Travels through the Wild West: a Forgotten Realms Story
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    Travels through the Wild West: a Forgotten Realms Story

    Greetings,
    I had some trouble porting over my old ID, so I'm reposting my Forgotten Realms story over here from the old boards under a new moniker (although German-speakers will note that I haven't really changed my handle). Thanks again to all those who have given feedback on the story; I hope that the upcoming plot will continue to entertain.

    Faulpelz aka Lazybones

    * * * * *

    Travels through the Wild West: a Forgotten Realms Story

    This is my first attempt at a story posting on this site. I created it as a way of bolstering my familiarity with the Forgotten Realms (I just got the setting a few weeks ago, and have read a few of the novels, in particular the Salvatore ones), and to flesh out a few campaign ideas. The characters are based on those played by guys I’ve actually gamed with back in the old 1e/2e days (the characters are adapted for FR, of course, and I’ve taken some dramatic license with motivations and background). In the initial posts I’ll flesh out the setting and the characters, and once I’ve done that I primarily want to focus on action (lots of battle scenes!) and character development. Once I get through the initial sections I’ll include the game-related info (character data, NPCs, combat details, etc.) at the end of each plotline as they come up. I’m not running a campaign right now, but if this little exercise gets good feedback I’d like to convert a few of my past campaigns (those that I can still find my DM notes for) to stories for this page.

    I’ve really enjoyed all the stories others have posted on this board, they’ve really gotten me back into D&D in its new incarnation. Thanks for reading and I appreciate all feedback.
    FP

    * * * * * * * *

    Part 1

    It was a late afternoon in that region of Faerun known as the Western Heartlands. The cool breeze and overcast sky said it was late autumn, creeping over into winter. In an empty area of scrub plains and rocky hills three sparsely traveled tracks met at a crossroads. While a relatively short distance from the trading town of Elturel, Lord Dhelt’s Hellriders didn’t make it this far out, almost in the shadows of the low but menacing hills aptly named the Trollclaws. To the west lay the farmsteads of the doughty folk who had colonized the ancient battleground of the Fields of the Dead, while to the south, within the dark shadows of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, creatures both mundane and bizarre waited eagerly for daring fools to brave their lairs.

    On this overcast day the road was all but deserted; most of the merchants seemed more inclined to take their chances on the River Chionthar this season, it seemed. Perhaps the recent upsurge in bandit activity along the desolate trails that crossed the reason had something to do with the trend; in any case, lone travelers were becoming increasingly rare, replaced by well-armed groups of men who sought only to reach their destinations quickly and leave this dangerous region behind them.

    But as the afternoon deepened, not one but several solitary individuals approached the crossroads this day. From the north wound a lonely road that stretched off into the yet harsher lands of the North. Down this road came a powerfully built, yet short figure. At first glance he seemed a Shield Dwarf from the Spine of the World, dressed in the plate armor and dark woolens of that people, and carrying a broad-bladed battle axe across one shoulder with easy familiarity. His shield bore no sigil or insignia, but that, too, was not uncommon in these parts. Upon closer examination, however, a careful observer would note some strange features about this traveling warrior. Even in the dim light of the cloudy day his skin seemed darker and more weathered than even the oldest dwarves. A closer look would show that his skin seemed hardly flesh at all, but resembled the coarse texture of stone itself.

    Even in a magical place such as Faerun, the genasi, or half-elementals, were rare, and a dwarf with elemental blood traveling the highways alone rarer still.

    From the west, where a more traveled road wound through the more populated lands of the Fields of the Dead to the city of Baldur’s Gate, another traveler came. This one was a stark contrast to the silent and sturdy genasi warrior. Shorter still than the genasi dwarf, this traveler was clearly a rock gnome, a race not uncommon to the western regions of Faerun. He was dressed in a tunic of finely trimmed blue cloth with a slightly darker wool cloak as proof against the elements. The lute he carried slung over his shoulder advertised his profession, but the crossbow and shortsword he carried showed that he could defend himself as well as play. He seemed oblivious to the dangers of the region through which he traveled, whistling a merry traveling tune and tapping the short walking stick he carried against the packed dirt of the road in tune with his music. He seemed like a carefree soul, unconcerned with whatever the road would bring him this day.

    From the east came another figure, from the direction of Elturel. This figure was not so carefree as the gnome, from the way he was constantly scanning the surrounding area, in particular casting wary looks back down the road in the direction from which he’d come. Like the genasi, however, there seemed something odd about him, besides his fleeting manner. He seemed typical enough, a man with the frontier look common in the Western Heartlands, with a scraggly untrimmed beard, wild brown hair that hung unchecked down to his shoulders, and a muscular frame. He wore a chain shirt and carried a well-crafted longsword and longbow, both of which had clearly seen frequent use. He was also struggling a little with the weight of a heavy shoulder bag, the hard lines of something bulky hidden within its folds. He looked the part of an ordinary frontiersman, a common breed—yet at the same time, somehow… wrong.

    Finally, from the south came a final traveler, another human. This one must have either been ignorant of the dangers of traveling cross-country along the edges of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, or sufficiently desperate that he was willing to take that risk. His clothes suggested that he was of the more southern lands, Amn perhaps, or Tethyr, and while they had once been of excellent quality, they were now ragged and worn from hard travel. Like the other human traveler he seemed wary, but in his case there was something more, something in his eyes that seemed haunted… or hunted. He was young, still in his late teens, perhaps, and he too carried weapons, a crossbow and a long dagger at his hip. A heavy bedroll and leather backpack as worn as his garments were slung across his back.

    The four travelers, each from disparate backgrounds, each with his own secrets and dreams, converged on the crossroads. For all that this was a place where trails met, there were no settlements or outposts here, nothing save for an old stone ruin that was little more than a foundation and some remnants of walls, its function impossible to identify. A few birds stirred and flew off as the travelers neared the place, but that was all.

    Gradually, each of the travelers noticed the others, and the four of them slowed to a halt while a fair distance still separated them. For a moment there was a silence over the place, then the gnome was the first to speak.

    “Hail, fellow journeyers!” He took in all of them with an expansive glance. “Luck of the trail, that four roads come together this day, where only three are blazed! Will you take rest with me, and tell your tales of the road in my camp this night?”

    The man who had come from the east replied quickly and with an easy tone, quickly sizing up the others. “Aye, its comfort in numbers on this road, sure enough,” he said. “Perhaps yonder ruin would suit us well for a camp, some shelter against the wind and the beasts that hunt the plains at night.”

    The gnome beamed, and came forward, taking in all of them, even the genasi and the other human, neither of whom had yet spoken or moved. “Well then, and well met! I am Balander Calloran, or just ‘Cal,’ if you like, of Waterdeep.”

    “Benzan,” the other replied. “Of the East Road, this day.”

    “The name of a wanderer,” the gnome said, giving the man another sizing up. It seemed that he, too, noticed something strange about him, although he could not place it. After a moment he shrugged, and turned to the other two. “And you, fellow travelers? Yonder warrior speaks true--the comfort of a shared fire and hot food is a fair boon, in a region like this.”

    “Lok,” the dwarf said, and after a moment the others realized that this was his name.

    “Well met,” the gnome said, turning his attention on the last member of their gathering.

    The young man looked trapped, and for a moment it seemed as though he would bolt. The obvious hunger and weariness in his eyes ultimately won out, though, for he settled down some, and finally said, “I am Delem, of… of Tethyr,” in a timorous voice.

    “Well met, Delem,” Benzan said. “You choose a difficult route, traveling cross-country near the Wood of Sharp Teeth.” The young man did not respond.

    “Well then,” the gnome said. “If we’re done with introductions, let’s see about that fire, and that food.”

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    Part 2

    Part 2

    Under the ground, a presence stirred. Long had it remained here, buried, quiescent. Long had the world continued unabated around it, and long had it remained all but oblivious to its passing.

    It had no memory of what it was, or what it had been. It did not even know what had awakened it, but now, as it stirred, it felt a sudden, overarching, overpowering need. A hunger.

    As its awareness expanded, it could sense that the fulfillment of that hunger was nearby, drawing it to them.

    Slowly, it began to move.

    * * * * *

    “Did you hear something?” Benzan asked. The small group was comfortably ensconced within the ruined shell of the long-gone structure, sharing the warmth of a roaring fire.

    “No,” Cal said. “Just the wind, and the fire.” Knowing the sensitivity of gnomish ears, Benzan shrugged and looked satisfied. “So, Delem, you were telling us about Athatkla?”

    The young southerner looked uncomfortable to be the center of attention, but at the same time looked grateful for some companionship. “Yes,” he said, “well, I wasn’t there very long, a few months, perhaps. It’s a wonderful city; you’d be amazed at the sights to be seen, in Waukeen’s Promenade—that’s the big market district. There’s churches to several of the major Faerunian deities, the Shadow Thieves are said to have a secret base there… and I even heard that one of the Baalspawn came through there—although I don’t know much of such things.”

    “Why did you leave?” said Lok, his voice like leather dragging over gravel. The others glanced at him in surprise—those were the most words he’d spoken that evening. Other than the fact that he was from the north, and of obviously mixed blood, the others had divined little else from him.

