running from east to west. The redcloak's trail, having moved around the end of the spur, now turned south-east.
    They noticed at that point a body lying against a tree. He wore a red cloak and held no weapons, his body covered in small animal bites. Clutching at a bloody wound to its stomach seemed futile due to the somewhat more fatal, missing half of his head.
    "Looks like someone got angry," Horbin said as he looked at the man. At that point, from some bushes to their right, in the shadow of the rocky spur, they all heard the sound of somebody not moving silently.
    [SNAP] "frell..." in a woman’s voice rang out as the twig broke under foot.
    Delphi was moving before she consciously thought to do so, darting around the sound at a full sprint to get into a flanking position. She also wanted to see if she could spot the clumsy bigfolk before they had a chance to hide again. She saw the female human rising, with a disgusted expression, from the pitfall that a poorly chosen foothold had dumped her in. Her black-leather-with-brazen-studs armor, while it might be quite the thing for a very exclusive sort of party, was not well chosen for concealment around a lot of green and brown. Although at least she had found a green cloak from somewhere. Her skin tone reminded Delphi a little of Dardiana.
    Gregor guided his big dog forward and right, attempting to cut off the "silent"-mover from a route to escape. He dropped his lance and drew a javelin. The smaller dogs moved straight right, loosely following Delphi and barked, at first loud and active, then, just to make sure everyone was aware that they had barked. Gregor saw her about the same time as Delphi, she wasn't far off at all. She was rising stiffly and slowly to her feet, facing Delphi. Her eyes were downcast and she had a notable jaw, that was set very firmly.
    Grath drew and knocked an arrow, getting ready to loose it at a sign of danger. He growled, "Shut up, dogs! Too loud!" He peered around intently elsewhere looking for a threat, confident the group could handle one woman for the time being.
    The woman rose to full height, still moving slowly, and raised her head to Delphi. She had large, heavily-lidded, very cold eyes and her hands slowly moved to hang by either side. "You throw anything at me, pretty little she-hobbit, and I will do things to you that you may not be old enough to have heard done." She took a step back and to the side, giving Gregor a sidelong look, and crossed her arms over her chest gunbuster-style. "Well then, ladies and gentlemen,” her voice low and deep. "What happens next?"
    Delphi frowned at the vague insult, but she held her tongue and her sling until after the woman stopped speaking. The little scout moved a bit more, to put herself in a good position to give chase should the woman take off, before replying. "You could tell us who you are and what you're doing. We've just come across several bodies, and we're awfully interested in finding the people responsible."
    The woman closed her eyes to slits, her head back. "Bethlen Gabriel, textiles merchant, journeyman." She shifted her position, as if to keep both Gregor and Delphi in her field of vision. "I was heading up to Whitewater Rip to sell some silk and linen, and study Your People's dressmaking styles. Then circumstances altered. Now," her eyes opened a little, "I am looking at making more bodies. And rescuing Tharholt's thieving little whore of a daughter."
    "So what, you want to kill us? You think you, alone, a trader, can take out a group," Dardiana took a look around where the girl was, to see just how surrounded she was. "I think you might want to think again. You're surrounded and don't know what each of us is capable of." She walked back a bit, to a tree, and began to climb it while keeping her eyes on the girl. She leaned back and practically sat down on the tree's side. "So, who's this... Tharholt, hmm? And what was that about rescuing his daughter?"
    "Ladies, is this really necessary? I think we have similar interests, though she seems more skillful than her profession would give. Besides, this must be yours," Horbin tried to resolve the scuffle diplomatically as he gestured to the new beast of burden.
    "I said nothing of fighting you" she said, giving the word peculiar emphasis. “Although I suppose if you give me no option you could enforce my consent.” Her arms uncrossed, and returned to her sides. "Tharholt was a merchant, nice man, fought well. Should have worn armor. Currently feeding ravens on the fall. His daughter was accompanying him to learn his trade, although I fear she has acquired some rather different professional skills-" she broke off when she saw the animal. "Spike!" she said, much breathier than her tone up until that point. The mule wandered up and licked her across the face.
    "So, how far behind them are we now," Horbin asked Bethlen.
    She gave the mule a rub on the head. "Not long. I only waited until they were just out of earshot before finishing their friend, whom they had decided was slowing them down. Then I heard you coming, and waited to see what you were."
    Grath asked, "How far out of earshot, will hear thrice damned barking? Find secure spot to talk."
    "I doubt they are looking for another fight.", said Bethlen. "But I did hear them talking about ‘meeting up with the Trammelburgh look-out party’, if you find that cause to feel any urgency."
    Something with hooves neared behind them. They all heard the sound of hooves before they saw, atop a light horse, a heavily armored man riding. His face is rugged, and aside from the armor, he wore a large shield on his back and a heavy morningstar by his belt. After quickly taking in the scene, he slid off the horse inelegantly and sent it on its way with a hard slap over its back.
    "You must be Ingva's adventurers," he said matter-of-factly, with unexpected warmth in his voice that contrasted his hard appearance. "This is good. I'm here to join you. And I'm sorry if I'm late to the party, but I had business to take care of first." He looks around with a big smile on his face. "And what a party you've had. Hahah! So... who are we hunting?"
    "Six bandits or some such. Follow me...cancel, follow HER." Gregor pointed his javelin at Delphi. He then turned away from the insolent woman, took the javelin away, rode back to his lance to pick it up. Then he called the dogs, who immediately ceased barking and followed him along the trails. He then barked, in dogs' tongue, "Silent. Sniff. Stalk. Do as I do," to his furry companions.
    Grath looked at the approaching stranger. "Who this guy? How know Ingva? Grath not remember stranger. First Korgoth resurrect mule, then mule follow to dead guys, then Korgoth leave because could not raise dead any more, and mad no funeral pyre started. Hunting bandits. Maybe stranger bandit?"
    "I never saw a bandit who was so quick to give up a good horse," said the merchant, studying the newcomer without emotion. "Still, they are getting further away. And so is your impetuous friend and his My-Little-Wolfpack starter set. Shall we go? If you are not going to detain me, I am going anyway." She moved off, down the trail.
    Dardiana slid off the trunk of the tree and followed after the similarly-colored girl. It was the bandit's freedom to kill, but it was anyone else's freedom to hunt them down for the deed. Delphi continued scouting just ahead of the group, taking her direction from the others but relying on her own stealth and skill to remain unharmed. She took careful watch of the new woman; though she seemed innocent enough, looks could be extremely deceiving. And if the woman tried anything, she would find out exactly how deceiving Delphi's appearance truly was.
    Gregor followed the trail as it dropped downhill through forest and bush. Relieved of the need to let the others keep up, he made swift and silent movement. The redcloak's trail was a little less labored now, but they were still plainly stumbling about in the forest.

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  4. - Top - End - #4
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 3
    Surprise!

    "Bandit, you say," Thorwald said with a curious look, then looked around him as if searching for someone. "No bandit here, alive anyway." He stroked his beard quizzically then pointed into the forest. "Perhaps if we follow them, we can find the bandits and ask if they know any of us, hmm?” With that, Thorwald followed the others after the bandits' trail.
    Grath searched the body to see if Bethlen left anything of value on the corpse of the redcloak before following the group. As he moved along the trail, he put his bow away and pulled out his new axe. As he walked, he quietly played with the holy symbol hanging from his neck while scanning the area for any threats.
    Delphi took the lead of everyone behind Gregor, advancing quickly but cautiously. Somewhat to Delphi's annoyance Bethlen kept pace with her, plainly determined on annoying her. She was nimble for a bigfolk and had some stealth skills, but no actual forestry. Dardiana as well, was close behind the Delphi. The others, burdened by armor or being more cautious, followed behind amongst the mules.
    After less than half an hour, Gregor heard, a couple of hundred yards ahead, the sound of voices being raised in greetings, and then just raised. Gregor cursed silently, placed one javelin on the ground pointing in the direction of the sound, then took to the left to get around the bandits while they were still hollering and assumed a stationary position hidden, laying down in visual distance from their projected path.
    Gregor’s inching to the left around the voices brought him to the edge of the bush, and the rocky bed of a not inconsiderable stream. Looking to the right he could see a scattering of ten red-cloaked figures, four of them slightly darker-cloaked than the others, variously standing, sitting, and gesticulating on a rocky spit of land formed by a bend in the stream. The clearing was dominated by a large standing stone. He could also spot two mules and some kind of bundle on the ground in their midst.
    Voices were being raised in anger, but Gregor couldn’t make out the words. The main dispute, going by body language, seemed to be between a large human in a redcloak and an elf-sized person in maroon. The three other maroons were standing with their backs to him, backing up their fellow fashion victim. The other five redcloaks were just sitting around goofing off. He estimated the others were about five minutes behind him.
    ***
    Grath found that there was nothing of value, but he did recognize the ‘animal bites’ on the corpse as coming from the claws and beaks of birds, some of which would have been extremely painful if they'd hit soft bits.
    ***
    Gregor thought it looked as though the rest of the party would run straight into the redcloaks soon enough. The open stream-bed area where they were standing was no more than fifty feet across between stream and trees. Gregor tried to sneak a bit closer along the edge of the forest until he was within a hundred or so feet from nearest bandit. Then, after he was sure no one was looking his direction he moved roughly forty feet closer. After taking position Gregor waved his dogs to also sneak closer with Abyss stopping right next to him.
    ***
    The party was still descending downhill and became conscious of the stream below and to either side of them. They could hear the raised voices not too far ahead. Bethlen Gabriel, who had moved a little ahead thanks to her long human legs, stopped, lifted her head, and started to curl her lips back from her teeth, which were perfectly normal, by the way.
    "Grath wonder if other survivors than Bethlen and merchant daughter. On bright side, all foes dressed alike." Grath got his arms limbered up as he moved toward the voices, still trying to move quietly and remain unseen in the trees until he could see the enemy. Grath then pulled his bow back out before he moved near the front of the group, attempting to see the enemy so he could gauge the tactics he needed to use.
    Marn moved forward quietly, sticking to the back of the group as normal to try and get a look. He then tripped and fell on his face, but was still to far enough away that the enemy group didn’t pay any attention. The boss redcloak and one of the maroons, each armed with shortbows and shortspears, were arguing furiously. Horbin, Grath and Dardiana moved forward carefully. When Gregor saw his teammates approaching stepped back, leading the big dog to mount and moved forward.
    At this time Gregor was better able to listen to the argument between the maroon-cloaked person and the redcloak leader. The maroon appeared to have launched into a tirade.

    "...he told you do what? Ajneguhs told you to do WHAT? "Scout around and get to know the neighbors", not "knock over a caravan on the Fall". These people are not SHEEP. That flippitijibbit Vierzehn's got a company at Trammelburgh, and even if he is a fop I wouldn't want to face him on the flat or in the rough. Then there's that nightmare whore at Whitewater Rip. She could get a hundred striders down here tomorrow and YOU'D never see her coming. She's got enough witchery to get past Ajneguhs' little games as well, assuming they're actually his.
    And to top it off, you went and grabbed a girl. Very smart. How long do you think she's going to last? If we'd come along a half-hour later you scum would have had her bleeding out already. People remember, in these parts, when girls go missing. And who took them. And what to do with the latter. At least tell me you didn't leave any other survivors!"
    There was a bit of a mumble.
    "Oh, all Gods facepalm in our general direction...."
    Thorwald moved forward, a little behind Grath and to the side, morningstar and shield in hand. He listened intently for signs of the argument escalating. No reason for risking death, if they were about to do themselves in.
    Bethen slipped past Delphi with a fell look. She made an odd gesture with her hand, and said, as loudly as she had ever spoken yet, something that sounded like "Frenzied Murder". A sudden squall of black feathered wings, stabbing beaks, and hooked claws assailed the redcloaks around the boss. The boss started to bleed profusely and looked ill as he rushed to hid behind the large standing stone. The archer and swordsman that were standing next to him also scattered to flee the birds while dripping blood.
    "There's a time to reap and there's a time to sow," Thorwald whispered under his breath, a big vicious smile on his handsome face. He ran forward, clearing the trees, ready to blast the maroons as soon as he was within range. Delphi moved her sling to her offhand, taking out one of her javelins with a fluid motion as she darted through the trees, quietly and quickly, staying low and unassuming. She hurled the javelin at the nearest redcloak to her, hoping to strike swift and true and to remove some of the weaker threats from the fight swiftly. The Redcloak struck by Delphi's javelin staggered under the shrieking roil of raven's wings, but he hadn’t gone down, yet.
    Grath moved to the edge of the tree line. He shot his bow at the closest maroon-cloak, but the arrow flew wide. The maroon-cloaks looked around with mild interest. Dardiana followed Delphi through the trees and went in the other direction as her when they reached the edge. She took a moment to understand what was going on before lobbing an eldritch blast at the same target as Delphi. The redcloak swordsman fell, blasted to the ground by Dardiana's hit, and laid still. The Ravens were still shrieking. Just after the swordsman fell a javelin from Gregor thudded into the half-orc maroon-cloak that provoked a grunting curse.
    Marn began casting from his hiding spot in the woods. At the end of his spell a celestial badger appeared directly in front of an archer and it began attacking the redcloak. He then moved through the trees to Dardiana’s position. The badger’s attack caused the human woman in front of him to cringe in pain as its teeth buried in her thigh. Before any of numerous opponents could meaningfully react to his first javelin, Gregor threw another one at the same gal, staying behind the tree, just in case. Gregor's second javelin thudded into the maroon-cloak, she went down.
    After the surprise had eneded, Thorwald uttered an incantation and fired searing flames from his hands, trying to catch as many of the maroons as possible. He caught the group off guard as he rushed out of the trees with fire springing forth. Horbin gripped his blade and rushed through the trees, zigzagging his way toward the opening. With the growing number of combatants, the ‘boss’ rushed to hide behind the large standing stone and drew two short swords.
    One of the bleeding archers rushed to the stream’s edge trying to stem the blood, unsuccessfully. Another archer ran away from the melee and fired at Bethlen, his shot went wide. The archer close to the maroons moved closer to the stream and fired at Bethlen as well, who seemed to be a very hard target. At the passing arrows Bethlen flashed a dark smile. Dardiana climbed a bit higher in the tree, to make sure she was out of melee range. She then partially turned around and fired a blast at the closest archer. Her hit lightly singed the archer, distracting him from passing on some possible useful information to the maroons. The swordswomen took a swing at the badger, missing horribly.
    The maroons found themselves at a slight disadvantage because they didn’t know what Bethlen could do. The redcloaks knew, having met her on the Fall earlier that day, but they hadn't been eager to report that she chased them off in some confusion. So the Maroons focused their attention upon the large flaming man running at them. One of the maroons called out, “All right men, chap on fire. Fire rounds rapid.” As they all fired at Thorwald only one struck true as the others flew wide. He took the arrow with little notice and pushed through burning all before him.
    Bethlen moved up to the bundle on the ground which all who paid attention could tell was a human being. She made a familiar motion with her hand as she knelt beside the person struggling in the saddlebag. The swarm of squawking birds continued to attack the maroons and the archer that had gotten close to them. Delphi darted around the edge of the battle, attempting to keep up a barrage of unpleasantly spiky ordinance without putting herself into the line of fire. She weaved through the trees with practiced ease, and she just poked out of the tree line to make a rapid attack against one of the outlying bandits. The javelin whipped out, her aim true and clean, and struck the man firmly, dropping him to the ground bleeding uncontrollably.
    Grath entered into a whirling frenzy while screaming, “KORRRRRD!” as he charged up to the maroons. He cleaved two of them nearly in half with one swing of his greataxe. The rocks beneath them bathed in a river of red. He roars again with bloodlust, “KOOORRRRRD!!! I Have sent two gifts to your halls!!! Now, who is next?”
    The badger continued its onslaught causing the swordswoman to succumb to the damage. Horbin charged and missed the elven archer as he swung wide. The redcloak boss tried to stop his bleeding, futilely. Gregor charged on his dog toward the maroon-cloaks and launched another javelin into the fray.
    The ‘leader’ of the maroons looked at Grath and the bloody mess around him. “Percy,” he shouted in a cracked voice. “You killed my sone you blue bas-“ then Gregor’s javelin hit him in the side, silencing him. The man staggered but pulled his bow up for an attack. “-tard! Die,” the maroon finished as he let off a wide shot just past Grath.
    The archer that Horbin had missed side stepped and then fired at Bethlen, hit he in the arm and visibly barely damaged her. The badger magically disappears just as it had appeared. Horbin bolted past one of the mules to the standing stone and swung his blade into the redcloak boss. Though he was still frantically trying to staunch his wounds, he looked up at Horbin and remarked, "I surrendaaaaaarrgh." He didn't elaborate for some reason.
    Dardiana jumped down from the tree, letting go of it at last, and made her way to the rocky flats, where she charged up an eldritch blast and threw it at the archer that fired at Bethlen. The elven archer, hit by the blast said something that sounded rude, if she could have made it out. Bethlen produced a sickle from somewhere and slashed open the bundle, then pulled a ginger-haired Human girl out of it. Marn ran out onto the rocky shore near Horbin before hearing Grath shout.
    “Another offering for Kord,” Grath let out as he turned to the last maroon-cloaked man. His greataxe buried into the man’s chest, dropping him. At this moment Grath realized that the odd pressure on the haft he mistook for a design flaw was actually something more. It lifted as the man slid off the blade and into a pile on the rocks.
    The cleric of Loki charged the elven redcloak and smashed them to the ground with a well placed attack. Delphi advanced toward the last archer, standing on the bank near the stream and whipped her final javelin through the air. It found its mark with alarming speed and a barely audible whistle through the air. It pierced the archer’s throat and dropped him to the ground, bleeding profusely.
    The sun began descending to the west, filling the sky with redness that should have, but in defiance of poetry didn't quite, match the blood splattered on the white rocks. Bethlen's black-winged summonings, invocations, sendings, conjurings or whatever they were fluttered past her in a shrieking squall, ascending into the sky and scattering. She roughly heaved the ginger-haired girl upright, embraced her, and, with a certain mercurial flash, slapped her across the face. "Where is it," she growled.
    Grath, for a moment, heard a voice speaking Orcish in his head, "Thank you, friend. You have avenged me with my own steel."
    Spike the mule wandered out of the trees, looking like he regretted being left behind. Not sure if the team was in the mood to take prisoners, Gregor immediately began applying his mediocre medical skills to the fallen opponents. He attempted a time-critical task of keeping some alive, starting with whoever looked more promising in that regard. ‘After all, it's easier to kill a guy after you decide he is of no use than do it other way around,’ he thought to himself. Dardiana attempted to assist Gregor in keeping someone alive. The Elf redcloak archer and the Half-Orc maroon were the only ones they were able to keep alive. The Elf had a smashed jaw and wouldn't be talking much.
    Delphi glided forward to the bodies, her mouth set in a thin line and her hands moving swiftly, going over and through the belongings of each man on the ground. She was respectful but thorough, and she took special care to recollect her javelins, cleaning the blood and other fluids off of them by wiping them on the cloak of the man they struck. She tucked them away on her belt, as she returned to her slow and steady search of each man. "I'm going to take my time with this, guys," she muttered as she inspected for hidden pockets on a redcloak, "because it would be foolish to rush searching them only to miss something important. Feel free to help if you wish; I can still make mistakes."
    "Oh, all right. Then I'll scout around. By the way, did you pick up my javelin,” Gregor said after trying to keep would-be prisoners alive long enough to not rush a final decision about their fate. Gregor rode around and checked if the site was frequented and by whom.
    Delphi nodded and took a mismatched javelin from her belt, about to toss it to Gregor underhanded. She paused for a moment and with a raised eyebrow she took out one of her own throwing darts, holding the two next to each other, comparing their lengths. She looked at Gregor, grinning, and then tossed his weapon to him lightly before deliberately winking. She then returned to her work, as if nothing had happened.
    Horbin looked around. "Feel free to search," he said as he looked around. After each body was searched he moved the dead men into a pile.
    Marn also began to search the bodies from his end of the battlefield, taking his time. "We will need to make our camp soon, my spell reserve is almost exhausted for the day," he said as he systematically searched their belongings.
    Grath knelt, clasped his holy symbol with both hands, and muttered in orcish, "Thank you, Kord, for a battle safe from harm for me and mine. Escort my brother, who fell earlier, into the halls of glory, wherever they lie for him." He then cleaned his new axe, showing it the most respect possible for its assistance in the victory. He then assisted Horbin with the manual labor of dragging the dead into a pile, and then gathered wood for a campfire or pyre. Grath let the others search the dead, heal the wounded, or anything where he felt he would be a hindrance. After all the labors of the day were done, he pulled out his panpipes and played the Dirge of the Unmourned on his pipes.
    After listening to the haunting hymn, Delphi applauded very quietly and politely, the sound almost lost amidst the crickets and cicadas. She smiled at the large man, her eyes distant and wistful. "That was really beautiful, Grath. I had no idea you could play so well." She paused for a moment, working up her nerve, before continuing. "Do you think you could tell me about your god? I've never found one that truly suited me, but I want to know why you follow yours. I suspect knowing that will help me know you." During the performance Dardiana, watched Grath play and silently congratulated him, mentally.
    After having searched the downed foes some leather armor, short swords of varying quality and short bows were the most prolific items found. The redcloak leader had a note with a crudely sketched map attached. As Delphi lifted the pouch from the leader’s belt it provoked a reaction from Bethlen.
    Her conversation with the girl had been, "Where in the name of Blessed Silence is it you brainless, cotton-fingered little trull?
    "I-I dropped it on the Fall. When they attacked, and Hagen was hit. I-" the ginger-haired girl responded.
    "I bloody well know you dropped it. If these idiots," she gestures around at the fallen redcloaks, “had had it, and tried it on something very interesting would have happened. Why did you have to bloody well get captured? You've made me waste half the day getting you back instead of looking for the thing. What part of ‘don't you dare touch this’ was hard for you to under-". It was at this time she noticed Delphi lifting the purse. "Kresta, that looks like your fathers. Yours now, I suppose, unless these fine ladies and gentlemen have other opinions."
    The area was devoid of the traces of regular camping. The large standing stone was flat on one side, and the words "LINGER HERE" were inscribed near the broken top. The missing piece appeared to be lying next to the stone on its front.
    Delphi opened the note which read:
    "Grumio, I'm sick and tired of you and that pack of idiots you call a band skulking around the place messing everything up. I'm told you a dozen times now, those little tarts and cakes are spell components, not for midnight snacks.
    Get out and scout around. Get to know Redside. Don't take on anything you can't handle. Around here, that's pretty much everything. Don't attract attention. Avoid the Fall and Trammelburgh. Vesplin's little brood will keep an eye on the Ashdowners at that place for you. Don't worry about my defence. I have my two champions, and our mutual friend has lent me some help to make some other arrangements.
    Don't, for the love of not suffering an eternity of torment, let this fall into the wrong hands.”
    The letter was signed Ajneguhs. The map showed a location about two days travel from there, at the headwaters of the stream they stood beside. It lay a little to the south and a longer distance east at the head of a narrow mountain valley. The Fall and Trammelburgh, which appeared to be in the middle of the Stahlmund, were marked in red letters. Trammelburgh looked only a few hours to the north-east of where they were.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 4
    Cat Fight

    After scouting around Gregor returned to the site. "Nobody around, and it's not like they meet here often, which means this funny stone might be relatively fresh." Gregor examined the stone, trying to guess what natural, unnatural, physical or magical cause might have made it into its present state. He then knelt down and picked up a short bow from the spoils and a quiver of arrows. Gregor eventually sat down and examined the map and letter from the boss more closely, reading them at least thrice.
    "So, some hapless guys thinking too much of themselves? I'd say we would be happy to have their whole organization consisting of those, not a chance. Have to report to Ingva. Maybe it's worth checking Trammelburgh, but I would not like to repeat these guys' fate of grabbing too large a bear... Oh, and did you search the mules,” Gregor continued.
    Marn collected a thin paper book, from the assortment of gear, that had the title Half-Elves Half-Dressed and placed it quickly in his pack. He then went over and lifted up the stone on its face to see what the rest of the message might be.
    Dardiana looked over the gear and saw only one thing of interest, which would probably have been better given to someone else. "Does anyone want these gloves, or can I have them?"
    Delphi rubbed the back of her head, not wanting to cause conflict, but she held up a hand to Dardiana. "I'm little. That's normally a pretty good thing, but when it comes to using things it generally sucks. Everything here was made for you bigfolk, and I can't use a single piece of it. I also don't particularly care for their money; money is heavy when you're my size, and I don't have a lot of needs.
    Those gloves, however, reshaped to my size the minute I picked them off the big guy there. That's something special, and they're more or less the only thing there that really helps me out. Now, I don't want to cause an argument, but getting to use these gloves will help me put myself in harm's way for the rest of you guys; picking locks, finding traps, scouting, and having long-ranged arguments via thrown objects." Delphi raises her brow, questioning. "And if I bite it, which little scouts that mess with traps tend to do, you get the gloves. Is that reasonable?"
    Grath finally seemed to snap out of the trance his music had put him in and looked down at Delphi, the little woman half his size, then looked away, embarrassed. "Thanks, Grath seldom plays so well. Only time was after a battle like this one." He paused.
    "Lots of battles where Grath comes from. Strength is the only thing important. Strength of warriors to kill foes. Strength of hunters to kill prey and get meat. But also strength of fathers to beat their children. All fathers beat children in Grath's village. Stopped when big enough to stop it.
    Kord is strong, but not beating children strong. Beating children is wrong. Killing merchants is wrong. Grath does not always know or do right, but doesn't do wrong. And if Grath has anything to do with it, Grath will not let little Delphi die in trap."
    Dardiana looked to the gloves before handing them over to Delphi, a bit reluctantly. "Here, if they change size and shape, then until we find out what they are, you can have them. But when we do find out what they are, then we'll see. And I pretty much have the same situation as you, as a spellcaster, I don't need weapons and anything restricting enough can screw up my spells, so I don't need to buy weapons or armor, or even carry them around at all. And the priest of Kord is right, we won't let you bite the dust that easily.”
    Bethlen was apparently refocused on checking the two mules. "Overloaded and exhausted. Three loads crammed onto two animals. Plus Kresta. And their limp, languid friend back along the trail. They're not moving again today. Could cram some of their load onto Spike, but it's a matter of bulk there, rather than weight. Search the mules," she registered Gregor's comment with a pique in her voice. "Have you forgotten this property has an owner? And that she's sitting just over there shivering? A reward for you ladies and gentlemen is not out of the question, but-" she slapped Spike's packsaddle, "-somebody appears to have helped himself to my remaining liquid assets. Here's what I think we should do." She sats down, legs crossed and back to the stone.
    "Unless you fine ladies and gentlemen feel like turning bandit yourselves" she shoved the arrow in her arm through the wound and out with a faint gritting of teeth. There was not nearly as much blood as there should have been. "Kresta and myself need to get to Trammelburgh. It's not a large settlement, I know, but we can pick up a fresh mule, arrange some more guards, and give Kresta time to buck up her spirits. If you fine Ladies and Gentlemen would accompany us, I'm sure the Ashdown military would be pleased to make your acquaintances in such a fashion, rather than by hunting you down like dogs. They might even pay you for investigating this location indicated on the map. A bandit lair in Redside is a thorn in the side of the Empire and of Ashdown, not to Your People. I generally make it a policy to never do for free what I can get paid for. With certain exceptions," she gives Kresta a look.
    "For my part, I would quite like to meet this ‘Ajneguhs’, and exchange pleasantries. Kresta knows well enough how to do my business in Whitewater Rip. And I think she knows now not to cheat me." Her eyes fix on the ginger-haired girl again. "Correct?"
    Marn finally flipped the stone, which appeared to have been broken owing to simple ice expansion in a hairline crack. On the underside of the stone read; “NIXIES! DO NOT” in large letters, however, somebody, in between the first line and the second, had more hastily inscribed: "No. Not the little fairy book things. 8-foot tall carnivorous snaggletooth water monsters. If you must camp here, bring meat!" Dardiana looked over, interested in Marn’s activity and read the inscription. She then wondered what Nixies happened to be.
    "So, you say whatever these guys have loaded onto your mules is yours now? I don't think so. Whatever YOU have loaded onto your mules is yours and of that you are welcome to allocate a reward, of course; not necessary if you give up your share of the loot. If there is anything else on your mules, I'd like to see it before deciding its fate. No objections to the plan,” Gregor replied to Bethlen. “Marn, can you make a copy of papers we found and describe what we've done and what we're going to do. I'd like to send a note to Ingva."
    Gregor then searched the bodies for a good leather belt and sat near the stone crafting two dog-collars suited for message-passing.
    Bethlen looked at Gregor as though he was the silliest person she had ever met. "I didn't say it was mine. I said it was KRESTA's. Her father died over it. It's hers now. And if you plan on ‘disposing’ of it yourself, I hope Ashdown, or that person in Whitewhite Rip, gives you a clean cell and a quaint, well-built gibbet."
    "Err... I mean, both of you, all of you, your fathers, mothers, servants... whatever. If the bandits added there something of their own, like their food supplies, tents, things from their fallen colleagues and such - it was not yours to begin with. So I'm searching the mules...” Gregor replied.
    Dardiana recalled that she had heard of eight foot tall carnivorous snaggletooth water monsters, and that ‘Nixie’ is one word for them. They are sometimes placated by humanoid sacrifice or simply by red meat in general. She went over and stood near Bethlen, making a sort of arc between them in front of the stone, as one would do when there is a campfire, except she was standing. "Gregor has a point, being that anything that was previously yours stays yours, but anything that wasn't doesn't turn yours. They could have been using the mules to carry more things than they first had when they captured them. But you, Bethlen, did help us out, yet don't want any type of loot, I assume. Instead, anything that the bandits put into those saddles can be yours or Kresta's, to sell or do as you wish with it. But figuring this out can wait until later, particularly when we get to town. Now, on to more pressing matters; should we camp here or not? The sign says that Nixies appear around here, which could cause problems for us during the night."
    "Are you people DEAF," shouted Bethlen, her eyes opening full for the first time since they had met her. "I said nothing about any of it being mine. As to your second point; do you seriously believe these people were wandering around the forest with a load of iron kitchenware, armor components, dissembled light crossbows, steel tools and clothing dyes in search of some mules to hijack?"
    Dardiana stayed calm and crossed her arms as she looked down at the sitting figure. "So, you're telling me that it is impossible for the bandits to have grabbed one of their items, let's say a hammer, opened one of the saddlebags, and put the hammer in the bag?"
    "It is not impossible for a random magical accident on the other side of the world to suddenly turn you into an Alsatian with the mange. It would be very foolish of them, considering they were dealing with three mule-loads, a captive, and a wounded spread across two functional mules,” Bethlen responded.
    "Then what I said is perfectly fine. So anything that they put in there, that wasn't there when they got the mules, can be yours or Kresta's." Dardiana lowered her arms and walked over to the water, looking into it. "Now, about what I said before; what do you think? Risk it here with the nixies or move a bit more? If the mules are overloaded and can't move anymore right now, some of us could take some of the items off them for the trip further down."
    "That doesn't make any sense at all. And it's making my head hurt. You're saying that anything that wasn't there before they hit us, anything that isn't Kresta's property, is now hers? And you get to keep all the things that are?" Bethlen seemed to be visibly agitated by the argument. Her eyes then closed to slits. "And shouldn't you be discussing this with the owner?"
    "Nearly the opposite. Anything in those saddlebags are now hers, period. We get the loot we got off the bandits themselves. I'm just clearing it up that, in my opinion, anything that isn't hers in those saddlebags should now become hers. And if she wanted to talk, she could have said something all this time, couldn't she?"
    "She's had a full day," said Bethlen dryly. "And up until a few minutes ago, was facing the prospect of a short, agonizing, rest-of-her life. I would give her a while before expecting her to jump into an altercation." She stood up. "Whether it's safe to camp here or not. We should certainly take some of the weight off the mules so they can rest. The ironmongery won't be any worse off for a night under the stars."
    Dardiana turned to Bethlen and nodded. "And that's why I'm discussing this with you and not her. And of course, sleep light. That's something that any living being should do. If you need any help, tell me and I'll give it. Since you know more about her than I do, and more about the bag's contents most likely, I won't move to remove any of them without you giving me the word."
    Stopping in his stride, “oh... our Dardiana is such a generous girl. Fine. What's on the mules is yours... I mean both of you, divide as you wish. And anything off the corpses is not. Fine that way," Gregor replied.
    "I'll work on copying what we need copied once we make camp for the night, as for the loot, we should keep what we took off the bandits, if it is as she said then anything on the mules is indeed the girls’, and by the way it seems, they were to busy arguing and probably hadn't even searched the mules properly yet let alone decided to use them for storage of their own. As for the Nixies... you don't make signs for things that aren't something to worry about, we should move away as quickly as we can,” Marn chimed in.
    Marn’s thoughts turned to the image he had in his head of the Nixies. He did recall that they could be placated with fresh, preferably living, meat. The more humanoid the meat the better, after which they are dormant for months at a time. They vaguely resemble Dryads, only stronger, clawed, more malevolent and more savage and lived in the water. In spite of the plural denotation on the stone, they are solitary creatures. They are almost impossible to remove from a body of water completely as when "killed" they revert to water, a state from which they eventually reform.
    Kresta piped up nervously. "Please take father's purse. I can probably arrange more at Trammelburgh. My family’s credit is good with Ashdown."
    Bethlen gave her a concerned look. "We may need more than credit to arrange more mules and guards after this Kresta, but it's your money." She looked like she had a thought. "None of you Ladies and Gentlemen picked up an Infinite Serpent amulet at the Fall did you? I'd give it back to me if you did. The thing's old and twitchy. At the very least, avoid saying "Khraznyjelenobogatyr"
    Dardiana rose an eyebrow at the mention of the amulet. "So... she's rewarding us with her pop's gold? And what's special about that amulet? I saw it when we were there, but I never picked it up."
    Marn suddenly became conscious of a heat building in his bag where he was carrying the amulet. It was suddenly getting very hot very fast. His thoughts turned the leather book and his spell book. He opened his bag and pulled out his spell book to study but it was a flimsy pretext to check on things. As he opened his pack he was rewarded with a blast of flames. The amulet was red-hot and continuing to burn still brighter. The leather-bound book was on the verge of lighting up as well.
    The rest of the party became conscious that Marn Ortul appeared to be in some flame-related difficulty. Bethlen watched him with her arms crossed and her heavy-lidded eyes expressionless.
    Marn, with a yelp, pulled out the amulet and tossed it towards the water. The flaming amulet veered toward Bethlen, who caught it with one hand. The flames died as soon as she touched it. There was an audible pinking sound as the metal cooled and shrunk.
    She held it up, and placed it around her neck, tucking it down under her leathers. "You People, if you're not going to get yourselves killed at your first real encounter with civilization, need to grasp the concept of ‘Not Yours’. This is a showy, over engineered, impractical old thing. But it's an heirloom and I'm attached to it. And it to me. Count yourself lucky you didn't try it on, or try to mess with it, or have it in your possession for any great length of time."
    Grath remained silent during the conversation between the others, Bethlen, and Kresta. He believed in finders keepers, meaning Kresta and Bethlen get nothing but their skins and some supplies, and an escort to safety, but could live with the consensus. He started rigging up some kind of sled or skid to pile all the found items onto, with either a mule or himself to drag it to the nearest town.
    Marn looked back into his pack, the leather-bound book was mostly saved by its cover, though there was some charring on the pages. The spell book was a little singled around the edges, but still sound.
    Dardiana glares at Bethlen. "So you're just grouping us all up after this? I grasp the concept between mine, loot, and an ally's just fine, thank you very much. If you're just going to generalize about us like that, then by all means show us how savage you are by doing so." She looked around, to see what else was going on, and saw Grath building some sort of vehicle. "Now, are we going to sit here and attract the nixies... or can we get moving?"
    Bethlen gave Dardiana an odd look and then, as she tended to do, refocused on something else. She turned to face the stream. "Nixies. How quaint." She looked thoughtful. "Since you're not going to bother interrogating your captives, how about throwing them in? The Elf's dead at any rate. Even if he is presently still breathing."
    "Hey you asked if I picked it up, I didn't pick it up I was merely in possession of it, you never asked if I had it, it was returned... no lasting harm done... and yes, we should leave,” Marn replied simply. He then gathered his things and started heading away from the stream in whichever direction looked like it held the best place for a camp for the night.
    "I think you mean your captives. Or at least the ginger's. They didn't steal from us nor did they capture any of us. They did capture her, though, so I assume she, or maybe you if it concerns you, would be the ones with questions for them. If you want to throw them in the water, go ahead." Dardiana replied.
    Bethlen laughed. It was quite possibly the creepiest sound they had ever heard. "Kresta, feel like helping me throw a helpless, wounded, unsuccessful rapist to a monster?" Kresta stood up, displaying that Bethlen's Black Lagoon smile was possibly contagious.
    Dardiana watched them throw the body into the water and then spoke. "So, Beth, will that stop it from coming at us? Or will the elf just be an appetizer for it? More specifically, does that render this place safe or should we still move?"