    The young man looked down at his hands. “I didn’t want to,” he said, softly. “I didn’t want to leave Tethyr, either. But sometimes you just don’t have any choices in life…”

    He trailed off, and rather than press the obviously distressed young man further, Benzan jumped into the gap. “Well, I know what it’s like to be on the road,” he said, his open and easy manner a contrast to Delem’s. “Been traveling most of my life, it seems sometimes. I was born in Unther, one of the old empires, but I barely remember anything of that place.” For a moment, something flared in his eyes, a memory given shape for an instant, but then it was gone. “Since then, I’ve been all over the lands around the Sea of Fallen Stars, and seen many strange and wonderful things, I’ll tell you. I’ve never been this far west, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about Waterdeep, and I thought I’d give the City of Splendors a go.”

    “A fellow wandering soul,” Cal said pensively, taking a draw from the long-handled pipe he carried and blowing the smoke in a cloud before him. “I left Waterdeep for the opposite reason—it’s an easy place to get caught up in, and easy to forget there’s a very big world outside its walls. For a while I was content to stay and let it all come to me. Then one day I realized that I knew all the tales and songs that had come through the Southern Ward, but I hadn’t written one of my own in near on a year. It was then that I decided to leave my kin and friends in the city, and take to the road for a time.”

    “So, a company of adventurers we be, then,” Benzan said, his eyes shining with reflected firelight. “If one be a tad reluctant, and another a fair silent.” He turned to the dwarf, or half-dwarf, with a look determined to piece his reluctant shell. “So, Lok, what is your tale of woe? What brings you down out of the North, to these wild lands?”

    “Small minds,” the genasi said.

    The others exchanged a look, trying to decipher the comment. Benzan opened his mouth to try again, but then, suddenly, the gnome started up. “Someone’s coming,” he said, “and they’re not trying to advertise their coming…”

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    Part 3

    Part 3

    Benzan was quick to react. “Ambush!” he cried, darting to his feet at the same moment that a half-dozen armed men burst into their camp, weapons drawn and intentions clear.

    For a moment things looked dismal. Despite Cal’s warning, the suddenness of the attack caught all of them, save the agile Benzan, off guard. He lashed out with his longsword at the first of three attackers to rush him. The stroke penetrated the man’s scale armor, hurting him but not taking him down. His companions lunged in, scoring two hits on Benzan through his armor. Suddenly, only moments into the fight, he looked about to fall, bleeding from the severe wounds.

    The gnome was isolated on the far side of the fire, so the other attackers fanned out to attack Lok and Delem. Two attacked the genasi, but their blows might as well been with practice swords for all that they did through his heavy armor. The last darted around toward Delem, whose eyes widened with horror as the man leered at his unarmored and virtually unarmed opponent. Had the brigand been more experienced, he might have recognized what that combination signified, here in the Realms. Delem darted back inelegantly, taking a glancing blow to his shoulder from the man’s sword. He fell back hard against the remnants of a wall, trapped.

    Once the companions were able to react to the assault, though, the tide of the battle quickly turned. Cal acted first, almost indignant that none of the bandits had targeted him. “Overlook me, will you!” he shouted, as he drew a slender wand from a hidden pocket in his coat. He stepped around the fire, and approached two of the men attacking Benzan. “Hey, look at this!” he said, to catch their attention.

    A stream of blinding colors erupted from the wand, catching up the two bandits in its wake. The color spray lasted only an instant, but when it had faded, both men were lying unconscious, their senses overloaded by the magical display.

    Benzan took advantage of the distraction to attack his remaining opponent, but the bandit caught his stroke on his own sword. For a moment the two hung on the parry, the bandit’s ragged face only a foot from his own.

    “I never liked you, half-breed. You made a big mistake stealing from Guthan,” the bandit hissed at him.

    Meanwhile, Delem’s opponent had him cornered. His eyes shown with a feral glint that he matched with a dark smile. “No… don’t… make me…” Delem begged, as he approached for a final strike.

    Misunderstanding his fear, the evil warrior lunged forward. Delem cried out and pushed out his hand, as if that alone could repel the bandit. The man’s gloating look was replaced by one of surprise, though, as a fan of roaring flames erupted from Delem’s hand, slashing into him with a roar and the tang of roasted flesh. The bandit lashed out at Delem blindly as the flames died, cutting him again and knocking him prone.

    “No… no…” Delem sobbed, his eyes witnessing something entirely different than the deadly melee around him, a remembered scene from the past.

    Lok took another several hits from his attackers, but none of them penetrated his armor. Now he struck back, slamming his axe into one bandit so hard that the man nearly fell into the fire. Saved from instant death by his armor, he and his companion suddenly looked reluctant to continue the battle against this dangerous opponent.

    Then, abruptly, a globe of absolute darkness fell over the camp.

    “It’s a spell!” Cal’s voice sounded through the confusion that followed. “Retreat out of it, and you’ll be able to see!”

    Taking his own advice, he dodged back with agility until the utter dark of the spell was replaced by the comparatively bright darkness of the overcast night. Luckily, his gnomish eyes could see clearly in even this meager light. As he watched, he saw Delem crawl blindly out of the ruin a few feet away, followed a few moments later by a bandit, still trying to finish him off by the sounds of his passage. He didn’t hear Cal, but he felt the crossbow bolt that sank to the feathers in his chest, knocking him roughly to the ground. Delem, confused and injured, continued to seek escape, stumbling through the brush.

    Lok and his two attackers emerged from the darkness together. The genasi had a slight trickle of blood running down the side of his head from a lucky stroke in the darkness, but the injury was a slight one. As the two bandits came on him simultaneously, he slashed his battleaxe in a welcoming arc backed by all his considerable strength. The first went down with half his side caved in, and then, so quickly that the other could only gurgle in surprised pain, he switched momentum and cleaved the second’s skull in with his backswing. Both bandits fell to the ground, dead.

    Two attackers were down, but Lok did not see another that crept up behind him. Suddenly, though, his limbs felt leaden, his muscles refusing to obey his commands. He stiffened, paralyzed.

    Benzan emerged from the darkness a short distance away, limping from the loss of blood and the pain of his injuries. His sword, however, was also bloody, and no bandit followed him out of the darkness. Even as he finished moving, though, he took a small vial from a pouch at his belt, and downed the contents in a single gulp. The elixir worked its magic swiftly, and soon the bleeding stopped.

    He looked around to get his bearings, and saw the genasi standing motionless a few strides away. “Look out, Lok!” he shouted in warning.

    But the genasi could not react, helpless as his attacker came up behind him and slammed him hard in the back of his skull with his mace. Lok fell face down, and it wasn’t clear if even he could have survived such a stroke.

    “You bastard,” Benzan said, raising his sword in challenge.

    The newcomer was wreathed in robes that concealed the details of his form, and he wore a cloth mask that shrouded his features in blank darkness. When he spoke, his voice was like the whisper of velvet over smooth stone.

    “You were a fool, to think you could escape me,” he hissed. “The Lord of Shadows sees all that creep away in the night, even if they hide behind new friends.” He glanced down at the fallen genasi. “Although it is a wonder that any would trust a bastard tiefling rogue, who are known for their duplicitous natures…”

    “Let’s finish this, Guthan,” Benzan said in response, launching himself at the evil cleric with a sudden fury. The two met and exchanged blows, and it was quickly clear that Guthan wore mail under his robes, for the first stroke was turned with the sound of metal striking metal.

    “Flee, fool—you cannot win!” Guthan said, and as Benzan felt a chill sweep through him he knew that the words were backed by a magic spell. He gritted his teeth, and somehow managed to resist the power of the enchantment. He struck again, and this time hit home, feeling his blade bite deep under the robes. The cleric danced back, injured.

    “Ah, so the fly has a sting! Well then, follow me—if you dare!” And with that, he darted into the sphere of darkness.

    Benzan nearly did that, but Cal appeared around the edges of the darkness, his crossbow again at the ready in his hands. “Be wary,” he said. “The followers of Mask have deadly instincts fighting in the darkness.” Benzan saw that Delem was with the gnome as well, hovering back a few feet, giving the darkness a wide berth.

    “Are you all right?” the gnome asked him.

    “He killed Lok,” Benzan said, gesturing to where the genasi lie, not taking his eyes off of the darkness. Nothing stirred, though—if the cleric was still inside, he was not making noise.

    The gnome bent over the fallen genasi. “By the gods, he’s alive—somehow,” Cal told him. “Cover me,” he said, as he dug a wand—another one—out of another pocket. He touched it to the genasi’s side, and whispered a command word. A blue glow spread from the tip of the wand, fading into the battered genasi’s body, restoring him.

    “I didn’t know you were a cleric,” Benzan said.

    “We bards can channel some of the gift,” Cal said. “A friend of mine sold me this, and I’ve found that healing wands are a useful thing to have around, if you can afford them.” He glanced down to check the effect of the glow on the fighter. “He’s hurt bad, this might take a minute,” the gnome said, extending the wand again. “Keep an eye on—”

    He was interrupted by a violent rumble that shattered the night, a sound of shattering stone that came from the center of the ruin where the darkness still held sway. That sound was followed by a scream, a cry of agony that mercifully ended after an instant. That was followed by something even worse, though, an unfamiliar sound that each of them gradually realized with horror was the sound of rending flesh.

    “What in the hells?” Benzan said, stepping involuntarily backward from the globe of darkness. Cal had not risen from Lok’s side, although his face had darkened. Delem blanched, and it wasn’t clear what force was keeping him there with them—he looked as though every bit of instinct in him was telling him to bolt.

    The horrible sounds subsided somewhat, but the silence that replaced them was even more forbidding. Benzan reached reflexively for his bow, only to realize that he’d left it by the fireside in their camp. His fingers tightened on the hilt of his sword.

    And then it came out of the darkness, somehow silent despite its massive bulk. It was huge, its skin mottled and gray, its eyes burning with an ember of dark hatred as it looked upon them. It looked like an ogre, a common if powerful threat in these frontier regions, but as they looked upon it, they realized that this thing was no living being, but rather one of the undead, animated by evil power with a hunger for living flesh.

    Apparently, what it had gotten from the cleric and his followers had only whetted its appetite.

    “Oh, sh—”

    Benzan did not even get to finish his thought as the creature lashed into him.

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    Part 4

    Part 4

    He ducked its first sweeping claw, but the second slammed into him with a force like a battering ram, knocking him roughly back. With a numbing horror he felt a cold freeze creeping through him where the thing’s claws had cut him, stiffening his body where he had fallen. He tried to fight it off, but he could only shiver in frozen fear as the undead horror loomed over him.

    But before the thing could end his life, his new companions came to his aid. He heard a strange sound, and belatedly realized it was singing—singing!—coming from the diminutive bard. A bolt from Cal’s crossbow jutted out from the ogre’s shoulder, although the wound seemed to do little to hinder the massive creature. As it turned toward this new threat, Lok, finally revived by Calloran’s magic wand, slashed into it. The blow, backed by the full measure of his strength, tore a huge gash in its torso. The thing roared at him, an unnatural screech that filled the bones of all of them with fear. But Cal’s song revived their spirits as the creature’s furious cry faded, and they continued to attack it.

    The undead ogre tore at Lok with its claws and tried to catch him up in its massive and uneven jaws. The bite tore into his shoulder before the already injured fighter could pull free, and there was a moment of fear from his companions as they waited for its paralysis to take hold. But against a physical attack, as opposed to the mental power of the dark cleric, Lok’s fortitude was far greater, and he fought on.

    Delem was caught on the knife’s edge between panic and determination. His instinct was to flee, but he was motivated by something to remain. Perhaps it was the connection he felt to these new friends, men who he’d barely met and yet who had welcomed him into their company. After months of running from his own inner demons, it felt good to stand his ground and fight. With a very uncharacteristic battle cry, he ran up behind the ogre, and let his magic free. The flames scored the rear of the creature, roasting its taut dead flesh and drawing its attention. Delem awaited the blow that would end it all—strangely, a part of him even welcomed it—but before it could strike, Lok brought his axe down one more time, severing the creature’s spine. Still it reached out for Delem, the hunger flaring once again in its unnatural eyes, but as the sorcerer scrambled hastily backward the undead life-force that animated the ogre finally failed, and it crashed noisily to the ground.

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    Part 5

    The common room of the Wayfarers’ Rest was busy, which was unusual for the sole inn in the quiet frontier village of Danderion. A wagon train of Sembian merchants willing to brave the difficult road to the Sword Coast had stopped in for rest and supplies before hitting the long stretch of road that wound through desolate country before breaking into the sparse farmsteads of the region still known as the Fields of the Dead. The merchants and their guards all but filled the long chamber, driving most of the locals away this night with angry mutterings about outsiders taking their establishment away from them.

    In one corner of the busy inn, four men crowded around a table built to comfortably accommodate two. The table was far from the warmth of the fire and the light of the three flaring oil lamps that dangled from chains from the ceiling, but the shadows suited the four travelers, who were content not to draw extra attention to themselves.

    “I suppose it’s time to share with us the tale of why those bandits were after you,” Calloran said, pausing to wipe some foam from his tall ale from his chin. “We’ve respected your silence on the road, Benzan, but it seems after what we went through, you should come clean with those who fought beside you.” After the briefest hesitation, he added, “If, that is, you would like to remain in our company. I suppose that goes for all of us, without saying,” he said, glancing at each of his companions in turn.

    It was hard to believe that only the night before they had fought the battle at the old ruin beside the crossroads. A day of hard marching had brought them here, to the very edges of the lands under the protection of Lord Dhelt. They had taken a fair haul from their efforts, starting with the weapons and other gear possessed by the late bandits. Their equipment was not top notch, but what they had bundled into an old cloak, carried by Lok with little apparent effort, would fetch a fair pile of coins in a town.

    And that wasn’t even considering the jewelry. Once the undead ogre had been slain, none of them had been that eager to approach its vile and stinking corpse. Benzan, however, had been the first to notice the faint gleam of metal around its neck and wrists. The ogre wore totems that had been cut into its flesh, which Cal explained were proof that the thing had probably once been a witchdoctor or tribal shaman. Why it had been buried here, and how it had transformed into such a monstrosity, he could not fathom. But he had an easier time appraising the necklace and bracelets of pounded silver plates, set with small chips of lapis, that it had been wearing. The workmanship was crude, but the items would likely fetch several times over all the other gear combined. If they could find a buyer, that is.

    And so they were here. They’d elected to remain together, and after a brief discussion agreed to travel southeast, to Elturel. There they would find a merchant or artisan willing to turn their hard-won loot into cold cash, and then they could travel on their individual ways, with a full coin purse paving the road ahead.

    There was one other reason they had wanted to travel together, but they did not speak of it on the road. When the magical darkness had finally lifted, and they had poked around through the disaster of the ogre’s passage, the cleric of Mask was not among the dead.

    Benzan cleared his throat, a gesture that was all but lost in the bustle of the common room. “I admit, I have been guilty of the odd bit of thievery here and there,” he said. “I seek neither approval nor condemnation from any of you,” he added, defensively, “but before you offer any, consider what you would do, if you were birthed with a taint that all on the face of Toril saw as a mark of inborn evil and corruption.”

    “I think some might understand the challenges of living with an unusual birthright, more than others,” Cal said, and he glanced meaningfully first at Lok, and then at Delem, who did not meet his eyes.

    Benzan saw the looks, and for a moment he looked a tad humbled. “Anyway,” he said, his voice more level now, “I ended up here, in the Western Heartlands, about six months ago. I did some mercenary work, but after a while people seem to figure out that there’s something… wrong with me, and I have to go on my way. I encountered Guthan through a back-alley deal in Iriaebor, and went with him and a few other rogues into the open country of the west, to live off the land, as they say. It was a mistake—I guess I knew it even at the time. I didn’t stay with them long, not even long enough for them to stage a raid on one of the passing caravans. Once I made up my mind, I waited for a dark night and went on my way.”

    “One of them said you stole something from him,” Cal prodded him.

    “Yes, I did,” he said, not dodging the question. “I’ve stolen my fair share of things in the past—more than my share, probably—but I don’t take things wantonly, and I don’t steal from my friends. Guthan was no friend of mine, and he deserves whatever happens to him, you can trust me on that count. I take it that everyone here is familiar with the concept of taking that which doesn’t belong to you?” He looked around at the others, a hint of challenge in his eyes. Cal shrugged, Lok simply returned his look with his stoic and unreadable expression, and Delem huddled within himself, not venturing to lift his eyes to meet Benzan’s challenge. Satisfied, Benzan turned to his shoulder bag, slung within easy reach across the back of his chair, and withdrew a small package wrapped in several layers of heavy burlap.

    Benzan carefully unwrapped the object and set it on the table—and each of the others observed how he placed it so that it would be difficult to see from the main part of the room. It was jet black, and difficult to see even right in front of them.

    It was a small statue, perhaps eight inches long, fashioned from a thick piece of a shiny black rock that seemed to absorb the faint light coming from the far end of the room. Its features were difficult to make out in the shadows, but it seemed to be the bust of a well-built, handsome man of middle years. The carving depicted his head and upper body from the waist up, with a flat base so that it could stand upright. He bore an unusual weapon in one fist, a long-bladed sword with a twisting blade that undulated in smooth curves down its length.

    “What is it?” Delem asked.

    “I don’t know,” Benzan said. “I only caught a glimpse of it, before, enough to see that Guthan valued it. If I’d known how much he treasured it, I wouldn’t have stolen it.” He did not seem remorseful for the theft itself, but he did not share with the other something else, something he himself had yet to fully understand. In some way, the statue had seemed to call to him, urging him to take it. He’d experienced the tug of valuables before, but never had the lure to steal been so… well, so unsubtle.

    “It’s careful craftsmanship,” Cal said, examining the fine lines carved into the stone.

    “I don’t even know what it’s made of,” Benzan admitted.

    “Obsidian,” Lok said. He was staring at the thing, his brows furrowed so tightly together that they nearly obscured his eyes.

    “Do you know who it is supposed to be?” Cal asked. He, too, was looking intently at it, but with an obvious hint of wariness in his manner.

    “No,” Benzan said. He added quietly, almost inaudibly, “but it seems somehow familiar…”

    Cal reached out a hand toward it, not quite touching it as he softly murmured a soft singsong phrase. He regarded the item for a moment, and then drew back. “It is magical,” he said. “Strange—it’s almost like what I feel is the afterimage of a greater power, almost like a memory.”

    Delem interjected, “There’s something dark about it… uncomfortable… put it away!”

    The others looked at him in surprise; the last words had been loud enough to draw some curious attention from nearby tables their way. Their attention was quickly drawn to the outer door of the inn, however, as a tall figure entered, letting in a gust of cold air in his wake. He was an aged but still hale figure who was quite obviously a warrior, even without the longsword he wore at his hip. He wore a surcoat that bore the sigil of Lord Dhelt of Elturel, which failed to hide the coat of chainmail he wore underneath. Cal overheard someone at an adjacent table whisper the man’s identity to his neighbor; he was Kevrik Telwarden, the sheriff of this small community.