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    An interesting Meeting

    Suddenly, something broke the surface of the water and rose up. It looked like a naked female elf. Only it was nine feet tall and covered in muscle where elves only have skin. Its eyes were black. Its hands were webbed and terminated in massive claws. Its skin was the lusterless pallor of fish belly, and when it opened its mouth to speak, its teeth were rows of razor-like triangles.
    "Quail, brief mortals." It began pretentiously. "Your sacrifice has appeased me. You may remain here a while free from predation."
    Horbin was looking at the surrounding trees when the nixie cleared the surface. "Whoa, big lady," he exclaimed at the appearance of the nixie.
    It then disappeared back into the water, for about two seconds. Then its head poked back up. "Um. Actually. This is awkward. You wouldn't have a knife or something I could have? People used to throw things to me all the time, but the steel doesn't last and now I'm down to the ancient copper, which is worn down to nothing. If you could be so kind? I hate to eat with my hands."
    Gregor sat, back to the stone, doing his leatherworking and observing the whole situation with the amulet with an expression of some mixed feelings. So, the girls know how to get things underwater, starting with witness. He started to wonder what sort of business they were REALLY in, but did not have much time to think about it as the gigantic naked female elf popped out of the water. It caused a considerable amount of awe as Gregor was trying to clear some distance from the water, with ANOTHER mix of expressions on his face. He then quickly recovered, took a dagger from the loot, and handed it to the nixie, pommel first. "Of course, mistress. Bon appetite!"
    Dardiana did not flinch, the fey inside her refusing to show fear in the face of another. She made a small bow, showing her respect for the nixie, before speaking, "Thank you, madam, for allowing us to stay here. As such, if there is anything that you would ask of us, past the dagger and elf, please do not be reluctant to ask."
    The Nixie manages to look embarrassed. "I don't suppose you've got a pretty dress." This was followed by an awkward pause as everyone just kind of looked around. "People used to throw other people to me all the time dressed in the nicest costumes but that ended after the big bang, when the mountains split. And they've all rotted now, and just look at me."
    Dardiana's laugh came soon after, this really was great. Here was a nine foot tall monster and it was very similar to a normal female elf. "My apologies, but I don't have clothing for someone twice my size. But, I might be able to get you one at a nearby town. Maybe even a dagger that won't rust, if there is one and I can pay for it. You'd be able to follow us on the stream, right? So that I don't have to go all the way back here, since I most likely won't have the time."
    Delphi was conspicuously missing. She had darted into the nearest bushes she could find the moment there was mention of what the nixies really were. She remained that way for a long span of minutes, watching the water and listening to the conversation rather fearfully. After a long while, once nothing huge and monstrous had appeared, she started to make her way back out of her cover.
    It was then, of course, that something huge and monstrous did appear, and she froze in place, horrified at the sheer size of the creature. Delphi was many things, but brazenly brave in the face of something huge and flesh-eating was not one of them. She did not move a hair until the creature slipped back under the surface, and then she darted to the group, remaining quiet and putting the entirety of the others between herself and the water.
    Bethlen crossed her arms. "I could make you a pretty dress, given a bit of time. What say I agree to deliver one to you, in exchange for immunity to you and related predators for myself and a certain number of companions, for say, life?" She smiled.
    The nixie jerked her head back toward Bethlen. "Swear by your gods!"
    Bethlen stopped smiling.
    Dardiana looked between one and the other nervously. She raised one hand to her mouth and coughed, to try to disturb the silence. She directed her speech to Bethlen, "Well, I think it's obvious something bothers you about gods." She turned to the nixie and continued, "And why do you need her to swear by her gods? If she breaks her side of the deal, which would happen if too much time passes, there is no need to keep holding onto your end."
    Bethlen stepped forward. She briefly searched behind her back for an edged weapon, then seemed to remember she had given her sickle to Kresta. So she held out her right hand and powered up a black nimbus of energy instead. "I swear, by my patron The Bringer of Silence. By the Starlight Destroyer. By the Empress of Midnight. By the Admiral that patrols the Seas of Chaos. By the Librarian that Guards against the Night. By the Blazing General of Sudden Flame. By the Crimson Iron Rider. By the Knight of the Healing Wind. By the Dread Guardian Beast. By the Silver. By the Cross. By the Twelve." There was apparently supposed to be a bloodletting at this point, but she had no blade. So she fired a blast into her own left arm instead.
    "I am, Bethlen Gabriel, of Joisy. In this land's defense as my ancient duty allows. I hereby agree to deliver a ‘pretty dress’, of appropriate proportions and style-you would suit a high neckline, but you'd do well to show off those arms--to-" she looks around, as if for a sign. "-The Nixie of the Place of the Broken Stone. In not less than four months, and not more than twelve. In exchange, I will take immunity from your and other’s such predation. For myself and my companions. To a number not greater than ten."
    The Nixie gave her a long stare. "Those people are Gods these days? I suppose it's safer than having them still walking around down here. We'd be looking for a new planet else."
    "Is that a yes,” Bethlen questioned.
    "Of course! I'm grateful. I remember your lot though. You can be very scary when you've got nothing to kill," the nixie replied.
    Grath piped up, "Naked water lady very impressive with nothing to eat. Naked lady has a name?"
    "Great, that seems to be settled. Shall we push on to the city then," Horbin asked in a cheery voice.
    Grath dragged the rest of the stripped redcloaks and maroons to the edge of the water and offered them to the naked water lady and her kinfolk. He also offered one of his daggers to Bethlen in case she needed to do any more bloodletting, or stabbing, or eating, or whatever.
    "When someone gets a chance, someone check out my new axe. Axe talked to Grath and thanked him for vengeance. Axe is magic?"
    Dardiana nodded. "I'm ready to go. Nix, if I ever get the chance to come back around here, I'll be bringing you a type of dagger that doesn't rust. Or Beth can, when she delivers the dress, if I buy the dagger before we leave the other's vicinity."
    From the edge of the forest Marn’s voice rang out, "If you all would ever get MOVING, we could make camp and I could do all this damn magicking you all want done."
    "No need to move. Safe here, now. Right, naked water lady?" Grath started setting up his tent.
    The Nixie looked at Grath, "Name? I don't suppose I do. I didn't know they were compulsory. And yes, I'd appreciate such a dagger, little pointy person. I would appreciate it too if you'd camp in the trees. I get nervous around people who worship people who wear black, carry scythes, and don't have to raise their voice much." She gave Bethlen a long stare, which the latter returned.
    Gregor dragged all the stuff worth dragging to the trees and started to organize sleeping places for everyone, using various soft dry vegetable materials. "I'll stay the last shift."
    "No name?" Dardiana moved towards the nixie's stone. "That's no fun. You should come up with one. Give people a name to fear." She helped Gregor take the items to the trees. "Any spell caster want to take the first one or shall I?"
    "I will take second shift if we are bent on staying here," Horbin called to the others.
    Grath continued setting up his tent, although he dragged it a little bit away from the water first. "Goodbye, naked nameless water woman. That is too long. Grath calls you Vaelva. Goodbye, Vaelva."
    "Vaelva?" the Nixie giggled, which looked odd on such a creature. "Sounds rude. I think it will do. Well, cheerio.” She disappeared beneath the water, again.
    "The Fey," said Bethlen tonelessly, "talk way too much. Thank you for the blade, Orc." Then she experimentally stabbed herself in the arm with it, causing no blood at all. "Ludicrous. Kresta, do you want to take this and I'll have my sickle back? It's a right sort of metal."
    The half-orc prisoner, still too weak to move, glared at all with sullen fury. Delphi finished helping Gregor move things, though she mostly helped him carry numerous small objects, leaving the heavy lifting for the much-stronger man. She also worked to gather food which clearly wasn't her strong suit, and she only managed to find enough nuts and berries to feed herself. She seemed a bit embarrassed about that, muttering something about how a woodland scout should be able to live off of the woodlands a bit better.
    After getting the camp set up, she listened to the talk of shifts with some interest. "I can take whatever shift you want me to; I don't need all that much sleep. And if anyone wants to share their shift with me, I won't mind that either." She winked, and laughed a little, finally seeming to relax from the encounter with the enormous monster.
    Gregor smiled, a little at first, then wider. "We should make hunting trips together. To do, you know, some... hunting." His smile then faded away. "Just not today. Today we have this half-orc who definitely regrets being drawn into this whole robbery business against her free will and is going to renounce such an association and shop us the ringleaders. Correct?" He finished as he looked at the prisoner.
    The half-orc girl gave Gregor and Bethlen a sullen stare. "Don't know if I've got a thing to say to you. Killed Pappy. Killed Percy. Killed cousin Vladimir. Even took my bow. Kill me, you got the guts. Or feed me to the beast like the spooky bitch did that elf. Else I'm going home to mum and keep her safe, 'till friends arrive".
    "Family business... that complicates, I guess..." Gregor looked nowhere near happy. "Those red-cloaked friends of yours killed some men today too. And you all were too numerous to start a debate. Risky business, that is... why are you doing it?"
    "If killing needs to be done, Grath will do it or call Vaelva back. Vaelva and her family need food too. Who are friends who are coming, and when?" Grath casually ate some jerky from his trail rations while asking his question, chewing slowly, and in front of the prisoners face. He let some bits fall on the ground, then picked them up and put them back in his mouth while doing so.
    The half-orc spat blood at Grath's feet. "You're ready to kill. Not so ready to figure out why. These red-cloaks? Friends? No friends of mine. Call 'em workmates. I hear there's some fancy word, Confederates, think that fits the bill. Bad ones. Only one o' them I liked a little was the Half-Elf bint. An' I hear she bought it on the Fall. Well, I think me an' mine have done with Ajneguhs. He doesn't know good people. Knocking over caravans. And doing it badly. Pappy should have shot that Grumio on the spot and fed the ginger bitch to the water monster. But he wasted time talking."
    "Well, if say you're done with this business AND you care to make a substantial commitment about the size of your right thumb, I guess we can let you go. Not today, but most likely next morning. Which way is yours? I might be interested in meeting that Ajneguhs... hm, not to work for him actually... who is he? And why are these confederates doing it here,” Gregor further questioned.
    Bethlen gave Gregor a look. She almost looked impressed. "You'd cripple her and let her go? Cruel. Better to kill or forgive."
    The Half-Orc growls. "Don't need your help, Carrion-Kite Caller. Kissed by midnight you were. You, Halfing. Ajneguhs is a damned idiot in a pretty mail shirt and red robe. And Dastana, the cheating bitch. Uses fire magic a lot. Has a dungeon about two days up the valley, supposed to have some tricky magic stuff as you go in. Never been in. Nor Pappy or the others. Ajneguhs seems to be afraid we'll steal the damned cutlery or somethin'. Got two champions. Black skin. Funny ears. Hair as white as Spooky Bitches' isn't.
    He's got some beef with Ashdown. Thinks he's puttin' together an army. You seen how well that's goin'. Got some secret backer who talks with him magically and sends him shinies. That’s how that Grumio got those gloves he never stopped yappin' about.
    As for us, we're from east. March of the Caroline. Only Pappy got into some trouble and we signed up with Ashdown, then we got into trouble with them when we lifted some things. Ajneguhs seemed like a good deal at the time, but when he recruited these idiots we started hittin’ problems. Or, problems started hittin' us."
    "I say we 'forgive', if she will lead us to the place. Let us deal with the head or at least neck of the beast that is causing the problems now that we have severed an arm," Horbin chimed in.
    "Orc has done nothing to Grath to forgive. Forgiveness up to Bethlen and Kresta. But orc must be no threat to me. Orc will point on Ingva's paper to all areas, yes?
    Not go up valley yet. Get supplies at town first, then valley,” Grath replied.
    Dardiana went over near the half-orc and sat down. "So we killed your family, save for your mom. In my mind, I want to let you go, let you return to her. But the chances of you not coming back for us is... not very high. I'm fairly confident that you will get friends and try to get revenge for your pop and the rest of your familiars. And we can't have antagonists in this story of ours. So, can you give us any reason to trust you and let you go?"
    Marn spoke up, "she was looking at the woman, when she said her family was killed, not us, I don't think we have anything to worry about, unless she wants revenge on her, and we try to interfere. I think we can trust her to keep her word and head home and stay there.” He then looked down at the captive orc. "Isn't that right? You won't pursue us? You'll go home and stay out of our way, AFTER sharing with us all you know?
    Gregor listened to half-orc girl carefully, then noded. "THAT is enough of commitment. I am not in command of this band, but to me, you are free late morning tomorrow." Gregor gave her one trail ration and some water do drink. "You see, people try to push the limits and some are even afraid... at least, I can promise you will not be tortured." Gregor sat on the ground and tried to think about what the girl told him. "Can you tell more? Like if this Ajneguhs himself is spell caster and what that Dastana looks like? Or maybe what those champions are known for, other than appearance; I mean, fighting style and such."
    Delphi appeared at Gregor's side, silent as could be, listening and watching politely and with interest. After he finished, she spoke up, her voice thoughtful and light. "I have no problem with letting you go. I'm not a murderer, and no one here should be; there's really not much else to do with you." She looked at Gregor, and she smiled a bit. "I'm going to trust your judgement on this one, big fella."
    Gregor did not pay the comment from Delphi much mind at first as he was lost in remembering what he knew of the "March of the Caroline" it was to the east, and is the Imperial territory opposite the part of his people's lands. The mountains were much less of a barrier there, and relations between his people and the Caroline Marches were quite antagonistic, with constant skirmishing and stealing of each others' laundry. He had spoken to somebody with black skin and white hair that morning. Somehow he didn’t think she was talking about Ingva or any other elder member of one of The Peoples' dark skinned tribes. But he did know that Sending is fairly powerful magic, though it was hardly unknown.
    The Half-Orc regarded the ‘Champions’ in being complete fruitcakes, but also dangerous. Pointed to Ingva's map, her vague gesturing matched up with the crude sketch they found on the Redcloak leader, the much-lamented and well-loved tactical genius Grumio. She laughed in Gregor’s face at the thought of promising to NOT take revenge, though she was equally adamant that given the choice she would be putting a lot of distance between herself and them very quickly. She was also quite keen not to meet, ‘that mincer Vierzehn at Trammelburgh’.
    She confirmed that as far as she was aware, yes Ajneguhs was a spell caster. His dastana were a copper-bronze-looking alloy and were marked with an image of six angular black wings, she thought they are jet inlays, sprouting symmetrically from a small ovoid central hub. She had always wondered if he worshiped a crippled spider or something. “Ajneguhs is a tall, blond-haired, well-spoken man. He can handle himself in a fight. He was very attractive. But his judgment sucks, you know, attempting to build a army of forest bandits by recruiting urban street toughs,” she finished.
    Bethlen, who remained mostly silent for a time spoke up, "Kissed by Midnight?" Kissed by Silence, in fact. But how did you come to know that expression?" She was obviously surprised.
    "What expression? I just meant that you're a dark little piece of work," the half-orc replied.
    "Oh? No harm done then,” Bethlen returned. The half-orc’s comment seemed funny as Bethlen was taller, though considerably leaner.
    After that, Bethlen seemed to lose interest and helped Kresta get the overburdened mules unloaded. Their conversation was mostly revealing that Bethlen wasn't present when the mules were loaded, and that Kresta knew more about the cargo than she did. Bethlen's description of the cargo from before was still broadly accurate, although a lot of it seemed to be contained in three bags, which contained much more than they should have. Both of them kept insisting that the other relax. Bethlen thought Kresta should take it easy because she had a much worse day. Kresta thought Bethlen should relax because she was wounded and physically weaker than her, Kresta had a stockier build, while Bethlen's was very slender. They continued bickering as such throughout the job.
    As the stars started to come out, Thorwald got a fire going and said his prayers to his master. Dardiana took a shift of watching. Delphi didn’t rest much, though when she did she found a larger person to cuddle up to, not putting much worry into who they were or what their gender; she just checked that they were one of the people she started out with before collapsing into sleep, having stayed up for the two earlier watches. In the end, she ended up with Dardiana, but if that bothered either of them they didn't show it.
    "Knock knock,” Grath heard outside his tent-flap, sometime in the deep night. Bethlen then entered without his answer. "It's half an hour 'til your watch. Which should be enough time. If you'll have me.” She hooked a thumb into a fold in her leathers, and jerked it down. The armor disengaged from itself in a quick series of brazen snaps. The serpent amulet was briefly exposed; she then flicked it over her shoulder so it hung down her back.
    "As for me, it's been weeks, Kresta won't be in the mood for a while. I'm tired of watching that little she-hobbit make moon-eyes at everyone, and you were quite impressive today. So, going to grasp your weapon to yourself all night?"
    Grath shrugged but said nothing, unsure of how to respond. Still saying nothing he removed his remaining clothing and tossed open the blankets. She then pounced. Grath could tell she was much tougher than she looked. She hummed a tune while he got dressed and was not present when he returned from his watch, though he didn’t remember seeing her leave is tent.
    The night passed uneventfully for everyone else. The morning dawned overcast and grey, though not in the least uncomfortably cold. Dardiana and Delphi were cuddled up together in a not uncompromising heap of sleeping furs. Thorwald had nodded off next to the ashes of the fire. Bethlen and Kresta were huddled next to the mules, Kresta's head in Bethlen's lap. Bethlen's hair was wet. The trickle of water from the not un-distant stream was the only sound the world made as the dawn's light slowly climbed behind the clouds, except for birds of course.
    Dardiana woke up slowly, stretching her arms a bit before noticing a weight on her left side. She focused on it to see a brown haired girl. She moved a hand over to the hair and began to stroke it before singing a soft sylvan song.
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  7. - Top - End - #7
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    A quest to be had


    Early in the morning Gregor fed the dogs, took a short refreshing bath in the stream, refreshed his water supply, and then went back to the camp to wake up anybody who was still sleeping. "Marn do you have a sheet of paper and some ink? I'd like to write a letter to Ingva.”
    Grath stripped down to a loincloth and took a swim, not only to cleanse himself but to refresh himself as well. He made sure not to disturb Vaelva. He packed up his tent with a strange smile on his face, which he tried to hide. He was careful to try to treat everyone with indifference, but cannot take his eyes off of Bethlen, which he also tried to hide. He did not do a good job of hiding either the smile nor his watching of Bethlen.
    Dardiana plainly saw what happened the previous night between Grath and Bethlen. When Gregor attempted to wake the sleeping Delphi, she made him go away and did it herself, trying to wake her up calmly instead of abruptly.
    Marn had woken up, early in the morning, usually shortly after the birds and other animals wake up, he had been keeping an eye on things while studying his spell book and preparing his spells for the day. "No, I don't have any paper or ink, I didn't think I'd need it, but once we get to the next town I'll be sure to pick some up"
    Thorwald jumped out of sleep with a loud snort, his jaw completely asleep and drooling slightly from hanging down against his chest all night. He wiped the spit from his chin, and moved raggedly to the bushes to do his business. A minute later he came back with a big grin on his face. "Ah, a good piss after a long day of slaughter. What else does a man need?" He looks around, and noticed both Grath's obvious staring and the girls laying close to each other. “Ah, well. There is that."
    Thorwald prepared his spells, and subsequently healed the lone wound he got the day before. "Good as new. So, are we following the weird chicks with the necklace and the bird fetish? They look like trouble, and boy, do I like trouble." He flashed a flashing smile while opening his pack to get a ration.
    Delphi woke up like a cat, stretching with remarkable flexibility given how early it was. Her hair was only a bit rumpled, though she had a pink tint to her cheeks when she noticed who she was curled up beside. If she was bothered, however, she said nothing, and indeed she seemed to be in quite a good mood. She mentioned something about looking for food before trundling off into the woods, a slight bounce in her step. Delphi tripped in the woods onto an oddly diurnal rabbit, accidentally but cleanly breaking its neck shortly after entering the woods.
    Bethlen stirred, absently tweaked Kresta's nose to wake her, and pulled herself to her feet. She ran a hand through her black, damp hair to straighten some knots. "You're drooling, Tiger," she remarked to Grath, then looked at the sky, the clouds, and the veiled sun. "Give us an hour to repack the cargo, and we will be bound for Trammelburgh, which we could make a little after noon. I'm not taking the Razor, overloaded as we are, and Ethandun's further still.
    If you ladies and gentlemen would be kind enough to accompany us, it may be to your benefit as regards supplies, disposal of recently acquired goods, and making yourselves known to those that might otherwise find you suspicious. And if you should decide to go and meet this blonde gentleman in red after, I'll be coming with you."
    "Well, I would rather take right for the menace, but I guess town is a good stop on the way," Horbin said as he stretched in the morning sun. Thorwald packed his things in silence, letting the others make a decision. While he went about his way he hummed a happy tune and smiled his nice smile.
    To Gregor, going Ajneguhs via Trammelburgh was the preferred plan since yesterday. As long as the consensus was that way, he was not going to discuss the matter. He prepared the dogs and weapons, then, having some more time before departure, ate some dried partridge and practiced tricks with the dogs.
    Dardiana watched Delphi go off on her own, searching for food, and waved a goodbye. Once she was out of sight, she pulled herself up and stretched. She took the time while everyone else was getting ready to put on her studded leather armor but she did not eat a trail ration as Delphi may be bringing all the food they would need. She replenished her hand's invisible, intangible webbing and packed up the rest of her items. "Beth, I can help repack the mules if you'd like it."
    After Grath packed up his belongings, he ate a trail ration, then attempted to help whoever seemed to need help. All of the extra belongings from the deceased he packed up on his rigged sled, ready to be dragged into the town. Delphi trundled back into camp with a rabbit, which she quickly and cleaned, skinned and began to roast over the hot coals of the previous night's fire. The rabbit wasn't enough to feed everyone, of course, but she offered it to supplement everyone's less-than-appetizing trail rations. She gave Dardiana a few oddly bashful looks, but she otherwise acted quite normal. "So," she questioned after a few bites of rabbit, "What exactly are we setting out to do? I was a bit distracted by the large and oddly articulate monster, even after the enormous batch of killing we all did." Dardiana took the piece of rabbit, thanking her, and pulled out one of her own trail rations to begin eating.
    Bethlen was cramming a set of breastplates into an oddly spacious bag. She answered Dardania. "It would be appreciated. I don't enjoy heavy work. Most of the time," and actually darted a glance at Grath, the little witch. "Anyone looking after the Half-Orc girl? We going to let her go, feed her, kill her, paint her pink and call her Molly? Any decisions? I would not have bothered to save her. Although it may come in useful that you did." For her part, Kresta was snapping together a light crossbow with an oddly determined expression.
    Gregor looked to the half-orc. "Hey, you, big lucky girl! You are well advised to keep a low profile for some time before spreading your impressions about how clement or sadistic we are. Now get lost!"
    Kresta dodged past Gregor, and threw a light crossbow and a stack of bolts at the half-orc’s feet. "That might get you home. If you're careful. If you're not, I won't cry. Consider it a gift from the ginger bitch you should have fed to the watermonster." She raised her voice, "Bethlen! We're packed! Let's get moving! North-east, and hew close to the Stahlmund! Coming then, new friends?" She seemed to be recovering from the previous day’s ordeal rather quickly.
    When Kresta spoke, Dardiana commented to whoever was nearest, "She recovers pretty quickly, huh?"
    "Indeed it appears that we are," Horbin replied as he hefted his blade onto his shoulder again.
    "If I ever see you again-" the Half-Orc began. Then seemed to notice how everyone was studiously pretending not to pay her any attention, while holding weapons, and turned toward the stream without finishing. She then jumped into the water and swam to the opposing shore.
    Dardiana stopped the half-orc girl in her tracks, since she had been paying attention, she was not holding any weapon, they were all sheathed. "If you ever see her again, I hope for your sake you don't do anything rash or the rest of your family might not be around for you to take care of." She stepped to the side, allowing her to continue on her way.
    There was a jingle of harness and creaking of leather as Bethlen and Kresta got the mules moving, heading north and slightly east, parallel to Vaelva's stream. Kresta was in the lead with a mule and Bethlen shortly behind leading Spike. Dardiana followed after the other two, taking a spot beside Delphi, in the middle of the pack.
    Horbin fell in just behind the mules. Grath moved towards the front of the group. As usual, he had his bow out, arrow knocked but not drawn. But he was ready to drop it in favor of his axe should he feel the need. Gregor rode in front, just as usual, a little ways before Bethlen and Kresta. Being in the forest the smaller dogs saw, heard and smelled lots of interesting things around, so were usually somewhere in the woods, to the side or catching up from behind. They barked at any small game they encountered. Thorwald walked near the back, but in front of Marn, whistling a jaunty yet slightly disturbing tune, while picking imaginary pieces of matter off his morning star.
    Marn was at the back as usual so he could keep a wary eye on everyone, still not fully trusting of the people he had only met the day before. He took out the leather bound book again and studied it some more, trying to determine anything more about it. As Marn read the book he thought to himself, ‘If this book is any kind of magic tome, I’d hate to imagine what it does’. It seemed to consist entirely of vignettes of a psychotic couple named "Beryl" and "Darien" engaging in clichéd vaguely erotic role-playing, quite often breaking character out of the absurdity of the premise, and occasionally resorting to violence.
    There was a handwritten dedication on the inside of the front cover, written in oddly spiky common. It read "So you won't get bored and do something lacking Charisma: Love, Lotus", followed by a slightly insane number of little crosses and circles.
    About a mile to the north, Vaelva's stream broadened and swallowed into a wide area of sparkling, clear water not more than a foot deep. The current was spread out and mild, the rocky bottom was clearly seen through the water, and large boulders broke the surface everywhere they looked. Kresta lead them straight in. The water was chill and tugged at thier feet, but there was nothing to stop thier progress. Bethlen muttered something about quaint, unspoiled scenery.
    Kresta started speaking abruptly. "This is a safe crossing. Above here, the stream and its valley have a spooky reputation. At least, father told me never to go higher. I've been this way a couple of times before, from the other direction. Father sometimes found it convenient to kick a caravan off from Trammelburgh. It is no city like Ethandun, but it is a cheap and easy place to muster goods from Jelenarch and the central provinces."
    As they approached the eastern bank, they were conscious of a distant howling and baying from deep in the trees. Gregor raised a hand, the left one, with the shield, as the other was occupied by a lance which was resting upon a stirrup and pointing up in the sky. He listened to the sounds for about half a minute and then rode forward to investigate.
    Dardiana called out to Gregor, "Those your dogs or something we might need to worry about?"
    "Wolves. That's kind of unusual, so you better get ready. This side, I guess," he responded.
    "Pride, come here, hush up! Follow me!"
    Gregor tried to position himself downwind of the incoming wolf howls. Luckily the mountain spurs to the west blocked the wind coming off the sea. The dogs looked around like dumb animals, then perked up as he used an ability. With an ‘Oh, you meant NOW’ set of expressions, and they then accompanied him. He didn’t get far out of the stream before he realized, from the approaching howling, that the pack was coming at them fast. There was another sound as well, a deeper-pitched growling.
    "Well, unless they are lead by magic or men they shouldn't bother us at this time. Unless they are more than wolves," Horbin said as he tromped through the water.
    "Unless they're starved or these wolves hunt with daylight." Dardiana said as she watched Gregor go off on his own and she kept on going through the water.
    Grath crossed the stream and took up a position on the other side, looking for the approaching wolves. The rest of the party reached the bank. There was a long section of rocky flat there before the trees started. Roughly seventy feet open between the water and forest. Gregor disappeared into the tree line to the east. Kresta produced a clutch of shortspears and balanced one in her left hand. Bethlen took three long steps forward and placed herself in front of her and the little clutch of mules, her hands held out from her sides.
    Gregor made sure he was positioned away from the direct path the wolves were headed. He rested his lance against a tree and drew a javelin, waiting for whatever came. Grath gripped his bow hard, ready to loose an arrow at the first wolf he saw. Dardiana waited next to the mules, expecting the beasts at any moment. Horbin moved to assume the front of the assault line.
    Delphi took out her sling and she loaded it with a single smooth bullet. She bounced the leather strip a bit to relax her hand and become accustomed to its weight. She took a throwing axe into her other hand, and then she moved into the woods, cautiously, remaining near Gregor for better protection. "If these are just animals, a little pain should be enough to scare them off. If we drop one of them, or hurt them quickly, they'll probably scatter. Wolves are intelligent, not suicidal."
    Marn and Thorwald stood close to the mules and Dardiana at the edge of the stream. Thorwald looked around with a slight frown. "I don't mind killing animals, but this is really strange. I've never heard of wolves attacking large groups of people before. And especially in a place where you can trip over your food," he said to the others. Still, Thorwald took his shield down from his back and strapped it to his arm, ready for combat if need be. Gregor, could hear something else coming from behind the wolves, growling and smashing through the underbrush.
    Delphi looked at the open ground between her and the forest, then to the others. She thought for a moment, and then she moved forward, growing closer to the edge of the forest by about twenty feet. She began to whirl her sling overhead, prepared to loose it at the first wolf to appear from the trees. Gregor rode a bit forward and to the right, positioning himself behind a tree, ready to strike at whatever wolf would be heading at him, but he was not very interested in dealing with wolves passing by, he was interested in what was behind them.
    Gregor tried to use his ‘Speak with Animals’ ability while it was still active, listening to anything comprehensible, including birds, the wolves themselves and whatever was behind them. The wolves baying translated into, "It's coming, it's coming, it's coming, run run runrun run run run--AAAAK! Not these stupid two legged things."
    The thing behind them was saying,"Now dogs! Time to scream, LIKE PIGS! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!"
    The birds nearby were saying, "I'm a bird I'm a bird I'm a bird Aren't I pretty? I'm a bird. Have I mentioned I'm a bird?"
    Thorwald centered himself, spread his feet and blessed his allies in the name of Loki! After the short prayer a silvery shimmer sparked from his hands and exploded nearby in a gigantic, almost invisible, silvery shimmering sphere that was gone as soon as it happened. In it's place, a feeling was left inside of everyone, a cool steely hardness and resolve.
    "Rabies, they look rabid," Horbin shouted as he hefted his blade into striking position. He will then advanced toward the trees.
    The wolves came weaving through the trees. One ran smack into Gregor's and Cherry's attacks and failed to survive them. The wolves appeared to be exhausted. None cleared the tree line, but Delphi saw a flash of movement and sent a stone spinning to the closest one, wounding it. Then Gregor was able to see a gigantic boar crashing after the wolves, apparently chasing them.
    "Three wolves, running from a VERY LARGE piggy. Horbin, it's moving at you!" Too late to intercept the boar moving toward the group, Gregor decided to cut off its retreat. Moving from behind a tree, he threw a javelin and gave some commands in doggish. All of the dogs, including Abyss, readied action to move away from the boar if it turned on them.
    Dardiana ran forward and to her right, she stopped after going about thirty feet and chucked a magical blast at the nearest wolf. Bethlen moved past her and threw a shadowy blast at the same target, missing by far, incinerating a sleeping stoat. Horbin moved forward again, to the tree line. Grath shot an arrow at the same wolf targeted by Delphi. He then dropped his bow to the ground and moves to toward the woods, drawing his battle axe as he advanced, and entered into a rage.
    Marn readied to cast magic missile at the first enemy to clear the tree line heading toward them. Thorwald moved forward a step and ignited in holy flame. He readied his morning star, if the boar came trampling his way. The large swine barreled through the underbrush and made its way nearly straight at Horbin.
    Delphi darted forward as quickly as she could, headed toward the boar, ignoring the wolves. Indeed, she was sorry that she had hurt them at all, though her stone had not been very accurate or powerful; the wolves were clearly not the problem here. "Focus on the boar," she shouted as she ran; "leave the wolves alone!" The boar howled in fury, and its blazing red eyes turned toward the she-hobbit, then, Gregor's Javelin lodged in its side.
    Bethlen moved closer to the squealing hog, muttered "Fleur de mal", and suddenly a mass of black-and-purple blossoms were swirling around the boar and the two closest wolves, raking them with barbed thorns. The wolves ran away, retreating to the north or south and away from the group. The boar looked quite annoyed by the party’s interference. Bethlen remarked, to the world in general, "That frelling poison never works on what you want it too."
    Grath roared in frustration that the boar was still in the woods. He made himself more and more angry while waiting for it to leave the woods and get within his range. Marn kept his spell ready to use on whichever enemy left the woods first.
    Thorwald moved forward, standing shoulder to shoulder with Grath, ready to charge the boar once it cleared the woods. "That's it, lad! Show it your teeth. We're gonna hold a nice barbeque tonight, hahah!"
    Attempting to force the boar in the direction of his companions, Horbin launched forward around the trees and swung at the wild beast with his mighty blade. The boar's eyes lit with fury as the blade sunk in, but Horbin had cut too deep. Its entrails, a gory mass, splattered against the rough bark of the wildwood, it sprawled in death. "Well," said Bethlen as she sashayed over to cut its throat with her sickle. "That's lunch sorted. If we want."
    "Cook the liver, it's totally fresh and would be delicious! Also very quick to cook!" Wasting no time after the boar is killed, Gregor turned to chase the wolves.
    "That went down easily enough," Horbin said as he dislodged his blade.
    After some time spent chasing the last wolf, Gregor returned from the north, accompanied by Abyss, loaded with a dead wolf, and his two other. No one seemed hurt. Gregor unloaded the wolf and then brought three others in a similar manner, them being nearer, took much less time. Going to gut the trophy, Gregor reached into his boot only to discover that his knife was nowhere to be found. He then vaguely remembered some activities back in town, like betting, throwing, winning, drinking and, well, apparently leaving the knife where it hit. So, Gregor started to gut the wolves using one of the redcloaks' shortswords.
    Delphi frowned at Gregor, but she didn't voice any real objection to the hunting. Instead she looked the boar over, curious. "I wonder why it was so enraged. I mean, are they usually like that? I wouldn't know, I suppose. It just sucks for the wolves that they were driven to such a bad place at a bad time; they never really stood a chance against a boar that size or our group."
    "They might have attempted to prey on his piglings, maybe even eating some... that would be no wonder." Gregor shrugged. As reasonable as the hypothesis might have been, it had no solid base whatsoever.
    "I'm fine with eating boar...or wolf." Dardiana walked over to Gregor, who she saw cutting them up with shortswords, and pulled out her dagger, holding it out to him. "Here, use this."
    Delphi pulled out a dagger, casually lobbing it through the air to stick in the carcass next to Gregor. She only glanced over her shoulder for a second to throw, and she looked back to the forest before it hit its mark. "Use mine; it'll fit your hand better, since it was actually made for a person of proper size instead of a clumsy, lumbering," she paused, and looked to Dardiana, blushing a bit and obviously abashed. "Er, that is to say, a tallfolk."
    Thorwald, still ablaze and looking thoroughly disappointed, sheathed his morningstar and found a huge piece of wood to lean on. "Clumsy and lumbering, hmm? You know, you may be right, Delphi. If we ever go dancing, I could perhaps prove you wrong. But then, you might have to stand on my feet!" Thorwald chuckled heartily at his own joke and smiled his big smile. In the meantime the log was very much in flames and Thorwald jumped up, surprised. "Well, it seems I made a fire... I could go for some early dinner."
    Kresta looked at the group a little uncertainly. "Trammelburgh is only a few hours away-" She looked to Bethlen for guidance.
    Bethlen was slicing into the boar's flesh with her sickle, preparing to flay, but looked up at Kresta with an inscrutable expression. "Early afternoon, early evening" she said gnomically. "The boys and girls deserve some flesh. Trammelburgh will abide, and Quattro Vierzehn too." That thought seemed to trigger something, and she abruptly stood up and scanned the tree line. "They'll see our smoke from Trammelburgh from here."
    That does click something in Kresta. "This is Redside. Not Ashdown territory. Vierzehn would think twice."
    "He would. And then he'd do it anyway. Especially if he's got wind of redcloaked thugs skulking around." She addressed the group. "Let's be a bit cautious about shooting at people we don't know from now on. Agreed? Kresta, could you help me with this slab of fat--"
    As Kresta moved over, there's a quiet interchange. "When have you ever been to Trammelburgh? Or met Vierzehn?"
    "I haven't done either. I have sources."
    Dardiana looked at the tree and the flames that were on it. After a few seconds of watching them, she turned to Delphi. "I don't mind being called clumsy, as some of us are, just like some of your race. But please don't say that I'm not a 'proper person'." When Kresta and Bethlen began to talk, she shut up and listened. "Got it, diplomacy first, shooting second. Let's hope they do the same if they come to us."
    Gregor thanked Dardiana and Delphi for the knives, he used Delphi's to gut the wolves, then cut some sticks and helped with cooking choice-parts-of-trophy-on-a-stick for everyone. It soon emerged that neither Bethlen nor Kresta had any real skill at butchering, but it was a big animal, and they managed to hack off some decent bits regardless. The mules seemed to welcome the chance for a rest.
    Grath shrugged, his eyes focused, and he seemed to shrink within himself, shoulders sagging as if exhausted. He knelt and took a moment to recover. Rising, he removed his pack and ruffled through the contents, removing an item, adjusting, and repacking. He filled a small iron pot with water from the creek and set it to boil over the fire, adding some black powder to the water. He patrolled around for a few minutes, standing guard over the group while waiting for his coffee to be ready.
    Horbin looked up and was able to tell is was around midday. "We should eat lunch then move on. Would we arrive before dark," Horbin asked the two women.
    Bethlen and Kresta looked at each other and then laughed in a rather annoying way. "Oh, big man does talk!" Kresta said.
    "Shut up. We're only a few hours from Trammelburgh. Like I have said. It is not a major town. As I have implied. However, it is closest, has the requirements to dispose of your loot, and the contacts to allow us to get our requirements fulfilled."
    "Speak when I feel I need to, and this is that time," Horbin retorted. "Trammelburg seems like a good place to try bedding for the night, much better than this spot."
    Grath returned from his patrol, apparently seeing or hearing nothing. He grabbed his mug from his pack and grabbed a cup of coffee, asking around, "Coffee?" Seeing the attempts at butchering the boar, he decided to offer his assistance, not shying away from the blood. Apparently Grath would just have get in the way, so he offered coffee to the butchers instead.
    Delphi perked up, excited. "Coffee? Really? 'S been years since anyone's let me get within ten feet of the stuff; something about over-excitability or some silly gibberish like that. If only we had chocolate to go with it; that really puts me in a mood." She grinned and looked first to Dardiana, then Gregor while speaking, before glancing back up to Grath. She was rocking up onto the balls of her feet, holding her arms together in a gesture of supplication. "So, ah, right. I'm little, so I won't ask for much. Please?"
    Grath willingly offered some coffee to Delphi. "No chocolate, do not know what that is. But coffee Grath has for little Delphi." She proffered a small cup and he poured some coffee into it, and handed back it to her. He seemed bemused by the stimulated halfling, and unconcerned that she might get over-active. "Grath got a taste of coffee through Empire traders coming through town. Grath really likes coffee."
    Delphi held the little cup, and she sipped the coffee happily, skipping around a bit as she did so, still a bit wired up from the fight. She looked over all the wolves' carcasses, as well as the progress on the boar. She then began picking up small, loose stones, whipping them into trees with her sling, uncannily accurate, and the sound of stone meeting tree came with steady regularity. "This is nice, you guys. Our People may not be very creative namers, but we sure do make for good company. So, tell me," she paused to sling another stone, "what do you all want out of life? What are you hoping to get out of our journey?"
    Dardiana approached Grath and asked, "You mind if I have some to? I've only got wine with me and that makes for a poor drink sometimes." After she got her coffee she began to make a game out of Delphi's stones being thrown, trying to knock them out of the sky with her blasts before they hit the tree. "Well, I'm hoping to become stronger by the end of this journey, so that I can live on my own and travel the world. But, what about you?"
    "Grath is looking for strength. Strength to do what want without interference. Too many bothersome orcs in home village try to interfere with Grath. Grath wants to...to learn. To be free. Not sure what free is, but trying to learn."
    Delphi laughed as Dardiana joined her, though she watched the warlock's hands with great interest as she fired her bolts of power. Delphi, not one to be shown up, began to move as she slung her bolts, and the movement resulted in a dramatic increase in the speed and power of her shots. She raised her own voice after a moment, slightly wistful. "I want to learn the name of the wind, see the face of the sky, and speak with the forest like a friend. I want to fell a giant with a sling, ride a dragon, and make a wish upon a star. I want to be a legend and a myth and a hero. I want to live until the day I die."
    Bethlen looked up briefly from her inexpert butchering. "Then it's a pity you weren't born somewhere else." Then immediately looked like she regreted the statement. "...nothing."
    Delphi slipped over to Bethlen, a curious look on her face. She laid a hand on her shoulder, and when Bethlen looked up she found Delphi's eyes to be large, green, and kind. "You've spoken so little about yourself. Please, go on. It wasn't nothing."
    "Sounds like she feels either you could never be greater than you are, or that this world does not allow for you to reach such lofty goals," Horbin chimed in.
    Bethlen's eyes didn't change at all. Still as cold and dark as ravens sipping coffee from a black-iron pot at the bottom of a coal mine at midnight in winter, but she looked away and focused on butchering the act of butchering. "You could have been something else," she said, quietly. "Just something else. That might have made your dreams easier for you. But everything costs. And you may not have enjoyed it as much," and then she made eye contact again. "You'll do fine. You'll have your own power and dignity. One you make for yourself. Mine is written for me. In shadow and lightning flash. And letters in iron. And early mornings. I'm not a morning person."
    She stood up; a random piece of pig fell off her sickle. "Everybody full and fed? If Ashdown comes upon us, I'd rather they found us on the path, alert and ready, rather than feeding our faces. They're not foes, neither are they yet your friends. You only get one chance to make a first impression. You know."
    Thorwald listened in on the conversations with a bemused look on his face, but decided to keep his dreams to himself for now. After Bethlen's speech, however, he couldn't help but chime in. "Must everything be so dark and grim always, Bethlen? There is great beauty in the lightning storms and even in the shadows of the night. None can say what truly lies over the horizon, indeed I'd call any famous diviner either a great liar or a very lucky fellow." He picked up one of the raw pieces of meat and chewed it, still talking.
    "Its in our nature to be violent. Not just humans, but all beings. So I dare say we haven't chosen a bad path at all. Oh, and if I do get ambushed and murdered, I'd rather do it on a full stomach, thank you very much." At no point having stopped either smiling or chewing, Thorwald took another piece of meat and leaned on a rock next to the fire.
    "Beauty? Yes. There is that. Where I spring from we respect power, for we'd be dead without it, and beauty, for without it we'd have nothing to live. You can call me grim, but I know what I know. And I know you're going to get Trichinosis if you keep eating that raw. Good thing you're a Cleric."
    Thorwald started laughing, so hard, in fact, that he choked on his meat, and with tears rolling down his cheek he slapped Bethlen hard on the back with his armored mitt,
    "Oho.. ha... Yes, good thing indeed! *cough* I'm getting more and more thrilled that I met the lot of you free-spirited fellows. These are glorious days, my newfound friends. We are jolly green giants walking the earth, with swords. Good thing, indeed."
    "Glory is good," said Grath. "Sounds good, anyway. Glory of dying young? Not so much. Grath wants to live a long life, with lots of children and grandchildren on his knees. Before that, though, there is much to see and experience. Most orcs just live day to day, but not Grath."
    Gregor did not participate in the talks. He eventually finished cooking, then finished eating, then put down the fire. "Hey, Grath, will you transport the trophies?" - scratches his head - "If not, I'll have to organize something."
    Kresta, once they all wipe the grease off their faces and got moving, lead them into the trees and then north, parallel to the stream on their left. Beneath the trees it's cool and dim, but there was only limited underbrush. The mules, carrying more than their intended weight, were making slow going but were plainly much the better for the rest. It was less than an hour before they came again to the banks of the wide, dark river flowing strongly from east to west. Its opposite bank, nearly a thousand yards off, was lined with dark forest, with distant hills showing blued out in the background. The opposite bank was the Empire. So far, it looked much like anywhere else.
    Bethlen moved up next to Kresta, leading Spike. Kresta spoke to her expositionally. "East of here. Along the Stahlmund as I said," and more loudly to all, “and everybody keep eyes and ears open."
    Marn kept his eyes and ears peeled for anything. ‘I may be quiet but sometimes you have to be quiet to know something is there,’ he thought to himself.
    "Wherever, whenever...just consider it done." Gregor was looking around as usual. "So, east now, not going to that side?"
    "I didn't bring a boat big enough to take three mules, some shaggy beasts, and your dogs. You could trying swimming it, if you like, but the current would put you several miles downstream by the time you reached the bank." Kresta seemed to enjoy her jovial jab at the barbarians.
    Dardiana kept an eye on the trees and the rest of the places. "Anyone want to make a raft?" asked Grath. He took a look around for wood and other materials to make a raft. "Grath can swim across with no problem, but all the extra stuff will weigh down the group."
    "A raft?" Thorwald looked at Grath quizzically. "We don't actually need to cross the river, my friend, just go alongside it. But be my guest. Just notice that the river flows in the wrong direction, so unless you've had a really healthy breakfast, I doubt you'll catch up to us by water."
    "We can cross at Trammelburgh, if you so desire. It's what the place is for," said Kresta with a hint of irritation.
    Bethlen gave her a long steady look, then turned to the party and added, "Do what you will, do what you want, but I remind you that this...Ajneguhs is based on this side of the river."
    Cherry abruptly bounded out of the undergrowth, a strip of maroon cloth clutched in her teeth. "So, we are not only ones who prefers riverside to going through the forest..." When Cherry came closer, Gregor pet her and took the piece of maroon cloth. "Good girl, good girl. Now show where you found it. Where you found it? Let's go."
    It doesn't take long, only a few yards into the surrounding trees, to hear the croaking of the ravens. And only a few dozen yards beyond that to find the body of the Half-Orc they let go that morning. Her maroon cloak, for some reason, had been shredded, and its shreds littered the forest floor and wave forlornly in the underbrush. She had two arrow wounds, but the arrows that made them had been neatly pulled.
    "So, that was a waste of a crossbow." Gregor checked the body in case he was wrong, then looked around and tried to determine exactly what happened.
    The Half-Orc's tracks came from the direct south. Looking around revealed the tracks of four humanoids, an iron-shod horse and a couple of large dogs, who appeared to have come from the east and moved off south, apparently following the Half-Orc’s trail back from where she came. He also found a light crossbow and a set of ten bolts in the hollow of a tree. Neatly wrapped in a dark grey cloak with red trim.
    Gregor unwraped the package found in the hollow of the tree and scratched his head. "Four guys, a horse and a bunch of large dogs. No idea why they left it here, but I, for one, do not want to mess with them. This might be..." he took another look at half-orc “...counterproductive." With those words he repacked the package, in some clearly different fashion, and put it back. "Let's go?"
    "I would have to agree with you," Thorwald said, scratching himself on the head a bit. "I like my ambushes one-sided."
    __________________

  8. - Top - End - #8
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 7
    Trammelburgh

    They pressed on, east along the bank of the Stahlmund, the strong dark water flowing to their left. The trees were tall and silent, save only for the twitter of birds. After about an hour, the river turned into an abrupt loop, and Trammelburgh was upon them, or they were upon Trammelburgh.
    The castle is the single largest building any of them had ever seen. Built on a rocky island, and built of it. Its lower levels were made of the same white rock that lined the bank, and its walls seemed to rise straight out of the water. A slowly swaying bridge of iron chains connected it to a small village on the imperial bank by means of two intermediate towers on smaller eyots.
    On their side of the river, the gatehouse was near enough to the bank that a, unusually long, drawbridge could, and in fact, frequently did, reach Redside territory. The trees were clear-felled for a heavy crossbow shot around, the stumps left in place.
    On the ramparts of the gatehouse, something that looked like a rather repulsive gargoyle suddenly moved and resolved into an obvious half-ogre wearing a dark-grey cloak with a red trim over a breastplate. He aimed a complicated looking weapon at them. "You People! Stay right there! CAPTAIN!"
    "Yes, yes," a rather hawkish man wearing grey cloak, mail shirt, and a certain look of I-didn't-dump-charisma appears on the rampart. "A terrifying host indeed. I shall quite need to fetch my best clothes. Hoy! Fellows! Fellettes! Heh...What news? What business?"
    Gregor stood "right there", letting Beth and Kresta do the talking. "Well, aren't they the pair," Horbin scoffed.
    Kresta seemed to choke back a laugh at Horbin's remark, but stepped forward. "Quattro! You know me!"
    "Often and thoroughly," Bethlen muttered discretely.
    "Not now, spook,” Kresta flashed a look at Bethlen. “My father is dead, Captain Vierzehn! Bandits on the Fall! These People avenged him, and guarded us here. We need a resupply, for the good my father has done Ashdown. You know my purse is good!"
    Bethlen dissolved into giggles. The hawkish chap--Captain Quattro Vierzehn, stepped to the edge of the battlements. "Well. They hardly seem like a bunch of murderous sex-fiends. Except maybe the Halflings. Trent, the bridge"
    "I don't like it Captain. That Orc has the look of diabolic intelligence and cold, calculated cunning in his eyes."
    "You say that about anything that can stand without slouching. Bridge!" Business ensued, and the bridge descended.
    Horbin laughed at Bethlen's comment. Thorwald smirked at the first remark, and laughed out loud at the second. Then Horbin and Gregor noticed, there were two figures walking the more distant battlements. One in black, the shorter with a white top. They appaeared to be watching the group, then dropped out of sight as though descending into the courtyard.
    The flag onto the highest tower was, surprisingly enough, blood red, with a small device in a dark color in the top left corner. "No, no sexfiends here," Thorwald looked around at the present company. "At least less than half the party" he mused.
    Delphi heard a voice from the treeline behind them. "Damn, all this hurry and stealthiness and we don't get to kill them. Can I fart now?”
    A female voice, from a different part of the trees, "Just not in my general direction."
    The drawbridge hit thier side of the bank with a thud. A spiky apparatus of of iron rattled up, exposing the gate. Kresta and Bethlen got the mules moving into the castle. Bethlen threw a sultry look over her shoulder, "Coming, then, You People?"
    "Grath guesses so," he said, seeing and hearing nothing not obvious to an observer on the moon. He started walking across the drawbridge. Gregor called his dogs from wherever they were, presumably not in the trees, and followed Grath. Since this whole castle-on-a-river thing was new to him, Gregor looked at whatever he was passing by, over, under, etc...
    The river current was being channeled by the castle and the bank into a fairly narrow channel, which made the current there very strong, and not too far below the level of the bridge at all. Above, Vierzehn and Trent disappeared from the rampart as they moved down into the courtyard. Behind the group, there was the faintest rustle of leaves as seven creatures moved out of the cover of the trees, grey cloaked and armed, moving forward with their eyes fixed on the group, but weapons lowered. An obvious Tiefling, black-skinned, red-eyed, and horns like a maleficent cosplayer, astride a horse, two humans and and a halfling and two wolves shadowing their master's steps.
    They passed under the massive gate tunnel, passed a reassuring number of murder holes, and entered a large open courtyard within which a number of grey-cloaked figures, who were co-incidentally, standing around doing nothing in particular. Dardiana followed just behind the party's frontline people.
    Vierzehn appeared from a flight of steps. "Splendid timing you fellows have," he said brightly. "We're completely overstocked right now, since so many of the regular garrison have been...redeployed on an....exercise"
    "Reinforcing the border with Caroline. Put a stop to that trouble,” Trent added.
    "Yes, thank you Trent, why don't you go help in the kitchen? Six dozen eggs don't just break themselves. As for you, friends and honoured guests, might I offer-"
    "Bethlen sweetie," shouted a voice. A couple of people approached the group. A young woman in leather trousers and a white blouse worn in just the right way to fail to look demure, and a tall man in leather armor of a vaguely similar, over-engineered style to Bethlen’s, though thankfully a little less snug. Also, he had a scythe on his back.
    Bethlen started like she'd been scolded. "What are you still doing here, Lotus?"
    "Is that a way to greet me? Come here," the young woman glomped Bethlen. It looked like a butterfly sexually assaulting a spider. "Are these your new friends? They're adorable. What a cute Orc!" She skipped up to Grath and stood on her toes to try to look him in the eye. She had eyes like a kitten’s. That wasn't reassuring to the orc. Abruptly, she broke off the stare and glanced at Bethlen, who glared back, then looked back at Grath with a changed expression.
    The man in leather came forward, moving more quickly than he should have been able to, and pulled her back by the back of her collar. "Charming to meet you all. Utterly charmed," he bowed elegantly, which was hard to pull off when carrying a scythe. "Brunswick Aleksandr, and this is Lotus Cadenza. I'd love to stay and chat to you all but it's so hard to think when there's so much charm around. If you'll excuse us, we have to take this young lady," as he noded at Bethlen. "Whom we have never met before and have an extremely private talk with her about matters that are of no interest to absolutely anyone." He turned away, not quite keeping a straight face, and hustled Bethlen and Lotus in the direction of the keep.
    Vierzehn looked appalled. "Sweet bloody murder, now there's four of them! What's yours like?"
    A small voice in Dardiana’s head spoke to her, the fey which commanded her ability to use the powers she possessed, informing her of what she could do that was new. She nodded as the fey spoke, which seemed weird to everyone looking, and tried out one of the two things, activating detect magic. She looked around, seeing if anything was magical. She saw that both Delphi's and Vierzehn's gloves showed weak transmutation, and Vierzehn's cloak showed abjuration as well.
    Lotus, Brunswick and Bethlen had strange, off-center auras so bright it was almost dazzling. Lotus and Brunswick showed strong conjuration with divination, transmutation and necromancy present in smaller doses. Bethlen's was the most complex and showed evocation as well. As she watched, the auras roiled strangely as though disturbed. Then all three turned their heads and looked straight at her. Brunswick narrowed his eyes and Lotus showed some pretty, little teeth, then Bethlen shook her head and they moved on.
    Thorwald followed the others inside, not really sure what to do with all the new faces. "Challenging," he replied to Vierzehn's question. "Putting it nicely. Do you have experience with this group?"
    Vierzehn looked confused for moment. "Group? Them? About a week. They turned up with a wagonload of quality liquor they claimed they had absolutely no idea what to do with, which was a lie, a commission from the Margrave's secretary to go through our records, which seems to be legitimate, and a cover story about being wandering scholars from the Free States, which is obviously a total lie. They're too tall for a start, the accent's wrong, and none of them have offered to sleep with anyone in exchange for money. Fact is, I suspect the little one would be willing to pay.
    Next thing I know, the guy's drinking my Rangers under the table, the little one's seducing my male troops in alphabetical order, and the scary one’s challenging Trent to arm-wrestling. I'd ask them what they really are, but I'm afraid they'd tell me."
    "Well, since no one else wants a true introduction. I am Horbin, a true warrior of the blade, Glenda," he said as he brought the blade to a rest on his left shoulder and reached his right hand to Vierzehn.
    Delphi had kept a sharp eye on the people that came out of the bushes behind them, and she made no effort to conceal the loaded sling in her right hand, nor the throwing axe in her left. She slid up to Dardiana, and muttered out of the corner of her mouth. "I think these people were talking about attacking us before they emerged from the undergrowth."
    "Of course we were planning to attack you", said the Tiefling woman, as a random gust of wind revealed no possible gender interpretation. She rode past Delphi, her eyes fixed and her horse looking rather alert. "What else would you expect us to do, armed strangers and proven killers in our preserve? But Captain's given the order, so you get in. Halfling."
    Her smile, nothing but fangs, and her horse’s hooves clank on the wood of the drawbridge.
    Vierzehn looked annoyed. "My apologies, my new and unintroduced friends, I have no skill in forest work, so that's why I leave it to people like Larissa here." He, then, took Horbin's hand in his right and shook it like somebody who has nothing to he needs to prove.
    Larissa, then in the courtyard, dismounted like a snake. "Funny, Captain, I thought you kept me around for my taut, well-shaped fundament."
    "And that. Anything, Lieutenant?"
    “A half-orc Dunkelrot. Other than that, just these people. The forest is silent. Maybe one of them could contribute something,” she replied. And then she seemed to register. "Good to meet you, Horbin. Nice to meet a man with manners. Ah, Glenda? Is this a story I should hear?"
    "Gregor McAlister, son of Neil McAlister, son of Roderick McAlister son of Conall "Alister" Moore. And since you have a lot of proven killers walking aroud, I suppose having some more is not a big deal." Gregor winked at that tiefling then turned back to Vierzehn "Speaking of which... are we allowed to kill anyone around this place? Like... what is that "Dunkelrot"? If not, I'm afraid you won't see much of killing by us, at least in this jurisdiction, and we will have to resort to more peaceful transactions... fine with me, I suppose..."
    "Bandits on the Fall. She says. Her father dead, she says. I liked him. Maybe you could tell me what happened, over drinks, come, guests, we have a mess hall and I'm not afraid to use it.
    Dunkelrot? An extended family of in-bred clannish killers from the Caroline hills. We kill them on sight. Saves paperwork. Convenient they wear that colour. Kresta--I'm sorry for your loss, I am, he was a valued man in these parts, but I'm not sorry that you experience such a promotion in your fortunes, and I know you have what it takes to take his place, and more besides, but where did you find the Spook? Larissa? Pick out some diplomatic troopers for the morrow, looks like you'll be leading some people to Whitewater Rush tomorrow, and an argument with the Soulflayer is not on my list of fun things to do with Saturday. Do you ladies and gentlemen prefer brown spirits or white?”
    "We dispatched the other Dunkelrots back at the place where the pixies live. They were there with some elves and fighting when we found them and their illgained loot," Horbin said to Vierzehn. "I do enjoy some ale."
    "Seems they were very much planning to attack us, but that's not as interesting as everything they've got going around them. Lotus, Bruns, and Beth all have... auras emanating from them. And they all turned to look at me when I saw them." Dardiana glanced up at the two who they hadn't been around and then looked at Bethlen. "Anyway..." She spoke up, "I am Dardiana Darksbane, and I'll be having my own wine." She was ready to move forward.
    Gregor followed to the mess hall, but on the way asked where the party could dump their ‘loot’ and fresh meat and if the dogs were allowed in or should also be left somewhere. Thorwald took in the scenery with practiced disdain, following the others, it seemed, for no other reason than that the mead was nearby.
    "Bring your own, share ours. It's all one. You people don't seem the sort to cause problems," the Captain says as he airly guestured at the Orc, the Warlock, and the Halflings. "And if I'm wrong about that, why, I'm a problem-solver," his smile looked a little bloodthirsty at that point. "Pray, come near." He turned and lead them off, his cape rising with the wind. Larissa gave them all a long look and then fell in step with him.
    The messhall of Trammelburgh was large, and mainly empty. Plainly the castle was designed for a much larger garrison. Blood-Red banners, a black raven's head and claw in the top-left corner, were drapped from the walls. Paintings of various serious-looking people were placed between them. One of them bared a distinct resemblence to a younger Ingva Soulflayer.
    Vierzehn called for meat and mead, the drama queen, and guestured for them to sit. "Now why don't you tell me everything that's happened so far."
    Gregor did not show much interest in meat, as he was nowhere near hungry, but did drink a moderate amount of mead. He then described what happened roughly as, "Traveled north. Seen corpses. Chased east. Caused corpses. Some dumb red cloaks, so not a big deal." He was willing to go into details if asked, but took no initiative to mention the nixie, the snaky amulet, or corresponding activities.
    Kresta piped up at this point. "They grabbed me, the bandits, knocked me cold and threw me on the back of a mule. These people caught up with them near the broken stone. You know the one".
    Vierzehn looked thoughtful, but his eyes flashed. "Now I really am quite upset, and may have to vent my feelings in violence at some point. But first....red cloaks. Implies organisation, and little common sense. Ashdown used to use red and black, long time past, got sick of being targets, and people shining "Detect Evil" in our faces, stopped.
    That stream, or rather its mountain valley, has an odd reputation. There's a gigantic cannibal fish-woman in it for a start, but she's easy enough to deal with if you throw her enough meat. Most women are. However, theres a location couple of days up the valley that people have long since learned to avoid. People go in, nothing comes out. We'd stopped worrying about it since before the Soulflayer’s time here."
    "I would like to hear more about that valley, if there is more to know. Also we may be looking for work, either with the military or some other honest means. Do you happen to know where we may inquire about such things," Horbin responded to Vierzehn.
    Vierzehn smiled, and Larissa actually laughed. "Is this not Ashdown? And am I not Captain? And do you think there is anyone else with the authority to grant, or not, employment? As for the valley, it's a long narrow pretty road lined with fabulous scenery with death at the end, according to most reports. Do you have any clues as to where these...inept idiots sprang from?"
    "Pardon my ignorance of your customs and titles, it is my first time here," Horbin said with a slight look of embarassment. He then cast a look at Gregor, Dardiana, Delphi, Grath, Marn and then Thorwald.
    Grath asked, "Is there a place to sell the items acquired on our journey? Lots of weapons, armor just, umm, sitting around. So to say."
    Delphi noded at Grath's words. "He's got a good point; I'm not even carrying all this stuff and I find it cumbersome. It's in good repair, though, and if you don't have need of it we can keep it until we reach the next town or city along the way." She made her point cleanly, without actually saying it; we aren't desperate, don't try to fleece us.
    Vierzehn waved a hand. "We keep cash here for operating expenses, employing irregulars, that kind of thing. Present a list of your surplus to Trent. He's not hard to find. It's why we don't take him into the woods."
    "He walks into trees, and steps in things. And steps on things." said Larissa dryly, leaning on the back of Vierzehn's chair in a rather asubordinate manner.
    "Quite. He can be a strain on a woodsman's patience. Even to I. And I'm all at sea in the woods. And all lost in the woods at sea. But he's good with merchandis--" Vierzehn started.
    "Quattro! Honey!" The doorway was suddenly filled with Bethlen looking sullen, Brunswick looking resigned, and Lotus looking chipper. And the single tallest human woman they've ever seen in their lives, a Falchion worn at her hip like a scimitar, all coming their way. "Bethlen was just telling us about the delighful excursion she has planned with These People tomorrow! A journal to deal with a handsome blonde imbecile in an unknown location filled with unknown dangers! How thoroughly romantic!"
    The tall one moved right up to the table with the inexorability of a battleship. Her right hip jolted Dardiana's chair and jarred it, and Dardiana, an inch to the side. If she noticed, it didn't show. "Astra Vaultspear. Please excuse my incivility. Show me the bandit's map." she said to the group in general.
    "Sprang? They were sent to scout the area by some Ajneguhs, who is himself described as an idiot; with mail shirt, red robe, fire magic and all not helping the diagnosis, residing in some sort of VALLEY. He's building an "army", whatever that means, to use against YOU, so you should very well know him. Works for some more serious guy." Gregor tried his best to determine if that's the same valley Vierzehn was talking about or some other valley, pointing to the maps when necessary.
    Astra bent at the waist and snapped out a hand to intercept the map, revealing a cluster of triangular amulets at her neck, and a ring on her finger showing eight snakes radiating from a central hub. Vierzehn stood up to check the map as well.
    The arrival of Bethlen and her gang almost made Thorwald sneer, though he looked at the large woman with mild interest and a small smile, before going back to studying the tapestry.
    Now that Marn was not distracted by everything else, he noticed that Brunswick had a medalion, amulet, or holy symbol showing a scythe and lightning bolt at his neck. "That," said Vierzehn, his finger snaking out precisely. "Is the place from which no-one returns, and yet it seems as though they came from there. Curious."
    "This is highly improbable," stated Astra. "That location is known. It should be Kept and Guarded. For thousands of years it has been Kept and Guarded. Something has changed. Bethlen, you are heading there tomorrow. Alone if you must. With us if we must, with your friends here if possible. This bears investigation."
    Delphi folded her arms, and she narrowed her eyes just a tad. "I don't think that we would be disinclined to go into a horrible, screaming deathtrap with Beth here; that actually sounds like a lot of fun. But you know what would be nice?" She paused for a moment, letting the sarcasm sink in. "Some slight incentive. Do you get what I'm aiming at here?"
    After Dardiana was moved, she noted that Astra is a bit rude, maybe more so. She kept her mouth shut, though, since she was unsure what the rest of her companions wanted to do. She, though, was fine with helping out.
    "Yes, Delphi is right. Ingva told us that in her time here Ashdown woud pay some, support some, and take half the loot. Has anything changed? I wonder if we should make this an Ashdown operation, with proper payment, support, ranks, orders and such or just just venture there on our own. In any case we will need a license to kill some opposition, I guess, but in second case we'll be keeping all the loot and will have no obligation to proceed if we will find the task too dangerous. So, what are the pay and the support we will be losing?" Gregor’s voice was solid and determined.
    "Let's make it clear. Redside is your territory, not mine. It's just that it’s inaccessible to you for much of the year. This means this--fellow with his--army should be dealt with by you. Or if not you, somebodies of your kind. Sending a decent Ashdown force this time of year would cause some offense to Ingva, something I'd like to avoid." He looked from Gregor to Delphi, and steepled his fingers. “I'll give you two hundred each, now, to go there and deal with the whatever. Full rights to anything you find. And an extra hundred to whoever returns alive with a good story for me.
    I should say I'm less than inclined, as well, to send my rangers to somewhere from which no one has returned in living memory, but maybe something has changed. Cleric Vaultspear, I suppose it should not surprise me that you surprise me again. How is it you know these things, and is there perhaps more that you're not saying?”
    "I know very little. I know the location exists, that it was abandoned long ago, before there was an Empire, along with many other such places. I know that for love and pride, certain arrangements would have been made to guard and preserve it. I know that there exist certain people around today with the authority and power to circumvent those arrangements. I know that for this...fellow as you call him to dwell there, this must have been done. And I know that he cannot have done it himself, or he'd be sending Elemental Monoliths, not hireling thugs.” Vierzehn seemed to change disposition as he spoke to Gregor. Gregor lost most of his interest in cooperation with Vierzehn, but he continued to sit and wait for the meeting to end.
    "Pay not withstanding I am inclined to help as I would prefer to not have my homeland invaded by someone trying to raise an army. I would ask that we have an escort to the valley itself if possible, if not then I guess it wouldn't have made a difference. I am willing to help in any way I can," Horbin responded, looking at Beth. "I cannot let such a lovely woman go to such a dangerous place alone in good conscious," he continued as he shifted his look to Astra with a smile.
    At the repeated mention of murder, death and destruction, however, Thorwald finally capitulated,
    "Mayhem and death what way? I'll go to any bloody valley you'd like," he said, his smile getting broader and broader. "Payment presupposed, naturally," he ended with a glint in his eyes, and emptied his mead.
    "Well, I'm glad some seem keen. Some we get from your lands, would you believe, seem to think they have a right to anything that isn't nailed down, and the right to everyone's respect and adulation just for, you know, being them. But from me, you get this job, and my favour in future ventures. The room and board, of course, goes without saying." Vierzehn looked almost glad as he made the statement.
    Bethlen stepped forward. "Captain, does this offer extend to me? Since I am now a merchant without liquid capital, and I will seek this man, alone or not. You three had best remain since you're not done here yet, if no-one returns you'll know what must be done."
    Brunswick looked at her oddly. "And if the Recaller doesn't work in there, you'll have died for us. Will not be forgotten."
    Lotus had been trying to contain herself, but then ruined the mood completely by bursting out laughing. "Mail shirt, probably quite expensive mail shirt. Elemental magic. Calls himself "Ajneguhs". He really is an idiot! To think that spelling something backwards fools anyone."
    "But not today, Grath just got here, and is not eager to leave so soon. Stuff to sell, stuff to buy. More to drink, too. Leave tomorrow, early, if all are ready, and not hung over."
    Since it seemed nobody was drinking, Dardiana had refrained from opening her bottles. More for the road, or some other time. "Grath makes his point clear, poorly articulated, but clear. If there's anything else anyone wants to say, say it now or forever hold your peace. Grath, do you have a count of the loot? And if not, does anyone?"
    "I am willing to count, sell and/or split the loot, extensively consulting with everyone involved. I take it Grath will take care of transportation and if anyone will help us with evaluation, it would be just as good as it gets. You will see a detailed report of all calculations and operations performed, so consider this topic taken care of." Gregor was quick to answer Dardiana. "Kresta, will you please help us with selling the stuff we have found?"
    "So it is agreed, Gregor will take count to get the gold for our spoils and we will leave in the morning for the valley," Horbin added. Gregor nodded, though he was not overly enthusiastic.
    "Can we negotiate the mission not to be "deal with the whatever", but to have a more limited scope? Like "deal with the so-called 'Ajneguhs' and, if it would be prudent, the whatever"? Otherwise I am afraid I will have to refuse taking the money up front for a task that might be well beyond our ability to accomplish."
    Vierzehn gave Gregor a surprised look. Looked at Larissa, then looked at Gregor again. "What did I do, that you treat me with such disrespect? I told you: In my knowledge and experience, none return from that place. I'm not asking anyone to go there without renumeration. You should be asking for more, not none. As for "deal with the whatever", finding out what we are dealing with qualifies. I have a power here, Ingva has more, and behind me there is more still. But we all need to know more. The Scary One here obviously knows more than I. Somehow." His eyes narrowed at Astra. Astra's eyes were already pretty narrow, but they narrow back.
    He turned to the Tiefling woman leaning on the arm of his chair. "Lieutenant Lasalle, shift that fundament of yours and chase up a guide. And some diplomatic riders to get Kresta to Whitewater Rip. As for the merchant, yes of course that offer includes you."
    Larissa doffed her cloak, and remarked languidly. "I already know who we're sending, Captain Vierzehn, but Gretchen's in the village just now. I'll get on to that, by your will, and chase up a spare mule for Kresta as well." She walked off, swaying her hips a little more than was strictly necessary.
    If anyone was watching this, it was interrupted by Lotus abruptly landing in Thorwald's lap. "HI! bethlen says you like to play with fire. Like to play with me? You're so sneering and contemptuous. I like that. You follow the sky-walker? Can I see your dagger?"
    Thorwald took in Lotus' affections with little interest and tried gently to push her off his lap.
    "Yes, I do follow the Lord of Fire. This particular fire does not hold much interest. I am interested in a horse, though." At that Thorwald quickly pointed with his finger at the surrounding people. "Don't even start! Not what I meant!"
    Bethlen, Astra, and Brunswick had the look of people making will saves to avoid facepalming. Bethlen actually failed. "Lotus, it's only seven o'clock, isn't this a bit early?" Brunswick let out.
    "Hey, there's five to work through and they're leaving in the morning," Lotus replied.
    "Please excuse us, Lotus is the Delphi of the group." Bethlen said with a smirk.
    "Are you saying I'm short, Bethlen?" Lotus shot a dirty look at Bethlen.
    "You are short." Astra chimed in.
    "Couldn't you give them time to pretty up a little? By all accounts, they've had a hard couple of days,” Brunswick gestured his arms over the group.
    "Then they deserve a hard--nevermind. If you're jealous, just get your own handsome man." Lotus turned back to Thorwald.
    "Done. And done. Frequently." said Brunswick, looking mildly annoyed.
    "She can't be the Delphi of the group. For simple reason: She said there's 5 to work through. There are 5 men and 2 women. If she was Delphi, she'd have said 7 to work through." Dardiana joined the conversation.
    "That's why we have Bethlen," said Lotus. Brunswick facepalmed.
    "Or, she meant only those full size," Gregor added as he took a look at Lotus and hoped she meant those full size.
    Astra looked straight at Gregor. "You are not going to have much fun. At this rate." Which suited Gregor just fine, so he nodded in satisfaction.
    "Also, can we have a cart?" Dardiana asked the Captain.
    "Of course. I'm surprised you haven't ask for horses,” he replied.
    Grath thumped his chest at this. "Grath needs no horse. Ride if must, but probably walk alongside."
    "I'll be riding in the cart. Anyone care to join me or will I be alone in there?" Dardiana said with a bit of a sigh.
    Delphi had been extremely distracted by the, assets of the locals, but as the conversation went on she started suppressing a grin; finally she spoke up, giggling as she did. "Really now, guys. You're asking for the cart before the horse? Children's stories would be ashamed of you."
    "I would think horses are implied when we ask for a cart," Dardiana barked back.
    Delphi rolled her eyes, winking to Dardiana. "I'm just picking on you, don't worry. It's important to know how to take a little ribbing." She made sure to not let her eyes wander to some of the other folk in the area as she spoke to Dardiana, as fascinating as they may have been.
    Dardiana thought for a moment about what a 'proper' response would be to Delphi's comment. Then said screw it, deciding to change the subject instead. "Will you be riding with me in the cart?"
    Delphi smiled more gently, and she nodded. "If that's alright with you, it really would be for the best; I'm a bit slower than you tallfolk over longer distances, and it can really add up if we have to go any real distance. Gregor has his animals, but I just have to trek; and I don't want to hold us back." She then sidled up to Dardiana, smoothly giving her a hug. "Is that alright with you?"
    Lotus bounced on the, catatonic with shock, Thorwald's knee. "You two are cute! Which of you wears the equipment, or do you take it in turns?"
    Brunswick crossed his arms in a gesture that precisely mirrored Bethlen. It's like they learned it on a parade ground, or something. "Just once, I'd like to make it an entire day without you being inappropriate. Or Astra treating the surrounding terrain as a suggestion to be ignored."
    "Lotus is not being inappropriate," Astra spoke up.
    Bethlen's eyes actually opened full. Brunswick looked at Astra oddly. "I understood all the words there, but somehow the sentence, especially coming from you, makes no sense in this world or the next one."
    "She is attempting to enliven a somewhat stilted discourse. In the way she knows. Which is not going to change. Captain, Vierzehn, if I were to ask why your Lieutenant has left her cloak draped over the back of your chair before wandering outside; would I regret hearing the answer,” Astra continued.
    "Probably" said Vierzehn amiably. "Anyway, the Soulflayer, she's not thinking of coming here is she? That would be awkward. I'm not fifteen any more, and she says quite frightening things in her sleep."
    Dardiana returned the hug, while she replied to Delphi first and then Lotus, "I was the one who asked you if you wanted to come, so why wouldn't I be okay with it? And we don't have anything of the sort, unfortunately. That is, as of yet. If you have one that you wouldn't mind parting with, though, I'm sure we'd gladly take it off your hands."
    "Look, Grath is a simple orc. Who is coming to investigate Ashnejugashugawuga and who stays back? Will drink with those who come." Grath was clearly bewildered by the conversation going on around him.
    Dardiana turned to Grath after. "I believe it's safe to assume we're all coming, at least the group that we left in."
    "No, Grath means out of the Empire-folk who live here. Not really clear who wants to kill, err, investigate Ajeshunegagagash and who is wimping out."
    Marn Ortul stood up. "I will remain here" he said quietly. "It seems that Bethlen is coming, while her friends have agreed not. I should stay to keep an eye on...things. Captain Vierzehn, if there's employment here for a scholar and user of magic, I would be grateful for your consideration"
    "I would be grateful for your continued presence, good sir." Vierzehn clicked his fingers. "Libations for our guests, our allies, our brave vangard!"
    Marn reached into his pack and took out a black leatherbound book, a clasp in the shape of a lightning bolt crossed with a scythe, matching the pendant around Brunswick's neck, holding it shut. He slid it down the table towards the group in the over-designed leather. "Miss Gabriel, I believe this to be yours. I found the content...confusing."
    "Ooooooo!" said Lotus. "You've been lending it out? I knew you'd like it!"
    Bethlen stepped forward and put her hand down on the book. "So that's where that got to." Her eyes flickered upwards. "Hope you shared out the cash evenly, or did this count against your share?"
    "Say, Astra. If I can get this vixen off my lap, how about we share some mugs? Or maybe even a little contest?" Thorwald spoke again, the first time since his nearly embarrassing horse comment.
    Astra looked at Thorwald as though seeing him for the first time. She was definitely sculpted, possibly out of cold iron. "I don't drink sir, and if I choose to consider anyone competition, it won't be you. Lotus, since the gentleman does not wish to share your brand of professional courtesies, see if you can enflame somebody else."
    "A pity," Lotus bounded up. "Maybe I should go with Bethlen and them to meet this man who spells things backwards. It would be fun to face a fellow follower of my calling, to test my best against his, and then roast him into pork crackling. How deliciously ironic! And I could play with all the cute boys on the way."
    "No," shouted Bethlen, Brunswick, and Astra, all at once. "Please don't make any more threats against sanity and the poor Orc's comprehension," said Brunswick. "Bethlen is going, as well the Elf/Halfling double act, the Fire-Worshipper, the Orc, the Swordsman, and the Packmaster."
    "And Gretchin", said Larissa, her tail flicking as she entered the room thanks to the wonder of dramatic time-compression. A small black-skinned young human woman in a grey cloak followed her, and behind that, a boar. "She will guide you to the location. I have trained her well, and she should be capable in the forest also. Get her killed and I'll haunt you all," she paused. "Wait, that doesn't make any sense. Well, I'll do it anyway."
    The young woman stepped forward, she carried a club, a sickle, and a number of shortspears. The boar stayed at her side. "Gretchin Hakkonna, Nuisance." Pause. "I mean, I'm Gretchin. And this is my compan--my pet, Nuisance. I'll be quiet now."
    Lotus licked her lips. "She looks scrummy. Looks like you're all in good hands. Wish I was." And then she bounded right into Horbin's lap. "What about you? You look like you don't get enough attention."
    "Glad to meet you, Gretchin; and you, Nuisance; my name is Gregor, and these are Abyss, Barry and Cherry; pack, greet our new friends, BOTH of them; I am sure we will have great time working together." Gregor strictly watched the dogs as they went to the boar and his mistress, performed any appropriate rituals of their chosing, then came back. He wanted to make it perfectly clear to them, that THIS boar is not for EAT.
    Delphi smiled at Dardiana, and then she idly rubbed one of Gregor's hounds behind the ears, smiling at it. "I never did get a chance to ask you, Gregor; how on earth did you train these guys so well? Most dogs just want to chase me up a tree." She then glanced at Lotus, grinning. "And that one seems intent on driving our men up a tree. Come now, darling, it isn't attractive to be too pushy. You can come flirt with us for a while; it'll make them jealous, and give you a way in."
    "Thank you, but no. I'm just not that sort of girl" laughed Lotus, trying to wedge herself into Horbin as far as she could. "I'll watch from over here. Ask Brunswick if you like. Or Bethlen. Astra thinks intimacy means striking for non-lethal damage, so don't bother there." She turned to Horbin. "You have a big sword. Are you compensating? Fine if you are. We just have to try harder. They've given me a nice room with a view of the river, would you like to come there?"
    Vierzehn leaned back and stroked his beard. "I'm not sure I like to see this happening in my messhall..."
    "I could stand to see a little more", said a grey cloaked trooper. "Enough from you, Mr. Anonymous Trooper Number Seventeen--and what was your mother thinking when she named you? Far too long. In any event, let's avert our eyes from these horrors and drink to those who go boldly to the Ominous Pause Gazebo."
    "Captain," said Larissa. "I'm fairly sure you're not actually supposed to say, "Ominous Pause."
    "Maybe not, but I like it my way." Larissa and Bruswick both covered their mouths, and Lotus laughed loudly.
    "Whatever. Brunswick and I should be getting back to our studies. We leave Bethlen to look after Lotus, and Bethlen to look after Bethlen. Before I go, Orc, might I see your axe?" Astra asked with authority.
    Dardiana whispered to Delphi, "Maybe she likes a challenge? Not the sort of girl to be with others without charming them." Then she spoke louder, to Vierzehn. "Speaking about rooms, do we get some?"
    Delphi nodded at that line of inquiry. "As fun as this is, I think we could all use a chance to rest before marching to our potential deaths. Rooms would be nice. Or just a room; these boys are all very polite and respectful. Or big enough that they get some leeway." She gave the resident orc a very pointed look.
    "Like I said earlier, the room and board goes without saying, I'm afraid we're a bit short on actual domestic staff, so if you want room service I'm afraid you'll have to, ah, service each other. The kitchen is that way. I'll put you all on the third floor of the keep,” Vierzehn responded.
    Astra, lacking an answer from Grath, had moved around and placed a hand on the axe, staring at it intensely. "Someone was here," she finally said. "A Shaman could tell you more, but someone was in this thing for a while, and left something behind. It wouldn't have shown as magic...but I think it may be lucky for you. And probably just you."
    In the meantime, Gretchin and Nuisance seemed to be responding well to the dogs. Well, actually Gretchin had got Abyss rolling on the floor while Nuisance grunted amiably to the others. Larissa, standing at ease, was looking down on all this from the top of a very straight backbone.
    "Well, that training is nothing extraordinary, although it is, indeed, quite extensive. Many trained dogs get only some of that, and most street or wild dogs get none. For example, laikas, like my Barry and Cherry, are bred for exactly that - barking at anything thay meet and chasing it onto a tree or towards the hunter. No surprise they do that untrained, it's in their blood. They were not necessarily hunting you, but you get the idea. Are reasonably smart, though, and guickly learn to differentiate between what is and what is not allowed to do. And who is what." Gregor pointed at the party around Gretchin and her boar. "You see, not a sign of hunting behavoir. No surprise though, the girl seems to know the drill."
    Gregor sipped some mead, pausing for a moment. "So, I just know their language... sort of. Some spiritual thing, I was explained. Not all that hard to train when you can actually tell what is the thing that needs doing."
    Thorwald flashed a big smile at Astra's rejection.
    "Playing hard to get, hmm? I like that in a woman. And quite the woman you are. A real iron lady." Thorwald's hands moved with powerful gestures as he spoke. "You must feel a hard woman, Astra. But you know, when iron gets heated, it gets soft. And the hues of colour it creates."
    Thorwald moved in a little closer. "Reconsider, please, having your armor heated by the flame of Loki! We could create wonderful colour together, you and I."
    Astra didn't even turn as she exited the messhall. She did, however, burst out in an aura of red and yellow flames that seethed and raged behind her as she moved, disappeared through the portal and down a flight of steps.
    Brunswick, having fallen in step with her, stepped back nimbly and turned that into a quick about turn, facing the table, and nodded to Thorwald. "Also, she can punch through a wall and I've seen her juggle Dire Flails. And she doesn't like it when people speak slightingly of her friends. Mind how you go," and then he followed her down the now distinctly red-limed stairs.
    "I think I'm in love," Thorwald muttered.
    Bethlen, still turning over the pages in the black leather book as if to make sure that they're all still there, hadn't raised her head at all. "I told You People. Not Yours," she growled.
    "But I'm a short-term lease with no hidden fine print. Can I see your back-up weapon?" Lotus squirmed in Horbin's lap.
    "Well, that's an interesting woman. Anyone want to place bets on what happens, or shall we just leave them alone? Vierzehn could you lead us to our rooms, and perhaps where we can sell the loot as well?" Dardiana spoke with a quickness.
    "The sword is just to deal with those I would not seek to slay with my, 'close range', weapon. Don't let it mislead you," Horbin responded to Lotus. Though a little uncomfortable with her advances at first, he seemed to settle into comfort with her presence after a short while. "I would certainly like to see the view you have of the river. It will be nice not looking at the landscape through mud for a while."
    "Is that a "Yes"? I am born of steel and fire. And love and pride, as Astra said. I'll never force nor trick nor surrender. And I will be worth the whistle. Come!" She jumped from Horbin's lap, and presented her hand to him. "I invite you, worthy gentleman, to see me to my room, and as much else as you wish. Come along, I sense this is something beyond us, but then again, it always is.”
    Horbin accepted her proffered hand, "Yes," and allowed her to lead the way.
    __________________

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 8
    Midnight Rendezvous

    The night broke up. The Half-Ogre that really wished it had just been a Bugbear, handed out the cash from sales, and then, in an awkwardly military fashion, lead them all to some rather nice sleeping arrangements.
    In the deep of the night Horbin woke to a voice. "Dude, wake up" said a voice in his ear. It crackled and flamed. "It took a lot of effort to pull the little wench in our direction, and my Cleric choked, so I guess it's up to you." The voice fumed for a few minutes. "Don't try to move. This is sleep paralysis, or so Frigga calls it. Thank some other power you sleep with your eyes open. I could make arrangements the other way, but I'm scared they'll notice. Not them. Who they serve. They can get in here. I'm Loki, by the way.
    They can get in here, and the Destroyer, old One-Eye, he doesn't do anything. He kids me that it's all a game, and that they're friendly, which they are, but deep down, I can tell, he's frightened of them as well. It has something to do with the deal that they're all exalted mortals rather than actual gods, and so count as some sort of Uber-Einhenjar. And as such, get sort of a back door into Valhalla. Whatever. I'm an Exemplar of Chaos, not a lawyer, but I can tell when a bunch of people turn up that scare the crap out of me that things are not right."
    “Anyway, Loki-Skywalker, the bringer of flame is talking. And talking too much. You need to watch. And listen."
    The night was dark, Lotus was dressing. Her trousers were already on. She rejected the white blouse and pulled on a short leather jacket. That left her, with her reddish hair disheveled by her previous activities, looking rather eighties, if Horbin had the frame of reference to appreciate the comparison.
    And then she suddenly stopped. "How long have you been there?"
    A set of shadows and angles in the corner moved and shifted, treaded forward silently, and resolved into the shape of Astra Vaultspear. “A couple of hours. You are most dexterous.”
    "I know, it never seems to make any difference. So, it's settled then? We have to go?"
    "Three of us was a gamble. Four of us are lost. Bethlen was gambling on us already being gone when she led those people here. We have let her down. Quattro Vierzehn is already hitting the books to find out what we are. He's not stupid. It will not take him long,” Astra answered.
    There was a noise at the door at that point. Astra drew her Falchion and Lotus pulled a nimbus of crackling sparks around her fist, and then the door opened to reveal Brunswick Aleksandr, looking a little unsteady on his feet. Both people relaxed.
    "Weren't you supposed to be keeping Vierzehn occupied? And wasn't that supposed to be done by now?" Astra’s voice was stern.
    "Did my best, but he invited the Tiefling woman as well. And she really, really wanted to be the meat in a sandwich. Well, she got what she wanted. In the end." Brunswick seemed annoyed and jovial at the same time.
    Lotus and Astra both looked carefully blank. "OK, So, does anyone else care to ruin the privacy of my bedroom?"
    Enter Bethlen, at the open door. "The Issue we spoke of previously? Confirmed."
    "Which one?" Lotus questioned.
    "The Orc," Bethlen answered.
    "Pay up, guys" Astra and Brunswick both handed over some silvers. Then Lotus went nuts. "You bitch! You mother! This will be what, your second? And you mainly go with girls. Me, I've been getting banged against walls since I was old enough to bleed and not a twitch! It's not fair! But I'm happy for you all the same," She gave Bethlen a hug. "Name it for me, will you?"
    "What if it's a boy?" Bethlen questioned.
    Astra moved forward. "This will mess up your tour, Bethlen, it will put you behind. You might as well have level adjustment."
    "Let it. I have three months at least. I'll show what I can do in that time. And afterwards."
    "Well then, I can't fault your choice," and then Astra grabbed Bethlen by the ponytail and kissed her hard on the mouth. Bethlen's eyes opened full and Lotus and Brunswick looked stunned. "Hmmm. Salty. Not unpleasant. Come, you we must move."
    The four of them moved out through the torchlit doorway. Loki's voice crackled in Horbin’s ear: "Oh, dude, I'm really sorry. They didn't say anything interesting at all!"
    "What, what do you mean nothing interesting?! You truly are mad. This is a level of sinister that I couldn't see. I must tell the others. Wait, why did you care to show me this?" Horbin lets out in a mental scream.
    "What? I'm frightened, dude. Have you met the Starlight Destroyer? Well, no, obviously, since you're still clinging to your component molecules. Well, I have to put up with her turning up unexpectedly and smiling at me and being pleasant. And she's the Thor of the bunch. The rest are more dangerous because I have no idea what they'll do,” Loki’s voice rang out.
    "So what you are saying is these people are the lackies of the Starlight Destroyer? Isn't that something. Well how are we supposed to stop anything, we are rookies at best and mere mortals, as far as I know. Though Grath may be surprised to find himself a father, course that is if he is the orc she spoke of," Horbin replied.
    ***
    Gregor sold spoils, bought supplies; buckler, knife, some food, ink, pen and some parchament, spent time calculating each one's share of the loot, marked his calculations on a sheet of parchament, and divided the money according to his calculations. Then he spent most of the rest of his share to buy a wand to heal wounds, checked the dogs and went to sleep.
    Grath followed Gregor to sell some of his own items and replenish some supplies and miscellaneous goods. He verified his accounts and settled up with the others.
    After a short stint in the mess hall for some ale that all growing orcs need, he then returned to his room and tried to get some sleep, with a strange forboding that others were having an interesting evening.
    After Dardiana had made sure that the items were sold, she headed off, to see if there was a library in the castle. There was a library, quite a large one. It was in the basement and contained a certain Astra Vaultspear and Brunswick Aleksandr. Brunswick appeared to be doing gofer duties for Astra.
    They nodded at her entrance, but said nothing. Astra seemed mostly lost in the books, and other items, before her. Now and then she put out a finger to draw Bruswick’s attention to a passage and he scribbled in a small red book. After a couple of hours, they replaced the books they were using, and headed back upstairs.
    Dardiana discovered some details about the local geography. The capital of Ashdown, Alnwick, was two days to the north of there. Upriver, the border with the Caroline was three days away to the south of the river, and a no-man's land to the north. Ethandun was a cityport a day's travel downriver. Ashdown's major civilised neighbors appeared to be The March of the Caroline to the east, regarded as backward and savage, though still "civilised", The Duchy of Kaulune to the north-west; coastal, wealthy, sophisticated and dangerous, and the Republic of Queichau to the north; regarded as pleasant, parochial, and a little inclined to vampirism.
    After Astra and Brunswick had left, Dardiana discovered a piece of paper close-written in dense, precise handwriting. Apparently, it was blown off the table while Astra was packing up her books.
    It read;
    " Bethlen;

    "The location on the map is listed in our directories as Reserve Installation 1197X. It was built as a military facility during the War against the Abberancy, I think, by agents of the Crimson Iron Rider. After the Abberancy was sealed beneath Yamighul, it became a private residence, but was rendered structural unsafe by The Destroyers geography-altering moment of rage during the War of the Sage's Treason. It was abandoned, and defended and preserved according to the traditions of the time.

    "I hardly need to say that if the active and passive defenses appropriate to a location of this vintage remain in force and operational, it is very likely you will not return. I will not do you the disrespect that you would not do me and attempt to dissuade you. Please know, as you must know already, that should the worst happen we will see to the welfare of your son, and see that he grows up lacking for nothing, and knowing who you were.

    "There are many that could have shut down the defenses from afar and allowed this "Ajneguhs" to occupy it, but who would do so and for what reason is a mystery to me. This man is very foolish, to dwell in such a place. His very life is hostage to the whim of his backer.

    "Please return safely, you will know where to find us, and then we will know what must be done.

    [signed]

    Astra Vaultspear, of Sickelein. Kissed by War."
    After she picked it up and skimmed it, getting the gist that Bethlen and Astra, and possibly Brunswick, had been hiding something, she sought if she could get paper and ink somewhere in the library and copied the note down and threw it back on the ground, in a condition similar to what she found it in.
    She tried to remember the look of the books that they were using and looked around where she saw them replace the books. Based on where they replaced their books, they appeared to have been studying locations in the general area; Ashdown, Redside, and surrounding policities, that have a mysterious or haunted reputation, and cookery. Dardiana left the library after jotting down the locations or trying to memorize them, heading to sleep. She'd tell the others on the morrow.
    ***
    “Oh Me, you don't get it, dude. None of them are the lackeys of anyone. And the Destroyer has no Lackeys. Only friends and people she hasn't met yet. Do you understand why she scares me?
    Technically, Two of them serve the Bringer of Silence, and one, who is strongest in her faith, the Burning General. And IF I can be relied on to tell you what these people are like, they're people who like the Destroyer, who would follow her into oblivion, Fight alongside her against anything in Hell, and slap her in the face if she acted stupid. And cheerfully incinerate anything that stood between them. The little one, Lotus, is something of an Atheist by their standards." Loki’s voice was slightly louder than before.
    "Interesting. Looks like they may need to be dealt with, maybe we can use this trip as a way to thin their ranks. I personally do not want to see oblivion if I can help it. Aside from listening, is there anything you 'need' from me?" Horbin questioned, as he was becoming accustomed to.
    "Knowing what you know, you're going to eliminate Bethlen Gabriel? That IS cold. Are you sure it will work? And not say, turn these people into determined personal enemies? Not to mention, you've never asked what her amulet does," Loki replied.
    "Bethlen I may keep around if the rest of my companions agree, but an honest answer to her intent is going to be needed. As to the others, if they seek the end then I will seek theirs."
    "What precisely is it that you think they seek? Because I can tell you right now that all but Bethlen have passed out of your reach, trusting on your faith and honor, as they do.
    I am Loki, and yet I wish you to tell me what it is you think. For, truthfully, I am confused. And I don't like to be confused when the potential cost includes getting a +50 Vorpal Scythe of Deicide waved in my face by somebody who knows how to use it."
    "A god with fear, a good thing I guess. The others can be found. My reach is not the only thing that can be used as I can just tell Captain Vierzehn that they are planning some plot against his kingdom and see if they can be stopped. Looks like trusting has gone out the window as of now.
    I will have to talk with the group and let them know everything. Of course there is only one who may really believe this. I have never tried but if I were, would a prayer befall deaf ears in your direction? I may seek wisdom or guidance in the future and you seem to have looked in my direction." Horbin’s inner voice was steady and even a bit modest at the end.
    "I don't know what they're planning, or against who. I'm a diety of fire, cunning, and trickery, and those that are their masters simply confuse me. Do as you will; you heard what they said. And what they didn't say. I'd be wary though, of claiming to know what you don't know for sure." And then, suddenly, his presence was gone.
    ***
    “Sho---So why are you called ‘Anonymoush Trooper Number Sheventeen’ anyway?” Thorwald slurred drunkenly.
    “My mother named me after my father,” the man replied with a straight face.
    “....what?” Thorwald was obviously confused.
    “She never wash any good at remembering namesh,” the man continued.
    "Thatsh... Thatsh. That'th. That'S! the most beautifullll thing I've ever heard, Anonymoush Trooper Number Sheventeen. Sho many *hic* people, go thwough life without seein' *burp* th' beauty of chaosh. Ya kno' how much pwoba- probi- beeli... CHANCE! it takesh to create such an unlikely pai*hic*ring? I'll, I'll tell you. A lot!
    Anonymoush Trooper Number Sheventeen?! You're my best friend *burp*. In the wole. white. Worl.” Thorwald was clearly beyond drunk.
    “Thanksh. Shank you. Jussht keep your handsh where I can see them,” the guard responed.
    "Haha, you're a fun-funny guy, Mr. shevensix. Sheven. I might not have to burn your faesh off at shome point after all. Heh *snicker*.” Thorwald said a silent, ridiculously loud, prayer to Loki before hopping/dragging himself to bed.