    Telwarden took advantage of the dramatic stir caused by his entry, drawing the attention of the room to him. “I have an announcement to make,” he began, his stentorian voice easily filling the crowded room. “I need all able-bodied men of fighting skill to join a posse, to ride out before first light. Just a few hours ago, a group of raiders waylaid a small caravan along the South Road just a few hours from the walls of Danderion. The attackers were a mixed force of men and hobgoblins, at least a score in number, by the description of the few who escaped the initial attack. Most of the rest were taken prisoner, from what they could see as they fled.”

    A murmur spread through the crowd. Most present were merchants or caravan guards, who understood all too well the dangers of the western roads for even well-armed caravans. Even before his words had sunk in, though, Sheriff Telwarden added another bit of information.

    “Among those taken was Lady Dana Ilgarten, daughter of the fifth house of Iriaebor.”

    The murmur became a babble, as everyone present started talking at once. The four companions at the corner table exchanged a look, but none of them did anything more at that point. The statue had vanished back into Benzan’s bag, so subtly that none of them had seen it happen.

    Telwarden let the clamor continue for a few moments, then hushed the crowd again with a raised hand. “I need volunteers—”

    “What about the Hellriders?” someone in the crowd interjected. “That’s what they’re there for!”

    Telwarden’s return look could have cut glass. “A rider has already been sent, with the best horse in the village, and I’ll send another with the coming of the dawn in case the first befalls ill on the road. But even risking riding at night, Elturel is at least a full day away if the weather holds, and another day back. Unless he’s lucky enough to encounter a patrol on the road, that’s several days at least until help can arrive. Do you want to wager on the girl, or any of the prisoners, still being alive at that point?”

    No one offered a response to that question. Telwarden continued, “There’s good money—gold coins of Baldur’s Gate, not the local silver—and the thanks of two lords in it for those who volunteer. Plus the chance to rid the trade routes of some of the scum that threatens all who travel the roads.”

    “All right then, who can I count on?”

    There was some grumbling and some more discussion, but ultimately a half-dozen of the caravan guards came forward, some ‘volunteered’ by their masters. Telwarden offered to cover the costs of any merchants who elected to remain in the village until their guards returned, and the innkeeper bolstered that with a promise of free ale for those who agreed to go.

    The four companions exchanged another long, meaningful look. Finally, Cal stood, and walked over to the small knot of men surrounding Telwarden. The sheriff did not notice him for a moment, but when he did, he nodded politely.

    “Balander Calloran, at your service, sir. I wish to join this expedition, and be the one to record its tale of righteous vengeance,” Cal said.

    A few of the guardsmen looked askance, but Telwarden’s face betrayed a hint of respect. “No offense, my little friend, but we will be traveling swiftly, and into great danger. What can you offer to this mission?”

    Cal squelched his rising indignation with an obvious effort. He was used to the big folk giving his kind short shrift, an attitude that often came around to haunt them. He sensed a presence behind him, and glanced back to see Lok approaching, his face its usual unreadable mask but impressive nonetheless with his heavy mail and battle axe at the ready, as always. Benzan and Delem, he noticed, were still at the table, although Cal thought that they were following the course of the encounter.

    The support from the genasi was welcome, but Cal was determined to speak for himself. “Well,” he said to the tall human, “I am a bard of no small talent, and my rousing songs will bolster the morale of this small company of would-be heroes.”

    “And secondly…”

    He trailed off as he muttered something softly under his breath, and then, to everyone’s amazement, began to grow! He swelled up quickly to twice his size, then continued to grow to dwarf even the sheriff, who stepped back in alarm along with the other guardsmen and everyone else close by. In a moment, he was touching the rafters, it seemed. He stretched his arms out, his grasp now an eagle’s wingspan across, and when he spoke, his voice filled the chamber even more than the loud hail of the sheriff, as loud as the voices of four men speaking together.

    “WHAT CAN I ADD? WELL, I KNOW A BIT OF MAGIC!…”

    And then he was gone, or rather, he was once again standing there, an ordinary—or not so ordinary, as was now evident—gnome.

    Telwarden just looked at him for a moment, his jaw hanging, but then he laughed, a warm belly laugh that was quickly picked up by most of the onlookers. “Well, I’ll be a half-orc! So you do, and welcome indeed!”

    Cal glanced back over his shoulder, and saw that Benzan and Delem had finally joined Lok in quiet support. The gnome smiled, inwardly relieved that his new friends had elected to join him—if reluctantly. He turned back to Telwarden, and said, “And I can offer you the potent aid of my companions, Lok, Delem, and Benzan. I can promise that their skills will prove as valuable as mine, and that we’ve faced the odd bandit together as well.”

    Telwarden took them all in, frowning slightly when he looked at Benzan but ultimately welcoming them all and promising them the same glory and rewards he’d already offered the men-at-arms. Benzan shrugged, and said, “Oh, well, my ma always said, the really famous heroes never pass up a chance to help a pretty girl in distress…”

    He eyed Telwarden, and added, “But wait--she is pretty, isn’t she?”

  6. #6
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    Part 6

    By the time that the sun rose on another blustery autumn day in the Western Heartlands, the small company of vigilantes from Danderion had already traveled miles out into the wild countryside. The farms that supported the village, huddled close around the community against the dangers of the wilds, had already fallen behind them, leaving only wide open plains for as far as they could see. Down the track toward Elturel were more farming communities and more settled lands, but that was not the direction that they would be ultimately headed.

    The force that Sheriff Telwarden had assembled looked tough and determined, for all that it had been so hastily cobbled together, and was relatively few in numbers. The sheriff rode at the front, in the company of a tracker named Cullan, a grizzled old veteran draped in a cloak that was obviously magical, the way it tended to blend into his surroundings and blur the outlines of his figure as he rode. In addition to the six men-at-arms raised from the merchant caravan, he had another half-dozen locals, determined members of the town militia who wore leather armor and who carried small but powerful bows at the ready. And then there were the four companions, riding in the rear of the column.

    The posse was mounted on the best horses the village could provide on short notice, and they ate up the miles as the pre-dawn gave way to a sunny but cold morning. The weather looked to hold for the moment, but there were some ominous looking clouds to the north and west that each of the companions hoped would blow past them without bringing rain.

    They reached the site of the ambush an hour after sunrise. There wasn’t much left, only the burned-out shell of a wagon, the dead body of a horse punctured by crossbow bolts, some tattered bits of cloth fluttering from the surrounding brush, and a faint stink of decay that hovered in the wind before disappearing. A search quickly uncovered a pile of bodies that had been dragged into the thick bushes along the trail. Five men lay there in a bloody heap, what was left of their clothing still showing the symbol of House Ilgarten, a stylized griffon with a sword clutched in one claw and a coin in the other. They had been killed by crossbow bolts or by deep gashes probably caused by an axe or heavy sword, and looked to have been hastily but thoroughly looted by the attackers. There were no signs of the raiders; if any had fallen in the brief assault, their bodies must have been claimed when they retreated with their loot and hostages. After a hurried burial, the posse set out after the bandits.

    It wasn’t hard to follow their trail. The tracks of several wagons headed away to the southwest; clearly the raiders did not seem particularly concerned about concealing their tracks. At least it would make them easy to track, and it would make them slow moving and easier to catch. By the looks that were exchanged by some of the pursuers, they weren’t particularly eager for that prospect.

    “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Benzan said, as sun approached its zenith and they passed into a region of gently rolling low hills. “I’ve never known bandits to be this… obvious. Something’s not right.”

    “It’ll be all right,” Cal said, although it was clear that he was a little nervous as well. The gnome had started the morning telling a few tales of famous adventurers and songs of noble deeds, but after what they’d seen at the ambush site, none of the company seemed much interested in songs. Beside him, Lok seemed uncomfortable in the saddle of his borrowed horse, and the beast seemed equally unhappy with the arrangement.

    “Those men… they were just slaughtered,” Delem said.

    “Yeah, well, this whole region is chock full of things like hobgoblins—and worse—that’d just as soon kill you as say hello, so keep your eyes open, and those spells of yours ready,” Benzan snapped. At the outburst, Delem subsided again into subdued silence.

    The hard pace that Telwarden set ate up the miles, even as the terrain grew more forbidding. The hills were too low to be a real obstacle, but the dells in between them were increasingly choked with tangled growth, much of it brown and dead and as tough as thick rope. The wagons stolen by the raiders had to some degree blazed a path, though, and as they pressed on, they encountered more signs of their quarry. Cullan pointed out a boot print here, a broken and discarded harness there, and other signs that most of them would otherwise have missed. The bandits seemed to have set a rapid pace as well. After a few hours of hard riding they came to an abandoned wagon, one of its wheels shattered where it had gotten caught in a gouge between two rocks. The tracks continued toward the southwest.

    As the day deepened into afternoon the posse began to show the results of Telwarden’s hard pace. The village had not been able to spare the luxury of extra mounts, so their horses were flagging and they had to increasingly walk the beasts to spare their strength. A few miles beyond where they had encountered the wagon, Telwarden called a halt beside a slightly taller hill whose crest rose up perhaps a hundred feet above their current position. The men-at-arms and villagers immediately started tending to their mounts or taking cold rations out of their saddlebags; a few just plopped down on the hard ground, taking advantage of even a few minutes of rest.