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 9
    The Journey

    Grath woke early in the morning, before the sun rose into the sky, even before the morning twilight. Weeks of solo travel instilled a strange discipline into the chaotic orc. He walked the walls, looking out over the river. Then, he walked down to a dock, stripped down to his loincloth, and took a refreshing swim until just before the sun rose. Swimming against the current to regain the dock is a bit of a struggle even for Grath, but he managed it.
    In the dim morning light he was able to clearly see the dock. Evidently the bridge of chains wasn't the only way to get to the opposite bank. A peculiar sort of raft was laying at it, a strange apparatus of a cogwheel, a giantitic crank, and a cable that lead down into the water dominating its deck. Said cable ran throught the apparatus and was connected to a much more study-looking similar apparatus on the dock itself.
    The dawn brought a bit of a stir to the courtyard. The Tiefling officer was getting two humans and a half-elf in order for a ride, and Kresta was standing by with her mules. Bethlen leaned against a post of the stable, watching with hooded eyes.
    Delphi spent some time outside, looking for smooth, round stones that would be appropriate for crafting into sling bullets. She enjoyed the quiet after the long day and the combat, the conversation and flirting. It was peaceful outside, on the edge of both civilization and nature. It was a place that she belonged, there on the edge of things; a place not quite wild, and not quite tame, like her, in a way.
    ***
    Evidently, Ashdown was a believer in early morning trumpet fanfares; Thorwald in particular had reason to regret that.
    Breakfast was bread, beer, and cold ham. The group was ushered to the commander's table, as befitted guests, while at least thirty grey-cloaked soldiers with a high porportion of composite longbows crowded the adjoining tables and irrespective of gender, talked about girls. Vierzehn appearred, nodded to them politely, but seemed distracted for some reason. He headed out to the courtyard with a thoughful look.
    Dardiana had enjoyed the day's earliest start, but not so much the rude awakening via horns. She went to eat and tried to heat up the ham via a blast. Either way, she ate it, with light conversation with any who spoke.
    According to what she overheard at the next table, Vierzehn was posted there after a minor scandal in which a senior Ashdown commander caught him in bed with her maid. And her cousin. And her toyboy. She was very offended she hadn't been invited.
    After eating hastily and quietly Horbin followed shortly behind Vierzehn.
    Vierzehn headed straight toward Bethlen, who looked at him somewhat insolently from under her brows. "Good morrow, good...merchant. It seems I am in something of a quandry. Your friends left during the night. How, nobody seems to know," the captain said with a puzzled look of expectation.
    "I know, Captain. They asked me to apologize for their regrettable lack of manners," Bethlen answered cooly.
    "Yessss....they left a very nice letter doing more or less the same. And some gold, although Trent assures me that their...account was in credit. Also, they claim to be heading for Alnwick." He paused. "Actually, the letter claims that they are already there. Creating something of a temporal conundrum for me."
    "By the time you would have received the message, they would have been in Alnwick. Astra can be a very literal in correspondent," Bethlen replied.
    "Aha," Vierzehn looked at Bethlen sidelong. Bethlen returned his look without a blink.
    As Horbin reached the outside he caught the tail end of what seemed to be a puzzling conversation between Bethlen and the captain. He looked distrustfully at her and kept a little distance.
    ***
    Delphi hopped up onto a chair, and standing on it placed her head only a few inches higher than the tallfolk that were already sitting down. Gregor gave the dogs some bread and ham, but not beer. He sat, ate, drank and looked around, not worrying about anything that was not his business, just passing the time, waiting for the others to get ready. Grath, refreshed from his swim, heard the horns. He dressed and joined the group at breakfast, sitting with Gregor, and ate a hearty meal, including beer. Between bites, Grath attempted to tell Gregor about the strange boat he saw, but had trouble describing it.
    Having nothing else to do after breakfast, Gregor got the dogs ready and then went to personally see that strange boat Grath mentioned. He also took a look around to see any other peculiar and/or mechanical things that were around. He planned to continue walking around and looking around, while waiting for either a breefing or a command to march out.
    There were a couple of military types on guard. They were a little wary of Gregor sniffing around the apparatus, but explained that it used a cable on the riverbed to allow the raft to be cranked back and forth across the river without getting washed downstream two miles by the current. The chain-bridge was more simple, but the raft was more efficient for bulk moves.
    Gregor thanked the guards and told them that it was a remarkable device and that his people had nothing like this in their village.
    ***
    Vierzehn, who seemed to have gotten used to that sort of literally correct and yet totally ambiguous information, moved back into the messhall and leaned down to Delphi in passing. "Astra Vaultspear, Brunswick Aleksandr, Lotus Cadenza. Gone during the night. And I'm told in Alnwick now, though that's two day's ride away and they've been gone for...maybe seven hours. And nobody saw them leave. A pity. They were rather good for morale."
    ***
    After Vierzehn walked back inside Horbin looked at Bethlen. "Ever think of settling down and having children? Or is it still too early for you to be thinking that way," he said with a straight face, before turning it to a jovial smile.
    Bethlen gave Horbin a long, cold look. "Children? I've one. Hopefully someday I'll get back to him, and sort out whatever mess my uncle has made. Settling down? That's an honor earned, not taken."
    Kresta called out at that point. Larissa was looking impatient. "Beth! We're heading off!"
    "Good will and good speed, lover. Whitewater Rip. A week, maybe two. If it takes me any longer than that, I'm dead. Take care of Spike and keep the frelling sales records!" Bethlen didn’t even take her eyes away from Horbin.
    Kresta was apparently expecting both more and less than that. "Oh..." Then Larissa forked her horse with a bound and called out, "We're done here! Let's move!” The drawbridge slammed down, and Kresta, Larissa, and the caravan moved out.
    "Well then, whenever the others are ready perhaps we can get moving," Horbin said, seemingly unphased by Bethlen's response. He started to show impatience at the situation, hoping Thorwald would appear sometime soon.
    ***
    Thorwald awoke with a grunt and shuffled painfully out of bed, into clothes and down to the messhall. His body was mercifully quite used to the abuse it took from the last night, but his head still felt like an odd raft on a cable and cogwheel had been travelling through it all night. After breakfast he went to enquire about his promised horse, which, hopefully, somebody took care of arranging.
    Thorwald was led to a horse by a female dwarven trooper with a beard like a declaration of war. "Now this one's for riding. No funny business. I've heard about you already".
    Thorwald thanked her with a smile, then stopped short.
    "Now, that's uncalled for. I ride horses, I don't ride them. Ah, whatever."
    "Aye, sorry about the delay. T'was a rough night and I'm not sure the beautiful friendship me and Anonymous Trooper Number Seventeen had will ever be the same.
    We going?" Thowald addressed Horbin.
    "You are a follower of Loki is that right Thorwald," Horbin asked when he saw his hung over companion. "I would like to have a private word with you if we could."
    ***
    Delphi shrugged at the news of the residents of the encampment leaving, and she set out to find meat, eggs, cheese, and other hearty foods that are hard to come by on the trail. She also looked for some food for Dardiana, guessing as to what the woman may like to eat. Delphi found some fresh food that had already been brought across from the village. They were currently agents, so they were not being charged for consumables.
    She got involved in a number of short, boring conservations she recognised immediately as being completely irrelevant to the plot, although one of the soldiers-pressed-as-kitchen-staff made a comment on how the Dunkelrots "will be worse now Vesplin is dead. He was the only half-sane Elder they had."
    ***
    Thorwald raised his eyebrows at Horbin’s request. "I do follow the father of the wolf, the snake and the undying woman. What can I do for you, friend?"
    Horbin whispered quietly to Thorwald. "In the night i was visited by Loki. He spoke to me about the perils of Bethlen and her companions. They worship those who would support The Destroyer and Loki seems to be shaken by this thought. I do not know how much we can trust Bethlen, but for now she seems willing to help. Though the others are definately up to something all together unwholesome. I believe also that Bethlen is pregnant, on purpose, from Grath.
    I just wish to let the others know but needed to know your feedback first as you do praise and therefor understand Loki better than I."
    Thorwald looked around to make sure no-one was listening, before whispering back to Horbin. "Wait, which Destroyer are we talking about here? There are a lot of Gods and Demigods out there who are calling themselves the destroyer. Or is it... Odin? The Destroyer? His avatar? Were they talking about bringing him down to earth again? I can tell you know, though he pretends to hang with the good guys, he's called the Lord of the Gallow for a reason; the One-eyed doesn't mess around, man!
    And why didn't he come to me first? Aren't I his bleedin' disciple?" Thorwald was getting a little excited and was maybe whispering a little less than before.
    "I think that he came to me because he wanted me to witness the others leave. He never did say a name though he felt it was dire and that even gods should be afraid. That said, do we tell the others or let this play out a little. Bethlen we may be able to trust but as for her companions, I will not shut an eye with them near. I believe they may be working for the one we are seeking, or know who it is we are seeking at least." Horbin adjusted, trying to keep their conversation private.
    "Wait, you saw them disappear? Why did they go, did you hear? And trust Bethlen? Hah! I trust her about as much as I trust a snake in my boot not to bite me. And this Ajneguhs. If they do work with him, then we are likely as good as dead if we follow her into that valley. We have to play this very carefully," Thorwald’s voice lowered to a whisper again.
    "I think we are facing a shugenja, whatever that is. At least I assume that by the name Ajneguhs and Astra's comment about spelling backwards that that would be his vocation," Horbin whispered. He then looked around for the location of people. "Trusting Bethlen is for whoever wants, but thus far she has done nothing but benefit us."
    Thorwald stayed silent at Horbin's last remark, but wrinkled his nose. He tried to dig something out of his brain about the Shugenja and the Destroyer. The Destroyer was a title of Odin’s. However, he also had the odd feeling, like a voice in his head too faint to hear, that Horbin was muddling something.
    He was aware of a Shugenja as a somewhat eldritch alternative form of "Elementalist". Also, he could remember enough of the night to remember it was Lotus who made the spelling-backwards remarks, rather than Astra.
    ***
    As Gregor waited for everyone else to decide what they were doing, he noticed that though the Ashdowners talked loudly in his presence about how boring it was there and how nothing ever happened, there seemed to be a lot of checking of equipment, packing of supplies, and inspecting of mounts and animal companions going on.
    As breakfast wound up, Gretchen appeared, with Nuisance shuffling at her heels. "If you're all ready, time to be off. Nuisance wants to stretch his legs. The cart you asked for is ready. And a mule."
    She lead them out into the courtyard, Thorwald and Horbin were already present, whispering amongst themselves. Bethlen stood with her arms folded. "All present?" asked Gretchen, taking out a piece of paper from inside her tunic, she wore no armor, neither did Larissa. “’A big blue Orc, a Big sword with a Fighter to carry it, some dogs and their pet Halfling, an Elven witch, a she-hobbit naughty schoolgirl, and a Lokian horse botherer. And a definitely and comprehensibly ambiguous merchant,’ I'm sorry, it's what Captain wrote. We off?" She led the party over the drawbridge, and into the forest. Gregor backed her up with his dogs.
    __________________

  11. - Top - End - #11
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    NO LONGER IN CHINA!

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    Chapter 10
    The Valley

    Gretchen almost didn't have to be there, since they were going the same way as they had arrived. The party reached the Nixie's stream quickly, and turned south along the east bank, sticking to the edge of the trees. Shortly after noon, they reached the Broken stone, on the opposite bank. Bethlen had remained quiet, leading the mule pulling the cart by the bridle. But then she said, very clearly, "Must remember to see about that dress. That'll be a pleasant chore."
    Then Nuisance, well up in the front, let loose an excited squeal. Gretchin, visible somewhat ahead, stopped suddenly and said, very clearly, "Blood. Bear. Bones. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. That's what he thinks."
    When the cart stopped, Gregor took saddlebags off Abyss and put them in the cart, along with his wooden shield, so he could wear a newly-bought buckler, and lance which he stuck on the outside to quickly take, if required. This made Abyss lighter so he could speed up to full.
    Gregor then took his bow in one hand, a javelin in the other, and then rode to the side, just as usual, circling around a point of space two-hundred feet ahead of Nuisance. Gregor saw Bethlen moving up to support Gretchen, stab her in the back, or get in the way. He didn’t know what Bethlen was more likely to do.
    It did not take long for the dogs to start barking. Gregor quickly came upon the tracks of a brown bear crossing their path, moving west to east away from Nuisance's location or, at least, where Nuisance presumably was at that point. The bear was plainly wounded, and blood marked its tracks and was splattered on the leaves. It was eeriely quiet. No ravens, or anything for that matter.
    Gregor commanded the dogs to hush up, crossed the trail, and continued on his circle, tightening it a bit to keep Bethlen on the edge of his vision distance, but looking in other directions too. He was not immediately interested in tracking the bear. When he got straight south of what Nuisance had found, he discover four sets of very strange humanoid footprints heading in the direction of the rest of the party. He then, very quickly lost sight of Bethlen amongst the trees.
    Gregor examined the tacks, medium sized, three pairs of boots, one pair sandles, all looked in incredibly poor condition. Where the soles were missing, the indentations resembled clawmarks, or something hard and bony. They were made sometime between early that morning and a couple of hours ago. Discovering that footprints leading towards the party were relatively old, and the party was not in immediate danger, at least from that side, Gregor returned back to state of yellow alert and continued around wherever Nuisance presumably was.
    Dardiana got up on the top of the cart and called to the front, "Gretchin, should we prepare for battle, or is the boar acting like a boar?" Either way, she perked her ears up and looked at the forest, trying to spot anything.
    Gretchen reppeared, and waved them up. Her teeth were set, and very white against her face. The boar next to her was growling to itself in a fury.
    Dardiana followed the trail. She discovered a scene of blood and bones and ancient, withered fragments of clothing and armor. It looked exactly like four skeletons tried to take on something large and angry. The bone was scattered so much that she could barely make out the original assemblage.
    Bethlen was standing straight, looking thoughtfully into the empty eyesockets of the mildewed skull in her hand, her other touching her chin. As she heard Dardiana approach, she picked up an item of clothing on the ground. It was stained with the grime of the forest floor, but its color was plain to see. "Old and yellowed bones. Rotted clothing. Rusty and archaic armor and weapons." She said tonelessly. "And brand-new, quite fine, well-dyed red cloaks."
    "More red-cloaks, huh? That's not a good sign." Most of Dardiana’s thoughts stayed as such, in her head. She did activate her magic detection ability, though, looking for any magic in the area or magic residue that might be left from magic that was there before.
    Bethlen, to Dardiana's eyes, suddenly seemed to turn to a black silhouette against the blazing roil of her aura, which she could briefly see was centered around something worn on the front of her chest. The aura rippled, and Bethlen dropped the cloak; placed her hand over her chest wardingly, and turned away from Dardiana. There was a strong lingering aura of necromancy over the bones, and in their midst, amongst the wreck of a small-sized skeleton, an odd, two-part glare of illusion and transmutation.
    "So, skeletonal warriors... and Beth, may I ask what is it that you and your friends have had on your bodies that make you and them a magical hotspot against the magic-less world?" Dardiana was slightly confused over the illusion and transmutation, save for that she assumed the illusion was to make them seem human.
    Dardiana could tell the Illusion and Transmutation was coming from the bones. Bethlen's aura was Conjuration, Evocation, Transmutation and Divination. Lotus's and Brunswick’s lacked the Evocation that Bethlen had.
    Bethlen turned her head, keeping her body turned from Dardiana. "A sometimes inconvenient design feature. You've seen the amulet, I seem to remember, that's what. My equipment is older than that of my friends, and much more dangerous to...unwanted outlookers, so turn off your Magesight before you look at me again."
    Dardiana looked down, at the bones, the illusion and transmutation skeleton. She tried to figure out what was the spell itself on the bones. "How are you able to tell whenever I activate it? I don't do hand gestures, I don't mumble anything, I just flick it on or off with my mind, yet you know."
    "I don't know. It does. It tells me. What it mostly tells me is that it does not like it." As Dardiana's eyes left her, Bethlen turned back to face her. Her right hand held over her chest.
    Dardiana, poking around the bones, focused on the Illusion and Transmutation aura and pulled out what looked like a chainmail bikini.
    "Huh, haven't seen one of those since the last museum field trip," Bethlen said as Dardiana uncovered the chainmail shred.
    "So it's sentient?" Dardiana pulled out the item. "This... isn't very efficient. Sensual or sexy, sure if you have those types of tastes. But not efficient at the least." She flicked off her second sight, looking at the world as a normal elf again. "So, guess we'll be fighting the living dead. Fun."
    Bethlen looked at the chain article with her head to the side. "I once complained about the standard equipment we received on for our Final Year, and tutor made me go through two semesters wearing a +3 leather corset with garter belt and stockings." She paused. "Well, actually. That's a lie. Lotus called dibs on the last two items. I had to manage with thigh-high boots. And no, not setient. Just acts like it's got a mind of it's own."
    Gregor eventually appeared from the opposite direction and stayed some distance away, letting Gretchen do her job. "These came from there," he pointed, "I guess this does not make any difference if they are skeletal or not. Skeletal are better, if only because they are dumber. Let's go?"
    Bethlen placed the skull she was holding carefully upon the ground, and took a couple of steps over to the small-sized pile of bones, giving Gregor a look. "For a Ranger, your lack of curiousity is quite disarming. Any thoughts for your fallen Co-Speciesmate? This was once a Halfling." She carefully squatted down and pulled out a heavily-notched, almost broken blade. "Using a regular-sized longsword 2-handed. Nostalgia." She smiled to herself, then stopped and looked up at Dardiana. "That--outfit you are holding fitted its fallen owner when you picked it up. Now it looks like it would fit you. Anyone care to place any bets as to what would happen if Grath was holding it?" She picked up another of the red cloaks, and stood up to hold it up to the forest light.
    Dardiana noticed, for her part, that the skimpy-looking garment felt heavier and more complex, and above all, more enfolding than it should. It felt as though she was carrying a regular bundle of clothes.
    "Oh, so you are disarmed?" Gregor grinned and put away the javelin he was holding. "Now we are on par." "Seriously, we could track these skeletons back to the source, but only if we are not in too much hurry AND they did not wander these woods for more than a day or two. Hey, Gretchen, are their cloaks new, or totally new? Anyway, looking at how inefficiently these skeletons are used, there must be a lot of them available. That said, I'm not preventing you from sorting out the bones of these four, or of any others we will later ancounter, for as long as you like."
    Gretchen's eyes were ablaze. "I come from the Union. I was born to little-girlhood learning to shut the doors to what came crawling from the necropolii. Undead are my specialty. And I'll tell you what bothers me most here. Four skeletons, no master." She drew her club and closed on Gregor. "You! Did you find another set of tracks? Is he still around? You ignorant, self-satisfied, undisciplined beastmaster?" Nuisance was at her heels.
    As Gretchen spoke, Gregor nodded at "ignorant", nodded at "self-satisfied", then raised an eyebrow at "undisciplined". "Excuse me, did any chain of command sneak in while I was sleeping? How did you conclude that I am "undisciplined" in just," Gregor took a moment to look at the sun, "a few hours of hiking under anarchy arrangement?"
    "That aside, there were some tracks I noticed while I was looking around, but so far only one set of them, counting four, was not animal's AND it was leading here. several hours old." Gregor got closer to check the tracks at the site. While checking the site for all sorts of tracks, Gregor replied to Bethlen.
    "That's funny. You think that going to a place, from which no one has returned, I would be most concerned by the bounty by Vierzehn, of all things? Nope. Try again." Gregor noted multiple sets of tracks both foot and hooved.
    "Thinking more about this, if they had their master with them, why would he press an attack on a bear? I get it if they had an order to wander the wood and kill anything non-red-cloak that moves. That would be expensive, but perfectly clear. But no bear would fight the undead unless it totally has to, so they must have chased it or some such... I'm not getting a reason why anyone with brains still in his skull would want to do that..."
    Bethlen blew her breath out through pursed lips. "Ah, she's got a point. You could have got three times the bounty on this mission from Vierzehn if you hadn't treated him as a shopkeeper, but for reasons of your own, chose to do so. Whatever. This is good wool. Central provinces Imperial, with expert dying. Uminarian, or Himenian, if I miss my guess. Not cheap. I venture to suggest that this man could possibly be traced through merchant's records".
    Grath was muttering to himself while observing the proceedings. If anyone got close enough, they might have heard him making mental notes of everything he was hearing and learning about magic. "Magic talks to people. Magic makes clothes fit. Magic paper talks to Ingva. Magic zaps people to Alnwizk two days away."
    Bethlen gave Grath an almost a tender look. "Forget it, Grath. Other peoples’ jobs right now. But the Elven witch saw nothing but me, so I think we're safe right now. As safe has we can be, in this world."
    "Beth, you have some weird memories from your life, don't you?" Dardiana put the chainmail away from the party and Beth before using detect magic on it, just to be sure. When she found it to be magical, she asked, "Who wants a magical, shape-changing chainmail bikini?"
    When nobody took it, she put it on herself above her current armor and moved around to see how constricting it was. Delphi watched appreciatively as Dardiana put on the chainmail bikini. She began to grin broadly, and wasn't subtle about where she was looking. "You know, if that doesn't fit right you may need to take off some of your clothes. You know. For the magic to work properly." She struggled, and failed, to keep the amusement out of her voice.
    Dardiana could tell it was a glamoured traveler’s outfit, and therefore was very constricting when she wore it over other clothes. On the other hand, if she just wore it, it could improve her defense. Only it made her look as if she were planning on taking on the entire sports team.
    Gretchen got in Gregor's face, "You left a witch and a merchant to examine the site while you hunted around for easy kills, the the rest of your friends had to shuffle forward with no information. While You put yourself out of contact with the situation. I say "undisciplined"? I meant "undisciplined". You have no sense of your group. You continue being a creature of mindless habit and instinct while pretending to be the eyes and brain and you're going to get everybody killed."
    She put a small hand to her head, and continued. "I'm sorry. I am a professional. You're an amateur. And that annoys me. I'm going torwards this, along with you, and her." She turned toward Bethlen. "Fullbright. Who is that? I already know who she is. Who is she to you?"
    "Very funny, Delphi. Since you seem to like it so much, maybe you should put it on." She took off her chainmail and tossed it over, to Delphi. "I'm sure you'll look spectacular in it while you fight."
    Delphi gave the chainmail bikini a long look; and as she did, a deep, red flush spread from her cheeks down her neck. She looked down at her own practical, well-fitting gear and armor, then to the chainmail, which had shrunk to a shockingly small size in her hands. Then to her weapons, which were numerous; four slender javelins, an axe on either hip, and a bandolier of loaded slings and sling-stones. She coughed, and then looked back to Dardiana, and her voice had become surprisingly shy. "Do... do you really think I would look good? Or are you making fun of me?"
    Gretchen ignored the Elf/Halfing stripper act and focused on Bethlen. "Again, Fullbright. What is she?"
    Bethlen just stood in place. "Fullbright Scaletti is the chief secretary to the Margrave of Ashdown. As you know. She is an old and dear friend."
    "She is dangerous," Gretchen stated.
    "Like I said, she is an old and dear friend," Bethlen insisted.
    Gretchen shifted her weight, "What is it you are up to?"
    "I, like you, am accompaning some scruffy barbarian mercenaries to a place of reputedly no return. As to what she's "up to", I'd have to ask her. Which is difficult while standing over some destroyed undead in a forest some one-hundred and twenty miles away from where she is."
    Dardiana leaned back, on her left leg, and raised a hand to her chin in thought. "A little of both. It's pretty revealing, but who says that's a bad thing? Nonetheless, you look good in anything and everything, from nothing to full plate armor, I'm sure. On second thought, anything that allows your looks to go through. Full plate... doesn't do that as much." On that comment, she looked at Thorwald, since he was wearing the thing closest to full plate, then returned her gaze to Delphi. "It didn't restrict my movements, so if you don't want it, I'll put it on."
    Delphi looked at the armor one last time before proffering it to Dardiana. "I already have the gloves, milady; it would be rude of me indeed to try this on as well. If it protects as well as actual chainmail it will be of more use to you than your armor, and I'd rather I take a hit than you. We're both ranged fighters, so which of us will be in the press of things more is a moot question. If you don't object to the skimpiness of the garment, then you should feel free to use it. I'm fine with my leathers and homespun." She did seem rather fond of the armor, but she seemed more interested in keeping Dardiana safe.
    Bethlen stopped her staring contest with Gretchen. "You could always give it to Gregor, or to Grath," the smile on her face was like nothing human and nothing good.
    Delphi looked to Gregor. Then she looked to Grath. Her smile became brittle. "Boys. I really like you. You're sweet guys, very polite, and you usually look at my eyes. Take my advice here: nothing this woman tells you to do is going to be good for you. Especially this."
    She then looked to Dardiana and winked. "Besides, if you wear it it means that one of us can't, and that would just be a travesty."
    Dardiana smiled at the wink. "Yes, yes it would. Now." She held it up on her body, so Delphi could see what it looked like on her. "Should I remove my traveler's outfit or leave that on when I put this on?"
    Delphi's smile became lupine once more, and she looked the elven witch dead in the eye. "Come now, you've felt that as well as I have. You clearly need to take your clothes off to put it on properly." She glanced around, then turned back, her face serious. "I can escort you to the nearest secluded location to assist you with clothing removal, away from the prying eyes of those without the mental fortitude to look upon your body without being struck dumb and senseless."
    Bethlen laughed. "I wonder what would happen if I actually did something evil." She was poking around the scattered bones. "Hmm. Elf. Wearing the irridescent scale armour that race used to favour before they got fed up with everyone questioning their sexual orientation. The men, at least. Elf Women will notoriously do anything that breathes. And considering their menfolk, who could blame them?"
    She came up with a rapier, and sighted along the blade toward the sun. "Well." She pricked her finger with the point. It bled. "Well. Cold Iron. My companions, I shall keep this," she looked around a bit further and came up with the stabbard. "Though it's of little practical use to me. Think of it as being part compensation for what you stole from me. Or did your former Wizard not share?"
    "Are you telling me that I can't go behind a tree myself?" Dardiana seemed to think about it some more. "But lead the way. I'll follow you to the ends of the earth if you lead me there."
    Delphi stuck her tongue out at Bethlen when she made the comment about elf women being overly promiscuous, though it wasn't an especially malicious gesture. She then took Dardiana by the hand, and she led her a little ways into the woods. She then helped the slender elf change into the glamored armor, and for her credit she was a perfect 'gentleman' through the entire affair. Except for her eyes, but she could hardly be blamed on that account.
    Gregor stood confused by all; the "witch", the "merchant" and the "professional", looking at Gretchen, at Nuisance, at Gretchen, at Nuisance, at Gretchen, at Delphi, then at Dardiana, which snapped him out of the confusion, then back at Gretchen. "So, I let them, because you are a pro, and not leading the way or some such. Err... got that. Sort of."
    Then Gretchen snapped at Gregor, "Are you going to report what you found! Or didn't find? Any trace of the master? This is your job! Not plunging into the black out of contact with the rest of us and being no use to anyone."
    "Hmm... well, didn't find. One bleeding brown bear moving from here east, as you could have guessed; four sets of humanoid footprints I already told you about, moving from the south - three pairs boots, on pair sandles." He took a pause to count boots and sandles in the area. "Several hours ago. That is all. I did not check it closer to the river, so... any deep thoughts?"
    Dardiana left nothing on under the chains. She spun around for Delphi and asked, "How do I look?" After receiving a response, she returned, hardly anything visible, but not worrying about that. She looked at the party and asked, "Now that the skimpy outfit is on, shall we get going again? Or can we speak to these bones and ask them things to get more information out of them?"
    "I guess we could interrogate the bear. If we will promise healing, we'll surely get as much information as could be expressed by an animal. Not sure it would be worth the time. About talking to the bones and getting where they are from... Thorwald?" Gregor replied to the witch.
    "Enough talking and arguing. Bears cannot talk and bones cannot talk either, unless this is more magic for Grath to remember. Girls finish change clothes and then follow tracks." Grath was growing irritated and impatient.
    Delphi expressed proper appreciation for Dardiana before addressing the others. "I think the bear might be a good source of information, if you really can speak with it. That said, I dislike being consumed, so if it wants to attack us it may be better to just let it lie and move on."
    "Unless we can take it out, hurt as it is. I've never had bear before." Dardiana paused. "But we'd likely get it like from the boar. Single words hinting at things. If that at all. I might be able to follow the magic trail on the bones, but I've got no idea how long that'll last or if they were gone long. And I'm sure a few people here can track the skeletons, can't you?" She looked between three people, Delphi, Gretchin, and Gregor. "So, we have three paths to take. Suggestions?"
    Horbin had kept quiet the whole time but had grown increasingly impatient as he stood next to Thorwald. "Has no one thought maybe one of the skeletons is the master? And for the love of the gods can the lesbians get a hold on themselves. I realize that we may be barbarians and have done nothing to establish a pecking order, ut we have done fairly well so far. The skeletons really are of no true concern to us right now as they are content to chase bears in the woods. Thier master, if found would prove to be a useful source of information and amusement. But right now we need to go to the place of no concern before tiring ourselves out on the way with all of the arguements and track chasing," Horbin let out as he approached the rangers. His voice gradually became louder but never above that of an angry father.
    Bethlen strapped the rapier around her waist, and threw a question at Gretchen."If he's an Elementalist as Lotus figured, he shouldn't be able to do this".
    "Wands. He has backing. He could do anything. Or Your Friend Lotus could be wrong." Gretchen replied.
    "She's never been The Smart One, she's never had to be, but she's seldom wrong. And it doesn't take a lot of training to use a wand." Bethlen added.
    "And apparently, he hasn't figured out that humanoid skeletons are a losers's game. He's new at this." Gretchen stepped forward. "A lot of old bones and gear. Coming from a location that people do not return from. New cloaks. Either he bought up a whole lot before he started, or he has a means of fast and unnoticable travel."
    "Or both. We move?" Bethlen asked.
    "We move. Pack of scruffy barbarian mercs, follow me!” Gretchen exclaimed.
    Delphi objected a bit to being called scruffy, but she didn't say anything; instead she just hurried to follow the group's nominal leader. While she jogged along she made sure to spend plenty of time to enjoy the...view. Dardiana was standing on the cart. She stood at the head of it, watching forward.
    Gregor shrugged, took time to pick up any useful items he could find and search for tracks he originally missed. He then followed the group, eventually assuming position on the left flank between Gretchen and rest of the group. The mountain spurs rose up high to either side of them. Ahead was the faintest suggestion of a valley opening to the east. After some ten minutes Gregor stopped by an appropriate-looking tree, cut a club, and then continued on.
    They moved on, in spite of Dardania's new and somewhat distracting attire. Gretchen and Nuisance took the lead, following the stream as it turned sharply east and into a long, narrow mountain valley devoid of lonely goatherds, but which looked like an appropriate setting for one. The sky turned from blue, to dark blue, to purple, and now was nearing black as night encroached on their travel.
    "I'll take second watch," Horbin finally spoke for the first time since his scolding.
    Gregor asked for last watch. As they set up for camp, he began cutting some spruce branches to sleep on, eating, feeding the dogs, etc. He then went to the river bank and spent some time to pick up ten good, round stones. Then went to sleep until his watch.
    Thorwald had followed the arguments, discussions and clothing arrangements with mild amusement, sometimes throwing in a quick laugh before being silent again. As they continued in mutual silence away from the site, he sent a silent prayer to Loki.
    ‘Ymir's piss! Please, oh great Lord of Deceiving, tell me I get to set that wench Gretchen on fire.’
    He walked with an increasing smile on his face, his eyes burning into the back of the professional. At camp, with a nod of respect to Horbin, he replied, "And I'll take first." He proceeded to feed his horse, whom he had dubbed Muspellnir, and then ate some himself before settling down near the fire.
    "Third watch," said Grath. He set up his tent, as he usually did. He asked Gregor about the reason for cutting a club.
    "The club? Old child-time horror stories... hard to cut bones, easier to crush bones, no point in pointing bones with pointy sticks," Gregor responded.
    “Grath can use crowbar to bash, but a real club might be better. Need a really large one for bashing with both hands. Get one next time in town." Grath then grabbed one of the morningstars and waved it around, getting the feel for the weapon. "Can Grath borrow this? Better than crowbar for bashing." Gregor nodded as Grath took a morningstar.
    Grath prepared some food for himself, then took a look around the area, trying to be relatively quiet, without traveling far from camp.
    "Not sure if it would be good for Horbin to take one, though. He has a really big stick, so might be better that way..."
    "I wonder..." Gregor paused for a moment "...well, I guess it's too late to get smart, but next time we see a red cloak, we try to get it intact. If these skeletons are indeed automated, might be worth trying to wear one. And I wonder if that valley's magical protection is automated same way. Hey, Bethlen, any chance of that?"
    "All fall before Glenda. She can crush and cut," Horbin said before settling down, sword in hand.
    Dardiana ignored what the men were saying about their sticks and swords while she set up her bedroll by the fire. She waited an hour before going to sleep, to see if anything happened, since it's not like she needed to sleep much. "I'll be awake most likely before any of you, so I can take the fourth watch."
    Delphi decided that batch of forest was more to her liking for foraging than the previous stretches of woodlands that the group had traveled through, and she set out to supplement or replace everyone's daily trail bar or food-lumps. She managed to find several good berry bushes and nut-trees, and she caught two rabbits; enough for two to eat a hearty meal, with berries left over for dessert for the group.
    "Grath might look good in a red cloak, Gregor. You say wearing a read cloak protects from skeletons by magic? Grath make that number five on list of magic facts learned on this trip." Grath seemed to be making a list of magical facts, though it only appeared in his mind.
    "Not necessarily by magic. Maybe by skeletons' current standing orders or some such. Speaking about skeletons... Thorwald, would you read a short lecture about them, including strengths, weaknesses, your planned tactics, our suggested tactics, and all that," Gregor asked. "I guess it would be prudent to grab the last one of next group of skeletons intact to carry some behavior experiments, if they will appear to operate without a master... how's that plan?" he continued.
    Bethlen darted a look at Gregor. "You need to have Astra here. She's the enthusiast. But from what I know, our objectives magical defenses will not be fooled by clothing. If this...person insists on dressing his thralls in such a way, it must be for some other reason. Also, I doubt that our quarry has much control or understanding over the place where he dwells. I must believe that, for if I'm wrong it means he's far more powerful than we can hope to overcome. It's his backer that's the thing. Someone must have let him in. And let him work his...acts in the graveyard of legends." Usually, her eyes were cold and detached, but there was an emotion there. It was anger. "I want to know who that person is."
    Dardiana remembered the note and looked at Bethlen. "I don't remember being informed about any defenses... do you know something we don't?"
    Grath said, "Someone, probably Captain Vierzehn, said no people come back after exploring the area of the base. It was suggested that this AshtonKutcher character not only penetrated the defenses, but now controls them, if Grath remembers correctly."
    "... Maybe so. Still... this'll make me look to be grasping at the air... what do you know that we don't? If you were keeping secrets before, you might as well tell us now to maximize the chance of success. Do you know about the place he's currently residing?" Dardiana questioned Bethlen.
    "We may well assume that he has control over the 'defenses' that you allude to. Anything less could end in our death," Horbin said with conviction.
    "I know only the most general knowledge of such facilities. It is ancient, and would have been left well-protected. I have no specific knowledge of this specific place and its arrangements, anymore than any of you could state precisely and with conviction what your great-grandfather had for breakfast on some specific random date. However, for this...Kutcher as you call him to have total control would require an infinitely greater level of power and skill than he's demonstrated thus far. I'd don't believe he has much control. If I am wrong, then we are all heading for certain death. I'm fairly sure that my usual failsafe," she put a hand to her chest, "won't function in there. If I'm wrong, then we're all going to die."
    “Obviously, I don't believe I am wrong." Bethlen finished grimly. "I am going in there, I am going to find this..."Kutcher", and I am going to kill him. And then I'm going to find out who's letting him play with dolls in the house of the Gods. And have words."
    Gretchen spoke up. "Also, you misremember the Captain. Nobody with any sense has ventured into that place in decades. It's a place of dread, but known and avoided. Anything could have happened. Wait, Gods?"
    Dardiana said nothing more, not knowing any way to prod Bethlen further to reveal the contents of the letter which she received... which might not have anything past what she already told them. Instead, she looked around with her detect magic, not in the direction of Beth though. She didn't expect to find anything, but one never knew. After doing so, finding what she expected was true, she laid down on the bedroll and looked up at the night sky.
    "House of the gods? Are we going to a temple? With a graveyard? Could you perhaps tell us more about this site, that apparantly noones been to?" Thorwald asked and answered Gregor's question with, "Now, the Undead? Well, my usual tactics is showing them my 'holy symbol', if you catch my drift, which usually scares the crap out of them. Then I smash their bones to meal and sprinkle it on my next meal, cause I heard it's good for the digestion. An' if that doesn't work, skip the first part and go right on to lighting them on fire. Can't go wrong with fire, you can't." Thorwald leaned back in the grass. "Can't go wrong with fire."
    All the talk of fire reminded Grath of something important. He started gathering wood and quietly lit a fire in the center of the camp. After lighting the fire, he played some nonsense on his panpipes.
    The "music" seemed to take some of the edge off Bethlen. She sat on a log, looking into the fire, and pulled a piece of paper from a crevice in her technically challenging leathers, folded it over so only the top paragraph was visible, and when Grath was finished, held it up, and read it.

    " Bethlen;

    "The location on the map is listed in our directories as Reserve Installation 1197X. It was built as a military facility during the War against the Abberancy, I believe by agents of the Crimson Iron Rider. After the Abberancy was sealed beneath Yamighul, it became a private residence, but was rendered structural unsafe by the Starlight Destroyer's breaking of the Godspine during the War of the Sage's Treason. It was abandoned, and defended and preserved according to the traditions of the time."
    The rest of the letter was obscured by the fold. "That's all I know. All Astra could tell me. The place is old. Older than the Empire. It is possible that when I get there, and see whats about, I may be able to recognise some tricks and traps, but anything I tell you now may well be completely wrong and just help get you killed," Bethlen finished.
    Dardiana sat up as she heard the paper unfold and nodded when Bethlen was done. "The rest is more personal, I take it?" She asked. ‘So they didn't find much more information between my copy and the final one’, Dardiana thought to herself. She let out a sigh and continued, "Thank you for what you've told us." Letting the conversation drop, Dardiana headed off to sleep.
    It was during the last watch of the night when the voices started. Deadpan, and emotionless, and the tramping of their feet following.
    "It hurts. It hurts so much to be like this"
    “Quiet. We are minions. We do what we are told"
    "Minions. Isn't that some kind of seafood? I can't remember."
    "Well possibly, except I can't think why any dark sorcerer would want an army of seafood."
    "Maybe because some people are allergic?"
    "But it hurts. I remember I used to like things. Like gossip, and cookery, and sex. And now I can't remember what they are.”
    "I remember I used to like it on top.”
    "...what?"
    "Seafood. I used to like it on top. On breads and pastries.”
    "...whatever. We need to find what happened to the scouts."
    "Scouts? I thought they were just the ones who didn't listen when somebody said "stop"?”
    "That's a working definition of "scouts" in this context. I've only been Undead for two days. I'm not really working on intellect here."
    "What's intellect? Is that like Tuesdays?"
    Gregor and Dardiana were on watch. They could hear all of the commotion coming through the trees. Dardiana activated Detect Magic again, in the direction that she heard the voices. Undead had a magical aura, did they not? As she looked around, she approached Thorwald's figure and shook his shoulder, trying to wake him.
    Delphi woke up when Dardiana left, and after a moment of feeling comparatively cold she sat up, stretching quietly to clear her head from the tangles of sleep. She looked around, eyes and ears attentive, trying to see what the trouble was. Grath rolled over in his sleep. His ears twitched.
    Thorwald slept heavily that night, but was eventually wakened by Dardiana's shaking. "Wha?.. Bluh?" A few cogs inside his head clicked into place in a few seconds and Thorwald rose silently, cracked his neck and released his morningstar from his belt.
    "Undead," he whispered. "Wake the others." He grabbed the symbol of Loki from around his neck and held it out as a lantern, waiting for the undead to near the fire.
    Dardiana nodded and went around, waking everyone in the camp. Since Dardiana was waking people up, and there was a lot of action underway already, Gregor started waking up people as soon as he heard, "It hurts...". Gregor advised the others to prepare, then continued to watch and listen while standing ready.
    The voices were oddly carrying, and continued to talk as they walked torward the group.
    "Tuesday? What's that?"
    "I don't remember. I don't remember anything"
    "I remember Tuesday. We all stood around in the rain."
    "That was rain? Well now I do know something. Wait, what are we talking about again?"
    "Is that dim, reddish light ahead? Like a campfire?"
    "What's a campfire? Is it dangerous?"
    "...only if you're covered in oil, I think".
    "I was covered in oil plenty of times."
    "...is that how you died?"
    "I can't remember, but no. I'm pretty sure it was to do something else."
    "Gossip?"
    "That might be it."
    Gretchen was on her feet, her club in her hand, and staring into the darkness. "The sick, sick little boy. Bull's Strength.
    Bethlen stood up next to her, clicking her armor into place over her chest. "I really need to get myself a light mace or something."
    Delphi loaded several small strips of leather with sling bullets, checking that each of them was properly stored on her bandolier before looking to the others, inquisitive. "I'm either going to start killing these things right now, or start running away. Which should it be? I'm all for crushing undead to powder, but they sound..." She searched for a word. "Stupid, really. And not dangerous. That said, I don't doubt for a minute that they'll kill us if they're supposed to."
    Gregor saddled up Abyss and rode east-southeast, with shield, lance and javelins left in the cart, but battleaxe, club, bow and two full quivers of arrows with him. He armed himself with small stones he had gathered the last evening: three stones in his left hand, one extra in the right, and some more in his pockets.
    Gregor rode in through the forest, but on the border with the open stone riverbank, then straight east into the woods toward the voices.
    "If we run, how can we face Kutcher?" Dardiana created two green balls of flame, one on each hand, and merged them together into one on her right hand. She looked over to Delphi and grined. "Plus, I want to see how much attention I garner from you in this outfit during a fight."
    Always late to the party, Horbin sat up and gripped Glenda. "Why don't we try talking first. They might be dumb enough to help. If that doesn't work we could always fight, but it may not be neccissary right now," he whispered to the group as he looked around at them.
    "Talking skeletons, hmm?" Thorwald scratched his well-trimmed beard. "Now I've truly seen it all. Yes, why don't we try some friendly conversation." He raised his holy symbol to the sky, and went through the words in his mind.
    Grath finally woke, thanks to Dardiana. He prepared his weapons, and having slept in his armor, was ready to go in an instant. He left his tent and quickly advanced a little beyond the camp. The morning was still dark and the trees were dense, hiding the holders of the rather loud voices. They could hear the dimwits coming, not just their unholy, terrible words and oddly loud voices, but also the crunching of the forest floor under their feet. They were moving fast and not paying attention to stealth at all.
    Dardiana moved through the trees, getting closer to the approaching group. Gregor rode forward and loosed two stones at nearest skeleton through the gap of two large thees before him. Abyss snarled at the skeletons, ready to bite if any came near. Barry and Cherry were really scared and would ran while barking, only staying close enough to see Gregor. Gregor's stone caught the skeleton of intent in the side of the skull, prompting an oddly deadpan, "Ouch. My cranial cavity. What, rain goes sideways these days?"
    Grath and Horbin moved up and waited for the skeletons to come to them. Bethlen fired up a nimbus of black energy in her right hand that trailed sparks as she sauntered forward to a closer tree and waited. Gretchen, the black-skinned druid's teeth clenched, moved up near Bethlen, Nuisance in tow. The bulk of the party could see them in the dimly lit forest now. Moldered bones and rotting armour walking along in bright new red cloaks.
    Delphi looked to the others. "We're attacking? I can kill them? Sweet, time for some bludgeoning-murder." She took a long, skipping step, slinging a stone around her head once, twice, and then releasing it in a whip-crack movement toward the nearest skeleton. Some of the skeletons looked up as a bullet passed over their heads, thwacking leaves and branches on the way.
    "Was that wind? I can't remember."
    "No. Wind is what you get after bad seafood."
    "I have infinite patience in this form, but I am still getting tired of this seafood gag."
    "I think there might be some living people out there. That we have to kill. For..some reason.”
    "Well, lets display some...feeling. Which is going to be really hard. At them, fellow seafood!"
    "Please don't say that"
    "How do the words go again? Oh right. All glory to Ajneguhs, the one master of fire!”
    Thorwald waited patiently for the skeletons to come within his range, his holy symbol still held high over his head, beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. "Steady now, old chap. Steady now,” he said under his breath. Bethlen’s blast went off in a line of shadow through the night, sparks whirling within it. The skeleton it struck flew apart in blackened splinters. A skeleton struck out at her once her position was revealed, but it only caught bark.
    A skeleton rounded a tree and confronted Gretchen, running straight into her waiting attack, which missed. The skeleton struck her with its boney fist, she looked very annoyed. Another boney being came forward and took a swing at Gretchen and brained a sleeping gopher as it missed. Another skeleton came around the other side and face to face with Nuisance, staring dumbly at the pig.
    Gregor found a skeleton charging straight at him but Abyss snapped out and caught its leg. The dog now had a bone and looked pleased. Having seen the hound’s luck, Bethlen stepped up next to Dardiana, and fires at the nearest skeleton between the trees. As the energy bolt struck, it blew apart.
    Gretchen screamed "Trammelburgh!" then took another swing at the humanoid cage of bones, smashing it to pieces. She then retreated to a safer place, closer to the others. Nuisance followed suit. Gregor threw two of his remaining stones at the closest skeleton as Abyss moved forward to attack, without much luck.
    The skeleton looked at Abyss, ignoring Gregor, and remarked, "Hello, Kitty."
    "Hey, you, skeleton! Lead me to your master!" Gregor yelled out, not that he really believed the skeleton would lead him anywhere. More likely the weirdness of the whole squad of talking skeletons had somehow gotten to him.
    "A talking Kitty? Weird," The skeleton let out.
    As skeletons moved close to Thorwald, he used his holy faith to try turning away the undead. As his turning attempt fizzled, he heard a voice that crackling in his head. "No you don't. It took a lot of work to get that Administrate Trollope going for you, and I wanted a good look at her in action. Talk to you later."
    "My lord," Thorwald whispered under his breath, and instead charged the nearest skeleton, lighting himself on fire as he ran.
    Grath stepped up, with Gretchen out of his way, and swung at the skeleton using his newly acquired morningstar with both hands to smash the skeleton to bits. The bony corpse had time to say, "Why are you blue? Aren't you hot in all that skin?" Then Grath’s blow shattered it against the trees.
    Horbin moved up closer to the melee through the trees. Dardiana flung a magical spear of energy at a skeleton past the tree she had hidden behind. Delphi realized that adjusting her aim to hit vital organs wasn't going to work on creatures with no vitals to strike. She reloaded her current sling, took aim at the nearest skeleton, and loosed her bullet. Delphi's stone miraculously bounced off the tree next to Dardiana's head, shot in front of Bethlen's face, rebounded off another tree, and hit the skeleton already staggering under Dardiana's blast. It crumbled to the ground.
    One of the skeletons moved forward and, intoning "I wonder if I'm allergic to myself. Just my luck", took a swing at Bethlen with a quarterstaff. Another skeleton charged Grath with a shortspear without much luck. Grath took a swing at the skeleton that stupidly came within range of his weapons, and summarily missed.
    The cat obsessed skeleton just stood there staring at Gregor and said,"Hey guys, a talking kitty! Guys?"
    Impressed at the skills that Delphi apparently had with stones and trees and calculating bounces, Dardiana stood there for a moment contemplating what happened. Several seconds later, she was still confused, but she threw a spear of energy at the skeleton attacking Bethlen. "Thank you, Legs", remarked Bethlen, with a glance at Dardiana. Without bothering to step back, she charged up her black energies to fire straight into the skeleton’s face.
    At the last millisecond, the skeleton tossed its head sideways. "A kitty? Where? I like cats. Or was that haberdashery?" The blast blew a chunk out of a tree.
    Abyss snapped at nearest skeleton, which apparently did not expect that from such a nice kitty, but the attack missed. Gregor dismounted, took a red cloak from one fallen skeleton, and presented an opportunity for the skeletons to attack him while he wrapped himself in the cloak. "Skeletons! I command you to BOW before me!!!"
    A skeleton slowly raised its eyesockets at Gregor, and remarked, "You're the Master? Didn't you used to be taller? And with better hair? Have you been sick? And what happened to your face? Did somebody shove you face-first through an entire forest of ugly trees? That makes me feel... completely unconcerned."
    "I am your master's deputy in charge of these woods! You see, I wear this red cloak that confirms my status! So now take back your remark and do as commanded!" While quite surprized that the skeleton wasted the opportunity to strike Gregor while he was picking up the cloak, Gregor clearly did not want to waste his opportunity of engaging in such an unusual conversation.
    The skeleton continued staring. "The master has no deputies. He doesn't know how to delegate. I'd give him some advice, if I still had a forebrain. So, I'm a skeleton? Not some kind of seafood?"
    "Hmm... probably not. Not sure if you can be both at the same time. Besides, why would seafood wear red cloaks?" Gregor replied.
    "Maybe if it was a festival? I was never familiar with the local customs of seafood. I used to be a Rogue. I think. Anyway, skeleton now? Thanks." Then the undead turned to the tree next to it, and slammed its skull against the wood until it shattered, and the rest of the bones fell to the ground.
    Delphi watched the exchange, a bit sickened by the undead suicide. "They're... talking. That isn't normal. Skeletons are just automata, unthinking undead, right? What are these things?"
    Thorwald dodged slowly between the trees, trying to get a clear swing at one of the remaining skeletons. "What, are we having a tea-party or breaking bones," he shouted while swinging. Although not admitting it, he was also quite upset, and chose, midswing, to ponder over the existence of such pitiful creatures.
    "Apparently not, Delphi. These seem to be a lot more of the smart kind, somehow. Well... if you can call that smart. Anyway, we can consider it after they've fallen." Dardiana glanced sideways at Bethlen, the energy in her palm already beginning to form again, and wondered, slightly annoyed, how she turned into a set of limbs instead of an elf, but eventually blamed it on the clothing, or lack thereof.
    Horbin charged down one of the skeletons and reduced it to an unmoving pile. Delphi decided to ignore the skeletons’ comments, instead she took the opportunity to hurl another stone at the one menacing Bethlen. She narrowed her eyes, spun her sling through the air, and with a whip-crack and a shout of effort she sent the stone hurtling through the air at a completely unrealistic speed. It struck the skeleton on the head, bounced off to hit a tree, then a stone, then a bird, and sailed back down to hit the same skeleton a second time.
    For a moment, the forest went quiet. Delphi's strike knocked the last skeleton to the ground, as Horbin's and Thorwald’s weaponry made sure the moldered pile stayed dead.
    Bethlen looked down at the ruins before her. "Kutchers career as a necromancer is off to a tenuous start.”
    Grechten replied, "The problem will be when he starts realising he can use non-humanoid skeletons. Wolves. Boars. Bears."
    Bethlen looked calm. "And if they act the same way? The natural way? We'll have things running away from us in droves"
    Grath grabbed one of the red cloaks and tossed it on over his armor, following Gregor's example. "Gregor, looking good in that cloak. Grath get one too." He then rooted around, seeing what else he could find on them, if anything.
    Gregor nodded, but then scratched his head, thinking about something. "Hey, Beth, is it be okay to put these on now? I mean, any chance of encountering armed anti-red-cloak guys around here?" Then he shook his head, looking at the skeleton before him.
    "Poor Yorik... or Seafood... Sorry guy, I don't know your name," Gregor went silent for a moment then pronounced, "good Yorik Seafood the Rogue, may thy soul rest in peace, you were a good guy." With that Gregor started to pile up the bones and skulls in one maximally accurate heap. Then he went to all the other stuff in another, nearby heap, of a much more random arrangement.
    Horbin picked up and draped a red cloak over his back too. Dardiana did not pick up a cloak like her male companions. She instead activated her mage sight and first looked at the cloaks before turning it off. The black-skinned girl started binding a slight nick on her arm. "We are the ‘armed anti-redcloaked guys’ in the area. I don't see any harm. Wait," her eyes flashed and she looked around the scene, obviously avoiding looking straight at Bethlen.

  12. - Top - End - #12
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    "Nothing magical around but the obvious aura of Necromancy on the skeles. Oh, that's odd."
    "The spell that raised them isn't a straightline Animation spell. It's mixed with something else. Probably whatever gave them the intelligence, and I use the word in the loosest possible sense, to operate independantly and speak," she continued.
    Delphi looked at the red cloaks, and then to herself. Sighing, she took out her knife, and begans trimming one of the cloaks to fit her better than a tent. The result was rough, but badass enough for her to wear it anyway.
    Dardiana asked the group, but mainly Delphi, "Why are you wearing their cloaks? I doubt that it'll stop them from realizing we're not Kutchers."
    Delphi points to one of the skeletons that had been menacing Gregor. "See that one? It bashed its own head in after a short conversation with Gregor, and he was the one wearing a cloak. It paused its attack on him, too; even if it hadn't killed itself, he could have likely done it with much less trouble. That's reason enough for me."
    "They didn't seem that smart to begin with, but," she took one of the cloaks and placed it around her neck. "... but there isn't anything to say they didn't do that because the cloaks confused them."
    "Dumber than this orc, which is saying something. Grath wants to wear one because look good in red. Skeletons killing themselves is a bonus. Dumb conversations get only dumber with them involved."
    Gregor took note as he gathered the spoils. The skeletons’ actual armor was a motley assortment of the bits and pieces from the past centuries, decayed and rotted almost to uselessness. The weapons were nothing to talk about. Two swordshorts, a handaxe that that nobody in the world was proficient in anymore, a light mace, a quarterstaff, three morning stars, a shortspear and one light flail.
    Bethlen looked at Gregor, a slight shadowy haze still steamed around her fist. "It would, I suspect, be extremely unwise to be still wearing them next time we encounter Ashdowners. But they are good cloaks. Gretchen?"
    "Assuming it trapped the original soul, nasty thing to do to somebody. And if it only created a rough simulacrum of the original personality, nasty to create a creature that can only live in confusion and misery, vaguely remembering what someone else was," Bethlen purred. "I'm going to enjoy meeting this fellow."
    "Does anyone remember what the skeletons said about kutcher being the fire master, or something? Sounded like something important to remember. Now, if only Grath could remember."
    "Well, for now the cloaks may well help us avoid intelligent foes, like the ones by the river. I will keep one around until Anjeguhs is dealt with," Horbin said.
    After the loot was examined, Gregor threw it into the cart. Then he proceeded with all the regular morning activities and prepared to move on. While the newly acquired cloak was too long for him to wear while on foot, it seemed to fit just fine when Gregor was riding, so it was kept that way.
    Bethlen picked up the light mace from the cart, twirled it with some skill, and dropped it back in the cart. "I can fight them without weapons," she muttered. She doffed her green cloak and put on a red, stroking her fingers over the weave. When worn over her snug, brazen-studded, over-designed black leathers,it left her looking quite stupidly melodramatic. She put her hands on her hips and addressed the group; "Generally, fighting puts me in the mood for something else, but these foes just don't do it for me. It's less than an hour to dawn. Shall we press on?"
    Gretchen stuck to her Ashdown Grey cloak. "Let's move, People. Adventure is waiting, or certain death. You want to wait until he comes up with mummies? Employing sarcasm?"
    Grath started packing his gear and tent up, preparing to march. He munched on some food as he loaded his pack.
    As the day started, he snatched berries and other food as they travel. "Yes, hopefully we will get there soon. It was supposed to be roughly two days travel right," Horbin said as he hefted Glenda.
    Dardiana hopped back into the cart and sat down for the ride. "I don't know, I think I'd like for him to send mummies. Maybe even a mohrg or two." While on the road, she ate a trail ration and juggled an eldritch blast, not at the same times though.
    "Have you ever met such fearsome creatures before, Dardiana? I'd rather not poke a stick at something that could rot and eat me alive, while engaging me in pleasant conversation. Cause I just can't stand pleasant conversation." Thorwald rode along on his newly-named horse, Muspellnir, eating some rations as he went.
    Dardiana flung the spear skyward. "Oh, I'm sure they would much more like to rot and eat you alive than talk. Unless you find the one in a thousand of them which isn't a crazed murderer risen again." After some seconds of waiting since she threw it, she caught the blast again.

  13. - Top - End - #13
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    Chapter 11
    Down the Rabbit Hole

    The group headed east, the way grew higher, up amongst the mountains. The spurs of the Godspine closed in. The trees began getting sparser, the stream to their right got narrower and stronger. The birds were silent and the air got more so as they headed up through the narrowing, heightening, valley.
    As the sun began to obscure behind the mountains to the west, Gretchen held out her hand. "There." Through the trees, following her hand, they saw a Gazebo, slightly to their left. The gazebo was built out of ancient stones. Covered by undergrowth, its barely visible decoration was carved into the shapes of serpents and young ladies in full-length clothes holding martial weapons, but still a gazebo. "What? Did you think we were joking?"
    Bethlen moved forward. "Oddly enough, no."
    "It doesn't look like much," Horbin said as the gazebo came into his view.
    "Feel free to walk in," replied Gretchen in a blank tone.
    Dardiana looked toward the gazebo with her magic sight. Grath didn’t like the tone of voice Gretchen used to suggest walking in, so he found a stone and a long stick, the proverbial 10 foot pole. He tossed the stone inside and poked around with the stick, trying to see if anything tried to bite him.
    Delphi stared at the gazebo with complete terror. "But those were +3 arrows!" she shouted, taking a few steps away from the massive gazebo. She then shook her head, as if shaking off water. "That was weird. I don't know what came over me. So, what color is that Gazebo, anyway?"
    "Brown. Or... is it purple? Maybe white? It's the weirdest thing, but... I don't know. I can't pin it exactly." Dardiana cocked her head but kept her magic detecting eyes trained on the gazebo. "And is it even important? Or did Kutcher, or some greater entity, put it here to distract us?" The gazebo had registered as non-magical, but there was a very strong glow coming from within it. The glow looked like the diffracted edge of an aura, as though she couldn’t see the cause directly.
    The gazebo, constructed of smooth gray stone, put up with the indignities without reaction. Grath's stone hit a hard surface inside, but in the gathering gloom it was hard to tell what. Gretchen and Bethlen walked right in. In a second the party heard the voices.
    "Careful..." Gretchen’s voice called.
    "WHOA! Hey, it's one of these!" Bethelen replied, a hint of excitement in her voice.
    Dardiana hopped out of the cart and went over to them to see what was going on in the dreaded gazebo. As Dardiana walked in she was almost blinded. In the center of the gazebo was a fifteen by fifteen foot, perfectly square pit, going straight down. From its sides and its depths was a blazing, overwhelming magical aura of Transmutation, Illusion, and other things she couldn't make out because the aura was so strong. It made Bethlen's aura look like a candle next to a bonfire.
    Bethlen picked up a rock and threw it in. Then she stepped over to the north side of the pit and stepped right in. She stood up, standing on the north face as if it were a floor. "I predict fun," she remarked dryly. Gregor stayed nearly a hundred feet away from the gazebo. He did not know what all the hype about it was, the guy was apparently not there, but he let people investigate the thing and did nothing but looking around.
    Bethlen craned her head, and her eyes traveled a little too slowly up Dardiana's body until they reached her eyes. "Legs, your magesight's on. What do you see? If the active defenses are still functioning, this place should look like a geyser of conjuration or necromancy. Or most likely both." Her cloak was hanging down toward the wall she was standing on. She looked straight down into the pit. "Torchglow. Maybe a hundred feet ahead. Down. Whatever."
    "Is this the only way to the place that Kutcher may or may not have taken over? Grath likes to keep an eye on the sky. Underground, not so much."
    Dardiana turned her ability off soon after being blasted by the energy through her eyes. "Let's just say I couldn't see crap. But it wasn't either of those. Transmutation and Illusion is all I was able to make out." Dardiana walked over to the side across from Bethlen and walked into the pit.
    "Don't worry. Today is as good a day as any, and we started out well," Horbin said as he slapped Grath on the back. He then walked into the gazebo. "Well ladies, what do we have?" He then looked down, into the hole and saw Bethlen standing on the wall. "Okay, I was not expecting that. Shall we," he said to no one in particular as he stepped, tentatively, over the north edge hoping to end up next to Bethlen.
    Grath shuddered every time he saw someone walk over the side and startled a little when Horbin slapped his back. He shook his head and grabed another handful of stones and stood at the edge of the pit. He tried dropping a few, then throwing a few, and watched what happened. "Magic makes people walk on walls. Grath does not like this magic. No." He was getting more and more creeped out at the display. He added it to the litany he started chanting.
    "Magic talks to people. Magic makes clothes fit. Magic paper talks to Ingva. Magic zaps people to Alnwizk two days away. Magic makes people walk on walls. Grath does not like this magic. No"
    Gregor was impressed by the amount of investigation performed. At first, he did not believe that was the destination. If he had expected that, he would never have gotten that close. Instead, Gregor had planned to spend a day or two setting up an ambush, watch the traffic, possibly getting some one to interrogate... But, people seemed to decid to go in there, all, within under a minute... so, "impressed" might be a rather weak term. More like "totally shocked".
    "Umm... guys... err... I mean, girls... are you sure we don't want to hang around and attempt to acquire any password, magic key, or whatnot that might be required to prevent our total destruction? It would be sad to later discover we need some of that." Also, given that it appeared to be some way "in", Gregor tried to investigate the tracks in a wide area around the gazebo, as he has enough time. A lot of old tracks lead away from the Gazebo back the way they came. The more recent looked skeletal. All looked humanoid.
    Gretchen blew her breath out through her teeth, "Wunderbar! We've got a Ranger that goes everywhere but where might be dangerous, a Scout that wants her hidden terrain explored by absolutely everyone, a Witch who dresses like she does, and a Cleric of Loki. And now we've got an Orc who's afraid of the dark. What next? Does the Swordsman swallow?"
    Bethlen just looked up. "I did not choose them. They came with me." She started to move off down the pit, walking against the north wall into darkness. "If they're not good enough, they walk away now. Legs, thanks for that that probably means we're not going to die horribly in the next few seconds."
    Bethlen took a deep breath. "Right, we liked to explore places like this, way back when. By which I mean, Astra liked to explore places like this, which she did well. Fullbright followed hoping to explore Astra, which never worked out. I followed hoping to explore Fullbright, which never worked out. Brunswick followed because he felt some concern for us, which worked out adequately. And Lotus stayed at home and got other people to explore her, which worked out very efficiently and which led to a number of duels."
    "Grath not scared of dark. Do not like walking on walls. Unnatural." Grath held his holy symbol close, said a silent prayer to Kord, and jumped down the shaft. As he jumped, he muttered, "Magic makes people walk on walls. Grath does not like this magic. No." Grath landed smoothly on the north wall, a little behind Horbin, who was behind Bethlen.
    The walls, floor, and ceiling, or just the walls, perspective was a problem, of the pit were made out of very regular, black, rectangular objects cemented in place. If they’d had the background, they might have spotted them as being stoneware bricks. The pit descended straight down. Or ahead, depending on how they were thinking. There was a faint golden glow ahead in the darkness. Seemingly coming from the floor.
    Bethlen shouted back, she seemed a little more on-edge than was normal, but her voice was level. "Everything here is going to be coated with Illusion and Transmutation until it shines next to the Sun. It would hardly do to let the real traps get revealed by a cantrip. Switch off the Magesight, Legs. And turn it back on only when things get weird."
    Gregor, eventually, approached the gazebo and, eventually, stepped into the pit. He was the last one to do it and even then only after Bethlen was a ways down. He spent some time convincing the dogs to follow, and rode down holding a ready bow and a lit torch, maintaining visual contact with Bethlen.
    "I already did some time back." Dardiana followed them all, watching from their ceiling as they walked along her ceiling. "How did you meet up with those girls and guys anyway, if you don't mind me asking? Astra, Fullbright, Brunswick, and Lotus." Horbin held Glenda at the ready as he followed within five feet of Bethlen's lead.
    Thorwald tied down his horse at a grassy area and entered the odd pit with an awkward jump that almost made him fall flat on his arse. "Aye, how did you guys meet up? Did you put up a poster that said 'Seeking violent psycotic clichés, m/f, for a fun time of murder, evil deeds and red herring hunting, bad manners preferred'? I'm curious."
    Bethlen gave them all a Look. "I got hold of Teacher's wand and made Astra's lunchtime juice taste bad. Astra beat the crap out of me while Brunswick tried to pull her off and Lotus screamed and threw toys. Two days later, an older girl made off with my lunch. Brunswick found out which one, Lotus drew her out by calling her names, and Astra jumped her. That was how we met Fullbright."
    "Childhood friends then. Interesting..." Dardiana thought for a moment and tried something, going to her left 'wall' and placing a foot on it before trying to stand on it instead of the current 'floor'. She was just testing things out that she believed would work. Thanks to her spiderwalk, it actually worked, although she could still feel the pull of prevailing downwardness back toward the north wall, or "floor".
    Bethlen shrugged, "I cannot promise, because I do not know, that there won't be areas where all the walls might be floors. Right up until the moment when they're suddenly not."
    A soft footfall and a snort signified the presence of Gretchen, and Nuisance. "Are we still here? We've got a comically inept necromancer with several millenia's supply of corpses to work with somewhere in here. Let's do stuff to him before he finds a way to do stuff that actually does stuff to us!"
    Dardiana returned to her previous place of walking, the southern floor, which was the one that she was always on. "We are walking along, Gretchen. Believe it or not, talking while walking is a new fad."
    The corridor, pit, whatever, was dark. But even as they approached the not-very-distant glow, it resolved itself into an identical pit, heading straight down or north. From out of it was the ruddy glow of torchlight. Beyond it appeared to be blank, black, brick wall. Dardiana went just to the edge and looked past, going slightly past to see. "Is it going to do the same as this one? Or is this a more... normal-like pit? One where you actually fall."
    "Anyone bring a yo-yo? Or failing that, an infinite supply of rocks?" Bethlen seemed bemused by her own statement.
    From Dardiana's position on the "ceiling" directly "above" the pit, she could see it was made of the same smooth black brickwork as the "corridor" they were in. It was lined with torches braced to the "left" and "right" "walls" with brackets of a bronze-coloured metal, the same sort as the studs on Bethlen's armour.
    The torch flames were burning directly away from the party. For those keeping track, that meant they were burning upside down from the point of view of the normal world. There appeared to be an intersection about sixty feet "down", and it seemed to turn sharply to the "right" about another sixty beyond that.
    Grath took off his holy symbol and offered it to Bethlen. "Grath not have infinite rocks, but holy symbol dangles like a toy on a string. Try this." The holy symbol of Kord flashed as it crossed the interzone, but then hung toward the "pit’s" closest-to-the-party "wall" as she pushed it across.
    Cherry bounded forward from the back, over the edge, and, snarling briefly in confusion, flipped to land on the nearest side of the pit. She stood with her tongue hanging out and panting, staring at Bethlen and Grath from across the switch in downwardness.
    "Grath still does not like these walls. But keep going forward."
    Dardiana went forward, staying on the 'ceiling' and putting her foot on the new hole's 'ceiling'. "Guess not. Then let's continue. Before the bad man does stuff." She looked up at them from her perspective.
    "I don't think it is the man's ability we need worry about. This place seems beyond his ability. This place may well have better ability in thwarting us than him," Horbin said, lowly as he realized their voices carry amongst the stonework.
    "Good dog. And good thinking, Tiger." Bethlen handed back the holy symbol. "Well, apparently the torches aren't illusions." She stepped over the abyss, and stood on the "floor" next to Cherry, from most of the party’s perspective standing on the nearest side of the pit, looking up from a fourty-five degree angle. She folded her arms gunbuster style, as she had done a few times before.
    "Now, if we have some fine rope, and some weighty, compact, useless object, we should AAAAH-" A split second before she said "AAAAH", all the torches went out, leaving complete darkness, even for the ones with darkvision.
    "And where is Blind-Fighting when you need it?" Horbin's voice rang out in the darkness. "I mean, great, this should make it fun." Horbin tried to move his back to the nearest wall, without trampling anyone.
    Then the torches came back on. Bethlen fell from out of the ceiling and landed heavily on her side side next to Gregor. Her eyes were wide open and her pupils were tiny spots, there was sweat running down her face, and she was shivering. "Yes, I hear you." She said, a little too loud, as though she couldn’t hear herself. "I hear you and it hurts. What? Green....Saffron and arsenic....The color of the sky......A celestial body between here and the Primary....The ability to split someone's head with a short-hafted weapon without getting splatter on your clothes.....A size of needle normally used for hemming....A type of cocoa-based dessert.....A reference to an obscure Imperial drama of the Early Unreasonable period."
    She continued to spout non-sequiters, with pauses in between, as she pulled herself onto her knees with jerky, automatic motions. Her muscles were tensed, her back was arched, she had her right hand crossed over her chest. Her left hand, clenched into a fist, was sparking and smoking.
    While Gregor had originally intended to keep some distance from the rest of the party, some sixty feet or more, depending on visibility, moving almost exactly over their tracks, but he had to close in to get back that stupid dog, which for some doggy reason went forward all of a sudden and at precisely that moment things started happening, then apparently stopped happening, but not quite. Gregor froze. Dardiana shut up, wished she had that invocation that let her see in magical darkness, and listened, but then the lights came back on, she made her way by the wall to Bethlen. She crouched down and put a hand on her shoulder. "Beth, what happened?" She tried to say it in a nicer way but was unable to come up with the words.
    "I would say this place plays on the evil in one's heart, but the guy we're looking for would have had the same fate," Horbin said as he looked at Thorwald.
    Bethlen's monologue continued "...A sexual act performed between two close friends that leaves them both feeling silly afterward... a Unionist delicacy....an act of contrition for...Yes I shall tell them. Yes. Yes, Sir" She stood up, in an automative fashion that was nothing like her usual body language.
    "From the Local Genius, to the Party currently entering this area with citizen accompaniment. Intruder is located in residencial level B. Command functions by This Entity have been cut by Heartland Control, Personal mode voice, The Lieutenant of Midnight. Motive and objective unknown by This Entity. Most Command functions dispelled. No Control. Repeated, This Entity has no control. Active defensive Agents have been restricted to Manufactury levels, marked by green light. Active Defensive agents are NOT under control and are working under default full-blown Abberancy War protocols up to and including including Mindrape and Personalised Nightmare Scenario. I repeat. I do Repeat. Do not NOT go near green light.
    Message ends. Postscript: Escape is already impossible. Good luck, Ladies and Gentlemen. Please remove this damage from me and let me die." Bethlen staggered, "What did I just say,” and then she fell over.
    Dardiana laid her down on the 'floor'. She checked Bethlen’s pulse as she spoke, "That speech's not a good sign..."
    "Someone check her. It sounds like there was a magical enchantment on her that basically gave us a warning. So most of the defenses are broken and if we steer clear of the green light we should be fairly okay," Horbin spouted.
    "That's a good sign. An excellent sign, actually. Since this entity does not like the guy and will not act against us, we have a perfect chance of succeding. Not sure about getting back alive, but at the very least we'll get the guy. Yes, keep FAR away from green light, find residencial level B and make sure you don't go anywhere without footprints and don't touch anything without finger-prints to avoid whatever might be of passive measures. That sounds fair." Gregor dismounted.
    "Sit. All of you. Wait here." Then he moved ahead, careful to check for gravity and follow existing tracks as closely as possible.
    Grath waited with the others, as Gregor had asked him to do. He stepped over to Bethlen, and called over Thorwald to check her out. "Thorwald, help." Without knowing what to look for, he briefly examined Bethlen for injury or illness.
    Delphi finally worked up the nerve to walk onto the 'safe' side of the pit, but she began looking around for any signs of tampering before she did, continuing that pattern once she was inside. "Be careful, now. I know how to find and disarm traps, so unless you're better at that than me you should all probably stay behind me. There aren't many traps in the forest, but this is a different story."
    Bethlen's pulse and heart were racing, her breathing was very strong and deep, she was as limp as a rag. After a couple of seconds, her eyes flickered open. "What--What did I say? Can't remember. Too LOUD. It didn't Breath.” She pushed herself up into a sitting position with some effort.
    "It didn't make me say anything strange? Did it? Some of these, they make you recite your full name, address, customary titles, ancestry, progeny, group affiliation, and/or entire sexual history," Breath. "Guess which routine Lotus got once. Go on. Guess. We were stuck for hours."
    Gregor and Delphi, explored around the "corner" and discovered that that place was extremely clean. The bricks looked as though they were regularly washed and swept. There were, however, a few scraps of long-rotted clothing, a red-rusted ring from an obsolete mail shirt, and a yellowed humanoid incisor. If it were a trail, it lead up the corridor toward the corner to the right. Going up the corridor to the intersection, they discovered that the side-corridors were dark, lacking torches. On the wall of the left-hand one there was inscribed, in a stark, minimalist style of lettering the words "Don't go this way", along with a helpful arrow pointing into the darkness. On right were the words, "Or this way", with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. When they passed the intersection and looked back, they found those words were reversed when going the other way.
    Delphi found a brick that clicked when she touched it, and jumped away as it fell open, revealing it to be the door of a small compartment. In the compartment was an apple and two cheese sandwiches. Gregor nodded, "Look. Don't touch," then put away his bow and went back, marking his path with chalk.
    ***
    "You told us everything. Plain and simply everything." Dardiana sat down in front of Bethlen and waited for the two scouts to return. "Is there something you were scared of it having you tell us?"
    ***
    "There seems to be quite a labyrinth and Delphi already found what could pass for a "trap", so, let's go, but follow my steps." Gregor was quiet and showed that he felt there was a sense of danger.
    Bethlen drew her knees, which are trembling, up toward her torso, as though preparing to stand up, then laughed. "I certainly hope I didn't tell you everything. That would take a while. And be boring. Incredibly boring. And be personally embarrassing, if done unwittingly. However, your Halfling is probably correct. This is a Labyrinth, not a Maze. And will somebody frelling tell me what I said?" She tried to stand up but her knees gave way.
    "Something about staying away from green lights and following footprints to level B. Residential level B. Passive defenses are still active. Grath didn't really understand what was said."
    Thorwald stood and stared hesitantly at the scene of Bethlen's hardship. At Grath's request to help her, he leaned back and scratched his beard. Only when the green lights were mentioned again, did he reply. "Was it just me, or did she say don't not go near the green light? You know, double negative?"
    "Some entity that controls the place no longer controls the place. Does not like he guy and wants us to get him. Residential level B. And we are to stay well away from green light - either this entity lies or it would be VERY deadly. I'm not going to check," Gregor replied. It then occurred to Gregor that the torches appeared to be permanent installations and that everburning ones like those on the walls were not a major magical item. The spell needed was not very powerful at all, at least compared to the gravity changing effects.
    "You know what... these torches are not just any normal torches. They are cold, and neither smell nor smoke like normal totches. I'll keep mine in case of some magic shut-off, but the thing is one of the corridors is not illuminated. I wonder if that guy took some torches from there or brought some torches in here. Any way, we'll continue to scout ahead, follow as you are ready." Gregor went back to Delphi to continue forward, marking his way with chalk. As long as there was only one non-green illuminated corridor with some kind of "tracks" he was going that way.
    Dardiana got up and helped Bethlen stand. "From a warning to things like 'A sexual act performed between two close friends that leaves them both feeling silly afterward'. The only way to describe it is everything." With Bethlen helped, Dardiana followed the chalk path of Gregor. "But nothing explicitly about your life. But you did tell us to remove this damage from you and let you die. And that the entity has no control."
    Grath followed along. "Grath thought the part about removing damage and letting die was the message Bethlen got, not Bethlen speaking."
    "Probably. But she asked what she said. She said that part," Dardiana snarked.
    Delphi shook her head, profoundly confused. "I really, really do not like this place. We are so unprepared for magic and power like this that I don't know any words to express it. Why are we going down here? Do we have a death wish or something?"
    Thorwald managed to look both bored, laid back and confused at the same time. "Come now, Delphi, we’re adventurers. If we didn't have a deathwish, what on earth would we be doing here?" He hung back for a while, not really feeling like he could contribute. "You know, we could just tie Gretchen up, and throw her in front of us for the rest of the dungeon."
    "Actually... I'm not going to die in here. So, not be surprised if I won't," Gregor replied.
    "If Bethlen is ready, we can go," Horbin said as he started after Gregor. At the mention of torches he tried to pull one off the wall to carry. The torches were very securely attached to the very sturdy, if somewhat over-fluted, brazen brackets which were very securely attached to the black brick walls. How was not immediately obvious. He could see nothing that looked like bolts.
    The unlighted corridor intersecting the one they were in, from what they could see of its walls, showed no sign of ever having had torches along it, but when they looked down the dim corridor, in either direction, they saw a trace of movement in the darkness. When they stared longer, they noticed it repeated every few seconds. Once, there was a faint ‘CHUNK’ sound.
    Bethlen, having fallen on her behind, made a second attempt to rise, and with Dardiana's help, pulled herself to her feet. "Thanks again, Legs. Well, I'm not planning on having sex with a close friend and feeling sufficiency silly enough to want to die. Well, keep your eyes open. Look out for things that look like walls that are actually doors. Things that look like pits and shafts that are actually corridors. Things that look like corridors that are actually pits. Things that look like just another piece of empty space that are actually portals. Things that look like floors but are actually disguised Forcewalls set to switch off if somebody steps with the right rhythm or speaks in the right cadence. You know, basic stuff. I'm ready."
    "Got it. Do just stay behind Delphi as she does that stuff," Dardiana said to the merchant with a gesture toward their small companion.
    "I'm sure the knowledge that we'll all be behind her, checking out her inventory, shall focus the pretty little filly wonderfully,” muttered Bethen.
    Delphi grumbled something under her breath that sounded extremely vehement, but she didn't speak up. Instead, she lead the way, keeping a careful eye out for traps. She avoided any movement in the distance or green light like the plague.
    Dardiana considered saying that if Delphi got the group through the labrynth safely, a group bonding experience of her favorite kind could be possible, but refrained from doing so after hearing her grumble something vehemently. Then she kept on following the peoples, helping Bethlen along when she still needed it.
    While waiting for Delphi to check for traps around the corner, as the trail obviously lead that way, Gregor cut three strips off his red cloak, tied each of them as a hairy knot-around-a-stone-on-a-string, soaked the knots with oil, set them on fire and threw in a very sling-like technique, two to one side of the dark corridor, the "CHUNK" side, and one to other. "Hey, night-eyes, anything of interest?" All three flaming knots plummeted straight down their respective corridors as though falling down a pit.
    Their light revealed, briefly, a skull, an ulna, a light mace, and a redcloaked skeleton missing these features turning in slow fall about fifty feet down the corridor. Then they disappeared, and the gruesome remnants fell back into darkness. A few seconds later, the skeletal remnants and the two lights reappeared on the opposite side from the direction they were thrown, as did the other light on the different side.
    There was another CHUNK as the light mace collided with the skeleton as it spun, knocking off a rib, and then all the objects fell back into the darkness again. They reappeared, along with the now-guttering flaming knots, on the opposite side.
    ***
    Delphi found a brick on the left-hand wall, right at the end of the corridor. It seemed to have a touch of give to it, as though it would click if touched slightly harder. She then took a look around the corner. It was a long, straight corridor. The torches seemed to be placed on the "floor" and "Ceiling", and burned sideways away from the direction of the party. They were also less closely spaced, with dimness in between. There were also more nonfunctional, redcloaked skeleton remnants. Those on the well-lite areas were lying on the "right wall", those in the dimmer areas on the "left".
    Gregor took a look around the corner too. Then he put down the torch and, trying not to stick any real distance around the corner, shot an arrow straight through the corridor. The arrow flew straight down the corridor, but did seem to waver up to the left and right as it moved out of vision. "Aaallright... we'll need one pole or one rope... or one spider-climbing witch. Not sure what would be most convenient, probably the pole, but then we'll need to also transport the dogs."
    Assuming the gravity, apparently, fluctuated up and down and the corridor did not seem very high, Gregor proposed the options of walking straight with the pole in front to sense gravity change. Then with pole "up" straight at the "roof" which will become the "floor" when entering next gravity zone so down the pole to the new "floor", give the pole back to next person, repeat. Or the other option, jumping into reverse gravity zone holding a rope to Grath, or holding to Dardiana climbing the "wall". He did not much care who prefered which way, as long as Delphi, Gregor and Dardiana were ahead, the dogs were transported with some help from Grath or Dardiana and no one pushed the brick.
    Grath offered up the improvised pole he used to poke the gazebo to Gregor. He then set his backpack down and pulled out his silk rope. "Grath hopes fifty feet is enough. Have no more than that."
    Gregor took the pole from Grath, "Thanks. I'll try to put that to good use." Gregor moved ahead with most of the pole first in front of him, then "up" and "down" as planned. Delphi still seemed hesitant about delving further, but she assisted Gregor in torch-holding and trap-finding capacities wherever applicable.
    Gretchen, was still giving Thorwald a disgusted look. "Anyone ties me up nonconsensually, Fire-poker, and they're getting burned themselves."
    Bethlens eyes flashed open briefly. She was still leaning on Dardiana a little, but then she stood up fully. "Thanks for the help Legs, but it's time we started making sure nobody does anything stupid. Or says anything stupid. And you and I should both be making sure your little girlfriend's behind is adequately covered while she's taking point."
    Meanwhile, Gregor discovered that, as expected, the pole swung to the "left" as it entered the new corridor. A short jump and a moment of headspin saw him standing on the "right" wall.
    Bethlen was continuing. "That came out wrong. Pole's a good idea. We used to just take these particular ones as a gymnastic exercise. Brunswick and Fullbright were always the best, but most of you--" She was cut off by some very heavy, jarring footsteps from the opposite end of the long corridor, and a large monstrous humanoid skeleton swung into sight from "right", from the parties perspective, and "down" from Gregor’s. It wore two redcloaks, one drapped over each shoulder, it looked rather silly.
    It roared wordlessly and advanced through a lighted region. As it plunged into its first dimmer area it abruptly fell on its head, onto a ceiling become floor. It then got up. There were only four lit and three dim sections between it and the party.
    "Gregor, come back this way and let it run into me and Grath. We can deal with it sufficiently, right blue guy," Horbin said as he flashed a smile at the orc.
    "Allright. I like the plan. One moment, though..." Gregor dropped the pole on the "floor" and stepped back on the very edge where the floor of his corridor became the "wall" of the group's, drawing the bow. "...this thing is still a ways off..."
    "Good, we're attacking." Dardiana loaded up a spear into her fist and sent it barreling toward the skeleton, sending a second one of the same type soon after. The thing continued to advance, slamming onto each opposite celing in turn as it passed through lighted and dim areas. Gregor's arrows flew and Dardiana's shining spears hit deep, blowing off chips of bone, rib, and vertebrae. It was still coming, two unlighted areas and three lighted still to go.
    Bethlen, leaning against the wall of the corridor behind the three men, could be heard to mutter, "I'm inclined to think that the dolls that got out were the smart ones."
    A second massive skeleton, identically panapolied in red, stepped into view behind the first, and smacked its head against the new ceiling, same as the first. It roared "Short persons! Good eating!" and came, head on.
    Bethlen facepalmed. "Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't look like it's going to get here soon, and I could keep smacking into its body with my spears until it falls." She conjured another spear and flung it, aiming closer to the creature's left thigh, trying to destroy one of its legs. She kept right on launching them.
    Gregor also continued shooting, with no effect except for the last arrow, which chipped away a small bit of bone. "Hmm, Bethlen, care to do something of more direct consequence?" Dardiana's spears mostly went wide as the first skeleton advanced.
    Bethen, as it drew near, snapped her fingers. It seemed to be much louder than should be justified.
    The first enemy fell apart in ruins, the second was still becoming accustomed to its situation. It slamed back and forth between ceilings, and roared at them from down the hall. "Short Persons! Stop changing stuff!"
    "Nevermind Grath, looks like we'll have to wait," Horbin said as he stepped onto the new floor.
    "Grath would rather let skeletons come to us and show us which way floor goes than charge in and bounce like skeletons." He hefted the morningstar, preparing as the skeleton approached. Gregor then assumed position behind Horbin and Grath, with wand in left hand, club in right hand, and bow somewhere on the floor.
    The last and wordier one came on. Roaring, but now seemed to have figured something out as it crashed from one wall to the other. Result, though plainly battered, it crashed onto the "floor" on all fours directly in front of Horbin. "Yield or die," Horbin said to the bone creature and raised Glenda above his head.
    Flat-footed, prone, and battered, the large skeleton had time to say "Small person talk too mu-" before flying apart under Glenda's stroke. POILER]

  14. - Top - End - #14
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Southern Comfort Campaign recap

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    Chapter 12
    A hunting we will go!