    Telwarden, however, handed the reins of his horse to one of the village militamen, and with Cullan close behind started up the hill. After only a momentary pause to secure their mounts where they could forage amidst some of the scrub grass, the four companions headed after him.

    “We’ve covered a lot of ground today,” Cal said as they ascended. “We must be nearing the river.”

    His words were borne out when the neared the crest, and could see the River Chionthar below them, winding its long route between Elturel and the trading cities further inland, and Baldur’s Gate and the Sea of Swords. They were closer than they thought; perhaps a mile further separated them from the near bank of the river.

    Taking Telwarden’s example, the companions stayed low and within the cover provided by the scrub-shrouded boulders that topped the hill, so as not to provide a silhouette that the raiders—or other threats—could see easily.

    “Are there any fords near here?” Telwarden was asking Cullan as they approached.

    “None within three day’s ride, sheriff,” the old tracker responded.

    “Well, they got across somehow, so we will too,” Telwarden muttered under his breath.

    “We might want to think about setting up camp soon,” Benzan offered. When Telwarden fixed his hard eyes on the warrior, Benzan continued, “You might want to remember that hobgoblins can see in the dark, and you and your men can’t.” He didn’t add that his own mixed heritage gave him that gift as well.

    Telwarden’s expression softened only slightly as he recognized the truth in Benzan’s words. He turned to head back down the hill, but suddenly Cal said, “Do you smell smoke?”

    Everyone turned their attention back to the southwest, where the trail they were following had wound steadily all day. There was only the faintest hint of a breeze from that direction, but no sign of smoke across the horizon.

    “I don’t see or smell anything,” Cullan admitted.

    “I’d trust his gnomish nose, if I were you,” Benzan offered. He leaned forward, using a boulder to support his weight, staring out into the growing shadows across the hills ahead as if that little extra distance could help him penetrate what was hidden amidst the ups and downs of the terrain. “They might be bandits, but they aren’t stupid. If they have an encampment around here, it would be hidden, and they wouldn’t let any smoke be visible, either.”

    “All right,” Telwarden said decisively. He turned and quickly made his way back down the hill, the others hurrying to catch up. The men were already readying to ride out again, sensing the renewed determination in the manner of their leader.

    “Any sign of them?” one of the militiamen asked.

    “No, but we’re nearing the river,” Telwarden told them. “The gnome thought he smelled smoke, so they might have an encampment nearby, on this side or the far bank. Keep your eyes open for anything.” They didn’t really need the warning; all of them were on edge.

    It didn’t take them long to reach the near bank of the river, but by that time the sun was nearly touching the horizon to the west. The river wasn’t especially wide at this point, nor was the current particularly rapid, but it would be a difficult crossing with their mounts and equipment. The trail of the wagons led right down to the water’s edge and then disappeared. Sheltered within a copse of trees and thick bushes a short distance back from the riverbank, the company debated their next course.

    “What happened to those wagons?”

    “Maybe the raiders ’re in league with river pirates, smugglers from Baldur’s Gate…”

    “Maybe them’s ghosts, and just floated across.”

    “Shut yer yap-hole, you stupid—”

    “It’s gettin’ late, and them horses aren’t gonna be goin’ much further, the way soldier-boy keeps drivin’ us…”

    “Quiet—he was a Hellrider, you know…”

    “All right,” Telwarden’s muted but potent voice cut through the chatter. “We’ll camp on this side of the river tonight, and make the crossing in the morning. Set up camp, but keep it out of sight of the track and the river. Cullan, help set up a picket line—”

    “There, don’t you smell that?” Cal said again. The breeze had picked up in a sudden gust, and suddenly they all could sense it, a faint but discernable tang of woodsmoke that hung in the air. It came from the direction of the river.

    “They must have a campsite hidden on the far bank,” Telwarden said. “Maybe those bandits aren’t as clever as you give them credit for, warrior,” he said to Benzan.

    “Or maybe they’re waiting for us, with an ambush ready,” the tiefling retorted. “Or maybe they’re traveling at night, and are getting ready to break camp.”

    “Well then, since you seem to understand these raiders so well, what course do you suggest, outlander?”

    Benzan hesitated, as the attention of everyone turned squarely upon him. He glanced once at his new companions, and then at the river a short distance away, as if measuring something in his mind. Finally, he sighed.

    “I guess I’ll have to swim over there and see what they’re up to,” he said.

  7. #7
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    Part 7

    The water was cold, and Benzan didn’t like cold. He was a passable swimmer, but he’d learned that skill in the warm shallow waters off the coast of Unther in the summertime, not fording some river in the grasp of an early winter in the trackless wilds of the far west. He had to make an effort not to let his teeth chatter as he cleaved the water with sure strokes. To distract himself from his discomfort, he focused his mind on the teachings of Balisarius, an old friend of his mother’s with whom they’d stayed for a time in his youth. They’d been running, he recalled—it seemed he could recall little else but running, from his all-too-brief childhood—and the time with Balisarius had been little more than an interlude for them, one of many until he finally found himself alone for good. Balisarius had been a magic-user, and had tried to teach the bored young man some of the rudiments of his craft to keep his mind occupied. He hadn’t been much of a student at the time, but sometimes, since then, some of what he’d learned resurfaced, bobbing to the surface of his mind like an apple in a barrel of water.

    The trick worked; before he knew it he felt the stony bottom of the river beneath his feet. Slowly, scanning the twilight shores of the far bank carefully first, he slipped out of the water. The evening breeze felt like a cold gale against his wet skin; his torso was bare and he carried little more than his long dagger and a few small odds-and-ends about his person. He’d had to leave his magical chain shirt behind, but even as he’d turned to go on this errand (which seemed more insane with each passing moment), Calloran had pulled him aside.

    “It’s a brave thing you’re doing, lad,” he said. “I’d not like to see you head into any trouble completely unprotected, though.” The gnome felt around for a moment, then pulled a wand from another hidden pocket.

    “I’m not injured,” Benzan said.

    “Shut up and hold still,” Cal said, uttering a faint command phrase that Benzan could not quite make out. The gnome touched the wand to his bare chest, reaching up to do so.

    Benzan felt a tingle pass through him. A glow surrounded his body, coating him from head to toe.

    “This will protect you somewhat,” Cal said. “Be cautious though—it is not as durable as real armor, and it will only last an hour, so you’d better be quick.”

    Benzan appreciated the gesture, but he saw the immediate problem. “This glow will give me away from a mile distant,” he said.

    “It will fade in a moment,” the gnome said, and in fact, it was already dimming, its potency still there by the reminding tingle in the air. By the time he reached the water, the mage-armor was a second skin. Unfortunately, it didn’t keep out the cold of the river.

    Benzan quickly scouted the far bank of the river. The riverbank gave way a steep embankment like a rampart ahead of him, its crest perhaps fifteen feet above him. The waterside was flush with thick bushes and water-reeds, giving excellent cover but forcing him to tread carefully lest he give his position away to any hidden watchers. He remembered Cal’s warning and tried to force a balance between speed and stealth.

    He’d come some distance downstream with the current, so he started back up along the riverbank before heading inland. Within a few minutes he came across a cleft where the water gathered in a stagnant side-pond about thirty feet across. Inside the pond, carefully shielded by gathered brush, was a barge.

    So there goes the mystery of where the wagons went, Benzan thought to himself. The attack of these raiders was looking less and less the work of a chaotic band of brigands and more like the work of a group of skilled professionals. The thought added an extra measure of caution to his movements as he scouted the area.

    There were no signs of any guards in the area, but he found tracks that led up into the cleft, rising along an embankment of packed earth to the higher ground inland. The wagon ruts, hoof prints, and boot prints that he found were fresh. He followed them carefully up the trail, where the riverside gave way once more to rolling hill country that led inland. A short distance beyond, Benzan knew, lay the borders of the Wood of Sharp Teeth—rough country indeed, if the stories he’d heard were true.

    The trail turned and ran into a declivity between two mounds of stone boulders, worn smooth by years of wind and rain. Rather than walk directly between them, he took a long route around the edges of one of the mounds. His sure fingers found easy purchase as he swiftly climbed, and the activity was beginning to warm his chilled body.

    He paused at the lip of a ridge that ran back from the mound, a rocky rise that shielded a bowl-shaped depression beyond. Before he could even get a good look at that area, though, he heard a cough not ten feet from his current position, and froze.

  8. #8
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    Part 8

    Benzan lay crouched in a gap between two boulders barely wide enough to fit his lean torso, perched on the edge of a steep rock-strewn rise. The crest of the hill was just a few feet ahead, beyond which lay, he surmised, the hidden camp of the bandits that they had been tracking. For the moment, however, the tiefling found himself trapped, just a few feet from where a pair of sentries were talking.

    “Goin’ be a cold night,” one of them offered.

    “Yeah, and them hobgoblins sure are playing the lords, making us stand guard duty,” his companion offered.

    Benzan offered his own quiet assent—had hobgoblins been on watch, their darksight would have made it impossible for him to escape being seen. As it was, with the light of the just-set sun still lingering in twilight, the slightest movement would probably give him away.

    “Yeah, well, you tell it to that wizard of theirs,” the first suggested. The snorted response left no question how the second bandit felt about that course.

    “That woman was quite a piece, eh?” the first continued after a brief pause.

    “Yeah, and you know that’s why we’re here, and they’re down there,” the second replied ruefully. “My ribs are still hurting.”