    Bethlen moved next to Horbin on the right "wall" even as the bits stopped rattling on the stones, then broke into a run. Just as she was about to pass into the first unlit area, she jumped, throwing her legs ahead and as high as she could. As the change in downwardness cought her in mid-air, she flipped over and landed on her feet on the "left wall", facing the party. "Hee. Still got it. I was never great at these, but I think most of you should be able to pull it off most of the time. Your horse-botherer might need help though"
    Dardiana offered her assistance to Delphi, and only her, to get across. When she accepted, Dardiana crouched to let her on then she walked on the wall and simply strolled to Bethlen. "My way's easier." She had dropped off any additional weight and was carrying lightly at that point.
    "Yes, but our way looks sexier. You should have seen Fullbright do this," Bethlen grinned, then looked at Delphi. "On second thought, maybe it's best you didn't. Attractive woman in tight pants doing this; She-Hobbit here would be distracted for hours."
    Gregor reloaded his quiver with more arrows from Abyss' saddlebags and otherwise got everything back in order. "Nah, I prefer much simpler acrobatics." He took the pole, moved ahead, and also crossed the first gravity boundary. "Grath, will you rather transfer the dogs cloak-tied to the pole or just catch them on this side?" Gregor went on to speak with the dogs, in their own tongue, and advise them of the plan.
    Thorwald moved hesitantly forward, and then stopped.
    "You know what? I'm not doing this. I'm about as limber as a rock, and with this armor I'm about as compact.
    Could... Could any of you possibly help me with a rope or something?" The handsome but annoying cleric stood, looking rather sheepish.
    Grath replied to Gregor, "Grath will help with dogs, but not care much how. More important is do dogs care how? If dogs jump or get tossed, Grath can catch. Thorwald, use this rope. Gregor is borrowing the pole so you get the rope. Grath can brace you as you go across the weird spots."
    Bethlen gave Thorwald a long look of utter contempt, then blew her breath out through her teeth and turned away. With Gregor testing for the fairly obvious gravitional changes with the Random Stick of Being Incredibly Useful, and Grath holding up the other members of the party that can't follow Dardiana's or Bethlen's example, they worked their way down the corridor. The dogs seemed to rather enjoy it, and Barry and Cherry got stuck for a few minutes jumping back and forth across one of the interzones chasing each other. Nuisance grunted stoically and simply tried to run and twist as dexterously as a boar could.
    The "pit" from which the Skrolls emerged was a fifteen by fifteen foot shaft leading straight "down". It was relatively short, with the torches burning, again, away from the party. It looked like after about sixty feet it opened out into a broader area. Beyond it, the corridor they were currently in continued into darkness, with a hint of greenish glow in the distance.
    Being not interested in going into greenish darkness, Gregor stuck the stick into the pit, and then proceeded as usual. Gregor found himself standing on the nearest "wall" of the pit, as might have been expected. He soon found himself joined by Gretchen, who had followed Bethlen's method. "You honestly know nothing about her? And them? Nothing? They tell stories of her people, where I come from. They wait and watch. Sometimes, they break things. Larissa sent me along hoping you'd know more,” Gretchen questioned the short man.
    Horbin followed closely behind Gregor as he journeyed into the next passage. "Isn't green a bad thing, because we are headed right for it with no alternative paths discovered."
    Grath proceeded with bringing up the rear, lifting members of the group who needed the assistance and steadying the rope for those who don't want to get tossed around by a muscle-bound orc. Grath heard Horbin up ahead, and said, "Grath sees green down hallway, not down pit. Not that pit is pit, is just another hallway. Still don't like that no way is always up or down."
    "Hey, Tiger. If that bothers you, try not to think about which way we're standing relative to the rest of the world," Bethlen said a little more cheerfully than anyone sane was likely to find settling.
    "Grath did not keep track. Do not care any more, either."
    "Nevermind what I said. Besides, so long as no one changes the gravity back we'll be fine," Horbin retorted.
    As they proceeded into the new pit, Gregor, oddly enough, accidentally struck the new wall with the stick. The brick clicked. A tall section of "wall" next to it abruptly and soundlessly ceased to exist, revealing a small chamber filled with identical, tall objects. One lazily fell out, hitting the stonework "floor" with a metallic clang. It was made of the same oddball brazen alloy as the studs on Bethlen's armor, the clasp of her book, and the brackets of the torches. It appeared to be a ten foot pole.
    The open space beyond appeared to be a large hall. Amongst the black bricks, the floor featured a dense scattering of white bricks, seemingly at random, but never more than four feet apart. Half-way across the hall the default floor brick color changed to white and the random scattered ones to black. There were two arched doorways visible on the other end of the hall.
    The ceiling was the disturbing thing, though. It was much higher than the corridors they had been in until that time, and seemed to consist entirely of large, vicious looking, triangular blades, their points all aiming straight down. Gregor took the newfound metal pole, looked at it, looked at Bethlen, then solemnly gave the pole to Bethlen and made a gesture inviting her to lead the way.
    Bethlen accepted the pole, gave a silent bow to Gregor that kept her eyes on his, and moved off toward the open area, whistling a tune that Grath might have recognised. She held the pole like a longspear, in Dutch fashion, and stopped right at the threshold of the hall. Then turned her head back over her shoulder and said, "Ideas, ladies and gentlemen?"
    On the other side of the corridor they had entered before the doorway, Grath was having no problems aside from the whole "walking on the right wall" thing, and the "getting across the 15 foot pit that is actually a corridor" thing, but he was an Orc with ludicrous strength, staring at a pedestal the others had disregarded due to its difficult location to get to. The pedestal had numerous holy symbols attached to it. Grath recognised most of the major Imperial dieties, and a few of the Asgardian. The former predominate. In the center was a large silver symbol he didn’t recognise. It resembled three symmetrical pairs of angular, stylised wings coming from a central oval. The center of the oval was an irridescent dark green, like polished seashell. The Imperial Symbols closest to the middle looked distorted and blackened. Kord's symbol was looking fresh, shiny, and rather far from the center.
    "Bethlen, just throw some rocks or pebbles in there to see what happens,” Grath offered his opinion. "Thorwald, need your help with something.” When Thorwald grew near Grath spoke again, only in a lower voice. "Grath saw something on a pedestal with lots of holy symbols. In the center of the symbols was a single silver symbol with three sets of angled wings coming from a dark green oval in the center. Any idea what it represents?"
    "No idea, hm? Then let her summon some monkeys." Gregor nodded at Gretchen.
    "Hmm, dark green oval, you say? It rings some sort of bell, let me think. Were there any other symbols on the pedestal, Grath? Something that could relate to this one,” Thorwald seemed intrigued.
    "There were all sorts of holy symbols, both from the Imperial pantheon and Our People's pantheon. The symbols closest to the center symbol looked like they were being burned by the center one - blackened and spoiled." Grath’s observations were more keen than Thorwald was expecting.
    A voice crackled in Thorwald’s head like flames burning through dry leaves. "Sounds like the symbol of The Empress of Midnight, dude. She does Magic, Force, Darkness, Destruction, Travel, Housekeeping, Family, and Cooking, but not Baking. The others call her "The Ruler of Darkness", "Madam Citykiller", and "The Little Raccoon." A slight pause. "Like I said, these people scare me."
    Gretchen snorted. "Sacrificing natural creatures as though they were trap-fodder? That'll look good before the powers."
    Bethlen looked at her long and hard. "Spikes on the ceiling and a puzzle on the floor." She brought the pole down on the floor of the hall just before her. It made a satisfying solid metallic ring. "So, we step on the wrong thing, and either the ceiling descends, or the downwardness reverses and we fall onto the blades. But what's the wrong thing? The white or the black? And does the "wrong thing" change when the colour changes half-way across? Or is that just to throw us off?"
    Gregor sighed and shook his head. "You are of no use," to Gretchen. "I'll check," to Bethlen. "Hold this pole," to Grath. He then looked for tracks for some time, though not expecting to find anything of value. He held onto the other end of a Grath-held pole with both hands, and then stepped onto the puzzle floor, trying to first step on all the sparse bricks in reach, then on all the other bricks to see what happened.
    The black brick floors felt reassuringly solid. The very first time he stepped on a white brick his foot went right through it as though it wasn't there, and his leg went into some void up to the knee. Then an unseen something grabs him around the ankle.
    Bethlen, deadpaned, "Sticking a body part where an object would have done just as well. How like a man.”
    "Mother ****! Grath! Why the hell are you NOT holding the pole!? Now pull!" Gregor’s distress caused for Grath to pull on the pole for him.
    Thorwald sent a small thanking prayer to his lord. "Well, it seems we're dealing with an obscure and very evil deity called the Empress of Midnight." Thorwald watched Bethlen closely for a reaction as he spilled the beans. "The ruler of Darkness and little Raccoons as she is called. Oh, and if anyone were paying attention to Bethlen's ramblings, she mentioned the lieutenant of Midnight. Maybe that could be Ajneguhs's self-proclaimed ti... **** on Odin!" Thorwald burst out as Gregor's foot disappeared. "Hold on!" he shouted as he grabbed on to the pole to help Grath pull him back in.
    Grath did his best to yank Gregor back into the hall, with Thorwald's help. "Gregor, why you not throw rock first, or touch ground with pole?" Grath, distracted for a moment by Thorwald's revelation hauled, and Throwald hauled. Then Bethlen took a step forward, into the hall, to profer her own pole to Gregor. Whatever was holding onto his ankle was not strong, and Gregor was pulled out very promptly.
    Then Bethlen grounded her pole with a metallic clang. She gave a look up into the bladed, spiky ceiling with heavy-lidded eyes, then looked back at the party. "Obscure and evil? The Empress of Midnight? Those words don't go together. And what did I say about the Lieutenant?"
    "Thanks guys. I did not expect to step THAT deep, actually. Anyway, makes no sense so far. Let's try again." Gregor tied the rope to the metallic pole, gave the free end of the rope to Grath, made sure he was inside the corridor, then threw the pole spinning across the hall's floor.
    "What do you mean they don't go together? You know who she is?" Thorwald asked nonchalantly, sounding decisively uninterested. "Oh, I don't know, there were a lot of words, but as far as I could tell, the Lieutenant of Midnight was the guy that took over this place, and the guy that the original owner of whatever-this-is is pissed at."
    Thorwald sent a mental prayer and question to his mighty deity, "Oh great lord of the everburning, if you could let me know if I'm completely off base here, I would be, you know, eternally grateful."
    Horbin looked up. "So we probe every brick with the rods as we move forward. Actually let the lightest do so, tied to the rope and that way if the gravity reverses we can pull them back quickly." Horbin then looked down at the others with a grim face.
    Grath grinned. "Tie Grath to the rope, then. Know what needs to be done."
    Delphi looked up at "lightest", turning away from her near-constant searching for traps. "Wait, Grath, didn't he say the lightest person should be on the rope? Isn't that me? I weigh some three or four stone, at last count, with all my gear on. What are you, eighteen? Nineteen?" She suspected that she weighed about one-fourth of what the orc did.
    "Grath serves as anchor. What did you think I meant," he said with a wink.
    Of course I know who she is. Her Lieutenant took over this place? If that's the case, why aren't we all dead now? Original owner? What? The Iron Rider?" She slammed the pole down into a white brick, sending it into the floor half its length. And pulled it out, starting a little. "Huh, something tried to grab it. Not a strong something. And Horse-Botherer, where are you getting this information about my homeland's Ascended? We don't exactly hand out pamphlets."
    Gregor’s pole skittered across the floor, past Bethlen's boots, and came to a stop about thirty feet in, about a quarter of the way across the hall and half-way to the colour change in the floor. Gregor pulled the pole all the way back, then scrathed his head. "So, the black floor all seems to be solid, but we don't have enough rope to safely check the white floor." Then he shot two arrows, with little force, to ricochet off the black bricks into white floor.
    "One hears surprisingly much if one opens one's ears." Thorwald hocked and spat a huge glob on one of the white tiles. "But, like I said, you were rambling on like a silly girl, so it was hard to get anything coherent. Perhaps if you told all of us something about this Midnight Ascended, we'd stand a better chance of solving this puzzle." The glob of spittal went right through the white tile as if it wasn't there. The arrows bounced off the black tiles, fell onto the white floor, and disappeared. Dardiana activated her magesight to see if the auras there allowed her to see anything special about the floor.
    Bethlen stared at Thorwald with what looked like confusion. Then she shook her head. "This place was built, I was told, by those Kissed by Iron, not by Midnight. Although it's certainly not impossible that responsibility for it was transferred between the orders. There is no set organisation to maintain these places, and they are frequently swapped around between the churches and Mobile Forces.
    The style of this place is not really characteristic of either the Rider or the Empress. This is more like the work of The Knight of the Healing Wind, but it's a common Abberancy-War type of defensive architecture. Ordering to legend, the Abberancy did not understand illusions, and lacked imagination, and its Parts were very easy to mislead by such preparations--Dardiana, don't!
    Turning the magesight on was like a blast of light right in the face. Everything around blazed with Illusion and Transmutation. The walls, the floors, even the very air. Dardiana couldn’t make out much in the way of details and staggered.
    "Looks like all need to tip-toe across rest of floor. Hope balance is good. One person finish crossing, catch rope, then all cross using rope to guide. Grath will bring up the rear and hope to not fall."
    "If we could stick the poles into white floor on that side too, we could hold on to them, so balance should not be much of a problem. The problem is that we don't know the purpose of the ceiling..." Gregor made sure Dardiana staggered toward the wall, and not some other way. "...so if anyone goes first, it's not me. And we just lost the only one immune to sudden gravity reversion... hey, are you with us? Dardiana, do you hear me?" Then Gregor shot one arrow at the ceiling to see how it would interact with the blades. Gregor's arrow bounced off the blades on the ceiling with a metallic clang, and fell to the black floor.
    Gregor noticed the illumination was coming from torches placed high on the walls, in the same types of brackets they’d seen thus far. They seemed stronger than the type in corridors, casting their light broader to cover the whole wall.
    Dardiana quickly turned her magesight off, but the damage was already done. She staggered, hitting the floor under her with her eyes closed. "Bad idea. And halfling, I'm still alive. Everything here has magic, even the air." After a bit, she slowly opened her eyes again and got up, with the help of the willing Thorwald.
    Thorwald reached out to help Dardiana up. "You alright, love?" He looked up quickly, then added; "Maybe think before you act, next time." Thorwald cleared his throat loudly. "On that note, what if the ceiling is set to crash down when we touch one of the black tiles? Or is activated by whatever is down there, feebly pulling at our feet?"
    Horbin counted the poles, then looked at their length, then checked if they could screw or push together to make one long pole. Strangely enough, they did. Checking the concealed compartment where the poles were stored also revealed three wands, on a shelf to the side. "Hey guys. I think we should put all the poles together and see if they reach the other end of the hall. Also there are some wands in the hole over here," Horbin said as he started to put the rods together. Horbin assembled them by sliding them toward the opposite wall as he put them together.
    Dardiana checked the area around the wands for traps before taking them and looked them over. Dardiana, thanks to her keen elvish senses and the subliminal muttering of her fey, found a "loose" brick on the wall right above the wands, she refrained from touching it.
    "Something fishy is going on here. And big, I think." Thorwald clicked his neck, then looked closely at Bethlen. "You a religious type, Bethlen? You come from these parts where they worship the Rider and the Empress then?"
    Bethlen leaned forward and close in to Thorwald, looking not at all amused. "You know, when the big naked cannibal lady in the water made me swear by my gods, including both those names, and I practically threw in my home address and a blood donation as well, I honestly thought that was a pretty obvious hint. Am I a religious type? I'm no Cleric. And I don't specifically follow either of those two."
    Delphi moved forward and took her time inspecting the loose brick Dardiana had found, not wanting to set off anything that could explode and be lethal. "Careful now, beautiful. Don't want you to lose a hand or anything."
    Delphi found nothing that seemed especially lethal. Except that the line of the wall section that vanished to reveal the chamber with the poles and wands was marked on the floor by a bright red line and the words in white "Don't stand here".
    Delphi pointed out the words, shrugging as she did. "It probably just implies that the wall section can come back into existence, which would suck for anyone in the way when it did." She then proceeded to go back into casual ground-searching mode.
    Dardiana went back to watching the halfling check for traps. She mentioned to the group, "I might be able to go across via the walls, if you guys think it'd be safe to try."
    Bethlen cautiously moved back into the corridor, avoiding the white stones. Once in, she produced her serpent amulet and held it out by the full length of her arm into the hall. It turned lazily to directly face Thorwald and stayed facing that way.
    "What, am I supposed to remember every half-baked oath you throw in at some farcical aquatic ceremony? But don't mind me, for being slightly uneasy with you luring us out in the middle of nowhere, which just happens to be a worshipping site for your religion, and... ey, what are you doing?" Thorwald took a step back as the amulet started pointing at him. "What the blood-dripping Hel was that all about?"
    The gradually extending pole reached the opposite side of the hall, aiming to go through the right-hand doorway. When it reached it, it stopped hard as though it had struck solid wall. Bethlen staggered "Sir, thank you. I'm not there anymo-" Then the pole, and Bethlen's amulet on the end of its chain, lept up straight toward the ceiling. The poles too long for both ends to reach it, but its further end glanced between two blades and remained there for about ten seconds. Then both pole and amulet came "down" again, the pole making a massive clang as it hit the floor.
    "So, now we got the idea. Rather nice. Now stick it into the left doorway!" Gregor’s words were teeming with excitement and inquiry.
    Horbin attempted to do the same thing with the left doorway. The left doorway sent the pole, and the amulet, flurrying skyward in the same manner as the right had.
    Bethlen, looking a little unsteady, gravelled hustily. "I am sated with attempting to correct your misconceptions, for there are too many and I don't know where to start. However, important words: He said, "Four second delay between twigger and change. Warning tone is disabled. If trigger is hit, grab onto the white." She then collapsed to her knees again, still holding the amulet straight out into the hall as it descended, then it turned to point straight at Thorwald.
    Dardiana stopped listening to something only she could hear at that moment and spoke. "My fey told me The Iron Rider is an Administrate goddess associated with direct and deadly violence. Wearing red, fighting with a Maul, and having the words "There's nothing I can't destroy".
    The Knight of the Healing Wind: Yet another Administrate goddess. Associated with healing, protection, misdirection, illusion, and having the ability to put her hands wherever she wants. Including inside someone's body to remove things they really wish weren't removed. Also, associated with green and being a terrible cook.
    And finally, The Abberancy and it's Parts: I don't know. I really don't. I know that something came into this world, long ago. Something that had no body, and made people its body. And it seemed to work on everything. Except for the strongest. And that it hated everyone. And it was defeated. I'm not sure how. The fey’s kind spent most of that time hiding"
    "Fine. Checking that." Gregor took his club in right hand, grabbed the long-long pole with his left hand, then moved along the black to the middle of the room where it bordered mostly white. Then he stuck the club into the white, still holding the long-long pole with left hand... "Horbin, do it again!" His idea was to hold onto both long pole and club, but release the pole if the club would hold his weight. Also, the idea was, if the club did not hold, the pole would not bend as much as to actually slam into the roof at its center.
    Horbin hit the doorway a second time and counted how long it took to change gravity, then how long before it returned. "If there is delay enough we could move one at a time through the hall to get across, and safely through a doorway." As the gravity changed, some four counts later, Gregor found himself suspended by the club, stuck through the white stone, his legs hanged down over the sudden "floor" of metallic blades. The gravity switched back after ten counts, leaving him on the floor of bricks.
    Bethlen, still on her knees with her hand held out against the wall said, somewhat thickly. "Symmetry. My people love symmetry. That's because the Abberancy was a creature of One and never understood it. If the doors are both illusions, try the sides or the center"
    "Hey, Dardiana, now that we know the ceiling is not falling down or some such, will you search for the door?" Gregor pulled out the club and returned to the corridor. "Hmm... but first let's try to stick it just between the doorways, just in case."
    Delphi sighed. "Why are you asking Dardiana to search for the door? What am I, chopped liver?" She looked to Dardiana, raising her eyebrow in question. "Can I do my job, or do you want to do my job?"
    "Just because, you know, the floor becomes the ceiling from time to time. And I have seen only one of you walking on the ceiling." Gregor seemed to have the answer at the ready.
    Delphi considered Gregor’s statement for a long moment, glaring at him. She then flushed a deep red, and proceeded to inspect the floor in front of her for traps very carefully. Since Grath could not help much with the door finding or trap finding, he kept a lookout behind them, looking for anything that might be approaching.
    "Sorry, it seems I have to do your job." Then Dardiana took off, going along the walls to try to find an illusioned walkway.
    Sending the pole at the wall in the center of the two doors resulted in it sliding through the wall as if it didn't exist. Gregor, presumptuously, waited with his club stuck through a white tile for the gravitational change that didn't happen. After four seconds. After fourteen. After forty.
    Bethlen pulled herself to her feet, putting her arm out for support against the wall. A brick clicked as she touched it. And two bricks under her arm vanished without a sound, revealing two oddly shaped leather bundles in the resulting cavity.
    "That's nice. So far we have sprung three triggers in this room alone and none of them was a Cloudkill or the like. Thank your gods and place bets if things will keep going like this... I wonder how that guy went through here - he apparently did not trigger them all. So, what's in the packs?" Gregor seemed genuine with his words and even a little surprised.
    "Check the packs, then let's get across this room and move on to find Anjenuish," Horbin said as he left the pole slightly pushed through the far wall.
    "Ajneguhs. I'll take a look." Thorwald inspected the packs for content. In the packs were quivers for shortbow arrows, but with broad, flattened, heads. They looked like they'd do less damage than standard arrows, but would deal bludgeoning damage. There were 20 in each quiver, and drawing them out and sighting down their length showed them to be very well made. Thorwald recognized them as fowling arrows, and they were magical to boot.
    Dardiana crawled along the walls without anything untoward happening, until she reached the opposite wall. She avoided the obviously illusionary doorways and approached the wall section in between from the top. As she crawled down to within twenty feet of the floor her hand went staight though the "wall" into what felt like empty space.
    Gregor made sure everything of value was taken. He took one quiver for himself, instead of his normal arrows, which he offloaded on Abyss. He then cut a strip from his red cloak and tied it to the end of the long pole, then placed it on top of the nearest torch, with two feet of overhang, and tied one end to the other. "I think doing the same on the other side will get us a handrail. Not sure how straight, possibly someone'll have to hold it up at the middle. Let's move?"
    Jumping across the white tiles, Gregor got through the "wall". He found himself in a relatively small chamber with the floor level the same as the hall. It was only the size of a basic segment of the corridor, a fifteen by fifteen foot cube. The wall right in front of him was blank black bricks.
    On the wall to the left, the bricks were usurped by a perfect circle of white, that had no texture or shine. The wall the right looked like a regular corridor, except the light was green. In front of it was a wooden altar. Looking along it, it appeared to proceed for about thirty feet, then ended as a vertical pit and shaft.
    As he stared, it appeared to proceed for twenty feet, then end in a vertical pit and shaft. He got a fleeting sense of movement. Looking longer, it appeared to proceed for about ten feet, then end as a vertical pit and shaft. He then got a strong sense of movement. Finally, it appeared to be a vertical pit and shaft right before his face, and there was a sense of movement right before him.
    Bethlen shouted from behind him, "Don't. Look. That. Way." She then grabbed Gregor from behind, and seemed to be pulling him backward, although her arms seemed be shaking and weak.
    Dardiana entered and saw Beth do that. "Mind explaining?"
    Bethlen wound up on the floor from pulling Gregor back. She plainly didn't have a lot of strength remaining. "Don't look into the frelling green! The ADAs can draw you in. And I don't understand everything here, but it would probably be a frelling bad idea to touch the bloody altar!"
    At Bethlen's command Gregor immediately stopped looking ANY way and shut his eyes. "Done. You're in command." He did not open his eyes for some time.
    "Right. Green is bad." Dardiana looked around, for another passage and offered a hand to help Beth back up. "Looks like there's nowhere else to go..."
    Bethlen somewhat inelegantly pulled herself to her feet with Dardiana's help, then drew her rapier and stuck it through the circle of white to the left. It went through without any obvious resistance, up to the hilt, which she didn't put through. She pulled it out and ran her hand along the blade. "No marks. No burns. No cold. No heat. Huh." She brushed sweat off her brow. "Lets get some of those poles in here."
    When Gregor opened his eyes, he looked at the floor under his feet, got the wooden pole and proceeded to stick it into the white. It went through without resistance, as though the bricks within the white circle did not exist. Pulling it out, it appeared to be perfectly unchanged.
    After that Gregor stuck the pole "into" front wall and ceiling, then threw a stone into the white and listened. The ceiling and front wall appeared to be insubordinately solid, as though they were composed of the same black bricks that they appeared to be. No sound came through the white circle, and the stone didn't reappear.
    Seeing that the others could walk to the end of the room without much problem Horbin grabbed Glenda and did the same as Gregor had.
    "Look down!" Gregor shouted, then a one second pause. "Fine. Now look anywhere, but don't look right at green light."
    Bethlen, still with a tremble to her pose, managed to grind out. "Great, so it's a matter of courage and sacrifice to see who's prepared to stick their head in there."
    "Then I am your man," Horbin said as he poked his head through the wall.
    Gregor was rather disappointed by the lack of caution, he personally would have started with a finger, then maybe a leg... but anyway, no objections at all to putting Horbin's head ahead of his own.
    Horbin found his head protruding into a large spherical room at least two-hundred feet across. The center of which was made up of the same black brick he’d seen so far, but intershot with other, bright purple bricks that glowed brightly, and provided illumination. In the center of the space was a thirty foot wide sphere made of the same combination of materials, apparently not supported by anything.
    Also, at least two large skeletal, humanoid creatures were wandering the internal surface of the sphere, as though downwardness was a matter of where you were standing. They didn't appear to have noticed him. They were wearing red cloaks. It didn't take a major intelligence roll for him to realise that the chamber couldn't possibly co-exist with the rooms he’d just been through if they actually existed in the same place.
    Horbin withdrew his head. "So, I count at least two very large skeletons in red cloaks patrolling a spherical room. I suggest avoiding it altogether, or waiting until one gets close then pulling it through the wall."
    Spherical room?" Gregor put his head in, looked aroud, then got back out. "Whoa! Impressive. I guess that depends on what their orders are. Like, we could try to lure them through here and repeatedly smack them against the ceiling... I guess..."
    "Grab skeletons and hurl them into green without looking?" Grath’s suggestion garnered some thought from Gregor.
    "I'd rather not hurl them into the green. If it brings a creature out, we could get targeted as well." Dardiana passed the area and looked into the cirle before coming back out. "I can begin to pelt them with blasts of energy from this distance. And they didn't notice the rock from before either." She passed through again and tried to see what type of skeletons they were. She probed her mind and her fey, trying to figure out anything that might be helpful to know about the undead, as she returned back to the group.
    Dardiana remembered hearing about something that looked like these. They were skeletrolls, skeletal trolls, both about a hundred feet away in opposite directions, roughly on the equator of the room, if the entrance were at the “south pole”. They were not looking at her and they both appeared to be staring upward at the central sphere.
    From where she was, Dardiana couldn't tell if the sphere was hanging in place or was suspended by something from the "north" pole, which it obscured.
    Bethlen was leaning against the wall, her arms folded. Her voice was raspy. "I don't want to fight in here, not in this cramped space with the Green at our backs. Anyone who gets shoved in there is going to die alone and in darkness, screaming and insane, after the ADAs get tired of terrorising them. And if the altar gets smashed, that might be it for us all".
    "Not here is not a problem. We can... oh, wait..." Gregor looked into the sphere again to confirm there were only two skeletons visible and how they were armed. "I have a plan. Sit and watch."
    Getting Abyss to the cramped room and riding into the sphere, since it was a sphere, Gregor was not going to be cornered by only two opponents. So, riding away from the two, all around the sphere, and maybe eventually shooting them to destruction. Gregor was pleased with the plan he was hatching.
    Dardiana stopped Gregor before he could carry out his plan. "Mind telling us what it is?"
    "Nope. But it's gonna be fun..." he replied with a bemused look on his face.
    "And possibly fatal. I'll ask in a different way: Please explain." Dardiana was no longer pleased.
    Gregor sighed as that kind of spoiled some of the fun. "You see, there are only two of them, on a sphere. They cannot catch me no matter how hard they try. And if we are going that way anyway..."
    He paused for a moment.
    "Well, if you instead want us to evacuate to the corridor and let you lure them into the reversing-gravity room for some repeated-smacking, I would not object... much less fun though."
    Bethlen stood up a little straighter against the wall. "That first idea is a good plan. Not perfect, and a little vanity-swollen. But it would work. The only objections are this; firstly, based on the description of the chamber, it seems we can't see the opposite pole of the sphere. So there may be opponents up there that would upset your calculations. Secondly, why do you want to make this a solo effort?
    I'd like to get those pole segments in here and try to reach the central sphere. But that's going to be awkward with the Green right behind us. I have no idea how those things are leashed. At all." She drew a hand through her black hair.
    “I did one exercise involving rogue ADAs. WE were briefed, prepared, and warded, and it was still the second-most horrific experience in my life. In this condition, we'd all be toys to them. Our deaths would be miserable and without dignity. And I don't want to risk that happening because somebody sticks the back end of a pole the wrong way.
    As for the backup plan, what of the animals? Nuisance and your dogs? They won't know how to withdraw in time.I say we fight." Bethlen’s resolve was bringing her strength back.
    "Solo? Just because I can. No objections to Delphi riding Nuisance or some such, but others would be probably hard pressed to run and fight at the same time. As plan B, I thought we withdraw first and Dardiana deals with the skeletons second, but if you all want to fight... get all ready in here and follow through the white after I make half a circle inside. I'll try to get them to you one by one, but no guarantees." Gregor’s ego was only slightly deflated by the condisending merchant.
    "Grath think plan getting overly complicated now. Got the drop on these things, let all go in and kick their butt. All this talking starting to hurt my head, want to punch skeleton now. Stack up and move in quickly to take them out before anything else finds us. Or more things come into room." Grath motioned from grabbing his head to his weapon, his voice raised near the end.
    Gregor shrugged, readied one bow and two stones, then rode in. As Gregor rode into the sphere he saw that the timing of the "bounce" the in skroll’s steps seemed to coincide with them stepping on the bright purple tiles.
    Delphi had been watching the group's back, staying mostly silent as the others inspected and discussed the trolls. She was a pretty decent trapfinder, but going so long without finding anything had made her revert to mostly watching the distance, and the green areas, for signs of life and movement.
    Once the plan had been made, she checked her slings to make sure that they were loaded properly and placed on her bandolier in a useful manner. She then slipped next to Gregor and his dogs, nodding to the others. "Just remember; don't let them close on you, and smash them instead of trying to cut or poke at them."
    Grath followed Gregor in shortly after. Dardiana tailes in after Grath and readied an eldritch spear. "I'm much more comfortable with Grath's plan. It's how we defeated the other two."
    Thorwald nodded in agreement. "Mmh, I like any plan that includes smashing." He followed the others inside, once his shield and morningstar were ready.
    Bethlen turned like a annoyed cat and threw herself through the white portal. "Frell it all. Silence is coming!"
    Gretchen followed her through looking a little lost. Nuisance, looking a little annoyed, at Bethlen’s heels. "Shillelagh" she said, as her club grew thorns. Horbin gripped Glenda then leapt into the wall.
    Bethlen surfaced on the brick exterior of the sphere. "Gregor, your plan is sound. Engage and distract the one at the ‘south’ while the rest of us kill the one to the ‘north’,” Her rapier was drawn and she used it to point in the relevent directions. "And then fall back upon the rest of us. And for the sake of Starlight, Silence and Midnight watch out for things you can't see right now."
    Dardiana surfaced beside Bethlen. "Shall I get its attention? Or wait for everyone else to attack first?"
    “You have range, Legs. Get that doll moving." Bethlen’s smile showed a little levity. Dardiana ran thirty feet to the side before she chucked the spear at the northern skroll. Dardiana's eldritch spear blasted chunks of white splinters out of the northern skroll’s shoulder. It seemed to look in their direction with mild interest.Gretchen and Nuisance emerged next to Bethlen, Gretchen's eyes fixed on the northern Skroll.
    Moving through the white created an odd sense of dissassociation as they found themselves emerging, standing upright, and by the side of the corressponding white area in the spheroid chamber. Gregor slowly began to ride in a straight line at good speed to flank one of the skrolls while trying to avoid all of the oddly-colored bricks. He also threw two stones at that skroll, to attract its attention.
    Grath stepped through the portal and emerged into the sphere, slightly disoriented by the transition. Shaking his head he got his bearings and he moved out quickly to the “north”. Delphi whipped out with her arm, letting a stone sling across the sphere towards the troll skeleton. Small fragments of bone flew as Delphi's bullet struck the northern Skroll in the ulna. It turned toward the party, empty eye-sockets gaped with vacuous menace.
    Gregor’s stones plinked across the curved floor, one rattling on the tiles next to the southern Skroll. The second hit a purple tile, bounced high in the air, and began to follow a slow, lurching trajectory toward the central sphere in the air above them.
    Bethlen moved next to Grath with her hands held out from her sides. The northern skroll lumbered toward Gregor as the southern skroll clumped away. Bethlen's fist shot out, and a dark stab of energy lanced out at the northern scroll. Two massive ribs went flying as she hit the torso.
    Gregor shot two arrows at the ‘southern’ skroll and rode a bit more to the side, away from the party. Gregor's arrows hit the ‘southern’ skroll with obvious force and knocked off a rib. Thorwald blessed all his companions, whether he liked them or not, in the name of Loki. A shimmering zone expanded from his hands, engulfing everyone within fifty feet.
    As Thorwald's spell took effect, a black flare of energy burst out of Bethlen's chest with a sound like throwing a splint mail into a blender, then subsided with a rumble. Bethlen threw a look over her shoulder, but disappointingly, nothing happened. Horbin appeared through the floor and then ran at the southern skroll.
    Gretchen, gripping her comically oversized spiked club grimly, advanced to stand next to Grath. Nuisance, grunting in an angered fashion, followed her.
    Grath let loose a loud war cry, screaming at the top of his lungs. The adrenaline pumped through his veins, and his muscles seemed to bulge as he recklessly charged forward, to the bone monster. He flew into a whirling frenzy rage while charging. The skroll's bony claws raked Grath's shoulder as he charged, but it did not dissuade the Barbarian. Grath's flail smashed the creature into a mass of flying fragments.
    "Nice work, Tiger. There's another one" Bethlen pointed "up", past the central sphere, which appeared to have it's "end" opposite where they came in slightly truncated. A third skroll, which apparently had been stationed at the opposite pole from their entrance point, was advancing toward them.
    While Delphi readied her sling, she was suddenly conscious of a blast of cold air in her face. Everyone suddenly seemed to be frozen in place. Someone abruptly appeared in front of her without any special effects. It was a female human with dark hair that had a stripe of white at her left temple. She was wearing a high-shouldered black coat over a white-trimmed dark blue tunic. She took Delphi by the wrist. She was much stronger than she looked.
    "Welcome to my place," she said. "Sorry about the mess. Not my doing. This should help you get it cleaned up." She shoved a ring onto Delphi’s finger, and then she simply wasn't there anymore. Delphi seemed to the others to be slightly staggered by something.
    Delphi's hands moved to reload her sling while her mind was spinning at what had just happened. She whirled the leather strip above her head mechanically, before releasing it at the nearest skroll. "Did anyone else see that?" She asked aloud as she glanced down at her hand.
    Delphi's stone cracked against the southern Skroll, sending chips of bone flying. She looked suddenly distracted as a voice rang in her head, "Nice. Try moving next time."
    Bethlen shouted, "Third one's still at least twenty seconds off." She moved forward, her hands looked poised. The scroll slashed at Horbin, easily raking through his guard, and bruised his chest through the mail shirt. Gregor continued riding closer to the northern skroll and shot some more arrows. The Witch moved away from her position, closer to the other skeleton, and then she shot a spear of pure energy.
    Delphi frowned in concentration, apparently distracted from the violent fight for their lives. "Who the hell are you? And yes, I know that I hit harder when I'm moving, but it doesn't work on undead for some godforsaken reason. Hopefully Paizo above will fix that someday." She hoped her thoughts would instigate a useful response.
    The voice in her head gave a light giggle. "You can guess who I am, and I wouldn't rely on a company that produced a feat called "Ankle-Biter" to help you. Anyway, try it with the ring. Your word for the day is "Allstrike", little girl." The voice faded out at the end.
    Delphi narrowed her eyes at nothing at all, before running up the globe toward the skeletroll, she got as close as she could to the nearest one. As she ran she took out another loaded sling, whirled it overhead with smooth, practiced motions. "Just for the sake of honesty, I have a voice telling me what to do!" She shouted as she loosed her sling.
    "HAHAHA, you call that a hit?!" Horbin blurted out madly as he swung at the giant skeleton with his blade. The southern skroll, already fragmented and battered by the missile attacks, flew apart under Glenda.
    Since the only intact skroll was the one crawling across the internal surface of the sphere from the opposite "pole" over two-hundred feet away from Delphi, it wasn't surprising the shot did little damage. The bullet described a bizarre trajectory, angling upward toward the central globe before settling into an abrupt dive toward the skroll.
    Bethlen fell back upon the edge of the central white pool. "Tiger, fall back. We can take care of this last one from a distance. Also-", she shot Delphi a look, and with a flash of her hand, and her chest, unavoidably, popped open the top of her leathers. The amulet shot out staight toward Delphi, its central eye facing her, its chain taut and horizontal around Bethlen's neck. The eyes of the snakes were blazing with blue light. "It appears that Eternity has called upon Existance. She is here."
    "Grath will remain close. If the skeleton survives the blasts, bows, and arrows, it not survive Grath bash." Grath followed Bethlen back to the main group at the entrance.
    Bethlen turned toward the distant skroll, pulling the amulet back toward her by its chain and hooked it over one of the overarchitectural details of her leather-clad shoulder. It continued to face Delphi, the blue glow from the eyes of the snakes faded very slowly. "Don't get too keen Tiger, you're already hit." She moved slightly ahead. "Everyone stay behind me. That includes you, Gretchen. I hadn't expected this to be this easy.
    Gregor rode closer and shot normal arrows at the approaching skeleton. One seemed to hit for some minimal damage. Dardiana launched a flurry of spears, all aimed at the thing's body. Disregarding Bethlen's instructions, Grath stood next to her, guarding her and the party in case the approaching monster got too close. Thorwald moved up next to Grath and Bethlen, ready with his holy symbol in hand.
    Horbin stood still, leaning on Glenda, and stared at himself in awe that he was even touched by one of these skeletons. Lucky shot, he thought. Grath, watching Gregor shoot his bow, decided to follow his example and tossed a few arrows at the skeleton rather than just wait. He shot two arrows in succession, then got his flail ready again in case it came into melee range.
    The skroll took obvious damage from Dardiana's blasts, and even Gregor's and Grath's arrows took off a chip or two. Some of the bone chips went flying upward, which lead to them inexplicably rising torward the central globe. As it approached within charge range of Bethlen, she abruptly dashed forward half that distance, muttering something about, "Stupid Barbarians. Are they all union?", and snapped her fingers. Bone chips exploded off it in a shower, but it remained standing, in a grotesquely misshapen way.
    Grath had previously dropped his bow and pulled out his trusty flail. He waited for a fraction of a second, waiting to see if any of the arrows, blasts, bullets, and miscellaneous missiles destroyed the corrupted creature.
    Delphi hurled anther slingrock at the troll, but it went far wide, the strange gravity of the sphere heavily affected the little halfling's aim. She ran toward the creature, her stride fast and long, before she threw herself into a slide, slipping along the surface of the sphere directly toward the skeletroll.
    She whirled her last loaded sling as she did so, and at the last moment she whipped it at the troll with a whip-crack of noise and motion. The stone crossed the distance between them in a blink, and then the skroll's head exploded in a spray of bone. Delphi stood up, dusted herself off, and began to casually reload her slings, without a care in the world. Then, she moved closer.
    The skroll, already partially fragmented, dissolved under Delphi's stones. "That's a good girl," rang in her head as the bones fell apart.
    Bethlen's amulet jerked on its chain, the eyes of the snakes blazed anew, and broke free of its loop around Bethlen's shoulder to stand out straight toward Delphi. Bethlen set her jaw more than usual, and pulled the amulet back toward her. "Again. Something you should tell us, pretty little she-hobbit? It tells me her presence is strong, far stronger than the faint taint of the Sky-Walker around that horse-botherer over there. What did you see?"

  15. - Top - End - #15
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Chapter 13
    Gods be Damned
    Delphi looked back, narrowing her eyes a bit. "Be careful how you speak to me, O Large and Plodding One. I haven't seen a thing; all I've done is hear a voice, a fairly reasonable one, that gave me good advice during that fight. You are far more messed up than I am."
    Grath chuckled at the interplay, then sighed. His shoulders sagged, and he looked tired for a moment or two. As he started to recover he said, "Do any have ideas on what that giant ball is doing floating in middle of room? Or why is there?"
    "So, 'flaming horse-botherer'," Horbin snickered. "Can you discern anything about the obviously magical ball?"
    "Horbin," Grath shouted, "Great job with that other skelemonster thing. Nothing like feeling the bones smash beneath your weapon, yeah?"
    Delphi glared at Grath, looked to the skroll she had just dispatched, then to herself, then back to the skroll. "What am I, chopped liver?"
    "Large and plodding?", blinked the tall, slender Bethlen. "Messed up? OK, fair enough. This place has been frelling with my head since we got in. But I'm asking for details here. If you want to exchange personal insults I'm sure I can schedule you in after the next time the Local Genius reaches into me, uses me as a meatpuppet, and leaves me unable to walk. What the frell just happened? Because my Recaller's glowing like Lotus the day after the Fleet put into port". She gave the amulet a tug, and shoved it unceremoniously down her cleavage. "Astra was right, sometimes you are nothing but trouble," she muttered.
    Gregor got everyone and everything, including the dogs and poles, into the sphere and otherwise looked around and did nothing in particular.
    "Little Delphi not chopped liver or chopped anything. Grath just congratulate Horbin for smashing skeleton in close combat. Prefer close combat when possible. Nothing wrong with stones and arrows and lightning bolts for smashing, just think it more fun Grath's way." Grath sat down for a minute, and weighed whether to drink one of his healing potions or to ask Thorwald to heal him.
    Before being forced into the ball by Gregor, Dardiana had tried to remember anything that might help about the ball and asked her fey about it. She also looked to Bethlen and asked her, "Think I should try my mage sight, see if I can figure anything out through that? Or do you think it'd just blind me?"
    Bethlen threw Dardiana a look. "Magesight doesn't work like physical vision. It can't damage your eyes anymore than using your ears can. BUT it's unlikely you'll get much information beyond a headache."
    "Well, that was unfullfilling." Thorwald said, kicking one of the bones of the skeletrolls. "I guess I could heal your wounds or whatever."
    Delphi sighed and looked around the giant orb-room with frustration. "I have a question, guys, if we can stop plunging to our dooms for a moment or two. I don't usually like this much introspection, but living is a lot of fun, so I decided to give it a try.
    What is the point of this place? What is it for? It had to be expensive to make, and I mean the out-put of an entire nation for centuries kind of expensive. Who has the money, or time, to build something like this without meaning? And the undead guards mean that this place could have been around for... well, since before history. For a very, very, very long time. And I just had someone in my head guys, and I'm still not really sure who she or it was. I really, really don't like that.
    So I guess my question is, what is down here that's going to make this worthwhile?"
    "Yes Thorwald, I could use some healing for once. And Delphi, really? We came here to stop the Anjews from raising a competent army against our nation or any other, or at least find out his endgame and who he works for. Plus we know this place was something left over from the great time of the empire," Horbin said while sauntering over to Thorwald with a smirk.
    Delphi frowned as she looked around the gravitationally-unique room. "But have we found any evidence of an army here? It seems like this place is deadly to the extreme; not exactly the best place to raise an army, even an army of undead."
    "Worthwhile?" Thorwald touched Horbin's chest and let a small light simmer through his armor, working slowly through his body. "You said it yourself, it had to be expensive to make. So I'll bet my grandfather's bones there's treasure down here. And lots of it. Power, too. In abundance."
    Gregor zapped one charge from his wand at Grath, healing him, then put it back in the pocket and continued to do nothing in particular. Grath nodded at Gregor and said, "Thank you, Gregor. Grath was not severely injured by the skeleton monsters, but the claws did hurt. Grath will try to remember to stay clear next time, if possible." Grath looked around, trying to scan for any threats.
    "Thus far we know of undead that lay dormant here, we know of the Anjowls being unwelcomed, and to stay away from the green. If I am also correct, we have found a modicum of magical arrows and such, thus far, we are richer in knowledge and wealth. Soon, we will have our answers and can go back to the original reasons we had for leaving home," Horbin said to the group, looking at Delphi last. "Thank you flame bearer."
    "Grath didn't think all came here for knowledge and wealth. Well, maybe wealth. But instead to kill 'genuflect.' Or whatever name is. No need to leave now, just kill target and get rewards." The orc spoke with plainness in his voice.
    "Getting back to the 'ball', I'm guessing it's arcane and not divine in nature, but I'll take a look." Thorwald examined the ball, trying to find a clue as to its nature.
    "Oh, and one more thing. If any of you refer to me as horse-botherer or anything similar again, I'll make it part of my personal agenda to murder you slowly at a given time." Thorwald made his comment almost casually as he examined the ball, and finished, "and Horbin... your welcome."
    "Oh come now fire priest, you don't have the sense of humor your diety does," Horbin jested.
    Dardiana briefly looked with her magesight, the central globe was like looking into a star. Radiating from it was an odd pattern of slightly different auras in the air, like the layers of an onion, or circular ripples in water.
    The leather-clad "clothing merchant" turned toward Delphi. "The skeletrolls would NOT have been left here by the former owners, pretty-pretty. I won't say we don't use skeletons. But we use them as retainers, manual labour, bodyguards sometimes, and we don't leave them lying around with orders to kill on sight.
    "It would be pointless anyway. If the ADAs were not confined to the green, they would have annihilated the skeles, with clean sonic effects since ADAs don't give a frell about torturing something that can't feel. Those skeles were made by someone quite recently. They are probably people and things that wandered in here over the centuries and were killed by the ADAs, their corpses stored here over centuries in some level we haven't found.
    "As for what this place is for, I'm not party to the rational behind command decisions taken by my ancestors four thousand years ago during a war against an aggressive homogenising cosmic horror. My information is that it was built as a stronghold against the Abberancy, and after the latter was defeated became a private residence, possibly by one of the Captains, probably Madame Citykiller, since my Recaller is screaming that her presence is all over you right now."
    While she talked, those who were looking around, noticed that the central sphere was missing a segment on it's "northern" side, the side opposite the one they entered. Those who looked further found there was a fifteen by fifteen foot corridor leading into the middle of the sphere, the torches were yellow. It appeared to go sixty feet in and then turned a corner. Which was interesting as the sphere was only thirty feet across.
    "Oh, I don't know. I find it absolutely hilarious when people catch on fire and burn alive, yet I'm not amused by animal sex jokes or petty bullying. I guess we're all just different." Thorwald kept close to the sphere, hiding his face. "I think this might be a portal of some kind."
    Gretchen, who'd been walking around; muttered, "This place isn't Imperial. Not even Union. This place is Administrate. That right; Merchant?" She gave Bethlen a hard look.
    Bethlen looked at her blandly. "Technically, pre-Administrate. This is Abberancy War vintage. Our policity was only established after the Sage's war. But that's ancient history." She picked up one of the poles that Gregor had been hauling, and muttered; "I missed it, being indisposed at the time, but I've heard about rooms like this before." She slammed the pole down upon the nearest purple tile.
    It bounced free from her hand into the air, accelerated toward the central globe, slowed down, sped up again in its odd trajectory, slowed down again, and landed upon the central globe with a faint and gentle clang. Bethlen smiled, and put her hands to her hips. "Anyone still confused?"
    "Grath is still confused, but dealing with it." Grath decided to take matters into his own hands and jumped for it. He sprungs into the air and landed on the same purple tile Bethlen had poked. Landing on the purple tile sent Grath springing into the air much higher than he should have gone. About nine feet up gravity seemed to reverse and he found himself falling toward the central globe. Gravity switched around several times, leaving Grath a little queasy, but by constantly accellerating and slowing him, left him landing on his feet on the central globe with no more force than if he'd taken a long-jump.
    "Wooo... will it work the same way to get back here or will we use some other way? Try throwing something with the same speed you jump." Gregor seemed to be very interested by Grath’s sickening jump.
    "Grath try to get back and see what happens." He stepped back on the sphere to get some space, and then took a running start, jumping from about the same place he had landed into the air. Jumping from the same spot on the globe just got him falling back onto it...except that he landed on a purple tile. The tile did send him bouncing high enough for the gravitational change to take hold and sent him falling back toward the inner surface of the sphere. After some odd changes in velocity, he landed not too drastically about thirty feet from Gregor.
    "Well aside from maybe being fun, I don't see much reason for staying here," Horbin said as he looked around.
    "Grath thinks all need to jump onto orb and go inside now. All done outside." With that he jumpped back onto the purple tile, and somehow averted the urge to bounce back and forth indefinitely. Gregor ‘persuaded’ the dogs to do their own jumping, then followed. The dogs required very little persuading, although some firm words were required to stop Cherry from bouncing back and forth all night. Grath, Gregor, and Bethlen, the latter looking a little cheerful, made easy landings on the central sphere.
    "I make this a dual-purpose training area for three dimensional tactics for people who don't have flight yet, and a general-purpose nuisance. Anyway," she looked ’up’ at the others. "Coming, then? Or are we going on by ourselves?"
    Dardiana approached the nearest purple tile and stepped on it cautiously. She muttered to herself, "I don't really trust gravity-changing effects..."
    "Oh? That's nice. I suppose the Orc, the Wolfrider, the pups, and me will just have to wait for you to build up your faith in applied smartassomancy while the Orc, the Wolfrider, the dogs and me have a little tea party up here. Or down here. Or whatever. Coming, Legs?" Bethlen’s words dripped with impatience.
    Stepping on the tile cautiously caused Dardiana's leading foot to spring into the air with noticable force. It almost dislocated her hip and threw her onto her back. "I'm coming, I'm coming." Dardiana jumped onto the tile. A sudden spring upward and a few vertigo-inducing changes in the sense of downward-ness that seemed to, strangely enough, correspond with the ripples in the magic aura Dardiana had noticed earlier, she made a gentle landing on the central globe. The fey voice whispered in her head, "I'm beginning to think the people who built this place had a strange sense of humor."
    A couple of gentle thumps indicated that Gretchen and Nuisance had managed the same, Gretchen was carrying three of the metallic ten foot poles.
    The voice came back to Delphi’s head. "Going with them? Be brave, it's forward now, or into the green. The way you came in now leads elsewhere. I could do something about that, but I shouldn't. I'm only allowed to be doing this much because your Cleric, without apparently knowing, is carrying something into my house he really shouldn't". The voice had a hard edge.
    Bethlen, picking up the pole she sent flying earlier, looked up at Delphi with set eyes and jaw.
    A voice crackled in Thorwald’s head; "Yes, it's a portal. And not to scare you, but it will not be the first you've gone through this evening. Some of those downwardness-changes are done in a very, very simple way indeed. Also, I don't think I can be here much longer. Wherever here is. SOME ONE has noticed me".
    Horbin grabbed eight of the remaining poles and then launched himself to the central sphere.
    Delphi held up her hand and looked to the cleric of Loki with some concern. "Wait, the voice is back. She said that the way back does not lead out anymore; it's forward or into the green. She also said that our cleric is carrying something into her house that he shouldn't, and that he isn't aware of that fact. And that she's only allowed to do so much... there's something that has to grant her permission, it seems."
    Delphi ran to the nearest purple square, leapt onto it gracefully, and made her way to the middle. "I really don't like voices in my head, but at least this one is informative."
    "Something I am carrying?" Thorwald looked back at Delphi, brain buzzing. "I don't have anything magical on me, as far as I'm aware... Dardiana, perhaps your magesight could spot something out of the ordinary on my person?"
    Thorwald then jumped after Delphi with little hesitation.
    "I doubt you accidentally grabbed a magic item, but sure." She activated the sight and looked at Thorwald. Which revealed nothing more than when using it in there it gave her a splitting headache. Then she commented, "Could it be your holy symbol? And the thing be that you're not aware that it shouldn't be in here? Just a comment, probably wrong."
    "Oh, and Delphi: Welcome to my world. Except I'm fine with the voice in my head."
    Delphi frowned, looking at her hands. "I'm fine with the voice; it's been perfectly polite, non-distracting, and I'm ninety-three percent sure that it's a magic-user doing it, and that I'm not crazy. That said, if they can put a voice in my head, what else can they make me do?" They didn't need to see her face to tell that she was afraid.
    "It could also be a god, seems to be going around," Horbin spouted off at Delphi.
    "As long as the gods are not contagious, doesn't bother Grath much. All should have the right to hear their own god in their own head. When people start hearing strange gods in their head, that is problem." Grath shook his head. "Should all go into this orb, or should play bouce the orc some more?"
    The corridor into the middle of the globe, on closer examination, looked identical to the ones they had been moving through so-far. It appeared to run sixty feet and then turn a corner to the left. Which would be extremely ordinary, except for the fact that there shouldn't be enough ‘globe’ to allow it.
    Bethlen was already sticking her pole into the opening. "Downwardness appears to be in my direction," she muttered. "I don't see anything funny happening with the torches. We really need to rest soon. Also, is anyone going to ask how she-hobbit acquired her new ring?"
    "She has a new ring," Horbin looked up as he dropped a pole.
    "My Recaller is singing and buzzing," Bethlen touched her chest. "And what it is telling me is that the aura of The Empress of Midnight is all around the she-hobbit right now."
    She raised the pole and gave Delphi and appraising look. "This is an interesting development. You're not a citizen, not even a spellcaster. Well." She laughed. It was her creepy laugh, which went on just a little too long and cut off too quickly. "You're Kissed by Midnight, Delphi. This will raise some eyebrows somewhere."
    "No magic aura on you Thor," said Dardiana while grabbing her head. She turned to look at Delphi and told her, "You know, usually one wears a ring under gloves."
    Before moving forward into the hall, Grath bounced back and forth to retrieve the rest of the poles as necessary and moved them on, staying out of the discussion for the time being.
    Delphi held up the ring for everyone to see before taking it and her glove off, putting the ring on again, and then covering it with the glove. "I don't really know what it does, but the voice, who I suppose I should call the Empress of Midnight, told me that it would help me against undead and the like."
    Delphi shrugged a bit, holding up her sling. "I don't know if I've told you much about what I do to hurt things; while it isn't nearly as interesting as your magic, it's still neat. There's a culture around throwing stones and using slings with us halflings; I've never been sure why, exactly, but we're all rather good at it, so it may have something to do with that. Anyway, there's a certain way to throw a stone or use a sling that allows you to be way more accurate; to hit someone's head instead of their chest.
    It requires movement to work right, however; you use the momentum to help you throw just right, though the extra hurt doesn't actually come from your movement. The problem that a lot of us face is that things like undead or plants or whatever don't really care if you hit them in the face or chest or family jewels; they just keep plodding along. This ring, as far as I can tell, rectifies that. Which is awesome."
    "I guess that would have been too easy." Thorwald replied to Dardiana, before turning to Delphi. "That sure is a nifty ability. Did she tell you why she gave it to you?
    By the way, I could venture a guess as to why our gods are having a field day inside our heads. I have a theory that the gods live by strict rules, that prevent them from roaming around the material plane. Something like a trade embargo, only covering all sides. So when one god decides to stick his head in where he shouldn't - it permits the other gods to do the same.
    But as I said, it's just a theory. But maybe the fire lord's presence is what enables your Lady of Midnight to pass any barriers that exist in here."
    Just then, Thorwald and Delphi hear a voice. "That's a bingo," said something in their heads, closely followed by a crackling "Oh Shi-".
    The person that abruptly appeared right in front of them was a medium-height human woman, with black hair marked by a streak of white at her left temple. She wore a high-shoulder black coat over a dark blue tunic, black gloves and leggings, and a grim, set expression. Three pairs of angular black wings, more like the blades of knives than anything organic, were unfolding from her back even as she appeared. In them they thought they could see stars, but that was not really the first thing on their minds right then.
    "Get out of him, and get out of here," she said, and thrust a hand right into Thorwald’s chest. It went right through him, feeling like a shaft of ice, and then she whipped her her arm through his head. Thorwald was conscious of a pressure he hadn't even registered getting ripped away, and a faint, crackling cry. She withdrew her hand. A tiny flame burned in the palm. She folded her hand into a fist around it. Then she looked at Thorwald. Her eyes were unblinking and a very bright blue. "Also, I needed to wait until you had openly declared his presence. Now, "obscure and very evil", was it?"
    Delphi swore loudly. Dardiana looked to Delphi, an act she didn't mind one bit. "What was that about?"
    Delphi didn't look away from the empty air next to Thorwald, her eyes wide and nearly frantic. "Don't move. No one move."
    The woman’s eyes flicked briefly from Thorwald to Delphi, and the figure gave the briefest of nods. Then the entire party could see the black-coated, blue-tunicked woman standing in the air directly in front of Thorwald. Her six wings extended in jackknife angles from one side of the room to the other like blade-shaped holes in reality. In them was the black of night and the distant glitter of stars. The expression on her face as she looked at Thorwald was a little concerning.
    "I was hoping for more of a fight,” she said. "He's too much like The Warped Sage to make me not want to fight him. But he's too spread out. His power's stretched across many worlds. And on this world and especially in this place he can no more stand before me than a campfire can stop an avalanche."
    Thorwald fell to his knees but his eyes did not waver from hers. His hands, however, were trembling with barely contained anger and fear. "How would I know, empress? I am merely a servant."
    He tried to rise, still a little woozy. "So what now, are we to be punished for entering your lair?" His eyes glinted for a moment, "Or could it be that we are here because you yourself are in a spot?"
    The figure put her head back a little, smiled, then stretched out a hand toward Thorwald, palm up. "I don't mess people up for a misunderstanding. You could afford to show some tact in another's house. And you could show a bit more respect in the way you refer to your patron's daughter. Not her fault she has the worst job in Asgard."
    She looked around at the group. Bethlen, worryingly, was standing at attention. "In the old days I'd have dealt with this myself. But that's not the sort of world we want. It's those that exist that have to fix it, not us, not those people on Asgard, not the rest. We do not exist. Existance requires the possibility of ending. I am undying, so I cannot live. I am invincible, so I can never win. I miss mortality, with all of its terror and uncertainty. I existed back then.
    I would like to save this place, though I don't need it, and see what my wayward lieutenant has planned. I could scour it. I won't. Such behaviour from me would cause problems. Set a bad example. It's up to you, since you are what's available."
    "Pardon me for butting in, but, is there a map? This place is somewhat of a maze and though I think we are getting along nicely, we are getting tired and prefer to not rest in such a place," Horbin spoke up. Finally seeing a 'god' in the 'flesh' did not seem to affect him as much as it did Thorwald. "The horse whisperer should stand again," he said as he looked down.
    The figure turned to face Horbin. The knifelike wings refolded into a triple "M" formation over her head. Annoyingly, there was no sound from them. "A map might not be incredibly useful," she said, looking a bit thoughtful. She hadn't blinked once yet. "Given it would have to be four-dimensional. This place changes. Then there's the little issue that you're currently not even on your home plane. Any map I could provide would be unreadable to you. In any case, someone got it right before. This isn't a maze, it's a Labyrinth. One way in.
    I could move you out of the Twisted Levels and put you somewhere closer to the interloper, yet sheltered from him. He doesn't dare stray out here, you understand. He stays deep in, where it's safe and normal, and uses borrowed cunning to get in and out.
    Would you prefer that? It would involve bypassing the Maculators, the Staircase, and the Cavern." Apparently remembering something, her outstretched arm snaked out longer than it should, grabbed Thorwald's hand, and pulled him to his feet.
    "Grath sees a natural progression in following the path, such as it is. Plus, meaning no disrespect, Midnight Empress Lady, but prefer walking to yet more unknown magic."
    The figure nodded to the Orc. "An understandable opinion. The Maculators are deprived of power of movement anyway, since they depend upon the Local Genius, who has been crippled. Were that not the case, they'd have dealt with the interloper very swiftly."
    She looked a little wistful. "And I'd do something about that, only it would be cheating"
    "You're the... ah. Oh..." Thorwald went from confused to scared to slightly sheepish in a second. "I, ahah... am, mmh... ss... m'sorry, empress," he said with great effort.
    When she pulled him to his feet he flushed a deep red. "Why the hostility towards your father? Do you follow the Skyfather? Would be an odd choice considering where he left you."
    She looked at Thorwald. Just looked.
    "My father is long dead, Cleric. I loved him. I had to kill him. He'd been taken by the Abberancy. Along with the rest of my own city. And I did what I had to do. There's a reason they call me Citykiller. That wasn't the first or the last.
    But I have this idea that you may have mistaken me for someone else. Tell me, do I look half dead? I know who you mean. She's about due for her bi-monthly panic attack right about now"."
    "My respect, Madam." Then Gregor rode a bit ahead and continued to be uninvolved in the "gods all around us" business.
    Bethlen, who'd been standing very straight with very wide eyes since the figure became manifest, gave Thorwald a very shocked look. Then took a single step forward. "Exalted Captain."
    "Cadet."
    "You speak of your ‘wayward lieutenant’. Is that who's behind this?"
    "She is. I don't approve of her methods, her choice in tools, her tool's choice in tools, or her choice of location." The figure's head moved to look around the chamber. "But not approving is not the same as justifying personal intervention. That's one thing that doesn't change. So, I can move you on; or as Grath requested, you can take a natural progression."
    She looked around at the group. "Choice".
    "Worshipful ... err, Captain, err, Empress Lady. Err, how should all refer to your Midnight Blissfulness? Pardon, again, and meaning no disrespect. Who is lieutenant, and the tool of the lieutenant, and what should be known about Ajah Negative?" The orc fumbled over his words even more than usual, and seemed somewhat abashed and embarrased as he tried to speak.
    "Oh, I see. That makes much more sense." Thorwald looked around at the others. "Well, I wouldn't mind using a little shortcut. I miss having ground underneath my feet, although it will probably take a while before that happens."
    The figure's mouth crinkled up at the corners, and her eyebrows twisted. "‘Blissfulness?’ That's a new one. "Lady" will do, or "Captain". I'm accustomed to just being called "Sir", but as you're Outlanders, that would just beg so many questions.
    We gave up our names when we ascended. It seemed an appropriate gesture. We might have reconsidered had we known our followers would make a party game about making up ominous titles and nicknames for us."
    Her eyes flickered over to Bethlen. "Speaking of games, Cadet. Was all that slash fiction about the Iron Rider and I really necessary?"
    Audible gulp from Bethlen, but she rallied. "Lotus liked it! And Astra, frighteningly enough."
    "So did the Iron Rider, frighteningly enough. Anyway. My lieutenant--my senior Cleric-- is the one who shut this place down and installed the interloper, who appears to be rapidly acquiring more names than the average minor diety. What she plans for him I may not find out in the obvious ways. Again, that would be cheating. I do not approve of his presence, or his choice in minions." One of her wingtips stabbed out with snakelike swiftness and bisected a Troll skull. "Deal with him, or I'll find someone who can. And I will deal with her, in the way that is lawful and respectful to mortals. Now, Shall I move you?"
    "I'm all for it. I'd rather get through this entire thing as fast as I can," Dardiana eagerly added. The seconds drew out. Dardiana was conscious of a high-pitched keening in her head, but no words could be made out.
    The figure’s wings turned over slowly and formed into a triple-W shape sweeping all the way across the chamber. She ran a thumb across her closed mouth. "Cadet?"
    Bethlen answered; "Sir, I'd love to explore this place further, but we need to get the job done. I vote for a move to somewhere more stable. I can always come back here later with Astra."
    Gretchen, who'd been hiding behind Bethlen, stuck her head out. "And I just want to finish this baby necro and get out of here"
    The figure's eyes turned, unblinking, from Gregor, to Horbin, then to Delphi. "Four in favour, one against. There's only one here whose loyalty and obediance I might lawfully command. I need to hear one more yes."
    The figure looked again at Gregor, and abruptly cracked her knuckles. "Not in your own voice, and only an absention. Still, that makes a working majority of "yes". Now I'm Sorry.” Her voice raised a notch in volume. "The Normal Ways Don't Work In The Twisted Levels, And What Works For Me Will Not Work For You. So; VIA TENEBRARUM".
    The darkness, shot through with blue-shifted stars, abruptly burst from her wings and engulfed them all. The darkness was complete, but some of the group could see things.
    ***
    Dardiana saw a scene from what looked like a coastal town with white stone buildings and a clear sky, and a warm climate. She saw a number of tables outside a tavern, sporting numerous customers in clothing styles she didn't recognise.
    Focus seemed to be a dark-haired young man in lightweight black armor, odd spikes protruded on his shoulderguards. He was looking intently at some papers before him, and sported a haunted look. A young woman in a less ornate, more feminised version of the same armor, sans spikes, had just passed him a bowl of something, and seemed about to sit down with him to eat with the second bowl she held in her other hand.
    Then all the other figures in the scene collapsed like puppets with cut strings, falling limp into their chairs or onto the street. The man started like he'd been struck, and the young woman staggered and dropped her bowl. She remained upright. Then all the fallen began to get up. Slowly and carefully, like whatever controled them wasn't sure how to walk right. All had completely no facial expression.
    The woman drew a shortsword, and assumed a fighting pose. The man shouted, "It's here. Already. Don't fight, Livutea, get to the skiff!"
    The expressionless crowd began to trudge near them. Those that had weapons were slowly drawing them. The woman grinded out. "Right, Admiral". She threw a glowing sphere of something into the front of the crowd, where it burst in a blast of flame. Then she ran toward a nearby wharf, grabbing the man by his collar as she did so. He followed. "The fleet's at Muelva! Got to warn them-"
    They ran toward a sleek, single-masted vessel of unfamiliar design, bobbing cheerfully in the bright blue water. A couple of crossbow bolts fell near them as they ran.
    ***
    Horbin saw a strange structure of standing stones that looked oddly bright and new. The background was a range of impressive mountains that looked almost like the Godspine when viewed from the north, but not quite. Within the structure, he saw a caped and armored figure with long hair. She was standing before a set of glowing spheres that she constantly moved about with her hands, peering into each one in turn.
    She seemed to be laughing. Based on the look in her eyes and the set of her mouth, it was not a nice kind of laughter. Then she half-turned, and stared at a spot in the air to her side. She stopped laughing.
    She looked confused, then frightened, and then smiled nervously. She then looked terrified, and her hands moved to her mouth. Something like a massive shaft of bright light burst through the mountains in the background, and struck just where she was standing.
    The scene then blanked out.
    ***
    Delphi saw a night turned to red day by fires, and the wreck of a city. Houses and walls were smashed and slagged. Trees were ruined stumps. Skeletons, seared clean of all flesh, laid in the streets. A young woman in a blue tunic, a white streak in her dark hair, came walking through the ashes. A number of darker, larger figures floated through the air behind her.
    She stopped at a certain smashed section of wall that looked like it was once part of a house. Looked down, and saw a certain corpse. She bent down and picked up the skull, turned it over and over in her hands. Then she closed her eyes.
    She ran her hand over the wall, along a line four feet above the ground, until she found a place where a stone was missing. Carefully, she placed the skull inside the space, and wedged another stone into the gap.
    She turned to the figures around and above her. "That was it," she said. "There's nothing more for us here. Let's go."
    ***
    Thorwald saw an army walking through rolling orchards. No, not an army. Many were armed and armored, most were in tattered everyday wear. All walked stiffly and slowly, in step and at the same pace, but in no order or formation. All had blank eyes and no expression.
    A white star suddenly appeared in the sunlit sky.The army cried the same words in thousands of voices: “Wait! I haven't--". Something streaked from the star downward. A massive shockwave of fire and force struck the host, sending burning bodies and bits of bodies flying. It was followed by another and another.
    When they stopped, everything was burned. Nothing moved. The trees were blackened splinters. The white star was joined by a golden one, streaking out of the west. Then by a blood-red one came from the north. They lingered near each other for a time, and then they streaked away east.
    ***
    Grath saw a slightly blue tinged half-orc girl, in black leathers, standing very, very straight on a field full of humans, identically clad, and standing the same. She seemed to be listening to something. When it was over, the ranks on either side of her relaxed slightly. She remained standing straight, and raised her head a little. She seemed to be smiling.
    ***
    Then the darkness seemed to flow back past everyone, the stars looked oddly red. They find themselves, dogs, boar and all, in a place with light and warmth. The ground underfoot seemed to be brick, but heavily padded with vegetation. There was the sound of a steady trickle of water. The figure was above them, her wings outstretched against a ceiling that released a gentle blue light.
    They were in a rectangular hall, dominated by a large rectangular pool in the center. Vines and moss covered the walls and floors, and tiny waterfalls trickled down the longer walls, feeding the pool. In the corners were latticework screens covered in ivy. Behind them they could see benches.
    She spoke; "That," she pointed at an arched doorway at one end of the room. "Is the way out. The interloper cannot get in. It is a blank wall from the other side. The normal way in is at the opposite end, but the corridors beyond are deep green. He will not be going that way. The bath-the necess-the privies are through there," she pointed at a smaller doorway on one of the longer walls, between the waterfalls.
    "The benches are comfortable, and as I recall, relaxing or exciting depending on the company. If you have no food, look for bricks that aren't covered with vegetation. Please don't touch the fish." Her wings folded in around her, covering her form. "See you all later" And then her wings became an angular hole in space, that quickly shrank and disappeared.
    The pool made a BURBLE as a fish briefly broke the surface.

  16. - Top - End - #16
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
    Marlowe's Avatar

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    Default Re: Southern Comfort Campaign recap

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    Chapter 14
    A Time for Rest

    Gregor moved closer to the pool to observe the fishes. He liked the place and spent some time just looking around. "Someone knows how to live a life, or at least how to set up a habitation. I feel at home, whatever plane this is." Then he turned to the arched doorway. "Going in?"
    "Seems like all should rest and wait here for a few hours, before proceeding. And Captain Midnight Sir Lady said it was safe from Azkaban here. If not, all will be prisoners of Azkaban if not dead of Azkaban. Grath needs a minute, anyway, to get visions out of head." Grath shook his head and resumed his litany.
    "No like magic zapping. Magic talks to people. Magic makes clothes fit. Magic paper talks to Ingva. Magic zaps people to Alnwizk two days away. Magic makes people walk on walls. Magic zaps group to pool while giving visions of cute orc girl. Grath does not like this magic. No. Well, orc girl not so bad."
    Bethlen had a very odd expression on her face. "If you go out there now, Gregor, you're never getting back in. It's a blank wall on the other side, remember? And the proper way in runs through ADA central." She rubbed her head. "Also, I think I got your vision as well as mine." Then she seemed to register something and looked at Grath sideways. "Cute Orc girl? Funny. Think I got one of those too."
    Through the extremely clear water, they could see quite a number of fish as well as submarine plant life. "Umm... back? Why back? I thought we are moving forward. This way forward?" After a short pause, a glance at the dogs, and a shrug, he continued, "Can rest here if anyone is tired."
    "Gregor, we've been moving since the predawn encounter with the skeletons. We only got to this place at dusk. Everyone here's been moving or fighting for the last eighteen hours." Bethlen seemed to be exhausted as she explained to Gregor her feelings on the day.
    "At least you got something to look at while you traveled. I got... a confusing series of events. If it's real, then someone is chasing a pair of people by using normal people as puppets." Dardiana rubbed her head and activated her magesight before looking around the room.
    Dardiana’s second sight revealed a low-power but persistant glow from the walls. The aura seemed to be more divine than arcane. There were stronger auras from the ceiling, the doorway, and the bottom of the pool.
    Bethlen looked at Dardiana strangely. "Are you sure that's what's happening right now? Not some other time...because if mine was, then something has gone seriously wrong with cause and effect, and if my OTHER one was," she snaked a look at Gregor. "Then my education in geography was a serious piece of misinformation. In any event," she looked at Gretchen, who was crying and breathing heavily on the mossy bricks next to her, "maybe you got off lightly."
    "I'm not sure. It could be now, it could be the past, it could've been a vision of the future, or it could've been a fantasy. Or do you have a way to know when mine was from?" Dardiana turned to Gretchen and considered what to do. "There's divine magic on the ceiling, the doorway, the walls, and the bottom of the pool. Nothing else. It is mainly Orisons on the walls. Create Water backed up with Prestidigation. There's a purification spell on the bottom of the pool. The doorway is shining with transmutation and illusion auras, and the ceiling is glowing with illusion.”
    After allthat, she approached Gretchen and sat down next to her. "Want to talk about it?"
    Bethlen gave Dardiana a deadly look, then put a hand on Gretchen's shoulder. "Best do it. Best not let it canker."
    Gretchen remained prone and went silent for a couple of seconds. Then; "Wasn't very old. I was nine. I was running with my mother hand-in-hand. We had broken irons around our hands and feet. In a strange place. We didn't want to be there. We turned a corner. At the same time three people in black coats turned the corner in front of us.
    Mother hesitated, and a whole mob of people in armor and yellow capes came yelling in behind us. I saw two spears take mother in the back. I got one through my leg. Thats happened, I remember that. The Blackcoats rushed forward towards us. Mother was seeping blood out her mouth, but she picked me up by the back of my clothes and threw me at them. The middle one caught me. He said something like ‘Oh, Blessed Silence’.
    The other two stepped past us and there was heat and noise and screams behind me. When I turned around there was fire and no more yellowcaped people alive. And my mother was lying with five spears through her back. One of the blackcoats looked down at her and said; ‘I guess we lose one point today’. And that's when I got upset."
    "Make way!" As soon as Horbin got his wits back he took off running for the privies. "Haven't gone most of the day," his voice trailed off as he left the main chamber. He found himself in a chamber with four booths to the left, and a bench with four basins to the right. The sound of water flowing was strong on both sides. The booths on the left revealed a sort of seat with a hollow in it, with water flowing away from the main room a little below the sitting level. There was a fold of some white, flat, dry stuff similar to paper apparently growing out of the left wall. Pulling it it broke off, and revealed another fold.
    Bethlen gave Gretchen and Dardiana an unreadable look, nodded at Horbin as he ran in, and stood up, running her fingers through her hair. "Want to hear your vision, Gregor? At least I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be yours.
    There were mountains. Spectacular mountains clad in mist, higher than my homeland, higher than yours, and an old man with stick, and a dog, walking up a grassy slope in the foreground. I know the shape of those mountains. They are the Devil's Fence in Yamighul. But they haven't had mist or snow or grass about them for a long, long, time. The old man is shading his eyes and looking around constantly, the dog chasing off in all directions. They are looking for something. A lost goat kid? Most likely. It went on for a while.
    Then the old man suddenly collapses. No fuss. Just drops like he's stopped living. The dog comes over and sniffles at him. And then he stands up. Slowly, carefully. One limb before another. Nothing on his face. He stands up straight. And then he whacks the dog with his stick. Hard.
    The dog whines and backs away. The man puts his hand up, slowly and carefully, as though he's never done this before, and gestures the dog to come in closer. The dog does. And the man hits the dog so hard the thing keels over. And he keeps on hitting. In measured time, his face blank, until the animals brains are all over his stick.
    And then he turns around and walks like a machine. A long time. Until he's down the slope and comes to a little village. His village, I knew. As he approaches, a couple of children run out toward him, looking pleased and excited. And as they get within speaking distance of him, they collapse too. He just keeps walking. As he passes them, they rise, carefully and expressionlessly, and fall into step with him as they walk toward the village." Bethlen’s face was set and her voice had taken a serious tone. Her recountance of the scene visibly garnered disgust from Gregor as he looked to his own dogs.
    When Thorwald, and his mind, finally arrived at the scene, he was already laughing hysterically: "YES! Hahahahaha, Burn! BURN! Hahah, oh... You guys are here too." He stood for a moment, not sure what to do, then turned around. "Ooh, look at the fishies."
    Bethlen turned her lip at Thorwald, keeping a hand on Gretchen's back. "Legs, if what you saw was happening right now, She would not be dealing with us, She'd be moving to sterilise the scene, along with all the rest. That is her job. Why She's hanging about now rather than moldering in an ornate tomb for the last few thousand years.
    And Asgard, the Imperials, the Olympians, the Pharoahics; they'd all be pulling their fingers off this world faster than you can say "Apocalypse Maiden Brigade". Like the Old Gods did, before the Abberancy. And we'd all be frelled. Some cultures pray to their gods. We pray ours never have to turn up.
    Based on what I saw, and what you've said, you saw a bit of the Abberancy War. Somewhere quite near the beginning. Any more details you can give me?"
    "Now that changes things. It was a coastal town and the scene was centered around a tavern. People were wearing different clothing..." She described the clothing as best she could. "A raven haired man in the same color spiked armor. A girl in the same armor minus the spikes too." She described the armor and people. "Then the whole living zombie thing happens. A name is called... Lifvutae or something like that. She calls him Admiral. And then they go to the docks. Another name is called, Muelva I believe."
    "I don't know the name Muelva...but but but," Bethlen looked thoughtful. "The woman's name? Livutea? She's the consort of the Black Admiral, who's appearance doesn't seem to have changed much. She ascended with him, but she's not accounted one of the Captains and she kept her name. She has some following amongst those eccentrics in our culture that favor simple resourcefulness and ingenuity over magical power."
    Her eyes went down. "My, though, that's going very far back. Well. If it's not spoiling the ending for you; they got away."
    "So I got a view of to-be-gods? Nice." She turned to the rest of the crowd. "Anyone else want to share what they saw?"
    A keening voice came into Dardiana’s head again. "Youyouyouyou---That was The Bladewinged Obliterator! And you spoke casually to her! And your Cleric mistook her for someone else! And you all kept her waiting! Why aren't we dead?"
    There was a bit of a pause as the Fey seemed to get ahold of herself. "The Black Admiral is the Administrate God of the Sea. Well, more correctly, of ships and sailors and those that travel by contrivance through hostile mediums. After they all decided to stop breaking things and left, thank anyone else you care to name, he's spent most of his time in the astral plane, being trouble for anyone that lives or passes through there.
    Also, Livutea isn't just their Roguish god, she's also, by default and by proven ability, their fertility god. Which is awkward since they apparently don't pass on their godlike status by blood. She spends a lot of time down in disguise as a maid or a tutor or something trying to mother half-a-dozen children in different places at once without letting on that she IS their mother. They don't worship her much because they know she's got a lot to do and they don't want to bother her.
    And don't mention that to your friend because a lot of them don't know this is the reason for this. Suffice to say they don't like black-haired people getting with other black-haired people, and it's for a good reason." With that, the voice stopped pounding away anxiously.
    Thorwald looked up from the fish. "I saw an army of beggars burned alive by a white star." He shrugged. "What? It was a nice image. Reminds me of the dreams I had when I was a kid. Oh, and then the white star was joined by a golden and blood-red one. Not sure what it means. Maybe the stars are supposed to be gods?"
    Sitting beside the pool and looking at the fishes Gregor was not actually sure if he wanted to hear that. But what was heard cannot be un-heard. "Horrible thing, that is. Was it destroyed, or suppressed?"
    Dardiana thought to her other inhabitant, ‘We're not dead because we're apparently really lucky. And I assume by default you mean she's the only female god in the administrate? Thanks for the info, by the way. Any idea of what the stars could mean in Thor's vision?’
    Her Fey somehow gave the impression of taking a deep breath. "Do you think that thing we just spoke to is some kind of cross-dresser? Most of the Administrate Exalted are female. We're not sure how that worked out. The Black Admiral, The Infinite Librarian, The Dread Beast That Guards, the Warped Sage are male. The Iron Rider, The Starlight Destroyer, The Bringer of Silence, The Ruler of Darkness aka that thing we just saw, The Burning General, The Knight of the Healing Wind and a lot of those other people I don't want to deal with are not. She's their fertility goddess because she's...energetic. And into men. Or at least, into the Black Admiral. And a lot of the others...well...
    Anyway, now I've exhausted my gossip about people I really don't want to meet ever: White is the Starlight Destroyer. Gold is the Bringer of Silence. Red is, surprise surprise, The Crimson Iron Rider."
    Dardiana responded silently, ‘Sorry, I don't really know which gods are administrate and which aren't. I don't have much of an interest in that.
    “According to a voice in my head, that they are. 'White is the Starlight Destroyer. Gold is the Bringer of Silence. Red is the Crimson Iron Rider.'" She approached the pond of water and looked into it. "So we're not allowed to eat the fish... but the walls provide nutrients." She thought aloud, "If you've ever got anything to say, please do." Then she focused back on her group, waiting for the next story.
    Bethlen was still stretched out over Gretchen. In a way that seemed to be avoiding physical contact as much as possible. "Sorry for the tactlessness...died to protect you...died like a soldier...I'd be proud of her. I really would."
    Until Gretchen abruptly stood up, brushing Bethlen aside. "That's right!"
    Bethlen, shoved onto the floor, looked at her for a moment, then looked at the wall and touched a brick that the vegetation seemed to be avoiding. It opened with a *click*. "Well...I've apparently now got two turkey drumsticks and a large flagon of mead. What are the rest of you having?"
    Gretchen looked at her. "You're a cold thing."
    Bethlen bit into the first drumstick, chewed, swallowed, and nodded. "I'm exactly what you should expect, which is why I like you, who is different," and then she took another bite.
    Horbin walked into the room with a satisfied look on his face. "Been holding that for the better part of the evening." He then looked about and walked up to a vegetation free brick and pushed it. "Did I miss anything useful?" Horbin found a meatloaf and a large, flip-topped flagon.
    Dardiana moved to a tile and pressed it down. "Don't know. Lets see, how about it?" Dardiana's brick *clicked* open, revealing half a roast chicken and a green bottle full of some dark liquid stoppered with a cork. A couple of simple wooden cups were also present.
    Thorwald looked up at Gregor, "What the army? It was burned by fire, I guess you could call murder by fire something along the lines of supression... Not really, though." He followed Bethlen's example and pushed a tile. "Pah. It's kinda difficult to keep track of the gods, with all those nicknames. Can your voice in the head maybe translate them to their 'original' names, if they have any? Loki is just so much easier to remember." Thorwalt found a crisp loaf of bread and two small wheels of some soft white cheese.
    Dardiana got a real sense that herr Fey was making one of those ‘wow, that is so dumb I feel stupider just hearing it’ faces. "Tell the Cleric first that I don't have any idea, because I'm not nearly that old, and second that if I did know, I wouldn't say, because it would annoy them. Ask him to think about what he's seen in the last few minutes and whether he wants these people annoyed with us.
    "OOH! That looks like wine. Let's get sloshed and forget he's even here."
    Seeing free food for the taking, Grath selected two bricks and opened them both. When they opened, Grath found a plate of what seemed to be roast duck, another of the greenish bottles with wooden cups, an apple, and a leg of ham. Between bites of his meal, Grath said, "Didn't see much, except for vision of half-orc girl in army of humans, all wearing black leather. Bluish, like Grath. Cute, a little. Let Grath see if can find someone who resembles girl in picture book." With that, Grath rooted around in his pack until he found his picture book, "Half-Orcettes Half-Dressed", and carefully looked at each of them to see if he could find a girl like the one in his vision. None of the subjects in the book seemed to bare much resemblance to the girl in the vision. Of course, that girl was dressed from neck to toe, so Grath was looking at her face. The others, not so much.
    Bethlen was saying, in the tones of one who didn't really expect to be listened to; "Put all the empties, dishes and leavings back into the compartment when you're done, and close the lid so they can reset. And no, the compartments don't create the-" Then she noticed what Grath was looking at, and tilted her head to get a better view.
    Dardiana reached inside with a slight grin on her face. "Free wine, don't mind if I do." She quickly removed the cork and took a swig of the wine, straight from the bottle. "Hey, flaming priest. She doesn't have any idea of what their original names are-and-or-were. And calling them by that name apparently annoys them. And she doesn't want to annoy them, in fear of death."
    She took another drink of the wine, then reached in and took the roast chicken, which she bit into soon after. "I wouldn't mind staying here forever. Free wine and food, and comfy benches according to that god." She decided to test out the benches and sat down on one of them, wine and chicken in hand.
    "Forever? Why, what would we do all day?" Bethlen let out with a sly grin.
    "Eat, sleep, and play. I'm not sure what we could play that wouldn't get boring, but we'd come up with something," Dardiana replied, seemingly unaware of the undertones of Bethlen’s remark.
    Thorwald stuffed his mouth with bread and cheese and pressed another tile. “Stupid bloody gods. You'd think being all-powerful would make them a little less sensitive,” he murmered under his breath. "Nevermind. Well, even heroes need to eat. Feel like I haven't eaten since we were back at the fort."
    Bethlen had picked some broad, flat leaves off the vines, and placed her half-eaten turkey drumstick down upon it. "Incidentally Cleric, about your vision. Or your rendering thereof. Interesting. I was previously unaware of the Starlight Destroyer's characteristically simple and direct yet uncharacteristically invidious solution to the problem of social inequality, nor was I informed of the tendency of the financially destitute to group in military formations. Is it just possible that you've been misunderstanding...” She held out both hands, palm up, while she seemed to search for an appropriate word. "...Everything?"
    "Are you calling me... stupid?" Thorwald took a step toward Bethlen, bread and cheese still in hand. He looked her straight in the eye, for a moment, then showed a broad smile. "I was of course speaking metaphorically about the beggars. T'was an army, or at least a large host of mostly armed people, yet many of them wore tattered clothes and expressionless faces. Like beggars, they looked resigned to life. And they were burned by a white star, which, according to Dardiana, is the Starlight Destroyer.
    So. Not my fault you can't understand the simplest of metaphors and descriptions." With that, Thorwald planted his ass on the floor and continued eating.
    "The army is... fingers? I mean, the whole Aberrancy. Was it destroyed, or suppressed?" Then, since some started getting food from the walls and some started paying that food very close attention, Gregor followed example of the former and shared what he got with the later.
    Bethlen stayed exactly where she was. Lounging against the wall and chewing on turkey. But Gretchen stood up, and drew her club. "Metaphors are for people who know what they're talking about. When you use them when you know nothing, that's called something el-" and then Gregor's words hit her.
    She looked at Gregor rather bewildered and wild-eyed, then spoke. ""Fingers". That's exactly what they'd become. That's a good guess. I wish Astra or Brunswick were here. They're the smart ones. I'm just the violent party girl," she took another bite.
    "And with Lotus around, I have real competition. Anyway, from what I know, the Abberancy was sealed.. "suppressed", as you say, not destroyed. We hurt it badly, but probably not as badly as it hurt this world. And we'll be on watch for it and anything like it, because no world needs to go through that or anything like it twice. This is our mission. And when I say "our" I mean everything from me up to the person with the wings you just met.
    And if it, or anything like it turns up again, we are not going to let it have it's way. We are going to kill it. And if at all possible, make it suffer as it made millions suffer. It may not understand. We don't care." She snarled a bite off her drumstick and swallowed it whole. "So, little Fire-Priest, did you sleep through your devotions literally or metaphorically?"
    "Could it be the masses were undead and were turned by holy powers into dust through flaming light? Just my two cents. And I am pretty sure we don't have to worry about the lieutenant anymore, just Anjelous," Horbin halfheartedly added in between bites.
    "What, you think I went to some sort of cleric school? How the Hel would I know how to interpret these weird visions? You asked what I saw, so I told you. I'm just a guy who likes fire. So, I guess, literally. You wanna tell us something else I would have no way of knowing, and then make fun of me again for not knowing it?" Thorwald spit the rest of his food out on the floor demonstratively.
    "You dump us in the middle of this dimensional hell hole, and somehow I am supposed to have all the answers? This is your mission, not mine. You always seem to have an answer for everything, yet when I ask you how you know these things, you dodge like a fox. Is it such a wonder why I don't trust you? You're so full of ****, you'd have trouble unburdening yourself in the next room in two sittings. Metaphorically."
    Bethlen drew herself up to her full height, which was about the same as Thorwald’s and snapped; "You haven't asked me any questions! Not sensible ones. You keep asking to to correct fantasies out of your head until I can't keep track. I do know one thing; when your teammates here asked you to help me, you did nothing. Just stood back and sneered. And we, that's we, your team, cannot rely on you to communicate any information accurately. We have a word for that sort of person where I come from. That word is "corpse".
    And yes I DO expect that you come from "some sort of Cleric school". Cleric means "clerk". It means a scholar. If you're just going to futter around making random guesses you're no better than a Favoured Soul. Minus the "Favoured". So come up with something intelligent. I didn't drag any of you here. I appreciate all of your work," her voice softened. "If you want to ask me a question. Ask me a question. I will answer. But you don't do that. Instead it seems you'd rather live in fantasies. Insult me all you want, fire-priest. I'm a mountain of dead men above you."
    "Bethlen, Thorwald, calm down now before Grath spanks you both. Not the time for this." Grath put his food down and stood up to his full height, looming over both. "The problem with all is that none know anything. How can be expected to know what questions to even ask? No. All just figure this out, piece at a time, just like life."
    He walked away at that point. Over his shoulder he said, "Grath needs to use privy, and then go to bed. Think overnight, then tomorrow more killing to be done."
    The sound of snoring could already be heard from Horbin's direction. Those who looked saw him draped over a bench with flagon in hand, sleeping, hard. Glenda rested on the ground beside him.
    Not seeing anything going his way anytime soon, Thorwald decided to let it go. "Of course, Grath. You're the voice of wisdom, as always. And Bethlen, I ah... I appreciate the change in tone... At least. And if you wanna know, there was no 'school' for clerics of Loki where I'm from. Apparantly worshipping the firelord is frowned upon in some places. I have read some books though. On my own." Thorwald decided to be helpful and see if he could wrack his brains for something useful.
    It came to mind, somethings he either read in a book or heard stories of; that The Starlight Destroyer, The Captain of Captains, the Devil in White, was a member of the Administrate Pantheon. She was usually depicted as a red-haired, blue eyed woman in a long white dress, or sometimes a white surcoat over armor. She carried a spear. Her words were reputed to be, "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line flanked by flaming debris".
    The "Beggars"; there was an old story he’d heard once about, about people that abruptly dropped as though dead, and arise as a puppet controlled by something unknown. It was said that such things were malevolent, and even approaching one could pass the condition onto you. It is said there was no cure for the condition.
    Bethlen was still gritting her teeth at Thorwald. "If that's the case, then you really should have talked to Astra more seriously, instead of leering at her like she was a delivery system for a pair of tits." She flicked a suddenly wide-eyed look at Grath, "going to bed, Tiger? No spanking?" Then she registered Gretchen expression. "Don't worry. I can squeeze you in later."
    "Offer was to spank both, Bethlen, includes Thorwald. But Grath might make an exception."
    Bethlen gave her "genuinely amused" laugh, the short sharp bark. "Well, right now, go do what you have to do," she did the practised run of the hand through the fastenings on her chest. They gave with a series of sharp snaps, and her armor peeled away from her. "Even if it hasn't been forty minutes, I'm getting wet," and promptly dove deep into the pool.
    Dardiana chuckled as she saw Beth dive into the pool and quickly finished off her wine, which she put back in the slot with the chicken and closed the container. She took her backpack off and removed her outfit. For a few seconds, she was as bare as the orcs in Grath's book. After those seconds, she had her underclothing on and was diving into the pool, where she hung around with the other swimmer.
    "I certainly did not. I found her an impressive lady, that's all. Besides, look who's talking." Thorwald barked back, finishing with a nod to where Grath was standing.
    Thorwald unclasped his armor, and said to noone in particular; "If anyone's still interested, I think I heard a story once about this army of braindead people. They were controlled by some malevolent force, and it was said that if you even got close to them, that was it. You would fall and become one of them. Could the Abberancy be behind something like this? And perhaps The Starlight Destroyer fought them?"
    The fish had scattered in all directions, and the lilies and other aquatic plants made the corners of the pool a slowly waving jungle. Bethlen seemed to be in the mood to sink down as low as she could get. It took her a couple of kicks, but she was soon right by the bottom of the pool, her limbs spread and relaxed. After a long silence, she flipped over, opened her eyes enough to see Dardiana's location, then shot past her to the surface.
    As she emerged, she pulled her hair back and turned toward Thorwald. "Yes. And Yes. Not that complex, really." And then, obviously enjoying herself, took a breath and dove backward toward the bottom of the pool.
    Dardiana stayed underwater for as long as possible before floating up to the surface and spreading out, floating on the surface of the pool. That was what she was content doing until someone bothered her or something else happened.
    Bethlen made a point of diving deep and staying down as long as she could, she surfaced for air only occasionally. After a few minutes she hauled herself up by the side of the pool and rested her head on her arms, staring intently into the wall. Gretchen watched the pool for many minutes, and then turned to the ivy-clad latticework screens guarding the corner. It turned out they could unfold to create a more or less private environment. She muttered, loud enough so people could hear it; "Nice place to build in the middle of a war."
    "He that would teach men to die must know how to live." Gregor paused, "Seems like they do."
    Gretchen forked a look at Gregor. "You've become awfully philisophical, and effective, since we left the forest. Almost as if this were your environment. Are you sure you're not one of...one of-"
    "Ours?" finished Bethlen, as she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the pool with her legs in the water. "I honestly wouldn't know, but highly unlikely. We are overwhelmingly Human. Not that that's a matter of policy, that's just how it happened."
    She darted a look to the privy door; "How long does he take? If I'm to have a busy night I'd like it to be properly choreographed." She laid down on her back, her hands behind her head and her legs in the water."Should have insisted on bringing Brunswick, Lotus, and Astra. But they have something going on involving an illegal vampire, a Free-Stater slavery ring operating out of Kweichau, an underground Republican Cleric of Demeter, a problem with this year's Ashdown budget, a group of assassins who call themselves the Silver Hands, some illusionist seducer who's been manipulating teenagers to fight each other for some bizarre reason that involves sleeping with him, and a large man with an axe. So they're busy this week."
    Grath re-entered the chamber, wearing his loincloth. He set his pack on the ground to the side of the pool. "If fighting broke out, Grath did not want to be present. Not sure which side to take. Gretchen, want some reading material?" He tossed the magazine at her feet, then dove easily into the pool.
    Gretchen picked up the magazine and stared at the pages intently. Now and then, she turned her head. Grath's dive sent fish scattering in all directions, and a fountain of water over Bethlen, who reacted simply by closing her eyes. The wave of his entry gently pushed Dardiana toward the opposite end of the pool, until she came to rest in a cluster of lilypads.
    Gregor put the dishes into the wall, unharnessed Abyss, unfolded the bedroll and sat on it some distance away from the pool, and did nothing. The dogs were welcome to behave as they saw fit, but just studied and marked the surrounding area. Thorwald enjoyed the opportunity to stretch his legs and massage his pounding head. He spent the next hour trying patiently to befriend Gregor's dogs, using a little food to help things along. The dogs did not seem to be interested in more food at the moment, but were enjoying the attention from Thorwald. Abyss did so with a somewhat stern expression, though.
    "Bethlen, what is life like in the Administrate? Grath does not know anything about that far away land."
    Bethlen fetched Grath a really long look after that question, then laughed. "Sorry, I've been waiting for that question for a long time now. Since the Nixie. We spend a lot of time studying, practicing, standing to attention on cold mornings, and sneaking around after dark trying to discover what's really going on."
    Her face lengthened a bit. "Which is kind of ruined when we discover that what's really going on is exactly what we're told is going on. We're schooled to take on the Abberancy, or anything like it, should it occur again. And incidentally take care of anything lesser too. Like the Union Princes and their Planar Binding fun." Nobody changed eye contact, but Gretchen suddenly seemed very interested in the Half-Orc porn mag.
    "But that gets boring after a few thousand years. So it's become a custom of ours to go out into the world until we're strong enough to join the regular divisions. Because I'd be a liability against something like the Abberancy as I am now. And so Fullbright and Ressormont are in Alnwick, trying to sort out the budget. Lotus, Astra, and Brunswick play hunter against more obvious problems, and I'm the outrider." She streaked back her hair. "But one thing I was never schooled in," she said with force, "is how little anyone else knows. I'm good at lying, but I speak the frelling truth all the time here and nobody seems to believe it."
    Bethlen opened her eyes. "How is Ingva Soulflayer's voice coming along? I haven't met her yet and our records are incomplete, but apparently she used to have a lovely voice. That was before she got an Eldritch Claw across her throat.
    That was us. No, not me and the others personally. An older group. I don't have the seniority to know what our people were doing at the time; but apparently something she disapproved of. And apparently we disapproved of her disapproval. Well. I was supposed to get up to Whitewater Rip and check her out. See how potent she remained as a local leader. But Kresta got herself kidnapped, and this Kutcher behind it got in my way."
    She had been reclining quite passively, but now she straightened up and grabbed Grath's hair, pulling him closer to her. "And then you come along."
    Grath gave a small grin and whispered, "As all can tell you, magic paper talks to Ingva. But enough talking. Let Grath find a cot."
    "Any of the corners will do, though we'll need to move the screens," she said in her normal, full-mouthed tone. And then her face fell. "I'm sorry," she said, suddenly quiet. "I can't be with you long. I have a mission, and another mission, and no matter what happens if I survive I have to report that the Lieutenant of Midnight is involved. To Fullbright if possible. To Astra if not. And then I'll have other things to do.
    If you are having fun with me, have fun with me, but..." she apparently couldn't think of anything to say and slammed her fist down onto the soft foliage. Then her expression twisted a little. "Corner. Cot. I believe you promised a spanking? Come along?"
    Bethlen and Grath moved to one of the corners, Bethlen had her armor over her shoulder like a discarded snakeskin. She pulled the latticeworks screens in place to isolate the area. As she finished the job, black curtains materialised behind the screens. Gretchen looked up from the porn mag, "I hope those things are soundproofed."
    "Oh, that is just filthy. Couldn't they at least have found another room?" Thorwald said quietly, grimacing in Bethlen's direction. "Preferably a green one."
    Gretchen muttered; "Think she'd rather work blue right now." There was a scrape of paper as she turned a page in the Half-Orc porn mag, then turned it sideways.
    Horbin snored. The dogs settled down around Gregor. Dardiana floated on her back in the pool, the fish, regaining their courage, tickled her back.
    The air had the warmth of a tropical evening, but the water was cool. The light remained the pale blue of the sun shining through ice. The water coming down the walls tinkled softly. Bethlen's amulet lay on the floor of leaves and moss and vines, she had removed it as she exited the pool. The eyes of the snakes still glowed a faint blue light.
    Behind closed privacy curtains and lattice, Grath quietly talked to Bethlen, afterwards. "Bethlen, there is so much Grath does not know. Could Grath learn to read and write name? See others reading all the time and feel stupid."
    Bethlen's eyes opened and she broke off her quiet little acapella rendition of "The National Anthem of Macross", hunted inside some obscure fold in her leathers, and came out with a sheet of vellum and a pencil. She wrote out the letters, sounding out reach in turn, and encouraging Grath to imitate her, faster and faster, until he ran the sounds together and he was saying it.
    She then handed him the pencil and got him to copy her own writing, which Grath was smart enough to notice, was a little more spiky and angular than the letters he'd seen in his own country. And finally she did the same with her own name, pointing out the unvoiced "th" that they both have in common. For once, she was very quiet, saying nothing except to sound the letters and give short instructions.
    Grath wrote the letters, very slowly and sloppily, yet carefully. He practiced several times, trying to get them in the correct shapes and order. Then he tried to write his own name, as Bethlen had demonstrated. It took him several tries before Bethlen was satisfied.