    “Could be worse. She broke Darron’s neck.”

    “Yeah, well, I never liked Darron. Bastard owed me money, though.”

    “Steel Jack comes up here and sees us loafing, you’re going to envy Darron,” the first man said. “Those town folk don’t much like the wilderness, but you can bet that Dhelt’ll send some Hellriders after us, for a noblewoman and all.”

    “Ah, it’ll be days yet before anyone follows our trail, and we’ll be long gone by then,” the second man responded. But he joined his companion and began moving along the ridge, crossing close enough by Benzan’s hiding place that he could have reached out and touched them. He willed himself to remain completely still as they headed further away, the faint sound of their voices still carrying to him.

    “So, did you ever think it would come to this? Running with a bunch of hobgoblins, working for someone like Steel Jack?”

    “Well, I suppose I’ve thought about it now and again… Really, I blame my parents…”

    Their voices faded into the night, but it was another long minute before Benzan dared to stir from his hiding place. Wary of additional guards—apparently this “Steel Jack” wasn’t taking chances, for all that the bandits thought they were well ahead of any pursuit—he crept cautiously forward, until he could get a good look at the bandit camp in the dell below. Then, as the night deepened around him, he retreated back in the direction of the river.

    * * * * *

    “I didn’t see any sign of the prisoners,” Benzan said, “But I saw at least one of the wagons, which looked to be empty, and a half-dozen tents.”

    The rest of the posse crouched in a circle around the tiefling, save for the two watchmen who warded their temporary camp. Cullan had found a clearing surrounded by uneven boulders that rose like sentinels in the darkness of the surrounding night. Telwarden had only allowed them a small smokeless fire for hot tea, and that was only embers now. He wasn’t taking any chances of the raiders detecting their presence, especially after what Benzan had already told them. The clouds from the north had already begun to obscure the night sky, leaving them only the faint hints of moonlight that made it through. Whether the storm would break before tomorrow was anyone’s guess.

    “How many bandits?” Telwarden’s disembodied voice carried to him. The leader of their group was standing outside the circle, at the edge of the ring of stones.

    “I couldn’t see for sure—there wasn’t much activity around the camp. I saw two guards, both human, and a few others around the tents. From what I overheard, though, there are at least some hobgoblins in the tents, and one of them is a wizard.”

    That got a response from the assembled men, a dark murmur of obvious concern. Telwarden squashed it by saying, “Well then, we’ll have to make sure we kill him first, then.”

    “You’re going to attack the camp, then?” Delem asked.

    “We didn’t come here to sneak kisses behind the barn, boy,” Telwarden replied. “So, you said that they were keeping a fairly lax watch?” he asked Benzan.

    “Well, I’m sure they have other guards posted, although I didn’t see anyone along the riverbank, which is the first place I would have posted a sentry. But there’s only one straightforward approach to the camp, and it’s easily warded.”

    “You got past that, though,” Telwarden said. His view of Benzan seemed to have shifted some since the tiefling had returned from his scouting mission, now bearing a hint of grudging respect. “Perhaps a two-pronged attack, with a few of us sneaking around the back to catch them unawares when the rest attack from the front. Even better if you could take out a few of the sentries, first. We can attack in the deep of night, when they’re at their least aware.”

    Benzan opened his mouth to reply, but Cullan beat him to it. “With all due respect, sir, if there are hobgoblins in the camp, they would have a big advantage in the dark, while our men won’t be able to see. Most of our men,” he amended, with a glance at Benzan.

    “In addition, we’re all worn out from traveling,” Cal added, “and it looks like they have been there for at least a little while, enough time to be well-rested.”

    “Very well, then, we’ll attack at dawn, hopefully just as the camp is stirring. If you don’t mind another swim, Benzan, I’ll have you and another man cross the river while it’s still dark, to steal that barge. Once we make it across, we can see about setting up our own little ambush for this ‘Steel Jack’ and his men.”

    He waited until his words had sunk in. A tangible air of anticipation had begun to sink in, as each man prepared for the culmination of their long chase. “All right then, get some sleep. You know the watch schedule.”

    “Hopefully the bandits will keep to the schedule as well,” Delem said softly as they prepared for sleep.

    “In battle, any plan rarely survives the first clash of arms,” Lok rumbled, the genasi seeming to blend into the stone itself in the near-darkness.

    The night crept slowly onward.

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    Part 9

    Delem dreamed of fire.

    It was a familiar dream, one that haunted him no matter where he fled to in the waking world.

    When he was a child, Delem had been as precocious as most boy-children in the untamed lands of Tethyr, if a little more reserved than most. From an early age, however, he’d been fascinated by fire. The dancing flames seemed to mesmerize the lad, and he could call them from wood and tinder with hardly any effort. It was a useful skill, but perhaps one fated to bring grief upon the boy.

    His father had died while he was still learning to walk and talk, and the man his mother later married wasn’t really bad or good to the boy, just a somber and distant figure who spent most of his time working his trade as a mason in the villages around Umbarthon. Delem had already gotten a few beatings for playing with his particular nemesis, but no beating could long keep him from his fascination, drawn to it like a moth to an open flame.

    One night, he had just received such a chastisement, and his mother and stepfather had gone to bed after banishing him (with a smarting reminder of his crime) to his small cubby in the back of the house. Delem’s injured pride, more than the physical hurt of his punishment, drew him to the one consolation that he could find.

    Only that night it had gone horribly wrong. The flames had gone beyond his control, spreading with a violence that seemed born of an inner volition of their own, roaring through the curtains that separated his room from the kitchen of their home, catching on the wood paneling seeped in oil from countless evenings of his mother cooking there. The flames tore eagerly at his mother’s woven tapestries, at the plush carpets his stepfather brought back from his journeys to distant towns.

    Delem tried to fight the flames as they spread, to undo what he had begun, but his former friends burned him, causing him to writhe in torment on the hard stone floor of his room. He screamed, but the sound was lost over the roar of the flames. He didn’t know how he got out of the house, but could remember watching the fire, more terrible and beautiful than anything he had ever seen, consume everything that had been his life.

    The now grown man continued to writhe in his sleep, unable to waken. The dream would not release its hold upon him this evening as it usually did at this point, to leave him shaking and cold and alone. It continued, sweeping him up in the flames, wrapping around him in an uncontrollable conflagration. This vision was a new one, and it caught Delem up in its energy. Unable to feel either amazement or terror in the power of the dream, he could only experience it.

    And then he heard the voice. It came from the flames, and surrounded him and filled him all at once. He could not identify it, and when he remembered it later, it would be impossible for him to recall exactly how it had sounded.

    The flames have scarred you, my son, but they have also shaped you, like iron that is tempered in the furnace before being shaped by the hammer of the master smith. They are a part of you, part of the power that you hold deep within the soul of your being. The power is not your friend, not your enemy. It is you, Delem. Understand yourself, and you will understand the flames.

    It is this gift—or curse—that has brought you to me. I will be there, waiting, when you find that which you seek.

    It was then that Delem woke, shaking… but instead of feeling cold, he was filled with an inner warmth.

    * * * * *

    Dawn broke reluctantly on a dark and dreary day. Cold winds from the north whispered through the hill country just north of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, and already fits of drizzle had come and gone, promising more wet weather to come.

    In the temporary camp of the bandit leader Steel Jack, the morning began quietly. Six ramshackle tents stood in the middle of a stony dell, surrounded on all sides by a ridge of steep hills where bleary-eyed sentries kept watch from hidden positions. To the east two large mounds of boulders marked the entrance to this little hideaway, with a narrow corridor running between them.

    Orn Throatripper did not greet the morning happily. He half-staggered out of the large tent that served as communal quarters for the half-dozen hobgoblin warriors that remained with Steel Jack’s band. He snorted in general ire at the world as the cold air of the morning hit him fully, and he shot an envious glance back at his companions still snug in their bedrolls behind him. For a moment he considered leaving the tent flap open behind him—that would show the lucky bastards, he thought—but finally tugged it closed and walked out into the camp. He was immediately greeting by the mud sucking at his boots, and he uttered a few choice curses at the climate, his superiors, the ground, Steel Jack, horses, and life in general.

    Orn headed in the direction of the horses, grumbling all the way. If it wasn’t for his big mouth, he wouldn’t be out here, tending to the mounts and walking the perimeter of the camp. That was work for the weakling humans, their “cohorts” on this job. He and his fellows were the mighty children of Nomog-Geaya, not the nursemaids for a bunch of scrawny humans. Everyone had been having fun last night, and the drink they’d stolen from the puny caravan had flowed freely. They were due a reward, after the hard pace Steel Jack had set for them to get here. Too bad that the slaves had already been turned over to Zorak, so they couldn’t have any fun with them, but ale and fresh meat—one of the horses had gone lame while being unloaded from the barge yesterday—did quite nicely. And if only he hadn’t told that joke, pissing off the humans—and more importantly, Steel Jack—he’d be sleeping off last night’s revels like his companions back in the tent.

    It was not going to be a good day.

    It was slow going trudging through the mud, and Orn hadn’t even reached the reached the picket line where the horses were kept, when a noise drew his attention around. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the main entrance to the canyon. Orn glanced around for the sentries who were supposed to be watching along the ridge. None were visible—of course, if they were doing their job right, he shouldn’t see them—but his eyes narrowed anyway. Stupid humans.

    His eyes widened again as the noise grew louder, and a knot of armed riders charged through the gap into the canyon.

    Finally realizing what was happening, Orn shouted a cry of alarm and drew his heavy scimitar from its scabbard at his hip. Some of the guards seemed to finally realize what was going on, as he saw movement along the ridge, but instead of firing their bows at the intruders, they leveled them down at the tents.

    Pain erupted through Orn’s body as a long steel-headed arrow shot through him. He was dimly aware of several of the riders heading at full gallop toward him, the only enemy visible in the open. He could hear his comrades stirring from the tents, but none had emerged as yet. Their enemies had achieved complete tactical surprise.

    But he was a son of Nomog-Geaya, and he would make the painful journey down to Acheron with blood on his blade.

    He swung at the first attacker, missing the rider but at least feeling some satisfaction as the blade dug into the shoulder of his mount. The horse staggered as the rider hurled past. The next rider was on him before he could recover, and thrust his longsword like a spear through Orn’s chest. The hobgoblin warrior faltered and collapsed, and the darkness came swiftly.

    * * * * *

    The camp was coming alive, and despite gaining surprise Benzan could see that they still had a fight on their hands. From his position atop the ridge he had a good view of the battlefield, and along with the two militiamen with whom he’d crept up the slope he peppered whatever target he could make out with arrows. He saw a sentry emerge from the rocks along the far side of the canyon, a good sixty yards away, and fire his bow at one of Telwarden’s riders. The bandit hit his target, one of the caravan guards, but fell back off the ridge a moment later as Benzan’s arrow buried itself to the feathers in his chest.

    Damn, I knew we missed some, the tiefling thought grimly.

    Half-armored men and hobgoblins were emerging from the tents, launching themselves with desperate ferocity at the intruders. One man from Dunderion went down with a hobgoblin spear buried in his belly and a bleeding cut laying open his scalp, but both of his attackers quickly fell under the combined might of Telwarden and Lok. Now that the initial charge was over, most of the posse had dismounted, and the area in front of the tents was degenerating into a muddy, violent melee.

    Cal had reined in directly in front of the entrance to one of the tents, and as the first pair of disoriented bandits emerged, he fired his wand of color spray into their faces. Delem was right behind him, and he released a fan of flames into the tent as he rode past, the magical fire setting even the damp cloth ablaze. His lack of experience with the horses showed, though, as his mount stumbled on a patch of deep mud and he lost his grip, falling hard to the ground a few paces away. Raising his hands to the air in supplication to whatever gods were watching, Cal quickly moved to help his companion.

    “Come on!” Benzan was having a tough time finding targets in the confusion of the melee, so he led his two allies along the lip of the ridge, trying to mark a better shot. He failed to spot the shadowy figure that emerged, not from the tents, but from a shallow cave opening near the rear of the camp.

    Lok and Telwarden were forging a storm of death around them that the bandits could not penetrate. Both were wounded, Lok from a glancing blow from a hobgoblin morningstar to his temple, and Telwarden from a spear that had dug through a chink in his chainmail armor. But three men and two hobgoblins lay dead at their feet, and the others had drawn back, reluctant to join that tally. Their charge into the midst of the enemy had spared several of the Dunderion folk and guardsmen who had taken wounds and retreated from the fray. One of each remained where they had fallen in the initial rush. Cullan gathered the rest of the unwounded, two militiamen and three guardsmen, and charged toward the flank of the small group of bandits that faced off against Lok and Telwarden.

    For a moment it looked like the bandits were finished, but then, suddenly, the surge of reinforcements faltered. Cullan staggered, and the men around him collapsed, falling unconscious to the muddy ground. Soon the old hunter was alone, facing several opponents.

    “The wizard!” Telwarden shouted, pointing to the hobgoblin adept that had emerged from the hidden cave where he had spent the night practicing whatever foul rites powered his magic. The hobgoblin, his face garishly marked with vivid and unholy tattoos and ritual scars, held a black wand in his hand, and his face creased in a dark smile as he turned it toward Lok and Telwarden.

    But the hobgoblin did not get the chance to unleash his dire magic a second time. Benzan’s arrow knifed through the morning air, slamming with the full power of his mighty bow into his head. The critical hit dropped the evil adept instantly, his wand rolling uselessly away into the muck as he fell.

    A bandit had emerged from the back of the burning tent, his eyes alighting on Delem as the young man tried to stand in the slippery mud where he had fallen. Cal fired his crossbow at the bandit, but missed, and he shouted a warning to his friend as the bandit raised his sword and charged at the sorcerer. Delem looked up and raised his hand palm-out against the charging raider, calling upon his magic once again. His eyes seemed to glow with the reflection of his power as two small spheres of fiery energy exploded from his hand and darted unerringly into the torso of the bandit. The man screamed and fell, writhing in the mud as the flames ravaged his body.

    “KILL THEM ALL, YOU DOGS!”

    The cry echoed through the canyon as another figure emerged into the fray from the last tent. It was instantly obvious that Steel Jack had finally entered the fray.

    He was a powerful man, with perhaps a touch of non-human blood coursing through his veins. His curly hair and full beard were the color of rusted iron, and he was clad in a suit of heavy armor, banded mail that hung over his frame like a second skin. He carried a large shield set with the symbol of a red hydra, and in his other hand clutched a battle axe. As he hefted the weapon, a nimbus of pale white energy wreathed the blade, indicating that the weapon was magically enhanced.

    The appearance of the bandit leader, coupled with the adept’s blunting of the posse’s charge, gave the surviving bandits new courage. As Cullan tried to revive their unconscious allies, Lok and Telwarden met the enemy charge alone, side by side forming a wall. Three hobgoblins and the lone remaining human bandit hit that wall, their blades seeking openings in their foes’ armor. The two fighters’ weapons responded in a blur. Lok struck down an already injured hobgoblin and cleaved into a second, his axe opening a wide gash in his hip. Telwarden slew the human warrior with a backhanded slash that tore open his throat in a bloody torrent, bringing his sword back around to parry the hobgoblin’s attack.

    Then Steel Jack hit the fray.

    His first blow was a mighty overhand chop that slammed through Telwarden’s defenses, ripping a tear in his chainmail and digging into the fighter’s shoulder. The sheriff screamed out in pain as the magic of the bandit lord’s blade sent the icy chill of death through his torso, freezing the blood even as it ran down his body. Somehow he managed to keep his footing in the mud, giving ground as he brought his sword around to try to keep his new enemy at bay.

    “Say hello to my comrades when you get to hell,” Steel Jack said as he came in again, his deadly weapon carving the air as he approached.

    Lok, meanwhile, was having troubles of his own. The hobgoblin that had been fighting Telwarden had been all too happy to leave the sheriff to his boss, and turned to flank the genasi and help his injured comrade. Facing two opponents, Lok missed with his first attack and suffered a serious thrust that dug in between the plates of his armor and tore deep into his side. Staggered by the blow, he fought on.

    Telwarden stumbled backward, somehow managing to bring his sword around to deflect Steel Jack’s axe. The impact caused him to lose his footing, however, and he went down, groaning as he landed on his ravaged shoulder. The bandit chief stepped forward, ready to claim victory over his fallen opponent.

    “You’ve got to get through me, first.”

    Benzan drew his sword from its scabbard as he faced off against Steel Jack. Unable to fire into the melee for fear of hitting his companions, he had all but run down the treacherous inner slope of the ridge, his boots slipping on the slick rocks with every step but his natural agility allowing him to hit the ground running. He’d seen the bandit leader fight, and knew deep down that he was outmatched, but he hoped that he could at least give his companions—and even Telwarden—time to come to his aid.

    “All right then,” the bandit said, hefting his axe.

    Two bolts of liquid fire arced into Steel Jack from the side, blazing black scars on the side of his armor. Delem’s volley had an effect, but it was clear that this adversary would not be so easily defeated.

    Benzan tried to take advantage of the distraction and lunged at the bandit. Steel Jack, however, responded quickly, and the potent axe clipped him in the side as he dodged back. It was just a glancing blow, but even with that Benzan could feel the magical chill seep into him, biting deep.

    “Even if you defeat me, you’re too late to save them,” the bandit said as they circled for another exchange. Both had to be cautious on the difficult footing, lest one misstep give the other a critical advantage. “Your pretty noblewoman won’t be coming back from the journey she’s embarked upon.”

    He had to pause in his tirade as Benzan launched another attack, the tiefling swiping in a high arc that the bandit only narrowly dodged. His own return stroke struck Benzan’s buckler with a ringing clash that filled the enclosed space of the canyon.

    “Time is working against you, Jack,” Benzan said between gritted teeth.

    The bandit leader took a quick glance around him and saw that Benzan’s boast was true. Lok, hard pressed a moment ago, had defeated his opponents with the aid of Cullan and several of the revived guardsmen. Cal and Delem had their own situation well in hand, also, and were quickly approaching from the opposite flank. Telwarden had managed to lurch to his feet, but although he still held his sword he could barely stand, let alone attack.

    “This is not the end of this, rake!” the bandit hissed. He took a small step back, and downed in a single swallow the contents of a tiny vial that he produced from a small pouch at his belt. Almost immediately, he lifted off into the air, surging thirty feet straight up in a smooth climb.

    “Farewell, fools!” his voice drifted down to them.

    Cal’s crossbow bolt tore into his ankle, penetrating the thick leather of his boot to stick in the tender flesh there. An instant later, two flame-bolts from Delem’s hands slammed into the bandit’s legs, causing him to grit his teeth in sudden pain.