    Bethlen, still looking quiet, guided him through each phoneme, although she muttered at some point, "Qralh?, are we in some Drow fanfiction...wait, forget I said anything." She took the pencil and circled the "TH" sound, then wrote her own name and Thorwald's, circling the common sound in each, then quietly sounded them out.
    Dardiana got out of the pool and did not go to change before she clicked a few more tiles on the wall and taking out the alcohol in each, completely disregarding any and all food. She put the first bottle to her lips and drank deeply, all the while listening to anything she could hear. All that could be heard was the trickle of water down tiled walls, the scrape of paper as Gretchen turned over a page from the porn mag, Horbin and Gregor's snores, the occasional *BLOUMP* of a fish breaking water, and Delphi's whimpering from the corner where she'd sequestered herself.
    Dardiana finished the first two wines and didn't seem that badly affect, as she was able to walk over to Delphi with no problem and articulate, "Why are you hiding yourself away from the rest of us?"
    Delphi looked up. Eyes wide. Her voice was flat. "She showed me a city. The biggest place I've ever seen. Or it was. The night sky was red with flames. Every building was smashed. Every tree a blackened stump. Every living thing a blackened skeleton seared clean of all flesh. The ashes were falling like snow.
    She came walking though it. She looked a little--older. And she didn't have the coat or the--the wings. But it was here. There were other people moving with her, above and behind, but I couldn't see them clearly. She came to what was left of a stone house. Just a single scrap of wall left standing. Seemed to be a place she knew well. She looked around and came up with a skull, still smoking.
    She stared at it. No word, no change of expression. Then she closed her eyes and found a place in the wall where a large stone was missing. She put the skull carefull into the space, then closed it up with a piece of rubble. Then she just said. ‘That's it. There's nothing left for us here. Let's go.’"
    Meanwhile, behind screens and curtains, Bethlen seemed a little perkier watching Grath's progress. "Nice work there, Tiger. It's nothing difficult or frightening. Now--" She started snapping her armor together about her. "I hate to keep leaving in the night. Goes with my situation. But I have to see to Gretchen. Keep the vellum and practice some more. If we're still alive tomorrow I'll try to do a bit more." She quietly opened the screen a little and moved out into the wider room, closing things up behind her.
    As Grath looked at the vellum sheet he turned it over and found some writing on the other side. Bethlen's name was at the top. It was not, though with a bit of Administraty spikiness, her handwriting.


    *BUMP*
    ...no comments or criticism thus far?

  17. - Top - End - #17
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    NO LONGER IN CHINA!

    Default Re: Southern Comfort Campaign recap

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    Chapter 15
    Day Two


    The next morning, maybe, there was no morning in that place. But as the hours drew on, the pale blue light from the ceiling gradually dimmed and empurpled, then returned to the pale blue again. Water trickled, fish gently broke the surface occasionally, and Horbin snored like a pneumonic walrus while Abyss put his paws in his ears.
    Gretchen was the first of the strangers to wake, standing up with a start at finding Bethlen sprawled out next to and around her. She kicked the latter in the fundament three times sharply. "...little harder, Tiger," Bethlen muttered. Which apparently confused Gretchen enough that when Bethlen sprang into life the very next second she swept the shorter woman's legs out from under her and then pounced on top of her.
    Delphi came out of her corner, rubbing her forehead. She looked blankly at the two women wrestling in front of her. Blinked, and ignored it. "Suppose we need to get going. Unless we want to start a commune in here. Any of those poles come with us?"
    Horbin snorted and startled himself off the bench and instantly awoke on the floor. "Poles? Yes, they're over there," he responded as he drew up to his feet.
    "Huh," said Delphi, a little blankly, as Gretchen hit Bethlen across the face and got a short jab in the chest in return. "She took them with us? Somehow she gave me the impression of being fairly tight...with resources."
    "Admininistrate Witch!" Gretchen’s voice was sharp.
    "Guilty as charged. Can you swim?" Bethlen’s playful tone replied. Nuisance looked from one to the other with an odd boarish expression of complete indifference.
    Grath burst out from behind the curtain. "Grath can write name! Grath can write name!" He showed his vellum around proudly, waving it in the face of everybody. He was so excited that he tripped over the pile of metal poles, dropped his sheet of paper, and fell into the pool. Looking up from the water, he said, "Grath can write name!"
    Bethlen already seemed to be enjoying herself fighting Gretchen on the floor for no obvious reason, at this point she just collapsed into giggles. Gretchen threw a couple of punches that didn't seem to effect Bethlen in the slightest, then drew back.
    Bethlen got up like a deckchair on the shores of night and said, her face still distorted with a rather silly smile, "Tiger. When I leave, I'm going to miss you."
    Grath got out of the pool and dried himself off. He then demonstrated his writing abilities to everyone, writing out their names. He got Bethlen and Thorwald right, having seen those names demonstrated last night. He also wrote out: GRAETSHIN, GREGOR, HORBEN, DELFY, DER DARDYANA, and ASHLEY JUGGS. "Look, Grath even writes Ashley Juggs, name of guy Sir Miss Empress wants out."
    "That's great Grath, a useful skill in life," Horbin responded with a snicker.
    Dardiana woke up, from having slept in Delphi's arms, she was now colder, and just watched the scenes unfold. When Grath wrote down her name, she went to him and corrected him by removing the top part of the Y and making it a straight line. "It's with an I, not a Y. Close, but not exact." Then she clicked another tile and grabbed the wine from in there, taking a long drink. "I'm going to miss this place... Beth, do you think taking several bottles of wine would be fine?"
    Bethlen stopped giggling, abruptly grabbed Gretchen by the clasp of her Ashdown cloak, kissed her, and then straight-armed her backward into the pool.
    There was a splash and Nuisance looked nervous. Bethlen wiped off her lips. "All the food and drink comes from temple offerings back at Heartland. This place has been dormant for a long time. They'll notice if this place is suddenly seeing action. Then again, that should work to our benefit. We're the force for conservatism here, even if we are an improvised rabble.
    Take as much as you can find. No-one's going to bill you. But do you want to be drunk in a place like this?"
    "I'm not planning on drinking it here. Grath, can you do me a favor and carry my studded leathers?" Dardiana asked in an innocent voice.
    "Grath can do that for Dardiana. With poles, actually getting a little heavy. Grath will just drop poles before fight."
    When he said positively, she pulled the armor out of her bag and tossed it over to him, before filling her bag with three more bottles of wine. Then she went to put on her bikini again. "Ready now."
    With all the jolly going on early in the morning, Thorwald was already putting up a grumpy face. He doned his padding and armor, before grabbing some breakfast from the magic tiles. The food didn't put him in a better mood, though. "What's with all this noise? Can't a fellow dream in peace?"
    At Grath's accomplishment, however, he was nothing but impressed. "Let me see that." He snatched the paper and studied the crude letters. "This... is actually pretty good. You've come a long way in just one night, Grath. Maybe your vamp should have been a tutor instead of a... whatever she is."
    Thorwald noticed that the other side of the vellum sheet contained a letter addressed to Bethlen, signed, in large, even letters by Astra.
    It read;
    "Bethlen;

    The location on the map is listed in our directories as Reserve Installation 1197X. It was built as a military facility during the War against the Abberancy, I think, by agents of the Crimson Iron Rider. After the Abberancy was sealed beneath Yamighul, it became a private residence, but was rendered structural unsafe by The Destroyers geography-altering moment of rage during the War of the Sage's Treason. It was abandoned, and defended and preserved according to the traditions of the time.

    I hardly need to say that if the active and passive defenses appropriate to a location of this vintage remain in force and operational, it is very likely you will not return. I will not do you the disrespect that you would not do me and attempt to dissuade you. You know what the ADAs are. Please know, as you must know already, that should the worst happen we will see to the welfare of your son, and see that he grows up lacking for nothing, and knowing who you were.

    There are many that could have shut down the defenses from afar and allowed this "Ajneguhs" to occupy it, but who would do so and for what reason is a mystery to me. This man is very foolish, to dwell in such a place. His very life is hostage to the whim of his backer.

    Please return safely, for your sake and ours and the sake of whom you hold. You will know where we are.

    [signed]

    Astra Vaultspear, of Sickelein. Kissed by Fire, kissed by War, servant of the Burning General.

    And your friend."
    Bethlen was busy pulling the struggling Gretchen out of the pool, but threw a look over her shoulder. "Vamp? Vamps promise. I deliver".
    Delphi had moved to the end of the chamber indicated as the way out, and gave the bland, featureless stone doors a look. "In this place," she muttered, "I'm not sure if I could recognise a trap if it put on a little black dress and served me drinks while singing ‘Say it now and say it loud/I'm a trap and I'm proud’, but this looks harmless enough to me. Pole?"
    Gregor woke up, got some food, ate, fed the dogs and prepared to move on, all while trying to stay away from the mess. Grath, who’d started to calm down, handed Delphi a pole. While she was searching for traps, he put on the rest of his clothes, packed his things up, and grabbed a meal from the bricks.
    Delphi gave the doors a poke with the pole. It failed to go through as if they didn't exist. There was a metallic ringing sound. One of the doors swung in a tiny fraction before its weight very slowly swung it back flush. Delphi shrugged. "Using my keen Halfling senses and my keen class skills, I conclude that these "doors" are, in fact, doors. Something of a first for this place. I can't find any traps either."
    Bethlen looked up from where she was helping Gretchin out of the pool and copping a feel at the same time. "We like our traps to come with a bit more foreshadowing." And so Dardiana went up to the doors and simply opened them!
    The doors swung aside without anything unpleasant happening, revealing a short black-tiled space just long enough to fit the length of the doors, and beyond that, a large circular chamber. It appeared to have a dome shaped roof, lit with a golden light rather brighter than the dimness of the pool. It was filled with ranks of tulips growing in curved beds, paths between them; their curve matched that of the walls. As the door was opened, their scent wafted over to the party.
    The floor and the walls were made of irregular, oddly sculpted-looking grey stone, glinting slightly with reflective fragments imbedded in the rock. An obvious contrast from the black stoneware tiles they’d seen so far. There was a set of doors, shaped as a pointed arch, visible at the opposite side of the chamber. Their large handles gleamed brazen under the golden light.
    Also, someone appeared to have recently dumped a rancid load of soiled laundry in the tulip-bed to the right of the "door", and a crumpled magazine lay in the middle of the main path between the flowerbeds. Dardiana took a risk and climbed along the wall to the magazine to examine its contents. It was entitled "Halfings Half-Willing". Not all the content described or illustrated struck her as sane, or safe, or consensual.
    Bethlen strode into the garden, fitting her amulet over her neck. The eyes of the snakes still glowed a pale blue. She looked over Dardiana's shoulder at the magazine. There was a penetrating click as her teeth snapped together, then she looked back over her shoulder. "Tiger, just between you and me; I'd really rather you didn't look at this one."
    Dardiana kept the magazine in hand as she returned to the group. "Wonder if we'll get a prize if we collect each race's magazine."
    Thorwald read the vellum again, before discreetly tucking it in his bag. "Yes, very good. Very good." Having finished his breakfast, he followed Dardiana and Bethlen through the door. "Yes, I'm sure you'll open up all the hentai content once you gather the whole set. Uh... nevermind."
    He quickly moved through the room, hands clasped behind his back. "Wow, uh, nice flowers." He kicked the clothes around a little, to see if they contained anything interesting. The bundle of clothes were a sordid mess of dirty cullottes, tunics, and ragged woollen cloaks. As he disturbed them there was a rank, unwashed smell, which didn't quite overpower the surrounding scent of the tulips. Horbin followed quietly holding Glenda in one hand and three "bronze" poles in the other.
    Bethlen put a hand to her chin. "Not that I'm scorning the idea of revelation through completeness in the collection of erotica, but didn't your wizard pick up the Half-Elf one? And isn't he scribbly-bitching for Vierzehn right now?"
    Grath looked around and said, "What, no crazy walking on walls other than Dardiana? No bouncing tiles? What the Hel is this?"
    Delphi and Bethlen, wielding the poles, prodded the walls and floors experimentally. "Everything seems solid and--normal"
    "Including the wall we just came through." Bethlen tapped the spot with her pole, making a metallic ringing. "Hope everybody took everything they were planning on bringing—Hello." She stepped back smoothly as Gretchen and Nuisance step right though the wall in front of her. "The wall is no illusion, so I'm wondering how it's doing that".
    "Hey! Trap!" Delphi called from the doors on the other side of the room. "Actual Honest-to-Freya trap! A really obvious one two, just a simple poison needle job glued to the back of the left doorhandle. Not part of the original door. Looks like something added in haste fairly recently."
    Grath brandished his battle axe. "Would anyone be upset if Grath just smashes the door to bits? Or would Ashley Juggs and his friends hear?"
    Delphi looked doubtful. "The lady with the black wings seemed sorta possessive of this place. Talked about us cleaning it up for her. I'd rather not risk her getting catty on us."
    Bethlen looked at her amulet, with the blue glow still coming from the eyes of the snakes. "And we can't see her, but she's not gone."
    "In any event, I've got this." There was a slight scratching of thieves tools and a gentle *sprung* and Delphi looked up. "Done. And I hadn't managed it, the other half of the doorway is still untrapped."
    Bethlen looked thoughful. "Why is he trapping the way OUT of a room that seems to have only one way IN? Is he expecting people to just appear out of nowhere? Like...The Empress did..." she trailed off, apparently thinking she'd just answered her own question.
    Gregor just followed the party, with bow in one hand and javelin in other hand. He did not attempt to think about the situation, but did check the room for any traces of former activity, in part wondering about type and amount of activity, in part about time it last occured. Gregor found little evidence that anyone who would leave a trace spent a lot of time in there, but there were some men's footprints left on the stones where soil had drifted out of the flowerbeds. There was also evidence that some of the tulips had been pulled from their beds and then later replanted in the same place.
    Thorwald kicked the clothes bundle one last time. “Huh. Weird and disgusting." To Bethlen's musings, he commented; “Who knows? And who cares? The guy's hiding in a transdimensionally lethal fort. He's bound to get paranoid." He moved up to the door. "No more traps, Delphi?" he asked, before pulling the door open.
    Throwing the doors open revealed a short corridor of grey, sculpted stone leading to a Y shaped intersection. The light on the left-hand path had a greenish glow. Standing before both branches were small wooden altars, a large silver holy symbol showing three pairs of angular wings sprouted from a central altar. Standing right before the intersection was a skeleton in a red cloak. As soon as its red eyes saw Thorwald, it turned and knocked over the left-hand altar.
    The greenish light started advancing out of the left corridor at a slow walking pace. As it washed over the skeleton, there was a sound like a rasping release of breath and the skeleton flew apart. Within the green was a sense of movement.
    Bethlen's eyes grew wide. "ADA," she said tonelessly. Her amulet was glowing a bright cherry red.
    Thorwald looked at the green light for a second, then at Bethlen. "... Yeah, you got this." He then deftly stepped aside, hiding from the light by the doorway in the flower room.
    The green light, a faint flicker of something stirring within it, continued to advance. It apparently could not make it past the second altar guarding the right-hand branch, but kept flooding toward the tulip chamber, and the group, at a slow pace. Bethlen eyes were downcast, and she took a long careful, slow step back. One arm snaked up to touch Horbin's shoulder and pull him back with her.
    Delphi spluttered, "What?".
    Bethlen said, quietly, "A bit of cunning there. And a very nasty thing to set up. I've got this? Thanks." She gave a frantic look around the chamber, the flowers, and the party and took a deep breath. "Maybe there's something I can do. Maybe." She closed her hands around the amulet. There was a sizzle and a sudden smell of scorched flesh. Her mouth jerked up slightly at the corners.
    "Communing [requesting {pleading} urgently] through citizen-access Heartland Control distant farspeak. This Citizen [supplicant {child} in emergency] requests an immediate disconnect of this Guardian's [monster's {abomination's}] wartime directives [atrocious habits {the Sage's twisted game}] and powers and disjunction of shadow-realm [shrouding {status as unkillable}] power link" she began. Her voice appeared to randomly slide through multiple different piches as she spoke.
    Gregor nodded, looked around for something that might be hiding a third altar, because the party was obviously too late to go past the second. Gregor quickly put away the bow, dropped the javelin, drew a knife and started digging where he has seen anything that was "replanted in the same place". Grath screwed several of the poles together, trying to see if there was a button on the other side of the door to push to deactivate the green.
    "Keep your distance everyone!" Thorwald barked, somewhat nervously. He backed away into the room to get a better visual of the situation.
    Dardiana backed until she was behind Bethlen and began to pray, to every and any deity out there. To others, she looked like she just sat down crosslegged. To anyone who could read her mind, they would have heard her asking gods, celestials, fiends, the fey, and any other greater power for their help.
    Delphi shrunk down behind Bethlen, "ADA? What?"
    Grath's pole *clinged* against several of the grey walls without result; then passed into advancing the green zone. It distorted in a way metal should not, then split down the first section. Then that section exploded in all directions, throwing sharp metal shrapnel, *pinging* off the stone walls. A fragment moving too fast to see sliced a red gash in Bethlen's cheek.
    Bethlen continued chanting. If that was the word for what she was doing. "Ordering sealing [suppression {binding}] of emergency powers by authority vested [implied {begged, borrowed, stolen} by] Prime Gabriel-Philium Recaller [heirloom{matriheriot} artifact]".
    The smell of burning was thick about her now. The advance of the green light, and the shifting movement within, suddenly shuddered back and forth. There was a sound like a quiet screech of metal on metal.
    "Authorised: Bruechlen. Hellebruech. Leithel. Vavasoura. Commence now [now {now}]". A sudden shaft of crimson energy blasted from between her hands into the green. It outlined a shape, like a cone of darkness revolving slowly on its end. Black psuedopods, outlined in blood-red energy, were already unfolding from its topside and winding into the room. "It worked. It's bound and vulnerable. Now DO SOMETHING!" Her hands were starting to smoke. "Quickly."
    Dardiana flashed her eyes open and jumped up. "I'll take that." She created a ball of bright green energy in her hand and flung it at the shape. "Attack the cone, yes?" Dardiana's attack missed the cone, but struck through the red-limed tendril with a core of black that was lazily winding toward her. Even as they watched the psuedopod crumble into nothing, a replacement started up from the top of the cone.
    Delphi popped out from behind Bethlen and wound up her sling. "Our People!" she shouted, and put a stone toward the cone. Delphi's stone hit the cone with a strange flash of blue. It made a brief hole in the cone’s darkness for an instant. There was a sound like metal scraping together as the gap closed over. The stone could be heard to hit the wall on the opposite side of the creature.
    Thorwald noticed that the green light was no longer advancing. A psuedopod reached out for Bethlen, but seemed to be stopped by something. Bethlen was beginning to bleed at the nose and mouth.
    Meanwhile, Gregor found a male fingernail, a little marked with dried blood, within the dirt in the flowerbed. Gregor turned and saw Delphi’s attack ring through and began shooting arrows at maximum rate. He shot several magical arrows, at point-blank range, until he saw proof that a non-magical attack, like Delphi's stone, had its full effect. He, then, switched to normal arrows. The magical arrows had created odd gaps in the swirling cone, which quickly closed up, but the sound of metallic screeching increased in intensity.
    Abruptly, the cone folded up into itself, the other tendrils retracted, and the tendril directed at Bethlen suddenly became the whole of the thing. It lunged at frigtening speed at the center of Delphi's chest. It struck right through her, and then out her back and into the back of her head. Delphi's face and hands began to distort and swell along the lines of her veins.
    Bethlen took a long, drunken step to one side and snapped the amulet's chain around Delphi's neck. "Tell them I gave it! Tell them what you heard! All of it!" and then shoved the amulet into the Halfling's chest.
    Delphi, and the amulet, vanished in a blink, leaving a network of black lines, in the shape of a Halfling's circulatory system, which faded away into dust with a faint scream. Bethlen dropped to her knees, looking at her reddened and scorched palms. The green light retreated, vanishing around the left hand corridor.
    Dardiana stared at the place that Delphi had been for a few moments before turning on Beth and shouting, "What happened to her!?"
    "She's been shifted to Nether-Haranga", Bethlen said dully. "If she says the right things, which are all truthful things, she'll live. Which is better than having that thing puppet her and making us cut her to pieces. I wasn't expecting it to go like that so quickly."
    Thorwald looked around in confusion, then his eyes focused on the dust falling to the ground. "She died. She died? She just..." His knees suddenly started to tremble and Thorwald threw his hand up in front of his mouth.
    He managed to hold whatever wanted out, in, for the moment.
    "... What was that thing? You knew how to weaken it, so you know, right?" Dardiana dropped to her knees, and balled up soon after.
    Bethlen turned her head to one side and spat out a gobbit of blood into a tulip-bed. "She's not dead. And I don't think she'll die if she says what I told her to. Of course-" she coughed explosively, sending a splatter of blood onto the floor. "I won't pretend that the chances of you seeing her again are very high. And I'm sorry.
    That was an Active Defence Agent. ADA. The Warped Sage's little contribution to the sum of worldy terror. I was able to shut down most of it--" cough, blood. "Which I technically should not be able to do. My Recaller is old enough to fake a higher command rank. That's why it frells me up so much when the Local Genius talks: he thinks I'm stronger than I am. He shouts.
    Their usual mode of operation isn't physical combat. They aren't even properly part of this plane. They usually just teleport their victims into isolation, mindrape them into giving up their worst fears and secrets, and then torture them with illusions. Until they've had their fun and just drain them dry.” She stood up, wiping off her face with the back of a seared hand. "We don't know how to make them anymore and nobody cares."
    "Bethlen, drink this." Grath opened his pouch and handed her a potion of cure light wounds. "Sorry poles blew up in your face. Seemed like the thing to do at the time."
    "Thank you, Tiger. And no apologies required. It wasn't the worst idea." Bethlen swigged the potion in a gulp, and seemed to stand a little straighter. She worked her hands back and forth into fists. "No nerve, tendon damage. Just pain. That's good. I can deal with pain." Then she sighed. “Also, since I gave the thing to her, and assuming she doesn't try to be tricky and get herself turned into fertiliser, this makes her my niece. This is going to be awkward."
    "I don't even want you to explain that. Shall we keep going, then? Can't make her teleportation be in vain, after all." Dardiana quickly stood up and solidified her resolve, to not cry and to keep going forward.
    "Funny thing - they withdrew, but somehow I do not believe we can just walk ahead knocking all the altars and letting these things in the green deal with the intruder. How is it so that we can have one, but cannot have the other? Or... we can?" Gregor seemed more contemplative after the disappearance of his compainion.
    Bethlen, still bloody around the nose and lips, looked at Gregor oddly. "I'm not sure I understand the question. My thoughts are these; The Lieutenant would have the command authority to restrict the ADAs to certain areas. This being done, the interloper set the altars up,” cough, ”probably under the Lieutenant's direction. To contain them while her attention is elsewhere. It appears, he set up an extra altar on the right passage, so that he could have the left-hand altar destroyed,” cough, “if anything came out of here, and set the ADA on us.
    It appears we were lucky, there was only one in that area. At least, I hope so, and that another's not heading for us now. Slowly and casually, as they do. The green light's keyed to the ADAs, not the ADAs to the light. I've lost the Recaller. I've got nothing against them now. If there's another coming, we all die in the dark. Unless of course, we all move to the right-hand passage now and get ourselves behind an intact altar."
    Dardiana went to the alter and passed it, then called back, "Then what are you waiting for, then?"
    Bethlen looked grim. "Tiger, Gretchen," the dark woman still looked shocked at what happened. "We head right. Don't touch the altars."
    Dardiana found the right-hand branch lead into another short corridor. In front, without doors, was an open chamber with tables in the middle, and bookcases in evidence. Many of the books were strewn on the ground, and pages were torn out. On the left wall next to her, the words, "No, YOU get out." had been scrawled in an unidentifiable substance.
    Dardiana ignored the strange words and ventured deeper into the area, to the bookcases. She checked each book cover and searched the room. For what? Anything that could help, magazines, and anything of interest.
    The books had covers in red and black leather, and many had pages torn out and scattered on the floor. Across their covers and across their bindings, and across the ripped shreds on the floor, she read words scrawled onto their original content in a strange overlarge hand, in clumsy, recent inks;

    "You cannot move me!"

    "I can see you turning the corner when I turn the other, I see you in the corners of my eyes, I see the shadow of your wings above my bed, I hear you breath in my ears saying ""Get Out", Well, I won't."

    " "You're a ghOst. A GhoSt. A gHOsT. And yOu cAn't ScaRe mE""

    "This PlaCe Is MiNe SHe GaVE IT to Me. HeRR! YouRs!"
    Dar whistled and called out, "Hey! There's writing on top of writing and no erotica in here! Get over here!"
    The bookcases ran around the walls, except where single doors, composed a coppery looking metal inset with jet, broke them up on the walls on either side of the way she’d entered.
    Bethlen entered, a little unsteadily. "No erotica? What?” She stooped to pick up a book, awkwardly, by the unburnt sides of her hands. Her eyes narrowed. "Chronology of the Abberancy War" by Kershaw. Ancient volume, and he's scribbled all over it."
    Grath remained outside the book room. "Nothing personal, but Grath does not want to be around if we encounter more green or ADA. Hurry." Grath knew he could not read enough to see what was going on in the library, so he started to scout further down the halls past the library.
    Dardiana went back to looking after she called for people, having not checked each book. She was piling them into neat stacks as she checked their cover and contents, still looking for a piece of the ‘Erotica of the Races’. "I really do believe we'll get a prize for collecting, or at least finding, all the erotica."
    Taking a peek around the left-hand corridor, Grath saw a stairway down to a wide open chamber, more dimly lit than most. The floor had a checkerboard pattern, and humanoid statues were scattered, as far as he could see, randomly across it. Most took the form of humans of both genders in odd martial paraphenalia. Somewhat more importantly, green light was spreading across the floor toward him.
    There's a slight scrape of metal on stone as Gretchen, behind Grath, picked something up from the wreck of the left-hand altar. "Ow, sharp!" It was a steel icon, showing three sets of wings jackniving out from a central ovoid set with a glossy black stone. "Orc, I think we should make for the library now."
    As Dardiana stacked the books, the titles, she noticed were; "The Liber of the Captains", "The Records of Humanity's descent", and "The Hate of a Million Swords". The titles started to blend in after a while. Thorwald followed Dardiana in silence, hands clasped behind his back.
    As Bethlen read the title of "Chronology of the Abberancy War" out loud, Thorwald's interest was peaked.
    He waited discreetly for her to discard the book, before he picked it up, looked it over, and stuffed it in his pack. He continued to search for titles that could have interesting information about the Abberancy and the Administrate.
    The "Chronology of the Abberancy War" was long and dry in places, horrific in others. It was in an odd shell-shocked tone, as though the writer had memories of the events themselves. As far as he could tell, the Abberency first appeared in "Arthiam", a land that, according to some of the endless maps the book was stuffed with, was the same as modern Yamighul. The land was fertile then, but sparsely settled mainly by isolated communities of goatherds, and it took some time before the neighboring kingdoms of the time had notice that something was turning the people of the land into malevolent puppets.
    Once it was realised, some poor decisions were made. Mass armies were sent against the Parts and became as them enmasse. An army of puppets, still with some of the skills they had in life, began to flood across the continent, infecting those they approached and adding to its mass. Only the strongest-willed were immune, and at the early stages many of those fell fighting without knowing what.
    It took some time for the nations of Humanity, aside from some fairly slighting references to the Fey, there was no mention of other humanoid races, to put together a common front. When they did, regular armies were useless. Only the strongest individuals could be relied on to make a difference. Any gap in the line meant another advance for the Abberancy, more warm bodies to make its own. Cities were destroyed in great numbers as they became infected, or even beforehand to prevent it from happening. As the war continued many retreated to the western isles, the Administrate islands were referred to by name, but the term never came up in the book, or to the landmass that became known as the Union. It didn't appear that the Parts had much skill at sea, although naval battles were sometimes mentioned, they were always one-sided.
    It appeared that a stalemate, going on for over a decade, was eventually met with the entire mainland falling to the Abberancy, the northern refugees kept to themselves, and the westerners, "drawing strength from whatever plane or world could be reached", to arrange a reconquest. That took the form of establishing massively magically defended installations from which the remaining western humans, now accustomed to magical war, could sally out and destroy all Parts within the nearby area. Given that all Parts were originally Humans, that led to the deaths of millions.
    Eventually, that strategy led to the utter desolation and depopulation of the continent, and a five year siege of Arthiam which saw it blasted down to magma in places, in order to seal the "rents to the Far Realms" from which the Abberency had come.
    An individual named The Empress of Midnight, together with her "Guardian Knights", featured prominently in many of the battle accounts. Her name was never given. Other titles Throwald found of some interest included, "Years of no history: The Annals of the Repopulation", "The Captains, The Knights, and The Children of the Warped Sage", and "I was a teenage weapon of mass destruction".
    None of the books used the term, "Administrate", though it seemed the names of their islands hadn't changed much. Most of the other placenames in all the books were completely strange to him.
    "Gretchen, how far away was last altar? It was just on floor, right? Grath thinking, need to start carrying around an altar. Think Grath can pick it up in time before the green gets here?" Grath turned and went back to the library, warning of the inbound threat and shared his idea.
    Bethlen got a sudden wild look. "Tiger. Don't. Touch. The Frelling. Altars. If there's another coming down the left hand branch, we should be safe in here." She gestured to the altar already in place down the corridor. "Unless somebody frells with something I don't really understand."
    Horbin moved when Bethlen did, giving her something to grab onto if she got faint. "This is troublesome. Either he wants us to be moved away from him or he is moving us toward him, but hopefully we'll know which soon."
    "Think rather he was hoping for us to die," muttered Bethlen.
    Gretchen held up what she picked up from the toppled left-branch altar. A metal Holy symbol showing six angular wings coming from a central hub. "This remind anyone of any...anybody? Also, the edges are sharp."
    Dardiana looked up from her quest for the Erotica of the Races and looked at the holy symbol. She spoke to her fey, “Remind you of anything?”
    "Wings that look like knifes? That are sharp? Core of Darkness? How about the Well-mannered Lady we just met?" Dardiana’s fey sounded somewhat condescending.
    “Thought as much. Just wanted to be sure.” Dardiana looked through a few more books before replying, "Looks to be of the god we saw not that long ago, who teleported us. Unless some other god has a holy symbol that is her wings." Dardiana noticed that there were some books with an erotic feel to their titles and covers. Most of them were complicated dramas or romances with a lot of violence and sarcasm. They were also almost all about humans, although; she came across a slim red volume with spiky text and lush pen-and-ink drawings. It was entitled "My Life With a Nymph. And Most Unfortunately Her Sisters Too."
    "OOH, Filthy! Can we keep it?" the fey called out in her head.
    Dardiana slipped that book into her backpack. “Of course. Why do you think I'm looking? I need something to do when we're done here, and reading these things is going to be on my list.”
    "I would guess not," Horbin chimed in. He then looked to see if there was a pattern in the books that had been torn asunder.
    "Saw same symbol a while ago, when all entered the weird walking on walls tunnel for first time and learned every way was down. Small table? Grath told Thorwald." The orc looked to the fire priest.
    "Empress of Midnight," said Bethlen suddenly. "The Bringer of Silence is a scythe crossed with a lightning bolt--like this," she produced a slim black-leather volume with a clasp of such a device. "The Starlight Destroyer is a Star...oddly enough, and a spear. Et Cetera. We don't try to be too abstract with Holy Symbols. The Captains are generally stern critics."
    Since Dardiana did not seem to be taking interest in most of her books, Gregor took them. He also made a quick scan of the area the party was currently in.
    “Hmm...interesting." Thorwald mused to himself, flicking through the pages, before putting the book in his pack, along with "Years of no history: The Annals of the Repopulation", "The Captains, The Knights, and The Children of the Warped Sage", and "I was a teenage weapon of mass destruction" for later perusing.
    The dogs detected humanoid scent, not that recent, heading toward the door to the south wall. Horbin looked to sww what the dogs were sniffing.
    Grath said, "Well, if Grath should not carry or move altars, then all need to hide in book room until green passes by while altar protects us." Grath looked perplexed, then started muttering to himself, "Magic altars protect group from green. Magic talks to people. Magic makes clothes fit. Magic paper talks to Ingva. Magic zaps people to Alnwizk two days away. Magic makes people walk on walls. Magic zaps group to pool while giving visions of cute orc girl. Grath does not like zapping magic. No. Well, orc girl not so bad."
    "Either that, or we can all charge to our doom trying to lead the green to Mr. Invasion of the 'Magical Place'," Horbin snickerd.
    "Err... not so fast. If we all die and you live - of course, run here and kick the damn alter. But...not yet. It would be unfortunate if we encounter something like a closed door with one more alter behind it." Gregor interjected with logic.
    "Grath wondered if all should find out how strong green creatures are. Hide behind altar and poke green thing with sharp sticks and swords until it dies or goes away?"
    "Bad idea. Something tells me that thing will break your sword and sticks. We could throw some books at it, I guess. As long as they're not the type of books I want." Dardiana seemed serious, then somewhat whimsical.
    "Could throw a skin magazine at them, see if they are as interested as you," Horbin piped up as he gave Dardiana a look.
    "Please; those things aren't normal enough to even be able to do anything with them. Anyway, I need those." Dardiana plied a grin in Horbin’s direction.
    "Don't steal Grath's picture book. No words for learning to read, but fun to read anyway. Has Ingva paper talked back lately? Grath should write message to Ingva."
    Having nothing better to do, Gregor unfolded the Magic Map™ and examined it for any possible change. He found no changes to Ingva's map.
    Bethlen stood up. Her face was still bleeding down one side and the palms of her hands remained scorched. "Don't tempt fate. Please, You People. What I did--only worked by blind luck. And I can't do it again. The Recaller's gone with the She-hobbit. Well, I never expected it to work in here anyway. So I suppose that worked out."
    Gretchen gave her a long, hard stare. "Oh yes; you put her on a trip to Haranga. So that works out?"
    Bethlen just stared back. "Better than letting that thing get ahold of her".
    Grath looked around for an empty book he could use to practice his writing. He found a large, loose volume of pages that showed bewildering scrawlings of curved lines, dots, bizarre patterns and symbols and words he didn't recognise, with large areas of white between the aforesaid features.
    As he pulled it from the shelf, he dislodged an object shoved to the back of the shelves that had become tangled in its binding. It fell to the floor. It appeared to be a spiked whip with a black handle and a lash of fine copper-coloured wire.
    Bethlen looked at it very blankly, then took a single step way from it. "Older than I thought, this place. Older than is safe."
    Horbin walked over and took a closer look at the whip without touching it. "What, you don't like whips," he jested over his shoulder at Bethlen.
    The whip was both highly decorative and rather vicious-looking. Its handle was inlaid with what looked like silver in an angular pattern of forking and rejoining lightning-bolts. Its lash had a brazen, metallic sheen, but coiled like leather. As Horbin watched, the handle started to rock back and forth gently on the floor, though nobody was touching it.
    "Grath likes new book, should help practice writing. Pictures look like Ingva's map, but plenty of space for writing. Now to see when ADA appears."Grath peeked out the door, looking to see when the green ADA would appear, ready to warn others if it was closer.
    The green light appeared to be held at the altar, back down the way they came. As Grath watched, there was a sense of movement within the green. A slightest shimmer in the air. There was the faintest sound like metal scraping against metal, but distorted and echoed.
    Bethlen's teeth were bared. "That's no stockyard utility or fetish toy. That's a favoured weapon of the Broken Matriarch. Nobody's carried one of those since...about the time this place was abandoned. Not since the War of the Sage's Treason. Not since She was cast out from the Captains. Rather forcefully."
    She drew herself up full and didn't take her eyes of the lash. "I wouldn't pick it up. Tiger, stop staring into the green; it'll do you nothing good. Is anyone going to try the doors? The gods seem to like the south one.]

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