    Benzan moved with smooth efficiency, unlimbering his bow and drawing a long arrow in a single fluid motion. He sighted and fired, the arrow speeding on a straight track to slam upward into Steel Jack’s gut, slanting through his banded mail deep into his belly. The bandit lurched through the air, his incredible fortitude letting him stay conscious even through those wounds, while his fingers dug in his pouch for another vial. He continued to gain altitude, and for a moment it looked as though he might yet escape.

    And then he looked up, and saw a small dragon swooping down upon him.

    Jack Corrigan had seen a lot of scary things in his life. He’d killed his first man at fourteen, and his career since then had been one of mayhem, destruction, and wanton pillaging. But now, wounded and defeated, relying on an unfamiliar magic to escape, his nerve failed. He lurched to the side, raising his hands to protect them from the dragon’s gaping maw as it dove at his face. The healing potion slipped from his fingers to fall uselessly to the distant ground below. The dragon’s jaws opened…

    …and the figment passed right through him.

    Too late, he realized that the illusion, even without sound, had fooled him.

    Too late for Steel Jack, as a volley of arrows from below caught up to him. He hovered in the air for a moment longer, his body penetrated by a several more shafts, then the magic of the potion failed as his life did, and he plummeted sixty feet to the ground.

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    Part 10

    Cold rain fell in sheets across the country around the River Chionthar, driving the inhabitants of the region’s farms and villages indoors to share the warmth of fire, ale, and good conversation. Well, most of the region’s inhabitants, anyway…

    The small company from Dunderion marched steadily southward through the rain. Ahead of them, the line of trees that marked the border of the Wood of Sharp Teeth was looming ever nearer. The weather was making it increasingly hard for them to follow the traces left by the prisoners and their guards, wiping away tracks and turning the ‘trail’ they followed into an indiscriminate morass of sticking mud.

    After the battle at Steel Jack’s camp, most of the members of the posse had just assumed that they would now return to Dunderion. Cal had plied the power of his healing wand to restore Telwarden and the other injured members of the group to health, depleting much of the item’s power in the process. A search of the camp revealed what Benzan had already learned; that the prisoners taken by the bandits, including presumably the Lady Ilgarten, had already been sent on to some unknown destination. They buried the one guardsman and one villager who died in the battle. The surviving members of the posse rounded up the bandit mounts, sorted through their gear for items that could be salvaged, and poked around for loot. Lok found a small strongbox buried under Steel Jack’s tent, and forced the lock to reveal it full of shiny silver pieces. That raised the spirits of the posse somewhat, although Telwarden’s eyes had already been focused southward, toward where their ultimate goal still eluded them.

    Benzan had searched out the cave where the hobgoblin spell-caster had laired, looking for his book of spells. Cal told him that such tribal adepts often did not use such traditional means of working magic, relying instead on their totems and dark rituals to draw upon their powers. The gnome did claim the adept’s wand, which vanished into one of his many hidden pockets.

    One of the mercenary guardsmen removed Steel Jack’s banded mail, which though a little battered was still obviously of masterwork quality. The guardsman offered it to Telwarden, but the sheriff shook his head and refused even to touch the blood-stained mail. The guardsman shrugged and took the prize to his fellows, who after drawing lots assigned it to one of their number.

    Lok had already claimed his prize: Steel Jack’s magical axe. The weapon seemed to thrum with power as he lifted it, and the icy aura that surrounded the blade when it was hefted did not affect him in the least.

    They had come a long way and fought a mighty battle, so when Telwarden ordered them to gather up their gear and prepare to ride—south, not north as they had expected—there was immediate and open dissent.

    “We’ve done our duty, and more, sheriff.”

    “Those prisoners are long gone, and there’s only so much we can do!”

    “What lies that way anyway, but the Wood? Surely you’re not expecting us to follow you into there!”

    “Sir, my wife and small ones are home, waiting for their dad to come back. They can’t eat noble intentions.”

    “What about the Hellriders? Let them chase down this noble wench—you can bet that one of them wouldn’t do so much for one of us!

    Telwarden just stood there with that trademark hard look on his face, although the tightness of his jaw testified to the intense feelings he was battling—or restraining. After a few moments, though, the guardsman and militiamen began to shift their attention to the four companions, who stood apart as a group and who had not engaged in the protests or debate. Everyone present had witnessed their role in the battle, and realized that these talented individuals had played the crucial role in their victory over the bandits. What side would they now come down on?

    Cal stepped forward into the circle. He pulled his lute from the oilskin bag he wore across his back, strummed it gently, and began to sing.

    His song didn’t seem to have much to do with the current quandary. It was a song well-known through these parts, a song of the old frontier. Its subject was the great historical battles that had been fought nearby, in the area now called the Fields of the Dead. But the focus of the song wasn’t famous heroes or noble causes, but rather its somber chords spoke of the fallen dead, the ordinary men who gave their lives on the battlefield. The assembled men bowed their heads as the gnome’s expert fingers played out the eulogy to their two late companions, his voice filling out a soft accompaniment to the music. When it was over, more than one man present had to wipe away a covert tear from his eyes.

    “We came out here to do a job,” Cal said. “Carus and Jolan gave their lives to help us rescue those men and women, and it doesn’t seem right to just turn back now, to leave the job unfinished.”

    “Aye,” Lok added in assent.

    There were a few murmurs, but Telwarden could sense that the mood had changed. With a nod of thanks to the gnome, he mounted up and rode out, the others following his example behind him.

    * * * * *

    Once again, it was time for a decision.

    The company had reined in on the very edges of the forest. Tall trees rose up all around them, shielding them from the rain, which had fallen off again to a more-or-less omnipresent drizzle. The transition into the forest was so sudden, so abrupt, that it had an unnerving unnaturalness to it that all of them could sense. That wasn’t even considering the reputation of the forest as a haven for horrible creatures like hydras and dragons, beasts beyond even the imagination of simple folk like the villagers from Dunderion.

    And yet it was into the wood, apparently, that the prisoners had been taken. Cullan could no longer say with surety, now that the rain had obscured their trail.

    For a moment they just remained quiet, sitting their mounts while the horses nibbled at the sparse grasses.

    “Well, what now, sheriff?” Benzan finally asked, putting into words the question that was on everybody’s mind. All of them, even Telwarden, had hoped that the trail from Steel Jack’s camp would lead to some resolution, any course but this one.

    Telwarden turned to face them, all of them, and for the first time since they had begun this journey, his expression softened. “You have all done well,” he told them, “and I am grateful for your company on this mission. You were right earlier, Kamin,” he said to one of the villagers, “you’ve all done what is demanded by duty, and more. We are far from home, in a dangerous land. We all know the reputation of this forest, and have heard the tales of dark things that lurk within. I cannot ask you to risk your lives without a better understanding of what we might find.”

    The sigh of relief that came from the assembled villagers and guardsmen was clearly audible. Benzan, however, asked, “But that’s not all of it, sheriff,” he said softly.

    Telwarden actually smiled, but it was a wry smile, the smile of a man who knew his doom. “No, warrior,” he said. “My duty lies down this path, even if I must walk it alone. I have asked much from you and your friends, from all of you. Return to your homes, your caravans, or whatever calls you. Take the silver, and divide it amongst yourselves—I only ask that you give an equal share to the families of Carus and Jolan.”

    “What of your duty to Dunderion?” Benzan prodded. “You have a responsibility to those people as well.”

    “That responsibility was forced upon me, but I have tried to live up to it as best I can, to do my best by the people of that community. But at the moment, others need me more.”

    “Getting yourself killed isn’t going to do anybody a lot of good,” Benzan said.

    “I have to try. You heard what Steel Jack said.”

    Benzan remembered. Until that moment, he hadn’t known that Telwarden had heard it too.

    “Cullan, brief Lord Dhelt’s men on what we discovered, and where we tracked the prisoners—”

    “I’m sorry, sir,” Cullan interrupted, “I can’t do that. You’re going to need a tracker, in there, if you are going to have any hopes of finding those prisoners.”

    “And surely you can’t expect to ride off on such a foolish, noble adventure like that without a bard along?” Cal added. “Tales of self-sacrifice and all make for good art, but the crowd likes it when the good guys win in the end.”

    Lok said nothing, but urged his horse up beside Cal’s in a clear gesture.

    Benzan shrugged. “Well, my ma always said, if you’re going off on a half-cocked mission to rescue a pretty woman being held prisoner inside a dragon-infested forest, you might as well go all the way.”

    Cal turned back toward Delem. “There’s no shame in going back with the others,” he said. “The road back’s just as rough as the road in, and they could use your protection.”

    Delem looked at each of his new companions before responding. “I want to stay with you guys,” he said.

    Telwarden was moved by the expressions of support. “You all know the dangers,” he said, “but I welcome your companionship as we face it together.” To the remaining ten members of their company—none of whom had come forward to volunteer—he said, “Head back to Dunderion as quickly as you can. You should encounter a party of Hellriders on the way—let them know what we’ve learned.”

    One of the militiamen, a young cooper, replied, “You can count on us, sheriff. Good luck, all of you.”

    They sorted out their equipment, leaving most of the heavy items taken from the bandit camp with the group that was returning. As Lok handed over the strongbox to one of the villagers, however, Benzan stopped him.

    “Ahem! Aren’t you forgetting something?”

    Lok looked blankly at him for a moment, but then understood as Benzan came over and scooped a generous portion of coins into a small sack.

    “Our cut,” he said, simply.

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